Why the final season of Game of Thrones holds up better than you remember

Why the final season of Game of Thrones holds up better than you remember

Is it the fate of every great show's ending to be hated at first? The Sopranos' infamous cut-to-black finale was derided and debated for years after it first aired in 2007, but now with some distance the show has reclaimed its rightful place in the culture as the gold standard for modern television drama. Will its successor, Game of Thrones (originally pitched to HBO as "The Sopranos meets Middle-earth") endure the same push and pull? It's only been two years since the final season of the fantasy epic aired to much consternation from viewers, but a lot has happened in those two years. In a world flush with fire and pain, removed from the impossible expectations of a zeitgeist-changing work airing its ending in real time, Game of Thrones' eighth and final season holds up a lot better than you probably remember.

It's all about "The Bells," really. One of the major creative decisions made in the production of Thrones' last season was to eschew the show's typical 10-episode format in favor of six super-sized installments. Not all hour-and-a-half episodes are created equal, though, and the final season hinges on two episodes in particular: "The Long Night," which depicts the surviving humans' last stand against the undead forces of the Night King, and "The Bells," which features Daenerys Targaryen's (Emilia Clarke) long-awaited conquest of King's Landing. The other four episodes are mostly about getting to and from these climactic confrontations, so season 8's success or failure really hinges on the efficacy of the two key episodes.

Some viewers complained about plot shortcuts, or condensed time that made it possible to traverse vast distances in a single episode instead of spending a whole season getting from King's Landing to Riverrun, but if you relish the impact of those chapters, it feels easy to cut the show some slack in service of getting where it needed to be. We're not in the business of handing out participation trophies, but it is worth pointing out that the saga of Westeros is so long, complicated, and sprawling that original author George R.R. Martin still hasn't finished it — perhaps because he refuses to use those kinds of shortcuts himself and is still agonizingly working through the various plot machinations required to get to his endgame. Some of us remain confident he'll get there eventually, but Thrones' creators did not have the luxury of waiting until they had finally figured out the perfect resolution; HBO has neither infinite money nor an endless claim on viewers' attention.

"The Long Night" was Game of Thrones' biggest battle episode ever, which is saying something. It was purposefully built to outdo previous high points like "Hardhome" and "The Battle of the Bastards" by the same director who helmed those entries, Miguel Sapochnik. But while those battles took place in the cold light of day, the pivotal creative decision Sapochnik and his team made on "The Long Night" was to immerse viewers and actors in the same darkness the characters were fighting. The only light came from the flames the living used as their main weapon against the dead. As James Hibberd reported in EW's cover story on the final season, this made "The Long Night" an almost unbearably hellish experience to film, with actors and crew members choking on smoke and working through their own long nights. It also made the action difficult for viewers to follow at times, which harmed the episode's initial reception.

Filmmakers like cinematographer Fabian Wagner insisted that viewers didn't have their TV settings dialed correctly, but the simpler truth is that the episode is just extremely chaotic. Every subsequent rewatch has improved my impression of it; once the general arc is clear, it's easier to enjoy standout moments. The Lord of the Rings has never been far from Game of Thrones' mind, but in this case the show eschewed the approach Peter Jackson had taken to filming the nighttime siege of Helm's Deep, where all the fighting is clearly visible in bluish light. By contrast, Sapochnik and Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss sought to portray an elemental battle between life and death, darkness and light, ice and fire. This approach does pay off in some spectacular sequences, such as Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Dany pursuing the Night King on dragonback above the clouds, or the Dothraki riding out with their flaming scimitars to face the horde, only for their torches to disappear one by one in the overwhelming darkness.

But there's a reason the show was called Game of Thrones, and not A Song of Ice and Fire like Martin's books. The TV adaptation always excelled way more at human drama, which is why the single most compelling sequence in "The Long Night" is Arya Stark's (Maisie Williams) desperate attempt to hide out from a pack of zombies that have infiltrated the Winterfell library. As she slips between bookcases and throws volumes across the room as distractions, the episode expertly morphs from fantasy epic to survival horror. This is another element that grows better with each rewatch; when you know Arya is the one fated to finally strike down the Night King, the stakes of this cat-and-mouse game could not be higher.

