In defence of the final season of Game of Thrones
And now your watch has ended
(Spoilers for episodes 1-5 of Season 8 ahead)
There have been lots of negative reviews about season 8 of Game of Thrones. I must confess, I was not hugely impressed with the latter half of season 7, with the quality of the show falling since the end of season 4. But the outpouring of criticism has reached levels typically reserved for people like James Charles, and I feel it necessary to take a stand, Stannis style, to defend my beloved and beleaguered show against all odds from the encroaching hordes of enraged fans.
This season is certainly not perfect. Shortening the last two seasons has led to issues with pacing and storylines seeming rushed. Reverence towards mortality, and respect for consequences of mistakes, has shifted to a greater focus on setting up payoffs. I thought the ending of The Long Night anticlimactic and there have been too many implausible moments in battle scenes (Sam just chilling on the floor during the White Walker attack, the scorpions hitting Rhaegal three times then never touching Drogon). Even little details, like Jon not wishing Ghost goodbye or stray coffee cups being left on banquet tables, have gone unnoticed in favour of bombastic spectacle. The care and attention of the production has faltered as the show has grown in scale and audience, not executing the landing as successfully as the finale of another huge franchise, Avengers Endgame, recently did.
But it seems to me that people are complaining about much more than just this. The lure of bashing a beloved show is enticing. I succumbed to the dark side after The Last Jedi came out, and joined in with the merciless butchering of a well-respected franchise. I stand by a lot of my criticism of that film, but I also pretty much refused to acknowledge any redeeming features. Egged on by other armchair critics, I was unforgiving in my judgement, proclaiming it had irrevocably tarnished Star Wars' revival. Certain articles would have you believe all fans of Game of Thrones have unanimously and unequivocally denounced Season 8 in a similar fashion. The dislikes on episode previews, plummeting IMDB ratings and a petition to rewrite the series nearing half a million signatures lend weight to this exaggeration. Yet I think this criticism is not entirely fair, for three main reasons.
The early seasons are undeniably great, but we look back with misty, Tyrell rose-tinted binoculars, assessing their merits far more generously. Name one exciting thing that happened in season 2, aside from the Battle of Blackwater. Melisandre literally gave birth to a shadow assassin just to kill Renly, an example of deus ex machina which is just as jarring to the realism of the show as plot armour is now. The early seasons were often slow (although this may be preferable to the current haste) but are now so revered that this season was never able to match them.
Subversion of expectations
Game of Thrones thrived from its reputation as a show which dared to do what others wouldn't. Ned Stark's beheading, the Red Wedding, Jon Snow's betrayal – iconic moments which shocked viewers as well as working within a compelling plot. Increasing prevalence of plot armour has led to more conventional storytelling, with good ultimately beating bad. But what exactly were expectations? I would have quite liked the Night King to kill everyone in Winterfell, but what would we have watched in the following episodes? The White Walkers silently wander down to King's Landing? The heart of GoT has always been the human conflict.
'The writing' of the show is a convenient scapegoat for expressing discontent, requiring limited specificity and elucidation. It is a broad brush for smearing the show. Some unfairly assert that this season the writers are 'destroying character arcs' or 'not staying true to the characters'. Daenerys' descent into madness makes sense when you consider everything she has lost. It has been foreshadowed – I don't understand why people think someone good wouldn't do evil things, as if their behaviour and outlook wouldn't be altered by circumstance. Her arc makes perfect sense as a critique of political structures based in entitlement and violence as the corrupting effects of power cause the most suffering for the innocent.
Jaime's arc was never about becoming truly good, it was about redemption. He was never quite able to escape his love for Cersei and that this was his downfall. Sansa may have betrayed Jon, but it was a wise political move. People are so preoccupied bemoaning Varys' apparent carelessness that they missed his attempts to poison Dany. A lot of the criticism of characters feels hollow and rooted in characters not behaving exactly as wanted. Some criticism is fair – Tyrion's uncharacteristic foolishness in supporting Dany – but a lot of it seems gratuitous.
Hours ploughed into studying theories and predictions now feel wasted to many viewers, I think. The show hasn't even finished, yet fans are lamenting how this symbol didn't mean something, or that prophecy didn't come true. All the meaning attributed to certain events ought to have been realised already, it seems. The show cannot surprise while doing exactly what people predicted, yet this seems to have been the expectation.
The mad queen in all of us
We secretly adore watching public downfalls. They are fascinating to observe and the attacks on Game of Thrones have descended into a bandwagon of contempt rolling unchallenged into King's Landing. Much as we may deny it, there is an element of our own unchecked passion for destruction underlying this bloodlust. It becomes cooler to criticise this behemoth of a show than to appreciate it, so that is what has happened. We unite in our discontent, brought together by our disappointment that more of our favourite characters weren't brutally murdered.
After episode three, I made a conscious decision to try to enjoy what is left of the this season. It hasn't been as good since deviating from the books, a testament to the writing of George RR Martin. But the cinematography remains unrivalled. The plot is still compelling. The acting is strong (Emilia Clarke has really raised her game). Ramin Djawadi's score is brilliant. The costume and set design are as breathtakingly detailed as ever. There is still so much to celebrate as Game of Thrones reaches its denouement!
I remain excited to see who sits on the Iron Throne and despite its misteps, find the show still fundamentally enjoyable. The night is already dark and full of terrors – I think we would benefit from lightening up a little.