Season eight is far from the best season of Game Of Thrones. Around six months on from the broadcast of the HBO series’ final run, the show’s send-off has already been summarily put down with Lost (also undeserving) and Dexter (yeah, that’s about right) in the annals of bad TV endings. Right in the centre of disappointed fans’ crosshairs are the show’s creators and lead writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.
The showrunners penned the vast majority of the show’s 73 episodes, including the finale, The Iron Throne. Representing a peak in audience figures and fan umbrage for the entire series, the episode provides a downbeat, low-key capper to the story, complete with a bit of narrative symmetry and one or two slightly clichéd kiss-offs. It’s already an unforgettable finale, if only so far as some quarters of fandom have deemed it unforgivable.
Overall, the negative reactions to the HBO show’s eighth and final season range from “too rushed” to “crap all along”, plus a head-scratching mix of both – personally speaking, I’ve never described a show I hated as “not long enough”, but here we are. Some readers have been sceptical of Benioff and Weiss’ approach to adapting George R.R. Martin’s (very unfinished) A Song Of Ice & Fire all along, but what’s baffling is some of the retroactive tarring of every creative decision the showrunners ever made.
Tellingly, the backlash has kicked off again this week because of two key developments. First, Benioff and Weiss announced they are no longer making their planned Star Wars movie trilogy and will solely be focusing on their $200m Netflix deal instead.
Then, we learned that HBO would not be ordering Jane Goldman’s star-studded Thrones prequel series, which filmed a pilot over the summer, for a full season. On the other hand, the network has greenlit the first season of the Targaryen-centric series House Of The Dragon, which has Martin as a co-creator.
While some outlets and individuals have run with these stories as “Proof That The Game Of Thrones Backlash Is Real”, we’d estimate that the Venn diagram of those who didn’t get the ending they hoped for and those are looking for ongoing developments to back up their own opinions is a circle. Or a wheel, if you want to keep it Thrones-y.
What’s disconcerting is the sheer amount of disinformation, gossip, and scuttlebutt that’s crept into the conversation about Benioff and Weiss’ supposed incompetence. It’s enough to make you wonder why so many vocally annoyed people stuck with a show written by idiots for this long. That’s not the only contradiction you’ll find in the arguments.
What are their words?
It should be said right from the off that Benioff and Weiss are not beyond reproach. Far (FAR) from it, they have an alarming tenacity for putting their feet in their mouths whenever they talk about the show. Though most people would read their comments as self-deprecating and open, especially when it comes to their mistakes, they do occasionally come out with howlers like “Dany kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet”.
This soundbite, delivered by Benioff in the post-show making-of featurette about The Last Of The Starks, (an undeniable low point in a not-very-popular season) rightly launched a thousand memes regarding similarly daft bits of season eight. For instance, “The Three-Eyed Raven kind of forgot that he didn’t need Whisperers” was one of many that came out after The Iron Throne was broadcast in May.
In short, they don’t do themselves any favours. If the fans want to put them on trial for murdering Game Of Thrones in its last season, they sometimes go on as if they’ve just been rudely awoken next to a corpse, covered in blood, crow feathers, and discarded coffee cups. Such was the case with a roughly transcribed panel interview that the writers gave at the Austin Film Festival last weekend.
First live-tweeted by a GoT fan account, the interview saw Benioff and Weiss supposedly confess to many of the sins (and I use that word as they do, in the mealiest, most Cinema Sins-headed way possible) of which they are accused. Specifically, they never intended to adapt Martin’s story in its entirety, they didn’t care about fantasy fans liking the show, and they never thought to ask any other writers to join in.
While those tweets have now been misquoted, cherry-picked, and disseminated in various bad-faith discussions, an actual recording of the panel is available for everyone to listen, should you wish to make your own mind up. If you can’t tell by now though, they don’t say any of that in the terms described above.
Telling the story right
Making a million-dollar fantasy drama that only appeals to people who already like fantasy is a great way to lose millions of dollars. This isn’t a business-headed feature though and you don’t need us to tell you that Game Of Thrones‘ mainstream appeal was a huge part of its success.
That success also gives the lie to the notion that the show turned bad once they outstripped the source material. Unless you think screen adaptations are just audiobooks with pictures, you already know that adaptations take serious writing work, and it was work that Benioff and Weiss made themselves largely responsible for carrying out after successfully pitching to both Martin and HBO.
Eschewing the traditional US TV writers’ room structure, they wrote more than 50 episodes, with the only other writing credits in the entire series going to either Martin himself, (who stopped contributing scripts annually after the series caught up with the books published thus far) Bryan Cogman, Dave Hill, Vanessa Taylor, or Jane Espenson.
Granted, their actual comments in Austin do seem careless when it comes to the news about the cancelled prequel series, (on which the pair would have been executive producers) as, unlike Goldman, they were fortunate enough to get that chance to right the ship after a notoriously disastrous pilot.
