'Game of Thrones' Finale: Tim Goodman on Death and the No-Surprise Surprises

THR's chief TV critic says the story remains more important than the shock in the long run, and maybe that's the secret of this series.
Helen Sloan/HBO

This column contains spoilers for the season finale of Game of Thrones, "Mother's Mercy." Come back when you’ve seen it.

For all the elements that make Game of Thrones compelling television  its scope, characters, writing and acting, among others  it often falls down in the one area it is best known for: surprises.

Sure, the Ned Stark and Red Wedding deaths were stunners, for those who didn’t read the books, and those deaths in particular led to the show’s reputation for “anyone can die at any time” twists. But often the end can be seen well before it comes, which is why the Jon Snow death and how young Olly contributed to it was about as ho-hum as a major character death can be.

Game of Thrones foreshadowed the hell out of that death. The only thing surprising about it was that Jon Snow wasn’t killed by an anvil. He might know nothing, but he sure as hell should have had his head on a swivel.

Sadistic Ramsay Bolton aside  since he’s still breathing, at least into next season  Game of Thrones tends to build up its evil characters until they can’t get more awful and then kill them (see: Joffrey). So Arya Stark had to kill the awful Meryn Trant  another death seen coming from miles (and episodes) away.

This isn’t total damnation on the part of Game of Thrones — it holds enough surprises to overlook the obvious ones. Hell, it was pretty clear that Stannis was just going to stubbornly walk toward his death. His wife hanging herself (pretty nifty knot, there, by the way  not that it would really matter if someone else did it because she was awful as well) was a non-surprise bonus. Even Myrcella’s kiss of death was pretty obvious  if you didn’t know she was dead as soon as Ellaria Sand planted it on her lips, well, perhaps you weren’t watching Ellaria stew in it and wear that “revenge” face for two episodes.

As Game of Thrones has grown ever larger and more plodding with its ambitious storylines and huge cast, it has lost some of its quick-twitch muscles that lead to the kind of surprise twists that finales are made of. So there was a lack of tension in much of the finale  but even that can’t be called unexpected.

Outside of the one or two truly big shockers, this is a series that telegraphs a great deal. But the joy  and quality  in this series doesn’t reside solely on unexpected twists.

Game of Thrones has, for me, become a very enjoyable series that has me less emotionally invested in it than I was in previous seasons (yet still eager to see each new episode). That’s a strange turn of events. I liked the Jon Snow character quite a bit, but wasn’t especially sad to see him go because, well, the anvil drop began so long ago. We got a lot of episodes watching it fall and watching Jon fail to move out of the way.

Pacing is certainly an issue that drags down the effectiveness  and often the dramatic tension  of the series. It’s far and away the biggest problem with Game of Thrones. I believe now, as I did at the end of season one  and have been blathering on about it at every opportunity since — that Game of Thrones would be vastly better if it made 13 episodes a season instead of 10, which would let it breathe more and excise the claustrophobic and frustrating trait of this series, where characters get two or five minutes and then the story jumps somewhere else for two or five minutes and repeats the pattern until you almost want characters to die just to allow for more screen time for those who are left alive.

Whereas we got thrilling, triumphant movement last week with Dany, this week her story and those who surround her was too short, moved in inches and ended in one of those finale mysteries where it was less intriguing and more like another roadblock to the throne. Hell, even the dragon seemed tired of the pacing. One week a hero, the next a bystander.

Where the finale succeeded best was (again, for non-book readers and regular fans who don’t scour the internet for hints about the future) in the Cersei storyline. Her horrific walk of shame was powerful and dramatic, a fate that served to provide glimmers of sympathy for a disagreeable character, while deftly continuing her evolving storyline from the start of the season.

It ended up being far more powerful than Jon Snow’s stab-a-thon.

I think the Arya storyline also worked, not only because she’s a character we’re meant to cheer for and she got some revenge, but also because in doing so she now finds her fate at a mysterious crossroads.

As a non-book reader and critic, Game of Thrones has become a very strange entity. It had a strong, often enjoyable season and yet managed to feel a bit too cramped (as each season does). It showed, in many episodes, why having multiple characters is enjoyable  a lot of them are well-written and well-acted. More is often more in this series until you realize there will be, in turn, additional bogging down. Each time a character is given more to do, another’s workload and screen time seems to be lessened.

A deal-breaker? No. This series is still oddly compelling, even when its riches cause frustration. For me, part of loving Game of Thrones is accepting that its emotional connection is less electric than in the past. I should have felt something more when Jon Snow was bleeding out into the snow. At least something other than the coldly accepting “All Men Must Die” motto. At the same time, when the finale was over, I wanted more. (You know, about three episodes more.)

Though it’s hard to understand entirely  not being emotionally moved, for the most part, by events happening to characters, not being surprised by events in the storyline and yet still wanting to see more hours of the series  Game of Thrones must be doing something right. I think it has something to do with the story being more than whatever happens in a finale. It’s a journey  and it doesn’t need a cliffhanger to be compelling in a traditional sense.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine