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Game of Thrones' Series Finale Proved Why You Should Never Break the First Rule of Storytelling

The final hour spent a lot of time telling us why the ending was good instead of showing us

Maureen Ryan

People like writers -- no, they love writers. Scarred and weary warriors, lords and ladies, the leaders of the kingdom -- it turns out they wanted a storyteller to lead them. Who knew?

No one. No one knew Game of Thrones was going to end that way -- with an awkward pffft that seemed designed to elicit head-scratching. Was it an "Eh?" finale or a "Meh" finale? Eh, does it really matter?

A lot of the Game of Thrones series finale seemed designed to comment on and even glorify the roles of storytellers, cement the importance of sagas, and explore how carefully shaped tales and histories function in society. But if stories are so damned important, why did executive producers and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss rush so frantically and sloppily through this one? For large chunks of the last two seasons -- which contained 13 episodes instead of the usual 20 -- why did it feel as though they couldn't wait to hit the exits?

All the Callbacks in the Game of Thrones Series Finale

It's not a bad thing that Game of Thrones had to end; every show has a natural expiration point and shouldn't be stretched past it. But by compressing the final leg of the Westeros journey in weird, messy ways that warped the tale -- and by turning the show, over the years, into a contraption designed to unleash "big twists" and expensive set pieces -- Benioff and Weiss undercut their own assertion. Yes, stories do matter and can last centuries. They can change the world -- if they're so well-made and affecting that they're undeniable. They have to hit people where they live, not just overwhelm them with shock and awe.

Game of Thrones: "The Iron Throne"

Game of Thrones has always had its share of powerful moments and scenes. But it has always been a wildly inconsistent beast, a problem that only intensified as it matured. All in all, late-stage Game of Thrones is not nearly as good as the cast members (and production designers, costume designers and CG artists, etc.) who did their damnedest to bring these people and their worlds to life.

Here and there, in its last few seasons, Game of Thrones reverted to being a more or less character-driven drama, as it did in "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms." And the one big Season 8 shocker that undeniably worked was Arya's execution of the Night King. But otherwise, it's hard not to wonder what the series finale could have been had the show not sprinted toward the finish line in such a slapdash, mechanical fashion.

Many of the show's concluding moments were reverse-engineered to give "The Iron Throne" a "full circle" flavor -- the very last shot was of a well-born man exploring the forbidding country north of the Wall, which echoes the first sequence of the show's pilot. But by that point, my investment in Jon Snow (Kit Harington) was less than nil. The attempt at creating an elegant parallel landed without impact because the construction process was obvious and clunky, not part of a character journey that I cared much about.

5 Times Game of ThronesHinted Bran Would Be King

If Game of Thrones had wanted me to care about Jon Snow's final scenes, it shouldn't have made him so dithering and ineffective for so long (although, at least he petted Ghost -- small victories!). If it wanted me to be moved by the sight of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) weeping over his dead siblings, it shouldn't have blithely wrecked the storytelling for Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). It shouldn't have turned Cersei (Lena Headey) into a one-dimensional villain and then left her standing around in King's Landing as an afterthought.

But Daenerys' (Emilia Clark) major character turn in the last few episodes was the biggest disaster outside the state of the Red Keep's roofs. And yes, random person yelling at me on the Internet, I know she's always exhibited signs of cruelty and authoritarian tendencies. But for years and years she tried to use violence only on her political enemies, and the show spent a long time showing her at least considering the lives and the fates of the powerless. Until she didn't. And if you think the show led up to that massive switch adequately, we are never going to agree.

Game of Thrones: "The Iron Throne"

And I submit that one sign a pivot hasn't worked is the fact that the show's architects had to try to explain it in a "behind the episode" interview. Also reeking of flop sweat: An on-screen character (Tyrion) spending a chunk of the finale retroactively re-framing Dany's history and motivations. Monologue as retcon; that's fun. The fact is, Game of Thrones did a lot of tap-dancing to sell something that should have been crystal clear, dramatically earned, and fully supported in the moment, and for a lot of the audience, myself including, it didn't work. But hey, the dragonfire sequences in "The Bells" looked good, didn't they? Isn't that all that matters?

Before you yell at me about how "The Iron Throne" contains the ending George R.R. Martin apparently told Benioff and Weiss he wanted, well, I don't dispute that. What will be forever disappointing is the way the show has been prioritizing "shocks" and "huge moments" over the work it takes to earn those surprises and revelations. Give me a reason to care about the people experiencing these turning points and I won't need the writers' on-screen avatars to keep explaining them. A longer, better-paced season might have made the finale seem more like a fitting ending and less like a rushed set of defensive, reactive maneuvers, but... eh. Whatever.

The Game of ThronesFinale Just Beat The Sopranos for This HBO Record

Ultimately, we were left with a man in power who wanted that authority even less than Jon did. And Bran's (Isaac Hempstead Wright) primary advisor is a man who messed things up almost every time he had real power or influence in the last few years. Shoutout to every woman who has seen less qualified men get the promotions she deserved, mainly because management thought those men's enigmatic qualities, lack of social graces, or ability to party and quip made them seem deep or cool.

Sansa (Sophie Turner) was sitting right there, right in the middle of the Westeros B-team. They'd all known her or her reputation for years. She'd been effectively ruling the North for a long time. She may have been a more disputed choice than Bran, given her Northern loyalties, but who doubted she could get the job done? Uh, Tyrion, who was married to her and has seen her grow into an accomplished, decisive leader. Wait, what?

