Game of Thrones: The end of an era, for better or for worse
*This piece contains content regarding abuse, both physical and emotional – whilst I have tried to word it sensitively, please do not read if it will make you feel uncomfortable.*
*I’ll set my stall out early here, this is going to be about the HBO TV show Game of Thrones, not the book series (something the directors and producers and I can agree on, apparently). I’ll draw reference to them here and there, but on the whole, we’ll be talking about the TV show. Cool? Cool.*
Chaos is a final season…
This isn’t quite a love letter, and it’s far from hate mail. A “critique” makes it sound far too professional, and a “think-piece” is a word that should never have been invented in the first place. It’s more like trying to unwind a tangled, coarse ball of thread. It’s just somebody’s thoughts on something that meant a lot to them, and why they think it didn’t quite do itself justice. So, let’s just take one strand of thread and see what we can make of it.
General opinion seems to be that Game of Thrones’ final season just didn’t quite do itself justice. There was something missing, a gap where something just should have been (and no, it wasn’t the four extra episodes Benihoff and Weiss turned down, though they probably would have helped…). There were fan theories and conjecture aplenty as to why the past couple of seasons didn’t sate us, but the real reason that I think we were left wanting was because it was never us, the fans, that deserved better (despite what that petition would have you believe) – it was the characters. They all deserved more. They deserved better, and I know that had they gotten the endings and they deserved, I could close this final chapter more comfortably.
If you think this has a happy ending…
There is no room to question that Game of Thrones was a wholly character-driven show. Yeah, we love a cinematic battle scene but we love people even more, and this is what I think the on-screen iteration lost sight of. Game of Thrones is a saga of people and what it means to be human. Between the dragons and the giants, it is an exploration of human nature, even and especially the ugly parts; the warped motivations and flawed ideals, misplaced loyalties and misguided actions. It was Tyrion Lannister who spoke the now immortal like: Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour, and it can never be used to hurt you”. It was all of this that Game of Thrones had such a great handle on for a while until it forgot itself. Its men were multifaceted and its women were strong. For a while. Deviation from source material can be applauded to a point if done well, and I know I said I wouldn’t draw too much upon the books but I couldn’t in good conscience leave them out entirely, especially for this part.
All men must die…but we are not men
Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark are two of my favourite fictional characters of all time. They are so wonderfully and delightfully complex with tapestries of emotional backstory and baggage. My issue arises with the unnecessary violence done untoward them. The third episode of season four, “Breaker of Chains” proved an incredibly difficult watch for me, and pretty much every woman I know. Jaime, despite Cersei’s refusal and demands for him to stop (five times, no less), are ignored and he forces himself upon her, next to the dead body of their child. What a sentence, it hurt even to type. In the books, this encounter is obviously and blisteringly wrong, but it is consensual – George R.R. Martin even came out and reiterated that himself. There was categorically no need to change the context of this encounter. Jaime and Cersei are twins, their relationship is already beyond wildly transgressive. The only thing this change achieved was to create trauma for Cersei and throw Jaime’s character development out the window.
Sansa, too, suffered unnecessarily for the screen. It was Sansa’s childhood friend, Jeyne Poole, who was married to Ramsay Bolton in the books, and who suffers through the his emotional and sexual abuse. Instead, we see Sansa put into this situation and have it laboured upon more heavily than its literary counterpart. These moments are then patronisingly framed as intrinsic to the growth of each woman. Trauma is not female empowerment, no matter how much you try to performativelydress it up. We hear Sansa in episode five of season eight, “The Long Night”, say to The Hound: “without Joffrey and Ramsey and all the rest, I would have been a little bird all my life”, after he tells her how he wishes she had fled with him to safety. You know what? I kinda get it. I can kinda get what was trying to be said here but oh man, was it delivered poorly, clumsily, messily, and monumentally insensitively. This is all without even touching too heavily upon Dany and Khal Drogo’s relationship right back in season one. Daenerys, a girl abused by her father is shipped off to the Dothraki and we are repeatedly and graphically shown her “customary” sexual abuse. This relationship, however, is depressingly concurrent with the books. As the series progress, we see our Khaleesi rise from the ashes of the regimes she destroys and become one of the most loved characters of the entire show.
Trauma has its place in TV and film, but it should never be lazily explained away as a vehicle to “better” a person. People do not become strong and powerful because of trauma they have experienced, they do so in spite of it. These wildly miscalculated character choices twist the knife all the more when it comes from a gratuitous deviation from any kind of source material. Sansa speaks one of my favourite ever lines: “My skin has turned from porcelain, to ivory, to steel”. These three women, and all the others, were always powerful and capable – putting them through trauma did not make them so.
In victory and defeat…
As a result of these increasingly haphazard choices, the willingness to treat characters like disposable playthings without any consequence has long been in the back of my mind, but Season 8 really put the final nail in the coffin. For a show so reliant upon and so driven by its characters, it really did very little right by them. It left them for dead, but it robbed them first. Jaime may have started as canonically evil but we began to see a redemption arc develop for him – for nothing. Cersei was the most powerful woman in the Seven Kingdoms, humility hidden deep under her hard exterior – for nothing. Dany fought for good against all prophecy as her coin fell – for nothing. Jon was brought back to life and revealed to be a Targaryen – for nothing. Brienne spent her life defending other people and finally allowed herself to become vulnerable – for nothing. Arya spent years training to become a face-switching assassin – for nothing (well, maybe a little something). Even the Night King, built up for so long to be the most indomitable foe ever known was slain in seconds – for nothing. Sansa, Tyrion, and Bran were the few that seemed to get away with at least something to show for their eight years. At least Gendry got a title, and at least Sam got a family back. After the finale, I couldn’t help but feel like I had lost a sneeze. I was ready, I knew it was coming, it had been building up but then…nothing. Sansa’s half-victory still left me feeling as though she had been robbed, and the notion that so many characters deserved so much better is a hard one shake. We all spent a long time growing to love and loving to hate these people, and to feel some of their endings weakly buckle under the weight and pressure of the biggest title in television cut me particularly deep.
In the end, It all felt like a careless case of reverse engineering; we have the ending, we just need to get there. That’s the thing with a character-driven show – it’s not about racing to the finish line, it’s about the trials and tribulations, the missteps and the mistakes and then all of a sudden, you have arrived at your destination, muddy and bruised, but whole. Sometimes, there is something to be said for a predictable, honest ending – after all, why do you think we have been telling those stories for so long?