It would be easier – but less fun – to write “literally everything.”
Why it matters that the last season sucked, from a writer’s perspective
Warning: Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 6
We’ve all watched the series finale of Game of Thrones by now, right? The epic fantasy show based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has been running since 2011 and after eight years, finally wrapped up last night. The series, both in print and on TV, made a name for itself by defying fantasy tropes, displaying violence, rape, revenge and betrayal in ways we never thought possible, and creating some of the most epic dialogue in television history.
But in the last season – hell, let’s even say the last two seasons – the show has changed noticeably. The biting one-liners from everyone’s favorite dwarf faded as Tyrion turned into a sad, ineffectual drunk. His insight and sharp wit seemed to dissipate soon after he attached himself to Dany. The exquisite scenes of dialogue were replaced with dragonfire shot after dragonfire shot. And plotlines and character arcs that had been carefully, painstakingly developed over the prior six seasons suddenly either vanished altogether or were pushed to the sidelines.
As a writer, I care deeply about plot, pacing, and character development. It’s all critical to my suspension of disbelief, not to mention that watching a master at work is both educational and validating. Good stories have power. Watching the six seasons of Game of Thrones taught me so much about how to write complex characters with long, thoughtful story arcs, how to make bad characters tun good, and good characters turn bad. How to build a world that feels as real as our own.
And so when David Benioff and D.B. Weiss began systematically destroying so many of those thoughtful story arcs, long-developed plot lines, and ultimately even their own poorly-thought-out plot devices, I could do nothing but watch in horror as a narrative I’d invested countless hours into and drawn so much inspiration from was burned to the ground.
And so, without further ado, I give you the 10 things I hated most about the final season of Game of Thrones. I’ve grouped them into four categories of bad writing: Lost Opportunities, Failed Character Development, Poor Plot Construction, and Cinematography Sits on the Iron Throne. The categories are listed under each item header.
1. Jon Snow is a Targaryen…for what?
The mystery of Jon Snow’s true parenthood has been a plotline in development for literally six seasons. For many seasons (and many years before the show came out) it was speculated that the series title, A Song of Ice and Fire, meant that Jon Snow was the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, being the product of a lawful marriage between Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. In the process of becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran spends a good deal of time watching Ned’s memories of the moment Lyanna dies in childbirth with Jon. Ultimately it is revealed that Jon is not Ned Stark’s bastard son, as Ned told everyone, but Aegon Targaryen, Sixth of His Name, heir to the Iron Throne and all that jazz.
The amount of time the showrunners spent tantalizing us with this knowledge, and the satisfaction we all felt upon realizing it was true, that Jon Snow was the rightful heir to the throne, was vastly disproportionate to what this ultimately meant for the character. Since, in the end, the only role this whole plotline served in the story was to complicate the budding romance between Jon and Dany, when they learn she is his aunt not too long after their first time having fiery (pun intended) sex. (It also gave Jon the ability to ride the dragons just like Dany, another character attribute that ultimately went nowhere and did no one any good.)
And at the end, when Jon kills his aunt and becomes a Queenslayer, only to be quite literally sent right back where he started – The Night’s Watch – what did this whole storyline mean? What purpose did it serve? What role did it ultimately play in Jon’s life?
So why did we bother?
2. Why is there still a Night’s Watch?
Poor Plot Construction
The Wall was destroyed by a zombie dragon. The Wildlings were invited to live south of the Wall, side by side with the Northmen, by Jon Snow himself. (Was it during that brief and ultimately ineffectual period when he was King in the North? Who can remember?) Arya killed The Night King and the zombie army was destroyed forever. So why is there a Night’s Watch? And why would Jon, or anyone else, need to be posted there ever again?
Also, once Grey Worm and the Dothraki have left Westeros, why not invite Jon Snow back to Winterfell? It’s not like Grey Worm’s going to come to Westeros once a year to make sure he’s still banished.
3. What Dothraki?
Poor Plot Construction
In the showrunner’s recap after the Battle of Winterfell, Benioff and Weiss make a big stink about how Dany watching the Dothraki army fall to the White Walkers is why she throws their carefully curated battle plan out the window and furiously takes to the skies, before their plan called for the dragons to reveal themselves. The cinematography in that scene indicates that very few, if any, Dothraki survived – you see their flaming scimitars fade to black, and only a few screams from fleeing survivors indicate that a soul survived this initial clash. Not only was this a colossally stupid battle tactic, it also should have meant Dany had no Dothraki soldiers left.
Similarly, the Unsullied army has been cut in half or more by Grey Worm’s own declaration in that same episode. We literally watch this happen. The Unsullied front lines sacrifice themselves holding back the army of the dead so that the soldiers in the back can retreat inside the walls of Winterfell.
Let’s not forget the massive losses Dany sustained in both this season and the last, when her ships were attacked by Uncle Euron and his magical fleet (which seems to be able to teleport instantly anywhere on the ocean), and when some other battle scenes in season seven I’ve since forgotten claimed a bunch of her Unsullied, as well.
