The Journeys in Game of Thrones
The real reason most fans felt disappointed by the last season of Game of Thrones was that, at the moment the show was supposed to reward its fans on the immense time and emotions they spent on it, the final season did not deliver that reward. At that moment, the show abandoned what it was all about: a personal, social, symbolic representation wrapped in a near-perfect fantasy.
Take each of these.
On the personal side, most of us have identified with, or at least felt a closeness to one or two, may be three, characters. We have seen them grow, emotionally and psychologically unfold over the course of the first seven seasons. This created expectations. You do not necessarily want precise meanings, hovering over sharp endings, to the journeys of key characters. But you want destinations to those journeys. At least, stations at which those characters arrive at, and at which the paths of the past seven seasons, the decisions and battles and fears and achievements, and ascents of morality and descents to depravity, all become an enclosed entity for each character, ones that could be reflected upon in their entirety. If the key characters do not arrive at such destinations, or at least at such stations, the journeys become mundane.
This let-down in the final season of Game of Thrones was particularly disappointing, because almost all of the key characters – say, the ones that continued with us until season seven – were elaborate pieces of psychology: large canvases of the richness of humanity, or often, embodiments of archetypes that have loomed large in human imagination. The show had built those characters up slowly and elaborately, had shown their depths to us up close and from different angles. That was why we have identified with them, or felt the closeness to them in the first place. And that was why we wanted them to arrive at such destinations, of at least such stations – rather than, as the last season did: leave them hanging from loose ends.
And in the very few cases in which the show did get a character to a destination, the arrival felt as if by catapult. The prime example was: Daenerys Targaryen. It was a shocking decision to deny the fans seeing her inner transformation from the “breaker of chains” who “will break the wheel” to a deluded, mass murderer, on the brink of madness? Part of the disappointment is that the creators of the show opted for the easiest of options: she sees the Red Keep, something in the supposedly inherently mad Targaryen genes in her takes over, and she goes on a spree of destruction and killing while remaining convinced of her righteousness. I suspect that one of the reasons why many fans have been particularly annoyed by this, is that they had suspected that Daenerys will, indeed, ultimately fail, not in reaching her objective, but in embodying the ideal she spoke of for so long. And so, in diluting that failure to a mere momentary anger, or a genetic take-over, or a lame version of “power corrupts”, was highly disappointing to those who had reflected on the essence of her journey.
This takes us to the symbolic side of Game of Thrones. The show was, from the beginning, awash with symbolism, whether inspired by different northern European myths or esoteric interpretations of old Eastern beliefs. Again, Daenerys herself was a clear example: the energy arising from within, yet nurtured and growing from without, who tamed the dragons (the symbols of raging human desires that left uncontrolled almost always lead to destruction and ruin), and whose moment of realisation, of bursting to the surface in all of its glory and potential, was when an ‘external fire’ revealed her inner fire, her inner powers, her ability to endure the raging flames and walk out unharmed (or rather, empowered), the moment in which she realised that she was among the chosen (if not, the chosen). From this angle, Daenerys’s journey was, at its essence, about each person’s own growth, transformation, quest for his/her goal, belief in oneself despite the doubts and challenges, perseverance, and crucially, the ability to control “the dragons” so as to ascend to her (for each of us, our own) potential. What the the last season/the finale did was: simply leaving that layer of symbolism at bay, and be satisfied with infantile literalism.
Perhaps this is why the final season also failed at the level of flight to fantasy. Fantasy is glamorous, has wide proportions, and allows for, if not calls for, grand-standing. But fundamentally it connects with deep meanings, aspirations, wants in us. Game of Thrones has, in the first seven seasons, excelled at that. The fantasy was not in the dragons, the Army of the Dead, the resurrection from death; and it was not in the big battles, the palaces, or the vastness of the “North” and what’s “beyond the wall”. The fantasy was in the daring to dream big in the ideas behind and representation of all of that. Those big dreams meant grand ideas: missions (the Starks), power (the Lannisters, Targaryens, etc), force in different forms (the Dothraki, the Un-Sullied, etc), the here and now (the realm of the seven kingdoms), and the “beyond” (the Gods, their priests, the resurrection from death, etc) …. And with all of those ideas, the audience was given a world of ideals – presented with warm humanism, moral realism, and impressive storytelling, and aided by a colossal production budget which allowed for technological advancements that made the visualisation of this world impressive as well as seductive. And the more Game of Thrones achieved the network effect it did achieve (entering the popular culture of the age), the more we felt it acceptable to delve deeper into the myriad of journeys in its fantastic world.
The last season disposed of the ideas and ideals - and therefore, with deep meanings - and left us only with the impressive representation. So, we had extended scenes of fighting that technological advancement made them look and feel “real”. But, we were not offered anything on the layers below and above the visual banquet. Perhaps the starkest example here was the battle against “the army of the dead” and its “Night King”. This character that had never spoken in the show, yet remained, almost from the beginning, a key force driving multiple narratives forward, came to an end that was neither meaningful, nor clear, nor even fantastical! The audience was left with many questions and the vaguest of clues that could provide potential explanations to what he and his army meant, represented, or were about. One conclusion is that the creators of the show were, by the end, too tired to bother. Another is that it was a failure of imagination, and that’s the most devastating of blows to fantasy.
On the social side, Game of Thrones was never expected to deliver much. And it did not need to. Often, the overall marvel of a canvas arises from the many beautiful touches and details that had gone into it. If Game of Thrones’ finale had delivered to its fans some destinations to its many journeys, if it had given the many symbols it had borrowed their dues, if it had had the energy to draw the final scenes of its landscape of fantasy, the fans (on their own) would have weaved many social meanings for the entirety of the show.
I think a specific scene at the very end of the show betrays where the thinking had gone wrong, or may be, where the energy had been deflated. That was the scene in which Tyrion Lannister gave us his rationale for why he put forward Bran Stark as candidate for king. Tyrion told us that Bran’s story was the most impressive, effectively in terms of scope and effort. But were the show’s many stories about effort and diversity of scenes, or about the notions and meanings and symbols of the different journeys the characters undertook? I suspect, for the creators of the show, the finale became primarily about collecting the threads of some stories, and as much as possible, with the limited energy left within them, put those together into an end. What a fall from the peaks of imagination that the show’s many journeys had taken us to.