It has been over two years since the last episode of Game of Thrones has aired and the internet is still giving us alternative endings. There are theories of how plotlines should have ended, fans who are still disappointed, some even outraged of how the series finished. Only a few are happy with the outcome, others impatiently waiting for George R.R. Martin’s sixth book, The Winds of Winter, not regarding the last two seasons of Game of Thrones as canon any longer. And maybe they are right to do so.
The question is, after such a long time, why is the last season still such a sensitive topic, especially among die-heart expert fans of Game of Thrones who know Westeros and Essos inside out. A while after the release of season eight, they also hold season seven accountable for the disaster of the ending. The answer to this question after very often thinking, conversing, and reading articles about the last two seasons, lies not necessarily of what is wrong with them but in how they were delivered.
I will not talk about the detailed plot point mistakes that were made in the last two seasons, for instance, how was it possible for characters to suddenly travel far distances within less or just one episode? When in earlier seasons travelling took them at least a season if not even two. And especially travelling is in a medieval centred world, similar like in The Lord of the Rings essential to the evolvement and development of characters and plot.
How were the Lannisters able to conquer Highgarden so quickly when usually a conquest or a war took one or more seasons. How do Daenerys and Varys not foresee an ambush at Dragonstone in season eight when all they talk about in season seven is that Daenerys cannot leave Dragonstone and her conquered lands behind or Cersei would retake them while they are in the North. How was Rhaegal killed so quickly by a few scorpion heads when Drogon encountered an army of scorpion heads in King’s Landing and none of them hit him? Why didn’t the Dothraki regard Jon Snow as their natural leader, as it is the law among Dothraki, to regard whoever killed their last Khal as future Khal. Why don’t we find out who the Night King was? And why did Arya become a faceless assassin and did not use her powers to either kill Cersei before Daenerys and their army came to King’s Landing (they could have talked about that at their war council in episode four of season eight) or at least then used her powers to free Jon Snow after he had killed Daenerys.
As you can see, the list of things that don’t really add up is long and while the story of course developed as it developed, looking back, these mistakes, or lack of evolvement and revelations were simply there. And I believe all of the above was fine to happen, their execution was however lazy and not as good as in season one to six.
But why is that? Did the writers end up writing a lazy ending? I don’t think so. No writer who takes their writing seriously which I am certain they did, would ever do such a thing intentionally (talking as a writer from experience). But what then was the mistake of season seven and season eight?
I believe that the fault does not lie in the writing but in the execution of the story which used to follow a very clear path from season one to season six which was perfect drama and still to this day are considered to be brilliant seasons. So, what do seasons one to six have in common that seasons seven and eight are missing?
Taking a step back, it is easy to see, when structuring such a complex and complicated story, that the answer lies within the structure itself of every season. Season one to six had a clear structure that season seven and eight were missing. It was however this narrative structure which was ultimately the reason for the successful storytelling of Game of Thrones. It created this unique style of narrative, and thus leading to the disappointment that was season seven and eight.
Let me take you back to season one and show you how this worked exactly. Most people who began to watch Game of Thrones either managed to pull through the first couple of episodes and were then hooked until the end, or they watched the first two and decided it was not for them. Because the thing is, with all the characters and all the different plotlines, the story evolves and unfolds very slowly. It is hard to follow and remember all characters and their motivations in the first three episodes. But once it all starts rolling you cannot stop. And at the same time the stakes are built very carefully and reach higher and higher levels towards the end of every season. And that is all a good storyteller wants to have: High stakes. This is also how season one begins: A slow start, carefully placing the pieces one by one into position, and then introducing the larger narrative, creating high stakes.
Later in the first season more and more things happen. The first blood is being spilled as the plot thickens and the characters begin to turn their motives into actions, followed by episode nine which is the key episode of every season from one to six. It is an episode where something major happens. It is either a death of a main character causing ripples and actions that echo throughout the Seven Kingdoms and beyond. Or it is a decisive battle that will reshape the narrative to come and the power dynamics of Westeros.
In season one it was the beheading of Ned Stark who was, until then, one of the main characters and considered as essential. But Game of Thrones breaks the rules of the classic fantasy saga, killing off essential and beloved characters one by one. This explosive episode nine is then followed by a resolution episode but also by one where things are set into motion for the following season, an episode which later on, is also famous for killing off main characters.
It is a good concept for such a complicated and complex story. It gives not only the writer a clear structure of what to do and where to go but also creates a rhythm and a pace for the viewer. This structure has been kept throughout the six seasons with only little exceptions, thus proving the rule.
Season two unfolds just like in season one slowly but steadily, following the events that were set into motion by the ending of season one. Halfway through, blood is once again spilled, creating incentive for the big episode that is episode nine. In season two it is a big battle of two rivals, House Lannister against House Baratheon. One minute before the end of the episode the battle is decided, making House Lannister the victor. Episode ten of season two creates new alliances between House Tyrell and House Lannister, leaving the situation with House Stark unresolved, to be followed up in season three. And Daenerys continues her path towards power.
