Game of Thrones season 8 has become one of the most controversial TV events ever, but as the finale looms, it's fair to say that the backlash is getting a bit too much. HBO's fantasy drama has taken George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice & Fire series and transformed it into one of the biggest pop culture properties in the world, with the latest episode racking up an eye-watering 18.4 million pairs of eyeballs. Unfortunately, not all of those viewers are happy.
The complaints really began after episode 3, "The Long Night" where the Night King, set up over the past seasons as the big bad, was killed by Arya Stark. This sudden end to the White Walker threat at the hands of a character never properly linked to the fan-beloved Azor Ahai prophecy came out of nowhere, leading to fair cries of rushed storylines and needless shock. But the real troubles came after, with the final war between Queens Cersei and Daenerys stampeding to its peak with minimal setup. When, in episode 5, "The Bells", Daenerys suddenly embraced her supposed destiny to become the Mad Queen, trashing King's Landing and setting herself as the final villain with less than two hours of story to go, heads were spinning.
Now, to the detractors' credit, there are some clear issues with Game of Thrones season 8. At just six episodes long, even with the final four extended closer to an hour-and-a-half, it's far too short to cover all the story that was left, and the writers' solution has been to have single episodes deal with seasons-worth of plot. This, in turn, robs most character decisions of a clear throughline, leaving game-changing decisions feeling random.
However, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Game of Thrones has been working with a reduced episode count and faster pace since the start of season 7, and although the criticisms were less vocal, it hurt the penultimate year considerably more: in retrospect, not only is season 7 messy, diversions like "Beyond The Wall" had minimal impact on the bigger picture. With that in mind, season 8 was always up against it, and has landed things as well as it could: criticisms of darkness aside, the direction of Game of Thrones' final season is the show's best, and none of the cast are letting limited screentime weaken their performances. The increased pace is a different form of storytelling to what came before, undoubtedly a weaker one, but it's still making every effort to work.
The Problem With The Game Of Thrones Season 8 Backlash
In that framing, Game of Thrones season 8 is delivering what has long been promised. While that's a let down in light of what the show once was, something compounded by mass rewatch culture, it doesn't quite excuse how many have handled it.
Starting as round disappointment, the Game of Thrones backlash grew to become more vitriolic. Memes calling out David Benioff for his hackneyed excuse for the death of Rhaegal the dragon (apparently Dany had forgotten about the Iron Fleet, despite a scene prior showing her being told about their advance) soon shifted from mocking into genuine animosity against the showrunners. Out-of-context videos of the cast potentially showing regret have transformed from humorous to evidence of rot. Following "The Bells", Disney CEO Bob Iger's confirmation that Benioff and Weiss would be making the next Star Wars film in 2022 was met with jeers, and as of this writing a petition to remake Game of Thrones season 8 has 800,000 signatures.
The petition alone is an egregious step on the part of Game of Thrones fandom, even if signed as a joke. A woeful misunderstanding of consumer ownership, the recent push by mass groups to form petitions rallying against their favorite stories reflects more on those complaining than the art they're criticizing. It's likely rooted in Mass Effect 3, which failed to deliver on its transient ending promise on release but, after much pressuring, received a free DLC extension. The logic is that, if EA of all companies will bend the knee to angry customers, then surely HBO/Lucasfilm/Warner Bros. et al will. Failing that, there's an assumption it allows audiences to vote against something while still paying for it.
Game Of Thrones Fandom Is Repeating Star Wars (But Even More Fractured)
What's more revealing, though, is the extreme reactions is the Star Wars side of things due to how it recalls the last time geek culture became the proverbial mad fans. Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi decidedly split audiences, with his expectation-subverting, self-analytical Episode VIII presenting a controversial exploration of the saga that will be debated all the way up to The Rise of Skywalker in December and beyond. Game of Thrones season 8 shares many qualities with The Last Jedi: both were doing a lot of story movement in a short space of time; both had restrictions placed on them by previous entries; and they thrived on shocking audiences with unexpected twists. Even Rian Johnson pointed this out by comparing the death of the Night King to Snoke's.
What's most interesting in those cases, though, is how both are informed heavily by skewed and overly reinforced perspective. One thing that is under-discussed in the context of The Last Jedi is how it was attempting to appeal to a fandom that ranges from the casual to the obsessive with dozens of unique viewpoints on what makes it special; it would be impossible to please all. Johnson's movie could have been objectively perfect and still annoyed someone expecting a straight sequel to The Force Awakens.
Game of Thrones' fandom is even more fractured. How the audience operates has shifted multiple times in the show's run, most fundamentally when Jon Snow was killed at the end of season 5; this was the point where Benioff & Weiss properly caught up with Martin (it had already overtaken in some other areas), and suddenly the disparate fandoms suddenly began to intersect. Overnight, the show's mythology was overtaken by the books'; lore-agnostic TV watchers knew about valonqars and, once long-standing theory R+L=J was confirmed, suddenly a lot of book-based ideas were taken as show spoilers (even when they weren't).
That makes for great fan discussions but also means that so much of what's being speculated on isn't relevant to the tale at hand; Jaime loving Cersei is as apt to the show's version as it would be him stabbing her in the back. This goes beyond plot expectations and also plays into how many predicted the story would be told. None of that is to defend the storytelling of seasons 7 & 8, but that, in their two-year gap especially, what Game of Thrones was viewed as and what could be became inflated to a scale that was far from reality; the books are sprawling and dense, the series now bombastic and forward-thinking.
Again, that's disappointing. Game of Thrones, by nature of the medium, has watered down a lot of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice & Fire. But while some of that is certainly down the showrunners making some strange choices, a lot of it extends way beyond them; to the nature TV and the fandom they created. Vitriol without purpose, at this point, achieves nothing.
Game of Thrones concludes this Sunday at 9pm on HBO.