Endings are hard.
Any writer will tell you that, but none will mean it more than the creator of a TV series when they are talking about their series finale, the culmination of their work that will largely dictate the entire show’s legacy. The Sopranos ended in 2007 and fans still argue over hits controversial ending. Lost caused online riots with its 2010 series finale. Dexter‘s ending is basically a punchline.
But no show’s ending has caused a stir quite like Game of Thrones, with the HBO fantasy hit bringing its epic saga to a controversial end on Sunday night, something its showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have long been preparing for. (Read our recap, but know this article is long and full of spoilers.)
“We’ll be in an undisclosed location, turning off our phones and opening various bottles,” Weiss told Entertainment Weekly of the duo’s plans for the big night. “At some point, if and when it’s safe to come out again, somebody like [HBO’s Thrones publicist Mara Mikialian] will give us a breakdown of what was out there without us having to actually experience it.”
It’s likely Benioff and Weiss, who brought George R.R. Martin‘s Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire to life in 2011, turning the epic book series into the world’s most popular TV show, have been keeping their phones off as of late, as the highly anticipated final season, which took two years to make before finally premiering in April, has been, to put it bluntly, a massive disappointment to a majority of the fanbase.
So much so that some disgruntled viewers are petitioning for a remake of the eighth season “with competent writers,” according to a petition started on change.org. At the time this article was published, it had well over 1 million signatures (aka the viewership of a CW show, so small but still kind of mighty).
Game of Thrones‘ fall from grace has been swift and near-unprecedented, though it’s not unheard of for fans to not like how their favorite show ended; it’s the norm.
Still, the final six episodes of Game of Thrones just highlighted the obvious: the show was kind of screwed once it caught up to and surpassed the books, as Martin is still chugging away on those last books, despite telling Weiss and Benioff years ago he’d probably be finished by the time they were.
“I can give them the broad strokes of what I intend to write, but the details aren’t there yet,” he once told Vanity Fair. “I’m hopeful that I cannot let them catch up with me.”
There was definitely a shift once the TV series surpassed the books in season six. The dialogue sounded a little more modern, with the word “man-bun” even finding its way into the script. There were less intimate conversations, more battles and bloodshed. The pacing picked up, and we mean really picked up, going from zero to light-speed. Still, Game of Thrones was appointment television, possible the last vestige of it in the new world of streaming services dropping entire seasons of a show all at once. And it was still one of the best shows on television, with the jampacked trophy case to prove it.
But then the final season premiered, delivering disappointment after disappointment, leaving fans to cry “Where is my show?!” like Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) crying “Where are my dragons?!” in season two, a far simpler time.
It’s not just the fans expressing their befuddlement over what the hell happened to the show that delivered defining and iconic moments like Ned Stark’s (leading man Sean Bean) death in season one and the Red Wedding, which has lived on as one of the best devastating scenes in TV history.
Even the actors have become more vocal about their conflicted feelings about the direction the show had gone in in its final two seasons. (And that’s not including the Internet’s new trend of looking back on interview the cast did leading up to the final season and reexamining their now questionable answers and facial expressions.)
Conleth Hill, who played Varys, the always-plotting eunuch, spymaster and Master of Whispers that finally met his end when Dany learned of his treason, was still emotional about his exit on the show when talking to Entertainment Weekly, opening up about his frustrations with his character’s role on the show in the back-half of its run.
“That’s been my feeling the last couple seasons, that my character became more peripheral, that they concentrated on others more,” he said. “That’s fine. It’s the nature of a multi-character show. It was kind of frustrating. As a whole it’s been overwhelmingly positive and brilliant but I suppose the last couple seasons weren’t my favorite.”
He then pointed to what he believed to be GOT‘s big shift, which of course was when the show caught up and surpassed Martin’s text.
“In a way, that was lost when we got past [the narrative in George R.R. Martin’s] books. That special niche interest in weirdos wasn’t as effective as it had been. Last season and this season there were great scenes and then I’d come in and kind of give a weather report at the end of them—’film at 11,'” Hill explained. “So I thought he was losing his knowledge. If he was such an intelligent man and he had such resources, how come he didn’t know about things? That added to my dismay. It’s now being rectified with getting a great and noble ending. But that was frustrating for a couple seasons.”
Even the actors who have remained right in the middle of all the action have opened up about their struggle to adjust to the fast and furious pacing of seasons seven and eight in comparison to the slow and steady nature of the earlier seasons.
“We’re used to having a whole season to get to a point,” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau told Vanity Fair. “Now suddenly, a lot of things happen very quickly.”