Season three, very often considered the best season of Game of Thrones follows this very same structure very well. Slowly but steadily the Starks realise they are winning every battle but losing the war. The Lannisters and Tyrells establish their power together and Daenerys is gaining power far across the narrow sea. Halfway through, the pace is picking up, leading towards the best-known episode of Game of Thrones: The Rains of Castamere, which is of course episode nine. The Starks are slaughtered and in episode ten everything is set into motion for a very new landscape without the Starks ruling the North, the war of the five kings pretty much ended and Daenerys conquering her first big city, freeing slaves.
In season four there is a break in this structure, however it does not harm the narrative but simply sets things into motion quicker than in the previous three seasons. King Joffrey is killed at his own wedding setting the trial of Tyrion Lannister as one of the main narratives of season four into focus. The Martells arrive and join in the game of thrones as well. The rising tension in season four is build up in episode eight, finds its peak in episode nine and ten and is simultaneously resolved in episode ten.
When the viewer reaches episode nine, which is centred in the North this time, the viewer gets to witness a big battle where Jon Snow fights the wildlings and the outcome is undecided. In episode ten, which really does not only serve as a resolution for things happening North and South, but especially creates new power dynamics for the next season, is fast paced and exciting. The Crows are rescued by King Stannis Baratheon, Tywin Lannister is killed by Tyrion and Tyrion escapes. The question is where does he go?
Season five is probably the slowest unfolding season with greatest excitement towards the end. After big changes in season four the narrative gets to breathe again and plotlines unfold slowly, many characters travel to new destinations such as Tyrion, Arya, Jamie or Sansa. Towards the end of the season, events are pacing forward very fast again, similar to season four. This time, which is an exception, there is a great battle in episode eight beyond the wall between wildlings, the crows, whites and white walkers. In episode nine there is once again a death of a main character who was thought, by many fans, to become very important. But their theories, dreams and hopes were crushed when Shireen Baratheon was burnt at the stake by the Red Woman. In episode ten Stannis Baratheon marches on Winterfell only to be defeated. So, episode ten holds a major battle and major deaths. Far away in Essos in episode nine, Daenerys finally mounts her dragon Drogon and takes off into the sky leaving Mereen behind. And last but not least, Jon Snow is killed by his own men.
After the end of season five concluded with such big changes, season six begins very slowly, very often considered as the slowest season beginning, because it took the Red Woman two episodes to raise Jon Snow from the dead, and while watching it, it felt like two years. But after he is back in the game, the narrative moves on fairly quickly, killing off some minor characters on the way while heading towards a big battle between the rising Starks, Jon and Sansa, and Ramsay Bolton. Meanwhile, the audience wonders whether Daenerys will finally take full control over her dragons, become a true Targaryen or fail while trying. And in King’s Landing everyone wonders how Cersei will get out of the mess with the High Sparrow she has gotten herself into with over the last two seasons.
Episode nine does not only give us one big battle but actually two big battles. All the dragon fans are well rewarded because Daenerys comes flying in full force into Slaver’s Bay with all her three dragons and destroys the uprising of the slave owners. Meanwhile in the North, we are not only given an epic battle but also a very bloody one, making the Starks once again the rightful and true rulers of the North. Episode ten comes as a shaker as much as a ripple effect for the coming two final seasons. Cersei in fact manages to kill all her enemies by blowing up the Sept of Baelor and crowns herself Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Jon is named King in the North. Arya finally finishes her training as a faceless assassin after three seasons. And Daenerys actually sets sail for Westeros with a thousand ships, twenty thousand men and three fully grown dragons. She is ready to take the throne. The stakes have never been higher.
All of this is considered to be the best ending after such a long and difficult road and held together by structure, plot- twisting events, usually in episode nine, and exciting resolutions in episode ten. Unfortunately, this structure was then broken for season seven and eight. Therefore, making them simply not only different but at times not really working out in the way this epic tale used to be told. It took away some of the spell that enchanted so many people all around the globe.
In season seven the big battles take place in episode two, killing off the Martells, episode three, killing off the Tyrells and episode four, destroying the Lannister forces. The pace of season seven is immediately a very fast one, leaving the viewer not a lot of time to breathe or to see any real changes and actions follow and fall naturally into new changes and actions which used to be the case in the previous six seasons. All actions and changes simply follow other actions and changes which are very often not even explained or clearly understood, as a slow unfolding story is not present anymore. This however is a mistake, as despite riding on dragons, events in a medieval centred world cannot unfold so quickly. And that was the problem of condensing a ten-episode structure suddenly into a seven-episode structure. There is little time to breathe or little time to have an episode where we can follow the characters’ reactions to events. We simply don’t see them getting from location A to B which in all six seasons were important journeys to make with plot twists on the journeys. Besides, the characters usually make new plans or plot along the way which was so enjoyable to see in former seasons.
