Squawk Box: Game of Thrones

Storytime, dear readers: Once upon a time when I was a young reader and lover of all things fantasy, I fell very deeply in love with The Wheel of Time, which ended up being fourteen books long and was building to what I'm sure was going to be a deeply satisfying finale to the series when it's author, Robert Jordan, died.

Now, I bear no ill will for Mr. Jordan. It's not his fault he died and eventually, they found someone (a very good someone, Brandon Sanderson as it turned out) to finish the series and it ended very, very well. But at the time, I felt a bit chapped by it all, so when Game of Thrones became a thing in the cultural zeitgeist, I made a solemn vow: I would not watch the television show until the books were all the way done.

Needless to say, I have broken that vow. I'm going to blame TikTok and their stupid trend of showing you bits and pieces of shows until finally you break down and watch the whole damn thing-- I had watched so much of House of the Dragon that I figured I might as well get on HBO Max and watch the whole damn thing- which I did and eventually, I thought, why the hell not-- I might as well see what all the fuss was about, so I went ahead and watched Game of Thrones.

I'm going to assume that everyone has a passing familiarity with the show, but on the off chance you don't, consider this your spoiler warning. I'm also going to approach this from a 'big picture' point of view, as this is going to cover the whole series and I don't want to get bogged down in spelling out plot developments otherwise this will be the longest review in the world. Instead, I think I want to think of this in terms of character arcs over the course of the entire show.

The winner to me, of the titular Game of Thrones, ended up being Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). I also think she had the best character arc over the course of the series-- though she spent like half a season too long in King's Landing- but once Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) got her out of King's Landing- implicating her in the murder of King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) in the process, things began to move for her at a brisk and well-written clip. She gets more or less sold to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) to be married off (again by Littlefinger) but once she is freed of that, you can tell the experience has altered her for good- she has, in her own words, 'grown up' and thanks to an education in manipulation and power politics from Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), and Littlefinger she outmaneuvers both of them, undermines Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) when she returns to Westeros to try and reclaim the Iron Throne and ultimately, asks for and gets independence for the north and she gets to be Queen. She, in the end, wins and her arc over the course of the series is immensely satisfying. She manages to go from one of my least favorite characters to one of the best in the show. 

Slotting in just behind her, I think, is Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) who starts the show making no secret of his love of wine and whores and follows Jon Snow (Kit Harington) to the Wall where he takes a piss off the edge of the world. We immediately find out he's got depths though, as he takes the time to give the Starks a design for a saddle mount for Bran once he hears of the boy's paralysis. He is made the Hand of the King (to Joffrey) and is good at it-- successfully defending the city from the invasion fleet of Stannis Baratheon, only to be almost killed and then replaced by the one man whom he cannot challenge or stand up to-- his father, Tywin (Charles Dance- who is excellent in the role.) Cast out and believing himself to be set up for failure, he winds up being accused of the murder of Joffrey (helped by the fact that his then-wife, Sansa fled King's Landing) and, freed by Jamie, his brother (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), he flees across the ocean and finds himself serving as Hand of the Queen, specifically Daenerys but he knows to get out when the going is good and manages to avoid getting flamed by a dragon, but is instrumental- and I understand the hatred for Season 8, I do, but he is instrumental in changing the politics of Westeros- if not forever, then certainly for the moment by selecting Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) as the new King. In short, he's something of a see-saw-- gaining power, losing it, getting it back, losing it again, but ultimately getting it back for good at the cost of his entire family, which he desperately wants to be a part of, but isn't allowed to be because of his dwarfism- in the end, he's the Lannister that wins and that's no mean feat, considering the length of the show.

