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Why ‘Game of Thrones’ ended the way it did, Part I

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Even in the “golden age of television,” highly acclaimed shows have not at all been immune to disappointment. People will often point to shows like “Lost,” “The Sopranos” and “Dexter” as examples of shows that turned audiences into fanatics, only to make their widely disappointing endings all the more bitter for fans. Few shows, however, have been subject to more vitriol over their finales than “Game of Thrones.” Starting about halfway through the season, angry members of the fandom began to take to Twitter, Reddit and YouTube to trash the show for what they perceived to be nonsensical story choices, unfulfilling ends to plot lines and breaches of character. The change.org petition to rewrite the show’s final season with “competent writers” has reached nearly 2 million signatures, and the IMDB ratings for the final six episodes are the lowest in the entire series, with the series finale swooping to a heartbreaking 4.1/10.

With results like these, it seems like “Game of Thrones” is more or less condemned to live on in our cultural memory with distaste. Sticking the landing is crucial for a series’ reputation, and failing to do so in the eyes of fans leaves a deep stain on the way a show is talked about and remembered. However, what seems to have been less a part of the conversation than it should’ve been is the fact that this is the way the books will be ending as well. While the show has received a lot of vitriol for the story’s ending, author George R.R. Martin himself has received little to none. If we consider that the final season’s major plot points were all things Martin has intended for decades, this should lead us to radically reconsider the way we think about Season 8. In this article, I will discuss Martin’s intentions in writing “Game of Thrones” and how they might help us more deeply understand and appreciate not only the ending of the show, but the entirety of the story.

In 2013, once it was clear that “Game of Thrones” was gaining enough popularity to continue until its end, author George R.R. Martin met with show writers David Benioff and Dan Weiss in Santa Fe and outlined the ending of the story for them. While the books’ ending will not be able to be exactly the same, due to their much larger abundance of characters and lack of budgetary constraints, the major plot points — Daenerys going mad, Jon having to kill her, the white walkers being defeated at Winterfell, Bran becoming king, etc. — were always going to be the ending. While in the midst of outrage it may be tempting to say that the showrunners took George’s vision and ruined it, this is just simply not true. The same writers that wrote the show’s sixth season (one of the most acclaimed seasons in the show’s history, despite the writers having already passed the books) wrote the final one, and this begs the question: What did go wrong with the final season? Was it the coffee cups? Or the looming promise of Star Wars?

To put these two suggestions to bed — no. Incidents similar to the Starbucks cup have happened in previous seasons and happen consistently in many productions (see: the frames from season four where Jamie has magically regrown both hands), and the plan to complete the final two seasons in only 13 episodes came years before any plans for “Star Wars.”

What actually seems to be at the heart of the outrage is a misconception. People came to the final season with particular expectations — not just about how the finale of “Game of Thrones” was supposed to go, but how stories in general are supposed to go. We had the implicit expectation that the Night King’s defeat would mark the final conflict of the show, that Daenerys would finally reach the height of her status as a purely admirable feminist icon, that the throne of Westeros would be taken by someone who we’d all been rooting for on some level all along, that Jamie would complete his “arc” of going from selfish to self-sacrificing by killing Cersei, and so on. I shared some of these expectations, and even wrote an elaborate 13-page theory about how the show was going to end and fulfill many of these expectations. But when these expectations were not delivered, fans assumed, in their outrage, that the show-runners were simply subverting these expectations for the sake of merely being surprising, rather than paying attention to the actual needs of the story.

But because this is the ending George R.R. Martin had in mind, making this kind of claim about D&D’s intentions would also have to extend to him. Saying the showrunners botched the ending would be to say that Martin botched it. But Martin would have no incentive to rush the end of his life’s work in this way. So, if this is the case, it seems that what went wrong with “Game of Thrones’” final season wasn’t incompetent writers or a lack of effort or a misplaced desire to be unpredictable — it was that most of us didn’t understand it.

It seems that in discourse surrounding the final season, there’s a tremendous lack of understanding of what the story was really about, and this article will attempt to delve into this and reveal the beauty and genius of the show that has gone unacknowledged. Doing so will be crucial for how we remember the show, and will hopefully allow us to fully appreciate the themes and philosophy of the story now that we all know how it ends.

