With the finale of the phenomenon that is Game of Thrones now aired, Gary Raymond looks at its impact, and at what it could mean for the art of storytelling.
This article contains spoilers.
When I was a kid, my mother used to say that I hated missing out on anything. She’d say it whenever I was hopelessly renegotiating my bedtime, or when I was hopping up and down on one leg desperate for the loo, refusing to go because I was in the middle of a game. I wasn’t exactly a child who had to be the centre of attention, but I had to be involved. Thirty-odd years later and to a certain extent I haven’t changed all that much. Eight years ago I watched the first season of Game of Thrones, probably illicitly streamed via some Iranian website, fighting off pop-ups like I was wielding a Valyrian sword. The climax to the penultimate episode of that season is now legendary, and it was that moment, despite the quality of intrigue, violence and world-building leading up to it, that made me sit up and re-evaluate this above-par fantasy epic as something that could change television. Nigh on a decade later, and has it done that? Maybe. It has certainly contributed to the medium’s Golden Age, and has its rightful place at the high table alongside The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire.
I gave up on it at the end of Season Two, though. If Season One had subverted expectations by offing its hero, the following instalment had taken ten hours to move all the characters around the board and put them exactly back where they had begun. I felt cheated. I was, after all, a child of the Hollywood version of the narrative arc. By the end of the story, things must have changed. They had not.
But I lingered, unable to allow myself to truly miss out on anything, stalking on the fringes of Game of Thrones as popular culture. I marvelled from those fringes, like a ghost at the banquet, as social media had a breakdown on the evening of the Red Wedding. I watched the grief of twitter when Jon Snow was double-crossed, and then nodded in admiration as the show had the balls to bring him back from the dead. And, much later, I was sucked back in by the sheer scale of the Battle of Winterfell as seen through the visor of online awe. That’s when it became too much. And so House Raymond went back to the start of Season Three, and in a mammoth stint that would put hairs on the chest of any mere mortal, I caught up in time to watch the finale in-step with the rest of the world (give or take the odd 24 hour trans-national discrepancy). And now it’s done.
What has Game of Thrones achieved, and how will it be viewed when the dust settles? Well, it may take some time before the air clears, because few shows have a fanbase as passionate. For nearly half a million of them, the eighth and final season has been so disappointing that they’ve petitioned to have it remade. Other fans have been pleased with it. The noise, though, could almost drown out the sacking of King’s Landing. And all for a show whose global audience figures would have had the producers of the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials reaching for the Hemlock. And yet still, the defining debate of the end of this epic and worthy extravaganza is being dominated by naysayers.
From the beginning, Game of Thrones has subverted the expectations of its audience, and it has done things that have stuck two fingers up to the gods of “giving the people what they want”. It is arguably the main reason why it has been so successful, because little in it has been predictable, little of it has followed the tropes of heroic fiction. Noble heartthrobs were dispatched with brutal insouciance; unbearable evildoers went on and on and on doing their evil; narrative arcs of entire seasons left everyone back where they started. In fact, there was a danger that its unpredictability would become just as predictable, and that reach to pull the rug from under the feet of its audience would be something so easily expected as to become boring. So how could a show that built its fanbase on the subversion of expectations have its cake and eat it, giving the fans exactly what they wanted, (that is, exactly what they didn’t foresee). For series creators D.B. Wiess and David Benioff, that would have been new territory for any producers. Ultimately, what they did with that pressure was deliver a subtle, subdued, somewhat downbeat, and wholly fitting finale. What they didn’t do was have their cake and eat it.
What Game of Thrones has done is attempt to change the tired journeys of heroes, and give more meaning to the evil of their foes, to offer more complex characters, to bring audiences back to the horror of violence and war. It is a show about storytelling, and George R.R. Martin has attempted to reboot the artform itself.
So, okay, Season Eight has its faults. Many could have been solved by just slowing down the story. If Daenerys’s downfall felt unreasonable to some, a few more scenes of intelligent character development may have just clarified that this ending was inevitable given the tragedies she suffered in the final stages of her march to the Iron Throne. If the fate of Jon Snow felt underwhelming, then perhaps more could have been done to highlight the contrasts between his journey and that of his kin. Personally, I could not help but be reminded of just how satisfying that final episode of the magnificent Battlestar Galactica reboot is, and how perhaps – and sorry if it sounds a tad mawkish – having GoT end with the birth of democracy in Westeros would have made the whole seventy three episodes mean something more than its story. I also have nothing but sympathy for those who have lived and breathed this show for eight years and feel that getting lumbered with Bran the Bore as the saviour.
But the rule of a critic is to review only what you have, not what you wish you had. And Game of Thrones, even with a rushed ending, has been worth it.