The entire Game of Throne’s series was a historical moment in television, a fantasy epic became the frontrunner in television, a must see that was as pervasive in culture as any show had ever been. And because of its fantastical nature the show was able to present and provide TV moments the likes of which we have never seen before (Ned’s death, The Battle of the Blackwater, The Mountain vs The Viper, That Battle of The Bastards etc…) . The excellence of the show was unquestioned going into the final season, but then….oh lord, but then…
The audience’s turn against the series is maybe the most historic of moments in GoT. Public opinion has maybe never swung so quickly and so far on something so beloved. So if you didn’t watch the GoT final season live or if you remember back to that journey, this is what it was like- recorded to the best of my ability- to watch each episode, and then wait a week for the next, as the populace ranted or raved about what they just saw.
Episode 1- “Winterfell” (April 14th 2019)
The first episode was carried by an entire year of anticipation and excitement. The joys of seeing characters reunited at Winterfell, some having been apart since the first season, was exciting, and the general reaction was joy for getting back into a season of GoT.
This episode also did a good job establishing Daenarys’ character arc, the most controversial character in the final season (mostly for her ‘lack of development’). This episode didn’t feel like it had that problem. Right from the opening scene are subtle clues that Daenerys was disappointed at not being welcomed as a hero (as she had wanted from the beginning) but instead found joy in the actual conquering like when her dragons scare the living shit out of everyone in Winterfell. The north rejected Daenerys, was uncomfortable with the foreigner, and her descent to becoming the Mad Queen begins/continues (the problem, it could be argued, is that it didn’t get this much attention sooner, but alas that is another blog).
Something that is true on further viewing, but was not a complaint until later episodes, was how much the pace picked up. Developments happened in sentences that used to take episodes. This isn’t inherently wrong, but the extremity of the change of pace was bound to upset some viewers. I did not hear many complaints about it after this episode, but it’s clear the seeds were planted right away.
Overall, the first episode was decent and fun as we got reacquainted with the characters we love, and they got reacquainted with each other, and it was received well. It felt like the beginning of something special.
Episode 2- “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (April 21st 2019)
This episode was a bit of Game of Thrones brilliance that had everyone chomping at the bit for more, which ultimately backfired, but at the time, no one could see that coming.
The interactions continued, in classic Game of Thrones style, building an investment in each character to create buy-in for a big moment to come, in this case, the battle for Winterfell. Jaime meeting Daenerys and reuniting with Tyrion and Brienne and interacting with Bran were all great moments that continued the vibes of the first episode, and the rest of it was much of the same with other characters, Jorah with Lyanna and Sam, while Daenerys and Sansa had a meme-worthy exchange.
But the excitement was generated from the waiting, the pontificating and philosophizing between Tyrion and Gendry and Davos and others as news of the Army of the Dead arrives and preparations were made. The episode was a terrific display of the quiet tension that precedes a battle, building the anticipation of the viewers to see a moment they had been waiting years…decades for. By the end, it was painful for the credits to roll. I remember my longing for the next Sunday night when we get to see “The Long Night” and the battle for Winterfell. Game of Thrones was right on track.
Episode 3- “The Long Night” (April 28th 2019)
This episode was one of the most anticipated moments in all of television. It was a daily conversation as the week progressed. Who would die? Who would kill the Night King? WHAT THE FUCK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN?
People made bingo boards or made bets or played fantasy games based on who would die and who would live. Afterall, this was Game of Thrones, this was the show that had no problem with killing your favorite characters.
Viewer beware, some of your favorites were about to die.
The question wasn’t will people die, but who? Whose storyline has run out? Who wasn’t necessary for the rest of the season? Who was safe? Whose task was not yet completed?
Based on conversations at the time… sayonara Davos and Jorah and Gendry, we got no need for you. Brienne, you had your moment with Jaime, time to go. Arya was on the chopping block because it seemed like she was floundering. Jon was safe, he had too much left to do. Tyrion seemed like a solid choice for a shocking death. The speculation went on and on…
And when the episode arrived, and the Dothraki flames were lit and then extinguished one by one… I couldn’t have been more bought it, which is incredible to think about, because in over an hour, most people couldn’t have been more turned off.
