So I’ve finally started watching GAME OF THRONES
And I can’t stop watching
I love it
Read the books.
Hell no, they’re like 1000 pages each.
-May 18th, 2013
Most of those words were written by a young boy, an unequivocal sweet summer child, who, little did he know, had just discovered a story which would encompass his adolescent years, radically transform his approach to storytelling, and become a beloved cultural and conversational touchstone for innumerable friends, companions and acquaintances. He could never have known he would spend his GCSEs reading and rereading those epic tomes he swore off, writing complex and sometimes silly fan theories, arguing about the intricacies of popular high fantasy online with strangers. He could never have known that, six years later, A Song of Ice and Fire would still play a dominant role in his life, with many more years of engagement and speculation left to come.
It has been an intensely bizarre and emotional month for cinematic conclusions. Avengers: Endgame represented the end of an even longer story from my life, beginning when I was a mere eight years old with a cinema trip to see Iron Man, eventually encouraging a love of film and a knack for online journalism, paving the path that has led me to be writing words like these today. But where Marvel’s Infinity Saga ended rousingly, confidently and beautifully, the end of Game of Thrones has landed with a deafeningly depressing thud. Anti-show discourse has existed since Season Five in 2015 but has always been relegated to purists of George R.R. Martin’s books, only leaking into mainstream critical discourse occasionally, chiefly when the show used sexual violence against women as an instrument for character development (the sexual assault and rape of Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark, two events which do not occur in the books).
With Season Eight, though, criticism of the show and of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss is firmly entrenched in the mainstream. It contains the lowest-rated episodes in the show’s history. Its setpiece battle scenes against the threat built up from the first minute of the first episode in 2011 were hyped as bigger than the Battle of Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings, but all anybody could talk about afterwards was how it was too dark to see what was going on. As the six weeks rolled on, even the most casual of show watchers began to question why characters were making decisions that seemed antithetical to their arcs.
It brings me little pleasure to note that these characters and this story have been mishandled for several years now. I’m not entirely sure why it took so long for more people to become aware and bothered by it, nor what was special about Season Eight’s failings over Seasons Five – Seven. Perhaps it is because this was the end, the pretence that everything was happening for a reason and the story would be resolved successfully now eradicated.
It has been equally unpleasurable to work out my own feelings towards the Game of Thrones ending. Bryan Cogman’s absolutely beautiful script for Episode Two, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, reminded me why I fell in love with these characters in the first place and made me appreciate how absolutely mad it is that all of these people – the Lannister brothers, a lowly squire, a wildling, the old Hand to a dead king the dwarfed Lannister defeated, and a woman knighted – would find themselves together, at the end of the world, in Winterfell, where this song first began. Is my emotional investment in these characters enough for me to overcome my frustrations at how they are being written? Can the two truly be divorced, since they – their cinematic iterations to which I refer – only exist because of said writing? Is it appropriate for my emotional investment in their original literary iterations to be transferred to the screen when they have become so different, both in terms of plot and in who they are as characters?
These questions persisted as the finale rolled on. Daenerys compulsively burned King’s Landing to the ground, an eventuality that book readers have suspected would happen for years. As Jon, Tyrion, Davos and Arya walked amongst its ruins, I felt unsettled and melancholic. This was the home of countless hours of action, plot and character development for almost a decade on-screen, and for well over two on the page. And it was gone. Reduced to rubble, emblazoned with dragons.
When Jon met Daenerys before the Iron Throne, I knew there was no way that scene would end without her death. And, even though the conclusion of her story had just been so colossally underwritten, I was sad, for it was the end. I was sad when Drogon was so visibly hurt and angered by his mother’s death, choosing to take her body and fly away for burial. The last of the dragons.
When Bran was suddenly elected king, it made sense to me. A Game of Thrones begins with a Bran chapter, and it is Bran being pushed out of a window which defines the trajectory of the entire story. Out of all the characters, Bran best represents the mythic fantasy of ASOIAF, and his Stark lineage allows for the possibility that he is the unification with the story’s political intrigue. I have long believed that the story would end with Bran, and I found it reassuring to know that this was definitely the ending which George R.R. Martin has always had in mind.
But within the context of the show, it is a confusing choice. Bran is no more qualified than anybody else on the Small Council (except perhaps Edmure, Sweetrobin and the unnamed Prince of Dorne), disappeared for the entirety of Season Five and has generally suffered from a lacklustre adaptation. It reflected the awkwardness of telling a fundamentally different story to the source material yet nonetheless attempting to adapt its ending.
How is it that I felt satisfied and content with the finale’s events yet dissatisfied with their execution? To what extent do my feelings derive from my relationship with the books? Would I have been as angry with the ending if I had never read them? What will my attitude to The Winds of Winter be now I know its ultimate destination?
After The Bells aired, I opted to begin my re-read of A Song of Ice and Fire. Several friends of mine have begun reading or re-reading the books too, eager for more of Westeros and Essos. When devising new stories and screenplays of late I’ve found myself returning to the rules I learned from Martin, “every hero is the villain of somebody else’s story” chief among them, a completely revelatory notion for teenager me. Game of Thrones may be over, but the journeys it led me to take, personal and creative, are far from complete.
I’ve come to realise that, in all likelihood, my emotional attachment to the show itself ended long ago, but my attachment to George R.R. Martin’s stories lives on. It’s perfectly acceptable to overlap the two because the ending broadcast over the past few weeks may well be the only ending we get, and I’m capable of filling in the blanks of story and character left by the show with my knowledge from the books.
And now my watch has ended. However, with any hope, my read is far from complete.