One of those things was his character Jaime Lannister’s Gossip Girl-reminiscent love triangle in episode four of the final season.
In one episode, Jaime, who had left Cersei to fight for the living and knighted Brienne, slept with Brienne, chose to stay in Winterfell, but then changed his mind and left to go back to Cersei in King’s Landing. This came after a seven-season redemption arc, featuring hard lessons of growth and countless moral struggles and the loss of his sword hand, which he longed to believe the very best thing about him and defined his own self-worth for so long.
Like Jaime, we slowly discovered who the man was underneath the Kingslayer bravado.
We don’t see him struggle with this internal battle, continuing Jaime’s long-standing inner-conflict between the man he wants to be, the Kingslayer the realm has long believed he is and who he really is. Instead, we got a long, unnecessary and unrewarding final battle between him and Euron, the steampunk pirate bedding Cersei, before he finally reunited with his twin sister and true love, with the couple ultimately dying in am embrace as the world crumbles atop them, fulfilling the line Jaime told Bronn (Jeremy Flynn) about wanting to die in the arms of the woman he loves. Full-circle? Sure. Satisfying? Meh.
“Trying to connect the dots between the scenes was a little complicated because you invest so much time, so many years in these characters, so when suddenly you find out that Jaime comes back and his son has committed suicide,” Coster-Waldau said. “There’s so many things that obviously you can’t go through, on-screen, all of these moments, but you have to still walk through them in your mind, if you’re an actor, at least talk about them. There was a lot of those connecting the dots throughout.”
The off-screen connecting of dots is a double-edged sword in the TV world: While viewers want to see character learn new revelations and react accordingly, there’s only so ways to share information the audience already knows without it starting to sound like a Wikipedia entry or an exposition dump that wastes precious minutes of what little time the show has left.
It’s a task writer and co-executive producer Bryan Cogman, who penned season eight’s second episode (the most celebrated of the final season episodes), “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” which featured a lot of characters reuniting after years apart and many highly anticipated moments fans had been looking forward to for quite some time.
“This was the most difficult script of the 11 I’ve written for Game of Thrones,” he told Entertainment Weekly of writing the episode, which he compared to penning a play. “The big challenge was not writing a Wikipedia page. In fact, my first draft was a Wikipedia page. The way it works is the showrunners return a Final Draft document with notes written in red in the margins. They returned my first script with a sea of red.”
The hour proved to be a necessary respite from the breakneck pace and epic battle scenes that Game of Thrones seemed to have preferred since passing the books, and it was a welcome break for Cogman especially heading into the CGI-filled carnage that was to follow.
“There was such a breakneck pace to season seven that I was delighted when the [showrunners] proposed an episode of just spending time with characters in this space,” he said.
And yet, despite the character-driven episode, so many major moments—including one the entire story has centered on—have happened off-screen. How did Arya and Sansa react when they learned Jon’s true identity? Your guess is as good as ours. So Euron just knew where Missandei was going to be after his fleet destroyed their ships and that she happened to be one of Dany’s most trusted friends and advisers? Sure! Did you know that Arya had to strike that fatal blow to the Night King in that exact spot to truly kill him? You wouldn’t unless you watched Weiss and Benioff’s “Inside the Episode” featurette after your Xanax kicked in following the battle of Winterfell.
For a show that used to happily live in the delicious tension between characters attempting to read each other as information proved to be the ultimate weapon, Game of Thrones‘ new strategy of kill first, don’t even bother offering explanations or answers to anything has angered many viewers, none more so than the handling of the end of the Night King’s storyline and Daenerys ultimately becoming the Queen of Ashes.
Let’s start with the Night King, who was a creation of the show and has been teased to be the ultimate big bad of the story since the very first scene of the show. His shadow has loomed over the political machinations of the characters for years, with most of the characters deciding to put their differences aside and unite to win the Great War, minus Cersei because…duh.
So expectations going into episode’s three massive battle were higher than the Wall the Night King brought down in the season seven finale. Winter wasn’t coming; it was here, and fans were poised to said goodbye to many beloved characters and possibly see the gang take a serious “L” as the Night King seemed to be unbeatable.
But by the end of the 82-minute episode, the Night King was taken out with a single blow. A. Single. Blow. While we have no issues with who wielded the dagger (Arya becoming the unlikely Kingslayer was an inspired and fitting narrative choice), we take issue with how it went down. All of this build up for…that? For the first time in pop culture history, we were hoping for that ridiculous moment where the villain holds off on killing the hero to give us their entire backstory and provide answers.
