Game of Thrones series 8 debate: Perfectly pitched or creative flop?

Game of Thrones: endgame. Photographs: HBO
Seamas O’Reilly and Ed Power argue the merits and demerits of the HBO drama whose final series has divided fans. Have the showrunners and writers thrown out the past for the sake of instant thrills in the rush to wrap up the epic saga? 

'It has betrayed us'

ED POWER: Dear Séamas – When magic superhero-assassin Arya Stark used to her Jedi powers to stab the Night King with her dragon-forged steel dagger in episode three of Game of Thrones’ final season, she did more than bump off the spiky-headed villain-in-chief. She also dealt a fatal blow to the show as we knew it.

Up to that point, HBO’s adaptation of the George RR Martin novels had been framed as an existential conflict between the forces of light and dark: the living the dead.

That was the backdrop against which Westeros’s pointless political squabbles had played out – a looming threat which underscored the pettiness of all the beheadings and backstabbings in the realm of men. In the face of ultimate, unknowable evil, nothing else mattered.

But suddenly, after years of build-up, Thrones was removing with unbecoming haste the only chess piece that actually counted. From that moment it was clear just how deeply showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss misunderstood the story they were telling and how unseemly a rush they were in to bring it over the line (before they go off to finish what Rian Johnson had started in ruining Star Wars).

The sequence was not only ill-conceived (how did Arya force-walk through a cordon of White Walkers?). It was also disrespectful towards the stress the books, and previous seasons, placed on the intertwined fates of Jon Snow and the Night King.

The prince that was promised became the plot-line that was chucked overboard. Azor Ahai? More like, Azor A-who?

The bad news was that arch-bros Benioff and Weiss were just getting started tearing down Game of Thrones with their “cool” payoffs. The following week the Seven Kingdoms’ own Captain Jack Sparrow, Euron Greyjoy, pinged a dragon with three straight crossbow hits.

In the novels Euron is an unnerving supernatural menace with one foot in Westeros, one in HP Lovecraft. On the show, he’s a hammy nuisance specialising in bum jokes.

Game of Thrones Daenerys Targaryen, now Mother of Dragon (singular). Photograph Helen SloanHBO
Sudden madness: Daenerys Targaryen. Photograph Helen SloanHBO

Then, in the most recent episode, came the final insult. Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, survivor of unimaginable traumas back in Essos, was plunged into madness . . . by chiming bells (after being romantically rejected by Jon).

Again and again in Thrones’ final run Benioff and Weiss have displayed a fundamental misapprehension of the material. Martin’s novels and the series’s early seasons had a straightforward message: actions have consequences.

Game of Thrones has become something else – a noisy, pandering thrill ride

Ned Stark took the high moral ground in the viper’s nest of King’s Landing and paid with his head. Daenerys Targaryen tried to impose a moral code on the Dothraki and the result was Khal Drogo dying of an infected wound. Robb Stark broke a political agreement for love – and slipped his head in a noose.

There was a lesson here: that doing the right thing is not the same as doing the smart thing, that fairytale endings are quickly ground to dust in the real world.

But as it has gone off the books, so Game of Thrones has become something else – a noisy, pandering thrill ride, full of sound, fury and Night Kings that shatter like a pint glass dropped on the way back from the bar.

It has betrayed us, the viewers, and it has betrayed George RR Martin. Worst of all, it has betrayed itself.

'Still lots to love'

SÉAMAS O’REILLY: Dear Ed – Game of Thrones’ eighth season has been, with the best will in the world, a decidedly divisive entity. So much so that, with one episode left, a petition to re-do the series entirely is hovering around a half million signatures.

It’s easy to view these kinds of histrionics quite harshly, little more than the entitled whinging of tragically cosseted nerds, shaking the vending machine of culture in the hopes that their preferred chocolate bar – the chocolate bar they deserve - rolls into their grumbling, sweat-drenched paw.

But some points are hard to argue: many of the show’s strengths have been curtailed or abandoned in favour of getting on with the final march toward the Iron throne. Compared with the stately pace and depth of the show’s first seasons, these episodes can seem rushed and compacted, their emphasis shifted from smaller, character-driven moments to sentimental farewells, and long, wordless sprees of spectacular violence.

There has also been a dearth in new characters since Martin’s books have run out, with one-dimensional pantomime baddie Euron Greyjoy a lamentable case in point.

So yes, I take all those points on board, and yet here I am; enjoying the hell out of it. I like deep explorations of the world George Martin created, cut-glass dialogue, and artfully crafted depictions of palace intrigue.

The one-two punch of episodes 2 and 3, in particular, stands up there with the best concurrent installments in years.