This episode was the turning point for the entire final season. Beforehand was peak GoT fervor. Afterwards, everyone was ravenously mad. And here’s why, based on what I remember being said, and on further evaluation since…
“The psychology of the battle made no sense.” I remember people saying this a lot. I don’t want to get too far into these weeds, but there were some obvious issues with sending your Dothraki out to slaughter early on (in what world do you send your cavalry out first, and that far away from your main forces?), the way the Unsullied died to safe inferior forces (only to have a large group of them miraculously be alive in the next episode), why you would have Daenerys and Jon on mother fucking dragons just chilling and floating around and only every once in a while strafing the ground with fire, even before the undead dragon arrived… stuff like that.
On top of that, it was impossible to see Jon and Daenerys and whatever the hell they were doing. I don’t have much more to say about that, because I couldn’t see what they were doing. Super dark.
No one really died, except for everyone we didn’t know. The ratios were just so bad. Like everyone dies. Piles of bodies everywhere, and yet of our main characters we lost… Jorah? Come one Game of Thrones… you have to be a bit more realistic. Sam Tarly , who has no survival skills at all, was hacking away at the undead and survived. Disconnection settled into viewers as it become hard to argue that our characters survived, merely because they were our characters, not based on any reality of the battle they fought in. So much for being the show that kills characters.
People were murderously mad that Arya killed the Night King and that it wasn’t left to Jon. In an effort to be surprising and live up to its name (rather than killing some more main characters which earned them the rep) they decided to deprive us of a special moment most viewers had waited for since Jon and the Night King first crossed swords. Instead we got a rushed stabbing. People did not like the trade-off, and it’s not surprising.
So, the change in opinion was on. The episode was an amazing feat of filming, the battle was awesome, but the story wasn’t advanced in the battle, and a lot of it was hard to follow visually and intellectually. The first two episodes did not receive the payoff they deserved and so the formula GOT had been using from the beginning (build, build, build, BOOM) was broken. The season wasn’t ruined, but Game of Thrones had disappointed its viewers, and we were not used to it, nor happy about it.
Episode 4- “The Last of the Starks” (May 5th 2019)
The critical eye of the viewers was turned to episode 4. A big moment in GOT fandom had been botched, but they seemed ready to forgive.
However, this episode only compounded issues. In hindsight, the stories in episode 4 were very self-contained, introduced and developed in a matter of one episode, a trademark of shows on cable TV, not HBO, and certainly not Game of Thrones, where the pace tends to be frustratingly slow as we build and grind to huge payoffs.
But in this episode, we see Jaime have sex with Brienne and then change his mind and run back to Cersei when for the last two episodes he had been devoted to Daenerys’ cause. Missandei is captured and executed in a half hour span. The army in the North decides to go to King’s Landing and arrive at King’s Landing in minutes rather than episodes. A dragon is abruptly killed, with no fanfare. Gendry is made lord of Storm’s End, proposes to Arya, and is rejected.
So after an episode with no payoff for long built storylines, we see storylines develop and end in the matter of a single episode. Others had been brewing, like Tyrion and Varys wondering if Jon would be a better ruler, but were landed with a clunk, without any of the smart politics that got all these characters to this point (wE aRe cOmMiTtInG tReAsOn DoN’t TeLl AnYoNe.)
Plus, we are one episode away from another big battle (which is another pacing issue), and the inner complexities of that moment weren’t revisited. All the characters seemed to have other personal quests to accomplish, which isn’t bad, but if creators going to do a season in six episodes by choice, they are going to need more efficiency than that.
The boo birds were out in full swing after this. The pace of the episode and the season in general were now wonky, and people were decrying Weiss and Benioff as ruining the season with lazy writing and poor development. And all of that anger seemed to come out onto that damn coffee cup that could be seen in one scene. It seemed to be the taunting example of the lack of care that viewers were feeling as they watched at home.
Episode 5- “The Bells” (May 12th 2019)
This is where the show and its reception get tricky. I think this episode is good, but the build to it was bad. So some of the criticism is well founded, and some of it is not.