We got nada. So eight seasons of build-up and mythology was dealt with, with the show ready to wash its hands of its fantasy elements completely, an especially maddening choice when we’ve been lead to believe that Bran was going to be an integral part of the story, not just a plot device to lure the Night King. (Also, remember when prophecies were supposed to matter?)
Another crucial misstep made by the showrunners was their pimping out of “The Long Night,” which they teased would feature the battle sequence to end all battle sequences. (OK, we’ll admit, the media played a large part in this, too, hyping episode three like our jobs depended on it. Which they sort of did, so forgive us our sins.)
When the PR blitz for the final season first began, the big focus was on how the battle sequence in episode three was going to be something that has never been done on television before, even bigger than the iconic 40-minute long sequence in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, their inspiration and benchmark. GOT‘s version? Basically double that sequence, with 82-minutes of all-out war helmed by Miguel Sapochnik, the award-winning director responsible for “Battle of the Bastards” and “Hardhomme.”
750 people working on the episode. 55 consecutive nights. 11 weeks. Three locations.
“What we have asked the production team and crew to do this year truly has never been done in television or in a movie,” Cogman told EW. “This final face-off between the Army of the Dead and the army of the living is completely unprecedented and relentless and a mixture of genres even within the battle. There are sequences built within sequences built within sequences. It’s been exhausting but I think it will blow everybody away.”
With this kind of hype and hyperbole, the pressure was on for GOT to deliver. And it did. Sort of.
The episode, the longest in GOT‘s history, was intense and high-pressure, never getting the audience a chance to settle in. That is if they could see what was happening on-screen.
As “The Long Night” was airing, many viewers complained on social media that they couldn’t see anything happening as it was just too dark. While some think it added to the horror and felt in-line with how the characters likely felt during the chaotic battle, others were just annoyed. Either way, it’s a valid and fair criticism, especially when HBO is subscription based.
For cinematographer Fabian Wagner, the man responsible for lighting the episode, this was a non-issue. “I know it wasn’t too dark because I shot it,” he simple told TMZ.
“A lot of the problem is that a lot of people don’t know how to tune their TVs properly,” Wagner later told Wired in an interview. “A lot of people also unfortunately watch it on small iPads, which in no way can do justice to a show like that anyway.”
“Game of Thrones is a cinematic show and therefore you have to watch it like you’re at a cinema: in a darkened room,” he continued. “If you watch a night scene in a brightly-lit room then that won’t help you see the image properly.”
And besides, it wasn’t about the deaths (mostly secondary characters) or destruction, even if we’d been lead to believe that it what this episode was supposed to be about.
“Personally I don’t have to always see what’s going on because it’s more about the emotional impact,” said Wagner.
Here’s the problem with that: they keep telling us that, but not really showing it.
The final season seems to be almost all spectacle, intentionally so. Just look at what Benioff told EW of their initial pitch to HBO for Game of Thrones, how they sort of used the relationships as a Trojan Horse to sneak in their plans for the epic battles to come down the kingsroad.
“The lie we told is the show is contained and it’s about the characters,” he said. “The worlds get so big, the battles get so massive.”
So massive that HBO would eventually increase their already staggering $5 million (per episode) budget to more than $15 million an episode for the final season. And they were willing to spend even more on Game of Thrones, one of their most commercially and critically successful series ever. (It averaged 30 million viewers per episode and has a record number of Emmy wins, not to mention the global merchandising market.)
“[HBO] said, ‘We’ll give you the resources to make this what it needs to be,'” Weiss told EW, Benioff added, “HBO would have been happy for the show to keep going, to have more episodes in the final season.”
It was Benioff and Weiss’ decision to end the series, and to do so with two shortened final seasons, even with HBO offering them anything they wanted, which makes their choice to give themselves such a small amount of time to bring such a massive and epic story to a close in a way that respects the characters and its dedicated audience all the more frustrating.
“We always believed it was about 73 hours, and it will be roughly that,” Benioff said of their decision. (They also once envisioned a two-hour wrap-up movie that would have a theatrical run, which in hindsight, was a very good call for HBO to nix.)
Given how successful Game of Thrones is, possibly the most successful TV series of all-time, it makes sense Benioff and Weiss, who learned the broad strokes of Martin’s intended ending back in season four, would want to go out on a high note, not a whimper like so many once-beloved series before it.
“We want to stop where we—the people working on it, and the people watching it—both wish it went a little bit longer,” Benioff explained. “There’s the old adage of ‘Always leave them wanting more,’ But also things start to fall apart when you stop wanting to be there. You don’t want to f–k it up.”