But I also like 80-minute long zombie battles, rapid, chaotic character developments, and death being rained from above via bloodthirsty monarchs atop flying reptiles. It turns out that, given the presence of the latter, I can forgive the absence of the former.

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All of which might sound like I’m endorsing S8 as little more than a greasy punnet of dumb, popcorn thrills, which would be unkind. The one-two punch of episodes 2 and 3, in particular, stands up there with the best concurrent installments in years.

A Knight Of The Seven Kingdoms was a masterful “bottle episode”, allowing the characters room to breathe, and forge closure on their long acquaintance. Meanwhile, The Long Night was a perfectly pitched orgy of violent satisfaction that managed to wring my nerves through a mangle for nearly 90 minutes.

It’s true that Game of Thrones’ eighth season in an exercise in tying up loose ends, and that this might make it less satisfying than the show’s usual pace.

My motive here isn’t too convince anyone that S8 is objectively flawless, or even as good as what has gone before, but rather to explain why I’m still watching. Put simply, it’s the same reason you are – there’s still so much in there to love.

'It has sacrificed everything'

ED POWER: Séamas – I’m glad you’re enjoying this season’s Game of Thrones. It is comforting to know somebody is. And yet I can’t but wonder how you can thrill to the spectacle when the show has sacrificed everything that made it great it order to bring us the wham-bam moments that have so filled your heart with giddiness.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a big Michael Bay robot fight as much as the next man (or woman) child. Of course, with a Michael Bay film – what much of series eight is starting to feel like – you know what you’ve signed up for.

The problem with Game of Thrones’s self-immolation is that it has chucked on the pyre a decade of character development and story-building. Daenerys going cray-cray and torching King’s Landing is fine.

By playing along, all we do is reward Benioff and Weiss’s sloppy storytelling

But only if you make us believe she was capable of such a destructive outburst. Which Games of Thrones hasn’t – despite Benioff and Weiss’s dishonest attempt at retconning her passive response to the death-by-Dothraki of the loathsome Viserys as the first glimmering of her “madness”.

Ditto, the dunderheaded Long Night, which immediately undid the wonderful character work in the episode that went before and which you have presented as evidence of Thrones’ continued high standards. Knight of the Seven Kingdom succeeded only because of the implication that the heroes reminiscing at Winterfell did so in the shadow of their imminent deaths.

Guess what – they all survived! Because this is no longer Game of Thrones. It’s Benioff and Weiss’s dry run for whatever horrors they plan to inflict on Stars Wars. None of it works. I haven’t even mentioned Jaime spinning on his heels and realising what he really, really wanted was to suffocate to death with Cersei. By playing along, all we do is reward Benioff and Weiss’s sloppy storytelling.

As to your rant about “tragically cosseted nerds . . .” well, those of us who take these things seriously have been mocked and disdained for our hobbit habit since the first time we climbed on to the school bus with an Advanced Dungeon and Dragons DMG under our arm.

Chuckle in your sleeves all you want. When the rest of you have moved on to the latest super-cool “must see” show, we’ll still be here, waiting for George to publish the Winds of Winter and prepping for our next Call of Cthulhu session.

'The show is in a different mode'

SÉAMAS O’REILLY: I hope this reaches you in time, Ed, because your last message came weighted with so much indignant phlegm, the poor little raven put its back out delivering it to me. For his sake and ours, I’ll try to avoid doing the same.

I won’t apologise for loving the wham-bam moments, but I’d go further and say many of them are more justified than you allow.

Arya Stark. Photograph: HBO
Arya Stark. Photograph: HBO

Arya’s eventual turn to being the scourge of the walking dead might strain credulity, had we not already seen her march from tomboy countess to mockney urchinette to – and I cannot stress this enough – a tiny magic assassin who steals people’s faces and bakes their own family members into pies. I mean, even leaving aside the murder part – when did she fit in a course on making cannibal cakes?

Compared with that, sneaking past the Night King’s witless hype men is very much in the ha’penny place, realism-wise.

I agree that the past decade of Danaerys’ character development has been impressive, but I think people have a selective memory of how patchy it actually was.

Yes, her backstory has been deep and rich, but it did feature a four-year period in which she literally roamed around various interchangeable desert slave states, challenging the local despots, getting overrun, prevailing and then moving on to the next place, in an infinite loop of dodgily recursive plotting.

All this gave us very little by way of new material, save a few more soldiers and slightly larger measurements for her dragon babies’ manacles.

The show is being criticised for many crimes it’s been committing all along

The idea that Danaerys’ arc would bend toward madness is, I would argue, not surprising at all, given the prominence of madness in her family history, the consistent trauma she’s endured over the past few series, and her steadfast commitment to truly unhinged mid-1990s girl-band coiffure.

