It Still Stings: The Rise and Fall of Game of ThronesPhoto Courtesy of HBO TV Features Game of Thrones
Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our new feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Maybe it’s the nip in the air that has me thinking about Winter Is Coming, White Walkers, and … my simmering anger over Game of Thrones. The juggernaut HBO drama wrapped in May of 2019, an end-of-an-era show that signaled both the general conclusion of appointment television viewing and, for me, a job change. I had said for months before Game of Thrones ended that I wanted it to coincide with a fresh start for me, and it did: I came here, to Paste, in June of 2019. But what I did not predict at the time—feared, perhaps, but couldn’t have known—was just how staggeringly awful Game of Thrones’ denouement would ultimately be.
I wrote a lot about Game of Thrones at my former publication, including all of the ways that its final season—and that fever-dream horror of a finale—disappointed fans. I’ve also written a lot about how showrunners generally don’t owe fans anything, and are at liberty to tell whatever stories they want whether we like it or not. The problem comes, though, when those in charge don’t seem to have any real understanding or respect about what it is they are in control of. In this case, Dan Weiss and David Benioff didn’t just let down the fans, they let down the actors, the crew, and everyone who gave so much in service of this culture-shifting show.
But let’s back up. My introduction to the world of Game of Thrones came through the HBO series first. I had no idea what it was about, but I’ve always liked fantasy so I binged the first few episodes to get caught up. I had never seen a show like this, one that felt so radical and fearless. The twists were genuinely bold. The aesthetic was completely unique. The cast was excellent. Throughout that initial binge, I had a ton of tabs open reading up on various wikis to track all of these characters, this world, the lore. I read all of the available books before Season 2, and became a snob about the adaptation’s handling of … well, a lot of things (whether or not Season 2 was a fair adaptation of A Clash of Kings was the first argument my now-boyfriend of eight years and I got into, on Gchat no less). There was still a lot to like about the show, despite the cracks showing early on—like the need to coin the term “sexposition.” But George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books are massive, unwieldy, and frankly in need of some edits. Weiss and Benioff made some great adjustments and condensed storylines in ways that worked well for television. They also changed some completely unnecessary things and ruined other little bits of lore here and there. But nothing’s perfect! Overall, for a time, it was still an incredible series to experience with what seemed like the entire world.
The entire world was more or less represented in a LiveJournal community I belonged to at that time, one that was primarily young, female, and overwhelmingly positive. We made memes and “partied” in the forums for hours after new episodes, and kept up with each other between seasons. I made genuine friends, some of whom I’ve met IRL since, and many of whom I’m still in regular contact with. I have never experienced anything like it since; Game of Thrones brought us together, and I thrived in this moment of full-on fantasy nerdom with a supportive community of women (and a few very cool men) who felt as passionately about this material as I did—but who also relished roasting it, as well.
And it deserved roasting, especially as it went on. And there are many, many subcategories to investigate here (most importantly the show’s ruinous male gaze). But what I really want to talk about, what still truly galls me, is the way the show disrespected its fantasy lore.
Much was made of Game of Thrones’ zombies and dragons, and we’ll get to them, but a variety of magic is woven throughout the land of Westeros. The direwolves are, in fact, nearly as rare as dragons. They have fascinating powers where those they bond with can enter into their minds, a process called “warging.” The existence of the terrifying army of the dead also came from magic gone wrong via the ancient Children of the Forest, not to mention the blood magic that we get a glimpse of in Season 1 that allowed Daenerys to bring life to her dragons. There’s also the resurrection power of the followers of the Drowned God and also the Lord of Light, which (in the books) not only allows Catelyn Stark to be brought back as a kind of vengeance ghost, but for Beric Dondarrion to be resurrected multiple times. In the show, this only really came into play when Melisandre brought Jon Snow back, seemingly without consequence. She also birthed a shadow baby, if you remember.
Regarding our own world, Martin based the realpolitik of his books on England’s Wars of the Roses, which is a fascinating and bloody period in history, and a great place to start building up a massive fantasy playground. But what makes Game of Thrones more than just Wars of the Roses fanfiction is the inclusion of its magic and lore. Those things matter. They are what make the series fantasy, not just a semi-historical recreation. As the HBO series wore on, though, those elements became less and less important to the story being told. By stripping the magic away and only focusing on the brutality and death, it lost a key element of what made it so compelling to begin with.
Still, for awhile, there was hope that the series would run and run, that some of these elements would be addressed later on, or that it would eventually all come together in a way that made sense. And we didn’t know what that would look like, because Martin hadn’t finished the book series (and still has not!) When the show eventually left the books behind, allegedly with the knowledge of where Martin wanted things to end, everyone was nervously excited. Then HBO set the final episode run for the show and we were all left a bit stunned. “Only how many episodes left?” The narrative result was like switching gears to suddenly go full-throttle. Season 7, the show’s penultimate, brought dragons back in a big way. Supporting lore be damned, we’re in it for spectacle now. And honestly, it was pretty thrilling. Sure, the carefully crafted narrative plots and political machinations were literally burned to a crisp, but hey, we waited a long time for a zombie dragon. It was like eating an entire cake at once and only later realizing this was, indeed, a terrible idea.
Part of the rush came, reportedly, from Weiss and Benioff wanting to leave the show behind to pursue Star Wars and other projects because of the fame they gained from Game of Thrones (they are, notably, no longer associated with Star Wars). Instead of handing the reins off to other creatives, though, they just decided to keep control, nuke everything as fast as possible, and wash their hands of it. The result was a final season full of tonal mishmash, teleporting characters, a complete disregard for any of the story that was built up in the prior seven seasons, with a finale so baffling that I have never brought myself to rewatch it and still don’t fully believe exists. What should have been the crescendo of years of patient plotting and emotional investment became, instead, a car on fire hurdling off a cliff filled with screaming passengers. The laziness of “Dany forgot” in an post-episode explainer to mitigate the fact that the writers forgot (or weren’t bothered addressing) an entire fleet that Dany most definitely would not have forgotten was a literal slap in the face to every viewer who dared to care about this show, followed by a “see ya later, suckers!” from those we thought were one of us.
There is some cold comfort in the fact that if Martin ever finishes the book series, we’ll see what his plan is for how all of these characters and lore connect to—and I still can’t get over this—Bran Stark as king. Reader, I laughed out loud when Tyrion emotionally proclaimed to a panel of the show’s most interesting characters that another character who wasn’t even in the show for an entire season should “win” because “he has the best story.” It makes me a little queasy still to even type that. It all comes flooding back; I want to both guffaw and spit up.
Game of Thrones was a series I invested myself in totally. I loved the world, despite being disappointed by it here and there, and truly championed its actors and the stunning craftsmanship of its art design, costuming, and directing. I made friends through it, it was a constant in my life for almost a decade, it inspired art and enthusiasm and a delving into fantasy (especially with games like Skyrim and Dragon Age) that I wasn’t expecting to be so consumed by, and still largely am. Heck, it was the main topic of conversation between me and my FedEx guy for years; we had nothing else in common, but we had this! There is a lot I owe to it, and it makes it all the worse that its legacy is so irredeemably tarnished.
For a long time, Game of Thrones was genuinely exciting to talk about, for us all to gather around the proverbial watercooler and pick apart, to theorize over. And it’s why the absolute disrespect with which it was ultimately handled stings as sharply as a cold dragonglass knife to the heart.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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