Despite the Game of Thrones conclusion coming straight from the mind of George R.R. Martin himself, the finale was controversial and divisive; thus, the show should have forged its own ending separate from the books. HBO’s critically acclaimed fantasy series was adapted from Martin’s long-running and, as-of-yet, unfinished book series A Song of Ice and Fire. The show recently wrapped up its eighth season last year, despite Martin claiming that there was enough material both written and planned in the books for more seasons.
Season 8 was a messy culmination of the show’s downhill spiral, which arguably began in season 5, worsened in season 7, and crashed and burned in season 8. A lot of the qualities that made the show great were completely absent from the final season, such as the nuanced political intrigue and realistic depictions of war and combat, replaced by illogical plot points and ignorant character decisions. What sealed the deal for a lot of fans, however, was the literal conclusion of the show: with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the Mother of Dragons and liberator of slaves, turning heel and becoming a mass murderer by burning King’s Landing to the ground.
With such a massive revelation, it’s clear that the twist could have only come from George R.R. Martin himself, which fits with the author’s reports that he’d revealed the ending of the books to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss years ago. Despite being an adaptation of Martin’s work, Game of Thrones would have been better off crafting a different ending to their story from the one originally planned, because by season 8 the show had practically become a new narrative.
As revealed by the showrunners, certain elements of the story’s endgame had been revealed to them early, due to the fact that Martin has yet to finish the books and the show surpassed the written material with season 6. These include specifics such as the reveal of Jon Snow’s (Kit Harrington) parentage (which Weiss and Benioff had to guess in order to secure the rights to adapt the material), as well as the origins of the slow-witted stableboy Hodor (Kristian Nairn). But in particular, Martin disclosed the actual ending of the books to the show’s writers, which fans can only assume made up the broad strokes of season 8.
The biggest plot point, of course, is Daenerys Targaryen’s burning of King’s Landing. In the show, it’s such a jarring transition for the character that the only way it could make sense is if it came from the author himself. In the books, Martin is afforded precious context and nuance that would serve to make Daenerys’ fall from grace make sense, whereas the show had to rush towards the conclusion without the development needed to properly write such a character arc. The same can be said for Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) becoming King of Westeros; aside from the actor himself revealing that Bran’s fate came from Martin, it’s another instance of a twist in the show making little to no sense outside the context of being planned for the books.
While the big events make sense to have come straight from George himself, there are also smaller intimate details that make sense as being planned for the conclusion of the books. One that immediately springs to mind is Jon Snow being the one to kill Daenerys. Martin has repeatedly talked about the irony of the title of the series being A Song of Ice and Fire, from the contrast between Dragons and White Walkers, to the supernatural struggle between the Great Other and the Lord of Light. But there’s a deeper irony to the idea of Jon Snow, a boy from Winterfell, falling in love with Daenerys Targaryen, the last of the Dragonriders, only to inevitably be forced to kill her. It speaks to the “bittersweet” nature that Martin has referenced multiple times when discussing the ending of the series. On top of this, Jon Snow abandoning his titles and leaving with the wildlings to go beyond the Wall is also fitting, as the books make a much bigger deal of his time as a spy amongst them and his deep love for Ygritte than the show does.
By the time that season 8 rolled around, Game of Thrones was a much different beast than A Song of Ice and Fire. True, the stories still focused on the same characters, and big plot events were still sort of similar, but the show had always been taking liberties with the source material. In the first four seasons, the changes were minor, but around season 5, the writers began to realize that they would quickly surpass the point in the story that Martin had written up to. Because of this, major changes to the material began to take place to make up for the gaps in story that the showrunners didn’t know. These include things like completely ignoring Lady Stoneheart as a character, radically changing the Dorne plotline after the death of Oberyn Martell, and the removal of Young Griff, a character that Tyrion encounters on his way to Meereen who may be either Rhaegar Targaryen’s trueborn son or a Blackfyre pretender.
For the most part, each season of Game of Thrones was an adaptation of a singular book, with the exception of seasons 3 and 4. Looking at the book series this way, these dropped subplots may not have seemed important to the overarching story in the eyes of Benioff and Weiss. However, seeing in retrospect which parts of the show’s ending had been planned by Martin, it’s clearly obvious that the elements the show left out are going to become very important to the books’ endgame, even if fans don’t know how just yet. This is only more proof that the subplots and characters left out during seasons 5, 6, and 7 pushed the show even further from Martin’s original story, to the point of becoming its own narrative.
Even though it’s obvious that the show had gone downhill in terms of writing quality and thematic depth, what’s responsible for the show’s current cultural decline is the ending. Fans watched for 8 years eager to find out just who would sit on the Iron Throne, and the ending that they got simply felt underwhelming, despite it being Martin’s planned ending. The problem is the show had lost so much of the well-written nuance that was found in the books and the first four seasons that Daenerys becoming a dictator felt completely out of left field, despite that kind of character twist being extremely on-brand for the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. By season 8, Game of Thrones had simply become crowd-pleasing and fan-serving entertainment, and the general audience didn’t want a bittersweet and morally complex ending.
Had the show written a different ending, one that pleased fans at the cost of abandoning the conclusion originally planned by George R.R. Martin, it wouldn’t have such a ruined perception in the eyes of pop culture. Despite its flaws in the final seasons, Game of Thrones still had a massive and die-hard fanbase right up until the end. What disappointed fans of the show the most wasn’t its slow decline in writing and characterization (although everyone was aware of it happening), the final blow was the underwhelming ending. Hypothetically, had the show gone with one of the fan theories for its ending, one that audiences clung to like Daenerys or Jon sitting the Throne, it would have been pandering fan-service, but it would have given most of those same fans a satisfying conclusion. The problem is that the show wanted to have its cake and eat it too: by abandoning most of the later half of the source material while still pulling off the high-brow conclusion. As a result, audiences everywhere rejected the disparity.
The most unfortunate aspect of the final season of Game of Thrones isn’t that the ending is badly executed, but that it spoils the twist of Martin’s books. This was something that was felt with Jon Snow’s parentage being revealed in season 6, as there were dedicated book fans that had been waiting for nearly 30 years to find out that secret only to have it told to them in an adaptation. Part of the blame lies on Martin himself for not finishing the series by now, but it is tragic that his work was surpassed and finished through a lesser quality version.
If the show had concluded with an original ending, not only would it have pleased fans, but it also would have preserved the integrity of Martin’s ending. Even though it’s unanimously assumed that Martin’s version of the ending will be better written and more contextually appropriate, the element of surprise will never be recaptured. Benioff and Weiss could have written a conclusion satisfying to the show’s narrative, setting fans up to read Martin’s book expecting one thing, only to be completely floored by the alternative. Unfortunately, instead of being a satisfying yet alternate narrative in its own right, Game of Thrones will always be remembered for fumbling the ball in its final season and becoming a pop culture pariah in the process.
More: Game Of Thrones Ended 1 Year Ago Today: What The Backlash Got Wrong