Oh, and yes and the fact that she has burned dozens of people alive on-screen already, after a brief dalliance with literally crucifying them instead.

This, I think gets to the rub of the issue. The show is in a different mode now that the endgame is in sight, and is being criticised for many crimes it’s been committing all along. Character turns, boring plots, crass twists have always been a part of the show, and we loved it all the more for it. Everyone has their line in the sand when it comes to suspension of disbelief, I’ve just drawn mine a little further from fandom’s lunatic fringe.

'It’s just a clunking thrill ride'

ED POWER: We at least agree Daenerys becoming Mad Queen makes a certain amount of sense, at least in the abstract. That certainly would seem the journey George RR Martin is setting her up for on the page.

Where we differ, I think, is whether the show has succeeded is bringing us with her in her transition from Breaker of Chains to Burner of Cities.

The same applies to Arya and her jostling aside of Jon to kill the Night King. Game of Thrones had sweated like an Unsullied about to slice their nipple off to establish an antagonistic dynamic between the leader of the White Walkers and the Bastard of Winterfell.

To sacrifice that so that Arya could have her “cool” super ninja moment was akin to pulling a rabbit out of the hat – only the rabbit was a flying teenager who could walk through zombies.

Causals flocking to Thrones in its later seasons don’t seem to quite understand what they are watching

Little wonder GRRM has maintained a conspicuous silence as the series has aired (even as he, for instance, went out his way to praise Avengers: Endgame). How it must pain him to watch his epic tapestry spattered in lager stains and curry sauce and then set on fire.

What it comes down to is how seriously the viewer is prepared to take Game of Thrones in the first place. Causals flocking to Thrones in its later seasons don’t seem to quite understand what they are watching. They think a show that features dragons, zombies and Aidan Gillen saying “Lady Saaaaaaansa” is entitled to shove logic out the window as if it was a small child who has seen too much.

What long-time viewers appreciate is that these heightened worlds only make sense if they play by the rules of the reality they have created.

How come he didn’t catch fire?
The Night King. Photograph: HBO

That’s why Luke Skywalker didn’t destroy the Death Star by hyperspace jumping into it. It would have contravened the logic of the universe had established. It’s also the reason Arwen didn’t surprise us by parachuting in via Express Eagle at the end of the Lord of the Rings to chuck the One Ring into Mount Doom. That was Frodo and Gollum’s journey.

Yet Benioff and Weiss, having seemingly learned nothing from their years adapting GRRM for the screen, threw all the character work and foreshadowing away. In its place they have brought us the empty razzmatazz of Arya v Night King and Mad Daenerys flaming Fleabottom.

Along the way, the most epic ever TV show has become a clunking thrill ride that demands you leave your brain at the door.

'Well, Winter has finally come'

SÉAMAS O’REILLY: Thank you for your latest missive, Ed. It was, perhaps, unnecessary to have crushed the raven in a fit of rage and mailed it to me in a pie, but I appreciate the enthusiasm it implies. For the record, I’d hate for people to think I’m blind to the plot holes in this latest series (and here I mean actually blind, not magically blind like Arya was for 70 per cent of season 6, when plots were good and made sense and a murderous cult of face-changing assassins trained an aristocratic child to kill people by ... making her a sightless begger).

The fact that anyone can instantly teleport to any place at any time is a recurring bugbear, not to mention the constantly changing topography of Kings Landing itself; once set in mountains by the seaside, its city walls now border a standoff-ready strip of desert.

But Arya’s superhero moment isn’t one of those flaws. I don’t own that Jon has a divine right to kill the emperor of frosty amblers just because the show has expended so much shoe leather in making him its sullen John McClane to the Night King’s Hans Gruber.

The destination was always going to require a slightly louder bang

One person’s “cool super ninja moment” is another’s subversion of the standard stand-off you’d get in any other epic action set-piece. There is no version of Jon’s deathblow that I could imagine being more interesting than his quasi-sister’s journey to that point, she who has enjoyed the most satisfying arc in the show’s run; who once was blind, and now can stab.

Perhaps I’m resigned to the show’s other flaws. Not because I’m a Jonny Come Casual – as my erstwhile involvement with Ireland’s best-named radio show Pog Mo Throne attests – but because even though the journey to the end of the world can be twisty, quiet, charming and intricate, the destination was always going to require a slightly louder bang.

Perhaps when George RR Martin gets past his current rate of writing six painstakingly selected adverbs a year, it will cohere into something that satisfies everyone. In the meantime, those who have watched the show this past decade will now get some form of closure, and everyone else can get some peace from hearing about it.

For fans and haters alike, be they living or dead, winter has finally come.