SPOILERS (This post is full of lots of spoilers for Game of Thrones.)
The internet seems generally disappointed with the final season of Game of Thrones. Yeah, me too, and it’s all about the writing. I’ll get right to the point of what I think went wrong: Daenerys, the Night King, and Arya.
The short version:
1) Daenerys had an 8 year arc, a great one actually, but one misstep ruined it. It was so close to being what it needed to be.
2) The Night King. A total disaster. An 8 year arc of what was set up to be a really memorable villain, except season 8 threw away details of that setup and it turns out he’s a boring forgettable pile of garbage.
3) Arya. An 8 year arc that seems entirely designed to let her do a thing, then she did the thing, except without any of the arc mattering and anyone could have done it. Then, being uniquely suited to do some more things, she kind of forgets the powers she spent years developing and does nothing. (Possibly because she needs to be in a The Arya Adventures spinoff and they don’t want her to have magic assassin powers anymore?)
I think pretty much everything upsetting plot-wise stems from these things. Is it upsetting that Jon kills Daenerys? Is it upsetting that Bran is king? That Tyrion is his hand? These things are fine, in a vacuum of just season 8. The issue here isn’t that the final season failed to hit certain emotional beats, or failed to have exciting things happen. The problem is that in doing what it did, it seems to have forgotten a lot of the point of what happened in the previous 7 years. And that’s quite an understatement really. It just doesn’t add up.
I’ll start with what I think is by far the least serious of the problems, but still definitely worth talking about because people are really mad about it.
There are some who are upset the Daenerys is ultimately a villain. I disagree with that and I think it was not only the correct narrative choice, but was frankly obvious to me since season 2. The problem is not the concept of this arc, but rather the critical moment when she actually becomes the villain.
First, let’s look at her 8 year arc before zooming into any particular moment. She starts off weak and lacking in confidence. She develops confidence and grows in power over time. In season 2, we see that she has belief she’s destined for something greater, and is able to grow in power significantly. She is a force of justice too, and rights the wrongs of evil people.
It’s notable that she is ruthless and extremely violent in achieving her goals. Any particular ruthless, violent act you could justify given the circumstances though. In each case, the bad people deserved what they got and/or were going to kill her. So far, nothing I’ve said indicates she is a villain.
So let me ask you this, given all that, what makes for a satisfying story? Here’s one option: she continues on that path, and that’s pretty much that. So she gains more and more power, and fights for good, and she gets it. This is not only boring, but would feel strange and out of place in the world of Game of Thrones. Her story is ripe for a much more interesting alternative.
To explain why the alternative is interesting, there’s two concepts we should think about. First, George R. R. Martin’s views about “evil” characters, and second the concept of a story “earning” its plot twists or character twists.
In an interview years ago GRRM said that while he admires Lord of the Rings, he wanted to go completely the opposite direction when it comes to portraying evil. In Lord of the Rings, evil is an abstract concept. Sauron just is evil. Why? What does it mean exactly? We’re not really supposed to think about it. He just is.
GRRM wanted evilness to be something apparent by a character’s actions. It’s not that they are intrinsically evil so we want them to die or something. He wants us to to see them behave horrifically and have us come to a deeper and truer understanding that they are evil because of these things they do. Evil isn’t just a label.
GRRM’s example was Viserys (Daenerys’s brother). He was a pretty crappy guy, and we came to understand that ourselves based on his actions, how he treated his sister, how he was generally a jerk. A much more extreme example if Joffrey. Joffrey did numerous shockingly horrible things, and we came to know his evilness in a more personal and real way than we could with Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.
I think Daenerys was the ultimate lesson in this concept. We sympathized with her and rooted for her for years to stomp out the bad people. And she was ruthless and violent about it, but we were right there with her. If she were to revel a little too much in this violence, similar actions could easily become evil. If we turn the knob of her zealous goals just slightly, they could easily become horrifically evil. For 7 years she managed to stay on the “righteous” side of things, but if she ever were to snap and use her power just barely more, this would be possibly even more haunting than Joffrey’s evilness. It’s because by following her on this path, that mostly made sense, it’s all the more chilling that “anyone” could be seduced to becoming villainous.
In summary, the most shallow type of evil is Sauron just “being evil” because. What’s better is seeing all of Joffrey’s horrific actions, so we truly know his evilness. But what’s best is if we could experience the fall from good to evil, in a real and believable way. So I think it was inevitable this would happen because it’s actually interesting and her moral compass was always on the edge of a knife anyway.
