Time will be kind to ‘Game of Thrones’.
If its fans and detractors can take a step back, be truly objective, the eighth and final season of the show will be viewed for what it was – an unevenly paced, visually stunning, logic defying, character driven completion of the most ambitious feat in television history. This season and its talented directors and crew gave audiences some of the most iconic shots and sequences in the entire run of the show. Unfortunately the creative minds behind it also gave audiences some true head scratchers in this run of episodes. There was clearly a sense of what big moments, character beats, and visuals show runners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss wanted to get across this season, and they pulled them off beautifully with the massive aid of the talent both on and off the screen. More questionable however was the lack of those in-between bridges that had been such an integral part of GoT seasons past. To put it succinctly, getting there was often clunky, but the arrival was something to behold and relish, undeniably leaving an indelible impression.
SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT
The shortened six, albeit bloated, episode season (the last four at 80+ minutes a piece), could be classified in two distinct sections, the battle to stave off extinction, and the battle for Daenerys Targaryen’s soul. The premiere opens by harkening back to the pilot episode’s royal family visit, as self-proclaimed Queen Daenerys arrives to Winterfell with her ‘family’ – all of her armies and two remaining dragons. She’s here to help the north fight the army of the dead, but the people are less than welcoming. There’s some compelling adversity set up in this episode that will reverberate through the season – Grey Worm & Missandei feeling the gaze of a people who see them as foreign invaders, the prickly relationship between Daenerys and Sansa, Cersei accepting Euron into her chambers, Bran’s detachment, Jon finding out about his true parentage, and Tyrion/Varys attempting to figure out what happens next, if there is a next.
The reunions and information dumps of the first episode lead to one of the show’s finest hours in, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” a pre-battle sequence exclusively taking place at Winterfell. It harkens back to the character driven calm before the storm portions of the show’s other massive battle sequences in ‘Blackwater’ (season two), ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ (season four), ‘Hardhome’ (season five), and ‘Battle of the Bastards’ (season six), but with every major and side character’s involvement this time around. Its teleplay format could be easily imagined on a stage, and the talented performers all shine. The episode culminates with Jaime Lannister knighting of Ser Brienne of Tarth, giving Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau another miraculous scene together that encapsulates their complicated relationship.
This perfectly crafted lead-in sets the stage for ‘The Long Night’, a near feature length battle the likes of which have never been experienced or created before on television, from both an audience and a cast/crew perspective. An edge-of-your-seat masterstroke of technological achievement, the episode has strangely been maligned for the poor strategy of its combatants and lack of significant fatalities. The reality is that without a true Hail Mary, there was no defeating the army of the dead, a fact that quickly comes to fruition in the futility of the proceedings, culminating in a slow motion sequence scored and framed beautifully, right to its fist-pumping finish. This episode introduced multiple bits of iconography of the season, rightfully inspiring merchandise, profile pic changes, and poster material for years to come (try not to imagine framed stills of the dragons against the moonlit sky).
The aftermath of the battle for Winterfell produced the truly divisive ‘The Last of the Starks’, which sowed the seeds of discontent in a fan base quickly recognizing that time was running out on a series trying to wrap things up. Rightfully criticized for jamming in too much plot and taking jarring turns, this bridging fourth episode is an example of the later seasons’ worst tendencies. After a wonderfully staged funeral/drunken celebration that features key character interactions and conflict, including Daenerys’ increasing frustration over the lack of support she feels from the very people her actions saved, the players are awkwardly and much too rapidly set up for the endgame. Gone are the languid portrayals of individuals gradually traveling to other areas on the map, here replaced by illogical transportation and flash cut story beats. Daenerys’ and Jaime’s turns by the end of this episode, although perfectly logical, could have benefited from further development.
The penultimate episode of GoT, ‘The Bells’, is at once its biggest, as well as most significant, and keenly indicative of the changing nature of the series itself. Like ‘The Long Night’, ‘Hardhome’, ‘Battle of the Bastards’, and ‘The Winds of Winter’ it’s masterfully directed by Miguel Sapochnik. On hand to helm so many of the backend set piece showcases, his episodes reflect the massive budget and boundary pushing direction GoT would become. This was a program that couldn’t afford to show its earliest battles on screen, now flexing its popularity and HBO backing through the staging of some massive, sustained marvels of production. Thankfully through the guidance of the talent behind the scenes and actors capable of conveying brutal physicality, these episodes ended up being truly thrilling and memorable in scope and experience, propelled by character as opposed to spectacle for spectacle’s sake.
‘The Bells’ is no exception, although perhaps for other reasons, particularly for the decimation of King’s Landing by Daenerys Targaryen. Fed up of listening to her advisors (namely Varys and Tyrion), after losing her closest companions, and coming to the conclusion that the masses were beyond conscription to her cause, she decides to start anew. What starts as a thrilling vengeance fueled destruction of Cersei’s armed forces is followed by the wanton and systematic eradication of the city and its denizens. The result is an episode of television that is absolutely devastating and challenging in that this character that once garnered audience sympathy and admiration could now only be seen as the ultimate villain of the story. Expertly staged confrontations (Cleganebowl) and sustained tracking shots, are composed over an apocalyptic backdrop, as Drogon/Dany and their flames arch through the sky, in what can only be described as beautiful mayhem.
‘The Bells’ leaves the story in the unenviable position of wrapping up the whole series in one 80 minute episode that can best be described as a tale of two finales. The first forty minutes of the Benioff & Weiss directed, ‘The Iron Throne’, is a contemplative, deliberate end to the Jon/Daenerys dance. It’s riveting in its care, touring the aftermath of wanton destruction. It features some of the most haunting and memorable frames of the series, from Jaime/Cersei intertwined in death as twins in the womb, to Daenerys juxtaposed in front of Drogon’s wings, to a buried Drogon shaking off debris, and the poignant sequence of Drogon’s reaction to the death of his ‘Mother’. It also contains somber and interesting separate exchanges between the three main characters, Tyrion/Jon and Dany/Jon that recall seminal moments in GoT history, back when Jon was a young member of the Night’s Watch and Dany was a forced bride for Khal Drogo.
From the devastating cut to black and beyond, the finale is a confounding blend of logical, wonderfully rendered endings and head-scratching, rushed logic stretches. The Dragonpit summit scene that attempts to wrap up the politics of Westeros is maddening in its simplicity, despite sporting some incredible burns of some unexpectedly returning characters. Everything hinges on the words of Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, yet despite the actor’s amazing oratory skills, it’s hard to accept his conclusions in the moment itself. At a macro level it may make sense that Bran Stark/Three Eyed Raven with his vast knowledge and ability to tap into history would have a pivotal role in the realm, but naming him king plays haphazard and unearned. The scenes that follow, which highlight bittersweet partings of the characters, the authoring of this latest chapter in the story of the realm, and the commencement of a new small council fare better than the summit.
The final triple montage of Jon, Arya, and Sansa readying and taking those first steps towards their new destinies is a gorgeously shot, edited, and scored highlight of the entire series and a fitting end for the characters. It centers the story on the oft-maligned Stark family, a fitting parting vision to a story that author G.R.R.Martin had originally planned to call ‘A Time For Wolves’. It’s unfortunate that this last stretch of episodes couldn’t quite reach the sustained highs that the show offered in its earlier seasons, and the road to get here was sometimes a little rocky. In the end, GoT will be rewatched and pondered over for years to come, as perhaps the last example of true monoculture, a series that kept building an audience for close to a decade and then held them rapt right through its finish . . .