“Game of Thrones” and the perils of getting popular

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[WARNING – GAME OF THRONES ENDING SPOILERS AHEAD]

“Game of Thrones” finally reached its end after eight long seasons. According to lots fans and critics, the final hurrah was really more of a whimper. The last words, the finale, the curtain call, whatever it is, it doesn’t look good.

A lot of people will ask why the show fizzled at the end and there are several valid answers. The show needed George R.R. Martin’s work as a skeleton and without it, the work collapsed the further the show’s creators went on their own. The books have several severe plot issues that will be hard for Martin to iron out, let alone anyone else. The directors, network, and actors got tired of it and cut the seasons short just to be done with it.

There are lots of good answers to the question of why the show lost all wind right at the finish line. Let me add in another that might get overlooked. “Game of Thrones” suffered from its own popularity. That’s not to say popularity always makes a show worse, just that HBO let popularity make “Game of Thrones” worse.

At its outset, “Game of Thrones” wasn’t a blockbuster. In its first season, it was a remarkably quiet show that ran on intrigue and strong characters. The first season had no set-piece battles and was more dialogue than duels. Though the show was bound to have battles and CGI, the core identity of the series and its world remained in the intrigue.

The show would have had to ramp things up and make changes to survive in the world of TV. However, it was possible to make these changes in a way that left most critics and fans happy. In the beginning, the show’s directors did just that.

The problem is, the more popular the show became, the harder it was to keep making the right changes. The more popular the show got, the more pressure it got to drift away from its core strengths of character-building and dialogue. The more popular the show got, the more it became a different show – – one it wasn’t designed to be.

Audiences got used to a show that built tension slowly and made nearly every little detail fit together. Ned Stark’s death, the Red Wedding, Tyrion’s trial, and Danaerys’s rise to power all made sense due to a ton of scenes designed to build character and hash out political dealings. The show increasingly stopped being about those things and started being about big battles, quips between characters, surprise twists, and getting an emotional rise out of the audience.

Once, the show was in a happy enough middle point despite this. It had become more about battles than intrigue and while that development chased a lot of the fans of the books off, it was ultimately doing fine. Unfortunately, this happy middle point would never maintain because the show had already lost its identity. More precisely, for the events at the end of it to make sense, the show needed to keep to its old character.

If the show still held to its core spirit, Dany would have been portrayed as a much more muddled figure and her heel turn wouldn’t feel so forced. Akin to Ned Stark, we would understand her as well-intentioned, but flawed in very important ways. Then, when Dany’s heel turn arrived, it would have felt right. It doesn’t feel right now because as the show got popular, it lost interest in establishing Dany as a morally ambiguous character in a morally ambiguous world. It became interested in a clear battle between large set piece armies and CGI creatures, a clear battle between good and evil. In part because that’s what executives think is popular and well-liked.

The plot would have felt more coherent as well had the show stuck to its identity. If some admittedly fun scenes had been cut, like everyone drinking at the fire before the battle for Winterfell, you can make room for a scene that explains how Euron snuck up on Dany’s fleet, how Dany still had an army after the battle for Winterfell, why Tyrion thought the crypts were a safe place in a zombie invasion, or even what the hell Bran was doing when he had all those ravens fly around. These scenes don’t exist in part because executives think people don’t want them as much as Tormund chugging milk.

I know I want to see Tormund chugging milk more than a small council meeting, but some goofy scenes have to be sacrificed for quieter, political ones for “Game of Thrones” to be coherent and good. “Game of Thrones” is based on books that rarely feature battles. To make sense, the show has to slow its pace, has to focus on characters, and has to center around intrigue. The problem is, this isn’t what people think a popular piece of media should look like. People think popular media is quippy, quick, and action-centric.

As some shows get popular, they try to change their writing to match what they think popular should look like. The truth is many styles can be popular and shows do best by staying true to themselves. When shows try to match what’s popular, you get “Game of Thrones,” season eight: a show that has no idea where it’s going and doesn’t remember where it’s been.

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