Yes, yes, everyone is disappointed with the final season of Game of Thrones. It was almost inevitable, since the show was tasked with wrapping up years of character development in a handful of short episodes. But the reason it’s not a good conclusion is not the reason many people seem to be complaining about.
Watching Jesse Cox’s explanation of George RR Martin’s writing process is quite helpful in understanding why the show deteriorated gradually as they ran out of source material from the books. According to him, Martin starts off with a list of key bullet points describing the main plot elements. These are “seeds”, which he plants, and then allows to “grow” over time. This growth is manifested in the constant tweaking and rewriting of the journey taking characters from one checkpoint to the next in their evolution. Importantly, what Martin is really good at is making sure that the actions each character takes when faced with a choice is logical and internally consistent with their motivations and history. This is also why it takes him a long time to write.
At the end of the fifth season, the show had officially caught up with the books. This meant that the three subsequent seasons had to write their own material from scratch. Well, not entirely from scratch. George RR Martin made it clear that he had revealed what happens at the end to lead writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. This means that he essentially handed over the seeds. Since he is still in the process (as of writing) of growing these into completed books, the writing staff for the TV show had to figure out how to reach the endpoint. Of course, it is possible they changed elements of the endpoints, but henceforth I am writing this piece assuming that the essential endpoints of each character will remain unchanged (even though the details are almost guaranteed to be different in the books). Where the show seemed to fall flat is that it was concerned with presenting the audience with most of the key plot seeds in a very limited time. Therefore, the chain of logical causation between a character’s actions was completely lost, and often it seemed as though characters jumped arbitrarily from point to point. I’m not sure where the fault lies, but it is clear that this rush to wrap things up at the expense of sense is where the show took a nosedive in quality.
However, my claim here (contrary to many opinions I’ve read online) is that all of the endpoints for the “core” characters are completely consistent and in keeping with the character development in the first five seasons. That is, the key things that happen to the characters are logical, if you take into account that there should have been more to tie those seeds together. In what follows, I’m going to go through each of the more important characters in season 8, state what I think their key plot seeds were (i.e. what George RR Martin probably told the show writers), and why they make sense in the context of past actions.
It should go without saying, but if you’ve made it this far without watching season 8, I’m now going to spoil it entirely.
- Leaves his sister to fight with the Starks
- Dies protecting Bran from the White Walkers
We’ll start with an easy and uncontroversial one. Theon clearly feels deep remorse and regret after betraying the Starks who raised him (but the betrayal also made sense since he was often marginalised). He therefore goes back to Winterfell, and dies protecting Bran. Theon probably felt as though he owed the Starks his life. It was hard to see him surviving and living a normal life in the Iron Islands after all he went through.
The Night King / White Walkers
- Puts up a tough fight but ultimately defeated by the allied army
Winter was always coming, but it kind of came and went pretty quickly. Their defeat was probably inevitable, even if the manner in which it happened was underwhelming. It might have made more sense for them to cause even more damage or permanent change in Westeros, but ultimately they were a common enemy that needed to be defeated by the united armies.
Sandor Clegane (The Hound)
- Helps defeat White Walkers
- Returns to King’s Landing to face his brother, and dies killing him
Sandor has always been somewhat neutral in his methods but is compelled to help the people he thinks deserve to survive, even if doing so bothers him. As such, it is unsurprising he helps the united army, and then helps Arya get to King’s Landing. His fate is one of the more predictable – his life has always been in the shadow of his stronger and abusive brother, and so he was going to look for his opportunity to get retribution eventually, as well as prevent Gregor doing any further damage to anyone else. Given that his brother was stronger, it seems inevitable that Sandor had to sacrifice himself in order to kill Gregor.
- Reveals Jon’s true identity to him
- Ends up serving the king and documenting the story
Sam is key in Jon’s character development, mostly because Jon is a bit slow and needs a helping hand understanding things now and again. He is the one who discovers how to kill the White Walkers, as well as a bunch of other stuff from his research. It’s clear that he’s basically the incarnation of George RR Martin himself in the books, and is the logger of all the events happening in Westeros. Whatever happened to the Iron Throne, Sam was going to be there in the end to help document and advise.
Brienne of Tarth
- Knighted by Jaime
- Romantic involvement with Jaime, but ultimately rejected
- Serves the new king
Brienne’s arc with Jaime was ultimately going to culminate in some sort of encounter with him, ever since he saved her from rape and lost his sword-wielding hand which completely changed his life. She was also dutiful and demonstrated her skill as a fighter on numerous occasions in the past. Therefore, it was likely she was going to survive and be recognised for her achievements eventually. It wouldn’t have been completely illogical if she had died during the Winterfell battle, but it wouldn’t have allowed Jaime’s story to play out properly.
- Informs Tyrion of Jon’s true identity
- Rules over the North as an independent kingdom
Sansa doesn’t do a whole lot in the final season, but her character development over the show is entirely about preparing her for a leadership role. She has ambitions to become Queen when she marries Joffrey early on, but only through repeated abuse and manipulation does she learn the dark side of humanity, which allows her to be an effective political figure. Her stubbornness is what eventually allows Winterfell and the North to become independent.
- Rejects proposal from Gendry
- Attempts to kill Cersei and fails, but escapes alive
- Ends up as an explorer
The death of the Night King was anticlimactic, and perhaps Arya doing it wasn’t the most logical choice. However, given that the rest of the main figures were otherwise occupied fighting the undead, it seems reasonable that she ended the battle. I’m not sure if this was something written in just for the show.
Cersei remained her key target on the list of people she wanted to kill from the end of season one, so she was bound to go and attempt assassination. I am slightly surprised she didn’t go all the way through with it though, but her choice to self-preserve rather than risking her life for a low probability of success makes perfect sense. Her end is perfectly fitting though. She was obviously supposed to have a slightly longer relationship with Gendry, which had been hinted since they met, but ultimately her adventurous personality and reluctance to be a stereotypical ‘lady’ meant that she was never going to settle for a life of domestication, nor in any kind of leadership position.
- Helps Jon explain his true identity to Sansa and Arya
- Becomes King of the remaining six kingdoms
Like Sansa, Bran’s entire development pointed towards leadership (or at least some sort of Maester / consultant position). Ever since he was crippled by Jaime, the series has noted his psychic ability, which leads him to become the three-eyed raven. He is able to have visions of the past and future, and as such the only logical purpose for him, given that he lives, is to be in a position of decision-making responsibility. He is clearly much wiser and more reasonable than Sansa, Jon, or Daenerys (or probably anyone else in the show). A reasonable alternative that would also fit, but would involve him dying, would be if he had to sacrifice himself to defeat the Night King. This might have made the threat from the North feel a bit more dangerous than it actually ended up seeming in the show.
- Betrays Varys in order to protect Daenerys
- Attempts to prevent war / innocent deaths
- Attempts to secure exit for Jaime / Cersei
- Becomes hand of the king
Unlike Varys, Tyrion is not completely impartial. He wants to do what’s best, but his belief in Daenerys is what leads him to give Varys up. He tries and fails to prevent the devastation of King’s Landing, and then realises his mistake when he cannot stop Daenerys from going ape-shit. He has always helped Jaime because Jaime is the only one who has protected him since childhood, and despite loathing Cersei, never really wants her to die because he understands her motives. Like Varys, destined to serve the state, though he was more fortunate precisely because he had friends in high places due to not being completely impartial (unlike Varys).
- Romantic involvement with Euron Greyjoy
- Sends Bronn to kill Jaime and Tyrion for leaving and betraying her
- Kills Misandei but spares Tyrion
- Is routed in King’s Landing
- Dies with Jaime after being blocked from escape route
Cersei cares about her family. That’s it. Nobody else in the world matters to her. Once you understand this, all her actions make sense. She uses Euron for his navy by pretending he’s the father of her unborn child. She pays for a mercenary army to defend King’s Landing. She doesn’t care if citizens die. She asks Bronn to kill her brothers because she feels they have betrayed the family. She doesn’t hate them or truly want them dead, but does it out of spite, as is standard procedure for her. Ultimately, they’re the only family she has left, which is why she spares Tyrion when he tries to negotiate a peaceful resolution. Yet, she cannot let her enemies go without making them pay (much like another major character…). She obviously loses the war, and appropriately dies in fear with Jamie comforting her as he has always done.
I’ve seen people talk about how unrealistic it was that she just accepted Jamie after arranging for him to be killed. Read the previous paragraph and you’ll realise how silly it sounds to even consider she wouldn’t accept him. The only thing she really wanted was for her family legacy to continue, and Jaime as the father of every single child she had was integral to it. Speaking of Jaime…
- Aids in fight against White Walkers after leaving Cersei
- Romantic involvement with Brienne
- Returns to Cersei in order to escape with her, killing Euron to get there
- Dies with her after escape route is blocked
Here’s another character that attracted flack for his decisions, and yet again, nothing he did was inconsistent. Time and time again, he has shown and stated explicitly that he would watch the world burn as long as he could be with Cersei. True, he was more ruthless about it before he met Brienne, and you could argue she softened him a bit. Jaime’s goals, however, were never really different from Cersei’s. The one main difference between them is in how they went about things. Cersei can’t take losing and basically does everything possible to get revenge. Jaime is much more pragmatic and shrewd – he will not take unnecessary risks where it doesn’t make sense in the long run. He would, therefore, never have stayed with Brienne, even though he undoubtedly had affection for her. Instead, he goes back to the only thing that has ever really mattered to him in an attempt to save their legacy in the most pragmatic way that was available (thanks also to Tyrion).
It is fitting that he is the one to kill Euron, since Euron would have stood in the way of him getting back to Cersei. Cersei had to die in the end, regardless of how it happened, so the fact he died with her fit in with the fact that he ultimately lived for Cersei.
Before we get to the elephant (dragon?) in the room, there are 3 other characters whose ill-fates I think are crucial.
- Dies protecting Daenerys from the White Walkers
Jorah is absolutely key to Daenerys’ entire character development. As she grows from a naive girl being exploited and sold by her brother, to a ruthless leader in search of a kingdom to rule over, it is Jorah’s devotion to her that keeps her both alive and honest. He dies protecting her, which is the only thing that could ever really happen to him. However, it represents strike 1 in the mind of Daenerys – she has lost her voice of honour and lawfulness.
- Plots to overthrow Daenerys and have Jon emerge as leader after learning his true identity
- Is executed by Daenerys after being informed of this by Tyrion
Varys has only ever had one allegiance, and that is to the state. He has always taken part in political manoeuvering in order to support the leader that he feels will provide the most stability for the common people. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that he supports Daenerys when she seems like the best contender for stable leadership, but starts to see changes in her attitude that concern him. He is betrayed by Tyrion, but accepts his death at the hands of Daenerys. Strike 2 – Daenerys loses her strategic voice of reason.
- Missandei is captured by Euron Greyjoy on behalf of Cersei
- Signals to Daenerys to raze the city before being executed by Cersei
Missandei is captured and executed, but not before shouting “Dracarys” – the word Daenerys uses to tell her dragons to burn shit down. This definitely happened too quickly in the show so a lot of the intended impact was lost I think. Still, Missandei’s death was supposed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Strike 3 – Daenerys loses her confidant and best friend. Note that at this point, she’s also still somewhat distrustful of both Tyrion and Jon, and now has nobody else to convince her that she’s getting paranoid and is likely to snap.
- Helps defeat White Walkers with her army
- Loses Jorah and Misandei, executes Varys
- Ignores pleas from Tyrion to spare King’s Landing
- Destroys and burns down King’s Landing and Euron’s navy
- Claims Iron Throne, vows to “liberate” the world with her army
- Imprisons Tyrion for his attempts to help Cersei and Jaime escape
- Killed by Jon
Alright, so this is the one everyone seemed to have an issue with, but once again, although rushed, there was nothing illogical about Daenerys’ story arc. Because of her aforementioned losses, she was driven to take revenge by burning down King’s Landing in spite. As I alluded to before, Daenerys is not that different to Cersei. She cared about claiming her place on the Iron Throne. Yes, she did initially want to be a “just” leader in order to prevent a repeat of previous injustices, but her entire development involved her becoming increasingly ruthless in achieving her goals. It was only because she had a strong series of advisors that she was able to leverage that meant she made relatively good decisions. But once they were all gone, there was nobody to stop what my dear friend refers to as Daenerys’ “murder brain”. Bear in mind, she always thought she was doing the greater good. It’s just that without external consultation, her own sense of what “greater good” means was pretty much down to what pleased her. She had to be stopped in order to prevent another cycle of terrible leadership.
- Defeats White Walkers
- Learns his identity from Sam
- Becomes “Ned Stark junior” – pledges loyalty to Daenerys
- Helps defeat King’s Landing attempting (but failing) to spare innocents
- Persuaded by Tyrion to kill Daenerys and does so
- Is sentenced to life in the Night’s Watch once again
- Leaves with Tormund and the wildlings to go and settle North of the wall
Lastly, we have Jon Snow, aka Aegon Targaryen. Jon is supposed to make choices that look more and more like Ned Stark in that he is loyalty and duty driven. However, his background in the Night’s Watch means that he wasn’t quite as blind to the dangers around him. He does his job in both battles, while retaining the moral high ground. Yet he doesn’t want to be leader, and clearly shouldn’t be since he is not a natural strategist. However, Tyrion convinces him that Daenerys has lost it, and so he takes an action that Ned would never have been able to do and kills her. There was no way he and Daenerys were going to live happily ever after, because she was after domination and he was after peace. There was also no way that it would have made sense for him to rule, since it would have just perpetuated the cycle of bad leadership and probably resulted in yet more rebellions. He also needed to suffer the consequences of his actions in killing Daenerys, since she still had plenty of supporters. He always felt most at home over the wall: he never fit in with the rest of “civilised” society, didn’t want power, and didn’t want to fight in wars. Another alternative was that he could have been executed by Grey Worm, but sparing him was important because it signalled the beginning of a more level-headed and democratic system of rule over Westeros.