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07th May 2019

On Game of Thrones, a show now lost under the weight of its own hubris

Kyle Picknell

[Spoilers, obviously]

A coffee cup, sudden amnesia and a hundred million people gradually caring a lot less

The fourth episode of the final series of Game of Thrones (‘The Last of the Starks’) came and went in exactly the same fashion that ‘The Long Night’ did before it: initial excitement, confusion, scrutiny and finally, most damning of all, ridicule. This just seems to be the pattern now.

It didn’t help that there was a Starbucks coffee cup in one of the scenes. This isn’t David Fincher’s Fight Club. But, like last week when viewers struggled with the difficult lighting of the Battle of Winterfell, it wouldn’t have mattered that much if the other aspects of the episode delivered. This was the most eagerly anticipated season of a television show ever. People were desperate to like it. They continue to be desperate to like it, whatever bullshit David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pull in the previous hour.

Each episode begins with the fresh hope of the viewer that maybe now the pieces will start to fit and we’ll start to hear the slow, satisfying click of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Instead, Game of Thrones now seems hellbent on assembling its lasting image like an imprudent child, bending and chewing the pieces out of shape, covering them in dribble, forcibly mashing them together with its palm.

There are two episodes of the show left, 160 minutes for it to recover to something close to its best self. But given how they have spent much of their time this season, using the most finite resource they have to convey absolutely nothing over the course of the first two episodes other than that the battle against the Night King will likely be the end of them all (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t!), it now seems impossible.

Three minor characters lost their lives and ‘The Last of the Starks’ opens in the aftermath, as each is appropriately mourned. It’s all too neat and superficial now, too smooth around the edges if characters such as Theon Greyjoy, Ser Jorah Mormont and Beric Dondarrion are given emotional send-offs and lingering shots of their still, lifeless bodies. There’s trying to hard to pay fan service (cough Marvel cough) and there is whatever the fuck Game of Thrones is currently doing: like getting a pissed-up Tormund to deliver a few one-liners before sending him packing beyond the wall (where there is literally nothing left) with Ghost, Jon Snow’s neglected pup, who has spent Season 8 existing almost exclusively in the background of the teaser trailers.

It stinks of two popular characters waltzing off into the sunset together because the show simply has no idea what else it should do with them.

It is clear that the CGI budget was stretched too thin by the dragons and the endless army of the dead for Ghost to play any substantial part. It is also clear that having an ever-increasing budget doesn’t make a TV show better. This week we had one of the two remaining dragons, drummed up as the real balance-shifters in the story, defeated by something that didn’t look any more elaborate than a moderately large crossbow attached to a boat, fired by a cartoonish pirate who generally behaves as though he is the coolest, most badass kid at the after-school computer programming club.

Daenerys, whose character has long since been reduced to a gloopy, blonde puddle of illogical decisions and bad motives, failed to spot Euron Greyjoy’s fleet that was about to ambush hers despite flying on a dragon above it. Greyjoy’s fleet, meanwhile, managed to completely evade detection before taking another navy by surprise for something like the third or fourth time.

It also managed to kill a dragon from miles away with only a few, unerringly accurate shots before then choosing to pause and allow Daenerys to – very, very stupidly – fly her last remaining dragon directly at them. Then and only then did they decide to fire another round of arrows, this time suddenly missing everything in sight despite a much easier shot.

Defending the Dragon Queen’s actions, Benioff claims that she simply “forgot” about Euron Greyjoy’s fleet. She forgot.

It about sums up where we are with the show now. Barely any of the remaining characters, the ones they spent eight seasons painstakingly constructing, seem to matter as much as this idea of spectacle does to the show-runners. Jon Snow, once the great hope is now the single most confused person in the Seven Kingdoms, lost in his own “I don’t want to be a vainglorious leader of men” mantra until literally the second he steps on a battlefield and becomes just that.

Daenerys, after ruthlessly tearing through the entirety of Essos has now crossed the sea and lost two of her dragons and most of her army because she listens to whatever Tyrion says and, after leaving Dario Naharis behind to avoid distraction, immediately fell in love with her own nephew.

She is more concerned with Jon Snow stealing the throne from her than she is with Cersei Lannister and Jon Snow is more concerned with telling the other Stark children the one vital bit of information that could see him actually steal the throne than he is with being the masterful military tactician he was meant to be.

Cersei is perhaps the only one of the three vying for the Iron Throne that has actually stayed relatively consistent, but even that has relied on the walking deus ex machina tandem of the aforementioned submarine commander and her hand Qyburn, who can seemingly do anything, anything at all, if she gives him 20 minutes in his basement laboratory beneath the Red Keep, where he can resurrect the dead and knock up the ultimate dragon-killing device out of some spare timber.

‘The Last of the Starks’ shamelessly attempts to even the playing field between the two remaining forces in Westeros and up the ante for one more extravagant battle royale. Jon Snow and Ser Davos are at the gates of King’s Landing. Which has now been relocated to a desert, for some reason. Grey Worm has just watched his soulmate have her head lopped off. All three of Arya, The Hound and Jaime Lannister are slowly trudging along to join the fight. In contrast, Bronn trekked the entire way up the country just to retire and secure a pension. Another fan favourite teleporting into a final scene with old friends, delivering a punchline or two, and then vanishing permanently into the mist.

See also: Samwell Tarly telling Jon Snow far too much about his sex life before saying goodbye by calling him the best friend he ever had.

Game of Thrones wants you to believe that Cersei, defending the capital with the Golden Company, an invisible pirate fleet, The Mountain, whatever Qyburn has up his sleeve and a likely-awful baby in her womb to protect, now holds the upper hand. That the stakes have never been higher. That this is it, what it has all come down to, one last fight between good and evil.

In doing so this obtusely, and carelessly, they have razed everything they have done in the previous seven seasons to the ground. Game of Thrones is aware how much this final season matters to people, that the end meets the expectations set out along the journey so far. The problem is that in the show’s attempts to create a perfect, lasting spectacle for its viewers through ‘epic battles’ they’ve lost the real essence of the show. Jon Snow and Daenerys are both fitting embodiments as characters who have believed their own hype a little bit too much, all the prophecy and hubris now weighing too heavy around their necks.

Game of Thrones never used to care about what the fans wanted and that’s why it was so rewarding. Now, rogue coffee cup and temporary amnesia of one of the main characters notwithstanding, it cares too much.

The most eagerly anticipated final series of a television show wanted to blow you away with its bells and whistles. Instead, all it has done so far is cut corners, investing too much in the promise of the bit that is supposed to be the payoff for good storytelling, the final battle, and ignoring the actual good storytelling it takes to get there. Which, up to this point, it had done better than anything else before it. That’s what made the Battle of Blackwater, Hardhome and the Battle of the Bastards so satisfying. Not because they were technical masterpieces. Because they actually meant something. They were hard-earned and there were consequences to them.

Cracks in the framework of the show are becoming too frequent and too deep, the writers seemingly content with ticking as many boxes as possible on their way out rather than delivering anything remotely cohesive. I have no doubt that we will finally see the long-speculated ‘Cleganebowl’. I also have no doubt that it will feel like pandering and leave a sour taste.

The overall effect is one of erosion. Erosion of how much time there is left but also of everything it had taken to actually get to this point. And how much we’ll now care when it’s done.