Roundtable: Game of Thrones Part 1 - The Final Season

Winter has come and gone as Game of Thrones aired its final episode on May 19, bringing to a close the wildly-popular fantasy series with one of the most controversial finales in television history. As we’ve followed the show over the years, and are all admirers to varying degrees, we thought to discuss the final season of Game of Thrones and the bold creative choices on display throughout. Considering that this is a discussion of the final season, with reference to the entire series in general, expect spoilers throughout.

A Truncated Season

Anton: Another major drama of the Golden Age of Television has drawn to a close, and people are once again debating the merits of a final season and the effectiveness of an ending. I think it’s important to bear in mind that this happened with The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, etc., albeit, to lesser degrees. I mean, people online are incensed! But I don’t think we want to spend our time simply echoing those eruptions or throwing out contrarian quick-takes to dampen the fires.

Let’s be charitable. The open production and indefinite structure of seasonal TV, written without a set number of total episodes and, at best, only glimmers or intuitions of the ending, makes it difficult to conclude. Likewise, because there are so many hours in a TV show’s run, the time commitment can breed very close audience identification, which means that people are very attached to their understanding of the characters and the story. It’s a difficult format for endings.

Anders: Absolutely. Just like the comic book, television is structurally opposed to closure. It’s against its very reason for being.

Anton: That said, I think everyone agrees that season seven and season eight both felt rushed.

Aren: Without a doubt. I’d say it’s the primary thing holding these seasons back from being on the level of many of the others.

Reports vary on whose fault it is for the six-episode final season. HBO has said that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss both chose to shorten the season themselves. However, we have to consider that season seven and season eight kind of act as two-halves of a season. As well, note that prestige networks love to break final seasons up into two batches to create an extended marketing blitz, going all the way back to The Sopranos, and additionally Mad Men and Breaking Bad (both AMC shows, to be clear). So I don’t think the network itself is blameless.

Anders: It’s also similar to the splitting we saw with the Harry Potter films, as Book Seven was split in two, or staying with the fantasy genre, Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptations and elaborations.

Aren: Furthermore, the show is enormously expensive. People that shrug off the costs of television don’t really understand how Game of Thrones has obliterated any records in terms of television show costs. For instance, while Netflix paid $10 million per episode of The Crown and $8 million per episode of Stranger Things, Game of Thrones has averaged $10 million per episode since season six, and for the final season, the per episode cost rose over $15 million, with at least $90 million committed to the shortened season, and that’s only estimates. I’d wager that “The Long Night” was considerably more expensive. It’s the biggest show ever, on the screen and behind the scenes.

Anders: Yes, the ballooning costs, and people’s outsized reactions to the finale, just go to further show how television audience expectations have been transformed by Game of Thrones, confirming my belief that it deserves its place on our list of great television shows of the last two decades.

Anton: I would agree, even if I have reservations about the ending. It doesn’t “ruin” the show. I’m not confident any of the seasons are perfect, but it’s definitely a significant and great show.

Aren: With the exception of a couple seasons of Mad Men, the first seasons of Lost and Twin Peaks, and the entirety of The Prisoner, I’d say that very few television seasons are ever perfect.

Anders: And there is a link between cost and reception: for one thing, the cost is about providing maximum visual spectacle. Which this season does in spades.

Aren: I think people have a weird relationship to the spectacle in the show, because however much they love to gush about episodes like “Blackwater” and “Hardhome,” they seem to think that the spectacle is a distraction from the “real” show, instead of an essential component in itself.

Anders: Absolutely. It’s a critical misperception to put spectacle and narrative in that kind of hierarchical relationship. In this sense, we see television criticism and studies following the trajectory of film criticism and cinema studies previously. It was Tom Gunning who articulated the concept of the “cinema of attractions,” which identifies narrative as a later development in cinematic structure in the early twentieth century and challenged the conception that spectacle was somehow less sophisticated, or opposed to narrative development in some essential way. The domination of television by narrative in recent years likewise obscures the way that “events” have played a significant role in the history of television.

