Television

The TV Club, 2019

Entry 10: Were we too hard on Game of Thrones?

Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones looking crazed, with smoke around her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO.

The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.

My dearest TV Club Night’s Watchmen:

Me? Write about Game of Thrones? In 2019? Didn’t we flush that out of our systems?

First: an aside. I will never forgive Willa for leaping on the stylishly tossed Fosse/Verdon grenade I planned to dive on myself—as always, I maintain it’s an adequate biography of Bob Fosse, a quite good biography of Gwen Verdon, and an astonishing biography of Fosse/Verdon, in that it gets that you can only understand so much about any one marriage by understanding the two people in it and eventually have to examine closely the third that is both of them—but she was so kind as to leave a big fat dragon dangling over the middle of the plate for me to swat at.

I, like all of us, play a lot of pointless games on my phone while doing other things. And like most phone games, my phone games have tons of ads designed to alert me to other apps I could download. For most of June and July, those ads were devoted to apps based on Game of Thrones, with HBO branding strong enough that Daenerys looked like Emilia Clarke, Tyrion looked like Peter Dinklage, etc., etc. I kept finding myself thinking, “That final season … aired, right?” Because of course it had, but it felt as if it glanced right off of me. I have to keep reminding myself how much time I and all of us expended on making sense of those final six episodes.

Some of the reason that final season has slipped out of my mind is personal—my public coming out was 15 days after the series finale aired, so I had a lot on my mind—but Fleabag Season 2 landed in that same basic time period, and I still think about that constantly. So it has to go beyond the personal, especially because I don’t seem to be having many conversations about the show with anyone. I know a handful of final-season defenders, but for the most part, the last six episodes are seen as, at best, a well-meaning disappointment.

What’s been fascinating to me is how little this opinion differs based on how “online” somebody is. My younger sister, who is so not online that she might as well be living in 1985 (what is it like there, sis? Are the people nicer?), disliked the final season even more than I did. And yet if I think about the final season of Game of Thrones long enough to get past my initial reaction of “noble failure,” I remember that I sure did like a lot of it.

Indeed, there are few TV episodes ever that have hung with me like “The Bells,” the series’s penultimate installment. That episode—in which Dany, on the back of her beloved dragon, lays waste to King’s Landing for reasons that aren’t explained at all—is an utter disaster on the level of character writing, trying valiantly to outguess the audience and mostly leaving viewers uncertain why anything was happening. The entire enterprise of the whole series was left to Emilia Clarke to express entirely on her face (as Dany switched from “basically empathetic” to “monster” essentially on a dime), and for as much as the show frantically tried to backfill character motivation (including a clumsy “previously on” sequence in which Dany’s mindset was cobbled together in a series-spanning audio montage played over a shot of Clarke’s face), it was unable to support this twist in a way where the audience went with it. That, to me, is a sign of a big problem in ostensibly populist entertainment. You should be able to get the audience to go with you! Or at least half of us!

And yet “The Bells” is a dread-soaked, phantasmagoric beauty all the same. Go beyond the clunky writing, and you find an episode that’s maybe one of the best-directed in TV history. Miguel Sapochnik was always the series’s best director of raw spectacle, and he’s in top form in “The Bells.” The choice to never show Dany’s face after she makes her choice to start burning King’s Landing was criticized in many corners, and I agree with the criticism. But on a show that properly sold that twist, that decision would have been bold, daring, and right. How powerful to see that even the people we believe to be good and on our side are capable of great and terrible evil. George R.R. Martin’s books have always brimmed with a mistrust of war, no matter how good its intentions, and this felt like the apex of that idea. The people we love might turn out to be the most dangerous people of all. And what then?

So it went with the final season of Game of Thrones: potentially powerful ideas, wrapped up in the most sumptuous packaging TV could offer, and delivered in a fashion that felt like getting splashed by a bus driving through a rain puddle. Everything was there, but it was thrown at you so haphazardly that you couldn’t help but end up sad, drenched, and just a little pissed off.

I actually wanted to enter this roundup in the name of defending the final season a bit. It’s gotten a raw deal, I think, because while it was a mess, it wasn’t that much more of a mess than the other seasons in the show’s second half. And the qualities that made it a mess—particularly its attempt at a scope and scale unlike anything else on TV and its uncompromising desire to show its characters in all their horrible realism—were not so far removed from the qualities that made the show, in its early days, so very good. Game of Thrones became more itself across its run, and that turned out to be an empty spectacle that only feinted at thoughtfulness. But it was still feinting at thoughtfulness!

The truth is that even if the spectacle was empty, TV had never seen it executed as skillfully as it was on this show. At the Emmys, the show lost award after award after award, with the distinct sense that the industry was just over it. And then it won the final, top prize of best drama series, both because of lack of competition and because, like it or not, it was one of the shows that set the template for where the rest of television was going.

We can complain about Game of Thrones all we want, and there’s plenty to complain about. But at times, the hyperbolic loathing of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss from all corners of the internet (OK, mostly Reddit) struck me as over-the-top and ultimately uncharitable. I think it’s fine to not love the last few seasons of the show; it seems rather bizarre to claim that the final six episodes, no matter how bad, utterly ruined everything that came before (or maybe even your entire life). The deeper we get into the Peak TV era, the more your show’s legacy rests on having a perfect ending. Game of Thrones did not have that. Does that mean that we all forget it and move on now?

Like it or not, this was a show we were all obsessed with for years, first perhaps because we liked it and then out of professional obligation. (I include “just wanting to keep up with what my co-workers are talking about” as a professional obligation.) It had many, many, many bad moments—but it also had the Red Wedding. It had Ned Stark’s death. It had that beautiful scene with Jaime and Brienne in the bath together. It had the battle at Hardhome. It had grim slogs toward death and brief moments of exaltation. There was no other show like it in TV history, and, try though it might, the medium still hasn’t come up with anything to quite match it.

I’m certainly not going to miss Game of Thrones, a show I came to resent just a little bit—it’s OK! We’re friends! I can admit it!—because it became the chief thing I had to care about whenever it was on, and sometimes it was on at the same time as a genuine TV masterpiece like Fleabag Season 2. But I do wonder if we’ve overcorrected in a way that ultimately doesn’t help television. A show needs to be more than its ending. Its legacy is based on more than how the last 30 minutes wrap up the plot. The only reason anybody hated Game of Thrones’ ending is because they loved it in the first place, and the hate doesn’t invalidate that love.

But, really, Brienne deserved better, don’t you think?

Emily

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