Of course, they did sort of f–ki it up, largely because of the limited amount of time to get their massive laundry-list of s–t done in a realistic way that doesn’t undo or ret-con eight seasons worth of their iconic characters’ journeys, decisions and motivations. (Remember when Tyrion was the savviest and smartest person in the game? Those were the days.)
While there’s been many storytelling casualties in this truncated approach to the series’ end, there’s been no greater victim that Daenerys Targaryen, with the Mother of Dragons actively choosing to murder thousands of innocent people in “The Bells,” despite the fact that the city and its troops had surrendered. Like Usher, Dany and Drogon chose to let it burn, going on a complete rampage that devastated the city she once vowed to save (never mind that the only part of King’s Landing she chooses not to bring fire down upon is the Red Keep, where her ultimate target Cersei was hanging out, ripe for a long-awaited confrontation).
A lot of people, including those who’ve named pets and even children after Dany after her many badass moments over the series, were upset over this turn for their chosen queen.
The thing is the seeds for this eventual turn by Dany to embrace her House’s words “Fire and Blood” and succumb to the long-standing belief that all Targaryens have the potential to go mad with power (Shout out to her dad, King Aerys II Targaryen aka the Mad King) have been planted, so it wasn’t a total shock that she went the Mad Queen root. Again, like with the Night King, it’s not what they chose to do but how they chose to do it.
After watching Dany fight tooth and nail for the weak and innocent throughout the series run (even showing off her affinity for somewhat alarming vengeance in just straight-up burning her enemies), her transition from the Mother of Dragon to the Queen of the Ashes happened so quick it felt like we had whiplash; it also didn’t feel earned, nor did the sudden distrust of Dany by her advisers and other characters after they championed her for seasons.
Yes, she’s made questionable and eyebrow raising decisions (murdering Lord Tarly and Dickon Tarly was not a good look), but she’s also saved their asses. Without Dany, her dragons and her loyal army made up of the Dothraki and Unsullied, the North would’ve been massacred by the Army of the Undead. No questions asked.
While it would make sense that the loss of two of her most beloved and trusted advisers, Jorah (Iain Glen) and Missandei, along with one of her dragons (RIP Rhaegal), combined with the betrayals of Jon, Tyrion and Varys would no doubt lead to Dany’s emotional stability being tested, the character we’ve watched evolve over eight seasons would not just murder thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of innocent people because she was having a bad day. She just wouldn’t. (The choice to not show a close-up of Dany at all once she decides to ignore the bells and give into her rage was a baffling choice as well, though Clarke did extremely compelling work in the short scene in which she chooses revenge over mercy.)
She went from complicated hero to cardboard cut-out villain in an instant, and she deserved better—so did the viewers. We wanted her descent into madness to feel earned, not rushed and cheap, actually lessing the impact of her death at the hand of her love, nephew and possible usurper, Jon Snow.
Imagine if we had an entire season of watching Daenerys actually rule, discovering that her dream of the Iron Throne may not have been all it was cracked up to be, slowly giving in to her paranoia and fury.
The explanation offered by Benioff and Weiss for Dany’s decision during the “Inside the Episode” featurette following “The Bells” was frustrating, to say the least. (Never forget when they reasoned that Rhaegal died because Dany “kind of forgot” about Euron and the Iron Fleet!)
“There is something chilling about the way Dany has responded to the death of her enemies,” Benioff said, citing her reaction to her brother Viserys’ death in season one.
Of the crucial moment Dany chooses violence, Weiss explained, “I don’t think she decided ahead of time that she was going to do what she did. And then she sees the Red Keep, which to her is the home that her family built when they first came over to this country 300 years ago. It’s in that moment…when she’s looking at that symbol of everything that was taken from her when she makes the decision to make this personal.”
And that is why Daeneyrs decided to ruin everything she had been working toward her entire life, because she saw the Red Keep, which again, she didn’t just attack to take out Cersei, instead of destroying the entire city. Instead, the show has now given the rest of the characters all the validation they needed to turn on her, making her downright evil and unworthy of being a ruler without the one redeeming quality a woman seemingly needs to still inspire some level of loyalty or shred of hope: being a mother, which brings us to Cersei.
As portrayed by the extraordinary Headey, Cersei has always been one of the most complicated, complex and ruthlessly strategic characters on the show, willing to do whatever it takes to stay in power. This is a woman who literally blew up the Great Sept of Baelor, much to her delight as almost every member of House Tyrell died (Justice for Olenna and Margaery) along with many civilians.