To understand the core of the story, we need to go back to watch what Martin has said in his interviews about it. In doing so we know that Martin’s motivations for telling the story were born from two sources. The first was his personal relationship to war. Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, claiming it was a “terrible mistake for America” and has spoken extensively about the realities of war and how his beliefs about violence permeate “A Song of Ice and Fire.” He’s spoken about how war has historically been incredibly central to the fantasy genre, but in the form of a “bloodless violence” that felt irksome and dishonest to him. He wanted to write a fantasy story that showed the real cost of violence and didn’t glorify war in a way that removes us from the gory realities of the battlefield.

While pop-culture spheres have often criticized the televised version of “Game of Thrones” for its extensively graphic violence, this depiction of violence is crucial to the themes of the show. Despite still offering spectacle, battle scenes in “Thrones” have never shied away from the gruesome realities of violence for the purposes of viewer comfort. In the first season, Khal Drogo rips a man’s throat out; in the Red Wedding we see a pregnant woman brutally stabbed in the belly; in Season 4 we see a man have his eyes squished into his skull and his head crushed until it explodes like a watermelon; in the Battle of the Bastards we see a man lying on the ground holding his own intestines in his arms and crying for his mother; in the Loot Train Battle the men who are burned by Drogon actually shriek in pain as opposed to painlessly bursting into oblivion, and so on. In the show’s penultimate episode “The Bells,” the violence is made to be as painfully real and unglamorous as anything the show’s ever aired. Rather than charging in with a bright glory, “Lord of the Rings” style, the men invading King’s Landing engage gratuitously in the murder and rape of civilians, because this is what actually happens during sieges. In fact, Cersei said as much to Sansa all the way back in Season 2, when the women of King’s Landing were taking shelter during the siege of Blackwater Bay. When Sansa tells Cersei that she has not had her first period yet, Cersei asks her if she has any idea what happens when a city is sacked, and goes on to describe how all of the women hiding in the castle with them will be raped by the soldiers storming it, and that “half of them will have bastards in their bellies come morning.” This is the graphic and brutal reality of war, especially in the medieval era on which “Game of Thrones” is modeled. In the cast’s last Comic-Con appearance, Lord Varys actor Conleth Hill even went on to say the thematic significance of war in the story outright: “The thing the last season was about was the futility of conflict and the pointlessness of war. If you get one thing from that whole show, take that.”

Martin’s second major concern for the story was for it to not fall into the standard fantasy genre tropes that things like “Lord of the Rings” have made us used to. He has often discussed his dissatisfaction with the standard setup of “here are the good guys, they’re all pretty and dressed in white, and here are the bad guys, and they’re all ugly and dressed in black.” On occasion, Martin endeavors to subvert such trends literally; for example, in the far north, the proverbial “good guys” are the Night’s Watch, a group of morally questionable misfits who are dressed in black, while the “bad guys” are the White Walkers. However, Martin’s aims here are more concerned with grounding fantasy in reality. We’ve seen this already with the story’s depiction of violence and war, but it also extends to things like politics and morality. Martin wanted a fantasy story that actually acknowledged that every hero is a villain for the other side, that doing the “right thing” sometimes has extremely negative consequences, that righteousness is not a sufficient characteristic for good leadership nor survival (see Ned Stark), that putting the “right person” on the throne is not the only problem faced in actually running a state (Martin once famously asked an audience about what Aragorn’s tax policies would look like), and so on. Most importantly, Martin was concerned with the nature of conflict in fantasy. While we might traditionally expect a fantasy story to center around and culminate in a massive literal battle between the forces of good and evil (as many of us thought the show would culminate in the end of the conflict with the Night King), Martin was far more interested in what he’s dubbed as a more Shakespearean kind of conflict — “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Martin wanted to tell a story less about actual battles and more about the forces that are at odds in the soul of humanity — something that cannot be done if the moral lines are always clear-cut.

This thematic reasoning behind these two subversions is powerful, and while there were several story turns made in the final season that fans were disappointed in — the White Walkers being defeated halfway through the season, Jamie going back to Cersei to die, Daenerys going mad, Jon having to kill her, Bran becoming King, and Jon being sent back to the Night’s Watch — all of these turns can be explained, and more importantly better appreciated, in light of understanding these thematic intentions.

In the next part of this article, we will probe each of these decisions using the lens of these intentions.

Contact Isaac Vaught at ivaught ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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