A Bang and a Whimper
Game of Thrones: Season 8
By this point if you've made it to Season 8 of Game of Thrones you're already a fan. Considering that the whole show is one long serialized story, start to finish, its doubtful that anyone would just jump into the series near the end of Season 8 -- so much would have been missed leading up to it that any new viewer would have a hard time getting into the series and caring about the characters.
As such, I think we're fair discussing spoilers for this season. Honestly, I don't know how you'd talk about Season 8 of the show without talking spoilers; everything that works and doesn't work this season hinges on specific story beats. If you somehow haven't watched any part of the season (maybe wanting to burn through it all at once in a single weekend) and yet as still somehow here for a review, let me just say that the season was rushed. While there are specific parts of the ending that I appreciated, and I can see how the show (not to mention the books before it) was building to all this from the beginning, the season rushed through its storytelling to line up all the big moments before then quickly getting the ending over with. I liked certain beats, but overall hated the season.
And with that out of the way, let's get into just way this season seemed to fail the larger story.
Here There Be Spoilers (and Dragons)
To start with, Season 7 (and many of the story beats before it) indicated that the real story of Game of Thrones wasn't the battle between John Snow, Daenerys Stormborn, and Cersei Lannister for control of the Iron Throne. Instead, the real war was between the living and the dead as the undead armies of the Night King trudged down from the Far North to take over all the lands south during the Long Winter to come. This was the war to end all wars, a battle that would touch every point of Westeros (and maybe beyond) and would decide the fate of the world. Whatever else happened, whoever else ended up ruling whatever was left of the country after all was said and done, this would be the climax of the series.
In short: it wasn't. The season, short as it was, is bifurcated into two distinct halves, with three episodes dedicated to the Night King's war and then three more to the battle with Cersei and its aftermath. Because of the way this was plotted over the very short season (which easily could have been 10 or 13 episodes instead of the 6 produced) the entirety of the war with the Night Kind is handled in a single episode, all over the course of one in-world night. This is a tactic the series has done before, staging large, all-in battles over the course of an entire episode (see also the Battle of Hardhome and then the Battle of the Bastards). These large-scale, epic battles suited the specific story needs and the combatants participating in them. In the Battle of the Bastards, for example, we were looking at two medium-sized armies staging one epic, winner-takes-all final confrontation.
The issue with the War of the Night King is that this shouldn't just be one single battle. It's been build as am epic struggle, the final fight for the fate of humanity, and something like that, with an army in the hundreds of thousands (as we've been shown in time and again) shouldn't get destroyed in a single night. This is the kind of foe you battle over and over again over the course of a season as your armies slowly get whittled down, your cause gets more and more desperate, until you finally find a weakness and are able to exploit it in a last-ditch effort that feels like a release and a catharsis. Cramming all of that into a single night bungles the build up and also ruins the climax. It feels hollow when the "big bad" can be easily dispatched in a single encounter.
That said, I don't hate everything about this whole battle. I like the fact that so many of the forces come together, that even mortal enemies are able align themselves together against this great undead force. And the way the Night King is dispatched (at the hands of Arya with a Valyrian Steel dagger) worked well within the context of what we've seen, the magical properties of that steel, and the Arya has been on. But, again, it would have meant more if this could have been spread it, to let the various important character beats build up to a point where the tension sung and the show could find a proper release. The show crammed it all into a single episode, though, and mangled what could have been a great villain for the series.
This is especially clear once the show then shifts focus back to Cersei. The series tried to build it up as if Cersei could somehow possibly be a force that could take on the combined armies of Essos and the North. Somehow, magically, one of Dany's dragons is shot out of the sky by Cersei's forces (in a moment that is ridiculous the second you go back and think about it), and this leaves us in a position where we're supposed to feel like Cersei has the upper hand. We're supposed to feel that, but the only trick Cersei has are the giant, dragon-killing guns and the surprise is immediately spoiled.
Plus, frankly, Cersei's armies -- a bunch of humans hiding in a giant fortress -- isn't in any way as imposing as the armies of the dead, and if the "good guys" were able to take out the Night King's forces (one hundred thousand strong with its own dragon no less), are we really supposed to be afraid of whatever army Cersei cobbled together? Not hardly. So when Dany comes swooping in on her dragon, annihilating all the big guns, and then everything else, with her remaining dragon. For a brief moment you feel elated at the carnage, and then you start to wonder why the show ever felt the two forces were equal at all.
