How The Final Season of “Game of Thrones” Torched More Than Just King’s Landing
This article contains spoilers.
The playwright Wendy Wasserstein once said that she thought the biggest mistake women made as they came to power in businesses traditionally run by men was that they acted like men. Is that the problem at the core of why many Game of Thrones fans were put off by its final season? Does it all boil down to the downward arc of the show’s heroine Daenerys Targaryen, and how she turned into a mad queen, fulfilling her family’s history littered with crazed men?
Her ruthless burning of King’s Landing, including a majority of the citizenry, seemed like something the more brutal male characters would have done in the series. It seemed ridiculously out of character for this sensitive female character who was freeing slaves left and right. Did audiences turn on the show so furiously because the narrative turned the maverick Daenerys into just another dictator, a woman acting like all those insecure, awful men Wasserstein wrote about?
Dany, as she came to be called onscreen and off, a moniker that tells you a lot about the affections everyone had for her, started out entirely sympathetic. She was used and abused by her ambitious and vicious brother Viserys as he schemed to return to the Iron Throne to rule the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. In his single-minded quest to take back what was once their father’s, the big brother forced Dany to do all sorts of horrible things to help in the bidding. He virtually sold her into sexual slavery, forcing her to marry the brutish Dothraki leader Khal Drogo in exchange for his army. Drogo then raped her and impregnated her before they, incredibly, fell in love.
After that, things didn’t get much more ideal for Dany. She lost the baby, watched Drogo murder Viserys, then later die himself, and accumulated little hope for any bright future. But then Dany survived a fire, helping ‘birth’ three dragons from their eggs, and became a magical figure to enthralled followers. This “mother of dragons” as she was called, started her own quest for the throne, vowing to break the wheel of tyranny ruling Westeros, and govern with compassion and fairness. Ah, politicians…
As played by Emilia Clarke, audiences couldn’t help but fall in love with the plucky and tenacious Dany as she pursued her march to the throne over the next few seasons. Clarke played her shrewd and tough, yes, but there was always a sweetness in those big blue eyes. She freed hordes of slaves, invited them to join her army, and took out only those who betrayed her or tried to kill her first. As the dragons grew, so did her power, and no matter how many times Dany yelled, “Dracarys” (dragon fire), signaling her three beasts to release hell on her opponents, we cheered.
Dany could appear ruthless, sure, but her behavior paled in comparison to the horrid Cersei (Lena Headey) and others in the Lannister brood who lorded over the inhabitants of Westeros. Indeed, when Cersei became queen, after her son Joffrey was poisoned and died, she became more abhorrent than any man in any of the seven territories.
But then, in season eight, as seven seasons of Dany’s trajectory started to move towards its conclusion, the ground started to shift. As she and her armies banded together with Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) to defend Winterfell against the Army of the Dead, Dany’s ego started to run amuck. She failed to win over Snow’s army and stewed about it endlessly. Snow’s sister Sansa (Sophie Turner) didn’t react warmly to her nor did the feisty Arya (Maisie Williams), and Dany sulked even more. Her insecurities started to isolate her from her closest advisors and allies, and when she found out that her lover Jon Snow was the true heir to the Iron Throne, their romance took a nose dive. It didn’t help that during the battle of Winterfell, Dany’s dragons couldn’t take out the Night King, it was up to little Arya to do so. She and her catspaw dagger gutted the previously unstoppable villain and in turn, ended the reign of the ruthless army of the undead. Everyone celebrated, but Dany continued to brood.
She acted more and more like an insecure tyrant, not a breaker of the wheel, refusing the council of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and others. And when Dany’s protector Jorah Mormont (Ian Glen) was killed, and her aid Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) was beheaded by Cersei, she lost her marbles. In the battle for King’s Landing, Dany rode her dragon Drogon to fiery victory, but didn’t stop after Cersei’s army surrendered. She cried, “Dracarys!” once more, and her weapon of mass destruction leveled the city and reduced its citizenry to ashes.
Everyone was horrified, and the responsibility to stop her tyranny fell to Jon Snow. He assassinated the new queen of all of Westeros by knifing her in the heart. It was a rather fitting and ironic end of her life, considering that her lunacy broke Jon’s heart weeks earlier. Still, it left a bitter taste in the mouths of many who had followed her journey of empowerment. Was it even a bit misogynistic to demean her character and level her so? At the very least, the arc of her story in the last season felt more like a straight line. It was too predictable, and far from nuanced.
