The most popular TV show in the world, judging by millions of illegal downloads and domination of twitter trends during each episode of the finale, has now ended, not with a bang or a whimper, but with controversy. The season finale sees a petition for a remake with a million signatures, countless think pieces, and angry rants against spoilers and the writers. While emotions are very high, it’s also the best time to look back on the major themes of Game of Thrones, why these characters and stories have shaped an entire era of pop culture, and how the showrunners have disappointed most of its fans in the end.
Of course, the show also got many things absolutely right. The casting is flawless. The setting and cinematography continue to take my breath away. The costuming, set design, and European locations really made us feel like we’re in a different world, one that mirrors ours during the medieval age but deftly weaves in the political and the supernatural. Other characters too, I prefer more than the books: I prefer TV Tyrion’s kind sarcasm than his misogynistic book counterpart (at least, until this final season). This is not also to say that Martin’s novels are infallible, as it could be argued that Dance with Dragons was oftentimes excruciating and needlessly meandering.
But most of all, now that it’s all over, I ponder about the what ifs. We could have had something truly epic.
And so, a list of the missed opportunities of the TV series:
1. The Shock and Awe Approach of the Showrunners: What Went Wrong
George R. R. Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series (shortened to ASOIAF), described the series ultimately as a story about Power:
“Thematically, power is at the center of this — the use of power, the corrupting influences of power, what people will do to get power and what power will do to them.” — George R. R. Martin, Collider, 2011
A Song of Ice and Fire was also inspired by historical events, particularly major events in Europe. The Stark versus Lannister rivalry echoes The War of the Roses, while the shocking betrayal of the Red Wedding was based on a real-life, notorious royal massacre in Scotland.
Martin intended to make a fantasy epic rooted in reality. He says: “It has long been my contention that the historical novel and the epic fantasy are sisters under the skin, that the two genres have much in common.” Again he notes, “It’s an epic fantasy story, and I’ve tried to blend the epic fantasy with historical fiction to capture some of the grit and realism that I see in the best historical fiction, and inject that into a fantasy template.”
But while plenty of notable twists and turns in Game of Thrones were inspired by historical events, Martin was also determined to craft a story that was ultimately about the human condition.
“The battle between good and evil is a legitimate theme for a Fantasy, or for any work of fiction, for that matter, but in real life that battle is fought chiefly in the individual human heart.”
In Martin’s perspective, human beings are capable of great change and genuine transformation, whether it is for good, evil, or various interpretations of morality. It’s not just that human beings are morally grey — but that we are diverse, colorful people, shaped by our conditions and experiences but also individually capable of rebelling against these external forces.
Seasons 1 to 4 closely followed Martin’s vision (he wrote some of the most critically acclaimed episodes of those Seasons, such as Season 2’s “Blackwater” and Season 4’s “The Lion and the Rose”, more commonly known as the Purple Wedding), and those Seasons provided amazing television because they depicted character development in an organic, yet surprising way (albeit some problematic and tone-deaf mishaps…anyone remember Littlefinger’s gratuitous brothel pornologue / sexposition?). Characters were multi-faceted and had nuanced intentions whether obvious or subtle.
Because characters could change, this made the story unpredictable, and thus intrigued us into wanting to know what they would do next. Viewers were hooked because Game of Thrones subverted traditional storytelling. Heroes would always lose, almost dishearteningly so. We are made to believe that after the shock of Ned’s death, someone we thought was the main character, that maybe his family would at least win for once — instead they are massacred in the most brutal manner, and the siblings are pushed further and further apart into more perilous situations. Oberyn Martell as Tyrion’s champion gave audiences someone to wholeheartedly root for, and we think we finally triumph only for our hopes be shockingly, abruptly crushed (literally). Antagonists would have their moments that could evoke empathy from viewers. A character could be clever, but they could also make rash decisions. Character growth was integral to the story.
But somewhere along the way, this distinct and groundbreaking storytelling was set aside for shock value. The Game of Thrones showrunners became obsessed with violence and brutal deaths, in the guise of “keeping audiences on their toes”. People argue that the quality slipped when the showrunners caught up with the books, but this is wrong. The showrunners made HUGE changes to the plot even when they were still telling events that were happening in the books (most notably, show!Littlefinger’s idiotic move to betroth Sansa to Ramsay Bolton).
