Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
This review of Season 8 of Game of Thrones takes the form of a transcribed conversation between CinePunked’s Robert JE Simpson (RS) and Dr Rachael Kelly (RK).
RK: So. That last season of Game Of Thrones seems to have annoyed a couple of people.
RS: I’m just annoyed I didn’t get to film any of it this time round. You wouldn’t believe how much I enjoy being able to say I’ve been a very small part of one of the biggest TV series of the 21st century.
RK: Yep, Robert-watching was a fun side-game we used to play in our house during the earlier seasons.
RS: That was silly… I wasn’t in those ones!
RK: You’ve got your face in a couple of big scenes, too. Quite prominently! (Though I do have another friend who’s in the first episode, greeting the Baratheons as they arrive at Winterfell… so….)
RS: In one of my jobs I work near the studios too — so I’ve been waiting to see what was happening with the big Kings Landing sets built under the Harland and Wolff cranes. I knew there’d be fire…
RK: I can only enviously imagine. They wouldn’t have me as an extra — apparently, my hairstyle is too modern for the look of the show. Which is fair enough. I’ll take that as a compliment….
RS: No? Didn’t you play your Attenborough card?
RK: I think you may be overestimating the cache of my Attenborough story.
RS: It’s the sole reason I work with you! You’ve been with greatness
RK: And a kinder gentleman there never was. But he wasn’t in Game of Thrones, so that didn’t get me very far.
RS: I know, I shouldn’t digress…. But he’s exactly the sort that would have been cast given a chance. Alongside the likes of Dame Diana Rigg, Julian Glover and Peter Vaughan.
RK: Interesting. I think the casting of Game of Thrones has historically been one of its most powerful strengths, to be honest. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know how closely these characters tie in to their literary counterparts, but I felt that there was rarely a thespian misstep. And I think that’s particularly noteworthy given the pressures they’ve been under in the previous couple of seasons in particular. Let’s talk about Season 8, shall we? I’m not sure we can just stick to the finale; everything in it feeds off what went before. How did you find it overall?
RS: It only occurs to me now, that one of the things it is missing, is all those old hands — the brilliant thespians and character actors from the annals of British film and television were all missing. Killed off or forgotten about this season. And I can feel it. There’s some wonderful younger talent on screen, but it lacked the balance and colour.
RK: I’m not sure I think that’s entirely fair. GoT has always been an ensemble piece. For me, I’ve been reading a really interesting take* on why the last two seasons in particular have rung slightly hollow, and it’s clarified a couple of things for me. It suggests that the Game Of Thrones saga is primarily a sociological piece of storytelling, which is its great strength and which is what allows it to just — boom — kill off major characters with very little warning. It’s about the wider sociological and sociohistorical patterns that the narrative addresses. But television narratives are primarily psychological in nature — focusing deeply on the psychology of particular characters. Game of Thrones has been telling psychological stories for the past couple of seasons, which allows them to do much less Surprise! Death! plots, and which also removes the possibility of the long, nuanced storylines that we’d all fallen in love with in the early seasons.
RS: Hmm. Interesting. Though again I’m not entirely sure I agree with that take on things either. It’s a difficult show to be overly simplistic with. On one hand, it is a rather exploitational swashbuckler peplum type tale, with its ships, swords, sandals and sex. But amid the bodies and blood, there’s something else at play – and that gets rather explicitly stated in the climax, with the political discussion coming right to the fore. Was that always intended? It’s hard to think it wasn’t. There’s definitely some rather fine parallels and commentary on the likes of Trump’s America and May’s pisspoor Brexiting.
RK: It doesn’t… feel like it was always intended, though. If anything, it felt heavy handed. Look, don’t get me wrong — I’m not among the fans who hated the finale. It was mighty pissed off at the Mad Queen narrative heel turn, for reasons that I’ll yell at you at length. But I went into the finale thinking there was no way the show could pull back from where it went in The Bells, and came away feeling satisfied. Not because of the politicking, but because it felt like the show had re-found itself after the whole pulpy spectacle stuff it’d been doing — it was back to going “Surprise, bitches! You didn’t see this coming.”
RS: And yet it also felt as if that had been planned for a very long time. You could never feel totally comfortable as a viewer with GoT, because it would take you on journeys with characters where you’d fall totally for them, and then whip the rug from beneath you. Either you ended up endorsing morally reprehensible behaviour, or you had to hate everyone.
