Remember a little TV show called Game of Thrones? Remember how we used to talk about it pretty much all the time? Where did it go? Was it real?
Sadly, yes, it was. As the show celebrates (!) its tenth anniversary, let’s take a look at how its unarguably terrible ending made sure that despite all the great work the people behind it did earlier, if it is ever remembered, it would be as a cautionary tale.
Created by DB Weiss and Dan Benioff and based on the fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire authored by George RR Martin, Game of Thrones was set in a fictional world modelled on mediaeval Europe with a few peripheral, at least in the first few seasons, fantasy elements thrown in.
While White Walkers, direwolves and dragons made for admittedly impressive spectacle, the biggest reason most of us watched Game of Thrones was the human drama. The show had a cast of hundreds of characters, and thanks largely to the immense depth of its plotting, world-building, consistently excellent dialogue, and top notch casting, Game of Thrones cast a spell upon us, every week from spring to summer. The quasi-mediaeval setting allowed the story to be about, mainly, power-struggle, between not just noble houses like Starks and Lannisters but between individuals, with all the requisite murders, betrayals, backstabbing and so on.
Long episode runtimes, often deliberate pacing and the herculean task of keeping up with such a huge number of characters and plot threads deterred few of us. Game of Thrones was the biggest thing in the world for most of its life.
It was truly a humongous pop culture sensation. It took its time, but by the time Ilyn Payne had beheaded Ned Stark towards the end of the first season, the world was hooked. It was dominating the discourse everywhere, be it social media or get-togethers. After every episode aired, we took to social media to discuss and brainstorm as to whether a particular line spoken casually was secretly a revelation, or some such.
Almost everybody we knew was watching it, and those who did not were banished to the sidelines, rendered social pariahs by their refusal to partake in what looked like TV event of the time. Despite what happened at the end, it still took home a record 59 Emmys, the most for any TV drama ever.
Game of Thrones was a global phenomenon — until it wasn’t. It’s downright astonishing as to how it crumbled almost overnight as a pop culture behemoth to something people are sort of embarrassed to bring up for the fear of being ridiculed.
It is not as though the show has been erased from the popular imagination completely. Once in a while one gets to read half-hearted retrospective pieces about how bad the final season was compared to the earlier iterations. HBO has greenlit several spinoffs to cash in on the popularity it still must possess and they surely know something we don’t.
But when I compare it to other iconic shows that similarly captured the imagination of millions — The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Deadwood — Game of Thrones is missing from discussions, showing its lack of longevity. The dumpster fire that the last season (and, I would argue, the penultimate season too) was, can’t be the only reason. It is not as if every TV show has succeeded in sticking the landing. ABC’s sci-fi mystery series Lost is often thought of as one of the examples of how not to deliver the ending of a complex story. But it is still very much a part of the conversation, even if fans bring it up only to diss it. With Game of Thrones, nobody takes the trouble of heaping contempt upon it.
The reason I think is not that the ending was bad, it’s that the entire final season — and most of seventh season — was antithetical to the everything that came before. The denouement of the narrative undid what the show was about. The ending, as in the situation of Westeros when the final episode finished airing, was not necessarily implausible. It felt so because it was unearned. Few things that happened leading up the finale had any basis in logic.
Game of Thrones liked to shock people with deaths of major characters, but earlier every one of them, no matter how sudden it felt, was a logical conclusion to that character’s actions. Ned Stark, for instance, before losing his head, had made some daft decisions — trusting Littlefinger being just one of them — so when he died, there was understandably a lot of shock, but it also made sense after the hoopla died down.
But season 7 onwards, when the show had outpaced the book series, shocking things happened just for the shock value. They bore no connection to anything else that had happened before. There was hardly any organic, believable storytelling leading up to those important moments. And thus, there was no heft in them. They felt shallow.
Entire storylines, particularly everything about Dorne, were quickly dispensed with just to hurtle towards a conclusion that fell like a cop-out. DB Weiss and Dan Benioff had been recruited by Disney for a Star Wars movie trilogy, and this was why it’s said they wanted to end the story as soon as possible. But they bungled up the ending so badly that they ended up losing the Star Wars project as well.
A TV show does not need a good ending to be remembered. It just has to, you know, not be irredeemably dreadful. Game of Thrones is a rare TV show that utterly destroyed its legacy in its final season.
All that being said, perhaps we can remember it for what it made possible, so many firsts that it achieved, what it did for the medium (GRR Martin himself thought the story was unfilmable) and to the art of storytelling in general. The richly realised world, great acting, compellingly drawn, three-dimensional characters, twisty plots, complex themes, difficult moral questions, cinematic-level visual effects, are some of the qualities that made it s so big.
Before it became awful, Game of Thrones was one show that brought a great chunk of the TV viewing population of the world together to experience that one story.