Fire and BlehIn the “Game of Thrones” Finale, We All Lost

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones (Helen Sloan/HBO)

We can probably all agree that the current pop-culture era, which may or may not be known as the New Golden Age of Television, is a time when being invested in an episodic show involves so much more than simply tuning in every week: There are recaps, tweetstorms, gif and meme roundups, and Easter-egg hunts; there are angry rants about fidelity to source material; and there are full-blown conspiracy theories. That’s the reason why there was absolutely no chance that the series finale of Game of Thrones was ever going to be satisfying. It’s possible that there were people who held out hope that Season 8’s uneven six-episode run would, in its last hour, use the last gleaming shards of its magic to turn everything around, but the already skeptical folks here at Bitch were definitely not among them.

And while the participants in our finale roundtable aren’t at the level of fan engagement–turned–entitlement that led some diehards to petition for a redo of the entire season, we’ve always been invested in its characters, its world-building, and its subtext—all things that, since the very first episode, have made the show a fascinating, incisive, often infuriating locus of feminist inquiry. Like millions of others, we’ll never forget the show or its finale—but we’ll also never forget to look deeper at what it says about gender, representation, and episodic television as a whole.  

Andi Zeisler, cofounder: On a scale of “Meh” to “BIG MAD,” how disappointed were you by the finale? 

Marina Watanabe, social media editor: I started watching during Season 1, so my emotional investment was pretty high. That said, I went into the finale thinking I didn’t care anymore because the penultimate episode was really disappointing. But by the middle of the last episode I was fuming. It was such a letdown.

Jessica De Jesus, creative director: I think I went through all the faces from “meh” to “BIG MAD.” Eye rolls, side eyes, facepalms, can’t-evens.

AZ: Hard same. Like Marina, I was so annoyed by the previous episode that even the moments that were supposed to be metaphorically significant—like Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) appearing while Drogon unfurled his wings behind her, or Drogon burning the Iron Throne—felt embarrassingly heavy-handed.

KaeLyn Rich, executive director: I was mostly between the “meh” and “grimace face” while watching it, with some big side eyes. I think my feelings crossed over into “BIG MAD” after reflecting on it for a couple of days.

Danny Fish, operations support coordinator: In the moment, I was very disappointed. I’m going to re-watch tonight and try to give it another chance. (Update: Rewatched last night and ugh, still so frustrating, increasingly so as the episode progresses.)

AZ: Realistically, there was no way that the season finale of a show like this—with so many characters and storylines, so many feelings about/allegiances toward specific characters, etc.—could satisfy everyone (or anyone) but, having said that, what was your biggest frustration with the finale?

MW: Where do I even start? My biggest frustration with the finale was that it completely disregarded established plots or character arcs. I don’t think the idea of Daenerys being an unfit ruler was particularly unfounded, since there were several moments throughout the show’s life that foreshadowed this. But her decision to burn an entire city full of innocent people was a bad heel turn. In order to successfully make her into a villain, the showrunners would have needed to spend several seasons carefully building up to it. Instead, they chose lazy narrative shortcuts and shock value over taking the time to actually craft a satisfying ending. It was completely rushed.

DF: Yeah, agreed. The utter disregard for the story and the show itself was just confusing. It was paced so strangely, and it wasn’t as aesthetic as the previous episodes have been.

JDJ: I’m really fucking pissed Cersei (Lena Headey) was killed by… rocks.

AZ: I did feel moved by the scene where Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) finds Cersei and Jamie’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) bodies and breaks down for a minute. Earlier seasons did such a good job of establishing the complicated bond they had as children of a monomaniacal, abusive parent, so the scene made sense. But like so much else this season, it also felt very pat and tidy. The whole thing about GoT—the books and the show—is how merciless and unsentimental it is about its characters. The attempt to tie everything up in a neat bow by the end of the finale is, I guess, understandable given the level of fan investment, but it came off as kind of phoned in.

KR: Surprising no one, I’m very pissed about how Brienne’s (Gwendoline Christie) narrative arc played out—that she had to be redeemed through the lens of heteronormativity to become an acceptable hero, that she spent her last few moments onscreen preserving Jaime’s legacy in the Big Book of White Men, that her strong female masculinity had to be juxtaposed with her inability to get a man, because a choice to present more masculine (a.k.a. read queer or trans) has to be related to a lack of sexual confidence as a typically feminine woman.

