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Game of Thrones and the danger of planned finales

The series has known where it was heading for many seasons now. So why did it fall apart?

Game of Thrones
Drogon burns down the idea of planning out your series finale.

Game of Thrones’ series finale, “The Iron Throne,” is the show’s lowest-ranked episode ever on IMDB, with the site’s users grading it a 4.3 out of 10. And what’s the second-lowest-ranked episode of the series on IMDB? That would be the final season’s fourth episode, “The Last of the Starks,” coming in at a 5.6.

And if you look a little further, you’ll realize that IMDB users’ lowest-ranked six episodes of the entire series are the six episodes of the final season. The second episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” ranks the highest of the six, with an 8.0, but it’s still behind season five’s “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” IMDB’s lowest-ranked episode of Game of Thrones that’s not in the final season, with a score of 8.1.

On one level, these rankings are a little off — I think all six episodes of Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season, whatever my issues with them, are better than “Unbowed,” which is a bad episode of television!

But on another level, they’re pretty well aligned with Rotten Tomatoes’ critical consensus on the final season, which sits at 58 percent, by far the worst ever. (Season one is in second place, with 91 percent.)

The season certainly has its defenders, who feel the series wrapped up just about perfectly. And there are plenty of people like me, who feel the season was conceptually interesting while whiffing several key moments of execution.

But I still think it’s fair to say that the general consensus on Game of Thrones’ final season could be described, charitably, as “disappointing.” And the further we get from the finale, the more I can feel myself detaching from the show in a way that suggests I might not think about it much in the years to come. For a show this big to mostly evaporate is somehow more disappointing than if it had ended in a way that actively infuriated me.

So what was it about Game of Thrones’ final season that left so many people disappointed? Sure, some of the disappointment was an inevitable function of hype. But I would argue it was just as much a function of the show having a planned finale.

TV is a medium where you have to plan everything and nothing simultaneously — no small feat

The Americans
The final season of The Americans was met with critical acclaim.

One of my favorite stories about the construction of a great TV series has always been about the five-season classic Breaking Bad. Throughout that show’s second season, creator Vince Gilligan and his writers seeded hints in several episodes about a catastrophe that would occur in the season finale. And Gilligan felt because these hints were being seeded, the writers needed to know what that catastrophe was.

It worked, more or less. I really do love Breaking Bad season two. But Gilligan found the whole process so arduous that in the show’s following seasons, he mostly plotted things on the fly, even as several later episodes featured flash-forwards to some future timeline when Walter White’s crimes had been found out. Gilligan trusted both his writers’ room and his overall conceit for the show — a meek family man becomes a ruthless drug kingpin — to hold everything together while all involved worked toward finding the best story. (You can read a much fuller version of this basic tale in Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised.)

This is the paradox of TV. You’d think that having a satisfying ending would require having a rock-solid plan to get to that ending. But the opposite is often true, because the more you know about how a story is going to play out in the macro, the more the micro just becomes a series of items checked off a list. The storytelling can start to drag because you’re so focused on set, arbitrary signposts you’ve already set for yourself down the road. If you can’t get to that major revelation until the end of season two, well, season one might start to feel a little slow.

Yet you also have to plan some things, because audiences still want to feel like the destination they’ve reached is inevitable. Thus, the best endings are often ones where the writers have a very vague idea of what will probably happen and work toward that point, while also leaving themselves room to radically change everything until the last possible second.

One show that excelled at this approach was FX’s spy drama The Americans. I talked to the creative team behind The Americans several times during the construction of that show’s generally acclaimed final season, and even though they’d had an idea of the show’s finale in mind since season two, they still wanted to leave things open just in case a better idea came along that blew their original one out of the water. (What made it to screen mostly conformed to their original pitch, with a few minor tweaks here and there.)

And the more I’ve thought about why the planning that led to The Americans’ final season left me feeling so satisfied, where the planning that led to Game of Thrones’ final season left me feeling so dissatisfied, the more I’ve realized that planning plot points and character arcs is all well and good, but it falls apart if you adhere to them so rigidly that you can’t account for how the characters’ relationships might change.

