Did Game of Thrones' lacklustre finale really destroy its legacy?
One year ago, a pop culture phenomenon apparently went out with a whimper – but did Thrones mania actually die with Daenerys Targaryen?
A year ago today, I was knackered. I’d spent the previous six weeks staying up till around 4 or 5am every Monday to live blog Game of Thrones when it streamed on Sky Atlantic in line with the US, sharing my every thought, feeling and terrible joke as the biggest show on TV drew to a conclusion.
The fact that I did this as a job, and that this was considered a productive use of my time, may give an idea about what a pop culture phenomenon Game of Thrones was. It was the biggest show on TV, made instant global stars out of its cast and dominated the conversation for years. Until it didn’t.
On May 19th 2019, the series’ final episode The Iron Throne aired on HBO, wrapping up a season that was already being called the fantasy drama’s worst, with an online petition running to have it redone from scratch before the end had even been revealed.
While a lot of the hate towards the plot developments actually stemmed from things that happened in episodes four and five, it all seemed to coalesce in how people saw the finale, which killed off more main characters, truncated some storylines and ended others in a way that people saw as unsatisfactory.
Daenerys killed off! Jon rejoining the Night’s Watch (which shouldn’t still exist) to do nothing! And need I mention… King Bran the Broken?
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Since then, a fairly broad consensus has emerged that the entire show was tainted by how it ended, with people regularly noting online how quickly the entire series has exited the popular consciousness. Once, Game of Thrones was everything – now, it barely factors into discussion, seven great years of TV undone by one bad year.
So what happened? Did A Song of Ice and Fire really end on a bum note? And did Game of Thrones undo years of goodwill with a couple of bad episodes? With the benefit of hindsight I’d argue yes – but also that something similar would have happened if they’d been good episodes, too.
For me, Game of Thrones’ great appeal was in its ever-increasing scale and ambition – and that doesn’t just mean big battles or dragon attacks. Every season, we met new characters, embarked on new storylines in new locations, the story expanding outwards into more disparate tales that hinted at the vast world in which the show was set. People joked about Game of Thrones’ unwieldy cast list and Westeros-hopping storytelling, but that was the point – the biggest show on TV felt like the biggest show on TV.
And then after five seasons of expansion, the series creators abruptly changed gear. This thing had to be ended – everything needed to be tied up – and so everything became about cutting off green shoots, pruning the story and funnelling it towards George RR Martin’s planned conclusion.
What had once been a world of endless possibilities began to feel like an on-rails journey to a destination. We’d spent years wandering in Westeros – and now someone had grabbed our hand and dragged us to a specific part, saying "OK, time’s up".
It was galling. And while the series’ conclusion might have felt less abrupt if show creators David Benioff and DB Weiss had taken longer to get there, I still find it hard to imagine a conclusion that didn’t in some way inspire these feelings. Storylines would need to be chopped off, focussed. Characters would need to be left behind. Even if Daenerys had taken an extra year to barbecue King’s Landing, would we have been satisfied?
I do sometimes wonder. In a recent interview series star Carice van Houten looked back on the series, describing some of the negativity as “a bit ungrateful”.
"The fact that some people were so disappointed is because everything before that was so good," she said.
"You’ve had such great times and then yeah, you’re going to be disappointed because it’s not going to go exactly how you anticipated. Of course, you’re going to have all sorts of criticisms and I just thought it was a sign of how good the show was."
There’s a nugget of truth here, though for once I’m not sure we can put it down to fan entitlement. One of the things that made Game of Thrones so unique, epic, exciting and "good" was its huge scale, and maybe that was a double-edged, Valyrian steel sword.
Maybe the price of that excitement and success was a commensurate fall when Benioff and Weiss had to actually pay off the possibilities they’d set up over the years – no matter how well or badly they were executed.
With that in mind, perhaps Game of Thrones’ future isn’t increasing obscurity after all. Looking ahead fans still have two more books from George RR Martin to finish the story his way, having already gone deeper and further into his imagined world than the series ever did.
Further ahead, there’s at least one spin-off TV series delving even more into Thrones marginalia in House of the Dragon, reportedly based on Martin’s fictional history book Fire & Blood.
In other words, the world of Game of Thrones is opening up again and delving into the minutiae – which is exactly what made the TV series such a hit in the first place, beyond the headline-grabbing violence and special effects. If done right, I could imagine fans’ love for Westeros rekindling – assuming, of course, that it‘s actually gone out in the first place.
For some, the party never stopped. On a holiday to Dubrovnik (the Croatian city that doubles for King’s Landing) last summer, I was struck by just how much Game of Thrones still dominated.
Obviously, it’s a big draw for tourism there so tour companies and shops are bound to lean on the connection, but every fourth person you saw in the city seemed to be wearing a King in the North or Mother of Dragons T-shirt.
Clearly, the North remembers… when the series was still good. Or perhaps the way Game of Thrones has slipped away from the pop culture conversation isn’t actually emblematic of people forgetting it or wiping it from the board entirely.
The series finished - there are no more episodes - so perhaps it'd be weirder if people did still talk about it all the time. Maybe, like the series itself, the Game of Thrones conversation is just dormant.
A year ago, Game of Thrones had an unsatisfying ending. For a lot of fans, the wounds are still fresh. But somehow, some way, I doubt that was the last we’ll see – or love – of Westeros.
All episodes of Game of Thrones are streaming on NOW TV