In retrospect, Game of Thrones warned us that it was all #ForTheThrone at the beginning of the months-long hype campaign for the final season. As we approach the final two episodes of the series, that idea — not the war with the White Walkers, not carefully considered character stories, not even a more nuanced look at the power structure of Westeros — has become the show’s focal point: who will sit on the Iron Throne when the dust settles?
That contraction of the story has left some fans feeling cold (pun intended) toward the final season. After years of teasing the ultimate battle for the fate of Westeros and the existence of humanity — and even after being told over and over again that the Iron Throne just wasn’t important compared to the battle against the coming dark — Game of Thrones blitzed through the long-gestating war against the undead in a single night. And it’s already teeing up the next one. “We have won the Great War,” Daenerys proudly announced in last week’s episode. “Now we will win the Last War.”
Focusing on the battle for the Iron Throne isn’t a bad thing or even bad storytelling. But for years, Game of Thrones seemed to be promising something more. Then, at the 11th hour, the focus of the show is shifting back to an earlier iteration of the story that it had previously abandoned in favor of a seemingly much larger and more significant “ice zombies versus the forces of mankind” fight.
While Daenerys versus Cersei (versus Jon Snow?) is packed with more personal drama than the White Walker war — for all the Night King’s power, he wasn’t exactly much for character motivations or even dialogue — the current stakes feel anticlimactic, far lower than the Battle of Winterfell.
The decision to focus on the war with Cersei for the Iron Throne is the source — directly or indirectly — of a lot of this season’s larger problems. In order to level out the playing field for the Last War, the entire White Walker threat was reduced to a simple device to thin out Daenerys’ army so Cersei wouldn’t get steamrolled. After a decade-long buildup, the Great War became a brief plot device on the way toward a true ending.
That same reasoning explains Euron’s improbable ability to take down Rhaegal and Cersei’s sudden reinforcements from the Golden Company. Brienne’s character has been sacrificed to give Jaime some more drama as he heads off to confront his sister. Even things like Missandei’s inexplicable capture and death are feeding into this, trying to conjure up personal stakes for the final clash, regardless of logic. Game of Thrones’ showrunners want a pitched battle to occur, and they’re determined to get one, even if they have to twist George R.R. Martin’s story into narrative knots to do so. As Varys pointed out in the last episode: “The balance has grown distressingly even.”
Part of the problem is that the show, in its post-Martin source material era, hasn’t been particularly well-suited for this kind of political nuance. Abandoning character consistency and the rules of time and space to allow for giant action set pieces and plot twists (as we’ve seen numerous times in the past few seasons, like with the Battle of the Bastards, Jon’s adventure to capture a wight, and even the Night King’s death) works on some level because the payoffs have been so big. An audience that’s excited about finally having closure on some big plot points is willing to excuse and ignore a lot of problems.
But showrunners and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been mirroring Martin’s brutal character maneuvering without understanding the careful planning and plotting that grounded it. We’re left with the worst of both worlds: dull storylines that also don’t make a ton of sense.
With two episodes left, there’s still plenty of time for the showrunners to throw in more twists to elevate the final conflict. But it genuinely seems like the current rushed, flat drama is the story they wanted to tell. Their increased emphasis on Jon’s heritage, Cersei’s desperation to cling to power, and Daenerys’ desire to claim it all suggest that a simple fight for the throne is the showdown we’ll get.
Before Game of Thrones’ eighth season started, it looked like it was moving away from its title and toward a story closer to Martin’s series title, A Song of Ice and Fire. It seemed to be striving toward its source material’s grandest ambitions. But now that we’re heading into the final stretch, it’s clear that, for better or for worse, it really is just a game of thrones after all.