Film and TV

Our Debate: Game of Thrones' Final Season Is the Worst ... or the Perfect Finish

Are Daenerys Targaryen's brutal battle tactics the culmination of her character arc or just a sloppy finish to a disappointing season?
Are Daenerys Targaryen's brutal battle tactics the culmination of her character arc or just a sloppy finish to a disappointing season? Courtesy of HBO

This Sunday, the battle for the Seven Kingdoms concludes as Game of Thrones ends its eighth season. Despite the series' history of critical praise, this season's episodes have proven maddeningly divisive. Some herald this season for its epic clashes and sense of finality; others worry all that flash foregoes basic storytelling.

To settle the score, Chris Coplan and Jason Keil, two regular contributors to Phoenix New Times, share their respective takes. Coplan believes it’s all going to pay off in the finale. Keil, on the other hand, thinks the show's long since jumped the dragon, er, shark.

Who has the best claim to the Iron Throne (of critical insight)? Read below to find out.

Wishes Do Come True

Chris Coplan:
This is the time where things are finally, truly happening (White Walkers getting trounced, a proper Stark family reunion, etc.) That emotional payoff is huge, and that deserves celebrating after years of world-building. Now, that doesn't always make for compelling TV – GoT is a show beloved for teasing and torturing viewers – but it does fulfill deeper emotional needs. After all that hard work and sacrifice as a viewer, we can truly enjoy the fruit of our emotional labor, to take and let these events settle in their sweet, sweet finality. Oh, and don’t forget discovering the endless callbacks (like this and like that).

Jason Keil: I’ve enjoyed seeing these long and visually stunning battles as much the next fan (even the ones I couldn’t see in the third episode), but they’re coming at the expense of character development. I'm emotionally involved in the show because of the characters. The combat is icing on the cake.

Speaking of wish fulfillment, I was cheering when Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth finally became lovers. Can you imagine my disappointment when, 20 minutes later, The Kingslayer leaves her to be with his sister/lover, Cersei? The moment erased all the complexity the writers built for Jaime in the previous seven seasons. The sting of Jamie’s betrayal would have hurt even if he hadn’t slept with Brienne. His hasty decision to leave feels unearned because the writers didn’t lay enough groundwork for his sudden change of heart.

Everyone Get Happy Now

GoT has conditioned fans to welcome suffering, fostering an audience expecting endless misery and wanting. However, when it all finally pays off, it's as if fans just can't recognize how to be happy. That’s an extreme oversimplification of human emotions, and perhaps ignores actual issues (with the writing and development and skewed timeline, for instance). What may be true, though, is that season eight’s emotional labor is different from seasons past, and that people simply haven’t had the time to adjust properly. Though, perhaps that’s the point: Life shifts on the flimsiest of whims, and we’re left to deal with that rapid-fire fallout. There’s something especially raw and jarring to that struggle laid bare on TV.

JK: I’m not going to lie. You actually had me there for a minute. After so many seasons of misery and suffering, I've enjoyed seeing Sansa become a great leader. But then, I watched the innocent citizens of King's Landing burn because of a mad woman on a dragon in "The Bells." Meanwhile, Cersei, arguably the most despicable character on the show, is buried under a ton of bricks. That is a light punishment considering all the hurt and pain she caused the people of the Seven Kingdoms.

Don't Blame The Show

I recognize this season's downsides (the rushed pacing, certain characterizations of Sansa, etc.). However, this season is accomplishing a boatload in six episodes. As far as that Herculean task is concerned, with the creators having written themselves into a corner, there are plenty of upsides. There's enough evidence to demonstrate that despite poor timing and hurried execution, there are great storylines and heaps of interesting character development still occurring.

I’d argue that “The Bells” is a great example of all that, and the extended siege on the Red Keep left me feeling physically ill and emotionally twisted. It felt like a kick in the face more effective than even the sharp, sudden impact of past events (see the Red Wedding). Not only that, it was an especially succinct and compelling meditation on the horrors of war. Perhaps what season eight is lacking in sustained effectiveness, it makes up for with narrative-defining moments.

JK: War is hell, but even Steven Spielberg had the sense to keep the assault on Omaha Beach under 30 minutes in Saving Private Ryan. I don't think we needed two drawn-out episodes focused entirely on war.

You spoke earlier about wish fulfillment for the show’s fans. The show is an undeniable hit. The writers are empowered with creative freedom now that they are unburdened with hewing closely to the novels. I believe the directors are getting their needs met as well. Miguel Sapochnik filmed the technically complex battle in "The Long Night" for 56 days. That's a hell of a thing to put on a resume. The result is a powerful yet grueling episode, but the characters who are on the ground fighting don't get a satisfying resolution.

Top Marks All Around

“The Long Night,” meanwhile, was a master class not only in structure and pacing, but also how to draw out emotions and string viewers along. It had three great arcs, with the middle “lull” working as both teaser and minor relief. The two main arcs, however, were a full-on assault to the senses, a powerful example of how to make fight/war scenes as emotionally draining as they are physically uncomfortable. The ending, especially, was built to maximize that grand reveal. Also, if the episode's too dark, adjust the screens forthwith.

JK: It seems like HBO has an explanation for everything that has gone technically wrong this season, whether it be a Starbucks cup left on the set or that my bandwidth is the reason I couldn’t see in the dark. As far as the creative side goes, I do watch David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show’s writers, defend their scripts after each episode. The commentary seems silly as they explain the obvious. If everything is running smoothly, then there’s no need to explain anything, even with a show as complex as GoT.

Boo on Canon

Season eight is a solid example of what happens when you create new canon from a beloved franchise (though there's at least some stuff from The Winds of Winter, reportedly). On its own, people might enjoy season eight – it's still entertaining and thoughtful. Only, it's a scary new chapter of visual comfort food, and thus will never be truly worthy. GoT achieved something most TV shows couldn’t – a faithful facsimile of its source material.

This season's a different beast entirely – far more like "traditional" TV than seasons past. It's extra-keen on fostering results, both strategically and from lackluster planning. Still, it’s a different kind of narrative vibe compared to the books, but I don’t think that’s a negative. It's a chance to end on a different note that respects the threads presented while infusing new life and dynamics.

JK: It was a bold choice for Benioff and Weiss to move forward with the show despite the lack of story from Martin. For someone like me who hasn’t read the books, I could tell when the duo was flying solo. The author clearly had enough trust in them to hand them the reins to his world. It has worked out spectacularly most of the time. At the end of the day, they’ve changed television for the better. They’re just not sticking the landing.
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Chris Coplan and Jason Keil