Here’s my take: The quality of Game of Thrones has been deteriorating since Season 5. But millions of viewers were distracted by all the gratuitous brothel sex, rape, and brutal death, cheering it on and hyping it up, that the showrunners found validation in the trajectory of their writing and thus continued on their merry way. And so the TV show ends with gaping holes and unsatisfactory, rushed storytelling, a culmination of their inconsistencies since the previous seasons.
…the thematic implications of power, the political, and the personal, are lost.
Thus, leading to my second point:
2. Heroes — and Villains — are not born in a day
“I don’t try to write anyone who’s, ‘Oh, I’m a villain. Let me get up today and just go out and do villainy and pull the world (into) darkness. They all have grievances. They all have wounds, and they have things that drive them to do the things that they do.” — George R. R. Martin, PBS.
“Nobody is a villain in their own story. We’re all the heroes of our own stories.” — George R. R. Martin, Collider
The first novel of Game of Thrones introduced us to a few fantasy/historical fiction tropes to lull us into a false sense of security about the plot. We have the Stark family — “the good guys”. The Lannisters, the wealthy, “evil” rivals, the Baratheons, “the traditional power”, and so on.
Later on Martin unsparingly disabuses us of our preconceived notions. The Stark family itself, although posed as the beacon of ultimate moral good against the other families who conspire against each other, also had their own secrets, jealousies, insecurities — and most of all, a naivete that has proven fatal not only to their House but to their rest of their people. The Lannisters are ruthless, cruel, and power hungry, but also had their own personal tragedies. Each Baratheon brother (Stannis, Robert, and Renly), though from the same House, all had their own distinct personalities and agendas; Robert was an unbeatable warrior but the worst ruler, content to see King’s Landing languish and to allow his council to make independent decisions without scrutiny. Stannis was described as cold, unfeeling, and dogmatic, but his interactions with Jon Snow actually revealed an introverted man who valued strict honor and fought for peace in Westeros (why else would Melisandre and Davos be so devoted to him?). Renly was seen as a young, naive boy; “soft” because of his homosexuality and acceptance of Brienne, a woman, as his Knight among other forward-thinking beliefs, but he was also charismatic and beloved by the smallfolk, which was why he earned such devoted followers.
Jaime Lannister is an example of one the most excellent character development I’ve ever read in fiction. Jaime is greatly shaped by his obsessive loyalty for his family; he broke his oath as a Knight of the Kingsguard and slayed the Mad King Aerys Targaryen, and he pushed Bran Stark off a tower window to protect his secret affair with Cersei. “Honor” — in the dogmatic sense pertaining to one’s vows to their King— means nothing to him, because family comes first. He is often described as a handsome, skilled swordsman, but in Ned Stark’s eyes he is nothing more than an oathbreaker driven by arrogance. However, Jaime undergoes a genuine transformation upon meeting Brienne and her pure, compassionate ideals of “honor”. When released by Catelyn Stark in Riverrun, he swears to her that he will find her daughters, with every intention of keeping it. He entrusts his sword Oathkeeper to Brienne, to find and protect Sansa. He releases Tyrion from imprisonment, and reveals to him the lies told to him by their father. Finally, Jaime walks away from Cersei and the Lannister family, breaking the cycle.
Moreover, our heroes also act in ways that may not fit everyone’s idealistic notions, in order to survive. Arya’s transformation into a warrior when she escapes to Essos isn’t necessarily a traditional hero’s journey to becoming a “badass”. It’s actually quite depressing in many ways; Arya becomes subject to abuse and pain amongst the Faceless Men, and forced to rid of her identity and memory as a Stark as a way to survive. As a young underaged girl Arya should be playful, happy with her family, but driven by vengeance she becomes exposed to violence and tragedy too early. On the other hand, Sansa was a naive girl who only had fanciful dreams of becoming a bride, and in her eagerness to be accepted by the more “fashionable” women in Court (a clever manipulation done by Cersei, as she could see herself in Sansa as well before her marriage to Robert) she tells the Queen what she knows — and after Ned’s death , Sansa becomes a political prisoner, constantly abused. More often than not modern society shames the quiet, domestic woman, without recognizing how women could have different strengths. Sansa is no less a fighter than the rest of the female characters in Game of Thrones; she fights for survival by using her best weapon — a lady’s courtesy. Misogynistic readers (or viewers) would pit the Stark sisters against each other as if to declare which “femininity” deserves acclaim, but Martin is actually showing us a reflection of what young women had to go through in “medieval” times, where societal expectations and coercions threatened to disempower women, yet women would fight back in their own different ways.
