So that’s it.
Here’s the final review from our own Kevin Boyle…
Game of Thrones is over and as everyone knows the final two seasons were fraught with controversy. The show had been skating on thin ice since season four ended. It was around that time (2014) that showrunners Benioff and Weiss (henceforth B&W) decided that they were going to nix a large part of the Dance with Dragons book and streamline the story going forward.
Keep this in mind while you throw another log on the pyre that’s roasting B&W: They were hired to adapt a book series by George RR Martin (henceforth GRRM), and that series is still nowhere near complete. When season one entered production, the fifth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series was nearing release; B&W would certainly have had nearly total access to the book, A Dance with Dragons, though it’s unlikely very much was needed. The only foreshadowing that I can think of in season one that relates to book five would be the Varys/Illyrio conversation that Arya overhears in the dungeons of the Red Keep.
But let’s back up…
For the most part, season one of Game of Thrones came and went as a tremendously faithful adaptation of the first book in the series, 1996’s A Game of Thrones.
Season two did a great job adapting the second book in the series, 1998’s A Clash of Kings. In every way as a TV production, it improved upon the first. The writing was sharper, the acting even better, the set pieces more memorable. It was excellent.
Seasons three and four, while making some minor changes (and arguably one big one with the removal of Lady Stoneheart), still did an excellent job adapting the third book in the series, 2000’s A Storm of Swords. In this writer’s opinion, these two seasons, especially the fourth, were GOT at it’s very best.
What happened next can be blamed on B&W. With two books still left to adapt, 2005’s A Feast for Crows and 2011’s A Dance with Dragons, B&W decided to cut one of the biggest, newest plotlines in the series, that featuring Young Griff/Aegon Targaryen, as well as significantly alter several others. Season five still took several book-plotlines as inspiration for the fifth season, but it was the first year of the show where book readers couldn’t say “it’s a change, but it makes sense for television.” This was the first year where the changes felt arbitrary, like the showrunners decided to go their own way and diverge unnecessarily from the books.
It’s one thing to say “with no Lady Stoneheart, we’ll use Beric (and later, Arya) to cover those bases.” I get that; that’s the butterfly effect of writing. One change leads to two more, etc. But cutting Jon Connington, Varys’ book plotline, and the whole Aegon Targaryen idea was more than a little change with medium-sized ripples; it was a giant hole cut out of the show. It was a hugely ignored storyline whose implications reverberated to the series’ very last episode.
Just to catch you up, briefly, on the Aegon storyline in the books: Varys has been secretly grooming a young man, whom he claims to be the son of the late-Prince Rhaegar, to be the next King of the Seven Kingdoms. The child was supposed to have been killed when King’s Landing was sacked at the end of Robert’s rebellion but Varys says he snuck him out. There’s plenty of reason to suspect that the boy is actually a distant Targaryen bastard (known as a Blackfire) but it doesn’t matter. The point is he will have a claim (legitimate or not) to the Iron Throne. He will actually have a better claim that Daenerys, in fact.
Granted, book readers didn’t appreciate the Aegon storyline at first. It seemed like a shaggy dog story that was only thrown out there to give Tyrion something to do before he meets Daenerys. Now, in light of the final season, it’s clear that GRRM has much bigger intentions for the character. More on that in a bit.
The point is, by not using that potentially huge storyline/content-mine, B&W severely handicapped how much story they had left to adapt. Thus, they were forced to go their own way, chase rabbits of their own design, and develop a season five and six into something only tangentially recognizable to the books. By the time season six ended there was simply no more book material to draw from.
And this is where we take a burning log off the B&W pyre and throw it under GRRM’s tied-up body.
Game of Thrones season one concluded just as A Dance with Dragons hit bookshelves. In that time, the show has come and gone…and we’ve been given exactly zero new books. GRRM released three books in the span of six years and then released two more in the span of eleven. While we’re criticizing B&W for rushing through a cliff’s notes version of the ending, let’s remember that they only had cliff’s notes to work with. They were hired to adapt, and they did a phenomenal job adapting the books in the first four years. Both parties are to blame for what happened in seasons five and six: George gave them very little more to work with and B&W chose to take what they had and throw away half of it.
That being said, B&W deserve all the blame for the final two seasons.
A lot of people online are trying to make the case that the problem these past two years have been B&W’s writing style vs George’s writing style. George is a “panster,” they say, while B&W are “plotters.” The difference between the terms is this: A pantser is a writer who flies (writes) by the seat his/her pants, letting characters grow and develop while the basic story works around the organic changes that happen in writing. A plotter is someone like JK Rowling, who famously mapped out every major plot point (and many minor ones too) from book one to book seven in the Harry Potter series before she wrote the first book.
