It almost goes without saying, but “Spoiler Alert!”. Stop reading now if you live in a dystopian parallel reality where for some reason you haven’t seen the final season yet.
As I’m sure you’ll know, even if you don’t watch Game of Thrones, many people felt frustrated at the climax of the last season of Game of Thrones. Particularly the last two episodes. While some have defended it, the overwhelming vibe was of distraught and anger at having wasted at least 80 hours of their life over a span of 9 years, but let’s face it, it’s probably quadruple that when you include re-watching episodes and discussing the best fan-theory.
Many have cited different reasons, whether it felt “rushed,” scenes didn’t make sense, or it simply didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to. People have articulated why in many ways, and others have staunchly defended it (and in some cases they’re right). But the real answer, the answer that many only know subconsciously deep down in their gut, is that it was simply poor storytelling. As far as I can see, there’s no way to excuse or defend it. That’s why show writers D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have faced the brunt of criticism. Not the directors, not the CGI department, and certainly not the actors. Granted, I’m only 28 but I don’t think I have ever seen such anger directed at writers in my lifetime.
Now, I’m probably not experienced enough to call myself an “expert” on storytelling at this point. However, I have been running immersive experiences that rely on a strong narrative and structure in order to run for the past three years. I have also been writing a book for the last two. Most of that time was research on A. How in all of Midgard do I actually write a full novel? and B. How do I turn the series of events in my head into a coherent story that resonates with readers? As part of that I have ‘read’ (Audible is my friend) tens of books on storytelling and writing and honed my knowledge (I have included a list of my favourites below). Here’s where I think Game of Thrones went wrong:
The Long Night
We’ll start chronologically, since this is where things started to go wrong. For me the visuals of the long night were spectacular, but I acknowledge there were arguments over whether it was too dark. For anyone interested in my opinion; I felt it captured the fear and confusion of night fighting (not knowing what the f**k is going on 90% of the time) extremely well, and the Dothraki’s flaming swords going out one by one from the perspective of the main formation is one of my favourite moments in T.V. history. However, this isn’t the issue here.
For starters we’d spent 2 weeks of build up to this moment, with round the fire conversations and almost infuriating suspense waiting to see who’d be the latest to kick the bucket. Even that is forgivable. No, the main issue is for 7 seasons we’d ventured with Jon Snow beyond the wall, seen Bran dragged over the barren wilderness to meet with (and become) the three-eyed raven and even to Braavos for several seasons watching Arya gain strange abilities at the House of Black and White and become one of the faceless men.
Whichever arc you pick; each was full of lessons for the character. They were suitably punished for straying from their path and rewarded for sticking to it. We also learnt a lot of lore, we learnt more about the faceless men, we learnt about the Children of the Forest and the origins of the Night King. We saw weird spiral symbols carved in stone or made with bodies in the snow. We were given so much backstory and background over a long period of time only for it to mean nothing. Even Bran, who, aside from Jon Snow, had one of the closest arcs with the Night King, sat in his wheelchair and warged into some ravens which did… well… nothing. With a stunning leap and stab we saw the Night King meet his end. Subversion is great and has pleasantly shocked us in the past but suddenly a hundred different story threads died in an instant. They weren’t all wrapped up in a cathartic ending in a neat little bow. Instead, a Velcro strap was used and we were given an ending.
Sure, Arya’s leap was epic, but everybody still left this episode feeling a little lost. We left with the hope that the end for the Night King we were given would open a new avenue for us the achieve the true ending, that would also somehow explain 8 years of adventuring. Afterall, there were still 3 episodes to go. Sure, main characters have died suddenly, but it was for a purpose. The Red Wedding opened arcs for each of the Stark children (even poor little Rickon,) as well as Cersei; now unopposed with her son on the Throne. We were purposefully teased this greater purpose before that episode ended. As shocking and heart breaking as the Red Wedding was, we all got the sense it served a greater narrative and we were, at least subconsciously, contented. The story made sense.
Now, here’s where we really get into the meat of it. Again, this episode was full of truly stunning visuals, whether it be Clegane Bowl in a crumbling tower or a dragon absolutely lighting up an entire city, it was impressive. I agree with commentators that Cersei met a relatively fitting end; alone and scared. It was the only direction her character could really go albeit there are still threads that could’ve been tied up a little better here. No, where the main beef occurred in this episode was with Daenerys’ snap in becoming the “Mad Queen.”
