Plot of Thrones: Stumbling At The Finish

I didn’t watch Game of Thrones until the eighth season. I’m watching this final season because my girlfriend is semi-invested in the finale and wanted a companion to watch with. “But why would you spoil yourself?” C’mon son. The internet has spoiled me on every major event and most characters, so I know all the big plot points and characters already.

I know about all the weddings. Red Wedding, Purple Wedding, White Wedding (hey little sister). I know what happens when Oberyn and The Mountain face off. I know Tyrion drinks and knows things. I know Jon Snow doesn’t know anything.

So I’m not coming into this final season completely blind. And after watching the penultimate episode and witnessing the fan aftermath on the internet, I have some thought about this season both from a writing perspective and from a perspective of observing fans of the show for seven seasons without watching the show.

(Spoilers for everything Game of Thrones up until the episode that aired yesterday will follow, along with minor spoilers for some other shows.)

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Burn baby burn, Khaleesi Inferno!

It’s been pointed out that Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire has always been a tragedy. George R. R. Martin wrote “realistic” characters, not everyone gets a happy ending, brutal stuff happens and anyone can die. So going into the series end expecting everyone to live happily ever after was never on the table, really. In fact, most people expected tragic deaths for some heroes, but also satisfying deaths for the villains. It’s all about the cathartic release that “feels right.”

Where the problem lies is that every fan watching the show has a different idea of what feels right to them. And when you have a cultural event like Game of Thrones, that’s a lot of fans and a lot of internet to build communities and theorize in.

Okay, so let’s begin with the Mad Queen. From what I understand and observed on the internet, Mad Queen Dany has always been in the cards. Most of the series has been other characters saying “Yo, Targaryens be cray-cray yeah?” And Dany getting close but being reeled back. So in a vacuum, Dany finally going full crazy makes sense in terms of foreshadowing and the context of the story.

But speaking as a writer, you can’t control your fans. Even if Dany was intended to go insane the entire time, a certain following was built up behind the character as a protagonist. Over the course of seven seasons I saw all sorts of women on the internet calling themselves Khaleesi, identifying with the Mother of Dragons, etc. Parents were naming their kids Daenerys and Khaleesi. (Contrast with Cersei, the villain, whose name was not nearly as popular for newborns.)

In this case, you’re clearly seeing a trend of people rooting for the character of Dany. And while the roots of madness are there, you spend seven and a half seasons with her being a positive character. A face-heel turn in the penultimate episode is too much whiplash for fans. 70 hours of television as a protagonist vs an hour of antagonist. This eleventh hour change is not going to go over well regardless of how much setup it has had because it comes across as a “twist” instead of character development.

In the show Agents of Shield, Ward spends 2/3 of the first season as a good guy. Then it’s revealed he’s Hydra and he becomes an antagonist. He spends the next two seasons being a villain before getting his comeuppance, and it works because the character turned early enough in the arc that you get development and understanding post turn.

Dany going mad in the second-to-last episode is the equivalent of, in the last hour of Endgame, Iron Man going “you know what? Thanos is right,” and then turning on all the Avengers. Regardless of any previous minor foreshadowing, Tony has become a beloved protagonist and a switch at the end with no time for catharsis will upset fans. The time for Dany to reveal her madness was three seasons ago after a slow descent. Is her turn tragic? Sure. Was it foreshadowed? Yep. Does that make it inherently good storytelling? Nope! You still need to execute it correctly, and as shown by the divisive reaction to the latest episode, it looks like the writers missed the mark a bit on this one.

Let’s switch gears and talk about Cersei. Cersei has been a villain/antagonist for the entirety of Game of Thrones. She was also a complex character, but in terms of the story she was presented as the baddie. This sets up a certain expectation from fans – with eight seasons of buildup, her comeuppance should be satisfying.

Going into season 8, I saw two big topics being discussed (outside of who will sit on the Iron Throne in the end). Those two topics were: who is going to kill the Night King, and who is going to kill Cersei. This is because these two characters were set up as the ultimate villains, and in a show as violent and brutal as Game of Thrones, viewers are conditioned that death is the ultimate catharsis to end villainy. Therefore it follows that whoever gets the kill is also a focal point, because they are the character enacting the viewer’s catharsis.