This, then, brings us to the big, inevitable conclusion of the series. Before the battle between the Dragon Queen and Mad Queen Cersei, there was a meeting on the battlefield to try and quash the war. Dany makes an offer for Cersei to abdicate and stop the kill. Cersei, though, declines most brutally -- her forces had previous captured Dany's right-hand woman, Misandei, and Cersei beheads her at this confab. This sets the stage for the final big set piece: the city's gates have fallen, the city guard have thrown down their weapons, and Cersei's forces have surrendered. Dany, though, is hurt and enraged and looking for "justice", not only for Misandei but for the deaths of her two dragons (one to the Night King and one to Cersei's forces), as well as all the people she's loved and lost along the way. Here, in Westeros, with all her most trusted friends dead, Dany gives in to her rage and starts flying around the city, setting fire to everything.
It's a moment that seems inevitable when you go back and watch her whole journey again. And yet, at the same time, it seemingly comes out of nowhere. Sure, if you go back and watch the show you can see moments that inform this dark deed (moments that Tyrion lists off after, as a way to show how the series was building to it) and yet the series always built Dany up as a hero. It cast her deeds as good things, the evils she committed as necessary deeds for the greater good. And then, suddenly, as if there was a switch, the show decided Dany needs to go full evil and become a mad tyrant. It just doesn't work in the context of the six episodes we were given.
Do I think this is the natural end for the character? Yes, and I can easily see how George R. R. Martin could build to the same beats over a much longer time span (as his novels are gigantic tomes), allowing us the time to process the decisions leading up to Dany going full "Mad Queen". But then the books are written from third-person limited perspectives, so in all likelihood readers will get a chapter dedicated to Dany's head-space so we can easily understand her reaction and he reasoning. Sure, Tyrion and John Snow are still going to be horrified (as they should since she essentially unleashed a nuclear weapon on a surrendered city), but context is important. The series rushed through these last few episodes, giving us only one episode to cover Dany's fall from grace to destructive force, and it just doesn't work.
For fans of the series, this problem should feel familiar. Season 7 also felt rushed, also had its moments where characters do thing to move story beats along, no matter if it makes sense in the context of the characters we're shown. Both Season 7 and Season 8 are truncated, essentially forming one full season of the show, but there's so much story crammed into these last half-seasons that the show ends up rushing through its whole ending, sacrificing storytelling over ensuring all the chess pieces end up where they will once Martin releases the last book in the show. It just doesn't work.
It leaves the last two seasons of the show, and Season 8 especially, feeling like elaborate fanfiction for the series. These two seasons feel disconnected from the rest of the show, chapters of a story starring the same characters but written by a different hand. Of course, that's basically what these seasons are -- Martin hasn't finished the books these season are based on, so all the show-runners had to work with were a rough outline. Without finished source material (and all the nuance it would have brought), the show basically became it's own fanfiction, feeling like a parody of itself as it rushed to its conclusion.
It means that the conclusion -- after Dany has become a Mad Queen (and possible future dictator), and then after John kills her to save the kingdom -- rings hollow. We stop caring about anything going on with the show because there's no longer any investment. We should care that Bran (broken boy and Three-Eyed Raven) is made into the King of Westeros (minus the now free Northern Kingdom), but we don't because Bran has barely been a figure in these rushed episodes. We should care that Sansa is made Queen of the North, but we don't because Sansa basically disappeared for the back half of Season 8 (and really wasn't put to good use in the front half, either). We should care that John Snow is sent back to the Wall to lead the Night's Watch again, but we don't because John just isn't an interesting character at all. The show takes a victory lap, showing us all this, but it feels empty.
It's sad that the show goes out like this after how great the earlier seasons were. The only thing I can think is that this isn't the last we've seen of the show, that somehow we'll see a new adaptation of the books once all the novels are released (and once HBO is done making whatever prequels and spin-offs they decide to follow). The show got close to being great, but without those novels it bungled the series right when it mattered most.
There were a lot of characters that died this season but, despite the feeling that anyone could die, very few big characters actually ended up in the grave. The biggest death, but also the least shocking, would be Daenerys, stabbed in the heart by her one-time lover John Snow to prevent her from burning down the world. Really, when you think about it, this was inevitable.
Most Shocking Moment
Dany going full Mad Queen on the Red Keep is easily the most shocking thing to happen in the season, but if they would have developed this character beat better it not only would have resonated better, but it would have felt like a stronger, better earned moment, too. The scenes of the carnage of appalling, but there's no emotional connection to it.
Arya takes this final award. She's a great, fully realized character who gets this best, biggest moment in the season, killing the Night King. She earned the right to kill him, and she does it with style.