Well, this is it. The wall is down, the Night King and his horde of undead soldiers are marching south, and all the major players are taking their positions for the final showdown. Time to find out who wins the game of thrones. Wrapping up seven seasons worth of lingering plot threads and rich, complex character arcs was never going to be easy, and in fairness, GAME OF THRONES SEASON 8 does contain many of the right elements to be an epic and emotionally satisfying finale. Unfortunately, these pieces are all crammed tightly into just six episodes. This leads to irrational and unearned character developments, rushed plot points, and no time for the heavy moments to settle – altogether falling a dragon’s wing short of the monumental send-off that the series deserved. Be warned, this review contains MAJOR SPOILERS throughout.
The overarching story of SEASON 8 can be split into two roughly equal pieces: the first three episodes see the combined armies of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and the North amassing in Winterfell to prepare for battle with the Night King (Vladimir Furdik), while the final three focus on the survivors turning their attentions south, to take the Iron Throne from Cersei (Lena Heady). Before any major battles begin, there are plenty of reunions to be had, and fan favourite pairings such as Arya (Maisie Williams) and The Hound (Rory McCann), or Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) are brought back together to share scenes once again. Weaving throughout all this is the news of Jon Snow’s (Kit Harrington) true lineage, causing some to ask whether they are fighting to put the right person on the Iron Throne.
As far as major external conflicts go, SEASON 8 keeps things fairly simple, focusing on the build up to, conflicts during, and consequences of, two major battles. Character-wise, there’s a lot more going on: Jon’s parentage causes rifts between him and Dany, as well as doubts for both Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Varys (Conleth Hill) as to whether they are backing the right dragon; Jaime struggles to stick to his noble new direction when the great war is won, and his love for Cersei starts to draw his attention back to King’s Landing; Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya fight to remind Jon where his loyalties lie, after he takes Dany’s side over theirs a few times too many; and the mother of dragons herself fails to win as many hearts and minds as her more popular nephew, and suffers enough personal losses to drive even the best of women completely mad.
Dany’s devastation is made painfully clear through Clarke’s acting, lending some emotional weight to an otherwise rushed character arc.
Though the big moment didn’t sit too well with many people, there’s no denying that Dany’s descent into madness is some of Clarke’s best work in the entire series. From the brimming resentments at Jon rejecting her, to the skeletal mess of grey skin and matted hair that she becomes after losing Rhaegal, the devastation that Dany faces is made painfully clear through Clarke’s acting, lending some emotional weight to an otherwise rushed character arc.
Other mainstays also deliver series-best performances this season: Lena Heady goes out in glory, somehow transforming Cersei’s well-deserved death into a moment of sympathy for a frightened mother; John Bradley is captivating as he leads Sam through the complex grief of learning that his abusive father and younger brother were killed by dragon fire; Alfie Allen delivers some of his most affecting work since the days of Reek in the moments leading up to Theon’s heroic death; and Kristofer Hivju’s Tormund Giantsbane and Bella Ramsay’s Lyanna Mormont both do what they do best, with the former being easily the funniest part of the season, and the latter being a total badass and getting one of the best deaths in the entire series as she faces down an undead giant.
Speaking of the undead, they’re here in force (for the first half of the season, at least), and they’ve never been scarier. The Battle of Winterfell, while admittedly a few shades darker than it needed to be, skews closer to the horror genre than the series has ever ventured before, with terrifying results. From watching the lit swords of the Dothraki die out one by one, to the sudden wall of wights rushing out of the darkness, to the old kings of winter bursting from their tombs down in the “totally safe” crypts, the entire episode is dripping with a tension that doesn’t let up until the exhilarating moment that Arya plunges her dagger into the Night King’s belly.
Director Miguel Sapochnik and Cinematographer Fabian Wagner continue their streak of success in the next big battle, this time for King’s Landing. Between the long, claustrophobia-inducing tracking shots of Arya running through the streets, dodging falling rubble and dragonfire, and the visceral showdown between the Clegane brothers in the crumbling keep, this episode offers some of the best visuals and action since the much-lauded Battle of the Bastards.