Earning Your Plot Twists
Think back to when Ned Stark dies at the end of season 1. That is really surprising and “not how it’s supposed to go" in other works of fiction—this was an incredible surprise at the time. Though Ned had all the classic tropes of a hero who has plot-armor and must prevail in the end, his shocking death told us what kind of world we’re dealing with. A world that’s often indifferent to justice, where anything can happen, anyone can die, and you can’t count on the good guys always winning.
Also, this moment in season 1 felt especially well-earned in that looking back, we feel like we should have known. The world was telling us this kind of thing happens. Littlefinger told Ned Stark exactly what he had to do and that he had the exact position and power to do it (kill Cersei and children, then become king himself), but Ned refused. Varys told him while he was in jail what he had to do, but he refused. Cersei told him too what was at stake: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” So looking back, it actually feels inevitable. You can’t survive in that world as a Ned Stark.
Another similar example is the Red Wedding. A shocking, horrifying event that in retrospect, seems like we should have known something awful like that would happen. Remember all those letters that Tywin was writing? Now we realize why that detail was there. Sometimes it was played for laughs to distract us, like when he made Cersei wait for him to finish writing a few lines before she could speak, but the details add up. So even though it’s not “what we want” for the Starks to be ruthlessly murdered, and it probably wasn’t what we expected, it was SATISFYING in the sense that things came together in a way that was true to the world and true to the details that had been laid out.
If Daenerys turns out to be a villain, this twist is similar to the above two examples. It’s exactly the kind of thing you should say “damn, I should have seen that coming.” Not because her motives were impure before, but rather because her methods were so, so close to villainous the whole time that the seed is planted. It’s definitely possible.
The problem, you are now saying, is that it was not believable that she’d suddenly undergo this change. Yes, right. For this to all work, we have to actually understand what makes her go from “on the edge of a knife” to straying the wrong way. Hearing the bells of your enemies surrender is not a reason any of us understand for her to have made this huge change. I think it was entirely possible for her to cross over into darkness here, somehow, some way. They writers could have written a scene or two that made this believable and make sense, but instead, it makes no sense and everyone is confused and upset. It’s so close.
The Night King
Now we move on to a much bigger disaster. Unlike Daenerys’s issue, we didn’t need an extra scene to fix it. We needed the whole final season to be built around this character making sense.
The Night King is the biggest threat in the entire world for 8 years of this show. He is The Big Bad. He appears in episode 1, season 1 (yes, really). Btw, I thought it was an important detail that the very beginning of the whole series starts by showing us that the undead threat actually is real. That creates dramatic irony in that many characters do not realize the threat is real, but we do, so we’re all the more worried for them.
After seven seasons, I thought the Night King was going to be one of the most memorable and surprising villains ever. It turns out he’s just a forgettable nothing. If we ignore season 8 for a moment, why is he an interesting villain?
The Night King is always at arm’s length to us. We struggle to know what he’s really doing and why. There seems to be something big missing here, on purpose. He’s the greatest, most powerful threat in the world, and for 7 years, I found it really conspicuous that we never learn anything about his motivation. I mean yeah we know why he was created (as a weapon the Children of the Forest created to kill the First Men), but that’s different from what his motivation is currently. Is it to kill everyone basically? Why exactly?
It’s a mystery. In such a complex story with a web of character motivations, to have the ultimate big villain completely hide his motivation is actually really interesting. The reason to do that is if the motivation has enormous story significance that you’re trying to save for a big reveal of some sort. All we get are little clues. Why does the Night King keep making spiral patterns? Why does he have such a particular interest in the Three-Eyed Raven? Why did he stare directly at Jon Snow for a really long time at the end of the Hardholme episode? That was a weird stare, and so conspicuous that it seemed like a clue. Also, the Night King has been at this for 10,000 years, so what’s his plan this time that is different than it ever was?
You see, something’s going on there. That it’s so difficult to piece together makes it even more exciting, but it seems like it has to be something huge. There’s a fan theory I’ve written about before that says the big reveal would be that the Night King is actually Bran, or that Bran’s consciousness is somehow trapped in the Night King. Before we get deep into that, I want to remind you about the dragon chains.
The Night King’s march towards the wall is critically important here. It gave the final, definitive clue that something really is up and that the whole Bran theory was likely correct. Or even if not correct, the clue still proves that something in the Night King’s head has been withheld from us so far.
