Spoilers for A Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica (2004).
This is a slight diversion from the blog’s usual focus as a big story comes to a close. I might do this regularly.
The final episode of Game of Thrones was actually not bad. There were some clangers and I rolled my eyes at least twice when it tried to be clever and self-referential, but there was also good acting, there were some effective scenes, and even one or two moments of quite impressive writing. It certainly had a better ending than Battlestar Galactica (2004).
Battlestar Galactica’s problem, though, was that it failed to resolve or adequately explain dangling threads left over from the earliest seasons, a lamentable oversight in such a well-crafted narrative. As I recall reading once in an insightful and fascinating blog post, an important part of drawing people into a world is a consistent tone. Tone is maintained, in part, by narrative tension, climax, and resolution. A story’s course is satisfying when these hang together well.
Despite the anger and hand-wringing going on in many parts of the Web, the final episode of A Game of Thrones lacks satisfaction because its merits do not reflect the greater whole of the story: whichever angle one wishes to take, no matter how good the sets, CGI, and above all acting, the final episode, the closing act, was peculiarly atomized from the two or three seasons which had preceded it.
Brienne’s scene, fantastically portrayed by Christie, was probably the best example of this. Elevated to the Kingsguard, a position for which she is clearly worthy in the eyes of the audience but which she has had to prove to other characters, she sits alone with The Book of the Brothers (which has somehow survived the obliteration of the Red Keep) and records Jaime Lannister’s achievements. It is a bittersweet moment for her, and for the late Kingslayer, and the heartstrings quiver as we see the words ‘Died protecting his Queen’. It is a clever, equivocatory phrase, for Brienne is a woman of duty but also deep feeling: she knows Jaime loved Cersei, but does she hold out hope that he did what he did, in part, to protect the city by absconding with Cersei, thus saving Daenerys? Moreover, did he do it to save Brienne on some level? A woman knighted by the loathed Kingslayer might never escape the stigma, but by choosing to vanish with Cersei, one way or another, Brienne is in some sense freed from that entanglement, to say nothing of Jaime’s questionable emotional maturity (or however that would be parsed in Westeros). I confess, my eyes were slightly damp by the end of that scene.
Of course, this requires the audience to think back to the good old days of Season 3, rather than just two episodes ago when Jaime dumped Brienne, having had his brain scooped out by the narrative powers that be. Likewise, Brienne – instead of saying, ‘Oh no you don’t’ and slinging him into a trough of cold water or a cell – lets him go because one night of passion has caused her to get all hormonal and therefore hysterical and bird-brained. Some people still maintain that this season is about female empowerment.
The climax of Brienne’s story, of her rising above the prejudice which she has faced, proving herself despite all those who doubted her, lauded by those who believed in her, and having the strength of character to treat Jaime with even-handed dignity, is robbed of its impact because her arc was kicked from its rails, hauled down the track, set back up again and pushed into the station by a grubby tractor.
Brienne’s arc reached a suitable destination, but it was not truly satisfying because it had not followed the fullness of its course. It had not earned the catharsis it invited. Daenerys’ descent into madness was likewise an acceptable direction for the plot, but there were several moments on her journey which needed to happen for it to be part of a narrative rather than a plot device.
Jon’s reunion with Ghost was likewise bereft of impact because we saw him effectively disown him in Winterfell. Bran will allegedly make a good king despite his powers not helping one bit in the fight against the Night King or, indeed, the organization of his Small Council. Sansa is acclaimed Queen in the North despite being largely ignored by her own people and being given lines that seem to have confused ‘regal’ with ‘surly’. Arya comes down to King’s Landing to kill someone (Cersei or Daenerys) or be slain by Faceless Men for her hubris and rebellion but ends up doing nothing more than appearing and disappearing in the presence of more “important” characters before vanishing entirely without having contributed anything despite her previous ability to do so, a move called ‘the Turbo-Varys’.
Was it because Benioff and Weiss wrote this episode first and then worked backwards too quickly? Was it because they fell in love with subversion for subversion’s sake? Better articles than this will have much to say about how foolish it was for them to have Tyrion wax lyrical about the power of a good story. Ultimately, the great and sad irony is that this final episode proved that Benioff and Weiss could have done better than they did: they had all the makings of a good story and yet, somehow, managed to scupper themselves time and time again. They could write decent dialogue and craft poignant moments, but fell back upon cliché and spectacle. Had the last few seasons held together, this would have been the moment for applause and accolade. As it is, what could have been a defining series of our generation has ended with an episode which can be described as ‘okay, all things considered’.
Perhaps it is fitting. Other articles have examined how The Red Wedding is emblematic of the series or, at least, of Martin’s narrative. It is a ghastly tragedy, a subversion of expectations: the hero, his pregnant wife, and his mother, are all betrayed and murdered by one who owed them loyalty. Yet, the audience sees that it is not entirely conjured from nothing: Robb’s understandable but unwise decisions led to his death as surely as such decisions did for King Robert, Ned, Jon Arryn, and so many more. The narrative disaster of HBO’s A Game of Thrones has culminated in a critical Red Wedding of its very own: understandable, but of little consolation to those who were swept away by the first few series. Yet, although we know what has gone wrong, it is harder to discern why. Perhaps we will never know, although I give it 48 hours before a fan-theory gets to the bottom of it.
When the X-Men films were made, it struck me as a shame that some of the greatest actors of our day were being wasted on scripts which were so terrible. A Game of Thrones has met the same fate. I can only hope I will live long enough for the remake. That said, a new Spider-Man film seems to come out every six months, so perhaps I need not worry! The World of Ice and Fire remains a well-crafted world, but HBO’s mistakes make it abundantly clear that building a world is no use to anyone if no-one can tell a decent story to fill it.