The final season of Game of Thrones came along with tremendous expectations for quality as its sprawling narrative came to a conclusion. Both the production quality and writing of the series since its beginning had set a new standard for television, especially on premium networks. However, the current, final season of HBO's Game of Thrones is swinging and missing on both fronts as a hurried journey toward the finish line is ultimately hurting the series and possibly its legacy.
The quality of Game of Thrones' narrative began to deteriorate in its previous season. What once was complex story sprawled across multiple seasons became new narratives often introduced and resolved within a single episode. Characters were traveling from North of the Wall to King's Landing and all over the place in between scenes. It was shocking but it was easy to forgive. Pacing is a tough beast to tackle and when six years were dedicated to Daenerys making her way to King's Landing with a proper army, several interesting subplots supplemented the long-running tale, often in shocking, gratifying, or revolting ways. Either way, each narrative thread which would span for an entire season or more would pay off in a manner which left audiences hating certain characters and writers but in desirable way for a TV show. A good writer makes you love a character, a great writer makes you suffer for it. That's what this show was doing, in the past.
Once the wall fell and "Winter" came for Winterfell, things truly started to spiral. Not only were characters routinely journeying back and forth between King's Landing and Winterfell, but narrative threads once thought to be important showed their true, useless colors. The biggest hype beast in the show's entire history turned out to be nothing more than just that with symptoms of plot device syndrome -- but it wouldn't even amount to that much (more in a bit).
Let's preface the strong criticisms of Game of Thrones Season Eight with saying it isn't all bad. Some character moments have been purely enjoyable, taking slower beats to remind the audience why they love this show (in addition to its often beautiful production design). Specifically, Episode 8x02 and Episode 8x04 have been the standouts for the year as character-driven narratives carried them. Tormund and the gang drinking, the knighting of Brienne, Sansa and Tyrion's golden conversations... Part of the heart of Game of Thrones is still there.
Then again, why did they have Jamie Lannister move on to Brienne of Tarth only to run back to King's Landing with no other goal than to reunite with Cersei? It's hard not to be frustrated after Brienne ended up being a strong character used for no payoff of her own (so far). Plus, Jamie's growth was seemingly canceled out, which is fine if it is explained or fleshed out but it was merely framed as a hopeless, sad desire.
In fact, Cersei and Jamie's deaths in Episode 8x05 stripped fans of not only Jamie's growth but also Cersei's sendoff. Give her something like Tywin being shot by his son while sitting on the porcelain throne! In addition to the aforementioned "hype beast," Cersei did not answer to anyone for her years of indefensible actions. She was buried beneath rubble with a man she loves and, really, got an easy way out. Ultimately, Cersei was killed second-hand by the actions of a once fan-favorite character who took a wholly ruthless and villainous turn on a dime.
Daenerys Targaryen once stood for something but ultimately became the Mad Queen so predictably that it was almost hard to predict. Every Game of Thrones character and fan knew the "Mad King" story was pointing toward such a destiny but wondered if the whispers to "burn them all" actually meant something deeper, such as Bran Stark visiting the past or the Night King playing a role. As it turns out, it's just a mental thing in Targaryen brains, and the Targaryen bloodline just enjoys torching people.
Dany's torching of King's Landing could have been fulfilling or rewarding with a true payoff but, with how quickly Game of Thrones rushed into Dany becoming a villain, it felt like nothing more than an out of character slaughter.
The only Season 8 character to prove more meaningless than Euron Greyjoy turned out to be the show's biggest hype beast: the Night King.
From its first episode, Game of Thrones framed this creepy creature from North of the Wall as some sort of unique-to-the-show endgame. When he crashed his forces down on Winterfell, it seemed that if he was going to be defeated, the Night King would (at least) be the plot device which made it harder for Dany and the good people of Winterfell to conquer King's Landing. As it turned out, the Night King was offed in an easy fashion (albeit stunning moment) when Arya Stark walked past his people with a dagger. When it happened, it seemed like an epic conclusion, but as it sank in viewers were left wondering what the purpose of the character was and why they should remain invested now that the biggest threat is defeated with three episodes remaining. Pair that with the earlier half of the same episode being so dark that most fans couldn't visually process the Battle of Winterfell and a later episode leaving a Starbucks cup on a table, it seems like the show has taken a somewhat lazy approach to its last six episodes.
The only real question remaining here is, "When did Game of Thrones become so predictable?" While the Last War at King's Landing was visually impressive (unlike the all-too-dark Battle of Winterfell before it), there were very few surprises which the show had previously been built on. Is it because the showrunners ran out of books from George R.R. Martin? Is it because they're trying to rush things to a conclusion? Did they write themselves into a corner and now they're just taking a linear story approach to get out of it?
No one here is asking for a happy ending. It's not fun to watch the peasants of King's Landing get slaughtered as they reach for their children hopelessly. Game of Thrones have never been known to show mercy or provide joy. It's shocking and, in Episode 8x05's case, was produced in compelling cinematic fashion. However, the political nature, the unpredictable story beats, and character conclusions (even if you loved to hate them) which built the show seem to be taking a back seat in a race toward the finish line.
Let's see more of Arya and Jon trying to work things out. Show Tyrion being smart, as he was in the past. Give us a fitting showdown between those who stand against Dany and those who stand with. Does Sansa still have a role here or was her big final move the one which got Varys killed and activated Dany's fiery side? And, please, give Bran Stark some sort of purpose in regards to the series' conclusion.
With only one episode left, Game of Thrones is not at a total loss. There doesn't seem to be much room for betrayal or politics but the series can still salvage its legacy by loading its audience up with an emotional, surprising finale.