Critic's Notebook: Why the Final Season of 'Game of Thrones' Can't Win

When it comes to pleasing all viewers, the deck is stacked against the ultra-popular HBO series, unlike any great series since 'The Sopranos.'
Helen Sloan/HBO
Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) in 'Game of Thrones'

Somewhere near the end of Sunday's epic Game of Thrones episode, there in the darkened fields of death — one of the many complaints about the episode was that it was too dark — you could, if you squinted, make out two of the bloody combatants there on the ground.

One was David Benioff. The other was D.B. Weiss.

What, you didn't see the two writers and creators of Game of Thrones, the duo who penned the episode? (In some versions of this scenario, you can also see director Miguel Sapochnik's body — not just spent from creating the longest sustained fight scene in, what, the history of the world? — but wounded from the criticism too: "It was too dark, Miguel! I liked what you did with "Hardhome" and "Battle of the Bastards" better, even though I crucified you back then as well.")

The point here is this: Game of Thrones can't win. Well, potentially it can win 50 percent of this imaginary approval rating from the great swath of fans out there, but even that probably won't happen until several weeks after the series finale, when people are finally, momentarily, shutting the hell up on Twitter. 

That's the thing about series finales. You're not just messing with the lives of your characters — precisely what you should be doing as a writer, moving the pieces around for dramatic effect — but with the lives of your fan base as well. Their emotions are fluid and unpredictable. One moment everybody is feeling all the feels during the Bryan Cogman-written second episode, "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms," because it had breathing room and allowed disparate characters to intermingle and share moments together before the Battle at Winterfell, and the next it was too damn slow and get to the fighting already.

But of course, not enough people died in the fighting. Or not the right people. Characters survived when they (maybe?) shouldn't have, and it was all too dark anyway, and for the sake of the Gods they used the dragons all wrong!

You see the problems here? People are impossible to please.

There is no such thing as unanimous consent when it comes to a series finale. The history of television is littered with this reckoning, even among the greatest of all time, like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and The Wire. You can't control passion, nor contain its flammable rage when displeased. All kinds of people, including critics — maybe especially critics? — found something to nitpick about those four great series. Nobody needs reminding about the polarizing ending to The Sopranos (though I will say this one more time, as loudly as before — it's brilliant). 

When The Americans finished, my fifth pick for the Top 5 all-time great dramas, it seemed like something miraculous happened: dissent was merely gurgling, not fomenting. (Of course, I spend far less time on the life-sucking banality of Twitter these days, and that surely played a part in the seemingly agreeable ending.) But not long after, I found the naysayers. They will always find you. No matter how perfect you thought something was, you will be met with disappointed detractors. 

But Game of Thrones is something different. I would argue that its dramatic stakes are different — higher, really — than the others, and thus it can't possibly satisfy everyone. Not even close.

For example, The Sopranos was a series where people who didn't want to believe it was an exploration of one man's complicated emotional-mental state and the exploration of marriage, family and happiness were perfectly fine viewing it as a mob show. But that dual viewership — especially the mob fans chafing at all the therapy and family problems — meant that David Chase was going to have a very hard time "sticking the landing," as we say about these series finales. Never mind the fact that most Americans loathe ambiguity in their entertainment, that finale was always doomed to frustrate, because people were watching that show differently than their neighbors — two groups enjoying opposite aspects of it, and only disappointment could come from that.

It's not a problem that the others faced to such a degree. Yes, whether Walter White or Jesse Pinkman lived or died — or deserved either fate — was central to the Breaking Bad ending, but the choices that Vince Gilligan had to make weren't bound to cause as much trouble as Chase's were.

And in Mad Men, well, let's just say that everyone who thought it was about advertising and not an intricate study of existentialism and identity (meaning the majority of people) were going to come to differing opinions about what it all meant for Don Draper. But it didn't necessarily outrage the nation, because by the end, Matthew Weiner's intellectual exploration had been accepted as more niche highbrow fare than, say, whether Rick and friends were going to survive the zombies on The Walking Dead

On The Wire, were the cops and the criminals going to hug it out? Resolution was never really the point there, but of course there was bickering on many fronts because — as Twitter has so steadfastly established — we can't have nice things. Last, you could have broken down The Americans to whether Elizabeth and Philip Jennings were going to get away with it or get caught by their FBI neighbor Stan Beeman, but the vastly more emotional and satisfying ending addressed that and went beyond (which is why it remains to me one of the most successful series finales ever). And yet, apparently, for some, it didn't go far enough (or it went too far away? — I'm not sure of which one is a believable beef). 

Oh, but Game of Thrones— it's like The Sopranos times a thousand. There can be no happiness for the creators, or any of the writers and directors.

It can't win.

For starters, there are seven kingdoms, countless families and only one Iron Throne. Right there, you've got a problem. 

The series outpaced the book — anytime you deviate from the source material, it's literally impossible to make everyone happy. Lit-er-ally.

The series established in the early going — and got quite a lot of acclaim for this choice — that anyone could die at any time. And as I've stated before, it's one thing to say that no character is safe in the first season and quite another to stick to that by your eighth season, when in all likelihood people loving your characters is why they tuned in for the middle six seasons. So it's only human nature to be a little reticent about killing popular pieces off the chessboard.

Not killing characters annoys people, too, as it turns out. (Especially if you don't kill the right ones, or leave alive the wrong ones, or something like that.)

If you are reticent about killing characters but you have an episode as Game of Thrones did on Sunday, where 99.7 percent of all eligible people are in battle and you're fighting the undead, well, when fan favorites miraculously survive you're going to have complaints. (And yes, if you killed them, you'd have complaints as well.)

You are spotting these trends, yes?

If you have a character, in this case Arya, come "out of nowhere" to kill the invincible Night King, then you are going to have some legit deus ex machina complaints on your hands, unless of course Arya has already been established as a stealthy, well-trained assassin over the seasons and just took part in a super obvious library scene where she not only proves her stealth traits but also her quick-twitch, close-contact killing techniques. Translation: People are going to be mad about things that they shouldn't be mad about, if only they stopped to think first and weren't already on Twitter.

This could go on and on. But the point remains a simple one: Almost nothing Benioff and Weiss do will be enough to please (or appease) everyone.

More than any seriously considered and extremely popular series in history (and there really hasn't been a series with quite that matching combo before), Game of Thrones faces an impossible task, well beyond what's been laid out above.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but series finales are different — and difficult. They are rife with import. A full 100 percent of the fan base wants you to stick the landing, but more than 50 percent doubt you'll do it, and the gods only know what percentage will be irritated or overjoyed when it's all said and done.

I think Benioff and Weiss understand this already. I think most people associated with Game of Thrones know this.

They can't win. 

The outrage after Sunday's episode confirms this. I'll bet that a goodwill rebound is coming, and enthusiasm will kick back in. I'm also absolutely certain that the final episode will unleash a torrent of fans raving and raging about the end result. It will be a confusing sort of love.

For Benioff and Weiss and all involved with this series, what's important to remember — but difficult to do in the moment — is that they all cared. They all turned out and tuned in every week, most of them date and time (a miracle) because they love your show, your characters, the journey you took them on. Those fans are a combination of knowing exactly what they want from you and the story, not knowing what they want but willing to turn on you instantly if they don't get it, and some weird combination of happy but disappointed or let down, but also unwilling to trade the experience for anything.

So, yeah, good luck with that hot mess.

A consolation is that memory (and opinion) fades, and you're going into the magical, mythical Hall of Fame no matter what.