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Game of Thrones and the Series Finale Debate

by John Aquino on 05/24/19

Having read what seems like hundreds of posts and articles from fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones about how unsuccessful the series finale was, I have some comments that come with a caveat

My caveat is that I have not followed the series devotedly for its eight seasons. This might strike some who know me as odd in that I studied medieval drama and literature in college, acted in one of the medieval mystery plays, and, having been a reader of Arthurian literature, wrote Camelot stories that have been published. I haven't read George R. R. Martin's Game of Throne novels and have not seen every episode of the series, most likely because my family dealt with several illnesses over the last decade and my journalism and legal work have been demanding. The episode I remember most, not surprisingly, which I clicked on without knowing about it, was the season five finale, in which Cersei's is made to walk with a shaved head and naked through narrow streets while the crowd throws mud and stones at her. (The event was modeled on the "penance walk" King Edward IV's mistress Jane Shore was made to take after his death, although she was wearing a kirtle or slip.) I later found out that the actress playing Cersei, Lena Headey didn't disrobe and that the effect was achieved by a body double and CGI (computer-generated imagery).

I did watch the last two episodes, "The Bells" and "The Iron Throne." Without being steeped in the characters, I was able to follow it pretty well. The former wasn't very suspenseful--whichever side has the Drogon is going to win, but the special effects were well done, the acting in both episodes was good, and, with all of the bloody fighting in "The Bells," "The Iron Throne" seemed rather tame and anti-climactic. Obviously, if I had invested eight years of viewing every episode and becoming attached to the characters, I would been more prone to find flaws, just as I have of other series finales.

I have written on these pages about my disappointment in the series finales of Seinfeld and How I Met Your Mother. For the former, I complained that, while it was clear throughout the run that the characters were selfish and self-centered, having the series end with their being imprisoned for being selfish and self-centered (they laughed at a man being mugged and so violated a local statute enacted after Princess Diana died while photographers took pictures of her dying without rendering aid) had comical conceits crashing bang-zoom-bang against real life issues. I wrote that by the same measure the classic tv series I Love Lucy should have ended with Lucy in a straitjacket in an institution where she was sent because she did such crazy things. I can imagine the Seinfeld writers feeling quite pleased with themselves for being so clever, even though the end result is that the audience was being told it was foolish to have become invested in these selfish people. As to How I Met Your Mother, Ted in 2030 tells his children the story of the events from 2006 to 2015 leading up to his meeting their mother. We know the mother isn't Robin because he refers to her in talking to the children as "Aunt Robin." In the last season, we finally seen the children's mother-to-be, who is lovable, only to hear in the last episode that she died in 2024. Ted's children tell him that his story wasn't about how he met their mother but how he was in love with Robin, whom he then rushes to find and renew their relationship. And so, the children tell us that the title of the series is wrong, and we watch a character we've become attached to die of cancer.

Part of the explanation for the Mother series finale is that all the scenes with the actors playing Ted's children were filmed in the first season before they aged out of their parts. Over the next half-dozen years, the characters developed in ways not initially imagined, and we got to meet the mother. Why the show' creators felt that killing off the mother would ever be acceptable is beyond me.

Something similar appears to have happened with Game of Thrones. The characters developed over the eight seasons, and audience members became attached to them. The makers of the show had already filmed all of the novels Martin has written so far and were making up the rest of the story, although Martin was listed as an adviser. He told them how the novel series is going to end, but also gave them the authority to develop popular characters more and to kill off whatever characters they wanted. After the finale aired, the show's makers said it has ended the way they always envisioned it. They appear to have zigged when they should have zagged.

Fans have complained that the final season felt rushed, that (SPOILER ALERT) Daenerys Targaryen was suddenly transformed from a heroine to a mass murdered, that Jon Snow determined that the only way to deal with her transformation was to stab her to death, that Cersei and Jamie are killed together but not in battle but rather by falling rocks as a result of the Drogon destroying everything by fire, and that the Night King was killed off half way through season 8..

When a series is based on finished books or dramas, there is usually an acceptance of the ending. Deviating from the published ending will devastate the devoted. But when the series develops from year to year and is contingent on renewal, the ending can be fluid and some people will be disappointed that their favorite character is killed off or doesn't marry the heroine. 

Some series finales have been well received. I liked the endings of M*A*S*H and Star Trek: The Next Generation, which were ingenious and true to the characters..(Conversely, although I was glad the ship returned home, I felt the ending of Starship Voyager was rushed.) Everyone talks about the ending of Newhart being so great, but to me all it shows is that Newhart was the weaker of Bob Newhart's two series and that no one complained that all of the events of Newhart were a dream in the mind of Newhart's character from the earlier series. He was shown in bed with his first series wife played by Suzanne Pleshette. I have always felt sorry for his second series wife played by Mary Frann for the Newhart's eight seasons, being shown by viewers and critics that it was all right that her character didn't exist. From a surprise perspective, the ending of Newhart was clever. As an ending to the series, it was, of course, terrible.

Good series finales are possible. They only ever happen if the makers of the show and not the ratings decide the time has come to say goodbye. If the those who write the ending treat the characters and the audience with respect, the finale works. Otherwise, how can it?

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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