How the Game of Thrones Ending Forces the Viewer to Re-contextualize the Entire Story
One of the major factors for the controversy around the final season might be the fact it changes the viewer’s entire perception of many events preceding it.
The ambitious yet ever-divisive final season of Game of Thrones aired a year ago and left some viewers disappointed. Despite being one of the largest and most thought-of and time consuming production efforts in the history of television, some people were left with the notion the writers forgot about the true nature of their characters and messed up a lot of story-arcs. I beg to differ.
The point of this article is not to attack people who disliked the ending, but to show what was, in my opinion, the root of controversy in the last season that made people throw the “bad writing” argument on every eyebrow-raising event. Yeah, one can criticize some things in the writing of the season, but those things existed for every season in the past and yet the reactions were completely different. When viewers start asking stuff like “Why did [character] do that?” or “How could the writers make [character] deviate so much from his 7 seasons arc?”- those question should raise eyebrows on their own self. Like Nikolaj Coster Waldau (who played Ser Jaime Lannister) candidly stated in one of his wonderful reactions post-season 8, accusing David Benioff and D. B. Weiss for lack of interest in landing the show’s ending right is completely unfair- “For anyone to imagine or to think that the two creators of the show are not the most passionate, the greatest, the most invested of all and to for a second think they didn’t spend the last 10 years thinking how they were gonna end it is kinda silly”, he said. The writers dedicated more than a decade from their lives to the show, so perhaps we should consider an entirely different angle as to why all those things happened in the last season.
And indeed we shall. I think the ending we got is forcing you to completely recontextualize a lot of things in the story. Some perceptions you had regarding the story or more specifically the characters, are put in an entirely different light once you see how everything wraps up. That’s probably why, for some people the story’s direction towards the end diverted so much from what they always expected it to be- the most obvious example if of course Dany’s story. Her entire journey is now put in a completely different context. We were watching the rise of a tyrant, not a Campbell’s famous “hero’s journey”.
We heard her threatening to “burn cities to the ground” and to “kill her enemies in their iron suits” and we were all there to cheer for her while her epic music blasted in the background. For a lot of viewers she was their hero in this whole complicated story, and it all just sounded like empty threats and motivation statements for her armies. But once she actually did, it some people said it came out of no where. Her story throughout the show is not only a show of a person gaining power, but a story of a character going through trauma. Looking back at earlier events and the many times the world wronged her makes it easier to see how it all accumulates in the events on the final season until she finally “loses it”.
Another great example is Jaime Lannister, character whose arc people like to declare got completely ruined in the final season. Many people thought Jaime was on a typical redemption arc- started as a villain and will finish his story as a pure changed man, perhaps. The thing is, he wasn’t on one. One of the writers, Bryan Cogman said- “ I don’t believe in the term ‘redemption arc’. I don’t know what the fuck it means. Do we have redemption arcs? No, we live our lives. We make mistakes. We take two steps backwards after taking five steps forward. There’s no such fucking thing as a redemption arc. I don’t believe in it. And I don’t think Jaime is on one, necessarily. Jaime’s just living his life and changing.”
He did what an honorable man would, he left his sister and her little game of thrones to join his rivals to fight for the living and uphold his promise. No one can take that away from him. But in the bottom line- he was still addicted to his sister. He loved her, and when he heard what Daenerys is planning, he went back to try and save her and his unborn child. Perhaps people expected him to join Jon in the front lines and help him fight the evil forces of Cersei? Well, that’s not GoT.
On the same note, people thought Jon was The Chosen One. He just wasn’t. People thought the purpose of Jon being Targaryen was to put him on the Iron Throne. It wasn’t. Martin said that his intention with A Song of Ice and Fire books was to subvert popular fantasy tropes. One of the most popular is- “secret prince” trope. There was no way Martin and Benioff and Weiss would just give us lite version of Aragorn. And yet, a lot of people expected The Chosen One to kill the Dark Lord and to take his rightful place as king. Jon being Targaryen was a curse. It ruined his relationship with Daenerys, pushed her to the dark side, which lead to the destruction of The Iron Throne, Targaryan dynasty and destruction of the Seven Kingdoms. In other fantasy stories this secret identity would bring a character new powers or glory. Here, it ruined his life. It’s completely in line with Martin’s subversive style. The same style that asked a simple question- what if the main character dies at the end of the first book? Now he asked- what if being a secret prince is actually a horribe thing for you?
People thought Cersei will become mad and burn King’s Landing. After all the chaos she inflicted on the show she must have the most brutal death of all- because we, the GoT fans yearn for more violence, right? And yet she got a sympathetic death and it was another Queen, the one we always sided with that destroyed the capital.