One thing that could be argued about season seven though is the major death in the penultimate episode of season seven. In this case it would be episode six. The golden dragon Viserion is killed by the Night King beyond the wall. For the first time in a long time the audience (and the internet) was shocked by the death of a dragon as this giant and seemingly invincible creature was so suddenly falling from the sky. It also echoes throughout the last two episodes that the Night King and his army are indeed the real threat and the resolution episode, the final one of season seven declares exactly that.
However, where season seven has already been difficult to portray, holding up the standard of the previous seasons, season eight, despite its great visuals and its somewhat gripping story fails to deliver like the first six seasons. When one simply looks at the structure it is clear why this is so.
Season eight starts enormously slow with two episodes waisted were basically nothing happens. The big battle is halfway through season eight, similar like in season seven, where everything happens and all the action takes place. Then the viewer gets no time to breathe and neither get the characters to react to the events unfolding around them, they simply happen. There is an ambush at Dragonstone, Rhaegal is killed, Missandei executed, Varys betrays Daenerys and is executed. Daenerys burns down King’s Landing, Jon Snow kills Daenerys, Drogon melts the throne, no one sits the throne, the survivors name Brandon Stark King of the Six Kingdoms, no one really knows why, Arya leaves Westeros, Sansa becomes Queen in the North, Jon Snow is reunited with Ghost, the end.
These are five very exciting lines pressed into three episodes which are not very much longer than a normal episode on Game of Thrones. And the issue with all these plot points is not the narrative itself but the execution of this very fast paced narrative. Because when one imagines season seven and eight with ten episodes each then their build up, rising tension, peak, plot twists and resolutions would have been so much more exciting and so much more rewarding when watching. The narrative would have been given time to explore the stakes, build them up and reach highest potential. Because the thing is, and that counts for every story, if you don’t find the best way how to tell the greatest story, the greatest story looks like bullshit.
And I believe that this was the problem of season seven and eight. Let me take you through what season eight could have looked like with ten episodes. There could have been a slow but steady build up towards the battle against the Night King. Cersei, all alone in King’s Landing, with nothing to do but wait, could have been given great monologues on reflecting on her decisions and her realisation of where she is heading. Besides, she could have had the miscarriage, which was actually filmed for season eight, but then taken out of the final version of the season. This event could then have also been her motivation to have an indifferent opinion towards Tyrion’s words of saving herself and her child. She had nothing to care or to live for anymore and this is why she could have shown absolute indifference towards the attack on King’s Landing.
The spark of Daenerys’s madness could have been given by her properly reacting to Jon Snow being the true heir to the Iron Throne. Besides, there could have been time for a great conversation between two great minds, Tyrion Lannister and Brandon Stark. Here, Bran could have explained to Tyrion who he is and it could have been a clear hint for the viewer to where this final season was heading.
The Battle of Winterfell could have been episode four and five, with a great cliff hanger in between and setting everything into motion. Episode six could have been a breathing moment for the characters. At the same time, it could have broadened the rift between Daenerys and the Starks, ultimately Arya not deciding to help Daenerys winning the throne by simply killing Cersei. Episodes seven and eight could then have set all other things into motion by killing Rhaegal and Missandei, and, episode by episode, the audience could follow Daenerys losing her mind, maybe with great dialogues between Tyrion and Varys. This could have led on to episode nine where the major Game of Thrones player, Varys would be executed by Daenerys. And then of course the rest of episode nine would be Daenerys proving her madness, burning down King’s Landing and killing Cersei and Jamie (maybe Drogon devouring them very slowly rather having them simply killed by rubble). Episode ten could have become the ultimate showdown where Jon chooses to kill Daenerys and because of the longer build up towards the last episode, Tyrion’s explanation for choosing Bran does not come as an emergency decision but rather as something that has lingered in the air since the beginning of season eight all along.
George R.R. Martin even said in an interview that he would have liked to see nine if not even ten seasons of Game of Thrones which would have made a lot of sense considering the very long build-up of the first six seasons. However, great story telling, especially in television, does not correspond well with producers who want to see results and of course fast money. This is why, there was a season seven with seven episodes and a final season with only six episodes leaving structural, narrative and character development second place.
This is maybe also the reason why George R.R. Martin takes his good time for releasing book six, The Winds of Winter, because after creating such a complicated and complex world, like the narrative of Game of Thrones, one simply has to take one’s time to make sure everything fits and works. This time was unfortunately not given to the writers by the producers, which however would not have been a problem. Because by season six, the fans would have waited not only over one year but over two years as well. The writers and directors could have taken their time to create outstanding two last seasons like they did with season six.
We can only hope that the writers and the producers know better for the coming show set in the world of Westeros, House of the Dragon. Maybe this time they will stick to a clear structure, ten episodes per season and create a clear structural voice from beginning to ending.