We are going to look back on the final season of Game of Thrones as one, six-part series finale because, essentially, that’s precisely what it is, riven with concluding arcs and beats for its huge ensemble of characters.
If the third episode, The Long Night, was accused of skimping out on the savagery and brutality meted out to particularly the primary core of lead characters, the fifth episode The Bells proves they were just saving up most of the horror for the battle that, in this incarnation of Game of Thrones, really mattered: the fiery, brutal sack of King’s Landing by Daenerys, now the ‘Mad Queen’, Targaryen. Over a dozen characters of significance saw their journeys end in this terrifying penultimate episode, filled with fire and blood. The reaction has, inevitably, polarised opinion online. Not just at certain deaths at this stage of the show but the narrative direction of one character in particular, which has completely changed the game for the series finale.
This was always going to happen but it displays the significant level of attachment Game of Thrones fans have placed in characters and storylines they have followed for ten years. This is prevalent in many such fandoms today and, to an extent, always has been.
In Game of Thrones, across Season 8, there have been distinct concerns about three characters in particular.
Arya Stark, who has travelled over eight seasons from plucky, orphaned, lost child to ruthless, slightly supernatural assassin, who surprised everyone in killing the presumed arch villain of the series, the Night King, in The Long Night. Jaime Lannister, who after a long-term redemption arc following horrendous crimes in the name of his family, turns his back on a simpler life with Brienne of Tarth and returns to find his twin sister and beloved Cersei in the apocalyptic flames of King’s Landing. And lastly Daenerys, transformed in the last two episodes from empowering breaker of chains into a Mad Queen, filled with wrath, jealousy and personalised vengeance, burning thousands of innocent people and very much being established, for the series finale, as the likely enemy that Jon Snow will need to vanquish to save the Seven Kingdoms.
While Season 8 arguably has struggled to lay down enough track for these character arcs to truly feel earned or ferment well enough—a consequence of showrunners David Benioff & D B. Weiss’ choice to do less episodes than HBO originally offered them for the climax of the series—most of these developments make sense in the context of the characters in question.
Arya has more than figuratively become Death over the course of the series, training with a guild of ancient assassins who worship a God of Death – her vanquishing the living manifestation of Death (an oxymoron I know) in the Night King has a certain poetry to it and resonance, even if it doesn’t track with in-show prophecy; Jaime’s redemptive arc is challenged by his choice to return to Cersei, but he has always been pathologically attached to his sibling and did even say to Bronn in an earlier episode he wanted nothing more than to “die in the arms of the woman I love” – Jaime’s decision shows how redemption is not always easy, or achievable, but he is demonstrably a better man by The Bells than he was in Winter Is Coming; and Daenerys has always had fire and blood in her veins, the legacy of the quite unhinged Targaryen dynasty (filled with incest, murder, betrayal and psychopathy) at her back, and a significant question in terms of her leadership has always been if she would be a better ruler than her father, the Mad King. The truth, ultimately, is that everything is too personal for her to objectively do the best for what the late, lamented Varys was always interested in – the realm, the people. These are all creative decisions that could have ebbed and flowed in different directions but do, when they are unpicked, make narrative and thematic sense.
The problem we face now, as audiences, is that we have made it as personal as Daenerys.
The fan response has been varied. Benioff & Weiss already have been questioned in portraying Sansa Stark as someone who should be grateful for her years of physical and sexual abuse as it made her a stronger person, and now they are being accused of undercutting Daenerys’ empowering journey to become a strong leader women and girls can look up to; fans are upset that Jaime’s story hasn’t followed the track of the Valonqar prophecy from the A Song of Ice and Fire books (although it sort of maybe did…), or that Jaime showed disdain to Tyrion for the people, despite seasons of him learning to show mercy and compassion, eventually fighting for the living against the dead; and Arya has famously been labelled the latest example of a ‘Mary Sue’ for being the one to kill the Night King, having skipped past and almost supernaturally launched herself into his midst, and now in The Bells she manages to escape King’s Landing’s fiery apocalypse bestride a horse that could well symbolise her as a portent of Death itself. People are frustrated because Game of Thrones is not playing out expected beats (even though Dany & Jaime’s arcs, if you really think about them, do make sense – only Arya’s Night King-slaying was a considerable surprise). In reality there is a conflagration between what the writers are doing and what audiences want for the show and, more specifically, characters they have invested in for years.
When it comes to a show like Game of Thrones, it is almost impossible not to personalise the viewing experience. This could be the last big TV phenomenon, the last major ‘water-cooler’ series discussed and dissected in mainstream popular culture; people are having conversations in workplaces, in coffee shops, pubs, over shop counters etc… across the world. Not everyone is interested and not everyone is caught up and watching in tandem, but for those who are, Thrones crosses the cultural divide between storytelling genre and means of viewership. Even with its fantasy and science-fiction trappings, people are watching Thrones who would never watch a Battlestar Galactica or Babylon-5, series with a similar mythical and thematic resonance. It is crossing the boundary between those who stream the series on HBO (or NOW TV in the UK) and watch the televised broadcast.
The Long Night was the most discussed episode of television on Twitter ever, and considering it aired on the same weekend as Avengers: Endgame, another cultural behemoth that is on track to being the most profitable movie in history, that is an astonishing achievement. The series finale of Game of Thrones is likely to be the most immediately discussed, analysed and experienced TV show finale in television history. With something this big, how could we not care? How could we not be sharing reactions or theories or details with friends and loved ones and colleagues? And how could we not have decided precisely how we want the journeys of these characters to end? It was always going to happen.
It is particularly acute for the online fandoms of properties such as this who devote a great deal of their lives to these shows and characters. The boundaries of attachment begin to blur. Look at how The X-Files has spawned a huge associated fandom built around Gillian Anderson and her life, sometimes to a disturbingly obsessed degree (which triggered an intense reaction to how her character Dana Scully was treated in last years’ Season 11).
Fandoms often become captivated with actors portraying characters or indeed the characters themselves; trawl Twitter or Tumblr and you will see accounts devoted to Game of Thrones characters, endlessly repurposing moments and pictures and memes and furiously defending the character and that persons view of that character. They shall not be moved. They are a fixed point. They have their idea of what should happen to that character and if what does happen contradicts that view, a fury akin to Dany’s jealous, fiery rage will spew out into the internet groups and forums and spaces where fans collective to discuss the show, be it a Facebook group or Reddit thread etc… This is a level of attachment that ultimately goes beyond the broader level of what the series is trying to accomplish.
Take The X-Files again as an example. There is a core cross-section of fandom for that show who are obsessed with the notion of Agents Mulder & Scully becoming romantically involved (the series created the ‘shipper’ term that has now become popularised in modern culture). Their interest in the show is different from the aspects creator Chris Carter developed the series to explore – post-Watergate paranoia, American conspiracy theory, American cultural and societal guilt etc… – and focuses on the emotion. In the end, Carter gave way to some of this fan focus on the Mulder & Scully dynamic by getting them together and giving them a son, but when he tried to part them in the Season 10 revival as a means of injecting some sexual tension back into a relationship from which it had been forcibly extracted, fans were not happy. Season 11 redressed the balance.
Now if The X-Files is so beloved by some fans because of that relationship, that’s fine. That’s part of why we enjoy storytelling in different ways. But such a deep level of attachment at the expense of bigger themes or narrative ideas can sometimes work to the detriment of what creatives are trying to achieve from their perspective. Fandoms have their set idea of what matters about TV shows or movie series, and that often can contradict what ultimately happens on screen.
Game of Thrones is in a unique position in this regard given the fact it has been adapted from, in unprecedented circumstances, unfinished source material. Benioff & Weiss almost certainly imagined writer George R.R. Martin would have completed at least his sixth book The Winds of Winter by the end of the show’s run, let alone final book A Dream of Spring (if that even is the final book), yet this has not come to pass. They had the difficult job of taking what Martin told them would happen (or some aspects of it) and craft a conclusion to a show which has been consistently building and building and building over the years. Expectations for the payoff of storylines such as the invasion by the dead, or the fate of the Iron Throne, are enormous even by the expectations of television.
Nobody quite had this level of emotional investment for Mulder finding ‘The Truth’ by the end of The X-Files, or the castaways finding their destiny on the Island at the end of Lost. Even the thrilling expectations of Walter White being exposed at the end of Breaking Bad wouldn’t quite have matched the sheer scale of whether Jaime or Cersei would kill each other, or Arya would kill Cersei, or Jon would kill the Night King etc… and the reality is, none of those long expected plot developments have happened. Not one. Will they happen in Martin’s books? Maybe. Especially given how some fan reaction to these not happening has been strongly negative, but the truth is this: Benioff & Weiss are giving us the ending they believe in.
There is a truth in storytelling that it only happens in a vacuum until the audience engages with it. A book becomes theirs as much as the authors, sometimes more than the authors, once people read it. Whether a book, TV show, a movie etc… you place your own expectations based on your own life experiences, believes, culture and so on, and you approach that piece of art differently as a result to everyone else. You may watch Game of Thrones because you love Jon Snow or Daenerys (or even Emilia Clarke). You may watch it because you’re a huge book enthusiast and lover of Martin’s work or because you’re a nut for medieval shows or fantasy genre storytelling. You may, like me, watch it for the mythology, myth-making and lore as much as the characters (many of which I think are brilliantly portrayed).
We all approach Game of Thrones, or any of these examples, from our unique vantage point. But that is precisely the same for Benioff & Weiss in how they write the show. They believe Arya should have taken down army of the dead. They believe Jaime & Cersei should die together, affirming their twisted love above all. They believe that Daenerys may ultimately be unable to escape her family’s tragic, crazed manifest destiny, born out of sorcery, fire and blood. It is how they see a show they love just as much as us—no doubt more having devoted over a decade of their lives to it—coming to an end, and even if we disagree, their choices deserve to be respected and considered as much as what we believe, or want to see, as fans.
Becoming attached to our favourite stories and characters is a wonderful thing. It’s why we engage in media and entertainment. It helps us process the world around us, helps us learn about who we are, and helps us understand the lives we lead. It’s when we place this attachment, and our desire for the characters we love to have the ending we want for them—and only the end we want—that we begin to lose sight of what the broader story is attempting to do, or say, and rob us of the enjoyment we have experienced for in some cases many years.
If you love them, let them go. Otherwise you may end up like Daenerys Targaryen, raging at a virtual King’s Landing, having lost all perspective of the world around her.