Picking a third arc is difficult, but I might have to give it to Arya (Maisie Williams). Her desire for revenge almost sees her cheese slip off her cracker, but I like the fact that she- with the help of the Hound (Rory McCann) rediscovers her humanity at the last and does her best to try and save people in King's Landing when it's being destroyed. I know I've seen people argue pretty passionately online that she shouldn't have been the one to kill The Night King, but of all the things about Season 8 that bothered me, that one ranked relatively low on the list. Her best moments do come in the back half of the series though- when she faces down Faceless Men in Braavos and declares that she is Arya Stark and decides to go home-- excellent moment. Loved it. When she returns to Winterfell and she freaks Sansa right out with her bag of faces (also her revenge for the Red Wedding is delicious as well)- it seems like the pinnacle of the 'has her cheese slipped off its cracker' speculation, but the way the tables are turned on Littlefinger makes it clear: Arya stands with her family first.  Her ending is probably the weakest part: she just sails off to explore the world? Okay, bye then! 

Arcs that didn't work for me-

First is Jamie Lannister. So close, so, so agonizingly close to being an excellent redemption arc for him, but in the end, he can't quit Cersei (Lena Headey) and winds up going back to her despite the pleas of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie.) Maybe Jamie's death was important for Tyrion's ultimate 'victory' as being the Lannister that lives, but he could have died in so many better ways had he not done so in a doomed attempt to rescue Cersei- you could argue that his death at the hands of Daenerys could have slipped Cersei's cheese off it's cracker and then you have one last confrontation between two mad queens- but the fact that she was pregnant probably always meant that he was going to try and go back to her. The incest of it all aside, he genuinely did love his children- but his decision to go back to Cersei was jarring. And came out of nowhere. 

Second, is Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane)-- as a character, I rather enjoyed him. He comes across as kind of a humorless prick at times, but he's got a thing for Melisandre and he genuinely loves his daughter and respects Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) despite the fact that Davos does not trust or like Melisandre all that much. I don't have an issue with him being taken out by Brienne-- in fact, his whole "Well, do your duty" is a great way to go out. But what bothered me was the fact that suddenly, after protecting and defending his daughter and seeing that the Lord of Light isn't always right, he's convinced to burn her at the stake? Didn't feel right to me at all. I would have had the wife suggesting that and then Stannis stopping it- too late to save her, but pulling her out of the flames before they had done their work would have made the whole 'Lord of Light' business a little more consistent and explained why he lost the battle. 

Finally, you've got a tie between the two Queens.

Cersei's arc peaked a little too soon, I think. Having fallen into a trap of her own making by turning religious fanatics, led by the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) against the Tyrrells, she finds herself first a prisoner, then humiliated and forced to walk naked through the streets of King's Landing to 'atone' for her sins and then she gets her revenge on everyone by blowing up the entire High Septon. (I have a co-worker who likes to listen to 'Light of the Seven'- the musical score as background music sometimes and for years, I have referred to it as 'the piano apocalypse' It more than lived up to the billing finally watching it in person.) That moment, to me, was Peak Cersei. Everything that followed just kind of... meh. 

Daenerys, on the other hand, gets kind of shafted by the show in the end. You could argue that doing things like crucifying the slave masters or butchering the nobility in Mereen was meant to show that maybe she wasn't as stable as a table like they all thought- but the difference there is that she punishes the guilty- or those who she perceives as guilty to win the affection of the populace at large. It doesn't always work for her- as we see in Mereen where the Sons of the Harpy were not happy with her at all and almost overthrew her completely. You kind of see them laying the groundwork for her cheese slipping off her cracker when she returns to Westeros-- she burns Samwell Tarly's father and brother alive. She roasts Varys alive. But... if her brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd) is the template for Targaryen's twitchiness and insanity, she never once shows signs of that and just letting her dragon run amuck and burn everyone was a decision that made absolutely no sense based on where the character had been over the course of the show. It was not, in any way, earned, to me. This should have come down to Cersei and Daenerys to me, with Jon killing Cersei to be forced into exile after Cersei kills Daenerys-- but anything but her just flipping out and being like 'BURN EVERYTHING' would have done this character more justice. 

