The problem with Game of Thrones is it almost became bigger than life
As with The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars or the King James Bible, you could lose yourself in it
Dany, who wanted the throne too much, and Jon, who wanted it not at all
Perhaps a show can become too big for its own good. That doesn’t just mean that the mother of all water-cooler conversations must eventually collapse under the weight of expectations, or that, as an adaptation, it finally outpaced and likely eclipsed its source material.
No, the problem with Game of Thrones is that it almost became bigger than life. Like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the ever expanding Star Wars franchise, or the King James Bible, it created a fantasy narrative so expansive and richly detailed it was possible to lose yourself in it, to enter a whole world thronging with history, politics, religions and languages.
Total absorption might be the most elevated and elusive state in nerd culture – which, in these days, is to say culture – to have your closest attentions commanded and rewarded. On that count, the sprawling, lurid and often wickedly funny fantasy of GoT seemed to deliver. For a while, at least.
That this final season was the most polarising of all eight – drawing responses on the spectrum from rapture to rancour, but evening out somewhere in the middle – is almost beside the point. What was more remarkable, in these days of divide attention and opinion, was that everyone was watching.
The ratings on review aggregator websites may have fallen, but viewing figures only soared into record-breaking numbers. That arguably makes Game of Thrones the last of an almost extinct species in the era of streaming TV: A show we all watched at roughly the same time.
What we found, then, was a series struggling to decide its own destiny, much like the characters whose traits it seemed to take on.
In two battle-heavy episodes, at Winterfell and King’s Landing, it was as full of fire and blood as the Targaryen clan, staging a thrilling war between the living and the dead, but settling it mid-series, like a B-plot, later levelling all of King’s Landing as the victors became the villains.
In dialogue-heavy, throat-clearing episodes, lulls between the action, it seemed as cautious and sullen as a Stark, revising the character arcs while chancing a couple of grim good jokes. In the eyes of an unhappy fanbase, though, the show seemed to have joined the army of the dead, having lost all life some time ago but choosing too stagger on regardless.
The competing factions within Game of Thrones, choosing to bend the knee or die on their feet, were no match for those among its watchers.
Broadly speaking, viewers could be divided between the invested (of whom, surprisingly, I counted myself a member) and the over-invested, whose hopes, always too high, could only be dashed.
That schism may have opened wider in the previous series, when Jon led a daring away mission, beyond the Wall, to steal an undead wight, only to be saved from certain death by Dany and her dragons.
After so many series of torture, misery and nihilism (or Joffrey and Ramsay Bolton, if you prefer), I found that as cheering as the summary execution of Littlefinger.
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” says one of Oscar Wilde’s characters. “That is what fiction means.” It seemed, finally, that left alone to complete George RR Martin’s ideas, showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss would plump for happiness. Besides, a story that found room for zombies and dragons seemed entitled to a little suspension of disbelief.
Others, who preferred its more grounding attention to debts and disease, were not so sure. In a widely read article, my colleague Laurence Mackin surveyed the scene, calculated the flight speed of a messenger raven, then a dragon, determined the geographic distances involved, estimated the time it takes for a lake to freeze, and cried foul. Disbelief was reinstated.
Those who read things metaphorically, like me, are likely to cut the show a bit more slack. (Maybe the raven was magic?) This may be easier if you accept that Hamlet really does see a ghost or that Oedipus Rex just might not have put two and two together.
That’s why a battle between the living and the dead can be seen more as a question about how we face the inevitable (“Not today.”) than how high an athletic assassin can jump.
Under less forgiving scrutiny, the errant inclusion of a Starbucks coffee cup or a plastic water bottle can either be seen as unforgiveable carelessness, a slap in the face to the over-attentive, or else as an unconscious a plea for sanity (it’s only a TV show!) or a cry for help (we filmed that battle for 55 nights straight!).
But to finish anything of this scale was always going to be anticlimactic.
In part that’s because the seemingly infinite possibilities of the show had begun to shrink: its sprawling, wide-spread journeys narrowing into one destination, the Iron Throne. (This seemed a bit of an afterthought to a war against death).
On that journey Daenerys Targaryen could either prove a wise and just ruler, or as her wearisome “bend the knee” mantra seemed to suggest long ago, follow her father into madness and tyranny.
Jon Snow, the lugubrious bastard son of Ned Stark, had his own compelling claim to the throne buttressed and then some: a unifying figure, resurrected by witchcraft to fulfil his destiny, and, it turned out, the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark.
Cersei, the arch villain, supreme schemer and sitting duck, found herself bivouacked in King’s Landing with no plan B, just as Tyrion, the wily tactician, found himself confined to a crypt during the battle with the Night King. This series, canniness always seemed confined.
Whatever other failings the final season had, it roundly destroyed the case for either Dany, who wanted it too much, or Jon who wanted it not at all, to rule the seven or so kingdoms. The only other contenders were dark-horse outsiders, like Sansa, a survivor, Tyrion, a born adviser, and, further down the list, Bran.
Fond of assuring people “everything you did brought you where you are now”, whether they were the self-redeeming Theon or the self-sabotaging Jaime, Bran might have seemed like the model of a self-congratulating showrunner.
In truth, though, he was more like a proxy for the audience; always watchful, remembering, and careful not to share spoilers. That he should be awarded rule of the six kingdoms (minus an independent North, which, under Sansa, secedes from the union) seems like nod to the fans: you won the Game of Thrones.
That Tyrion has the better insight into how they might react also seems appropriate:
“No one is happy,” he tells Jon in the final episode, “which makes it a good compromise, I suppose.” Well, maybe. But it’s hard not to think that any disappointment around the conclusion of Game of Thrones isn’t so much with how it has ended, but that it had to end at all.