AZ: The whole time she was writing, I was thinking, “Start a new page that’s about you! You’re a knight! You’re the new commander of the Kingsguard! Get on with your bad self!” But that would have been a very un-Brienne thing to do.

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That brings up the issue of how the female characters’ arcs played out, and the tension between Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Daenerys in particular. The series has had so few women either writing or directing, and there were zero in Season 8. The fact that one of the show’s writers said, out loud, in Entertainment Weekly, that Sansa didn’t like Daenerys because she’s “very pretty” seems like a good indication that they were like, “Hey, listen, fuck those seven previous seasons of character development, bring on the catfights.”

KR: I hated everything about how Dany’s storyline played out—and I didn’t even like her as a character once she morphed from the Mother of Dragons into the show’s primary white savior. I wasn’t mad about her transformation into a power-hungry queen, because that’s always what’s behind white-savior narratives: a great deal of pride and a fragility around being called out that often explodes into emotional, if not physical, violence. But we needed more time to see that transition happen, and instead it’s clear the writers thought that her bloodline was reason enough to go the more ableist Mad-Queen route.

I also have to note that literally all the women in line for the throne (Sansa, Cersei, Daenerys) have been raped along the way, all of them by spouses or lovers or family members. There’s something very wrong about Jon Snow (Kit Harington) killing Daenerys with a kiss, in the context of her sexual abuse in the show’s early season. These are the bookends of her life; no matter how high she climbed, she couldn’t escape the violence of men.

MW: I hated the implication that Sansa’s rape was necessary for her character development. She spent so much time learning from the people around her and making the best of the terrible hand she was dealt—to sum up her growth as a product of sexual violence was super gross. Don’t pin her survival on the actions of the monstrous men that violated her.

DF: Arya’s (Maisie Williams) arc bothered me for sure. She knew very clearly what she wanted and how to accomplish it. I don’t believe that her brief heart-to-heart with The Hound would have dissuaded her from killing Cersei. I bet she would have been successful—if you can kill the Night King, you’ve probably got this situation.

AZ: This final season really underscored something I’ve written about the show before, which is that one of the consistent questions about GoT is about whether the show is feminist or not—and that that’s always been the wrong question. The equation is not that woman + power = feminism. But everything in the last episodes felt like the characterizations of the women took the path of least resistance—or, as Maureen Ryan pointed out in a Hollywood Reporter piece, just relied on the trope of “Bitches be crazy.”

KR: Game of Thrones has never been a feminist show, no matter how many female characters it introduced. What matters to me is what the show says about women and how it gives us ways to talk about feminism. At the end of this whole thing, the crown goes, somewhat bizarrely and wholly undeservedly, to literally a mediocre white man.

AZ: It was so on the nose. Painfully on the nose.

KR: And while Bran makes Brienne commander of the Kingsguard and adds her to the Small Council, she’s the only woman, and her first work is to advocate for building actual infrastructure instead of brothels, which is rebuked by her male cohort for comic relief. So, no, this show would never be feminist no matter how many women rise to power—but that doesn’t mean we can’t put a feminist lens on it, or can’t enjoy an entertaining show while still analyzing and critiquing it.

MW: I think people too often conflate the presence of strong female characters with feminism. Game of Thrones has had so many pseudo-feminist moments that are like, “Yay! Girl power!”—but, ultimately, the show is written by men who have very little understanding of what feminist representation actually means. I don’t think a series that has spent seven seasons sexualizing women, glorifying sexual violence, and using rape as a narrative tool reserved primarily for its female characters gets to pat itself on the back for its representation of women just because they let one of them ride a dragon into battle. The fact that this season had no women on the writing staff really shows.

KR: I didn’t read the books, but I have to note that the last two seasons were…inconsistent. I’ll also say that the showrunners going off-script even before the show got ahead of the books was often misguided—like the Season 4 rape of Cersei by Jaime. Had the dialogue from the show been consistent with the book’s (“Do it now, do me now,” rather than “Stop it. Stop. Please don’t”) it would have been a consensual sex scene and not a character-inconsistent (and also horrible) rape scene.