The way the show was set up, we end up falling for Dany, we are her willing liberated slaves, ready to massacre because she says so. But we’re also watching the whole thing through the male gaze – only one of the 17 directors on the show is a woman – and that rather skews things towards fetishisation. For the last few years I think audiences have been feeling quite proud of this ostensibly strong female character, ignoring all the sexualisation, the Aryan vibe, and the pronounced mental instability (which is also shouted out from the off).
Those controversial scenes with Dany’s white face surrounded by the darker skinned slaves several seasons ago have to be deliberately provocative. It’s as if GoT has been so self-aware it knew how the press would react when it played with perceptions.
RK: Yeah, okay. That’s… not great, is it? (I’m rewatching from the beginning right now, to see what I missed, and I’m noticing more savage dark skin versus Aryan purity than I remembered, truth be told.)
RS: We end up wanting her to succeed, but we are gradually reminded just how much we are turning away, blinded by her beauty and words of justification. Look at the actions — they aren’t those of a just person.
The one character that really plays the Game of Thrones throughout, and learns how to master it is Tyrian. Peter Dinklage is the stand out star of the run for me. Disarming, witty, full of pathos and humility and passion and humanity. Any episode that shuns him feels weaker. But that’s also the joy — we get to watch these disparate yet connected narratives and lives intersect, and in true butterfly effect, slowly recognise the impact that actions can have on the other side of the world.
RK: I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. I think, looking back, Dany’s instability has been subtly ramping up over the past number of seasons, and I think it’s very, very GoT to make a statement like, “You wanted this one. Well, too bad. Life doesn’t have pretty, neat outcomes. History’s worse. This is the one you’re getting.” I also loved the fact that the ending basically made everything that had gone before feel so utterly pointless. (Yep, I LOVED that. Game of Thrones has always been, for me, about pulling the carpet out from underneath me. Making me revisit that human need for tidy narrative. Subverting the fantasy trope about The Chosen One, prophesied from birth. I don’t know how the prophesies mentioned throughout the series have been/will be treated in the books, but I LOVE that they are largely bullshit in the television series. That fatalistic “because X, naturally Y” tendency that we have as human storytellers has been utterly laid waste by bits of this series, and I find that really exciting.)
RS: Considering this is a show made in Northern Ireland, I can’t help but see it as a commentary on the religious supremity that many here seem to feel they have. “It’s my god given right to do this”, and that’s fine until someone starts to question it. Or you’re presented with someone else that has their own god.
RK: I’m not sure I’d be inclined to place too much emphasis on the Northern Ireland aspect, to be honest. It’s a show that’s partly made here, but I think they ignore anything culturally related to this part of the world. Though I do see what you mean.
RS: Pretty sure the NI thing is sheer chance. But when Richard Dormer is harping on about the gods, well….
RK: Oh, I don’t think it’s not an available reading by any means. Whether or not it was intended, it’s definitely available.
RS: Even Jon falls into the trap of resisting the questions — he can see what is patently wrong, and yet he refuses to shift his alegiance. Because that wouldn’t be right, because he’s given his word. And yet this is a man who has broken the oaths he’s made plenty of times. That’s the reality of the human condition.
RK: For me, the thing about Jon (and Ned before him) is very much that he’s the Good Guy, the Noble Guy, the Honorable Guy — the sort of person we’re culturally primed to root for as the saviour of the people from tyranny — and neither of them is in any way equipped to deal with the fact that they are operating in a world where honour and nobility gets you killed. Hard to save anyone from anyone if you’re dead (just ask Dany — too soon?). Oh dear — you know I’m going down the gender route with this one….
RS: It’s impossible to avoid a gendered discussion. Though by the Lord of Light I wish it was!
RK: Buckle up, my friend. Here we go. Because what really, really wound me up about The Bells was the way that Dany’s performance of leadership was suddenly polarised against Jon’s in a way it never had been before, in a way that was absolutely, unequivocally designed to set her up as Unfit to Rule. Now, we might not want to talk about gender, but, as in Game of Thrones’ universe, nobody gets what they want. Because Jon is suddenly all about being righteous, Dany is all about being murderous, and any war crimes he’s sucked into committing are basically all on her. It’s the “women are too emotional to rule” bullshit made flesh and fire. She was painstakingly established as the one to root for, and I’ve no problem having the rug pulled out from under me, but this boiled down to “Daenerys has a bad day and loses her shit spectacularly. Milllions die”. The only way out was to kill her in the finale, but I was then expecting the triumphant ascension of the One True Ruler, Aegon Targaryen, restored to his rightful place (no chicks, amirite?). That was what annoyed me so intensely — after all that, we’re going to be told that, no, actually, it was the other guy, the one with the penis and the lovely beard, who was supposed to be ruling all along. When it didn’t do that, I was very pleasantly surprised and willing to buy what they were selling again.
