This month marks one year since Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season aired, yet it seems unlikely anyone will be doing much to celebrate the HBO fantasy drama’s anniversary. Incredibly, this big budget adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels – an unprecedented crossover hit that drew record audiences each week – vanished almost entirely from the pop culture conversation after the last ever episode, “The Iron Throne”, aired on 19 May 2019.
There’s a simple explanation for this: Game of Thrones Season 8 is widely considered a let-down of epic proportions, and the show’s near-fanatical devotees have since deserted it in the kind of brutal twist that made the series so popular. But while this bitter disappointment is unfortunate, if I’m being honest, it also seems inevitable, too. Here, I’m going to break down the key reasons why Game of Thrones Season 8 missed the mark, and more importantly, make a case for why this was always bound to happen.
It’s actually not that bad (technically speaking)
Before we go any further, there’s something that needs to be made clear: setting aside the questionable storytelling in Game of Thrones Season 8, on a technical level, it’s an unqualified triumph. The acting, production design, visual and practical effects, costuming…heck, the sheer scale of the whole thing is enough to put many big screen blockbusters to shame, much less TV shows.
And even if the writing in Season 8 wasn’t up to scratch – and we’ll explore why that’s arguably the case in a moment – showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss still did a terrific job getting us that far in the first place. Before Game of Thrones, fantasy TV shows fell into one of two broad camps: low budget ongoing series and mid-budget “special event” mini-series or one-off movies – neither of which had mass appeal.
This is something that the vocal section of Game of Thrones fandom that enjoys piling onto Benioff and Weiss would do well to remember: that these are the same guys who managed to get a lavish, sophisticated and (largely) faithful fantasy adaptation off the ground at a time when nobody else could. Sure, the show ultimately best resembles a roller coaster ride where all the cars end up careening off the rails…but it was a still a hell of a ride. So although this article is built around the premise that Season 8 was a failure, I’m not trying to take a dig at the cast and crew of Game of Thrones, who should all be immensely proud of being part of what can only be described as a historic achievement – just not a flawless one.
A clash of storytelling styles
The most obvious contributing factor to Game of Thrones wrapping up on a bum note was also one that everybody knew was bound to happen going in: the showrunners running out of storytelling roadmap. During Seasons 1 to 5, Benioff, Weiss and the rest of the writing staff could draw upon George R.R. Martin’s richly detailed tomes to shape individual scripts and overall season arcs, but from Season 6 onwards, they were pretty much on their own.
True, they were working from a basic outline provided by Martin. But considering the author himself has infamously struggled to devise a fitting ending for the books on which the show is based, that should give you a sense of just how little real guidance Benioff, Weiss and the team had available to them!
The upshot of this was that a small team of storytellers went from reinterpreting the singular vision of one man to suddenly being the ones in charge of laying the actual groundwork themselves – and they floundered. In their desperation, they latched onto the kind of conventional storytelling techniques that can typically be relied upon to keep a fantasy series like Game of Thrones afloat: future plot points are clearly signposted before being paid off exactly as promised.
And it’s here that everything started to really fall apart. See, a lot of the appeal of Game of Thrones comes from Martin’s decidedly unconventional approach to the plot and character tropes that dominate the fantasy genre. Indeed, the fictional realm of Westeros is founded upon a disarmingly realistic sensibility; unlike Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Lewis’ Narnia, in the Seven Kingdoms, anything can happen, and anyone can die. By rejecting the subversive logic that underpinned the series, Benioff and Weiss couldn’t help masterminding a subpar finale, since they consistently served up exactly what audiences expected to see happen, exactly the way they’d seen it happen before.
“Cleganebowl” is prime example of this. Fans had been clamouring for a showdown between hulking siblings Sandor and Gregor Clegane since the first Song of Ice and Fire book hit shelves way back in 1996, and in Season 8’s penultimate episode, “The Bells”, their wish is finally granted. There’s no playing with expectations, here; no zigging where other, more tired sword-and-sorcery sagas would zag. These two bruisers – one a redemptive anti-hero, the other a merciless monster – have been set-up for a final confrontation, so that’s exactly what Benioff and Weiss deliver.
Of course, Cleganebowl might appear in Martin’s still-gestating novels The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Yet if it does (and to be honest, that does feel like a big “if” to me), it’s hard to escape the idea that this titanic duel – so antithetical to how Martin tells stories – will play out in a much less stereotypically “Hollywood” fashion.
All this isn’t to say that Benioff and Weiss didn’t occasionally try to emulate Martin’s penchant for narrative curveballs. But even then, these shocking moments simply didn’t work, whether because they weren’t allowed sufficient screentime to fully percolate (Daenerys’ heel turn and the Night King’s demise) or because they were kinda, well…flat out nonsense (Bran’s ascension to the throne and the final fate of Jamie and Cersei).
Long Night, short season
The aforementioned problem of insufficient screentime is significant, as it ties into yet another production element that ensured Game of Thrones Season 8 was practically destined to come up short: logistics. An ongoing series on this scale has never been done before, and it may not happen again for a long time – and there’s a reason for that.
As anyone who’s seen Season 8 documentary The Last Watch already knows, the crew was stretched to breaking point by the demands of producing what amounted to several blockbuster movies worth of material within the time constraints of a television production schedule.
It’s a point that Season 8’s detractors tend to overlook when taking Benioff and Weiss to task for trying to cram too much story into too few episodes: even if HBO was willing to order (and finance!) a full 10 episode season, the poor crew simply didn’t have it in them to make more than the six episodes we got.
That doesn’t invalidate complaints that Game of Thrones Season 8 is rushed – it absolutely is. Virtually all the major protagonists’ character arcs suffer as a result, while overarching antagonists the White Walkers at last stand revealed as the one-dimensional, wildly ineffectual baddies we secretly suspected them to be all along.
And yet, crucially, neither questionable storytelling choices nor insurmountable logistical challenges are most to blame for Game of Thrones Season 8’s cool reception.
Expectations versus reality
Instead, that dubious honour is reserved for the high expectations of fandom itself. As author Neil Gaiman observed in The Sandman: “The price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted” – as an audience, we were desperate to see how Game of Thrones would end, without ever realising that no conclusion (no matter how perfect) was ever going to live up to nearly a decade of feverish hype.
To be frank, no show could have lived up to such sustained anticipation, because there’s arguably never been a show as popular as Game of Thrones, and certainly not in the modern era. Even the likes of Breaking Bad – which was a massive hit and boasts a celebrated final season – never quite approached the kind of cultural assimilation responsible for everything from real-life babies being christened “Khaleesi” to an entire album of Taylor Swift songs.
In the face of such widespread and unchecked adoration, even a spectacular swansong season devoid of any of the shortcomings listed above would have been at best, labelled merely “good” – because it wouldn’t have been spectacular enough to justify eight years’ worth of expectation. There’s literally nothing that cast or crew could have done to overcome this.
So, when all is said and done, Game of Thrones Season 8 was doomed to fail, pure and simple.
Our watch has ended – our fandom shouldn’t
But does Game of Thrones underwhelming denouement mean it deserves to be permanently relegated to pop culture purgatory, uncelebrated and slowly forgotten? Not at all. If anything, now that the dust has settled and inflated expectations have subsided, there’s never been a better time to revisit the series. Who knows? We could be in for one last shocking revelation, greater than Ned Stark’s execution or the horrors of the Red Wedding: that Game of Thrones Season 8 wasn’t quite so bad after all…