Perhaps the significant contribution of Game of Thrones is to return a sense of attraction and “event” to television, but along the lines of how the development of special visual effects in blockbuster cinema returned, in the late 70s and early 80s, to the “attraction” of early cinema. It also fits with how Game of Thrones has been one of the few shows in an era of streaming, digital video recording (PVRs), and binge watching, in which Sunday night became an event where people would gather and want to watch it as close to the moment as possible; more akin to a sporting event or live television.

Anton: Yes. And the whole “team” approach, with websites recapping episodes like a sports game for the Iron Throne adds to that event quality.

Aren: Back to the pacing, regardless of placing blame, the shortened nature of the season was a problem. If both season seven and season eight had been full-length, I don’t think we would have experienced the same fan backlash that occurred with Daenerys’ pivot to villain, because we would’ve had more time to develop it. But the actual destination is a fitting ending for this show. I think people who disagree were watching a different show than me.

Anton: I think when I compare the shortened seasons to the other seasons, their truncated quality bothers me more. D&D were wasting time with Ramsay torturing and mind-fucking people for episodes on end, and Daenerys and her counsellors sat and talked in various tents and cities for what seemed like ages across the ocean, and then everything moves so quickly once Daenerys heads to Westeros.

Aren: It’s true. In hindsight, they shouldn’t have wasted so much time in Dorne or Qarth or the Dreadfort if they weren’t going to give us extended sequences of Daenerys’ conquest.

Anton: And that’s why the whole thing feels a bit unplanned, even if I think the final destination was the basic idea all along.

Anders: But the final season also had to deliver the spectacle of shock and the undermining of narrative expectations—there had to be a twist of some kind. Having Daenerys be the clear-cut hero, which so many fans would seem to have desired—

Aren: To be clear, you mean yourself, as I remember you and your wife stanning for Daenerys as the true ruler in seasons’ past.

Anders: Oh most definitely. The nature of the show was to encourage side-taking and develop rooting interests, and I still harbour pro-Daenerys feelings—a beautiful woman with a dragon is a pretty pure power fantasy—just as you still bend the knee to Stannis.

Aren: The one true king.

Anders: But in the end, I recognize that would have been an affirmation of fantasy that would have been a betrayal of the show and its driving philosophies.

Daenerys, the Mad Queen

Aren: The show ended by making one of its core heroes a villain, or at least, capable of extremely villainous actions. I don’t really want to do more than acknowledge the negative fan reaction to this. It exists. The so-called fans of the show are crybabies, and most of this boils down to people not getting what they wanted, which isn’t actually criticism but entitlement.

Anton: Well, it’s a rejection of one specific way of reading texts, but one which I happen to think is the most important for critics: What is the TV show or film or book trying to do, and did it achieve it? Whether I like what it was trying to do is another question. In essence, the problem is viewing TV as merely a consumer product meant to give you something.

Aren: Let’s talk about the actual transition, because it’s buried within the series as a whole. A key aspect of the books is the POV nature of each chapter. It’s third-person but we get glimpses into each person’s head because of the extremely-limited third-person POV. The show is looser, but still aligned with various POVs. It just has more of them than the book does, and in Daenerys’ plotline throughout the show, she or Jorah, and later Tyrion, are the main vantages to view her, and they all view her as a hero. She thinks she’s justified at every step of the way, and often she is defeating bad people, but her actions, when seen from a dispassionate viewpoint, can be pretty horrifying.

Anders: Absolutely. If there is a serious political critique in the show, beyond a merely anarchic deconstruction of fantasy tropes—which is overstated because it still requires the tropes to function—it’s a critique of power. It’s summed up when Tyrion talks to Jon in the final episode. Wherever Daenerys went, evil men died. So did a lot of other folks. If one is convinced enough of one’s goodness, you can justify anything.

Anton: I think her introduction in season 1 is part of the reason some viewers have had a hard time seeing her become a tyrannical conqueror. We meet her as a naive young girl and a victim of great cruelty, and we want to see her triumph. We want to see her arc from abused child to victorious liberator and queen. However, we can’t overlook what she has already done and justified throughout the show. She crucified all the slave owners, for example.