RS: That line about when a Targaryen is born the gods flip a coin is established very early on. We are told her father went insane, and as much as the show distances its characters from the legacies of their fathers — mothers don’t count — there is an overriding tendency to have history repeat. So we are surprised when she isn’t batshit crazy, although there’s always a veiled threat that she might be.
And it isn’t even that she is cray cray. It’s the corruption of power — she genuinely believes she’s doing good for everyone. But she’s also got an army of dickless men hanging on her every word and willing to put their lives forward — the drones and the Queen Bee.
Jon isn’t necessarily the flip side of that because she’s his aunt. He might be crazy too. And for some, his rejection of the power that others see he should wield — not because he wants it, but because he’s actually good at it — is also the act of insanity.
I love that the people that don’t really want the power, are those that do get it. That should get it. I love that when Tyrion walks away, he finally earns it.
RK: I’m going to disagree on that assessment of Jon. He’d have been a terrible king. Ned would also have been a terrible king. Either one of them would have lasted three weeks, tops. There’s no room for that kind of blind goodness in Westeros — not even in the new and hopeful future. (Don’t turn your back on Queen Sansa, I reckon.)
RS: Sansa is another Cersei in the making. She’s hungry for the power. Family comes first. And she’s cold.
RK: Jon has the power to make men follow him; so did Robert. (He was shit at kinging too, but for different reasons.) That intransigent loyalty is NOT what you need to make the seven (now six) kingdoms function — NOBODY else is playing by those rules.
RS: Yes, but it isn’t just about having people follow you, it’s about making sure that you have the right people around you helping with decisions, and Jon has many of those. Including Sansa, Davos, and Tyrion.
RK: I was literally yelling at the screen in the last two episodes “WAKE UP, JON, YOU ABSOLUTE IDIOT! JON, DON’T BE SUCH A COMPLETE IDIOT!” He’s almost naive, and HOW do you manage to be naive when you’ve seen what he’s seen? It’s like, oh, everyone has betrayed me at every stage, I even got stabbed to death that one time, but I still resolutely believe in the fundamental goodness of the world and the people I choose to have around me. YOU TOLD SANSA YOU WERE AEGON TARGARYEN, JON. What the hell did you think was going to happen next, JON? He is WAY too trusting, loyal, honorable — innocent? — to be anywhere near a position of power. Loyalty gets you killed in Westeros. It’s not clever to be intransigent — you need to be adaptable.
(By the way, I say this as someone who personally loves the character of Jon Snow. We absolutely need someone to take the edge off all the scheming. I think it would have been ballsy as hell to have left him dead at the end of Season 5, and I’m still very glad they didn’t.)
RS: As an aside, I remember all the speculation during the production of Season 6 about what had happened to Jon, and then being on set for the ‘Battle of the Bastards’ filming just feet away from Kit as we went for the Boltons.
Film… its all an illusion….
RK: Unsurprisingly, I did not spot you in the Battle of the Bastards. That is so cool that you were there, though.
RS: Neither did I. Not properly. Though I assure you, I earned my stripes on it!
The naivety of Snow isn’t quite endearing. He does seem at times stupidly simple. Willing to look for the good in people. But I also think he’s been fundamentally conditioned by his upbringing. He believes himself to be the bastard son of a second rung king. He’s looked down on by most, and ends up in the Night’s Watch. He hasn’t got a future. And when a future starts looking for him, he’s reluctant to embrace it. As if it is happening to someone else.
I also think he does know what will happen when he tells people about his genealogy, but he doesn’t want to make those decisions. He needs others to be a part of it, because he isn’t hungry for the supreme role. And quite possibly, his head has been turned by love. Again.
RK: He makes Sansa pinkie-swear that she won’t tell anyone.
RS: If your sister made you pinkie-swear something like that, you think you wouldn’t?