There are outright, unforgivable villains of course, much like in real life. The Freys and the Boltons are supposedly allies of the North, but betray them in the most horrific and dishonorable of ways. But audiences forget that the people they rule over are victims, too.
In the final seasons however, things just escalated drastically.
Yes, it was foreshadowed earlier on that Daenerys was growing to be obsessed with force to obtain the Iron Throne. “I will take what is mine, with fire and blood”, she often demanded. Daenerys kept saying Dracarys every episode at one point, brandishing vengeance while flexing her physical power and her army of Unsullied, Dothraki, and dragons.
Daenerys’ fascinating transformation from a helpless child bride, to a benevolent Queen of the disenfranchised, and then to a powerful tyrant and imperialist could have been a beautiful Shakespearean tragedy in the hands of a skilled writer. Could have been.
So what the fuck happened? Season Seven and Eight happened. The decision to condense Daenerys’ journey to tyranny into six episodes is why everything went downhill. The foreshadowing could have been elaborated as early as Season Seven, when Daenery and Jon finally fall in love. This was where they could have had that crucial debate between the both of them — an organic reveal of each other’s traumas and intentions, where they could have had a conversation or a realization about the differences and parallels in their worldview. Moreover, there were many themes about Daenerys that should have been given more focus: the colonial implications of her coming to a new world in the guise of salvation only to suppress it are interesting to explore.
Another angle that the showrunners should have tackled was how Daenerys essentially founded a cult of the Dragon Queen, as her multicultural followers become more devoted to her, and willing to sail across the sea and fight for her birthright in a foreign land. These are people from different lands, cultures, and religions who band together under hher rule; she becomes almost a Messianic figure, though she did not plan it at all.
But they didn’t explore these intriguing themes. If you may recall, season Seven had a shit ton of meandering scenes that made no sense, and to top it all off, we only had seven episodes versus the usual ten.
Instead, the showrunners were too obsessed with the Rhaegar + Lyanna = Jon is a Targaryen reveal to be at the final episode of Season 7 as if we all didn’t know about it already. And in the final season, Daenerys snaps when Missandei is killed off, in yet another scene that made zero sense. Her anger and vengeance seemed to escalate purely because of a single event, brought about by a zero lack of strategy.
GRRM was not preoccupied with “heroes” and “villains”. Daenerys’ journey was meant to be a nuanced warning — many figures throughout history started off with “noble” intentions, at least in their own worldview, until they are corrupted by violent power, or deluded into heightened superiority and grandeur. Dictators throughout history — even today — are buoyed by the support of the common people who believe that they can be saved by these charismatic strongmen.
But in making Jon Snow the moral center, Daenerys’ death was presented not as a heartbreaking tragedy but as a justification for his white manpain. And he is rewarded for it, at the end, despite being an accessory to the massacre of people in King’s Landing. I don’t blame audiences for being angry with this outcome.
3. Transformative Social Change in Westeros
Transformative Social Change means broad-based social change and efforts to catalyze socio-cultural, socioeconomic and political revolution.
The War of the Five Rings, which were triggered by the death of Robert Baratheon and the beheading of Ned Stark, saw not only the Red Wedding but an endless series of pillaging, plundering, killings, and sexual violence towards the Northerners and ordinary folk in Westeros. As a response to the abuse by warring lords in selfish bids for the Throne, several characters in the story bring up reports of peasant uprisings scattered in various areas in Westeros.
One such important organized rebellion against authority was the Brotherhood without Banners. Originally a group created by Ned Stark to deal with Gregor Clegane’s harassment of smallfolk in the Riverlands, after seeing death and abuse around them they eventually come to the conclusion that none of the lords had the ordinary folks’ interests at heart. The Brotherhood (joined by Gendry at one point) was composed of Lannister and Stark deserters and ordinary folk, defending their own homes and fighting against abusive soldiers, regardless of their affiliations.
In the later books of A Song of Ice and Fire Martin also introduces us to other Houses who provide alternative viewpoints to the patriarchal, self-absorbed, and sadistic society of King’s Landing. The Martells of Dorne would appoint the eldest as heir, regardless if they are female or male; and the princesses and “bastards” of the lords are acknowledged and enjoy the same privileges. Martin also introduced the Dornish culture as one who was open to all sexual orientations and genders. On the other hand, Highgarden is also famously known for their strong, intelligent women in power who are beloved by their people, and the House of Tyrell is considered an formidable opponent in their command of the most populous and fertile land of the Reach and their vast armies that can rival King’s Landing. We also have other cultures that provide an alternative to the current system: Jon Snow meets and learns from the egalitarian culture of the free folk beyond the Wall (they are derogatorily referred to as “wildlings”, a historic shout-out to how foreigners would be called “barbaric” by different cultures), and the Knights’ Watch grows and develops into honorable warriors under his leadership (with a few exceptions).