Though The Americans’ writers had a very rough idea of where their show’s characters and plot might end up, they left themselves a good amount of leeway in terms of where their characters’ relationships might end up. This came in handy with the main characters’ kids in particular, because the writers were able to try out endless variations on which kid ended up where, in hopes of finding just the right version that would have the maximum impact for all of the show’s relationships.

And I think if I had to pinpoint why Game of Thrones’ final season so often felt slapdash, it’s probably because it didn’t pay enough attention to its characters’ relationships, as opposed to the fates of individual characters and plot points.

The big turn toward genocide that Daenerys takes in Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode isn’t entirely unmotivated, but it feels like it comes out of nowhere because her relationships with the other characters have barely been affected by her growing paranoia and desire for conquest. As such, it feels like she exists in a vacuum, where her actions are easier to read as simply an extension of the would-be queen she’s always been, rather than a ruler whose actions impact the people she rules, even those in her inner circle.

Game of Thrones as the reverse Lost

The Lost finale angered many of the show’s fans.

Ever since Lost ended in 2010, it’s been held up as an example of a show that had immense goodwill headed into its series finale but nevertheless botched that goodwill with a bad final episode. (I love the Lost finale, but I’m well aware this is something of a niche opinion.) Few people would claim it’s the worst finale of all time — Dexter is right there — but there’s definitely a sense that the final episode hurt the series’ reputation on some small level.

And on the night that Game of Thrones’ finale aired, I surmised that Game of Thrones might be the reverse Lost — a show where everything was so planned out (thanks to George R.R. Martin’s outline for the final books, which he revealed to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss shortly before season four) that it felt like an adaptation of bullet points more than something organic.

I wrote:

I don’t really think their lack of planning is to blame, because I tend to believe that planning too far ahead in TV results in bland, boring storytelling that feels deeply schematic. (See also: the How I Met Your Mother series finale, which was planned out in season two but failed to account for how much the characters would change between that season and season nine, when it finally ended.) But for quite a while there, Game of Thrones, with its carefully etched narratives, felt like it was proving me wrong.

Well, guess what? Game of Thrones pulled a reverse Lost! Everything was accounted for, and the writers certainly had a plan. But to put that plan in motion, they had to twist and contort the characters so heavily that the whole show became a warped, funhouse mirror version of itself.

Most of the time, that was fine. The spectacle was enough, and the actors were fun. But now it feels ever more like so much of what Game of Thrones made us care about for all of those years was worth very little.

I still think it’s true that much of what the show did amounted to very little, and that’s part of the problem. Viserion the dragon becoming an ice dragon existed solely as a schematic way for the Night King to bring down the Wall. The Night King existed mostly to unite the vast majority of the characters in a place where they could eventually squabble about letting Daenerys lead. And so on.

But the more I think about it, the more I think there’s an even more frustrating way in which Game of Thrones pulled a reverse Lost. Where Lost’s final few episodes made the mistake of being too much about the show’s character relationships — to the point that the biggest question the final season answers is “Will these people find each other in the afterlife?” — the final few episodes of Game of Thrones prioritized the exact opposite, rushing so quickly through plot points and character beats that viewers had no way to understand the ripple effect massive changes had throughout the cast. And that led to a gradual disconnection from the characters as anything other than symptoms of what the plot needed them to be.

The longer I write about TV, the more I think it’s a medium where relationships are more important than anything else. Great relationships between characters are what unites a show as traditional as The Big Bang Theory and a show as experimental as Twin Peaks (yes, even the 2017 revival season). TV is an exploration of change, and how change affects people, and how the ways those people are affected breed further change.

The best shows reflect this question right back at us. How do we feel about these characters now that they’ve changed? How do their shifting relationships include us in that equation? Do we still care? Do we want to see what else is on?

In its early going, Game of Thrones kept these questions in sight. It was really good at tracing the elaborate ways that change rippled throughout its massive cast. But in its final two seasons, the show mostly created a series of implications about what was happening and to whom.

Game of Thrones — which for so long was so good at tracing how small moments could create huge vibrations on entirely different continents — became a show that just kept asking you to take its word for things. Of course Dany would do this, and of course Tyrion would do that, right? If the writers say they did?

For some viewers, that worked well enough. But for a lot of us, it felt like what it was: a series of cut corners that damaged Game of Thrones’ most important relationship of all — the one it had with the audience.

Understanding is critical

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