RK: He is then apparently surprised when the first thing she does is tell someone. I mean, he hasn’t seen these two women since they were girls, and they were quite different people then. Okay. But they’re not so different that he should be as completely unaware of what they’ll do next. That’s also kind of my point — he’s not so much the guy for the long-term strategising, our Jon. He does what makes sense in the moment. It’s blunt force ruling, while everyone else is playing chess.
RS: The emotional response though helps to facilitate some change, it breaks the impasse and inevitability of the eternal chess game, and ultimately leads to the demise of the iron throne. He doesn’t seem that bothered either — he spent so much of the show looking sulky, now he gets to hang with the Wildlings and his pupper miles from anyone. Back to the land of the outsiders.
RK: To be blunt, that’s not good storytelling, though. If you’re having a character do something far-reaching, with massive characterological implications, because you need to break an impasse? A lot of Season 8 is made up of these moments, it feels like, where stuff happens because the writers need something else to happen. It’s (whisper it) lazy writing to do that.
RS: It occurs to me — is this some sort of Christ metaphor? He rises from the dead and is rejected by his own….
RK: That’s… interesting. Does that play a little too neatly into fantasy tropes, do you think? The idea of “as it was prophesied, so shall it be”? Because that’s also at play here.
RS: It’s hardly surprising to find western religions finding their way into the influence of a fantasy show. There’s aspects of paganism, Christianity, spiritualism and probably lots of eastern faiths I’m not so au fait with, present. We’ve got a witch, and taboo, and a hero amongst men.
RK: Yes, but this was a series/show that set itself up in opposition to traditional fantasy tropes. The hero amongst men gets his head lopped off in Season 1. The follow-up hero gets stabbed to death with his pregnant wife in Season 3. The follow-up-follow-up hero gets stabbed to death in Season 5. (That one doesn’t stick, though.) Remember the backlash after the Red Wedding, by the way? People were cancelling their HBO subscriptions in protest. This show is very good at upsetting people (who appear to have never seen the show before? How could you NOT think it’s going to do something like that?).
RS: How did nobody see the Red Wedding coming? It just struck me as the most obvious thing to massacre everyone. But then, that goes on and we overlook the incest and paedophilic aspects of certain characters.
RK: I am mildly concerned that you think massacring people is the obvious thing, but okay.
RS: The show was already blood-thirsty by then and he was a total shit.
RK: Okay, so you’ve offended a WHOLE section of the 2013 internet.
RS: Thank goodness its 2019!
RK: Yes. We’ve moved on. Now it’s petitions.
RS: For me, the Snow story doesn’t finish, it comes full circle. Snow has lived a life, died, been resurrected, elated as a near-god, and then regresses back to the point of being ostracised at The Wall. There’s just a hint of “this is all gonna happen again”, and I have little doubt that Snow would be back trying to talk sense into people who are too busy playing games to actually accept the simple reality of what is happening. Only, armed with Wildlings, he doesn’t have to try quite so hard to convince.
The entitlement of fans in 2019 to start a petition asking a TV producer to remake a whole season is utter insanity. Never mind the cost. That’s what fanfiction is for. You don’t like how it turned out, rewrite it to suit your own fantasy. Hardly surprising when we’ve had misogynistic nerds go and reedit the women out of Star Wars. What do they want exactly? Given the same restrictions of time and budget they’d probably turn out something rather similar.
I’ve read a bit of the complaints about the pacing of the last series — and there’s definitely moments where the chronology seems forced, and I’d like a little more explanation, but it’s probably been cut out for expediency. At very least, I’d have liked to see Jon arrested. But, to remake the series, nah.
RK: I’m going to be THAT viewer and suggest that the series lost its way around the time it ran out of books. Honestly, I felt as though the character writing suddenly went off — noticeably — in some strange directions, and it took a while for everyone to feel like themselves again. Was that me recognising the characters from the earlier seasons? Or had I just got accustomed to the re-visioned showrunner-approved characters? I’m not sure. I do think it was a bad decision to shorten the last two seasons, though. I understand why it had to happen, or I assume I do: those were MASSIVE set pieces, and they were spectacularly put together. I mean, GoT, when it lets rip, there’s nothing like it. The Battle of Winterfell was legitimately terrifying (RIP, Lyanna Mormont. You are missed), even if it did just sink itself in the final act. But the earlier seasons, talky as they are in places (“Wow, that was quite some battle,” observes one character to another, instead of said battle appearing on screen), they had room to breathe in a way that the later series haven’t. Expectations rose, costs rose, the cast swelled, and something had to give. It’s a shame it was the narrative breadth, but it couldn’t really have been anything else, could it?
