What a month April 2019 will go down as for major fandom franchises. We were given both the culmination of the MCU’s Infinity Saga in Avengers: Endgame, and the conclusion of HBO’s once epic adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire; Game of Thrones. The former is on track to dethrone Avatar as the highest grossing film of all time (suck it, James Cameron), whilst the latter has cemented its place in the hall of disappointing TV finales. But how did this happen? Without going into behind the scenes Chinese whispers, it seems clear that Thrones show-runners D.B Weiss and David Benioff grew bored with telling this story a long time ago. Where Endgame concluded with a gamma radiated roar, GoT went out like a whimpering direwolf; rushing great, expectation subverting plot points to become totally unfathomable, and giving us finale that will be remembered as sloppy and unsatisfying.
Let me first make clear that this is a critique of the writing exclusively. The acting (mostly- looking at you, Kit), editing, cinematography (bar the Battle of Winterfell episode), visual effects, and phenomenal score, all remain consistently brilliant throughout Game of Thrones’ eight seasons, and should be applauded as some of the best examples of technical filmmaking on television.
With that caveat out of the way, the major change in the writing, that most fans have noted is a bafflingly rushed narrative. When working from George R.R Martin’s source material, hikes across Westeros take multiple episodes and characters mull on decisions over several scenes. Yet, from season six onwards, but most egregiously in season eight, snap decisions are made, rarely carrying emotionally effective weight. Compare this to the pacing of Endgame. Though admittedly operating in different mediums, the characters remain consistent and are ever evolving. The Tony Stark (there’s a Stark in Winterfell joke in there somewhere) that we see in Endgame has metamorphosed from the arrogant playboy seen in Iron Man. More importantly though, both Infinity War and Endgame balance their characters, giving them a fair amount of screen time, which hasn’t been the case in Thrones for years. While it began by subverting traditional fantasy tropes, when going off the rails of Martin’s text, it became quite clear that the writers embraced these tropes, and pouty albino puppy Jon Snow is clearly our lead. The characters become lazily written and no longer make organic, smart decisions that reflect their motivations. This is the opposite of Marvel, who, say what you like, almost always craft consistent characters, even when re-casting.
Let’s look at an example comparison. Take the decision of The Spider, Lord Varys to openly blab treason to anyone who will listen vs Star Lord’s decision to lash out against Thanos in Infinity War, giving the Mad Titan the chance to regain the gauntlet and kill half the universe. Both are moronic decisions, but where Varys has been presented as the scheming, highly intelligent master of whispers, Peter Quill is consistently shown to be an idiotic man child. The bottom line is that it’s in character for Star Lord to make stupid, emotionally charged decisions based on what we’ve seen in Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, so this makes narrative sense. Varys on the other hand, who has been presented as perhaps the most intelligent man in the realm, bar Tyrion Lannister (who gets equally shafted ) surviving the reigns of three prior kings, just wouldn’t be so foolish. It seems obvious that instead of taking their time filming slow, politically charged conversations that made Thrones so unique and interesting, the writers were instead so desperate to rush into the ‘endgame’, that Varys and most of the main cast act widely out of character and make dumb, ill thought out decisions. This is because the writers made dumb, ill thought out decisions.
This criticism also applies to character arcs. I’m perhaps in the minority, but Dany’s turn to dragon-queen-Hitler, in my mind, isn’t an inherently awful idea. It gives her a Shakespearian fallen hero quality, and if handled correctly, it could’ve been a bitter, tragic end to her once noble arc. However, the problem again comes down to pacing. Had the show been ten seasons instead of eight, with the usual ten episodes in each (as Martin pushed for, I might add), this change in Daenerys could’ve bubbled and built organically, leading to a killer moment like the red wedding, where she finally snaps. Compare this to a character arc in endgame, let’s take Steve Rogers. Captain America is shown to be pure of heart from the beginning. In The First Avenger, he jumps on a (fake) grenade without hesitation to save those around him, and that’s before he’s been super soldier serum-ed. Avengers: Age of Ultron hints that he’s worthy to lift Thor’s hammer, and since then, he’s grown wiser and more world weary, but still retained his unbreakable moral centre. So, when in the final act of Endgame, he wields Mjölnir and beats on Thanos, it’s incredibly satisfying, because of years of anticipation and foreshadowing. Dany’s turn could’ve been an equally satisfying (though in a more soul destroying way), if it had been appropriately woven across multiple seasons. Two episodes just isn’t good enough for an organic reaction, unfortunately. This also goes for Jaime’s betrayal, Jon killing Dany, and hell, even King Bran; all could’ve worked, had the appropriate groundwork been there.
Though my unapologetic bias for Marvel might slightly cloud my judgement, I can still admit that Endgame isn’t a perfect film. The time travel elements in particular raise plot-hole related eyebrows, and Thanos is sadly more two dimensional than he was in Infinity War. That said, this is nothing compared to the amount of loose ends and unresolved plot points in Game of Thrones. These are issues that are initially introduced as important, game changing elements that either become completely irrelevant, or are totally forgotten about. Including, but not limited to:
- The origins and motivations of the White Walkers
- The point of the three eyed raven
- The Lord of Light vs the other religions
- The Prince who was promised prophecy
- Bran’s time travelling abilities
- Bran’s warging abilities
- Jon being Aegon amounting to sweet FA
- Arya’s face changing abilities
- The impact of the Golden Company joining Cersei’s army
- Euron’s character development
- Jaime and Brienne’s one knight stand and Jaime’s character arc in general
- The valonqar prophecy (book only, but come on – THE CEILING KILLS JAIME AND CERSEI?)
- The Dothraki (they seriously left Westeros because Grey Worm told them to?)
There are many, many more, and this isn’t including plot points that technically make sense, but aren’t satisfying, but I digress. Avengers: Endgame managed the impossible and created a satisfying, heartfelt end to a twenty-two film saga, giving almost all of its characters meaningful arcs, with an appropriate level of fan service. Game of Thrones on the other hand, felt like its creators lost interest after season four. While there are amazing moments scattered throughout seasons 5-8 (The Battle of the Bastards, The Door, Hardhome etc), the sprint to the finish is beyond messy. Thrones was ultimately murdered by terrible pacing, ignoring its own verisimilitude, and an ending that just isn’t acceptable based on the narrative development thus far (but will likely make more sense in the eventual final book, A Dream of Spring). Overall, I’m thrilled at Marvel’s conclusion, under the supervision of nerd-God Kevin Feige, who genuinely seems to care about the characters, and perhaps more importantly, the fans, as a long time comic book reader himself. However, Thrones show-runners D.B Weiss and David Benioff lost this respect for both audience and source material a long time ago, it seems, and what was once the best show on television will go down with LOST as having one of the least satisfyingly written finales of all time. It became a hollow imitation of itself, and well, that’s just a…