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Night King, Iceborn of the North, First of His Name, Ruler of…wait, crap, I forgot. Hold on…

Leading up to the final Harry Potter book, there was a lot of speculation as to who would get to kill Bellatrix since she was a villain who wrought a lot of wrong. And while Mrs. Weasley was not at the top of fan lists, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” became a semi-iconic line and most fans were pretty satisfied with that particular part of the finale. Even though it was unexpected, it felt right in the framing of the story. People were also debating who would get to kill Thanos in the lead-up to Endgame (but I won’t spoil that one, just in case). But I personally thought how that was resolved was satisfying as well.

Through cinema and television, modern audiences have been sanitized to violence. People who are otherwise very nonviolent will cheer when a particularly despised villain dies at the hands of a hero. In any story where death is regularly on the table, the audience expects the ending of A kills B because it’s the villain getting their just deserts. Part of the catharsis of seeing a villain’s defeat revolves around a protagonist getting to dispense that justice.

Cersei’s final episode involved complete passivity. She spent the entire episode watching destruction out of a window until she was told to leave, and then she left. For a scheming villain she went out with a whimper, which may subvert narrative expectations but is also unsatisfying. There was no climactic reckoning between her and any of the protagonists.

And then her death involved a building falling on her while she was in the arms of her brother & lover.

This is the equivalent of Thanos, in the final battle, tripping over a rock and breaking his neck.

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Comic book Thanos is slightly less intimidating.

It’s not satisfying and offers a weird redemption for her character as she gets what would be considered a “good” death as opposed to a lot of the more violent ones that happened to characters we cared about. There’s no catharsis moment. Instead viewers are left wondering “wait, was that it?” And on top of that, there’s no real reason for Jaime to be in the city in the first place, other than that’s how the writers plotted the death and worked their way backwards from there.

Compare this to the Night King’s death in episode 3. While Arya coming out of nowhere was not done very well narratively (see this reddit post about cause & effect in writing) it provided a catharsis because it was a crowning achievement for Arya herself, on top of killing a major villain. Seven seasons of training to be a stealthy, silent assassin allowed her to sneak up on a supernatural enemy and deliver the killing blow when nobody else could get close to him. It felt better to the average viewer than Cersei’s anti-climax.

This all goes back to what I said towards the beginning: when you write something and it gains popularity, you have to pay attention to what the fans get excited about. You don’t have to pander to them or even let them dictate how the plot should go (because often times what fans want is the antithesis of a character’s development, or a forced happy ending). Lord knows fans are a wild herd that can go any direction at a moment’s notice.

But ignoring how characters have evolved for a static ending is a recipe for disaster. How I Met Your Mother is the perennial example: The showrunners came up with an ending they thought was satisfying in season two, but the show ended at season nine and the characters had gone in a very different direction from their ending in the can. But instead of scrapping their plan and listening to their fans (who did absolutely nothing but beg for seeing more of the titular Mother for the entire last season) they stayed rigid and used an ending that ignored seven seasons of character development and threw everything out the window for the last thirty minutes.

Fans were upset.

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We spent nine years on a couch for THAT?

It’s known that George R.R. Martin gave the show’s writers a general idea of what the conclusion of his books would be. But given that the show diverges from the book in many places (or so I’ve been told) having a static ending that the writers need to “work” towards could result in something similar to How I Met Your Mother. Instead of looking at the characters and where they would end up naturally, they start with the plot beats and have the characters move like puppets to get what they want even if it ignores development and what the fans want to see from the story. (Here’s a link to a Twitter thread with a more in-depth look at this.)

In the end, while everything that happened in the show made sense and may or may not have been foreshadowed, it still left people empty and missing something. The catharsis they wanted was replaced by the unexpected. And while giving the fans an unexpected conclusion can sometimes be satisfying, more often than not the fans will rebel. In this particular episode’s case, it looks more like rebellion than happiness.

As a person who has mostly observed the show and its fans from the outside and has no real emotional investment in Game of Thrones’ conclusion, I’m very interested to see how the finale plays out. Having spent six season following Lost and nine seasons following How I Met Your Mother, I’m no stranger to dedicating years to a show and it having a less than desirable ending.

I’ll be waiting with open arms for Game of Thrones fans who feel dejected next Sunday, but I hope it turns out to be a good finale despite what seems to be a misstep in the penultimate episode.

(I’ll also take this time to plug Person of Interest and Justified as two narrative-heavy shows that ended with very satisfying conclusions and didn’t blow the landing.)

Good luck Game of Thrones fans. May the Winter be with you, or whatever.

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