RS: I did a scene with the little Mormont — she was fabulous.
RK: I did a convention panel show with Princess Shireen. We did not win.
The last season wasn’t as spectacular as those before. There was a lot more talk, and this is I think where the disappointment lies — it gets into the politics and the pondering and that isn’t quite the epic fantasy we’d grown to like. Had more in common with the meandering failings of the second Lord of the Rings or Hobbit films.
RK: See, I disagree completely on that. It was the talking that saved the final series.
RS: Not my disappointment — I think I’m on record on my social media as appreciating it, but the general populace. They expected something epic and battle ridden.
RK: Have they seen the earlier seasons? The earlier seasons are mostly talking. Very little epic. It goes back to that point I was making earlier about sociological versus psychological storytelling. The lack of epic allows the story — the narrative — to take centre stage. The odd bit of spectacle was great, but if memory serves, it was generally gore back in the day, and a good bit of nudity. Later series had dragons and ice walls crumbling and massive night-time battles with flaming swords and zombies.
RS: ‘The Battle of Winterfell’ — that was the episode that the fans complained was too dark, wasn’t it? Difficult as it could be to see some of that, it added to the tension, the horror and fear for me. Try something different, and everybody thinks they could do it better.
RK: Me too. I loved that I had to struggle to see what went on. It made everything feel chaotic and out of control. It made things much more difficult to predict. I wish the show’d had the balls to kill off a few more major characters, though — sad as I was to lose Lyanna (I was shouting at the screen again), Theon’s redemptive arc just came too late in the day for me to be very much affected by his death, and I’m still pissy that Ser Jorah survived the greyscale in a narratively convenient deus-ex-Samwell.
RS: Another piss-poor fella fawning over Dany because he’s in love with her. Her ability to bewitch the men around her is fascinating. But also lazy.
As a viewer, watching the series, I can let it go, but when I think about it there is much to irk.
RK: I’m having a tough time letting go. I didn’t expect to be this emotionally invested, to be honest — I’ve watched avidly, but I’ve never been a superfan. So the feelings I’ve been swept up in since the last episode have surprised me.
RS: You don’t have to though – there’s still GRRRRRRR’s book versions to come, and then there’s the Jane Goldman penned prequel series potentially. Westeros is far from done. And with the round table of (male) survivors, the knights of Westeros could come back.
RK: I’d watch the hell out of Arya’s adventures in Wester-Westeros. The prequel is about the Night King, right? I’m not sure I care that much, after the let-down in the Godswood. They instantly stopped being frightening, which is… quite the accomplishment, frankly. And not in a good way.
RS: Feels like any good horror franchise — take too long with it, or show the threat too often, and it ceases to be scary.
Westeros Beyond could be good. Or a series about Sam the Librarian, solving crimes with his big fuck-off parchments.
RK: Uh, no. Brienne, fine. Even Bronn. I like Sam fine, but that A Song Of Ice And Fire thing was just painful.
RS: The worst. When the fans get to write the series and shoe-horn everything in.
RK: Ugh, like Season 3 of Sherlock. (Let’s rant about that some day too — I could do with some closure.) Ultimately, though, I think we’ve been witness to a cultural phenomenon. I have been, only a little bit tongue-in-cheek, referring to the finale as our generation’s moon landing, but it’s certainly been culturally important in ways that I’m not sure we can even begin to define yet. I can’t quite believe it’s over (even if it’ll never be OVER over). It’s been a hell of a ride.
RS: I was late to the party, in spite of early opportunities, but it certainly got my attention. I love that it’s been a series that has captured so many, that has generated that event TV mentality — that seems to be lacking.
I have to be honest — I’m also fond of it, because it paid for one of my Christmasses! And what it has done for Northern Ireland is amazing and unprecedented. Its okay to be a nerd again. Anything that enables otherness to be accepted is good in my book.
RK: And the casting department taught me that, despite my absolute sartorial incompetence, my hairstyle at least is modern. Thank you, Game of Thrones.
Tufecki, Zeynep: Scientific American “The Real Reason Fans Hate The Last Season of Game of Thrones” (17 May 2019, retrieved 23 May 2019)