Let’s not even ask how the Unsullied survived in King’s Landing while Drogon brought ash to the city like the Night King brought snow to Winterfell.
So then why does she suddenly have an army of Dothraki in the Nazi-style photo op after she razes King’s Landing? Where does her massive force of Unsullied come from? The Dothraki shouldn’t even be there, and the Unsullied should by this point be reduced to just a few squadrons. And yet, she has a roaring, cheering force of at least a few thousand Dothraki, and the lines of the Unsullied are sizeable enough to recall a certain march into Paris.
4. The Lannister Love Triangle
Failed Character Development
Much time was spent in the second, third, and fourth seasons developing Jaime into a decent human being. He lost his right hand and his hair turned grey, infusing him with a dose of humility. He saved Brienne from a group of vagrants and rapists and developed a respect for her as a fighter that clearly began to border on the romantic. He begins to recognize that goodness might be a abstract value worth pursuing, outside of the moral subjectivity of protecting only his family. And in season seven, this culminates in a turning point for his character when Cersei decides to betray Dany in favor of destroying her armies once they’ve successfully defeated the Night King, and Jaime abandons her, heading to Winterfell to fight alongside Brienne, Dany, and Jon Snow, all once sworn enemies of his house.
In Season 8, we see the fledgling romance between Jaime and Brienne consummated in more ways than one. As the only knight in the room, he recognizes her leadership and battle skills and makes her a knight as well. Then they sleep together, in what is clearly a moment both have desired for a long, long time.
And then what?
The next morning, even before dawn has broken, he leaves. He renegs on that whole character arc they’ve been cooking for literally six seasons and heads back to try to save his cruel, evil twin sister, who he knows by this point is utterly beyond redemption. They die together under a pile of rocks (a structural oddity, since the foundational parts of the Red Keep appear to have collapsed, while the throne room containing the Iron Throne has only lost a quarter of its walls).
Six seasons of character development, for that?
5. The Many Faces of Arya Stark
Arya Stark, Faceless Assassin, follower of the God of Death. Another character ability under development for 4+ seasons. Another incredible ability, wasted. The last time we see Arya use her face-changing ability is when she kills one last dude on her list and feeds his children to him in a meat pie. (Definitely a George R. R. Martin plot point. Benioff & Weiss could never have dreamed up a revenge so deliciously cold.)
Why wasn’t this ability deployed in the Battle of Winterfell? I don’t object to having Arya save the day by killing the Night King. But having her fall out of a tree? Why didn’t she change faces with one of his generals and take him out from the side? Why didn’t she change faces with dead Theon and leap on him in that last critical moment? Either option would have been a much cooler use of her hard-won ability. But Benioff & Weiss aren’t creative enough for that. Instead, they used their favorite Deux Ex Machina – teleportation – to get her from the Winterfell library to the Godswood tree, somehow without anyone noticing, despite that White Walkers and Theon Greyjoy’s forces are busy duking it out in a remarkably small space.
6. Cinematography, First of Its Name, King of the Andals and the First Men…
Cinematography Sits on the Iron Throne
By now you’ve probably realized my biggest complaint with the final season is that the showrunners abandoned or seemingly forgot about so many critical, hard-fought abilities and plot lines. But what did they focus on instead?
From the Night King throwing a spear about a kilometer to kill Viserion to Viserion’s controlled demolition of the Wall to Drogon’s uncontrolled demolition of King’s Landing to Dany and Jon’s sky battle with the Night King and his dragon. From the apocalyptic scenes where the Hound and the Mountain duke it out on a crumbling staircase in the Red Keep to Drogon melting down the Iron Throne instead of Jon. From the majestic vision of Dany framed with Drogon’s wings to the mysterious white horse that rescues Arya after the firebombing of King’s Landing.
Plot, character, and pacing were all sacrificed on the altar of cinematography. Nothing mattered to Benioff and Weiss so much as getting that perfect shot. And if there’s one thing I’ll give them about this whole, fucked up ride, it’s that they are damn good at cinematography.
But without substance behind the shot, it’s ultimately meaningless. And as we’ve already seen, they consistently abandoned character development, plot arc, and pacing, in favor of empty, beautiful scenes.
7. Like this horse. What was up with this horse?
Cinematography Sits on the Iron Throne
The final shot of Season 8, Episode 5 is of Arya, her face bloody and filthy, apparently the only survivor in all of King’s Landing. She walks through the empty, ashen streets and comes across a white horse just as the sun begins to peek through the smoke. The horse, too, is bloody and dirty, but somehow seems pure and untouched. The horse is unsettled, but overall calm considering what it just went through. Arya quiets the horse, swings herself over its back, and rides out of the city.
But what does it all mean? It’s a beautiful shot, but I don’t understand its purpose. At first I wondered if Arya had in fact been killed in the firebombing. Now that would have been a twist I couldn’t predict – and an interesting one, at that. What more devastating statement about senseless violence than to have one of our show’s most popular – and most powerful – characters destroyed by the firebombing of King’s Landing? Benioff & Weiss could have made something meaningful out of that.
