Who’s to blame for the decline of Game of Thrones?

Image: Game of Thrones/HBO
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

Many fans were not pleased with the final season of Game of Thrones. But who deserves the lion’s share of blame for what went wrong?

Game of Thrones, a show that once held the rapt attention of a global audience, had a rough landing. The eighth and final season received scathing reviews from fans and critics alike, with many upset by writing choices that were confusing at best and stupefying at worst. All in all, it wasn’t the kind of reception Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss likely wanted for the most influential TV show of the 2010s.

Seasonal rot, the phenomenon where series tend to dip in quality as they go on, is actually pretty common among long-running shows, whether because of fatigue or over-confidence or whatever; take a look at The Walking Dead if you want an example. And a lot of fans would agree that Game of Thrones sagged as it went on, with season 8 being the final crash landing. Even now, over a year after the final episode aired, there’s still debate over who is truly to blame.

If we want to boil that question down to the easiest possible answers (and this is the internet, so we do), there are two options: Benioff and Weiss (D&D), or A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books on which the series is based. Over the past year and change, D&D have definitely taken most of the heat, starting with the infamous petition to remake season 8 “with competent writers,” or the entire subreddit dedicated to bashing them.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 03: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss attend the Season 8 premiere of “Game of Thrones” at Radio City Music Hall on April 3, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

But is all this anger misplaced? A big criticism of the final season is that it was rushed and didn’t allow room for the characters to develop believable motivations for their actions. And indeed, the final two seasons — the ones that get the lion’s share of criticism — were shorter the usual, with seven and six episodes respectively compared to the usual 10.

Apparently, this was always the plan, as Benioff told Entertainment Weekly before the final season aired. “HBO would have been happy for the show to keep going, to have more episodes in the final season,” he said. “We always believed it was about 73 hours, and it will be roughly that. As much as they wanted more, they understood that this is where the story ends.”

Had Martin been in charge of the show, it probably would have run much longer. But he wasn’t, because he was trying to finish his novel series. The last A Song of Ice and Fire book, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011. The next, The Winds of Winter, still doesn’t have a release date. The entirety of Game of Thrones happened between the release of those two books.

When it became clear that the show was going to catch up to D&D, Martin told them the broad outline of his story, sometime around season 3 or 4. But there was also a lot he couldn’t tell them. “I can give them the broad strokes of what I intend to write, but the details aren’t there yet,” he told Vanity Fair back in 2014. “I’m hopeful that I can not let them catch up with me.”

Obviously, that didn’t happen, leaving D&D to rely on their own devices, with results that displeased many fans. Benioff and Weiss signed up to adapt a story but found themselves having to make up large parts of it. D&D may have dropped the ball, but Martin’s pass left something to be desired.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – APRIL 03: George R. R. Martin attends the “Game Of Thrones” Season 8 Premiere on April 03, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Other critics have noted this problem. Writing for Goat, Alexander Pan makes a good point about how, without Martin’s source material to draw on, the show was always going to be doomed, particularly when you take into account how many decisions a showrunner has to make beyond just the writing: “Couple the pressure of having to write high quality material that lives up to George’s meticulously plotted writing with the time constraints put on them by HBO in regards to getting the show made in a timely manner (unlike George, who spends years perfecting each novel), it’s perhaps no surprise that the wheels have begun to fall off the wagon over the last three or so seasons.”

Let’s look at a specific example: Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) becoming king in the series finale. “David and Dan told me there were two things George R.R. Martin had planned for Bran, and that was the Hodor revelation, and that he would be king,” Wright told the Making Game of Thrones website. Bran ended up being king, but there was no roadmap to get there. As a result, a lot of viewers didn’t think the development made any sense. D&D had to plot points, but not the details that made them work.

There is no easy answer here, but I think that condemning D&D for everything that went wrong with the show doesn’t recognize the whole story. It’s true that the writing never reached the heights it achieved in the early seasons, but that’s as much because they ran out of material as because of their own failings. They definitely struggled to meet expectations, but if they’d had a completed series to work from, I bet Game of Thrones would have ended with a bang.

So the next time you’re quick to judge David and Dan, consider the struggle of adapting a renowned but incomplete series that had set the bar very high. Martin himself has struggled to finish his story even though he’s taken nearly a decade between books, so what made us think these two could do it in a few years while also having to deal with the complications of running a TV show?

Next. All 73 episodes of Game of Thrones, ranked worst to best. dark

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