Photo Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO
In 2015, as Game of Thrones entered season 5, the show had the opportunity to introduce the last major kingdom of Westeros, Sunspear — the capital of Dorne — and its ruler, House Martell. The region and its people were interesting for at least two reasons: they were the only ones who had never been conquered by the Targaryens, and unlike the prevalent customs in the six other kingdoms of Westeros, women weren't excluded from the rules of succession in Dorne. Game of Thrones' most famous Martell, Oberyn (Pedro Pascal), said as much about the latter bit on his arrival in season 4. His horrific death at the end of that season was what dragged House Martell into the central ongoing conflict, but the writers just didn't seem to care about the Dornish angle, as season 5 showed.
Oberyn's paramour, Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), and her daughters, collectively dubbed the Sand Snakes, just hung around the Water Gardens for all of seasons 5 and 6. Their biggest achievements were the poisoning of Cersei Lannister's (Lena Headey) only daughter, who had been a non-player on Game of Thrones, and a coup against the established ruling authority of Dorne. But the characters had little time on-screen, didn't grow in any significant direction, and were ultimately side-lined and forgotten by the writers. Ellaria was captured and imprisoned in King's Landing in season 7, and Game of Thrones essentially let her character die off-screen. To make matters worse, an unnamed Prince of Dorne was mentioned in season 8, who showed up in the series finale to utter a single one word: “Aye.”
Game of Thrones' butchering of the Dorne storyline was the first major warning sign that the writers were incapable of successfully deviating from the written word. In George R.R. Martin's books, Dorne and House Martell have a much larger presence, with additional characters and storylines that were never introduced on the show. A cynic might conclude that Dorne has hence no influence on the bigger picture, given the Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss saw fit to get rid of much of the Martell narrative, but that's missing the point then. It's about the journey not the end, as a slightly modified version of a hackneyed old saying goes. More importantly, with hindsight, the show's treatment of Dorne now feels like a ‘told you so', that we should have all seen this coming.
At least back then, Benioff and Weiss had the benefit of stuffing their shortcomings under a mountain's worth of captivating narrative and character development, thanks to Martin. But starting with season 6, Game of Thrones didn't have that luxury anymore as the various storylines in motion largely went beyond what Martin had put on paper. (The author has said that there will be two more books, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, the events of which have already been depicted on screen in seasons 6, 7, and 8.) All that the showrunners had was the information — an outline of the future — that Martin had revealed to them before they set out to make Game of Thrones, in the event the show caught up. Nobody expected it to happen, as Martin had released five books in 15 years, but it did.
The writers were essentially left on their own as Game of Thrones approached its last few seasons. And faced with that scenario, Benioff and Weiss chose to work with what they had — the outline — in lieu of crafting in-depth plots for the characters. The first casualty of this approach was pacing, as storylines that would have usually taken half or an entire season were rushed out in a few episodes or less. Some suffered from a lack of logic and characters behaving idiotically to serve the narrative. And yet others were written as an afterthought. Examples in season 6 include Arya (Maisie Williams) nonchalantly roaming around Braavos, being repeatedly stabbed and miraculously surviving, and Jaime's (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) Riverlands excursion that saw the Blackfish (Clive Russell) being killed off-screen.
As Game of Thrones approached its endgame though, and hence the further it grew away from the books, these issues have become much more glaring and obvious. Part of the reason was also Benioff and Weiss' decision to opt for a shortened runway as Game of Thrones came in for its massive landing. In a break from the first six seasons that consisted of 10 episodes each, the two co-creators chose to have just seven on season 7, and six on season 8. Sure, most of these episodes were longer than an hour — more so in the final season — but that's only in theory. In practice, it meant several weeks' or months' worth of storytelling was compressed in a single episode at times, which gave the feeling that characters were teleporting, or reacting on a whim, which hurt character development.