But they didn’t. Arya is alive and well in the final episode. Various fan theories offered up other ideas: maybe the white horse meant Arya was transforming, symbolically, into death. Is she going to kill Daenerys? Or into peace. Is she going to be a peaceful ruler of the Iron Throne?
The answer was no to all questions. Arya embarks on a journey “West of Westeros” and the white horse scene was ultimately empty. Another glorious shot totally devoid of meaning. Another potential plot point sacrificed on the altar of cinematography.
8. The Three-Eyed Raven
Bran’s entire character arc was theoretically building to either a confrontation with the Night King or to provide support for Jon Snow’s claim to throne. Why else spend a season on the backstory with Ned and Lyanna? Why else spend so much time on the history of the Children of the Forest? So much mythology, so much magic, so much history came into play with Bran’s character arc. And ultimately, what did it come to?
Bran doesn’t use his warging ability to affect anything in the final season. He doesn’t warg into the dragon, the Night King, Dany, or anything else that might have been useful or interesting. Nor does he use his knowledge of the Children of the Forest to help the Northern alliance find a chink in the Night King’s armor, a classic mythological technique employed by prophets and cripples since the days of Homer. He doesn’t even let Dany and Jon know that dragonfire isn’t going to be very useful in killing the Night King. (As an aside: Why isn’t dragonfire effective? The Night King is susceptible to Arya’s Valyrian steel, just like the other White Walkers. But not to dragonfire? And if he’s immune to dragonfire, why not Valyrian steel as well? My theory is that Benioff & Weiss just wanted another dramatic moment – when Dany unleashed Drogon’s fire and the Night King was miraculously unharmed. But they still had to kill him somehow.) Bran does nothing to help the battle – or anyone at all – in any tangible way. He sits there under the Godswood while Theon defends him from the White Walkers, and ultimately watches with smug satisfaction when Arya plunges her dagger into the Night King’s heart.
I told you I’d be fine, he says with his eyes. Who cares, Bran? You haven’t contributed anything to the story in three seasons.
And in the end, even his knowledge of Jon’s ancestry contributes nothing to the plot. Jon is banished to the Wall, his Targaryen heritage forgotten and ignored, his connection with Drogon and the other dragons dead and gone.
9. King Bran the Broken
Failed Character Development
What? Like, what? What the literal fuck? Where on Earth did this come from? This was the biggest curveball of the whole series. Never at any point in the series has anyone indicated that Bran would make a good king, wants the throne, or has done even the slightest thing to deserve it.
This colossally out-of-left-field ending has led to some of my favorite memes.
10. The Mad Queen
Failed Character Development
This sits firmly atop the list of things I am most furious about in the final season of the show. Showrunners Benioff & Weiss used misleading and arbitrary plot points to justify Daenerys’s descent into madness, as well as some decidedly stereotypical approaches to a character who had broken the mold for female leaders.
First, they show Dany watching her Dothraki disappear at the front lines of the Battle of Winterfell, portraying her decision to abandon their plan to hold the dragons in check as angry and emotional, the result of seeing her adopted people hacked to pieces by the undead. But then, two episodes later, they bring her Dothraki army back for her imperial march. They set up a storyline wherein Missandei, Dany’s closest advisor, is captured – how? – and publicly executed – why? Why not use her as a hostage to hold Dany’s sole remaining dragon in check? – in order to justify her rage. They have to recall moments in her character development from SEVEN SEASONS prior to lay the groundwork for her turn to violence. And finally, they contend that Dany’s unrequited love for Jon contributes to her her madness, and in the classic “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” trope, goes insane and destroys the whole city.
Many have argued that the seeds of violence were already there; that given all the things that happen to Dany over the course of this season, it’s only natural she should commit such atrocities. And I would believe them, if not for the fact that the things that happen to Dany over the course of this season were written into being by Benioff & Weiss. They could have chosen not to have Missandei captured and executed by Cersei. They could have chosen not to have her Dothraki army destroyed in an insanely stupid tactical move at the Battle of Winterfell. And they could have chosen to recognize that for seven seasons, Dany has listened to reason and held her emotions in check when Tyrion talked her out of burning cities. There’s no reason to think her unrequited love for Jon would suddenly send her into a spiral of madness and despair.
But they chose to write her character this way. They chose to create the events that would lead up to this. And they chose to portray her as an isolated, deranged Queen who cannot keep her emotions in check. The classic ending for the ambitious female is always the asylum.
Bonus: The Two Things I Actually Liked About The Show
1. Sansa is Queen in the North
We all knew she deserved it. She’s a better states(wo)man and a better tactician than Jon. She’s less impulsive and more strategic. And she loves her people – to the point where she argues for, and wins, the North’s independence from Southern rule.
2. Ghost finally gets his long-awaited hug from Jon Snow
This one shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place. Jon should have just hugged the damn wolf when he was leaving Winterfell the first time – or better yet, brought Ghost with him to King’s Landing as a symbol of both his Stark and Targaryen heritage. But I’m still glad that Ghost, the only remaining direwolf from the series opener, got his well-earned love in the end.