It’s finally over. It took a very long time to get here.
SPOILERS needless to say
Before I talk about the show specifically I just wanted to say that one of the great things about it is the potential it’s unleashed. Now we know the possibilities of the medium. Literature has long been adapted into movies, most of them unsatisfactory. Occasionally literature has been adapted into TV miniseries, but now we see the full possibilities: literature can be adapted into TV shows relatively completely, far superior to a movie or series of movies. The time has come for more of these adaptations and I hope the industry follows through on the potential. (My favourite pet project is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays as one TV series though I know it would never get made.) If nothing else, Game of Thrones has shown possibilities in TV rarely glimpsed of before – the ability to tell the kind of stories only literature was capable of before, full of deep characters and with lots of nuance.
Now on to the actual show:
I am not a fan of the fantasy genre. I don’t like it for many reasons but two of the reasons can be summed up in the way characters are used, both in how they behave and what happens to them. In fantasy, characters are either good or bad. Good characters can be corrupted or misled, and bad characters can be cured of their badness but nobody is normal or real. And then the are the character arcs, where the good protagonist follows a story arc that involves defeating the main evil character with the world being restored to its natural state. It’s the stuff of children’s stories as far as I’m concerned.
But The Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are about overturning or subverting these aspects of fantasy, and many others, at least at first.
The first thing that appealed to me about Game of Thrones were its characters, so much more nuanced than any I had ever encountered in the fantasy genre. Though it’s not necessarily clear immediately that the genre is being completely subverted in this way – as it feels as though there are good and bad families in the first season – at least the characters are nuanced in ways in which fantasy characters rarely are. One of the strengths of the show is how everyone is flawed, and the characters we initially think are bad or good turn out to be just human and flawed, some more likable than others. One of the great things about the books, which I never finished, is how Tyrion and Littlefinger are introduced, as a sniveling minor bad guy and a sycophant respectively – both introductions feel like incredible sleights of hand given how important they both are to the plot. The show doesn’t quite commit to the same levels of sleight of hand with Tyrion but it still does introduce these two in ways in which you could not possibly anticipate their arcs or their significance. And this is even more true with Jamie, who is so unbelievably evil early on but is sympathetic, despite his flaws, for most of the show. This kind of thing is done mostly really well and is pretty incredible.
But I think I still wouldn’t have fallen for the show if the characters had just been nuanced. What really got me is that moment in the first season when you realized No One Is Safe. It was absolutely shocking and incredible and the moment at which you realized you were watching something unique in the history of fantasy. (Had I read the books first, I’m sure it would have been just as shocking in the book.) The show kept this up for a number of seasons, and I loved its lack of loyalty to major characters. (The books make it clearer who is safe and who isn’t so I actually found watching it first more rewarding in this regard.) For me, such a big appeal was not knowing what was going to happen next, and not having the whole thing completely telegraphed out by a prophecy and the goodness and badness of the characters. (Think about how this kind of thing happens in The Lord of the Rings and you get a sense of how incredibly unconventional A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones truly is. Imagine Aragon or Frodo getting his head chopped off in the Fellowship of the Ring.
But 8 seasons is a long time and over this time the show has definitely gotten repetitive, frustrating and at times boring. There are a few things which I think were not handled well, especially as the show progressed.
For one thing, there is a lot of people sitting around or travelling and never getting there. Daenerys sits around or takes circular journeys multiple times throughout the run of the show, and we’re never sure exactly why she’s doing either. (And, speaking of repetition: how many times do Daenerys or forces get ambushed per season? I think it’s at least two times per season in the latter seasons.) Many other characters take forever to get places, none more than the White Walkers, who walk slower than the old Ukrainian ladies in the neighbourhood I grew up in. Other characters go on circular arcs like Daenerys, where they encounter similar issues from one season to the next, sometimes in the same place, sometimes in a new place, but always with echoes of previous travails. (This critique obviously doesn’t apply to early on in the show when there were more characters, and when characters were having their first adult experiences.)