Craig Mazin was one of the writers Benioff and Weiss asked for advice on that unreleased pilot, and when the duo guested on a recent episode of the ScriptNotes podcast, which Mazin co-hosts, the Chernobyl writer praised the turnaround between the two versions of Winter Is Coming.
He recalled: “It wasn’t just that you had saved something bad and turned it really good. You had saved a complete piece of shit and turned it into something brilliant. That never happens.”
But there’s also some understandable umbrage on that same score. As two flagship showrunners, their decision to author Game Of Thrones as completely as they did denied other writers a chance that almost certainly would have been available on other shows on this scale, and there’s understandable grumbling on that score.
A show of this scale could and should have had more writers, but as a result of their approach, it’s also difficult to attribute the show as you knew and loved it to anybody else. Equally, the blame for the bits you didn’t enjoy lie with Benioff and Weiss, but the stuff you enjoyed didn’t happen by accident.
If there’s a watertight criticism of later seasons, it’s that they have far fewer of the scenes of characters talking to one another, which the writers nailed early on, as the show picks up pace. Arguably, there’s no equal to the Benioff and Weiss-created scene from The Mountain And The Viper, in which Tyrion and Jaime discuss Orson Lannister. Alas, essentially working with Martin’s outlines for the rest of the story after they caught up with the books, they brought the show to a conclusion that (yes) pleased some and displeased others.
The wheel keeps turning
At the height of the initial backlash, one of those Change.org petitions sprung up, pretending to lobby HBO to remake the final season “with competent writers”. More than 1.7 million people have signed it, presumably knowing it was a louder, more “newsworthy” way of shitting the bed rather than doing anything more constructive.
No showrunner had the experience required to make a show like Thrones at the point when it started, which was unprecedented at the time and frankly may never be repeated on a global scale. That Benioff and Weiss admit to their relative inexperience and their mistakes – on both the original pilot and on various episodes since – is probably a good example to set, although their misquoted comments in Austin have once again proved a lightning rod for more disgruntled fans.
In the wake of the Star Wars news, the gossip mill has started turning out as many “whistleblowers” who say LucasFilm fired the pair last weekend because of the panel as there are “insiders” claiming the decision was made in May because of the reaction to the Thrones finale. At that point, “sources” were saying that the showrunners brought the show to an earlier-than-anticipated end because they wanted to crack on with their movie trilogy instead.
With so much unsubstantiated twaddle flying around, it’s no surprise that more trusted sources are reporting that the pair’s withdrawal from Star Wars was partly down to their concerns about toxic fandom. This manifested in a similar way following recent episodes of the long-running film franchise and has gone into overdrive this week at the intersection of “Game Of Thrones ended terribly” and “LucasFilm is in crisis”. In any case, Netflix has put down $200m for the first-look rights to Benioff and Weiss’ future TV projects, which was reportedly another factor in their decision.
All in all, it’s a truth generally underacknowledged that most creators know where they went wrong better than you do. Whether you’ve put hours into your Valonquar theories or you simply missed Cersei in the final season, Benioff and Weiss spent more time thinking about this than you ever will. It doesn’t mean anyone’s right or wrong, but they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.
Back in Thrones land, House Of The Dragon almost certainly will have a writers’ room, but then it’s easy to take Thrones for granted now that we’ve got it. It remains that Benioff and Weiss were instrumental in creating this show and making it the success that it is. However the various spin-offs in development turn out, they too will have their fans and their critics.
Furthermore, you might think they would have been a poor fit for Star Wars (whose spirit is about as far from that of Game Of Thrones as it’s possible to get) or that their other cancelled HBO show about the Confederates winning the American Civil War sounds daft, (which it does). What’s important in the current climate of fandom and call-out culture is to be confident enough in your own opinion to know that not everyone shares it and you don’t need the behind-the-scenes gossip to validate it.
Valar dohaeris (fan service edition)
“Game Of Thrones is seven-and-a-third seasons of the greatest show ever”, proclaims one character at the start of Thrones! The Musical Parody, an affectionate pisstake of the show that has toured Fringe festivals worldwide and updated its story to catch up with the show every year since 2015.
By the time it gets to the tongue-in-cheek finale, which sees Jon Snow wield an Infinity Gauntlet in a lightsaber duel with the Night King, the characters accept that the fan-serving version of what the finale should be probably would have been just as ridiculous. Disappointed as some of us are with the finale, certain parts of fandom are yet to catch up with that epiphany.
All else aside, we’d be willing to bet that, in time, the finale will go down smoother upon reflection. Separate from the hype and the discourse, it’s still pretty good television. Give it five years and if you still want to pass judgement on Benioff and Weiss for it, well, you’d best hope they don’t choose trial by combat – they know at least three blokes big enough to play the Mountain.
Read our review of the Game Of Thrones season eight finale, The Iron Throne, here.