It’s true that George is a pantser; he prefers the title “gardener,” in that he plants (plot)seeds and waters them to see if they will sprout any ideas to be explored. He still has a basic outline; he knows where characters will end up, but he allows himself the freedom to let the tale (as Tolkien would say) “grow in the telling.”
It is not true to label B&W as “plotters,” however.
Seasons five and six show them to be genuine pantsers. The way the Ramsey/Sansa story developed, as well as Jon’s post-resurrection plotline in season six (the former of which is purely a show-only invention, and the latter hasn’t been published yet) show they understand how to develop and allow a story to organically grow and develop. Granted, they’re nowhere near as good at this as George is, but again: They weren’t hired to be. They were hired to adapt George’s story. Season fives and six are still good TV (some of season six, including Hold the Door, and the final two episodes is GOT at its best) but the writing and plots are an obvious step down from seasons one-four, simply because the first seasons are George’s plotting, and the next two are B&W’s.
So what happened in seasons seven and eight? Why did things suddenly take such a nosedive? Why do the series’ final couple of episodes feel like they came out of a totally different TV show (in terms of who did what and why)? All those questions have the same answer.
For the final two seasons, B&W stopped being pansters and became adapters again.
A few years ago B&W sat down for a big weekend’s worth of meetings with GRRM about how the series was going to end, as he (George) saw it. They took those notes and voila: Seasons seven and eight had their material. They only had notes, however. Notes are a handful of pages. Notes are not hundreds of thousands of words. Thus, without material to adapt, B&W ended up filming bullet points with some made up stuff as filler.
Basically, B&W spent seasons five and six piddling around and doing their own thing, waiting for George to finish the sixth book in the series, The Winds of Winter. When he didn’t, they just took their ideas and where they had gotten the story to at the end of season six and jumped to the ending of George’s book(s). But, you say, what choice did they have? What else could they have done? I’ll tell you:
They should have ignored George’s ending.
The reason why the past two seasons had so much whiplash, so many “wait, why are we doing THIS now?” moments, and so many rushed and undeveloped character developments/changes, is because B&W took the story as it had grown in the telling (Sansa with Ramsey, Queen Cersei, the Night King’s invasion, etc) and then refused to finish that story as it had developed. Instead, they took their story and gave it George’s ending, resulting in a bastardized and disjointed final two seasons.
What happened in season eight? How much of it felt like a natural and reasonably-paced continuation/conclusion to the events of seasons one-seven? The Others/White Walkers were defeated halfway through the season after only a single battle. That seems like a rush with only three episodes to build it up, right? Yes, but “GRRM said the final book will have the Others be defeated halfway through, so…there it is.” Very likely there will be bigger stakes, more drama, and more battles before the Others are put down, but B&W didn’t have access to that…so they just filmed what they knew—the ending—without the lead-in or context.
Dany goes crazy and burns King’s Landing to the ground? There’s no in-show reason to jump from where she was to something that extreme, but “GRRM said Dany will burn King’s Landing, so…there it is.” Very likely, in the books, Dany will slowly grow more extreme in her actions as she prepares to invade Westeros. She’ll probably go up against a King Aegon who, while probably a bastard, will probably be a beloved ruler. She won’t be going up against slavers and tyrants, but she’ll still want the throne that she calls her birthright. Very likely she’ll reach a breaking point that makes sense as much as it will be heartbreaking and she’ll burn the city down to take what’s “hers.” In other words, there will be context, development, build-up to the moment…as opposed to “I heard the bells on Christmas day…and decided to kill everyone.”
Bran becomes King of Westeros? That’s kind of random, but “GRRM said that’s how the last book, A Dream of Spring, will end, so…there it is.” Bran did less than nothing all season long and in the end, he wins the Game. In the books, there will probably be a ton more context, more development, more everything. Bran/the Three-Eyed
Raven Crow might even be revealed as the series’ ultimate villain. There will be something that justifies it, in other words.
Seasons seven and eight weren’t adaptations, and they weren’t semi-original stories. They were beautifully-filmed, delightfully-acted cliff’s notes of a conversation.
B&W had turned a brilliant fantasy adaptation into a good-enough fantasy story. In the end, they decided to stop what they were doing and film an ending to a story they’d stopped telling years ago. That’s why everything felt so rushed, so out of place, and so whiplashing. Blame Benioff and Weiss for that.
And blame George, too; this whole song started with him and then he went and lost his voice.