There are some great character moments littered in amongst all the fighting that just feel like vintage Thrones.
Of course, the success of these episodes is never simply the work of one or two people – it takes a village to make a kingdom. There are prosthetic and makeup artists bringing the gruesome army of wights to life, set builders creating incredibly detailed and realistic cities for the effects team to then level with explosions, and costume designers keeping everyone in the latest chain mail and boiled leather fashions. The farewell documentary, Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, that was released after the final episodes is a perfect tribute to these scores of people who worked tirelessly to bring the fantastical into reality, and offers a great insight into how they made Westeros look better than ever for its final outing.
While the legacy of SEASON 8 will forever be one of poorly written story and fumbled characters arcs – and we will get to that – it is worth taking a moment to recognise what these last few episodes do get right. Firstly, there are some great character moments littered in amongst all the fighting that just feel like vintage Thrones. The fireside drinking on the eve of the battle for Winterfell, the long-awaited reunion of Arya and the Hound, Tyrion and Jamie’s tearful goodbye outside King’s Landing – all serve as incredibly satisfying continuations and conclusions to complex character arcs, brimming with depth and tenderness that rival the series’ most affecting moments. That’s all not to mention the long-awaited arrival of Cleganebowl, an absolute spectacle that is easily the best one-on-one sword fight since Brienne beat down the Hound way back in season 4.
Equally, there is so much poetic finality here that hints at what a satisfying conclusion SEASON 8 could have been, with Theon, the Hound, Jaime and Cersei in particular being awarded deaths that felt both momentous and thematically appropriate. Hell, even the Iron Throne gets a fitting end, returning to the dragonfire from whence it came in a cyclical metaphor worthy of Lord of the Rings. Speaking of which, there is a Tolkien-esque sense of closure in the sweet, if slightly cheesy epilogue (looking at you, title drop). As the montage pans between Jon returning beyond the wall where he was happiest, Sansa being crowned as Queen in the North, and Arya setting sail to be a Moana explorer-type, there’s a strong feeling of everything being in its place. While this neatness might not gel too well with Thrones’ history of trope subversion, the satisfaction of seeing these long-suffering characters finally happy is hard to argue with.
Characters making rookie errors for the sake of story [is so] infuriating that it distracts from the otherwise visually spectacular battle scenes.
Unfortunately, for all the good that there is in the writing of SEASON 8, there’s more bad. The main issue is that everything is crammed into six episodes, when in reality the material here could have been stretched over two entire seasons. Character arcs are rushed, threats that had been built up over years, such as the White Walkers and the Golden Company, are dispatched all too quickly, and lingering plot points are cast aside in the mad dash for the finish.
In this haste, so much of what made Game of Thrones stand out to begin with has been lost: the idea that anybody can die at any moment first made clear with Ned Stark’s decapitation is completely absent, with the battle of Winterfell in particular seeing the main cast wearing very thick plot armour, while other deaths, such as Varys, Euron and Melissandre, feel underwhelming and pointless as they’re given no time to have any impact. Similarly, the bold and clever military tactics shown in the Battles of Blackwater and Bastards are nowhere to be seen in the two major conflicts here, with characters who had previously orchestrated genius offensives and cunning defences suddenly making rookie errors for the sake of story. This results in a juxtaposition so jarring and infuriating that it distracts from the otherwise visually spectacular battle scenes.
Add to this pile of issues a slew of embarrassing editing errors that left coffee cups and water bottles in plain view, and a picture emerges of a finale that was rushed out the door to the detriment of its quality. This is made all the more frustrating by the small hints of brilliance that shine through the rest, reminding viewers over and again of what could have been if given the time to do it right. In the end, Dany died, Drogon melted the spiky chair, and nobody really won the game of thrones. And with this underwhelming and disappointing final season, it feels a lot like viewers didn’t really win either.
Verdict: 3/5 Paddles