Nevertheless, the grievances and tragedies of the inhabitants in the Seven Kingdoms could be attributed to one important thing: the sheer impunity of its feudal lords.
While reading the books, I’ve always thought that the ending must show the ruin of the “Game of Thrones”, and a gradual dismantling of the current order and symbolic oppression of the Iron Throne. This means a dispersion of power and the abolition of sole leadership and ownership by the ruling families.
Of course, it is impossible to completely eradicate current local rulers, as the power vacuum would cause further chaos. One of my predictions is that there won’t be a King but a steward, a council that would govern its transition, but that Westeros would break away into separate city-states, just as it used to be before the invasion of Aegon Targaryen the Conqueror.
While Jon Snow and Stannis Baratheon wished for Westeros to unite against a common foe (the Whitewalkers), knowing Martin’s abhorrence for the concept of an absolute enemy popularized by some fantasy fiction, I wonder if there there will be a twist to the “invasion” of the wights. Remember, the Night King is completely a TV invention. The Battle of Winterfell, despite what was shown in the TV finale, was most likely intended to be a battle for the soul of Westeros, and for the heart of its people .
After the battle, the show should have depicted a serious tactical meeting and discussion amongst the characters on the distribution of power and the governance of Westeros instead of needlessly marching towards King’s Landing. They had all the supposedly best minds in Westeros gathered together in Winterfell, and not once did it occur to anyone to have this conversation? Instead it is only Sansa who speaks against attacking King’s Landing so early but others are not in agreement with her (making her look like she is a lone voice of dissent with a personal grudge) and Daenerys disagreeing with Sansa (making her look bad and weirdly impatient). The showrunners were really determined to make the men come off looking neutral, so that they can have the moral high ground in the end and wash their hands off of the entire affair.
Let’s say that Benioff and Weiss did follow Martin’s vision for the ending: Bran as King of the Six Kingdoms, with the North as an independent state (though I highly doubt the Ironborn and Dornish would bend the knee again, but whatever). My prediction for social change is still valid, as this could well be a transitional leadership. I theorized that Tyrion and Davos Seaworth wouldn’t be Kings, but at least support the Boy King during this transition towards the separation of Westeros’ city-states, among other characters.
Instead, the wheel continues to turn. I hated the melodramatic, predictable moment of Jon betraying Daenerys, but perhaps the scenes that I loathed the most was how Benioff and Weiss handled — or butchered — the aftermath.
TV Tyrion delivers this whole speech about the will of the people, and then proceeds to create a council that reflects none of its diversity. A council made up mostly of Daenerys’ advisors, when they should be held accountable for failing to prevent the sacking of the capital. These people are equally to blame for the massacre.
As Hand of the King Tyrion installs the same nobles, with the exception of Davos Seaworth, and carelessly hands out lands and titles away like it’s nothing, without a care for the power and cultural dynamics of these lands nor taking into account what their people truly desire. Tyrion is supposedly one of the most well-read characters in Westeros. What the fuck happened.
BUT MOST INFURIATING OF ALL, TYRION, WHO GETS AWAY SCOT-FREE FROM THE PILLAGING OF KING’S LANDING, INSTALLS THE DANGEROUSLY POLITICALLY INEXPERIENCED, MISOGYNISTIC, AND SELF-SERVING BRONN AS THE LORD OF HIGHGARDEN. Everything else in the ending, perhaps George R. R. Martin intended. This one? A fucking joke.
Highgarden must ALWAYS be run by its powerful, intelligent women. The Reach is one of the more progressive, wealthy lands in Westeros, and what do they get? An opportunistic, useless lump of a minor character only given more airtime because apparently, he’s “popular”. At one point Bronn had more dialogue and airtime than any of the younger Starks. Then he proceeds to “joke” about installing brothels in the rebuilding of Westeros, with the honorable Brienne and Davos present. It’s sickening.
There is no scene where the common folk air out their grievances after the desolation. After fighting for these usurpers, they are completely stripped off their agency. There is no assurance that their lives will be better afterwards, now that the same people are in power. Martin promised a bittersweet ending, and though it’s foolish to assume that centuries of a rigidly hierarchical society would change in an instant, his writing hints that the climax would at least be a catalyst to substantial and transformative social change in Westeros.
