Film & TV Pop Culture

My Issue with Season 8 and the Word ‘Subversion’

If you’ve been alive over the last six weeks you may have noticed the buzz around HBO releasing the final season of Game of Thrones. The fandom’s excitement reached a fever pitch today with the very last episode putting the capstone on a total watch time of 3 days and 16 minutes.

This season alone cost more than $90 million dollars to make but has left many fans questioning whether the writing was worth the price tag. Some are even questioning whether or not the ending warranted their devotion over its eight year run time.

In this post, I want to focus on the big issue I have with the storytelling.

* Go no further if you want to avoid spoilers. *

What I want to talk about is a popular defence used when justifying the last season.

Sometimes the defence will begin with praise for the costumes, a love of the special effects or perhaps even the acting and overall attention to detail–minus the Starbucks incident. Fair enough. Those things are awesome; however, no matter where the conversation starts it will quickly turn to the phrase ‘subverting expectations’.

The series began with a number of successful subversions: the main character died for doing the honourable thing; the prince turned out to be psychopath; and the noble knights were all corrupt. Those ideas were staked on a nuanced understanding of fantasy as a genre, deeply engrained into George R.R. Martin’s original book series.

Fast forward to season eight and the legwork that went into the story telling set up became lazier and lazier. I really want to drive home the point that if you introduce a story element you need to properly plan the solution, even if that solution is unexpected and intended to subvert expectations. Equally, you cannot have a solution without the set up. I highly recommend watching Lindsay Ellis’ video on how this was done brilliantly in Mad Max: Fury Road.

This idea is called Chekov’s Gun.

‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.’

Anton Chekov

This brings me to my main example of lazy subversion: Bran’s character and story arc. The audience expected all of his traipsing around the countryside and training under the Three Eyed Raven to amount to something worth all the screen time and to lead into a significant resolution involving the Night King. After all, there’s subversion and then there is simply wasting the audience’s time. This expectation of conflict is what needed to properly be dealt with if subversion was the intended goal. Instead, we get an over powered Arya being shoehorned into the story as a deus-ex-machina (one of the most notoriously lazy plot devices in storytelling) and killing the big baddie because of some vague words Melisandre said about people’s eye colours back in season three.

You then have Bran himself, being dropped in as a monarch in the last episode. It’s revealed that he knew he would be king through his plot hole ridden psychic time-travelling abilities, highlighting a key flaw in the GoT universe: how much free will do the characters really have? Which gets into The Adjustment Bureau levels of plot hole headache.

Other lazy subversions can be seen in Jaime’s character development and, frustratingly, through his rapid character deterioration when he falls back into Cersei’s arms (don’t even get me started on her lack of story input).

If the writers took every scene of unnecessary dialogue and replaced it with the levels of subtext and implication seen in the first half of the series, half of their problems would be fixed. I feel like they aimed for this subtlety but instead let character motivation become far too vague. Imagine if Arya had simply told Jon she was going to sneak into King’s Landing and kill Cersei herself.

I am well aware the cast were running out of steam and wanted to move on to new work and projects. I’m also aware of how hard it must have been not having the last two books for reference. Martin’s world building is DENSE and very central to the story’s continuity. There were numerous other issues, like the demands of producers and financial stakeholders, who wanted to see certain things checked off their lists.

No piece of storytelling will ever be perfect but when you invest so much time, money, effort and energy into creating it, there’s no harm in aiming for it.

Tell me what you think about the ending! Do you agree or disagree with my points? How would you have ended the series?

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