Well, it’s all over. Season 8 of Game of Thrones has come and gone, and with its departure comes the departure of the show from HBO’s production schedule. It’s the end of an era for many fantasy fans, including myself, and it’s not likely we’ll see another show quite like it for some time (those Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones prequel series’ will take a lot of time to produce). I have loved this show and these characters for the past 5 years (I began binging seasons 1-3 and watched season 4 as it aired) and I will continue to love this show and these characters long after this moment in which it’s passed on. The significance of it to entire generations, the grandiosity, and the overall quality of 8 seasons of remarkable fantasy television like this cannot be overstated and I am immensely grateful that I got to be a part of experiencing it as it happened, even if only for those 5 years.
All that being said, I’m not going to review Game of Thrones season by season or even as a whole. That would be much too long of a review to do and not much of it would be relevant anyway except as it pertains or relates to my review of season 8 as a whole. As well, I feel that it would not be of much use to anyone to do a spoiler-free review of a single season now that it’s over anyway; plus, I can’t really talk about the highs and lows of the season in any meaningful fashion without discussing them in detail, so if you’d rather not read any spoilers at all in case you haven’t seen the season yet, consider this your official spoiler warning. On the other hand, I can’t promise that I’ll cover every spoiler-y talking point that came up this season either, so if I forget to mention one that you wanted me to talk about, I do sincerely apologize in advance (please feel free to mention it in the comments section!). Now that we’ve established the ground rules and applauded the show for basically existing as its own groundbreaking phenomenon, let’s get into what’s good and not so good about Game of Thrones Season 8. (For the Avengers: Endgame spoiler review, we started out with what wasn’t so good, so let’s flip the script this time, and talk about what’s good first.)
To start, this is without a doubt in my mind the most beautiful Game of Thrones has ever looked. It’s very clear that the directors, producers, and cinematographers were going for an epic finish to this remarkable fantasy show, and some of the shots they manage to pull off are staggering, easily some of the best I’ve ever seen in fantasy film or television. That shot in the finale of Dany with the dragon wings behind her? Nuts! Most of the photography in the battle for Winterfell? Immaculate. Even “The Bells” is near-perfectly directed and shot. I do understand some of the complaints about the battle for Winterfell in episode 3 (entitled “The Long Night”) being underlit for a television show, but to be honest, it didn’t bother me that much. The way I see it, the battle takes place at night in all but pitch darkness apart from the dragon and torch fire, so it would likely be difficult for the characters to see very well anyway. Given that, it’s not all that much of a stretch to under-light it a bit since contextually, it would look that way. Plus, the action in the episode is some of the best of the entire show. Game of Thrones has always been pretty good about large battle episodes being tense and engaging (except for that one where Stannis Baratheon battled the Boltons and we never got to see it), but the scale of this fight was on a whole other level. Massive credit is due to Miguel Sapochnik, who directed this and the famous “Battle of the Bastards” episode (as well as some others).
We get some pretty fantastic moments in that “The Long Night” as well; Theon Greyjoy and Jorah Mormont both go out as heroes, the way they were meant to, and it was a surprisingly tearful farewell, especially given Theon’s history with Winterfell and Bran Stark. As well, the Night King met his end at the hands of Arya Stark (something I actually thought would happen given her motivation since season 1 – saying no to the god of death). I genuinely like that it was Arya who slayed the Night King; she’s one of the show’s most compelling flagship characters, and she deserved to get her big payoff moment (doing so by pulling a Rey from Star Wars). Plus, it fits from a thematic point of view.
It’s not just “The Long Night” that works about Season 8 though. The entire first half of the season, in fact, is genuinely good television. The first episode was filled with reunions and councils that we never knew (but always hoped) we would eventually get to see come to fruition, and although Sansa’s immediate distrust of Dany in this episode seems testy and somewhat annoying (especially once you realize what it’s meant to set up), the reunions and the ending of the episode, with Jaime seeing Bran again, is really good stuff, so it didn’t bother me as much. In episode two, Brienne finally becomes knighted, donning the mantle of “Ser Brienne of Tarth,” like she deserves because she is amazing character who has more than paid her dues. Jaime (in addition to knighting Brienne) also has a meeting with the council at Winterfell to answer for his crimes, and is vouched for by Brienne; he then goes to see Bran, who coolly chides him with the line: “the things we do for love.” Awesome. There are a number of other things that occur in episode 2, like Jon telling Dany his true lineage (it later becomes clear why, but even in the moment, it’s a ridiculous decision), but really, the first two episodes are just pre-cursors to “The Long Night,” since that’s the main conflict this was all meant to be building to. Also, how about those visual effects for every episode? Those cannot be easy to pull off, even with today’s technology, so bravo to the teams that worked on all of those, cause the effects were perfect, dare I say seamless.
The performances across the board are all universally magnificent as well, even when the writing for those performances is less than what Game of Thrones deserves. The unquestionable MVPs in this regard are Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams, and Kit Harrington. Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau should also be mentioned here (as well as Sophie Turner), but given that they don’t have as much to do this season as in previous seasons, their performances are reduced, at least as far as screen-time is concerned. Williams and Harrington do a lot of the heavy lifting in the earlier episodes, but Clarke and Dinklage pull out all the stops for the latter half, especially the series finale. It’s a real shame that the latter half of the season went the way it did, because when actors of this caliber are working at the top of their game without great writing, how amazing would it have been to see them tackle an incredible script (as we’ve seen in years past)?