Aren: But the show constantly confounded our expectations of characters, and our simple categorization of them as heroes or villains. For instance, season one starts with Cersei and Jaime as outright villains. Jaime tries to kill Bran in the first episode. But even within the first season, they are humanized, and as the series progresses, we understand them more as human beings. Cersei remains a villain in terms of plot, but she has a fleshed out character and Jaime is a very complicated person who leans towards being more good than bad, although with a massive character flaw.

Anton: Poor Cersei doesn’t get much to do but drink wine on a balcony. But I agree that she’s complex, particularly in the middle seasons.

Aren: As for Daenerys, she is not entirely evil; far from it, actually. She starts an an out-and-out hero, and a victimized girl, as Anton points out, therefore we assume innocence. But by the end, she’s not innocent at all, and something approaching a tyrant, even if she’s never a two-dimensional villain. But she believes that whatever she determines to be right is right, which will ultimately end in ruin. (Which is why it’s key that the show spends so much time with Stannis Baratheon in seasons two through five. He is another character convinced of his righteousness through divine right, but he does terrible things because of it, like burning his daughter. That he ends in ruin should have cued us to how Daenerys’ plot would end.)

Anders: I’ll grant that Daenerys is meant to be a hero of some kind, but the POV of the books and to the limited extent the show does the same thing, as you persuasively argue above, does a lot to conceal something that on the surface would be more obvious, or more obvious in retrospect. It’s that her entire claim to the throne is built on conquest, domination, and the inheritance of a brutal dynastic legacy.

From the start Dany never questions whether her claim to the Iron Throne is even legitimate. Of course, no one questions legitimacy of monarchical dynasty in the entire show! Stannis’s claim to Robert’s throne is likewise built on the assumption that Robert’s rebellion was a legitimate action in overthrowing Aerys. It seems to me the show ended in a way that at least recognized that the quest to sit on the Iron Throne was never going to fundamentally “break the wheel.” Even having Jon win in the end was not going to solve it.

Anton: I think the ending, thematically, works brilliantly in two ways. First, Daenerys becomes a great example of the revolutionary utopian, because the perfect world is always just across a sea of blood. I think what might bother some people is that Daenerys really does, even at the end, have some good ideas about how things should be—she wants to destroys systems of slavery, she wants to overturn unjust ruling classes, she frequently voices frustration with the patriarchal assumptions of her world—but she doesn’t see that her means to achieve the desired end matter just as much as her end goal. There’s a revolutionary aspect to her character and vision for the world, even a progressive aspect, albeit a fanatical version of progressivism that is absolutely convinced of its own righteousness. She is willing to do anything to make a more just world, and confident that she is right because history is on her side, after all.

Secondly, the ending reveals the nature of the wheel. The wheel isn’t merely the external systems of ordering people and society. It’s the motivations and desires that drive human behaviour. She becomes part of the wheel, acting just like all the other kings Varys described, all assured of their destiny and purpose, willing to use total force to achieve her “just” goals. Tolkien makes the symbol tangible, in the form of the ring, which holds a literal power to corrupt. The show has the tangible symbol of the Iron Throne, which exerts a corrupting power over all who seek it. And in the end it’s melted. So is the wheel broken?

It might not be satisfactory in every way, but I thought the Daenerys turn worked.  


Confounding Heroic Conventions

Anton: Just as the show recognizes the drive to power within most people, it also has a cynical view of other, typically celebrated, human motivations. And this is closely tied to the unsettling of narrative and character tropes throughout the series.

For instance, Jaime and Cersei are interesting because emotions we typically celebrate motivate their evil: romantic love; love between mother and child.

Aren: You rightly point out that what is good in our conceptions of most stories is bad in Game of Thrones. Motherhood is usually good, but here’s it’s evil, personified by Cersei, who will do anything for her children, even start wars and murder people. Romantic love is always earnest, even if it’s misguided, but here it’s destructive, with Jaime sacrificing redemption and going back to bad old habits because of his romantic love for his sister. It’s fitting that one of the most committed relationships in the show is incestuous. It bears out the thematic approach to romance in general. And the notion of the liberator is shown to be no more than conqueror. Daenerys thinks she is the noble liberator of Westeros, but she torches a city of thousands of innocents in pursuit of liberation. If we look through history, we see many people who thought they were liberators doing awful things, and history either writes over the atrocity or doesn’t, depending on the perspective.