The narrative of the previous seven seasons was much more complex and unpredictable. Even to those who had read George R. R. Martin’s books upon which they were based, were regularly gobsmacked by the zigging and zagging in the serpentine narrative. Show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss followed the books closely, but they added plenty of their own surprises to the mix to keep viewers on their toes.
Martin was one of the producers of the HBO series from the beginning, but this last season was the first that didn’t follow the narrative of one of his books. The author has yet to complete the trajectory of Dany and all the others on the page, and you could feel the depth of his prose missing this go-round. Left to their own devices, it appeared that Benioff and Weiss opted for big battles with a simpler narrative sweep. Perhaps that was inevitable, but it fell foreign compared to the other seasons. And did the showrunners blow their chance to say something more provocative or even expansive about leadership as they turned Dany into just another power-hungry villain, out for herself in Westeros?
To many, the writers made additional and crucial mistakes in this final season as well. Killing off the Night King and his army in episode three helped paint most everything that followed anticlimactically. There were problems with where they took other characters too. Jon Snow seemed ridiculously naïve, even for him, to tell his family about his true claim to the throne, and not expect them to bellow from the rafters about it. Why would his men cheer him as the ultimate warrior when his strategy saw them losing? Those oafs should have been cheering Arya who singlehandedly stopped the army of the dead. And did the writers really think that it was fitting for Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to return to Cersei at the end when the entire arc of the series showed him turning from a bad guy into a roguish good one? Was any of that sophisticated storytelling, the kind that made Game of Thrones the most popular television show on the planet?
The scripts even fell into terrible traps like telling, instead of showing. How did Dany and her dragons miss a harbor filled with enemy ships and gigantic crossbows to become sitting ducks? How did Missandei get captured? What enabled Euron to miraculously find Jaime’s secret boat pick-up? And why was Headey given so little to do in the final season other than stare out of her tower window at all the action going on below? At a reported million dollars an episode, those were the easiest paychecks the acclaimed actress surely ever cashed.
Some plot points seemed overly trite as well. After Dany is slain, her remaining dragon Drogon burns down the entire throne room in a fit of rage, but doesn’t take out her murderer Jon Snow. Drogon melts down the iron throne in a moralistic gesture hardly befitting a creature like a dragon who never even saw it before. The Hound’s final battle with his brother stupidly goes on and on, with both defying physics and human frailty, with the skirmish ultimately left as a draw. And Arya’s arc was essentially done after her heroics in the third episode. She deserved more story in the final three episodes. So did the audience.
Still, despite all those misgivings, there was much to admire in the final season. The battle scenes brilliantly captured the chaos and frenzy of such skirmishes. The acting was top-notch, particularly Dinklage in his numerous monologues. No show can match the production values of Game of Thrones, and few movies can compete with it either, for that matter. Thankfully, the series did end with a Stark on the throne as they were the family that truly deserved to rule, but the show handed the kingdom to the wrong Stark. Bran the Broken wasn’t as deserving as Sansa. The writers fudged by giving her Winterfell to rule separately, but that felt like a cheat.
All that lead back to the failing of the show to properly reward the women who ruled. Rather than govern like an empathetic woman who knew repeated hardship and discrimination, Dany took charge with the worst instincts of macho men. Sansa, who also went through tons of hardship, isn’t rewarded with the throne, she’s given a consolation prize. Does Bran’s taking of the throne smack of white, male privilege? Hmmm…
Interestingly, other than Dany’s arc, Sansa’s story was the most complex in the series. She went from privileged and naive teen to shrewd and savvy ruler. In her arc, she suffered as much as Dany, watching her direwolf get slain and her father beheaded. Sansa was also forced to acquiesce to the psychotic machismo of both King Joffrey and Littlefinger, and lie left and right to avoid being killed herself. By story’s end, she became the wisest and steeliest leader in all of Westeros, even identifying the fatal flaws in Dany long before anyone else. And how did she triumph? By getting the silver medal.
Ultimately, Game of Thrones will likely be viewed as the landmark television it was, perhaps the last TV series we all sat down and watched together in real time as it spooled out on our television sets. Yet, there’s no doubt that the faultiness of the final season marred the sublime seven that proceeded it. In the final six episodes, Game of Thrones should have felt like a game of chess. Instead, it veered very close to feeling more like a game of checkers. And that’s probably why so many viewers felt burned.
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