Ask people what one of the biggest disappointments in recent years is and you will get a few responses: the Star Wars sequel trilogy? The DCEU? Joe Biden not nodding off during his winning speech? But maybe head, shoulders and belly above the rest is Game of Thrones’ final season. It was a sextet of episodes that audiences waited nearly two years for, and the reception was… divisive? Or was it united in a shared hatred? Having given it a recent re-watch, my opinion has changed. I’m not trying to praise season 8 but rather offer a defence of something that may not deserve all of the flack.
“A man’s gotta know his limitations”, says ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan, a phrase that might make an exception of author George R. R. Martin. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire (which provides the source material for Thrones) is acclaimed for its adult grit, shocking narrative flips and a sprawling list of characters that populate two well-realised continents. It is an achievement in writing, and the first four seasons of the show demonstrate this by faithfully following the novels right down to lifting entire dialogues. Martin was heavily involved in these seasons, writing one episode a year and consulting the production. But credit must also be given to D. B. Weiss and David Benioff, the showrunners who masterminded the adaptation. Weiss and Benioff (or D&D) had signed on to adapt the show providing Martin would finish his final two books by the time the show had caught up, or failing that then Martin could provide them with the basic ending. The previous novel was released in 2011, and the next one has been repeatedly pushed back as Martin has struggled with solving his own narrative knots. By making a canvas so big he has lost control of his own creative work, Martin does not know his limitations; his reach is longer than his grasp and a resolution seems impossible.
How does this correspond to seasons 8’s shortcomings? The first three episodes were largely well-received with some criticisms aimed at the anti-climactic third episode and the darkness of it (watching it with the lights off solves the problem). Then things went downhill after the admittedly poorly written and heavily rushed fourth episode, and, by the finale’s questionable decisions, there were petitions to re-make the season without D&D’s involvement. No ending would please everyone because there were so many outcomes that would poetically fit the narrative, and because of how scrutinised and theorised the show had become. Game of Thrones was an Emmy-sweeping phenomenon that, like the books, became larger than the sum of its parts. But to label it as awful is unfair: this is still an acceptable quality of television besides the writing.
The exponentially ballooning budget with each season is certainly obvious with season 8: the visual effects work is equal and often superior to Hollywood films with ten times the budget. Dragons and undead, storms and explosions: it looks crisp. From a technical perspective all six episodes are gorgeous to behold; the storyboard eye of director Miguel Sapochnik is put to extremely good use in the set piece episodes of 3 and 5, both of which contain skilfully executed camera moves, long takes and visual gusto. The costumes, editing and sets are similarly realised, whilst the cast are still uniformly strong. Then there’s the score by Ramin Djawadi which still finds time to add new and impressive tracks such as ‘The Night King’ to the mix.
I can agree with the criticisms towards the character arcs of Daenerys Targaryen (logical but rushed), Grey Worm and Jaime Lannister (did he go back to Cersei as a brother or a lover?), but I also think the show wrapped up a bunch of other characters beautifully: The Hound, Arya, Beric, Sam, Brienne, Podrick and – I’m going there – Jon all get the deserved closure that has been awaiting them for some time. It is far from the majesty of the first four, but there is merit to this season. D&D did not sign up to write original content or spend their life waiting on someone else, and seeing as how Martin allegedly only told them three story points that are meant to be happen in the books (speculated to be the fates of Hodor, Shireen and Daenerys) but not how to get there, you have to respect D&D for trying to deliver an ending that would not test the patience for fans waiting for years. What is worse: to have a bad ending or no ending at all? Perhaps D&D did know their limitations.
All eight seasons of Game of Thrones are available on NOW TV in the UK. You can watch a trailer for the final season below.