The episode is not without its flaws, of course. There are several deaths, as you'd expect, but they all feel a little too convenient. Game of Thrones made its name killing characters like Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) and Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), who viewers had thought to be some of the most important figures in the story. By contrast, killing characters like Dolorous Edd (Ben Crompton) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) after it was clear their stories were finished just didn't have the same impact. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), the most prominent characters to bite the dust at the hands of the White Walkers, both got to redeem themselves with heroic exits, when the best Game of Thrones deaths were unexpected and humiliating.

Meanwhile, some characters' survival was just baffling. It's one thing for famed warriors like Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) to make it through the zombie horde, but the only explanation for Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) surviving a bunch of monsters trying to eat his face is plot armor. If it was so necessary to keep Sam around for the show's endgame, they should've found a way to remove him from the battle. His survival against impossible odds undermines the realism Sapochnik was clearly trying to capture with his tactile filmmaking and in-your-face fire and brimstone.

Rhaegal the green dragon should've gone down in "The Long Night," too. There's already a scene where he crashes to earth in a mass of zombies, leaving his rider, Jon, to finally enter the battle on foot. It wouldn't have been too much of a stretch to say Rhaegal didn't survive his injuries, which would have also assuaged one of the biggest fan complaints about the final season: Rhaegal's ignominious death at the hands of the Iron Fleet in the following episode. Rhaegal's death was clearly a crucial factor in Dany's descent into madness, but its placement in "The Last of the Starks" seems mostly about putting some action in an episode otherwise consumed with characters telling each other things viewers already know and creating the impression that it was maybe possible Dany's assault on Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) would be an even fight.

HBO Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen on 'Game of Thrones'

It was easy to get swept up in that kind of anticipation at the time; I myself even wrote a short piece for this very website explaining the history of Captain Harry Strickland (Marc Rissmann), mercenary commander of the Golden Company, who seemed set to lead Cersei's defenses against the dragon queen. Instead, he was rather hilariously dispatched just a few minutes into "The Bells," before he could utter a single line of dialogue.

Man, I love "The Bells." It is the glorious, bloody, world-shaking climax that Game of Thrones deserved. My complaints about the abundance of convenience and predictability in "The Long Night" are mostly redeemed by "The Bells," the ultimate zig where viewers were expecting a zag. Yet Dany's destruction of King's Landing doesn't come out of nowhere. The episode's "previously on" prologue ends with voice-over from many characters talking about the Targaryens over the course of the series. The final line before the episode begins, over a shot of Dany's disgusted expression at Cersei's public execution of Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), comes from Dany's long-dead brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), her first tormentor: "You don't want to wake the dragon, do you?" The seeds of Targaryen hubris had been planted throughout the show. The incest dragon family was clearly beset by madness and greed; even their most recent shining scion, Dany's late older brother Rhaegar, is variously described as an evil rapist or a handsome prince, depending on who you asked. This gradual build-up of bread crumbs may have been harder to remember when the final season first aired two years after its predecessor (the longest gap in the show's history), but now that it's all in one place on HBO Max, it should be easier to see the through-line.

Yes, Daenerys often spoke with populist rhetoric as she dealt out fiery justice against slavers, but Game of Thrones was not a show about how violence is cool sometimes. Some people deserve death, but killing them in pursuit of power is always a corrupting affair, the show told us over and over. In "The Bells," the Lannisters finally get theirs. Some of us waited the whole show for that well-earned comeuppance, and characters in the show had waited even longer. This sack of King's Landing is a direct reversal of an event unseen in the show and yet talked about all the time, when the Lannisters traitorously invaded the capital at the end of Robert's Rebellion and killed and raped the surviving Targaryen royals to prove their power, setting many of the show's events in motion. Yet closing the bookend on Tywin Lannister's cruelty did not make it any less horrible to watch a weeping Tyrion pull Cersei and Jaime's broken bodies from the castle rubble. Revenge will always leave you cold.