People thought that the point of White Walkers was to show how pointless politics is and that the Dead were the final enemies the humans will have to face. Once their arc concluded as early as 3 episodes before the finale, some viewers were left baffled as to how come Cersei ends up the endgame villain of the show, and not the extremely hyped-up Army of the Dead, that was advertised to give the war for the entire human race survival. But that’s exactly the point. In my view, GoT was always more about the human politics and interconnection than it’s fantastical elements. If it wasn’t obvious to anyone until that point, in a single stab of a knife it became clear as day. The point of the White Walkers was not to present the traditional army of monsters to wrap up this fantasy saga, but the point was, among the trivial stuff, to show that human corruption will always be there and that putting aside our differences is just naive delusion. It can happen for a time but it won’t last. Final enemies were always humans and their pointless wars and endless violence. It’s not a coincidence that more characters died in the War for the Throne in the second half of the season, that they did in The Great War. Just like in real life, humans will always kill more humans, than any Corona Virus, floods or similar disasters. In the real world, we now feel united against our common enemy, but once Corona Virus is gone we will return to our squabbles.
And to return to the subversive nature of the story, having a “final battle” to save the world at the end of the story is just another common fantasy trope. We saw that in The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Marvel Cinematic Universe and so on. Game of Thrones, being an epic fantasy story, respects this unwritten rule. But it goes beyond that. Here the story asks- what are we going to do with the world we saved? One huge battle against the common enemy won’t solve all our problems.
In the final episode of season 7, when Jon, Daenerys and pretty much everyone met with Cersei at the Dragonpit in King’s Landing, they were all talking about this issue- putting aside their differences and joining together to a greater cause. Cersei, however, that was always one of the better players of the game of thrones didn’t let it sway her from the main objective. The first thing she asked was what happens afterwards? If they do make this temporary truce, how does it change the power balance in the War for the Throne? The point is, that even after facing a real existential threat- humans will always return to their power plays and honor squabbles. That’s what initially set the story in motion in the show, and it’s only right that it will be the thing to end it.
It seems like lot of people just don’t want to go back and reconsider their own interpretation of the story, when they had one way of looking at it for almost, what, 10 years? Some even more than 20. Some YouTubers built their careers on making videos about Game of Thrones theories. Which is more likely to happen- recognition that they were wrong in their own interpretation of the story or that showrunners were wrong? Since Benioff and Weiss didn’t write the books, it’s much easier to say that they don’t undrestand their own show and their own characters. If George R.R. Martin finished the books, it would be much harder to blame him for not understaning characters and the world he made. It would be harder, but not impossible, as we saw people turn on George Lucas once he does something “unacceptable”. In fact, a good indication for that can be that all the minor plot contrivances that happened in the earlier seasons — things that are unavoidable when constructing a story of that scale- that just went “unpunished” in the eyes of the nitpickers. Since it came straight from the books, you can’t really accuse George in not understanding the characters he created right?
George R. R. Martin brought all these characters to life and there were endless possible ways for it to go and how it could have ended. The path Game of Thrones chose for the ending is the one that, yes, subverted our expectations, but in the best and most logical way- in a way that makes us re-interpret almost everything we knew before. And Game of Thrones’ ending is not forcing you to reconsider just one thing, Daenerys for example. They are forcing you to reconsider almost everything. Purpose of Jon Targaryen, Jaime, White Walkers, Bran’s journey,… Some would say that’s too much to ask from your audience at the very end. But isn’t that sign of respect showrunners are showing for their audience? They don’t want to spoon feed us. And most of all, they stay true to their vision, and end the story how they and George have been planning for years, knowing the risk in making decision that might seem odd at first to some viewers.
There is no real sense of catharsis in the last season, except Arya killing the Night King, which was really popular for a lot of people. I know a lot of people hated it, but undeniably a lot of fans loved it. Twitter went crazy over it. It felt like the only “fuck yeah” moment of the season. But after that? Daenerys’ victory is a horror show. Claganebowl is ugly and dirty, Cersei’s death is tragic, you don’t feel satisfaction watching her die, like you felt when Ramsay or Walder Frey were killed, Bran is not a fan favourite choice for king, Jon killing Dany is far from “fuck yeah” moment and so on.
In the bottom line, the fact that the last season does not offer catharsis and almost everything is re-contextualized is a perfect combination for fan backlash. It is, however, what makes Game of Thrones such a great story that breaks all known conventions of the genre. People will complain about plot armor or characters making stupid mistakes to push the plot forward or battle tactics or whatever, but those things were there since the beginning almost. They are unavoidable and you can find them in every single movie or television series ever created. The only difference now is that it became mainstream to nitpick the hell out of the show. We do believe however, that as time passes and new viewers will emerge they might be able to view the events of the final season from a different angle, unbiased, and see how they fit into the bigger picture. Perhaps then, more viewers will join us feeling that not only the eighth season didn’t disappoint, it was nothing short of a poetic work of art.