MW: I will never get over that scene. Or the fact that they explicitly made Khal Drogo’s (Jason Momoa) rape of Daenerys in Season 1 so much more graphic and violent than in the books, and then framed him as a sympathetic love interest.

AZ: Zeynep Tufekci, in Scientific American, wrote my favorite of the GoT postmortems, pointing out that the show’s decline had a lot to do with a shift in narrative style from sociological to psychological: “Hollywood mostly knows how to tell psychological, individualized stories.They do not have the right tools for sociological stories, nor do they even seem to understand the job.”

Game of Thrones has had so many pseudo-feminist moments that are like, “Yay! Girl power!”—but, ultimately, the show is written by men who have very little understanding of what feminist representation actually means.

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That said, people who watched the show still had long-running favorites. There were definitely a few characters that I thought deserved better endings, from a storytelling perspective. What’s been the storyline or character that you felt most invested in?

MW: I think Cersei and Jaime both deserved better endings. Not in the sense that Cersei didn’t deserve to die—she totally did—but I wanted Jaime to be the one that killed her. The whole series built up a redemption arc for Jaime, who did the morally right thing by killing the Mad King before he could murder his subjects; when Cersei’s tyrannical reign came, I wanted him to have to make the same difficult choice. Cersei was always Jaime’s fatal weakness, and after he got together with Brienne, I felt like that would have brought his arc full circle. Plus, I would have loved the idea of the Kingslayer becoming the Queenslayer.

I’ve also been rooting for Sansa for so long, and despite the writers’ missteps in terms of her assault, I’m happy with where she ended up. I would have been furious if she didn’t become Queen in the North after she saved Jon’s ass time and time again. While I love Arya’s assassin skills and her refusal to conform to gendered expectations, I’ve always felt that Sansa was written off because she was traditionally feminine and utilized cunning over physical strength. In terms of the finale, Sansa is the only character whose ending was fully deserved. And I’m happy that she didn’t end up with a love interest. The show began with marriage and domesticity as her only life goals, and it ends with her literally refusing to answer to a king and declaring the North’s independence.

DF: Sansa all the way.

KR: I’ve come all the way around on Sansa, who had perhaps the best character development in the whole show. She’s always been smart, but by the end of the show she was also the most capable leader among the Starks—and, honestly, in all the Seven Kingdoms). She was the only one thinking about the long game instead of the throne, and ended up with the autonomy she wanted, an ally in King’s Landing, and devoted Northerners who will be loyal to her after she helped lead them in battle against the White Walkers. She became who she is at the end of Season 8 because she stopped waiting for someone else to save her.

Really, Sansa is the only female character who got even remotely close to what she deserved in the end. Missandei’s (Nathalie Emmanuel) death was completely unnecessary. Cersei was a horrible tyrant, but also the smartest woman and a survivor on many levels, and she deserved more than being crushed to death while fleeing and crying about her unborn child. Daenerys deserved so much more than being stabbed in the heart by her lover/nephew. I can’t believe that Arya slayed the Night King and then just kind of disappeared from an active role in the story, playing an observer role until she literally goes into the sea. I could go on.

JDJ: I can’t believe they made Missandei die in chains. She deserved to live a free life with Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson). I also loved the Wildlings season, and even though it was an integral story arc, I’m still mad about Ygritte (Rose Leslie).

It feels too easy to say, but I was always invested in Arya. She had one of the most complex transformations. We were never not rooting for her. She literally had to become “no one” to become herself and is now one of the fiercest fighters in all the Seven Kingdoms. She crossed off almost everyone on her kill list and SHE KILLED THE NIGHT KING, who wasn’t even on the list. Also—and, full disclosure, I had to look this up to refresh my memory—but the damage she did at House Frey! First, she served a pot pie baked with body parts to Walder Frey (David Bradley) before slicing his throat. Then she wore his face during dinner, gave a really meaningful toast about the Red Wedding, and poisoned the entire Frey army. Now she’s sailing west of Westeros, so her story is not done. Spin-off, please.

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