HBO A scene from 'Game of Thrones' season 8, episode 5, 'The Bells'

It was very common at the time for viewers to project contemporary politics onto Game of Thrones characters, but the council's mocking laughter when Sam proposes democracy in the finale is an important reminder that this world is far, far removed from our own realities. Dany's crusade to "break the wheel" was not rooted in a belief in mass equality or human rights, but in her own sense of destiny as the world's savior, the last Targaryen, the mother of dragons. This is why she can't handle the revelation that Jon is Rhaegar's son with an even stronger claim to the Iron Throne; suddenly her whole justification for why she should rule crumbles in the face of the real chosen one.

So in the absence of destiny, Daenerys chooses violence. Westeros is a medieval world, after all, and Daenerys understands the Machiavellian politics of such a time period: You can either rule through love or fear. None of these Westerosi love her, even after she helped defeat the Night King, and the ever-honorable Jon doesn't even love her as a woman after the incestuous nature of their relationship comes out. So she chooses fear; who would dare oppose her after she burns down the capital? After all, she didn't strike the killing blow against the Night King: It is the one time in the show that her magic spell, dracarys, fails to solve her problems and defeat her enemies. Unleashing Drogon's fire on people who are actually vulnerable to it is as much about reaffirming her power as anything else. Fans who worried this was an uncharacteristic outburst by Dany may have missed its significance as a deliberate strategic response to the betrayal Dany saw all around her inner circle.

But tragic, ironic pathos is what made Game of Thrones what it is, and instead of solidifying her rule, this decision has the exact opposite effect, giving Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Jon enough justification to strike her down. While "The Long Night" played a little fast and loose with the realities of battle (understandable since one side was composed entirely of magical monsters), "The Bells" takes a hard look at what war really means for average people — the same people who Queen Daenerys always swore she was protecting are now getting incinerated by her, after they were already being used as human shields by Queen Cersei. Whoever wins the game of thrones, they lose. Putting fan-favorite character Arya on the streets during Drogon's rampage gives us an up-close-and-personal view of the human carnage almost always denied to us by war stories, fantasy or otherwise. It is Sapochnik's masterstroke at the end of a show full of great work. It feels painful to watch, yes, and it should; war is terrible.

Macall B. Polay/HBO Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, Isaac Hempstead Wright as Bran Stark, and Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in the final episode of 'Game of Thrones'

The subsequent decision to install Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) as king is not as random or goofy as it may appear. Crowning a broken king with no interest in politics may seem like the exact wrong answer to a conflict brought on by a weak monarch's inability to rein in over-ambitious nobles, but in some ways Bran is the most powerful king yet. His one line at the show's final government meeting is the proclamation that he might very well be able to find (and, presumably, control) the runaway Drogon through the power invested in him as the Three-Eyed Raven. I always expected Bran warging into a dragon to be part of the show's grand climax, but it also works very well as a veiled threat. Any nobles trying to crown themselves and rise up against King Bran would find themselves facing a monarch who doesn't even need the word dracarys when he can just take over the dragon's mind and control it himself. Tyrion is proud that Bran's infertility will prevent the creation of more spoiled failsons like Joffrey or the mad Targaryens, but if the Three-Eyed Raven and Lord of the Seven (now Six) Kingdoms are hereby united into a single office, a succession of powerful sorcerer-kings could prove stranger and stronger than anyone expected.

That reading-between-the-lines stuff is not a primary defense of the final season, it's just fun to think about for a show that was so suffused with lore. Westeros' fictional history, in fact, stretches back thousands of years, but very little about either technology or politics seems to have changed in that time. Blame it on the existence of magic or the weird yearslong seasons or this apparently unbreakable political stasis; the point is, a world is a hard thing to change. When seismic shifts fail, the least people can do is take account for their own lives (as Jon and Tyrion do, each living out a sentence of purgatory for killing Dany) or use their opportunities to push things forward as much as possible (as Arya does by setting off to explore new lands, or Sansa does by finally being crowned Queen in a land obviously hostile to them). When evaluating the final act of such a zeitgeist-changing show as Game of Thrones, the plot shortcuts or occasionally corny dialogue don't register as much as the worthy or tragic ends for great characters and the ever-relevant lesson in the depravities of war and power.

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