As far as the series finale is concerned, I did like that it started off a little bit slower than your average episode. I’m not really a fan of how it continues to move slowly, as if it’s limping/meandering to the finish line, but in the aftermath of the horror in “The Bells,” slow feels like a good way to begin this journey to the end. I also enjoy that Tyrion simply quit being Daenerys’ hand when he saw what she had wrought, and that Jon Snow finally put her to an end after saying the only line he’s ever said every episode all season long (we get it; she’s your Queen). As well, Sansa becoming Queen in the North (which now remains an independent kingdom) did bring me solace. Her character has gone through so much, and she's wanted to be a Queen since season 1, so it was nice seeing her finally get to sit on a throne and find solace. I’m sure there’s more to say regarding all those things, but for now I’ll just say that I liked them, and leave it at that.
With leaving it at that, though, comes a new task: it’s time to get into what’s not so good about Season 8, and unfortunately, there were more negative aspects to this season than there were positives (at least on my account). I won’t go into questions I still have about unresolved plot threads or disappeared characters and the like just now (perhaps that’s another article for another time), and I’ve already said my piece about my biggest issue, How Season 8 Failed Daenerys Targaryen, so I won’t reflect any more on that either. I will, however, talk about other things that weren’t so good about this season, beginning with one of the notes I had from my previous article on “The Bells.”
The latter half of the season feels much too rushed, almost as if Benioff and Weiss were only given the Spark Notes version of the season in some sort of summary and just had to write based off of that. It’s not an uncommon opinion among Game of Thrones fans that the writing in earlier seasons of the show was stronger most likely because the writers had previous source material to rely upon when they got into a tricky spot. It didn’t work all the time, and of course a number of plot threads and characters and scenarios were altered from their novel versions, but having that source material to adapt gave the writers more certainty in which characters and arcs to keep and which to throw out, stretch out, or omit. According to various sources, George R.R. Martin (author of the popular Song of Ice and Fire book series on which Game of Thrones is based) did tell showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss how the story was meant to end, so it can’t be said that the ending itself doesn’t make sense (in fact, in my article on “The Bells,” I defend Daenerys arc as a concept), but the execution of that end lacks much in the way of room to grow.
Upon reflection of this final season, I began to discover (as many critics did) that most of the ends the show went for made sense from a logical (though not always thematically sound) standpoint, but the execution of them seemed to have been crammed into those final three episodes, even with episode 4 (“The Last of the Starks”) basically just being a “hook up or don’t” episode for various characters that never really got to the point of any of it until the very end when Daenerys’ second dragon is killed (and also served to piss away all the good will the show built up with Jaime betraying his convictions immediately after banging Brienne). Truthfully, the impending white walker attack and Daenerys’ “Mad Queen” arc should have filled two full seasons of the show all by themselves; perhaps “The Long Night” could have served as the infamous Episode 9 of the 8th season, while Dany’s arc could have filled Season 9. At least then it would have felt more earned. And in not earning either of those, the writers also failed to make the Night King end up meaning much of anything at all in “The Long Night.” Arya slaying him makes logical sense, sure, but thematically, it doesn’t resonate as much, because he never really did much during the course of those first three episodes.
In wrapping up what’s not so good about the admittedly disappointing final season of Game of Thrones, my mind goes to the series finale. I stand behind what I said regarding the performances, direction, and cinematography in that finale, as well as the moments that I liked, but eventually, it comes time to decide who will rule Westeros and the one the writers pick is…Bran (or as Tyrion dubs him, “Bran the Broken”). This is one of those things that makes sense from a logical standpoint (he is the three-eyed raven after all, so he knows all the histories and conflicts and whatnot), but doesn’t really gel well from a thematic perspective. From what we know of Bran so far, he’s more of a “whatever happens, happens for a reason” sort of person than someone who can practice empathy towards personal struggle, which is pretty much what all of the conflicts in Westeros have come down to up to this point. It’s not that he wouldn’t be a wise king, I’m just not confident that he would be a good king. Tyrion even asks who has a better story than Bran (a story that reads: he became crippled, went north, hugged a tree, went south, and that’s it), and I immediately thought of like, six other characters that could easily have taken the Iron Throne for more compelling reasons that also fit with the thematic strengths of those characters (even Dany, if her arc had been slightly different). It’s not that the story of a crippled boy who traveled vast miles across the world becoming the ruler of the (now six) kingdoms isn’t inspiring; it just doesn’t work because that character isn’t compelling. He would be better suited to being the Master of Whisperers than anything else.
On a smaller note, the series finale also meanders to its point; it’s not quite as meandering as “The Last of the Starks,” but the slow start to it just keeps going and going until you desperately want to just get to the point of the episode after the big Dany death is done. Tyrion giving Jon a speech trying to justify Dany’s arc while at the same time trying to justify why he needs to kill her reeks of the writers trying to justify cramming a full-season arc into three episodes, and not only is it rather unnecessary (Jon was there; he saw the carnage and he doesn’t need more motivation than that), a reverse speech happens later where Tyrion visits Jon as a prisoner and tells him that he’s to join the Night’s Watch…again. It fits for where Jon would likely end up, but it feels unearned, like so many other elements of this season.
In the end, I still love Game of Thrones for what it was and the legacy it leaves on fantasy television. If you had told me eight years ago that not only would high fantasy come to tv with a massive budget, but that it would be beloved by almost everyone and inspire generations of creators and artists across the world…I probably wouldn’t have said much, cause hey, what did I know about film and tv criticism at that point? Still, it is a remarkable achievement in television programming and HBO should be proud of themselves for creating and sustaining a fantastic show across 7 and a half seasons. It’s just a shame that, right on the cusp of the finish line, Game of Thrones somehow managed to fall flat on its face, and the final season of this wonderful show (to the dismay of all) ended up being its worst. And now, our watch is ended.
What did you think of Game of Thrones’ final season? Were you disappointed or were you actually okay with how things turned out? How about that series finale? Let me know in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.