Jokerside’s occasional review sets can’t resist a game, not least the end of the Game of Thrones. The genre TV phenomenon of the 21st century set itself a steep challenge for its eighth season. Long removed from its ongoing prose source, was there any chance it could end the Game in a way that lived up to its previous highs?
We were there every week with a full review of each episode – here’s our summary of its final year.
Jump to the collected, complete reviews. *The full reviews and below summaries are riddled with spoilers, so best consult a Maester if you’re worried.*
IF THERE IS TRUTH IN ANYTHING IN WESTEROS, IT’S THAT GAME OF THRONES NEVER HAD A DRAGON IN THE NORTH’S CHANCE OF BRINGING ITS EXPANSIVE SAGA TO A CLOSE IN A WAY THAT SATISFIED EVERYONE. It’s delayed arrival, shortened episode count and boosted set of near-feature length closing chapters didn’t help in the prolonged run-up. For all the regular shocks, which lasted as the sex and violence waxed and waned, the show’s previous seven years had taken their time reaching an end game.
With that end in sight and two wars on the boil, characters with targets on their back were increasingly hard to find. Morbid as it is, abrupt deaths and the peeling of characters from the plot were integral to the show, and Thrones had carefully constructed a reputation for surprise and shock. After this season opened with two exquisite hours of build-up to man’s great battle (The alive versus the dead), the deaths that came were naturally more predictable, less heart-wrenching, and more plot-grinding. The build-up to Winterfell’s finest hour, stretching back far longer than those two opening episodes of preparation, chat and reminiscence, put it on a high pedestal. But the epic battle that took over a month to film exceeded expectations, matching surprise with survival horror and proving one of Thrones‘ true successes: introducing elements of horror and fantasy to audiences who’d normally steer clear.
Funnily enough, the expected anticlimax was derailed. Logic dictated that the Army of the Dead would be halted in their tracks in the North, but the fine-tuned, distilled battle of the Queens in the south didn’t quite engage with the expected focus.
Winter of Discontent
In the end, Game of Thrones pulled off something rather spectacular. The criticism of the lighting during Episode 3‘s Last Great Battle of Winterfell (we hope) was batted away by the cinematographer but proved to be a warning shot. In between the errant coffee cups and plastic water bottles that made their way onto the screen, the character arc for the Khaleesi of the people Daenerys Targaryen was the focus for mounting ire.
Thrones’ pre-eminent position meant there were a lot of smiths sticking their irons in the fire and unusually, a large number who followed the books and more who don’t. The harshest critics were in the minority, but they roared like a Lannister and cast a light on the extraordinary state of new fandom, where a bitter taste of entitlement drowning out reasoned responses. It’s hardly restricted to fandom, but it’s particular galling to us becuase the presumption that stories must comply with an individual or group expectation and can be remade to do so doesn’t fuel creativity. Quite the opposite.
Thrones‘ high-profile meant external reaction had to filter into our reviews to evaluate the show as a story and a phenomenon. Books and spin-off media aside, Thrones is far more than a television show.
Dream of spring
Come the finale, any hope that fans all across the realms of man could be united had been dashed. But showrunners David Benioff & D. B. Weiss were surely steeled for the impossible job of ending the Game. They delivered a finale of extreme ambiguity that’s evoked extreme reactions and will endure decades of analysis. Hopefully, the final two books of the saga will have arrived by then.
In our review of the fourth episode, inspired by Thrones‘ legendary title sequence, we semi-joked that the saga could end with hands moving chess pieces in and out of place. It’s more than implied by the changing armillary that opens each show; the positioning of pieces has often been blatant throughout the seasons and was particularly evident in the shortened, quickened final run. Those hands never appeared, but the common prediction that the in-universe record of events A Song of Fire and Ice would appear in the arms of Samwell Tarley came true. It was far slimmer than the books series of course, but that’s probably down to excising Tyrion Lannister from the story. That’s the last great joke of the show, along with his final line, both at the cost of the show’s most important character – and thanks to Peter Dinklage’s performance, a huge part of the show’s success.
To summarise why, here’s out story by story rating and summary – see the end for our overall season score.
Episode 8.1: Winterfell
“What is dead may never die… But kill the bastards anyway”.
A saying often heard from followers of the Drowned God, true. But it also sums up the steep challenge facing this season of Game of Thrones. The small screen phenomenon may be immortal, but it still has to end. When Varys points out that “nothing lasts”, it’s like the show’s easing us into the inevitable. It’s gentle of course, we don’t want horses ruined for us.
So, we can excuse them a bit more of a build-up. For all that hanging sense of an ending, this is a quietly sublime opening that cranks down rather than cranks up. Its brilliance is in the simplest touch or look. The past catching up with “old friend” Ser Jaime when he sees Bran Stark; Cersei’s game-playing reaction to Euron’s gauche promise of a prince; the brief wallop and make-up of the Greyjoy reunion; Samwell’s distracted lack of small talk. Compact and minimal, the opener relies on the immense goodwill that the audience has invested in these characters as it serves up reunion after reunion, but can’t feel like anything greater than a damn fine prologue.
