One year ago today, on May 19, 2020, HBO aired the series finale of Game of Thrones, “The Iron Throne.” It was a lavishly produced episode with some standout scenes, including Daenerys Targaryen addressing her assembled armies in the aftermath of her destruction of King’s Landing, her dragon Drogon burning down the Iron Throne that so many characters had sought after for years, and a final montage where the remaining Stark children set out on their separate paths.
It also set off a firestorm of backlash that is still burning among some parts of the fandom today. An infamous Change.org petition to have the season rewritten with “competent writers” has collected nearly 2 million signatures, and the show’s stars came out in defense of their work, some as recently as yesterday. “The fact that some people were so disappointed is because everything before that was so good,” said Carice van Houten, who played the Red Woman Melisandre. “So [the backlash] feels a bit ungrateful. You’ve had such great times and then yeah, you’re going to be disappointed because it’s not going to go exactly how you anticipated. Of course, you’re going to have all sorts of criticisms and I just thought it was a sign of how good the show was.”
Van Houten alludes to people being disappointed in part because the show didn’t end “exactly how you anticipated,” which I think is fair, to a point. No ending to a show as sprawling as Game of Thrones was going to be able to please everyone, but surely showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss wanted to please more people than they did, and to not anger so many.
Several library’s worth of commentary has been written and filmed about what exactly went wrong with the final season, but I’ll give my brief take here: from where I was sitting, people weren’t upset with what happened so much as how it happened. Game of Thrones had always been a show that took the time to position all the characters and storylines on the chessboard just so; when they started toppling over, as they often did in spectacular fashion, we knew why and how we got here. We felt how important it was to reach the end of the road for this or that storyline, because we’d taken the journey.
The final season seemed to skip a lot of that legwork. It wasn’t that fans were upset that Daenerys Targaryen flash-fried thousands of innocent civilians — although that was intense, to be sure — it was that she did it with barely anything in the way of buildup. When I watched “The Bells” for the first time, I was too busy wondering why she was burning the place to be horrified by her actions. I didn’t feel the gut drop inevitability I should have from a scene like this.
Likewise, fans weren’t upset by the fact of Bran Stark being chosen as Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm; they were upset that, after nearly a decade of the show training us to pay attention to the ins and outs of the political game in Westeros, the decision is made after one speech about stories from Tyrion Lannister, with several characters who had never met Bran happily electing him as sovereign. There was no horse-trading, no backroom deals, no strategic marriages, no politics…this wasn’t a scene that fit with the show that we had watched.
If these had been two throwaway moments, fans may have been able to write them off — even great shows have muddled plotting here and there — but they were the culminations of arcs we’d been following for the entire length of the show; the series couldn’t afford to muck them up the way it did.
This isn’t to say that the final season of Game of Thrones didn’t have wonderful moments. The knighting of Brienne of Tarth is probably its high point. Arya killing the Night King is a definite highlight. Despite everything, I love the scene where Drogon burns the Iron Throne, and it’s hard not to sniffle at that ending montage.
The people behind Game of Thrones obviously cared deeply about what they were making; you can see it in how carefully every frame is composed, how deliberately every line is deployed. There’s a narrative that’s emerged among some fans that Benioff and Weiss didn’t care enough to do right by the show in the home stretch, but I don’t think that makes much sense. The final season is masterfully put together on the front end and took immense care and craft to organize — it was the most expensive show of its time, and the most complicated to mount. I suspect the problem was one of misplaced priorities. They tried their hardest to make a final season to cheer; they just didn’t expend their effort in the right areas.
So where does this leave Game of Thrones as a whole? Does the disappointment in the final season mean the show is no longer worth people’s time? I’d answer with a definite “no.” For one thing, rocky ending or not, the show has already influenced way too many people in Hollywood to just ignore. There’s a whole generation of shows either newly on the air or coming down the pike that are trying to build on what Game of Thrones created, from The Witcher to His Dark Materials to The Wheel of Time to The Lord of the Rings and many more.
The cinematic achievements of Game of Thrones have inspired filmmakers to dream bigger, for TV producers to wonder what other barriers they can break. Game of Thrones was the rare blockbuster TV show that also gleefully broke all the rules of storytelling. Ned, Robb and Catelyn Stark were traditional heroes who were not supposed to die — the show subverted what audiences expected to see, and it was thrilling. And by the time we were expecting that, the show pulled a fast one and resurrected Jon Snow after it killed him.
In theory, Daenerys’ heel turn at the end of the series should have gone down alongside these legendary moments as an awe-inspiring example of sheer storytelling ballsiness, something that made jaws drop around the world. And it could have…had the execution been on point. I know a lot of shows are looking to follow in Game of Thrones’ footsteps, but they’d be well advised to look to how the show managed its narrative risks, rather than just at the spectacular battle scenes.
But man, those battles were spectacular, particularly in the later going with episodes like “Hardhome,” “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Spoils of War.” That’s another area where Game of Thrones raised the game for everyone.
We could keep listing the iconic scenes for pages; Cersei Lannister’s harrowing walk through the streets of King’s Landing, or her brutal revenge against the religious zealots who made her take it. Or think of the blisteringly quiet moment in the bathtub where a weary Jaime Lannister lays his soul bare to Brienne of Tarth, setting off seasons of character transformation. Hodor holding the door, Tyrion Lannister witheringly telling the people of the city why they deserve to burn, and Jaime pushing little Bran Stark out a window…Game of Thrones dug itself into our brains like no show before or since.
So no, I don’t think the world is done grappling with Game of Thrones, whether it wants to be or not, and I think that’s a good thing. Whatever you think of the ending, the show stands too tall to be dismissed, is too influential to write off. I don’t know what’s going to happen with HBO’s upcoming prequel series, but the original show deserves to be studied, and watched, and celebrated.