Game of Thrones isn’t considered one of the greatest TV shows ever made, but it could have been had the series run for longer. The final two years of the HBO behemoth bore witness to a downturn in quality (at least in the eyes of critics and fans), with problems that could’ve been solved by drawing the story out more.
The issues were most prevalent in the recent eighth and final season, where the negativity around Game of Thrones truly took hold. Across all viable metrics - except, of course, ratings - the show was worse off, with its scores on platforms such as Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and IMDb plummeting. Some of this was driven by fan outrage at certain events and the way they were portrayed: the dark turn of Daenerys, Jaime Lannister going back to Cersei, Dany forgetting about the Iron Fleet, and the infamous coffee cup.
There was some great work in Game of Thrones’ eighth season, but it definitely wasn’t as strong as its peak (seasons 3-4). Few shows are consistent for so long, but Game of Thrones is unique in that its own decline was by choosing to wrap-up prematurely, rather than outstaying its welcome.
Game Of Thrones Isn’t Considered An All-Time Great
Opinion obviously vary on what the greatest TV show of all time is. For many, Game of Thrones does belong very highly in a list of personal favorites, but the flaws are too numerable and well documented for it to really sit in the pantheon of the all-time greats. That’s not to doubt its brilliance, and opinion may shift over time, but Game of Thrones isn’t talked about with the same reverence as shows such as The Wire or The Sopranos.
These series are considered the pinnacle of TV’s Golden Age: the best of the best. They may not have enjoyed the same blockbuster audiences that Game of Thrones did, but they’re treated like sacred texts by most TV addicts. They’re Washington and Lincoln on television's Mount Rushmore. It's a sort of universally acknowledged cultural agreement, in the same form of greatness attributed to The Beatles or The Godfather Parts I & II.
Game of Thrones, for all it helped change what TV could be and did things no other series ever had before, isn’t in that conversation. Even the next shows on the list, such as Breaking Bad and Deadwood, generally seem to hold a greater sense of reverence, at least in critical circles. If we take each show’s Rotten Tomatoes score as an example, then The Wire and Breaking Bad have 96% each, Deadwood has 95%, and The Sopranos 92% in critics ratings. It’s similar in audience scores too, with those shows pulling in 96%, 97%, 95%, and 97% respectively. Game of Thrones currently sits on 89% from critics, and 86% from audiences. Rotten Tomatoes is very much an imperfect system, but alongside the general cultural conversation around the shows, it does help highlight how Game of Thrones isn’t quite in that illustrious conversation as it stands. But it could have been.
Game Of Thrones Seasons 7 & 8 Tarnished The Show’s Legacy
At one point, Game of Thrones did appear on track to be considered one of the greatest TV shows ever made. The ever-growing fanbase (both those who’d read the books and those who hadn’t) were satisfied, and it received great critical acclaim too. It’s had some inconsistencies along the way - season 5, not 7 or 8, is really Game of Thrones' worst year - but it largely survived these without much damage to its reputation. But its final two seasons, and 8 in particular, have served to severely tarnish its legacy.
Again, looking at Rotten Tomatoes as a very rough guide, Game of Thrones’ average critic score across seasons 1-7 is 94%, whereas it’s 58% for season 8. It’s difficult for a show to be considered an all-time great when one of its seasons is ‘rotten’, for example. But this goes beyond just numbers. Season 8 saw a huge backlash to the Game of Thrones, dominating the conversation both online and at the watercooler. It was reminiscent of the response to The Last Jedi in terms of how big it felt, only this time with more critics siding against it, and how divided the fanbase seemed to be.
However, for the problems with season 8, it’s season 7 that should be held to account. It was ahead of this season that Game of Thrones’ showrunners, David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, decided to truncate the final two seasons. And it was in this season where those issues with pacing and logic are far more egregious (there’s nothing in season 8 quite so bad as the double whammy of the Sansa/Arya/Littlefinger story and the mission to capture a wight). Across these two seasons, even though it’s still good TV by most standards, Game of Thrones’ quality - and importantly, perception of it at large - took a real blow, tarnishing its great reputation. People might have been mad or confused at The Sopranos’ series finale, and The Wire’s fifth season was a little messier than what came before, but neither had the sort of prolonged dip Thrones did.
Game Of Thrones’ Biggest Problems Would’ve Been Fixed By More Seasons
Perhaps the worst thing about the issues in Game of Thrones seasons 7 & 8 is that they were ultimately avoidable. When it was first announced that there were just 13 episodes left, people naturally assumed it was because of budget or the scale of production. However, HBO revealed they would’ve happily paid whatever the cost to keep Game of Thrones on air for longer. The production was massive, and cast members might have wanted to do other things, but again with high salaries and the knowledge they were making something special, it would’ve been workable. Instead, the choice came straight down to Benioff & Weiss.
It’s understandable. The showrunners had given 10 years of their lives to Game of Thrones. It was a production unlike any other, and they had to be there for everything, across multiple countries. There’s the temptation to move on, and to end it quickly so as to not outstay your welcome. But had they chosen to take Game of Thrones to 10 seasons, as George R.R. Martin himself wanted, the response likely would’ve been much more positive.
The major problems can all be traced back to pacing. Arcs that would have normally taken whole seasons were covered in just a couple of episodes. The story moved from A-B-Z in the blink of an eye. Game of Thrones worked best with the slow-build storylines, but that wasn’t possible in just six or seven episodes. Extending the final two seasons to 10 episodes each would have helped, but more seasons would’ve been even better.
This change would have given Game of Thrones a full season for the build-up to the White Walkers, and then 10 episodes in which to fight them and set up the next stage. It could have then had an entire run against Cersei, in which Dany’s turn can be fully seeded, and finally 10 hours with which to deliver that arc and wrap things up. Everything gets more room to breathe, and those major character developments and plotlines are easier for fans to comprehend. It’s a risk: very few shows, especially dramas, have gone so long and stayed great. But no show had a better chance than Game of Thrones, given the budget behind it and the talent involved, and how its issues all came down to shortening, not lengthening, the series.
Game Of Thrones Didn't Need A Perfect Ending - It Needed A Good One
When looking at season 8, that itself started out well enough. "Winterfell" was a typical opener, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" is a top 10 episode of Game of Thrones, and "The Long Night", while dark, delivered the kind of insane spectacle nothing else can match. It wasn't quite as well-received as previous battle episodes, but Game of Thrones wasn't at panic stations either. It was when it turned towards its endgame that things really soured with fans and critics alike.
To a degree, this was unavoidable. Game of Thrones was a show too big, with too much investment from people who all wanted and expected different things, that there was always going to be a section of fans that hated the ending. It was just anticipated to be a minority, not the consensus. The series finale is the biggest target of fans’ ire, with controversial decisions including Daenerys’ death and Bran Stark being named King. With more time, people might’ve been more willing to accept those decisions, but it’s also true that Game of Thrones didn’t need a perfect ending - it just needed a good one.
Most of what’s in "The Iron Throne" is likely to be in Martin’s A Dream of Spring too (if it’s ever finished). On the page, fans are likely to be far more accepting of these fates, so why did people turn against the show’s conclusion? Again, the problems lie not in the ideas, but the execution. Dany’s turn and demise, the destruction of the Iron Throne, Jaime’s return to Cersei, Bran’s coronation, Jon going back beyond the Wall and so on are all rooted in things the show has said and done previously. But because the final seasons became more concerned with the destination than the journey - after years of being the opposite - it blew past the necessary connecting dots in a way many fans couldn’t take. All of that’s possible with an extra couple of seasons, and then Game of Thrones would really be talked about as one of the all-time greats.