A bit before the first episode of the final season of “Game of Thrones” premiered, National Review writer David French posed a worrying question: “Will ‘Game of Thrones’ become ‘Lord of the Rings’?” Of course, in some sense the answer was an obvious no, as Peter Jackson’s masterful trilogy rests on an entirely different artistic plane than the comparatively mundane HBO show. But what French was drawing our attention to was the realignment of Thrones’ moral axes. As he puts it, the first six seasons of GOT were characterized by a world in which “the politics are gritty, good men are hard to find, and honor and virtue are often rewarded with swift death.” But last season, this seemed to change with an increasing prevalence of “Avengers-style team-up[s]” (as I described last week). These seemed to abandon the dense competition between the houses and moral ambiguity inherent to the world that Martin created. Instead, they fostered a clean conflict between the “living” and the “dead,” a discounted version of the conflict between good and evil that undergirded Tolkien’s saga. And in contrast to the gracefully drawn heroes like Aragorn and Frodo in “Lord of the Rings,” the characters in “Game of Thrones” didn’t seem to track as well with the changing of the plot. So as the final season rolled around, I thought that the hardest task for the writers would be maintaining the uniquely grounded, gritty and tragic moral voice of the earlier seasons while transitioning the plot from a political thriller to a simpler battle between the Night King’s undead legions and our motley crew of heroes.
In season 8 episode 2, the writers (tentatively) failed. The episode plodded on with a series of clichés, and when in the closing frames of the episode a few wights surveyed the castle of Winterfell, I was rooting for the dead. If only the wights had arrived sooner, they might have been able to resurrect the frigid corpse of tropes that are done to death in every summer blockbuster. At its worst, the show traded its smart characterization and compelling dialogue for a script that was principally composed of inane one-liners, most of which seem to have been scavenged from the rejection piles of inferior TV. All of these issues likely arose from the writers’ desire to provide fan-service. In their attempts to give us what they thought we wanted, they ended up reducing the episode to a series of moments that were much less than the sum of their parts. There were occasional moments of magic, but I did not find that these outweighed the rest of the episode’s failures.
The writing routinely felt stilted, corny and most problematically, insincere. Try to cast your mind back to Tormund’s willingness to fight and die for his people, the stunned look of thanks on his face when Jon gave Mance Rayder mercy from Stannis’ cruel death by fire. His wild tales of sleeping with bears were amusing but they were coupled with a fierce sense of loyalty and of honor. In this episode, Tormund was reduced to a lustful savage. My dorm’s watch party was at first amused by his tales of being breastfed by the widow of a giant he killed when he was ten, but when we realized that Tormund was being given nothing else to do our laughter turned to confused exasperation. The first Arya-Gendry scene was reminiscent of a poorly written fanfiction; the second one, where Arya and Gendry slept together, was just awful, and my dorm broke out into vocal protest. Tormund is funny, and an Arya-Gendry romance seems like it’s been in the works for several seasons now. But the writers hollowed out these narratives that we have grown to love, seemingly hoping that if they coated the scenes with a veneer distilled from the most accessible and obvious parts of the characters, we wouldn’t notice that there was no depth behind the glibly produced segments. We were never shown the core of Tormund’s character. Arya was portrayed as a strange lumping together of a cold badass killer and lovestruck teen. This problem plagued the rest of the episode as well. Missandei and Grey Worm’s tête-à-tête was depressingly standardized, with a too-obvious-to-be-heartwarming conversation about visiting Naath. Sam giving Jorah his family’s sword just sort of …happened. The script for Sam’s accounting of his accomplishments probably was just ripped from one of the bi-weekly ‘in praise of Sam Tarly’ reddit threads. The episode was on the whole far too cute, with beats being shamelessly retrod from previous seasons — not so that the characters could have meaningful conflict and growth prior to a fight to the death, but so that the HBO board members could jerk a few more tears out of us when protagonists’ heads inevitably roll during next week’s Battle for Winterfell.
