The 10-year anniversary of Game of Thrones has resurrected a lot of discussions about the controversial ending. Let’s take a trip to an alternate universe and see if we can’t “fix” it.
I’d like to start this article by contradicting myself: Game of Thrones season 8 is not “broken.” It is a season of television, it is a piece of art, and it is open to interpretation. If you loved each and every minute of it, that is valid and I am happy for you.
That said, a lot of fans had problems with the final stretch of episodes, myself included. With HBO celebrating the show’s tenth anniversary this month, many of those problems are getting talked about again, so I thought it could be a good time to revisit a favorite question: how should the show have ended?
Before we go on, a ground rule: I don’t intend to invent a whole new ending here, although if you want that plenty of fans have come up with scenarios. Rather, I want to stick to the ending that HBO gave us, but tweak and add things to make it more coherent. So Daenerys Targaryen is still going to burn King’s Landing, Jon Snow is still going to kill her, and Bran Stark is still going to be made the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, all choices I took issue with for one reason or another. But the point of this particular game is to make these choices work, rather than make alternate ones.
Ready? Let’s play.
What’s wrong with Game of Thrones season 8?
Again, I start with a contradiction: if you loved the final season of Game of Thrones, nothing was wrong with it, and that’s fine; actually, I envy you, because it sounds like you haven’t spent sleepless nights tossing and turning while your brain tweaks this and that plot point in an attempt to make season 8 go down easier even though you just want to sleep.
…ANYWAY, I had several issues with the final three episodes of the series in particular, although they can more or less be boiled down to one thing: I didn’t believe that Daenerys Targaryen would do what she did.
And what did she do? Let’s recap: Daenerys came to Westeros in season 7 and found the country harder to take over than she thought. She lost her Tyrell, Martell and Greyjoy allies in short order, and the people in King’s Landing didn’t rise up against their leaders like the slaves rose up against the masters in Meereen. In season 8, she went north to help the Northerners defeat the undead, but found them chilly and remote. She lost her longtime advisor Jorah Mormont to the White Walkers, her dragon Rhaegal to Euron Greyjoy, and her closest confidante Missandei to Cersei Lannister. On top of that, she learned that her lover Jon Snow may have at least as good a claim to the Iron Throne as her, and that one of her advisors, Varys, was plotting behind her back to install him on it.
This all led to the moment her army invaded King’s Landing. The Lannister forces were beaten, but instead of accepting their inevitable surrender, she took wing and set the city and its people ablaze.
In the broad strokes, I don’t think this is a bad story. Actually, I think it’s admirably bold. Daenerys is a good-hearted character who starts with the best of intentions but who gives into her worst impulses in a moment of weakness and ends up crossing a line she can never uncross. In the abstract, this is high tragedy. It should have been every bit as powerful as Ned Stark’s execution or the Red Wedding, but with millions more spent on special effects.
Instead, my biggest thought watching it was, “But why?” Yes, Daenerys had always been given to extremes. She crucified over 100 slavers after she took the city of Meereen. She talked more than once about reducing the cities of Slaver’s Bay to dirt, and didn’t sound like she was going to make a distinction between the different kinds of people who lived there. But indiscriminately immolating the men, women and children of King’s Landing? That seemed and seems like a big stretch. Even when she sacked the city of Astapor in season 3, she specified that her Unsullied only “[s]lay the masters, slay the soldiers, slay every man who holds a whip, but harm no child.” Granted, she was painting with a broad brush, but at least she made allowances; in King’s Landing, she judged everyone guilty and acted accordingly.
And maybe the show could have sold a character arc where she got to that point — absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that — but I don’t think it did. As the common refrain goes, it wasn’t the story I had a problem with, it was the execution.
So how could it have been executed better?
The game continues: