With only one episode left to cap-off a television series that captured the hearts and imaginations of countless fans across the globe, GAME OF THRONES is teetering on the abyss. GAME OF THRONES will either go down as the greatest serialized show to have ever graced the screen or as the biggest disappointment in television history. It is hard to envision a safe middle ground for fans whose emotions and character attachments have been whipped into a frenzy over the course of a decade. It may have been only 8 seasons long, but for fans, it has been a decade of worship, tantalizing speculation, and hopes of a grandiose finale that will sear GAME OF THRONES’ ending in the hallowed halls of television history.
As similarly discussed by fellow TV critic Tim Goodman in his column The Critic’s Notebook for The Hollywood Reporter (LINK: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/bastard-machine/critic-impossible-task-pleasing-all-game-thrones-viewers-1205896), GAME OF THRONES was doomed to fail before its final season even began airing. The expectations were simply too high. With the 2 year hiatus imposed so the show could write, film and edit its chosen ending, all that elongated time did was allow more time for speculation and rampant fanaticism to ferment and bubble up with wildly exaggerated feelings of entitlement. As this week’s fan-fever and outrage has demonstrated with the 500,000+ signatures raised for an online petition (LINK: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-48303921) pleading with HBO to set aside the final 3 episodes of Season 8 and provide an ending to the series that the show deserved — an ending that satisfied the expectations of ravenous fans seeking only to satiate their desires for the outcome of their choosing.
Alas, a television series never ends with a “choose your own adventure” option on how to end a TV show. Instead, fans are captive-viewers that must watch with alternating glee and horror as their hopes and dreams for their favorite characters are either dashed on the rocks of eternal despair or engraved upon their hearts as a cherished memory that fulfilled their fervent fantasies.
The agony and ecstasy of being a fan is perhaps the most intoxicating high and the most heart-rending low. As fans of previously zeitgeist television shows can attest, there is no chance to fix an end to a series that breaks fans’ hearts or which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Fans of shows like LOST, BREAKING BAD, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, or THE SOPRANOS are remembered best for their similar passion and protest to how each show ended. Whether the screen fades to black in its final seconds, or leaves a favorite character’s fate hanging in the balance, or jumps to a point in time when all the characters are dead, or worse yet, a character literally disappears and his/hers fate left undecided, there is no perfect ending. There are only endings that are wished for and hoped for versus the endings that are actually delivered on the final day of broadcast. A television series’ ending is like Christmas morning: you are hoping for a gift that makes your heart burst with joy, but worry that you will get a lump of coal instead.
It is not yet known if GAME OF THRONES will deliver a gift or a lump of coal for its series ending, but if the past two episodes are any indication (804 “The Last Of The Starks” and 805 “The Bells”), it is time to be prepared to be bitterly disappointed. A television show ends as its creators and producers chose, not how the fans choose. Believe me, if the studio or network had the final say, it would be a crowd-pleasing ending because it is the studio and network that will be stuck with that show’s legacy in the end. Shows that disappoint fans are ruined with a legacy tarnished for all time and virtually unsellable. No one wants to re-watch or re-live a show that is ultimately disappointing. New viewers will not seek it out and existing fans will be nursing wounds and broken hearts for the rest of their lives.
It is the elusive and ever-changing perception of the “perfect ending” that seems to be the goal, and yet so many television series ultimately fail to deliver. Why? Because it is hard to meet the exceptions of the many; so instead, the producers ultimately select one ending and just run with it. It’s brazen, it’s bold and likely, a soul-killer. To have the fate of a billion dollar industry tied to one’s professional neck is not easy. Just how does one land a television show so beloved, revered, idolized, lauded and worshipped? One can only hope with some reverence and respect to the show, and to the audience that gave their time and attention so generously for years.
Yet, as even Daenerys Stormborn (Emilia Clarke) of the House Targaryen discovered when she confronted Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), the choice between love and fear is terrifyingly complex. Jon could have easily have chosen love and told fear “not today” — yet he didn’t.
GAME OF THRONES never promised a rose garden. Rather GAME OF THRONES followed the path set before it by its creator George R.R. Martin. It is indeed a “game of thrones,” where rulers rise and fall with the tides of fate and upon the whims of men and it is miraculous that any of the characters (beloved or otherwise) managed to have survived to see Season 8. Following the books by George R.R. Martin, the series took a few liberties to keep fans guessing as to the final fates of those left standing, as death came for many and only a few escaped.
At the beginning of Season 8, the future of the Seven Kingdoms looked bright. The survivors only had to face and defeat the Night King and outmaneuver Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and her dastardly alliance with Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbaek) and the Golden Company. It was easy to imagine a “rose garden” ending for the heroes: a castle for Bronn (Jerome Flynn), a girl for Pod (Daniel Portman), Castle Black and a case of ale for Tormund, a warm hearth for Ghost, a steady steed for the Hound, and seven kingdoms to divvy up among the victors. It would be Kings Landing and the Iron Throne for Dany and Jon, Riverrun for Arya (Maisie Williams) and Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Casterly Rock for Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), Winterfell for Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), the Iron Islands for Theon (Alfie Allen) and Yara (Gemma Whelan), Hornhill for Tilly (Hannah Murray) and Sam (John Bradley), and a return trip to Naath for Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel); leaving High Garden, The Vale, Dragonstone, Dorn, Storm’s End for those who have earned a second chance at a better life.
It was but a beautiful dream. GAME OF THRONES never intended to deliver a rosy, happy-ending. Its entire journey has been filled with sudden death and betrayal — and it was not about to change its course now. It had set the tone early with the sudden beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean). The game that had been set in motion long before Ned’s head was taken, and even before Bran (Isaac Hempstead) was pushed out the tower window, and even before Rhaegar Targaryen (Wilf Scolding) and Lyanna Stark (Aisling Franciosi) wed in secret. It began early in days of the dawn of men, when the Children of the Forest created the Night King. Once the Children of the Forest struck a black dagger of dragonglass into the Night King’s heart, the true “game of thrones” was set in motion. Rhaegar and Lyanna played their part, the Mad King played his part, and the Lannisters with their alternating parts of joy and horror played their parts too. But it was the six Stark siblings that truly set the game up for a game-changing moment: they were the final chess pieces needed to change the face of the world.
Ned Stark had taught his children, “when the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” Thus, the Stark siblings grew up firmly believing that: together, the pack survives. And as hard as their enemies might try, even tearing the Starks apart did nothing to stop the wheels of fate set in motion. Daenerys only had it half right: she may be the breaker of chains, but it was the Starks that were destined to break the wheel. Robb (Richard Madden) died in the war that tore the Seven Kingdoms apart, Jon went to the Wall and beyond to prepare to fight the Night King, Sansa learned to see into the hearts of ruling men and women, Arya trained to be an assassin, Bran became the Three-Eyed Raven, and Rikkon (Art Parkinson) died trying to rejoin his siblings. Separately, their courageous acts seemed doomed. Yet, like ripples in the water, their brave acts had far reaching consequences. They were admired and followed — for they inspired everyone they came into contact with. The Starks were simply born to lead. It is just perhaps a cruel joke that Dany’s certainty that she would rule one day would literally be “one day.” For surely, if the Starks have anything to do with it, Daenerys’ rule will be brief as she must now pay for the razing of Kings Landing and deaths of millions of innocents.
GAME OF THRONES always foreshadowed its brutal, ruthless ending. It is just heart-breaking for fans to see that prophecy fulfilled. We wanted the “rose garden,” but instead all we got was a garden of thorns. No matter who wins, surviving is winning. That’s how the “game of thrones” is won: survive.
As for the show’s legacy, it may have already lost that — but it has been an honor to have watched to see who ultimately wins in this “game of thrones.” Win or lose, it was a thrilling journey.