Game of Thrones enamored us because it defied us. It enticed our engagement but refused to bend to our will. Week to week, season to season, it invited us to inspect its machinery closely, to try to see how the gears interlock, and to forecast the turning of its wheels. Daenerys said she would one day break the wheel. We watched with bated breath to see which wheel, on which turn, and which cogs of the machinery would be left intact?
This level of engagement is a rare species in the age of streaming platforms. Consider the colloquial verbiage: “binging.” It refers to mindless, uncontrollable consumption. When we binge-watch, we’re being force-fed content, eliding moments to ingest and contemplate what we are taking in for evermore autoplays of the next episode.
The weekly gaps between GOT episodes and the months-to-years that lagged between seasons infused the ritualized screentime of its devotees with fervency and anticipation. These waiting periods allowed us to take the imaginative reins of the storytelling for a week, or even a year, and progress the story with our own logic and desire. Podcasts, Youtube channels, fanfictions, and article after article on all the largest and smallest media websites dedicated themselves to nothing more than breaking down episodes and prognosticating what is possibly to come. Amidst this media storm, spoiler-hysteria was at a fever pitch for those not yet inducted into the sacred mysteries of the latest episode. To be in the know was to belong, to participate.
GOT was able to enjoy this robust off-screen life because the world it presented onscreen was so complete. Fantasy author George R. R. Martin charted the whole expanse of Westeros and beyond in his multi-volume epic, A Song of Ice and Fire. In translating and condensing his novels for the screen, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had a world rich with political intrigue and military strategy at their fingertips. But, most importantly, they had a world populated with characters who were as close to flesh and blood as any literary imagination could conceive.
These characters were smart, deadly, heroic, and flawed. They animated the landscape of GOT with insight and action, and they seemed natural to that world because they were not immune from it. The hermetic seal of a fictionalized world peels back when we see the writer’s pen at play or the audience’s desires appeased for the mere sake of appeasement. In these moments, staginess and fan service transport us from a believable place to a film set.
But, over and over again, GOT proved itself faithful to its fiction. When Ned Stark lost his head, audiences nearly lost their own. Where was the deus ex machina to pull him from the executioner’s block? What is a story without its main character? We learned early on that no character, regardless of screentime, was impervious to the bloody sport of Westerosi politics. And, so it went. The Red Wedding and the Sept of Baelor sated a bloodthirst that belonged to the characters, not the audience. Characters moved plot. Ambitions led to choices, and choices led to consequences. We could watch the chess pieces move, but often strategy and outcome were only a privilege of hindsight. The players above the board were unknowable. The chess pieces seemed possessed of independent spirit.
The outcry over the final season has been primarily targeted at the unmasking of the players, specifically writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. When the seams of plot defy the credulity of character, the handiwork of the craftsman is made plain. Narrative pivots occurred obtusely with blatant telegraphed intention. Set up usurped motivation. Characters acted, frankly, out of character in order to progress the story from plot point to plot point. Would Varys (Conleth Hill), the Master of Whisperers, the most clandestine of the clandestine, commit treason out in the open on a sandy shore, easily viewed by anyone from the cliffs above? Varys was robbed of his characteristic discretion for no reason other than to rob him of his life two scenes later.
The rushed dispatch of Varys is just one narrative shortcut amongst many this final season and not even the most egregious by a long shot. But, the purpose here is not to enumerate grievances. Scour your local Internet and you’ll find plenty of that to go around. But, there is no denying that the end of GOT has been decried as incredibly disappointing from all corners of its fanbase. From the haphazard way some character arcs were completed to the careless way others just fizzled out, these final two seasons of GOT left much to be desired.
The common refrain is that the sloppy finish was a product of the abridged ending, with only seven episodes in the prior season and a mere six in its final one. Others make it more personal, attacking Benioff and Weiss for not being skilled enough storytellers to conclude Martin’s saga without his books as a guide (Benioff’s and Weiss’ post-episode commentaries certainly didn’t win them many defenders).
With sore feelings in heavy supply, the final episode was not the balm many of us hoped it would be — not for our expectations and not for the writers’ reputations. We were given a dragon with a surprising penchant for metaphor; a prisoner who devises a unanimous new system of governance within a single speech while still chained; a murderous army commander who is able to just sail away with thousands of his men; a wordless reunion between Jon (Kit Harrington) and the most quotable personality on the show (thank god, Jon pet his dog at least); the crowning of the most emotionally distant character; and the revealing of Arya’s (Maisie Williams) hidden passion: cartography (who knew?). Perhaps, Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) warged into the dragon, but the episode didn’t want to waste time on anything so satisfying. That happened off-screen.
King’s Landing has been rebuilt. The small council has reconvened, and they are going to begin interviewing for a new Master of Whisperers and a new Master of War. A few spokes have changed, but the wheel seems far from broken. And this is where we leave our characters. Some right back where we found them, a few others where they should have always been, and others almost as if thrown to the wind to land where they may.
In many ways, we say goodbye not to the characters we’ve watched grow and have grown to love, but to shadows of their former selves, limping half-formed to their end of days. We said our goodbyes to the fully formed characters last season or perhaps even the season before that, before we even knew farewells were in order. In memoriam, many of us will try to erase the final hollow days of our heroes and villains and remember them as they were in their former glory.
For some fans, this final season deprived them of their mourning period, and it will perhaps not be the last desecration against these characters’ memory. A resurrection is assured. A prequel has already been greenlit by HBO. The new show will take place five thousand years before the original series, plenty of narrative real estate for an IP franchise. What is dead may never die.