Anders: Absolutely.

I think it’s important that in “The Bells” the destruction of King’s Landing is essentially a nuclear holocaust or at least firebombing. Because the logic of America in World War II in firebombing Germany and Japan and using nuclear weapons against Japan is the same: sure women and children will die, but we’re the good guys and more people will die if we don’t. So, we are uniquely positioned to do the moral calculus and justify this horror. It should make anyone take pause and think about the fact that one can be both on the right side of a conflict and commit horrors.


Lessons of History

Aren: In addition to your nuclear references, which are absolutely there, the siege of King’s Landing in “The Bells” draws on lots of other history, from the Siege of Jerusalem to the Sack of Rome to William the Conqueror’s invasion of Britain. There’s even some Pompeii imagery thrown in for good measure.

Anton: Yes, particularly in the scenes in the streets of King’s Landing, I was thinking about the fury of war that can wash over participants, and you just go into a killing frenzy. I think Daenerys’ actions also have to be placed in that context—not justified, but explained—as her best friend being executed, her beloved dragon-child being killed, her sheer anger at Cersei’s human shields, etc. In the midst of battle, people can make terrible decisions, or rather not decisions, but impulsive actions that have immense consequences.

Anders: Good point. It’s the idea that war robs us of our reason and turns us into animals.

Anton: So, what Daenerys does is terrible and can be used to judge her likely future, as Varys and then Tyrion do, but it’s also a decision made in the heat of battle and not a cold calculation justified by the outcome, such as the Allied bombing of Japan and Germany.

Aren: That’s true. That’s why it’s more like when the Franks took Jerusalem and ended up killing every man, woman, and child they found in the city, Arab or Jew, with no distinction. That wasn’t a calculated decision, but instead the bloodlust of warriors spilling over into an uncontainable monstrosity.


The Anti-Climax of “The Long Night”

Anders: We’ve spent a lot of time unpacking the final two episodes, “The Bells” and “The Iron Throne,” and the actions of Daenerys, but what about the Battle of Winterfell and the Night King? Was the wrapping up of that storyline satisfying? Ultimately, it went to show that an external threat is not enough to hold together the competing interests of those in thrall to power. Cersei never sends her army. Once the Night King is killed, they return to their squabbles. It’s a critique in many ways of a very specific, Straussian neoconservative foreign policy that has guided America in the post-9/11 era (possibly related to George R.R. Martin writing a bulk of the story during the Bush-era War on Terror), of needing an external enemy to hold society together (in their case, “Death,” in the neocon parlance, the “clash of civilizations”). This in turn goes back to the kind of Platonic “noble lie,” of course in this case the lie isn’t a lie but a legitimate threat; nonetheless it fails.

Anton: I think the neocons made that idea explicit in the policy, but it’s a pretty timeworn idea too. And it doesn’t really hold the society together in the show, not all of it at least, and not for very long. I think that’s an interesting reading, though, that the lack of a lasting impact of that victory over the White Walkers isn’t enough. That the real focus is, and always has been, on the Game of Thrones.

Aren: I also read people pointing out that it works as a critique of leftist assumptions about how humanity should approach climate change, as the Night King and his undead army are the harbingers of an eternal winter, which has obvious environmental connotations. The critique here is that assuming that people should all band together to tackle a common ailment such as climate change is as naive as thinking that all peoples in Westeros should band together to defeat the Night King. It can never wash away all the disagreements that exist before the external threat arose, so it’s doomed from the get-go.

Anders: It’s also reminiscent of Ozymandias’s plan in Watchmen.

Anton: What bugs me is that that wasn’t how I was reading it. Maybe I’m just too much a Tolkien man, but I always read the battle with the White Walkers as the real battle that needed to happen, and how the Game of Thrones was supposed to be a false contest in comparison.