Meanwhile, Arya (Maisie Williams), despite her lack of ambition for the throne, killed the freaking Night King, a fact I haven't forgotten, even it the show kind of did. While Arya didn't want to be queen, I would trust this worldly, street-smart young woman to wield power more strategically than Bran, everyone's favorite stoned philosophy undergraduate. Hell, I'd have settled for King Davos (Liam Cunningham); he's stuck around this long, maybe he knows a few things that might be useful.

But... Bran? How often has he interacted with Tyrion? How many conversations have those two had? What's the show done to make me care about or believe in Bran, or make me understand Tyrion's advocacy for him? As was the case when Dany was flying around roasting King's Landing, I have no insight into Bran's brain. Like the Night King, like the purely murderous, sadly reductive version of Dany, the writers purposely made Bran inscrutable and unknowable. And yet I'm supposed to be on board with King Bran -- why, exactly? Because he's the least objectionable choice? Meh.

​Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Game of Thrones

Small victories: Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) is alive! That weird milk kid (Lino Facioli) doesn't seem like a total psycho. It's possible I'm grasping at straws here.

But seriously, why did they do my girl Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) like that? The last image of one of the bravest people in Westeros was her tending to the legacy of the man who broke her heart as his character development was driven into a ditch. Why wasn't Ser Brienne writing her own damned entry in the book of knightly deeds? Oh Game of Thrones, you're always determined to give me female characters to root for, only to make me want to punch a wall when I see what you do to them. (Sidebar: I don't need purely empowering stories for women. I need shows to demonstrate that the women are consistently important to the story and that their character development and agendas matter for more than 10 seconds at a time.)

I wish I'd been moved in some way when Jon killed Dany, but my interest in that scene petered out as soon as it appeared Jon was never going to directly ask her about why she ignored the bells of surrender. Sure, those two danced around the subject, but as a whole, the show has seemed more interested in reverse-engineering Dany into being a Big Bad and shoving her into the Deserves to Die category than in making her choices reverberate with tragic poignance. Jon + Dany, despite the show's exertions, has never been a thing. Dany's heel turn could have been great, but it wasn't; it could have driven some of the best TV storytelling of all time, but it didn't. Possibly the only emotional moment that worked in the finale involved Drogon expressing grief for his mother. If I choose to believe Drogon destroyed the Iron Throne because he never wanted Jon to sit on it, let me have that.

Game of Thrones Botched Its Ending By Ignoring the Lessons of the MCU

By the time the series finale rolled around, Game of Thrones was a puzzle with some missing pieces, and that state of affairs existed because Benioff and Weiss had flattened the characters and their relationships so much that the show had largely become a series of bumpy contrivances. Honestly, I wasn't angered by the finale as much as I was overwhelmed by a feeling of anticlimactic lethargy. Yes, the shot of Dany with Drogon's wings stretched out behind her was cool. But for a while now, many of the drama's best visuals have been divorced from anything else that matters. Pretty pictures do not make for an involving story unless that story is meticulously and effectively told.

​Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones
Helen Sloan/HBO

The wheel was broken, I guess, or at least modified. A council of nobles will decide who gets power; it won't be inherited. But some legacies can't be avoided. The way the show damaged Dany's arc in the last few episodes (and seasons) will always be depressing. It's a bummer that many themes, arcs, and storylines were compressed and depleted so that the drama could hastily arrive at pre-ordained plot turns. Just one example: In order to make it "reasonable" to kill Varys (Conleth Hill), they had to strip him of the intelligence that served him so well for decades. "Why did this thing happen? Because the plot required it it." There was a lot of that going around this season.

The final sequence involving Jon, Sansa and Arya was shot and put together well. But it was hard not to feel more exhausted than anything as the finale finally faded to black. And yet Game of Thrones will probably win a big pile of Emmys this fall. Not because it's the best TV, but because it's the most TV, and there's nothing Emmy voters love more than a huge expenditure of coin from a prestige network. Anyway, Podrick's (Daniel Portman) alive. Small victories!

I Only Watched Game of Thrones' Final Season and Can Confirm It Was Bad

Unsatisfied by the meal, my brain keeps chasing crumbs around the table. Why wouldn't the new system descend into chaos when Bran dies, if not before? Seems like more than the sewers need a rebuild -- where will that enormous amount of money come from? How did Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) get to the steps near Dany before Jon? Why did Arya ride away on a symbolic white horse in "The Bells" only to end up in the same area in the finale? (Related: Why was Arya given nothing important to do since Winterfell?) Is Jon hunting White Walkers -- are they still around? Has Westeros really existed this long and nobody explored westward? Why was Brienne writing while wearing full armor? What was the Dorne dude's name? The finale set up a few potential spin-offs, but why is it that I don't think I'd bother with any of them (unless they involved Tormund and Ghost having adventures)?

The first rule of storytelling is show, don't tell. The finale told me, again and again, that the story worked. Tyrion, and to a lesser degree, Sam (John Bradley) and Bran, spent time of late not just explaining why stories matter but trying to make the case that they themselves were in a deserving and worthy tale. Sometimes they were. But if you have to work that hard to justify something...

Eh. Whatever.

PHOTOS: Every Episode of Game of Thrones, Ranked From Worst to Best

​Sophie Turner, Game of Thrones