If Dany is the Mother of Dragons, Cersei is the Mother of Monsters, well at least one, as she’s directly responsible for the human atrocity that was King Joffrey (Gone too late). She’s also threatened to kill basically everyone on the show—including her younger brother Tyrion, who has somehow become her greatest champion and defender?!—and Cersei is not a woman in the business of making idle threats.
And yet throughout the final season, the common refrain has been Cersei still can be redeemed and/or trusted because she’s pregnant, and if there’s one thing to know about Cersei it’s that she loves her children.
Quick recap: All three of Cersei’s children are dead because of her: 1. Joffrey just sucked and she did nothing to tame him. 2. Her daughter Myrcella was murdered as an act of revenge against Cersei. 3. Tommen poor, sweet Tommen, committed suicide after her saw what his mother had done to the Sept.
Still, the show has replaced all of Cersei’s defining characteristics—ruthless convictions and cunning gameplay—with the fact that she’s a mother. They didn’t help matters by keeping her framed in a tower window all season, flanked by characters straight out of a late-in-the-episode Saturday Night Live sketch: a mute monster (The Mountain), a mad scientist (Qyburn) and the steampunk pirate paramour whose name must not be mentioned. When you look back, Cersei really didn’t do anything all season; making her a passive bystander in her own life.
If “The Bells” taught us anything it’s just women are just too emotional to rule, even if they are making moves—controversial as they may be—that men in this cutthroat world have made for thousands of years.
Add in the fan outrage over Ser Brienne of Tarth being reduced to crying in a bathrobe after Jaime leaves her just after she was finally (and deservedly) knighted (not to mention that her final solo scene of the series was documenting Jaime’s merits!) and Missandei, the one woman of color on the show, ultimately serving as a device to move the plot forward, and it’s not surprising that many viewers feel that the female representation on the show is lacking.
But the biggest issue came in episode two, when Sansa’s rape, which caused possibly the show’s biggest controversy when it aired in 2015, was brought up again during her reunion with the Hound.
Jessica Chastain, Turner’s Dark Phoenix co-star, took to Twitter after the episode aired to slam the scene which Sansa inferred the horrors she has endured over the course of the series, including the Ramsay Bolton assault, had turned her into a stronger person.
“Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger. A woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly,” Chastain tweeted. “The #littlebird was always a Phoenix. Her prevailing strength is solely because of her. And her alone.”
Chastain was far from the only person to call out the show for this exchange, with fans and critics alike blasting the scene.
After the rape scene aired in season five, Weiss and Benioff defended their decision to include it in the show in an interview with Time.
“It’s still the same basic power dynamic between men and women in this medieval world,” Benioff said. “This is what we believed was going to happen.”
It is a medieval world, but it’s also the biggest TV show in the world airing in 2019; you should know better.
The criticism of the way the female characters storylines are playing out on screen could very well be because of the lack of female voices behind the scenes. Benioff and Weiss have written a majority of the series’ episodes, with the list of directors is equally as small and mostly male.
Just over five percent of GOT‘s 73 episodes were female-directed, and it was the same director, Breaking Bad‘s Michelle MacLaren, who directed two episodes in seasons three and four. Similarly, just a few women have written on the show, with celebrated writer Jane Espenson (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once Upon a Time and Battlestar Galactica, to name a few) receiving a sole teleplay credit for a season one episode, and said in 2011 that she “loved loved loved” her experience working on the show She added she would do another episode “in an instant” if asked to return.
For its final season, Weiss and Benioff’s assistant Gursimran Sandhu was promoted to staff writer, while Vanessa Taylor was the show’s sole female producer when she worked on the show in 2012-13, also writing a few episodes during that time. Maybe if Espenson or Taylor came back around they could’ve noted it’s not a good look to say that the two powerful women who actually want the Iron Throne are just too damn emotionally unstable to rule, and that a white man who didn’t want power truly deserved to be king, with another white dude who didn’t want the position ultimately becoming king in the end.
In an e-mail interview ahead of the series finale, Benioff and Weiss, who directed the series finale, admitted they avoid social media.
“It’s gratifying to have people care enough about what you’re doing to feel like they need to comment on it in real time,” Weiss and Benioff, who are set to head over to the Star Wars franchise, told Rolling Stone. “Social media has been central to the way the show has been watched by many people. That said, we don’t engage with it all that much, mainly because of the time and energy required to do so. The show itself is a full-time job and then some. We’ll make the best show we know how to make, and we’ll hope that people like it. Knowing full well they won’t be shy about it if they don’t.”
No, no they were not. But sometimes it’s worth it to read your feed.
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