Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Once upon a time, millions of people around the world worshipped the television show “Game of Thrones.” It seems like another era. But, in fact, only a month back we were all eagerly waiting to see how the eighth season would wrap up the series.
Disappointment and fury are now the status quo for longtime fans.
USA Today’s review of Sunday’s penultimate episode was headlined “The series just burned itself to the ground.” In the UK, leading TV critic Michael Deacon titled his “The series has been ruined beyond repair.” And BuzzFeed is running a slew of articles with headers such as “The New Snapchat Filter On The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Cast Will Make You Forget How Terrible Last Night’s Episode Was.”
They’re not wrong.
I can’t remember the last time I invested as much in a TV show as “Game of Thrones.” Over 71 hours watching 72 episodes; extra on behind-the-scenes featurettes; wasted afternoons poring over fan websites like WinterisComing.net and A Wiki of Ice and Fire. (And no, I’m not proud.) Like many of the show’s fans, I dreamt up (so I thought) sophisticated ways the show could finish, close-reading the language of prophecies to predict characters’ fates. Now it feels like the writers left in custody of my fantasy world have been slipshod in their care. The process is a bit like grief.
But aren’t we all getting a little bit carried away? It’s been reported that super fans have “google-bombed” the series’ showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, rigging internet search results so that their pictures appear when users search for “bad writers.” Which feels, frankly, a bit like bullying.
Yes, there’s plenty to be angry about. The storylines of women and non-white characters have collapsed into cliché.
Benioff and Weiss seemed to have learned their lesson when the rape of a major character, Sansa Stark, was framed foremost as a traumatic experience for the man forced to watch it. As Vanity Fair’s Joanne Robinson put it, “the last thing we needed was to have a powerful young woman brought low in order for a male character to find redemption.”
Despite that outcry, in the current season Benioff and Weiss made an almost identical mistake handling the storyline of a woman of color. The final shots of Episode Four closed in on the tortured face of Daenerys Targaryen, a powerful white woman, as she reacted to the execution of her black aide Missandei.
Missandei, a former slave, might have had a real story arc of her own, but first she inhabited a classic “black best friend” trope and then she became a plot device to spur a white protagonist’s revenge. As Sansa to Theon Greyjoy, so Missandei to Daenerys.
Daenerys’ own arc has been similarly frustrating. In a fantasy culture short of complex heroines, Benioff and Weiss spent seasons building Daenerys into a woman with whom we could identify. Yes, she demanded absolute loyalty. Yes, she was vengeful to those who had wronged her. But she consistently protected the weak. Her first experience of warfare, as a child bride, saw her berate her husband’s soldiers for their rape of civilian women.
Suddenly, last episode, Daenerys embraced the thrill of genocide, specifically targeting civilians with dragon fire. Personality changes happen in fiction, but not with such lack of subtlety – not to characters the writers respect and understand.
We’d been promised that “Game of Thrones” had become a feminist show, but the corruption of Daenerys played into the oldest sexist tropes in the book. The idea of the woman ruler as inconstant goes back to old fears about women’s changeable menstrual cycles. Just consider Virgil’s “Aeneid,” where the unpredictable goddess Juno, bringer of storms, repeatedly contrasts with the rational Jove.
In “Game of Thrones,” as Daenerys raged, Juno-like, in the clouds above, it was left to a young man to try to impose some order. In a key moment, we witnessed one of Daenerys’ own soldiers attempting the rape of a poor civilian woman. In the first season, Daenerys would have stopped him – this time, it was Jon Snow who stepped in. In the final iteration of “Game of Thrones,” even when there’s a rape, it’s a woman’s fault.
Or, in the case of Sansa Stark, as we learned just before Missandei’s death, it’s a useful character-building device for which the raped woman will one day look back in gratitude. Yep, that really happened in Episode Four.
Yet does any of this change the fact that millions of us have loved this show for years? I’ve written before about hating the last season’s treatment of female characters – it hasn’t stopped me waking up early each Monday in the UK to catch the latest installment. If losing a television show we love is like experiencing grief, then let’s do what we do to process any other form of grief: focus on remembering the good times.
The contemporary web is rich in opportunities for fans to reclaim their fantasy worlds. Within a couple of weeks, I’m sure, fan-fiction websites will be replete with alternative endings – and why not? I was furious when Jaime Lannister slept with Brienne of Tarth and dumped her, making a fool of her just as the first boys in her youth had notoriously made a fool of her. (Again, Benioff and Weiss love to bring down their strongest women.) So, in my fantasy universe, it simply didn’t happen. I might not go as far as writing fan-fiction, but let’s be honest – we all write it in our heads.
Fortunately, this rackety final season has left plenty of gaps for the rest of us to flesh out. Once, “Game of Thrones” was built on its eye for geographical, political and logistical detail. Now, whole storylines are condensed into a couple of seconds of dialogue. In a recent episode, Daenerys mentioned that a new prince had taken over the region of Dorne and pledged his support. That once would have been three episodes’ worth of subplot. It’s a mark of the show’s decline, but it’s good for volumes of alternative fan history. And in my version, Tyrion Lannister will still have a brain.
The true legacy of “Game of Thrones” may be as a cautionary lesson for other producers. Benioff and Weiss built the world’s biggest television franchise and screwed it up. But their best ideas may inspire more great shows. It can’t be long before another show is brave enough to kill off its lead in a surprise first season.
In the meantime, there’s nothing as fun as the self-righteousness of telling our friends how it should have ended. Isn’t that what the backlash is really all about? And would we ever have been this invested, if “Game of Thrones” hadn’t first built a world for us to love?