It's not fully clear why Benioff and Weiss pushed for a total of just 13 episodes to wrap up a story that would form a big chunk of Martin's two remaining books. It was their decision and theirs only, as we know. HBO would have loved to have the world's biggest TV show to go on for as long as it could. After all, the network already has three to five spin-offs in the works, with one of them — set thousands of years prior to Game of Thrones, which will “chronicle the world's descent from the golden Age of Heroes into its darkest hour” — set with an ensemble cast and likely to premiere in 2020. That said, HBO must also bear the blame for Game of Thrones' failings in its last few seasons, for ignoring the warning signs of seasons 6 and 7, and overly trusting Benioff and Weiss to deliver a good ending.
As the show's producer, HBO would naturally get a look at the scripts of any season before it would go into production, which means its executives must have read through the final season and thought everything was fine and dandy. But given what audiences have seen over the last few weeks, it doesn't seem like they pored through it properly before signing off a cheque for $90 million to make season 8. They really should have. Game of Thrones' final season didn't just retain the problems that had emerged in the past couple of seasons, from pacing to idiocy, but it compounded them by adding even more issues to the mix. Season 8 reduced characters to caricatures, didn't earn its character development and the shift in their arcs, baked in several plot holes, and did away with internal logic and consistency.
We've covered much of this previously in detail over the last month or so. Daenerys' (Emilia Clarke) transformation from a slave-freeing ruler who wanted to “break the wheel” to a spontaneous mass murderer who became a tyrant herself wasn't convincing at all. Her advisor Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), who was picked for his intelligence, only made uncharacteristic bad calls for the past two seasons. Game of Thrones entirely botched the endings for Cersei and Jaime and turned genre-subverting characters such as Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann) into clichés towards the end. And Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) was essentially a plot device, which is the only explanation for the incredulous imbalance between the dragons and the Scorpions, the dragon-killing weapon.
In one episode, Daenerys' dragons are extremely vulnerable to the giant crossbows, even when they are flying high in the air and are being shot at from a boat on water. But then in the next episode, they are virtually untouchable by both ship- and land-based Scorpions, even though they are flying at a much lower altitude. Game of Thrones made similarly ludicrous choices with human warfare too in season 8. A depleted North, minus thousands of Dothraki who charged aimlessly, somehow kept the 100,000-strong Army of the Dead at bay. And the 20,000-strong Golden Company is effectively wiped out in a few minutes by her dragon after Daenerys comes bursting through the gates of King's Landing. Comparatively in season 6, Jon & Co.'s 2000 men visibly struggled in the Battle of the Bastards after the 5000-strong Bolton army surrounded them.
And then there's the matter of the epilogue. It was laughable to think that Game of Thrones would move to a democratic system despite all the wars it had witnessed, and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) rightly got mocked for presenting that idea in a society still in the medieval era. But the new king, Bran the Broken (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), feels like such an uninspired choice because it's so tough to register anything than a mere ‘meh' for the character ever since he's turned into the Three-Eyed Raven. Sure, that makes him a logical choice to be the ruler, given the knowledge at his disposal, but the trouble is that Bran had just existed in the corners of the show without doing much. Moreover, it feels a tad unbelievable that no one would ask for independence right after Sansa (Sophie Turner) negotiated for that with her brother.
For what it's worth, Game of Thrones' final season wasn't all bad. The opening couple of hours did a good enough job in themselves, with “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” being exactly the kind of episode that made a lot of fans fall in love with the show in the first place. And the second half of the series finale “The Iron Throne” provided satisfying ends for the major characters, even as the path season 8 took to get there was largely disappointing. Benioff and Weiss had hoped the final episode would be compared to Breaking Bad or The Sopranos'. That now reads like a joke and a wild overestimation. That said, the two still deserve some credit for making Game of Thrones into the worldwide fascination and the cultural movement that it was. Too bad they put a big asterisk next to it with the finish.
Game of Thrones season 8 is available on Hotstar in India. On TV, the series finale will air Tuesday at 10pm on Star World.