The popular meme going around is that everyone was very disappointed by – even angry about – the Game of Thrones final season, particularly the last episode. Actual statistics reveal a different story. Almost half of the viewers were satisfied with the series and only about one third felt “sad” about the final season. An impressive 44% loved the series from start to finish (see here).
I felt sad AND loved the series from start to finish.
Clearly a very negative meme about GoT emerged over the last couple seasons. But this was to be expected. Few shows can maintain such an extraordinarily high degree of hype for more than five seasons (let alone eight) without being turned upon by popular culture, regardless of the quality. It actually surprises me that as many as 44% of viewers remained satisfied to the end. Count me among that 44 percent.
I acknowledge that people have valid reasons for complaint. While the negativity is not limited to the final episode, the series finale certainly left a lot to be desired. It seemed like a hastily constructed effort to wrap up a series that had been suddenly and unexpectedly cancelled. It was not fully fleshed out and lacked any epic twists or surprises. No bigger-than-life heroes emerged to allow the viewer to reach satisfying closure after all the preceding sadness and horror.
But much of what disappointed many is precisely what impressed me. I credit the authors and producers for not caving under pressure from vocal fans and critics. They stayed true to the story and to the characters. Game of Thrones was never a Tolkien-esque fantasy nor a superhero blockbuster. It was essentially a Greek tragedy, populated with powerful yet deeply flawed people who could never hope to live up to the expectations that others placed upon them, or in the case of Daenerys, her own unrealistic expectations. The games of the powerful were never noble and their machinations and best efforts only resulted in senseless, horrendous war and suffering.
That was the story.
The series ended exactly as it should have ended, overwhelmed by appalling misery and death. No heroes emerged because there never were any. There were only tragic figures who had no hope of overcoming their baser natures. Jon could never be the hero we wanted him to be. All he was ever capable of was one craven dagger thrust before slinking off into anonymity. Jamie was always a fool for his cold-hearted sister and it was fitting that he expired with his head on her bosom as she gazed away with deathly-cold disinterest. Tyrian remained a soft-hearted fool to the end, transferring his hopes from one flawed leader to another. The emotionally stunted woman that Sansa became was little improved from the self-serving child we first met in Winterfell. Likewise, her sister Arya sailed away from her story arc, from all her promise, without distinction, again running away from relationships and responsibilities just as she had always done.
The only character to show consistent courage and wisdom was Varys, and he met an ignominious end leaving behind no brilliantly laid plans to save the kingdom from beyond the grave. There was one character, albeit a minor one, whose arc was about overcoming hardship and finding heroism, and that was Sandor Clegane. He suffered through horrendous adversity with dignity and became the unlikely anti-hero who battled his soulless monstrosity of a brother to the death. This had no significant effect on world events, however.
The Game of Thrones series lived and died just like its characters – tragically. It had great promise, but it never could be what we hoped or wanted or needed or would have liked it to be. It could never live up to our hopes and expectations for it. It could never make us feel good or give us a happy ending, let alone a satisfying ending. It was all about the senselessness of war and the folly of human beings, and the series could not leave us with any more than that.
Game of Thrones was an unflinching and uncompromising depiction of a humanity tragically inadequate to the challenges of their day. Their failures were vividly brought to life through amazing visual storytelling. Like its characters, the series was all it was meant to be, all it could be. It painted no rosy pictures and remained true to the end. Its greatest disappointment is perhaps that it depicted too much reality and not enough fantasy.
Game of Thrones is a cautionary saga that makes me hope that our humanity can face the existential challenges of our day, like Global Climate Change, with more courage and wisdom than those larger-than-life “heroes” of the Seven Kingdoms.