The Dragon Chains
The Night King marched toward the wall, and let me give you two options about what his plan really is here. One option is that there’s no secret at all. His plan was to march toward the wall, a thing he has spent 10,000 years failing to breach, and that he had no particular reason to think he would be successful. Furthermore, in a stroke of incredible luck that he had no idea about, he encountered a dragon. Not only did he not know there would be a dragon, but he didn’t know there even were dragons anymore. Anyway, through amazing luck he encountered this dragon, killed it, turned it undead, and used to breach the wall.
But that’s not all! He just happened to bring dragon-sized shackles and chains with him. Why? No reason. He just had his army drag the chains for hundreds of miles for no reason at all, with no expectation of facing a dragon. Even if he DID face a dragon, why would he need chains to use on it? Specifically because if the dragon dies by falling in a lake, then he needs to use the chains to pull it out. So now there’s multiple levels of idiotic nonsense to this plan: 1) had no reason to think he could breach the wall in the first place, 2) he had no idea about a dragon, 3) he had no idea ahead of time about a dragon specifically dying by falling into a lake, 4) he brought dragon chains just in case of this astronomically unlikely even that he had no idea about.
This is beyond ridiculous. And that is why I said it was proof that it’s the core of the mystery. This all actually makes sense if Bran’s consciousness is inside the Night King, or the Night King is Bran, because then Bran’s power explains the whole thing. It means he really would have known about the dragon, the lake, and the need to bring the chains. Exciting!
Season 8 went another way. It just forgot about all that and now, in retrospect, we’re supposed to believe the Night King never had any coherent plan to breach the wall, that he had no idea about the dragon or the lake or the chains and that it’s all just the worst writing in the world. Instead of the long stare at the end of the Hardholme episode with Jon Snow making sense, because it’s really Bran looking at his brother, it’s yet another pointless detail about this cardboard cutout of a villain that is evil because he’s evil. The most pathetic, shallow, throw-away villain. That’s what they went with.
In case you’re confused about the whole “Bran is the Night King” thing, I summarized that in this post. The short version is that the entire story of Hodor seems to explain the rules for Bran’s power (that he can try to change the past by saying a phrase to someone, but it makes them go insane). And the only other character in the story who also went insane and also said a phrase over and over forever was the Mad King, who said “burn them all.” So surely Bran tried to tell that king to burn all the undead coming for us, but it drove him insane and the message was misinterpreted to “burn them all.” Then Bran must have tried to go back further in time where he probably caused the wall to be built in the first place (it was created by “Bran the Builder”) but that ultimately failed too. So he probably then went back to the source, the moment the Night King was created by the Children of the Forest, and he got accidentally trapped inside the Night King during that ceremony.
That theory, crazy as it is, adds up. And it’s exciting. And explains a whole lot. It explains why the Night King went to kill the previous Three-Eyed Raven (because doing that let Bran become the Three-Eyed Raven and ultimately lead to the Night King having this mega power of ultimate knowledge). It explains the whole dragon chains thing and it makes the Night King extra terrifying: not only is he mega powerful, but he knows all. There’s really nothing that could ever beat him, unless maybe if Bran himself (our Bran, in the present) lended a hand to someone so powerful that they wield the power of gods. Or in other words, it would make the Night King so powerful that we might need Bran to sacrifice “himself” by giving Arya one of the only weapons that can kill the Night King/Bran, while knowing (through his vision-power) that Arya has access to the power of gods.
OR, you know, maybe the Night King is just a pile of garbage that we can forget about because he never made any sense or had any plan. Thanks season 8. For fuck’s sake.
I do not think it’s a mistake story-wise for Arya to have been the one to kill the Night King. Quite the contrary. I thought this was the single most obvious thing the plot was leading to. If anything, too obvious, but I was willing to let it slide because it’s cool.
So why is it obvious this was destined to happen? We have an all-powerful villain (the Night King), who commands an endless army of soldiers who cannot die, BUT we know that if you kill him, the things he commands will also die. So in other words, there’s an enormous war so big that the fate of all life hangs in the balance, but all we need to win it is the ability to kill ONE guy.