So now that we've talked about arcs, I suppose we should get to what the show did really, really well. First of all, casting Diana Rigg as Lady Olenna was probably the best thing this show ever did. She was brilliant in the role and I especially liked the interactions between her and Tywin Lannister and her ending-- "Tell Cersei. I want her to know it was me." Just... *Chef's Kiss* perfect! A million out of 10. No notes. Easily one of the best characters in the entire show.

Second, The Red Wedding. I knew this was coming because the Internet never shuts up but to me, seeing it in the moment at that time has to be a little bit like watching The Crying Game before you ever see Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The shock. The surprise. The holy shit, the carnage-- so shocking. Arya's revenge a few seasons later: so earned.

Third, the Battle of the Bastards: This was the best battle in the entire show and probably the best battle since the Lord of the Rings movies-- at least from a fantasy point of view. I loved how it managed to give you an intimate view of the chaos and blood while at the same time showing you a further out view of the battle itself. There were some real stakes here and while the good guys won- with the help of Littlefinger and the Knights of the Vale, I don't think the show came anywhere close to matching it with anything that came after.

(Also, honorable mentions to Littlefinger for "Chaos is a ladder" and the way his uppence finally came due at the hands of Arya. Very satisfying.)

Which brings us to the greatest of elephants in the proverbial room: Season 8.

I understand the hate for this season, I do. It was very obviously rushed. It wasn't structured well. You go from one, big, final, 'this could be the end of the world' kind of battle, to... back to the infighting and knife fighting and the politics. It felt like they frontloaded the important things and everything else felt like a long exhale to the end. Distances also ceased to mean anything, as it turns out a dragon can fly very very fast to a point north of the wall to rescue Jon Snow. (To be fair, here: this could have been a sign of Daenerys' cheese slipping off her cracker, because it was, quite frankly, a batshit insane thing for a Queen to do.) Jamie Lannister went back to Cersei. Jon Snow killed Daenerys. They made Bran King- which I guess I'm okay with, but honestly-- 'meh'. The only correct decision was making Sansa Queen in the North. Everything else was, frankly, questionable as hell.

Even more so when we get the revelation of Jon Snow's actual parentage. Don't get me wrong- the fact that he's the secret heir to the throne and a Targaryen didn't bother me-- though I haven't read it, it does mirror the books a little bit and the old Maester at the wall was a Targaryen as well, so in hindsight, they telegraphed the fact that there could be more than one Targaryen lying around from the jump. What bothered me was this: essentially all the war and blood and death boils down to the fact that Ned Stark kept the parentage of Jon Snow to himself because Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) was forced to marry someone he didn't like (and who didn't like him) all that much. On the one hand-- it didn't drag the show down- at least in Season 8- but the more you think about it, the more it bothers you. Ned, at any point, could have been like, "Hey, brah, you're actually not a bastard at all." But didn't. That to me is in keeping with the Stark thing about honor and family-- as he promised to keep his sister's secret- but at the same time, it's also an issue because it kind of undermines the entire show to a certain degree.

Overall: I'm glad I broke my vow and actually watched this show. I think- we'll have to see to be sure- but I think it might have gone a long way in making fantasy get treated at least somewhat seriously by studios and for that, its impact on pop culture can never be diminished. Whether it spin-offs itself to death, I don't know. House of the Dragon seems to be off to a strong start and I don't mind it, as it's a prequel and it works. Seasons 1-7 were some amazing television. Season 8 was rushed, kind of a mess, and ended it in ways that I was largely just okay with, but they did technically, wrap everything up into a bow. It wasn't a very pretty bow, mind you, but it was... something. Amazing cast- even the minor characters had some amazing moments. Detailed world, costumes, sets, everything. It was just gorgeous to watch and I enjoyed it immensely. 

My Grade: Seasons 1-7 **** out of ****

Season 8 ** 1/2 out of ****

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