As most of the country is sitting around in self-isolation, the stock of new things to watch on streaming services has begun to run as low as the national toilet paper supply in mid-March. As I recently scoured through past series to rewatch with my boyfriend, I asked him, “Have you ever seen ‘Game of Thrones’?” To my disappointment, he hadn’t, so I proceeded to play the first episode. He later asked me why the finale was so controversial, and if I was as disappointed with the conclusion as many other fans were. This question got me thinking: Was the finale as terrible as its immediate viewers thought?
On May 19, 2019, the 73rd and final episode of “Game of Thrones” aired on HBO. The episode amassed 19.3 million viewers and ranks as one of the most-watched telecasts in HBO history, as well as one of the most hotly debated. The series finale maintains a score of 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, differing from the series’ usual ballpark 90% score and plunging the overall season eight score below 60%. What happened here? How did a series, heavily remarked upon for its careful craft and focus, turn from sweeping the Emmy Awards with universal acclaim to garnering mass disappointment from fans and critics alike?
To understand the answer to this question, it’s important to recognize everything the “Game of Thrones” creators did exceptionally well. After rewatching the first three seasons, it’s easy to realize that viewers didn’t give nearly enough credit to the show’s early technical craft. The directors were exceptional throughout these seasons, balancing four separate storylines in a multitude of locations around its fictional world. The creation of this world, and the control over the space it allows its viewers to occupy, is almost unparalleled.
In congruence with this is the show’s on-screen talent and character development. The actors never fail to immerse their willing viewers into this world, and their characters rarely feel dull. Almost every character transforms in a way that either terrifies us or garners our applause. Praise of the show’s character development and world-building, however, is often confused in its target. A question that arises in this regard is whether the show’s writers or the creator of the source material, author George R. R. Martin, are to thank for this quality.
It is important to remember that “Game of Thrones” writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss crafted earlier seasons parallel to existing books in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. Thus, their role in the development of these characters and the visual creation of the novel’s world was a task of adaptation rather than invention. Put into context, the writers of “Game of Thrones” only had access to source material up to the show’s sixth season, as the final two books of the series have yet to be released.
This is huge. This sudden lack of existing material for Benioff and Weiss to play off of correlates almost exactly to when fans and critics became disappointed with major plot points in the final two seasons. Upon second viewing, the development of major characters noticeably flatlines. Namely, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen — arguably two of the show’s most intricate, focused characters — become painfully dull. Daenerys’ major arc leading up to this final season becomes muddled, and she seems to regress to previous seasons’ mistakes that her character seemingly outgrew. Jon similarly becomes almost intolerable, offering little to nothing to a storyline that grew for six seasons surrounding his character.
Character development aside, the dialogue in these final two seasons speaks volumes. The outstandingly witty exchanges between characters in the first few seasons was one of the most alluring things about the show; it made the writers seem knowledgeable and clever, working dialogue in subtly and carefully so that viewers have to pay attention. Sadly, this style of writing is missing within the final seasons. Rather, the characters’ dialogues seem flimsy and dim-witted, revealing the stark contrast between Martin’s novel and the voices of Beinoff and Weiss.
It is important, however, to give credit where credit is due. In a cinematic sense, the final two seasons’ craft is remarkably brilliant. The camerawork remains thoughtful and intriguing as in previous seasons, just as the costume design and acting is sharp and poised. One of the best shots in the whole series is Daenerys ascending from the rubble, her dragon positioned perfectly behind her to make it appear as though she has wings. In this sense, the show’s technical craft continues to be outstanding.
Given time to ponder and air to breathe, the grand finale of “Game of Thrones” may not have been so grand, but it was not without notable achievement. Throughout its long run time, the series brought us into its world and gave us characters to root for and despise — for most of us, that is enough to overwrite its muffled finale.