I’ve read and heard so many of the popular complaints about Season 8 of “Game of Thrones.” Most of them are understandable. A couple I agree with. But I’m not on board with panning this six-episode final season. Even with my own reservations about it, I still loved enough to rate it a 10 out of 10.
By far and away, of course, the part of Season 8 that has people up in arms is a major story development in its final two episodes. (You almost certainly know what it is; because fans are complaining about it everywhere. I’m not sure why I am trying so hard to keep this review spoiler-free.) It was a bombshell, and it was damned saddening, and even I’ll admit that it affected my enjoyment of everything that transpired until the credits rolled for the last time.
But I made peace with it quickly. (Granted, the character who figured the most prominently here was not my favorite, so it was a little easier for me to do so.)
I think it boils down to a matter of taste — specifically what you wanted out of “Game of Thrones.” I like tragedies. I love pathos in stories, whether they’re books, movies or television shows. Stories that end badly aren’t bad stories. One of the things that excited me about “Game of Thrones” since its second season was how it so often took the traditional elements of fantasy and fairy tales and turned them on their head with a brutal, unexpected (yet reasonable) conclusion to a story arc. (I wasn’t fanatical about the show during Season 1, which overwhelmed me with exposition and plotting.)
The show has always tried to give us stories that were complex or ambiguous in terms of character, theme, setting and resolution. One of the things that I tell people who have never watched the show is this — it is almost never as simple as “the good guys vs. the bad guys.” Instead, it parallels human interaction in the real world — there are disparate groups and individuals fighting and aiding one another out of self-interest or philosophy. The character turns and story turns that we saw in the last two episodes … somewhat parallel what we’ve seen in and heard on this show before. As Ramsay Bolton said back in Season 3, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
“Game of Thrones” was a Greek tragedy. This last season’s classical plot resolution was arguably perfect for the show’s sweeping fantasy epic masterpiece. The ending didn’t make me happy. But it impressed me and affected me and made me think. This was a fantasy show for adults. It was an edgier, less predictable, more provocative alternative to “The Lord of the Rings” in all of that epic’s incarnations. I far prefer the ending I saw to a pandering, cookie-cutter “happily ever after.”
And the show has indeed hinted at the outcomes we see in the final two episodes. It’s been doing so for years, not just with major events but also with obvious dialogue. I kept asking one other fan in particular, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” But he didn’t. Maybe a lot of fans didn’t.
If you tell me that a certain character decision was made too abruptly, with insufficient buildup, I hear you. But, in the real world, I’m inclined to think that the internal processes we witness in the penultimate episode are often completely invisible.
If I had any complaints about Season 8, they lay elsewhere. I simply cannot understand why this was six episodes instead of 10. The two major battles we see each occupy one episode. Why? Even with a longer running time for each episode, this season felt rushed and truncated. It still bothers me, even as I write this.
I had the same quibble as everyone else about the Battle of Winterfell being difficult to follow, but I’m willing to accept that this was a deliberate stylistic choice. (And although I loved both major battles this season, I think the show’s three prior major land engagements were superior. The Massacre at Hardhome, the Battle of the Bastards and the Attack on the Rose Road were all so well choreographed and scored that they were just too difficult to surpass.) I even had my own disappointments for the outcomes we see for various characters.
I consequently almost rated the eighth season a 9 out of 10, instead of a perfect 10. But I couldn’t. I loved Season 8 too much. It wasn’t perfect, but it was … still so damned riveting and enjoyable. It was still “Game of Thrones,” with all of the attention to story and detail and performances that I’d come to love. It was still the best thing on television.