Then there’s the trope that really drives me crazy: a particular army or force is presented in the show as powerful and it is then beaten (regularly ambushed) by another force which is somehow superior, even though nothing in the show has indicated that this other force could in any way be superior. This happens so many times it actually starts happening multiple times a season. It’s basically the equivalent of killing off a major character, but using characters we don’t care about, and preserving major characters, which makes it annoying. The forces that (briefly) triumph always appear out of nowhere and feel like Deus ex machinas. (And they feel this way whether or not they are military forces as this trope occurs with the religious zealots too.) And there are always more soldiers after the fact. No matter how many soldiers die, there are more soldiers in their place. Between the general incompetence of the heroes and the infinite number of faceless soldiers that can be rallied to turn the tide of a battle, it’s a wonder anyone we care about is still alive. But the show doesn’t care about this. As the show generally doesn’t care about the logistics of anything – be it creating armies, travel, building ships or (especially) rebuilding destroyed buildings. (Winterfell and the Red Keep sure look good awfully quick after they get ruined.)
Also, the longer the show has run, the more it has leaned in to the very conventions it was ostensibly trying to overturn, and nowhere is this more clear with how John Snow keeps surviving impossible odds. Given that John Snow is one of the least likable of the characters who make it to the final season, this is particularly aggravating.
And just a note about time: when it suits the show, it takes people forever to get anywhere. When it doesn’t suit the show, they get there quickly. The White Walkers are the slowest but humans can be super slow too. And then, all of a sudden, someone appears impossibly, at least impossibly based on the show’s own concept of time. If you think about the journeys throughout this show of many journeys, many of them don’t make sense if the others are to make sense.
Anyway…as I joked on social media, I was on #teamwhitewalker. I wanted the show to truly be an allegory for climate change, one that humans lost or barely survived. That didn’t happen, but I knew it wouldn’t. As my friends pointed out, they did indeed hint strongly that the White Walkers would not win, even if they were regularly presented as being the ultimate challenge to the humans. So I’m okay with this and with the overall ending of the show.
I think most people didn’t get upset until the final season, or season 7 at least, but I was upset well before that. But to just mention the biggest thing everyone is upset about with the ending: This show is so damn long, I think we all could have used more of a set up for the biggest heel turn. And I don’t think the show needed more episodes to do that, I think they just needed to make the change more gradual, or make her “true nature” more obvious (less subtle) early on. I think I have spoken to one person who thinks this heel turn was earned – everyone else didn’t buy it. That says a lot about how this show has handled the last few seasons, even while most people were completely fine with the way it was handled. But I actually found the final episode about as satisfying as I could imagine it being, given how I’ve felt about the last few seasons, and given that I wanted the White Walkers to triumph, so I think this is more a manner of a flaw in the execution of the show, rather than in the story itself, and the heel turn.
It likely sounds like I didn’t like the show but that’s only partially true. I loved the show for its first half or so, and I think it is a great accomplishment. But at some point it just went on too long for me, and its virtues disappeared or turned into vices. I wrote most of this after suffering through episode 4 of season 8, where the show threw logistics out the window to a new degree but also time and sense, seemingly cutting a few shots which would have explained what the hell happened to one of the major characters, who somehow got herself executed. (Also, like so many people I was very annoyed at how many people survived the Battle of Winterfell.) What I am trying to say is that my memories of loving the show have dwindled under the onslaught of mediocrity that was the latter seasons.
If the show had been cancelled after its first season, I think I would have given it a 9 or a 10, 10 for “transcendent” or 9 for “near transcendent” or “great”. The 9 probably would have held through Joffrey’s death, at the very least, and probably significantly. As the show went on longer, and the things I liked about it began to fall by the wayside, I was still thinking I owed it an 8, for “very good.” Seasons 7 and 8 really hurt how I felt about the show, even more so than the previous season or two, and I was really leaning strongly towards rating it a 7, for “good.” However, the final episode was the rare final episode of a long-running TV series that did not leave me extremely frustrated. I still had complaints – I thought the small council scene should have been last though I understand that, at bottom, this is about the Starks and they have to be last, and I had a few other quibbles, particularly about a certain chair surviving the Keep getting burned – but on the whole I felt it was as good a job as could be done of wrapping up, especially given the missteps earlier in the season. So I’ve got some goodwill right now.
PS Can someone please put on a fucking hat? It’s cold out there.