After the fast paced and underdeveloped previous episode, just about the worst thing this episode could do was open with a hasty death of a beloved character in a manner unbefitting that character. Lo and behold, Varys gets torched for letting one of his secrets slip? I don’t believe it. I’m not buying it for a second, and neither did anyone else. So hackles were raised from two bad episodes before this and an inauspicious beginning.
Otherwise, this episode had a lot of payoff for long running storylines, and most of them are done well. The Hound and The Mountain die locked in battle. Jaime kills Euron, reunites with Cersei and they die arm in arm (some didn’t like this death, but it seemed fine to me). Cersei must watch the city that she failed to protect burn as she watched, helpless, a destroyed queen. Daenerys did work on Drogon, as she flew and burned her enemies. We got to see images we had prepared for since those baby dragons hatched.
But some stuff wasn’t great. The Golden Company was gone before the ink on their contract was dry. Arya seemed like she ran out of stuff to do a while ago. And it’s hard not to say that Daenerys’ turn wasn’t bad when it got such a negative reaction.
They certainly had been planting the seeds for a Mad Queen for episodes and seasons (there’s even really cool stuff about how her hair becomes more complex as she becomes madder). And this season was largely dedicated to Daenerys being rejected as a savior in Westeros and instead being treated as an invader. But people weren’t feeling the turn.
I am speculating here, but it feels like the moment she made the decision to turn wasn’t significant enough to create the final snap. The straw that broke the camel’s back needed to be more like a tree branch to convince us that she did something so drastic. She heard the bells, and we could see her thinking, her brain whirring with considerations. But what finally did it? What made her snap? We couldn’t imagine what was going through her mind, and that’s on the storytellers for not making it clear in that moment what was the reason(s) such a significant shift occurred in a much beloved character. It can’t be all the subtle slights she received. She received far worse across the Narrow Sea and never burned it to the ground. What was going on in her mind? It’s still hard to say for certain.
At this point the season was unrecoverable.
Episode 6- “The Iron Throne” (May 19th 2019)
The question on everyone’s mind since they started reading A Game of Thrones or started the first episode of the first season was ‘who would end up on the iron throne?’ I’m not sure too many people were satisfied with the answer… which was no one. It was melted by a dragon.
People could have been satisfied with that ending. By itself, it is not a bad ending. It makes sense in a poetic kind of way. But it would take some build and buy-in by the viewership, and by this point, the show had none.
Moments that were going to be stupendous, monumental, climactic, cathartic resolutions became little more than drops in an emotional bucket or head scratching decisions credited to two creators that, at this point, everyone hated.
Tyrion being imprisoned for treason felt blah. Like okay, he’ll be out. Jon stabbing Daenerys felt confusing because it was based on a Daenerys heel turn that people were still puzzling over. Drogon melting the throne felt poetic and symbolic, but not for the reasons the creators wanted, but because it represented the viewership’s lack of getting what they wanted, their final season bursting into flames and melting before their eyes. And then when Bran the Broken was declared king, based on a weak speech from someone who was supposed to be a prisoner, no one quite knew what was going on. Then Jon Snow was sent to the wall because the Unsullied hated him, and then we watched the Unsullied sail away leaving people wondering how a group of people who no longer lived in Westeros could convince a new king who loved Jon to do that to him.
I believe these are symptoms of the danger inherent in GRRM feeding the show creators the ending. They had to get to this ending. So they started, not with where the characters were in their development, but with Jon at the wall, Bran as king, Daenerys as the Mad Queen killed by Jon, no one sitting on the Iron Throne… and then they were forced to get there. It didn’t feel organic, it didn’t feel true.
At the end of it all with time as the great healer of wounds, the last season wasn’t what it could or should have been, rushed and lacking in inspiration, too short and too fast. But the problems are so complex and interwoven, if only a couple of decisions had been changed (full season of ten episodes, better battle of Winterfell, the show doing its own ending), who knows what it would have looked like? Most of the episodes were pretty decent standalone episodes. But that only creates a pretty decent season. And when the show is trying to meet the expectations of the final season of what could’ve been a top three show of all time… pretty decent might as well be a tire fire.
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