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Photo courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO

The Wall is Not the Only Thing that Fell: Game of Thrones Review

At its peak, Game of Thrones was a masterful execution of brilliant storytelling. Recently however, its quality has been steadily diminishing, leaving viewers with disappointment… and not much else.

May 12, 2019

Photo courtesy of Helen Sloan/HBO
In the 2010s, Game of Thrones established itself as a seminal piece of modern media. So, how much love will David Benioff and Dan Weiss’ adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, take with it as it moves from being a seasonal recurrence to the annals of televised storytelling?
There was a time when this was not difficult to answer. After all, during its first few years, Game of Thrones was an exceptional show. A critical darling unprecedented in scale and ambition, it pruned Martin’s sprawling novels. It somehow reduced them with a sure-handed efficiency that retained the soul of its source material. Here was a concentrated dose of the nuances of conflict and the moral ambiguities that color people’s choices. The series was a complex cinematic companion piece that did justice to Martin’s magnum opus. It seemed to be hell-bent on rejecting the dichotomies that plague traditional fantasy à la Tolkien.
Yet, as the finale to its eighth and final season beckons, the question of how posterity will remember Game of Thrones has an increasingly unflattering answer. This arises from a sad fact, that in the years following the end of season four — some might argue five — the universal acclaim has slowly evaporated. Today, it faces an increasingly divided viewership, eliciting strong and often oppositional opinions among audiences. While the remaining fans might find solace in its grandiose battles, quick transitions between locations and relapse into simplistic conflicts, I am among the vocal critics lamenting the loss of coherence.
Somewhere between running out of books to draw from and rushing to wrap up its storylines in spectacular ways, Game of Thrones changed for the worse. Benioff and Weiss stopped embracing complicated characters whose slow-burning development led to payoffs that reverberated across the story. Instead of working to gradually heighten narrative intensity, they chose shock value. When it paid off, everyone was happy. Cersei’s murderous wildfire and Daenerys’ attack on the Lannister supply lines bear witness to this. But the grand set-pieces are underscored by sloppy transitions. From seasons of build-up that delivered unforgettable and realistic sequences like Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion demanding a trial by combat in season four, the plot of the show devolved into the haphazard cobbling together of unrelated scenes to deliver facile payoffs. In fact, what is most irksome about events like the death of the Night King, carried out by Arya “plot-armored psychopath” Stark, is that it not only comes out of nowhere but also makes the environmental allegory of the White Walker-threat – Martin’s foundational conflict – seem like an aside that distracts from the feudal warring, which Martin’s work serves to critique in the first place.
Through this, the internal consistency so essential to telling believable stories is lost.
Once, in tracing the power struggles of noble families in a fictional world, Game of Thrones became a genre-bending chameleon, switching between political thriller and high fantasy spectacle with ease. This heightened its appeal, for even as dragons and magic infused the show with the traditional supernatural tropes, at their cores, both the books and the show were expertly crafted human dramas. The show built up characters with compelling flaws and differing ideologies, whose arcs progressed logically and converged in moments of tension — be it with swords on a battlefield or over wine at a feast. There was a raw realism to the pain we saw on Game of Thrones. An acknowledgement of the motivations and consequences of human actions. You could glorify the noble Starks, but you never lost sight of why the Lannisters schemed.
This was where the true magic lay.
When I first watched Game of Thrones, it was a revelation — far superior to anything I had ever seen on television. I was enraptured by its complexity. In the decision to operate in shades of grey, not reductive blacks or whites, Game of Thrones was akin to grittier genres that did not depend on dragons. By not spoon-feeding the audience, the show respected its viewers in a way traditional fantasy often shuns. It was a story that let us choose our heroes.
In a sense, I think Benioff and Weiss were great curators of Martin’s dense content. But once that ran out, they had to produce their own work. If only they knew how. A messy detour to Dorne, Bran’s elevation to a deus-ex-machina and a battle too dark to see are not the kinds of mistakes experienced showrunners should make. Yet, they did. And as Game of Thrones stumbles drunkenly towards its last two episodes, I am overcome by a deep sense of regret. What vexes so many people about the direction the show has taken in recent years is the fact that it had laid the groundwork for so much more. If Game of Thrones had always been just a decent series, no one would have minded its decline as much. But once, it had been truly spectacular. And the unwritten contract between art and its audience is one of consistency.
We got good versus evil and fire dragon facing ice dragons. But all I ever wanted was another scene as powerful as the last of the Starks leaving home, while the heart-wrenching strings of Ramin Djawadi’s soundtrack played and Winterfell burned in the background.
In the end, I do not doubt that the show will end with some absurd coronation that does little to break the wheel it once so vehemently critiqued. Game of Thrones will leave me unsatisfied, whetting my appetite for the authoritative end to a story only Martin can complete. There is little else it can do. Disappointment is inevitable for many, as we hurtle towards a premature ending — five seasons too early according to Martin.
I, however, will still tune in two more times. If only for nostalgia’s sake.
Karno Dasgupta is a contributing writer. Email him at
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