With all that said, we go to the one to whom power is bestowed upon: Bran Stark.
4. King Bran Stark: Destiny, Unfulfilled
Shock and awe. Benioff and Weiss are obsessed with shocking, but aren’t as interested in the process of getting there. And so we had Missandei’s unnecessary beheading, Jon and Daenerys’ cringey melodramatic stabbing scene, and King Bran of the Six Kingdoms as the“twist” ending.
Except it doesn’t feel like a “twist”, not in the delicious, gratifying way we uncover the Sixth Sense twist, or the amazing climax of the Shawshank Redemption that gracefully ties up a lot of threads. A great plot twist involves a subversion of expectations as a story progresses yet still makes sense upon its reveal. A plot twist can be poetic justice, an “aha!” moment after some clever misdirections, and makes audiences think about the twist deeply even after the series.
Tyrion again, for some reason the one dude everyone seems to just agree with even though he helped burn a city, casually appoints the Kingdom to Bran because at least he won’t have any heirs, and apparently since he literally knows the past, he can make a better future (Tyrion’s really into bestowing random titles upon people even though nobody asks. Wasn’t that more of Robert Baratheon’s style?).
The random council with a diversity token (hot Dornish man sick and tired of all the bullshit, I feel you) agrees with him rather hastily, and Bran just goes “yeah, I knew this was going to happen”.
Except it made zero sense because Bran did nothing of note in the final season.
Bran as the Boy King is actually a compelling ending (which Martin most likely intended), but the showrunners were not interested in the HOW, or how his lordship would become a natural twist to the story.
I thought that Daenerys would be the cult Messianic figure of A Song of Ice and Fire, or maybe even Jon Snow because of his resurrection, but as it turns out Bran Stark becomes the Kwisatz Haderach, a mystical and prescient “chosen one” (sorry for the Dune reference, but the parallels between Bran and Paul Atreides are actually quite blatant if you know the story).
Everybody had all these theories for Bran because his story was one of the most mysterious and exciting of the main characters. Though paralyzed by Jaime, Bran strengthened the will of his mind. His dreams are vivid, disturbing and prophetic. He wargs (the ability to control the mind) within his own direwolf Summer, and eventually it is revealed that he can warg to other beings, such as weirwood trees, and even humans. Because of this, many theorized that Bran could probably warg in a dragon (the three-eyed raven foreshadows this by telling Bran that “he will never walk again, but he will fly”). While other characters deal with human politics, Bran meets with mystical figures (Coldhands) and ancient supernatural beings (the Children of the Forest).
It’s also revealed that Bran is a badass who can time travel and warg at the same time, in one of the most memorable moments in the tv series (Hold the door!).
The showrunners foreshadowed and promised, but never delivered. We are made to believe that there will be an epic showdown between the Night King and Bran, based on the training he received from the three-eyed raven (Lol, no). We were made to believe that Bran could at least have significant interaction with Daenerys, another character closest to the mystical, or Melisandre the red priestess herself. In fact all of the Stark children are gradually revealed to have an affinity for warging, through their dreams. But all of this was greatly ignored. What was all Bran’s training for? Why did he even bother seeing the past?
Imagine the possibilities we lost. If Bran Stark earns the Six Kingdoms, is he working for the benefit of the Children of the Forest? Will the old gods have a comeback in Westeros now that an all-seeing, all-knowing, powerful figure is in charge? What would the people of Westeros make of this mystical boy King? If anything, we deserve an epilogue.
There is nothing inherently “wrong” about the outcomes of each character in Game of Thrones. There’s nothing “wrong” with Jon leading the free folk beyond the Wall, nothing “wrong” with Daenerys' downfall across the sea, nothing “wrong” with King Bran. However, Game of Thrones introduced us to a fantastic world that gave us truly unique storytelling, a series that subverted character tropes with the intention of making us deeply interrogate our own, as well as other peoples’, political and moral norms. This kind of impact was only possible because the series took its time to tell this story.
Disappointing season finales are actually quite common, but Game of Thrones promised us something more. It could have left an epic legacy in the canon of fantasy fiction. But after the showrunners' nonsensical decisions, I guess we all have to wait for Winds of Winter. At least all hope is not lost. Time will tell if George R. R. Martin will deliver the organic conclusion the books promised.