Here we face the same issue as the long night. We’d spent 6 seasons in Essos following this young matriarch through her trials and tribulations. And even right up to the episode prior she had always been hailed as a champion of the people. Always faced with tough choices she continually chose the path of the downtrodden (even if it meant burning the ruling class of several Essos cities in the process). She had declared she “would not be queen of the ashes,” and would not be shaken from that path.
YES! Okay, I get it, it was foreshadowed that she may end up like her father and become the mad queen. We all kind of expected it. We’d even spent a few seasons filling the powder keg, with the Yunkai reinstating slavery, Jon rejecting her love, re-entering slavery herself and bad decisions from her council yielding her defeats. So why was it still so jarring? Because the ending doesn’t matter in storytelling, it’s how! We want to be taken on a journey through realistic human emotion. We wanted to see how she completely flipped on her previous convictions and became the kind of person who suddenly burns thousands of innocent civilians. In previous episodes, yes we'd seen her burn people, but it was the ruling classes or her Lannister enemies. The tolling of the surrender bells wasn’t a satisfactory spark for the powder keg of crazy. Not for everything we’ve all been through so far.
The Iron Throne
I feel I don’t need to cover this episode in depth. It just plain didn’t make sense for Bran to become King. We all saw Jason Momoa’s reaction to the news. Again, his whole backstory never really points towards this and the ending doesn’t tie up the loose ends that we were left with after The Long Night. Even his own actions in this series pointed the opposite direction; stating “I’m not Bran, not anymore,” refusing to be acknowledged as a Stark and his creepy knowing stares in the Winterfell courtyard. If anything, it all points at fowl play on Bran's part; did he manipulate the entire 7 Kingdoms to become King!? I want to hear about that! But alas, even that wasn’t given to us. We saw Sansa become Queen of the North, but we didn’t see her use any of the lessons Little Finger, Cersei and being betrothed to Geoffrey taught her to get there. Arya became an adventurer and never used any of the powers the House of Black and White taught her. Jon Snow went back to a now defunct Castle Black, although, at least he was reunited with Ghost! All in all, to use the bow vs Velcro analogy again; we got Velcro. We got an ending.
The first and perhaps foremost cardinal sin that was broken, was not bringing about the end of story through ultimate catharsis, i.e. the tying together of multiple story threads in a singular moment. Game of Thrones is a huge series and has many story threads. One seemingly forgotten one was the alluding to Euron Greyjoy’s ethereal powers after sailing the high seas. This can be forgiven however, in such a long tale with a plethora of characters, if at least the main protagonists and antagonists are given their ultimate catharsis. The writers failed to pull the story threads together in a meaningful and resonant way, even for our villains Cersei and, principally, the Night King. Some might say, they ‘forgot’ most of those story threads, including Azor Ahai. Countless hours of footage meant nothing except to wipe out some of Daenerys’ forces, make Arya a decent fighter and make Bran…creepy. We got an end without the how. Very few were saying “ah! That’s where they were going with it!” instead, we were left with the worst thing an audience can say about a story; “huh?”
We also saw other many other failings; placing special effects and visuals above story, we were “told” through dialogue far more than “shown” with character developments (the ‘show don’t tell’ idiom that features in nearly every book on storytelling), and subversion was favoured at the expense of plot. Even the most shocking moments in storytelling history, be it on the silver screen, the one in our living rooms, in literature or video games; all have their foreshadowing in place to build for a shocking twist.
All-in-all, we were left with a sinking disappointment in our stomachs. The ending of Game of Thrones will likely go down in history as one of the most disappointing of all time. It is truly a shame, because finale aside, it has also been one of the most popular, shocking and epic series for a long time. Let's hope George R.R. Martin does a better job! The upside is that it is a great example of what not to do for my own storytelling! I only hope, after my scathing critique, that I can produce a finale that satisfies my readers.
Cameron Readman is the Creative Director for Rogue Events and is also the author of “A Trial of Witches”, currently available for pre-order on Kickstarter here. He has kindly provided the following list of books on basic storytelling for those who wish to tell their own stories.
The Anatomy of Story – John Truby
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel – Jessica Brody
Outlining your Novel – K.M. Weiland
24 Laws of Storytelling: A Practical Handbook for Great Storytellers – Jonathan Baldie