The real dragonglass isn’t in the foreword, but the punchline. When Jamie meets the daughter of the king he slew; When Cersei commands the Golden Company; When Theon finds final redemption at Winterfell; When Jon next sees Daenerys. Only GoT can afford a prologue like this and imbue it with such craft. Inevitably, sign me up.
Episode 8.2: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms
“Last Man alive, burn the rest of us”
At 25 minutes to go, the show lurches into gear with the news that the dead will arrive by dawn. Hang on, dead by dawn? Lurching from prologue to self-analysis Thrones manages to serve up one of the most quotable and multi-layered episodes I can remember.
Wandering around Winterfell you bump into people you’ve almost forgotten. Like the Hound and Beric, which almost makes it feel like no one has ever died on the show and next week will be a riot with chips of ice flying everywhere.
But no, the weight of eight seasons is painfully present. For all the preposterousness of the Bran Job (the plan to bait the Night King), the weight of baggage is clear. The journey of every character is enhanced or solidified. Some are only able to reminisce and hope for redemption — Jamie. Some are trapped — Tyrion. Some have lost life — Arya. Some are earning life — Brienne. You may think that Lannisters are more interesting than Starks, Old Targaryans more interesting than new, young Mormonts far more preferable to old. But none can escape the past of their Houses. The shift from jumping geography to extolling existentialism is so well done you almost don’t miss the former – and that was a Thrones trademark.
‘Things we do for Love’ – unsurprisingly for such a central tenet, although a rare example of spiky-Bran – carries a different weight for every character. But that title, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, is the kicker. It captures the siege mentality, what everyone is fighting for, the existential plight of Man, as well as the knighting of Ser Brienne. If you don’t think that is one of Game of Thrones greatest moments you’re absolutely watching the wrong show. That look on Brienne’s face!
It’s great to see Tyrion properly back on the wine if not the whoremongering but the episode drops a rating because Varys doesn’t utter a word.
“I hope we win”
Episode 8.3: The Long Night
“What do we say to the god of death? Not today”
Could The Long Night have achieved top marks if Syrio Forel had made a surprise reappearance? No… Arya could have never achieved her destiny without the teachings of the greatest sword in the world. He was there in spirit and in truth – and the battle of The Long Night is exactly that. A simple trajectory through the biggest action sequence in the show’s history, it’s relentless and lives up to its hype as survival horror. Scalps fall, but they also fall predictably and a little confusingly. None of them make you bolt like a dire wolf at an army of the undead and that’s how history will remember this episode.
The Bran Job (as we dubbed the Night King’s heist) gives an easy out and one that in hindsight Weiss and Benioff had to rein into to sharper focus during the final half of the season. That an undead creator’s death takes his spawn with him isn’t new to horror, but it’s a one-sided convenience, despite the ‘living’ importance of the Three-Eyed Raven. For all the prophecy, if the Night King hadn’t have underestimated his young, flying assassin, the death of Arya Stark wouldn’t have respawned everyone she ever killed. And that really would have been a shock. Considering the levelling of Greensight, the Old Gods of the Forest and Lord of Light that runs neatly through the episode the resolution seems a little off. We’ll forgive it for that wonderfully blunt and morbid ending that metes out justice to the episode’s Deus ex machina.
Once again conspiracy theorists have to accept that things almost always follow the simplest route, as they form further theories around the saga’s new centre, Arya Stark.
11 weeks, 55 days, tough weather and some very long nights. It was all worth it – The Long Night is an astounding moment in television history. That rating is a vote of confidence in what’s to come.
Episode 8.4: The Last of the Starks
“You seem determined to dislike her”
The Baratheon’s are back! Frankly, that’s all that matters. All Gendry needs to do is grow a beard quick-smart and the Iron Throne is his. He may be the best shot considering the alliances that are falling to tatters all around him. The greatest splinter is down to Jon Snow, fittingly appearing at the celebratory banquet as the metaphorical thorn between two roses. By the end of this episode, following last week’s assault on the senses, the perception of Jon, Daenerys and Sansa – through their and each other’s actions – have all changed. But come the end, is Sansa’s role so diminished it’s reduced to a scolding truth for her former husband? Has Jon’s luck of judgement finally run out? Is Daenerys really so fallible and likely to come unstuck on Westeros?
This episode is quote heavy once again, but not pithy. We’re used to the grit of scheming but never with so few pieces on the board and such direct moves to make. This episode is the bridge between the Great War and the Last war as we’re told, and it really feels like it.
“They should know who to blame when the sky falls down upon them”
Jon’s secret is the necessary discord heading into the endgame and that’s just as well. Thrones could never rely on whittling things down to a binary choice or stacking sympathies too far on one side. Daenerys has to do something horrible, something despicably, unambiguously outrageous to fuel a satisfying resolution and this is the episode that makes it all possible. We are left with Cersei pitched as protector and Daenerys forced to massacre.
