In its early seasons, Game of Thrones was just about everyone’s favorite show. It had everything a growing television viewer could want from their prestige drama diet: whip-sharp dialogue, political intrigue, Emmy-winning performances, and tense action sequences.
Even book purists and Thrones haters had to admit there was a lot to love about the HBO series. And beyond that, this near-universal acclaim was even more impressive given the fantasy-averse nature of so many television viewers. Game of Thrones was changing the small screen as we knew it, and it seemed like there was no stopping the gravy train.
But something began to happen in later seasons that marked an inescapable change in the show’s DNA. Those tense action sequences Thrones would give us once every two seasons or so began to take up more real estate. The political intrigue that raptly invested viewers in the interests of each warring noble house began to lose its complexity. And the whip-sharp dialogue fans grew to expect gave way to too many exchanges in dire need of a verbal whetstone.
What went wrong? What happened to the show that, at one point, seemed it was headed straight to the top of the all-time best TV series shortlist? For starters, George R.R. Martin’s writer’s block happened. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss signed on with HBO to adapt Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, with five books of his planned seven already published. They reasonably assumed Martin would be able to finish his magnum opus with enough time for the series not to surpass his book publishing cycle.
But alas, this was not the case. By the time seasons five and six rolled around, Benioff and Weiss had adapted every major plotline of the last published book in Martin’s series, and the author still hadn’t delivered his follow-up. After that point, they had to connect the dots using mere conversations and bullet points from Martin. The showrunners were left with the unenviable task of adapting a book series without any books. Still, judging by the unforgiving response to season eight, most fans either didn’t know or didn’t care about Benioff and Weiss’ dilemma. From their perspective, their favorite show took a nosedive out of the Moon Door, and the only people to blame were the showrunners.
But was season eight truly as bad as everyone remembers? After all, this is Game of Thrones we’re talking about, the TV show with some of the best episodes ever. There has to be at least something in its climax worth returning to. It’s been four years since the finale aired, and we’ve decided to take a comprehensive look into the most-hated final season in television history to see if the critiques still hold water. So pop out a Frey pie from the freezer, grab some of Tormund’s sour goat milk, and let’s revisit season eight of Game of Thrones.
Mad Queen Dany and The Bells
Perhaps no season eight plot point angered fans more than Danys’ choice to burn down King’s Landing in the penultimate episode, The Bells. For the first seven seasons of Thrones, Dany was a fan-favorite character who spent her days breaking chains and mothering dragons. She revolutionized the culture of each city she conquered, freeing slaves and killing slave masters. Her entire character motivation centered around protecting innocents and deposing despotic rulers. For her to turn her back on her life’s work in a moment of blind fury atop Drogon felt cheap, unearned, and confusing to many fans. But was Dany’s decision really as unexpected and sudden as detractors claim?
Despite some of her kind-hearted tendencies, Dany is a Targaryen through and through, and she’s never been shy about telling people. In season two, she emphatically reminds the rulers of Qarth she will burn cities to the ground on multiple occasions. In season five, she threatens her husband, Hizdahr Zo Loraq, with “returning [Meereen] to the dirt if need be.” In season six, she plans on burning down Astapor and Yunkai before Tyrion persuades her to do otherwise. And that’s not even counting all the times she talks about laying waste to cities and castles in season eight. To say Dany’s fateful decision in The Bells was unheralded is a misreading of her character.
With that said, Dany is a dualistic character with a complex moral compass. Her arc has always been about the struggle to temper her fiery Targaryen impulses with her compassionate desire for just rule. While some fans may have forgotten the show’s foreshadowing of Dany’s dark turn, it’s not entirely wrong to believe that things escalated too quickly in The Bells. It certainly couldn’t have hurt to extend Dany’s Mad Queen arc throughout two or three seasons. In fact, almost every character arc could’ve improved with more runtime.
Why didn’t we get more seasons?
One of the most valid fan complaints about the conclusion of Game of Thrones is how quickly the curtain call came. At the red carpet premiere for season eight, Martin told reporters that if it were up to him, Thrones would’ve gone on for ten or more seasons. According to him, this was impossible because the showrunners and actors were anxious to start new projects and move on with their lives. By that point, the show was creeping up on a decade of airtime, making this desire for closure and new beginnings more than understandable for the cast and crew. Still, one can’t help but feel like the showrunners ducking out after a relatively short eight seasons was doing the massive worldwide fan community a disservice.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a sprawling story with hundreds of characters, dozens of locations, and a rich and detailed in-universe history. When Benioff and Weiss petitioned to get this behemoth of a series made, they should’ve realized and accepted that they would be on the hook for ten or more years to finish it properly. And if at any point they felt unwilling to spend the time and energy it took to give this beloved series the send-off it deserved, they should’ve worked with HBO to find other showrunners who could.
Back in 2019, Benioff and Weiss were in talks with Disney to create their own Star Wars trilogy. Many fans surmised this was the main reason they wanted to race to the finish line on Thrones. Unfortunately for them, it’s widely assumed Disney shelved their trilogy after the tumultuous fan backlash to season eight. Not to kick a pair of directors when they’re down, but it’s difficult not to view that turn of events as just desserts.
So was it really as bad as we remember?
Season eight is universally regarded as the worst season of Thrones, and you won’t get any arguments from us on that point. However, it’s still a season of television viewers get to spend in Westeros with some of the best characters ever to grace our screens. Not to mention, it’s the first and only time all of these characters get to spend time interacting with each other in the same geographical location.
Early Thrones was superb, but main character incursions were few and far between in those days. Season eight gave us a chance to finally watch the interwoven tapestry of these fictional lives come together – even if some characters were reduced to pale imitations of their former selves. Not to mention, few scenes in Thrones’ history are as moving as the impromptu knighting ceremony between Jamie and Brienne in A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.
So despite the internet’s steadfast refusal to admit it, we’re happy to report that there are some things to love about season eight. Although, you might have to dig pretty deep to find them.