Who is the ultimate person to kill ONE particular guy? Arya. She’s been on that path for years. She studied with the Faceless Men to become the ultimate assassin. And we even heard that the God of Many Faces will grant the power to kill anyone, EVEN A KING, if his follower pays a high enough price. I mean how much more setup to do you need? It’s practically hitting us over the head. Then it becomes a total lock when Bran (who is also the Night King???) gives her the dagger that is made of the stuff that can actually kill the Night King. It’s ridiculously handed to us on a platter here, and that’s FINE.
You know what’s not fine? That none of that mattered at all. The perfect person with the perfect skills to do the job…does the job in a boring lame way that anyone could have done. So actually it was irrelevant that she became an assassin, that the studied under the God of Many faces and has access to the exact magic needed here. It turns out any one can just stab the Night King so whatever. Do you see why the internet is mad? This is absolutely ridiculous and insulting.
There’s layers of problems here. In addition to it rendering her 8 year arc pointless by not even using the skills she spent years learning, it’s also dramatically really flat. In my earlier predictions post, I said that in episode 3 of season 8 (before I had seen it) that the Night King cannot possibly be defeated in the battle of Winterfell (the subject of that episode) because it would be too boring to have the main villain die and have half the season left. And then that’s exactly what happened. He did die then, suddenly, then we basically forgot about him and carried on with the drama ratcheted down several notches for the rest of the season.
There was a different way of handling all this that would have allowed Arya to actually use her powers, that would have been way more exciting, that would have maintained that excitement throughout the entire season, and that wouldn’t have felt sudden and rushed. A three-step build up involving deep personal drama to actually beat him. Instead, we got the opposite of all that. Stab, dead.
I explained this in my predictions post (credit to Lina Jemili for developing that theory with me). It’s too much to re-write here so just go to that post and skip down to “It’s all about the Lord of Light” and read from there. The upshot is that Arya uses her Faceless Men powers, takes part in an ancient prophecy, is forced to kill someone she truly loves in order to simultaneously fulfill the Lord of Light’s prophecy, which she probably doesn’t fully believe in, but ALSO this act fulfills the God of Many Faces’s cost, which she definitely believes in because she’s wielded his magic before. There are also exciting plot reveals by Beric and The Hound involved too.
To think that instead of all that, the Lord of Light’s prophecies, the God of Many Faces’s magic and Arya’s years of study are all just irrelevant is laughable. The irony is that the moment she stabs the Night King with the fatal blow, she hasn’t just rendered her own backstory pointless (by not even using it), but she also throws the Night King into the trash as a character. It isn’t just that the Night King died, but that moment also solidifies him as a forgettable villain with no coherent plan and shallow motivation for no good reason. Ingenious villain capable of seeing across time? OR goofy idiot who stumbled into a dragon and for terrible writing-reasons, happened to have dragon chains with him as it fell into a lake?
This is beyond frustrating. So you see what I mean that it’s not about the specific emotional beats in the last season being lacking. It’s about retroactively making the entire Night King character an idiotic joke, rather than a memorable villain with the longest con of all time. It’s about Arya training for years to do a thing, having the opportunity to use that in an incredible way that allows amazing reveals for Beric, the Hound, and the workings of two different gods, but then she just stabs him and we all forget about it and move on.
As of this writing, this petition to remake season 8 has over 1.5 million signatures. I really hope they do remake it and I hope it takes a form somewhat similar to what I’ve written about here and in my predictions post because it makes a whole lot more sense, would be really satisfying, and ties things together.
And just to really expose the quality of plot-writing here, I’ll leave you with these summary thoughts:
Arya, having studied with the Faceless Men to be a magical assassin, is the perfect person in the entire world to kill the Night King. She does, but that whole backstory didn’t matter at all and she didn’t use that power, or even remember that she maybe could have used it.
Beric, being resurrected 19 times by the Lord of Light, was the perfect person in the entire world to explain the Lord of Light’s prophecy to Arya. Instead, none of that mattered and his only point of existing in the plot was to save Arya in a hallway somewhere that anyone could have done.
Danaerys, having the only dragons in the world, is the person uniquely suited to fighting an army of ice-based undead. She does that, I guess, but actually none of that mattered at all.
Bran, having magical powers to see and slightly affect the past, is the perfect person to have caused the Mad King’s insanity, caused the wall to be built, and become one with / explain the Night King’s character and motivations. Instead, none of that matters, and though Bran becomes king of the six kingdom, he’s irrelevant to the story for the other 99% of it. Rather than being integral to the history and lore, he could basically just be deleted.
There’s way too much “actually nothing mattered” going on here.