Just as last week’s episode may fade in time and the glow of the full series, this episode may prove to be its most pivotal. The odds are shortening, but like that great new band you discover before they become hugely popular and ubiquitous, Thrones has changed. There’s the sense of giant hands moving the pieces on the chessboard. I really hope, given that title sequence, that’s exactly how Thrones ends.
Episode 8.5: The Bells
“Seems like a fair trade…”
I’m marking this one up because it’s the moment many fans turned on their precious Thrones, and waiddaminute, if rumours are to believed, even the cast? It was always going to be a Game of Just Cannot Win. Some may see their favourite characters shifting to fit a condensed resolution, but the other point of view, mine, is that their fulfilling their true character. Did anyone ever really think that the perfect Queen from the East was going to win in a clean and clear way? Julia Gillard can put her hand down. Both Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister have revenge in Daenerys’ victory.
This season may be ticking a number of boxes in predictable ways, narrowing the field until a few key players are left, but that’s no bad thing on the way to a satisfying conclusion. Drogon’s wall break proves there are still some surprises to come. Yes, there’s a little too much coincidence, most of it hidden in the spectacle, but Euron Greyjoy’s coincidental arrival at the smugglers cove Davos (the greatest smuggler!) had specially chosen was worth it for his gloating final words.
It isn’t the best scripted or paced episode in the show’s history — too much time is spent away from characters (Jon Snow) while others are left adrift (Ser Davos). But it still manages to wrap up the War of the Seven Kingdoms in 64 minutes and find time for Arya Stark emerge from the apocalypse to meet a white steed like Deckard dreaming up a Unicorn. In here are scenes and shots that will haunt the rest of our televisual days, you can count on that. This is Thrones’ Pompeii and it doesn’t flinch from it. Things have never been greyer and as the last of the Lions, I’ve got a good feeling about a not particularly innocent dwarf.
Whether the future belongs to the bastard, the imp or No One, as the bell tower falls, there isn’t one character who walks away from this episode unscathed.
Episode 8.6: The Iron Throne
“Was it right what I did? It doesn’t feel right.”
A send-off that lets eight years of build-up carry the weight. What’s the answer to the Game of Thrones? Turns out it’s the satisfying, the obvious, the unpredictable, and the strangely preachy political, all mixed together in a way that’s deceptively neat.
Has Thrones done itself a disservice by making its many layers so easy to dismiss? By polarising the game of rule with the game of love? I’d say not. It’s been a pleasure to watching the rise of the villain, and thrilling to realise it in the company of characters like Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. Characters we’ve seen develop from dopey youth to the most important martyr in the kingdom and from and brothel dweller to pining for brothels, jackasses and honeycomb respectively.
Thrones has been a phenomenon. Even Avengers Endgame, oddly completing a decade-long cycle of similar zeitgeisty proportions this spring could keep spoilers at bay. Not so the Game, where plot points made headlines before episodes had even aired in the US.
The pressure was great, but Thrones refused to serve up the easiest route even if some of the steps it took to get there were less than perfect. There’s the hint of real progressiveness in its willful breaking of narrative. Not everyone’s going to see its determination to leave many of its characters in uncertainty that way but it looks like a fitting achievement to me. This is how an extraordinary journey ends, not with a bang but a whimper. That said, for all its success, the finale never reaches the elegiac heights it should.
Closing where it all began, with a journey north of the wall, a sprig of a shoot heralds a little bit more than A Dream of Spring. That’s the title of the final and as yet unwritten book of Martin’s series. And that should be proof enough that The Song of Fire and Ice, whether breaking the fourth wall of the King’s small council, winning plaudits and ratings for HBO, or continuing to forge its own path on the page, still presents plenty of alternatives for its characters alive, dead and undead.
If there’s anyone who doesn’t believe that what unites people is a good story, that should ease the pain.
Average Series rating : A
An A, but only just. It would have been well on the money had Varys had more lines. Even the rightful reassertion of the Baratheons can’t make up for that.
Destined to rive its loyal fans asunder, that season rating speaks for itself. Game of Thrones Season 8 was bold and brilliant for the majority of its run. The proof is in an ending that leaves half its audience believing it reached a safe and obvious conclusion… And the other half, us, who believes it deliberately broke its characters to find a rewarding and fitting false-ending that arguably leaves the kingdom in a worst position.
Strung between the progressive futurism of Tyrion Lannister, the past-knowledge of Bran the Broken, and the challenge of nurture versus nature that Ned Stark took on in surprising circumstances a coupe of decades before, things are far less pretty than the carry-on council meeting we leave in King’s Landing.
A dragon on the loose, the worst small council in history, a king who’d rather be off warging, democracy dashed, a hero broken knowing he was wrong to kill his Queen, and strident steps to break the wheel and bring equality to the kingdom reduced to a love-lost knight and an an ambitious Queen in an independent North who wouldn’t hesitate to fight to protect her interests.
Yeah, that’s happy alright. As spring arrives, it’s exactly what we hoped for.