❉ A welcome and mournful farewell to a series that will always qualify as a crowning achievement in television.
“… not a resounding triumph, but it’s far from the disaster the preceding wails and screams of badly singed fans might have you believe.”
For eight years I have spent spring to early summer in Westeros. Nine, if you include the extra year’s wait while I treated myself to a full rewatch of the story so far.
Every episode was, like many a fantasy oeuvre, prefaced with a map. An animated atlas – some of the little places even had sound fx to accompany their moving parts – to provide a raven’s-eye overview of the world, scored with a stirring theme that served as the perfect herald to a journey that was both epic and personal in scale. A song of power and politics, family and blood, high fantasy and base medieval grit. Not to mention tits and wine.
There were no doubt those who tuned in for the latter, but it’s a safe bet that most stayed for the characters, the treacherous twists and turns and the shocks that, to be honest, still give me the chills on repeat viewings. The death of the honourable Ned Stark and a certain infamous wedding, while a parade of glorious bastards were ascendant, made for potent ingredients in a recipe that horrified and hooked me.
Ambition and scale grew annually, from rather modest but intriguing beginnings, where battles happened off-screen, to a rather majestic beast with a power to blow you away with massive, jaw-dropping, gob-smacking ‘event’ episodes that would cause even the bravest cinematic productions to tremble. Your Hardhome, your Battle of the Bastards, your Loot Train and, yes, your Long Night. Every grand spectacle was lent import and substance by their quieter character-driven preludes and the (usually no small measure of) human cost and consequence. Penultimate episode, The Bells, gave us Arya’s haunting, stumbling journey through the medieval equivalent of a nuclear holocaust, in a sequence that genuinely defied the limits of a TV screen.
To cut a long story short (ahem), it all adds up to a formula for dangerous quantities of anticipation and expectation. A mix as volatile as wildfire and as liable to blow up in your face as deliver a victory as convincing as the Battle Of The Black Water.
What writer/producers, David Beniof and D B Weiss, conjure for this finale is not a resounding triumph, but it’s far from the disaster the preceding wails and screams of badly singed fans might have you believe. A few bum notes aside, it’s difficult – even for someone who trades in imagination himself – to imagine a more fitting end.
If anything, it was too satisfying and too neat for my tastes, and served up a number of good outcomes for deserving characters verging on uncharacteristic for this show. But in a game where ‘you play or you die’, this breaking of the wheel is the key to closure. There are notes of optimism and hope – definite foreigners to Westeros – in those farewell scenes for Sansa and Arya in particular – perhaps laced with HBO’s hopes for its planned spin-offs.
So, did I entirely buy the eventual ‘winner’ of the Game Of Thrones? No, the individual lacked fibre, if you ask me. And okay, I could’ve done without the lame gag about democracy. Plus it’s a tad unfortunate to finish with a short person departing for the great unknown in the west and the fat one named Sam producing a book outlining the whole adventure… But what tempers my satisfaction lies in the road that brought us to this destination. It’s a road paved with good intentions, but littered with too many shortcuts, questionable decisions and conveniences.
Offered twenty episodes by HBO for the final two series, the writers declined and said thirteen would suffice. Myself, I would’ve asked for thirty. An undercurrent of impatience transformed these two demi-seasons into something of a speed-chess tournament and once an end was in sight, characters and events were demoted to pawns, manoeuvred and positioned towards the desired outcome. Or removed from the board as unwanted complications or obstacles to that endgame.
Space precludes an exhaustive list of shortcuts and contrivances here, but suffice to say episodes began to skip more beats than my heart. On a relatively paltry level, you have Euron Greyjoy’s uncanny knack for being in the right place (for him) at the wrong time (for everyone else) – one possible explanation for his unbearable smugness and a gift that culminated in his washing up ashore just as Jamie Lannister was traversing that stretch of beach. On a significantly more nigglesome level, Tyrion, master strategist, is curiously bereft of cunning plans and Daenerys is steadily reduced in the dragon department to the tune of one, but then goes on to make a complete irrelevance of the Gold Company, the Greyjoy fleet and the giant dragon-slaying ballistae that were, presumably, put in place to give the illusion of insurmountable odds.
All because Dany’s fate had been predetermined.
Was it the fate I would’ve wished for her? Well, as a loyal follower of Team Targaryen all the way, the answer would be a resounding no. But that’s the point. Of course, I’m strange in that the last thing I want any series I love to deliver is the ending I want. In this case, the two key pieces – the King and Queen, Ice and Fire – move according to their true nature. Jon Snow has always struggled and battled to do the right thing, in the face of opposing forces like love and duty. And Daenerys ultimately arrived where she was always headed. Forget that it was prophesied, in good old-fashioned fantasy style, in a dream. Merely take a moment to reflect back on every fire she walked through and the choices she made. Hers was the path of a tyrant and perhaps the cleverest play the series made was in inducing so many to fall in love with her (and/or name their kids or cats Khaleesi) and believe she was the good and noble Queen she believed herself to be. At least as clever as its gift for populating the land with so many characters we (loved to) hate.
Bittersweet tragedy, painful partings, scattered touches of humour and the awkward rearranging of chairs around a table (an exquisite call-back to one of my favourite scenes) contribute to a welcome and somewhat mournful farewell to a series that will always qualify as a crowning achievement in television. These elements all fell very much inside the series’ wheelhouse and were like the quieter, contemplative notes that tail end the rousing theme, played beautifully by all involved.
What remains a shame is, I can still hear the jarring sound fx of story mechanics, the crank and grind of cogs and gears, intruding on the closing movements of what, in an ideal world, should have been a nine-season symphony.
❉ Simon A. Forward is a writer and lives in Penzance.