So I wasn’t satisfied by how inconsequential the defeat of Death was. I mean, Arya should be a famous hero, but no one even goes crazy celebrating her after the battle. And we had seasons of people being like, no, the real battle is North.

In the end, to me, it’s an example of the show’s many interesting tendrils, only a few of which truly flower into a coherent work. The White Walker plot and the Iron Throne plot don’t seem to be properly resolved in the show, particularly in their relation/contrast to each other.

Anders: I ultimately agree that I don’t think the plots all came together in the way these episodes were structured and where they decided to put their focus. But there’s enough of a link between the White Walker plot and Bran, the Three-Eyed Raven, ending up on the throne that I suspect if George R.R. Martin ever gets around to finishing it, there could be more explicit links made of this, but at the moment I’m not quite sure what they might be. Perhaps for our discussion of the series as a whole.

But in terms of filmmaking, I know people criticized how dark the cinematography in that episode was, but it definitely had me.

Anton: I did find it too dark, but I also heard that the weather was a problem.

In any case, it wasn’t meant to be clear, or they would have shot those parts differently. I think they didn’t want a Peter Jackson night-is-all-clear-and-just-blue-effect. They wanted to capture the fear of not being able to see.

Aren: It’s a repeat of the approach in “Battle of the Bastards,” where war is hell and incomprehensible and terrifying. I agree that the darkness could be a little confusing, but I think the episode as a whole is terrific, not so much for the larger themes, which I agree with you, Anton, that they’re not entirely satisfying, but in terms of the filmmaking. “The Long Night” sustains an almost unfathomable amount of tension over 82 minutes. From the stunning moment where Melisandre lights all the Dothraki’s arakhs to the ending where Arya defeats the Night King, the tension just built and built. I can only think of some episodes of Breaking Bad that had me as uneasy with tension.

Also, despite people wanting several characters to die here, I found the deaths that did occur, namely Theon’s and Jorah’s, moving. These were characters I liked and their deaths were redemptive endings for their arcs.

Finale: There and Back Again

Aren: Back to the finale, there’s more than a touch of Tolkien in the ending, especially in Arya who sets out for new lands to the West, and Samwell Tarly, who was always a naked analogue of Samwise Gamgee, and who ends up with a book that tells the very story he inhabits.

Anders: Oh, yes, very Return of the King, especially Jackson’s adaptation. I’m not sure I like the whole A Song of Ice and Fire being a book in the show. It’s a bit on the nose. As is much of the post-Daenerys’s death material, including Tyrion’s TED talk on the power of stories.

Anton: I agree. Plus, I mean, who has a better story than Jon? I mean, come on. He died, and rose again. Bran didn’t do anything.

Aren: Yeah, Jon’s story really can’t be topped. The show never properly dealt with the consequences of his death and resurrection. Another example of it not having the time to properly satisfy all the hanging threads.

Anton: What do you guys think about the Bran is evil internet theory?

Aren: I thought it was kind of funny, because it’s true, that if you take a macro perspective of the show, and Bran’s knowledge of the events, the entire course of the series, and the final season, in particular, becomes Bran manipulating everyone into the exact positioning needed to make him the king. So I agree that Bran clearly had this as a plan, but I also think that it’s going too far to assume that Bran is evil because of this. It’s a bit more him fulfilling destiny. As well, Bran will likely be a peaceful king. The course of action that led to him winning the throne also leads to most of Westeros’ most vicious individuals being dispatched. His reign assures peace.

Anders: But, I think they offered each of the main characters, the Stark children, a satisfying conclusion. And each is a kind of king/queen of their own. Sansa, obviously. Bran in Westeros. Arya already rejected nobility in her rejection of Gendry. And I take the ending to be that Jon follows the wildlings to become King-Beyond-the-Wall. Who would have thought Mance Rayder would end up being one of the most reasonable political leaders in the series?

Anton: I hadn’t thought of that. I was just annoyed Jon wasn’t the king on the Iron Throne.

Aren: It’s true. Bran has Westeros, Sansa has the North, and Jon has Beyond-the-Wall. In the end, the Starks won everywhere.