These were all attempts at moments from “Rings”: Sam giving Jorah a sword mirrored Elrond giving Aragorn Anduril (or perhaps Bilbo giving Frodo Mithril might be a better fit), and Grey Worm and Missandei’s goodbye before the war again mirrored the final conversation between Aragorn and Arwen. But they were poor imitations, visibly falling short of the (admittedly high) standards that Peter Jackson had set. While a stray YouTube clip from “Rings” is nearly enough to reduce me to tears, the equivalent segments from “Thrones” instead provoked my dorm to mirthless laughter as we saw the writers working their way through a screenwriting 101 checklist. Tragic love before final battle? Check. Fancy new weapon that can kill the supernatural bad guys? Check. Character solemnly singing a song while we montage over characters that we like? Check. Some of it was the fact that they often resorted to the generically snarky writing that characterizes the modern blockbuster in lieu of the honesty of “Rings,” but there was also the sense of a massive tonal mismatch. The beats that they were unsuccessfully cribbing were beats from optimistic, heart-warming stories with classically drawn characters possessed of a deep honor. It’s hard to feel the same way about Jamie Lannister after you remember that he raped his sister right next to the still-warm corpse of their son.
There were some wonderful beats. One was a perfectly done locking of eyes between a young girl afflicted with greyscale and Davos — this was a heart-wrenching visual reference to Shireen, the daughter of Davos’ former liege lord who taught him how to read and then was so tragically burnt alive. Another was Sansa’s momentary lowering of her defenses when speaking to Dany, and her quick transition back into a steely advocate for her people. Actress Sophie Turner did a particularly good job this week with Sansa’s scenes, with a great transition from distrusting Jamie due to his past attacks on the Stark family to an acceptance of his role in the battles to come and a wonderful reunion with the now redeemed Theon Greyjoy. The indisputable emotional high point of the episode was when Jamie knighted Brienne, and the best plot moment of the episode was when Jon revealed to Dany the facts of his lineage.
In all of these scenes, the actors and actresses did phenomenal jobs, telling the audience all they needed to know with their performances rather than their words. To some others I read online, these moments not only sufficed to redeem the episode from the flaws I have mentioned but enough to elevate it to an excellent episode. And when these moments hit, I found myself trying very hard to love it. But what defined the episode for me was the tone and structure of the episode as a whole. This episode repeatedly cheapened these character interactions that contained multitudes of nuance and history by situating them in a generic, rose-tinted script that lost the complex voice that has made “Thrones” such an excellent TV show. Imagine (spoilers for “Breaking Bad” and the “Americans” ahead) if right before Hank was shot in Ozymandias, he professed his acceptance of Walt’s drug dealing, or if Stan Beeman and the Jennings shared a redeeming heart-to-heart instead of a taut, emotional face-off before the KGB family was exfiltrated back to the USSR. The writers took all of the parts of a perfect episode and repeatedly diluted them. Case in point, almost immediately after the aforementioned stare-down between the young girl and Davos, the episode retreated into a far less interesting young-child-wants-to-fight-like-the-adults trope. “Game of Thrones” succeeds when it leans into the tragic world that it’s built with its conflicted, flawed characters. It fails when it tries to pivot to the standard blockbuster fare of a Marvel movie.
So to answer the question that French posed a few weeks ago: I can only hope that the writers of “Game of Thrones” have the wisdom to realize that they are not making “Lord of the Rings.” For what it’s worth, French himself disagrees with me, and thinks that the episode was “perfectly done.” And to be fair, at times I let myself get carried away to a still night before the breaking storm of war, and I let myself buy into the characters’ fears and hopes. But unless the show plans on turning this wartime coalition into the basis for a lasting peace in Westeros, a la the alliance of Gondor and Rohan, the reunions that took place in this episode can only be fleeting, and they were played a bit too endearingly for my tastes. Perhaps by the end of the season I will revisit the episode and change my mind: The penultimate scene that featured Dany’s betrayed shock at learning Jon’s lineage could be the basis for something a little more in line with the tragic tale that Martin has been spinning for years now. Instead of this episode being a last hurrah for a redeemed, unified group of heroes before the generically evil zombie army crashes against the walls of Winterfell, this could be a fleeting moment of empathy and convergence before the snow melts, the momentary friendships forged by the antebellum fireplace shatter and the Hobbesian cruelty of mankind once again takes center stage of “Thrones” moral universe. Instead of being an overindulgence in cliche this could be a fascinating way of subverting it, true to the ethos of the show. But it seems that the only way for me to figure out the exact nature of this episode is to finish the series. See you next week.
Contact Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.