Can Game of Thrones be salvaged in 80 minute final episode?

In the early hours of Monday morning, the world’s favourite show will reach its hotly anticipated conclusion. Now, after a couple of disastrous episodes and with just 80 minutes left to wrap things up, we’re starting to doubt whether Game of Thrones can stick the landing. We all knew it might end badly, but we never thought it would end… badly.

At this season’s midway point, we saw Arya Stark wipe out the Night King and his army with a single plunge of her Valyrian steel dagger, prompting some viewers to claim that Game of Thrones (GoT) had jumped the shark — or dragon, as the case may be. But long-time fans celebrated the moment as a sign that the show was going back to its roots as a family drama, with all of its attendant feuds, back-stabbing and power dynamics.

Once the show ran out of material from George RR Martin’s books to adapt, it became increasingly enamoured with explosive action and supernatural threats, but, at last, it seemed that GoT would return to what it does best: exploring the political machinations between the noble houses of Westeros.

As the final episodes continue to roll out, however, it’s clear that showrunners DB Weiss and David Benioff have come to prize spectacle over substance, relying on splashy set pieces to make up for the neglect of meaningful character development. With other projects lined up, including a Star Wars trilogy and drama series Confederate, Weiss and Benioff elected to skip an additional season, or even a full 10-episode order, in favour of an accelerated six.

That choice has been evident in GoT’s dizzying pace, which means every instalment so far has felt rushed and incomplete. The penultimate episode was the worst offender: it may have been GoT’s most technically impressive chapter to date, yet it doubled down on all of the show’s worst narrative and character impulses.

Earlier seasons of GoT embraced the show’s shrewd schemers and cold calculators, but in recent seasons, there hasn’t been time for slow-burn plotting or subtle plays: the show has struggled with Tyrion Lannister, the former tactical genius now incapable of making a good decision, and in this week’s episode, clumsily disposed of master manipulator Varys after an uncharacteristically abrupt act of treason.

Similarly, Jaime Lannister’s carefully honed redemption arc was tossed out just as recklessly as the young Bran Stark he pushed from a window in the very first episode. The man who once delivered a heart-wrenching monologue about how he sacrificed his honour and became the “Kingslayer” to save the people of King’s Landing now shrugs, “I never cared for them.” His death in Cersei’s arms could be seen as a fitting conclusion for the Jaime we met in episode one — if you ignore everything else that’s happened to this character in the past eight seasons.

But GoT’s biggest problem has always been its treatment of women. That failing was on full display in the penultimate episode, a clash of queens between Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen. Following the defeat of the Night King, Cersei was positioned as the final ‘Big Bad’, and fans were eager to see whether the allied forces of Dany and the North would conquer the ultimate evil. But then, all of a sudden, the focus shifts again: as the bells ring out to indicate Cersei will surrender, Daenerys decides to lay waste to the city anyway. She is now the true villain of the series.

This particular twist demanded at least another handful of episodes to feel earned — no amount of smudged make-up or eye-twitching atop a CGI dragon is going to explain such a dramatic transformation — yet aside from the debate over whether this was a well-crafted character development, it’s, at its core, a boring and disappointing turn for the show’s most powerful female character.

The show has spent years establishing Daenerys as something greater than her family’s heritage, but in the eyes of the showrunners, a Mad Queen incinerating King’s Landing makes for better television.

GoT was more interested in creating a showstopping battle to definitively illustrate the show’s underlying message that war is hell. Showstopping it was, yet it had the unfortunate effect of reducing Daenerys to a flat, faceless supervillain, the Dothraki — the only people of colour in the series — to savages, and Jon Snow to the noble saviour who must rescue Westeros from his crazy ex-girlfriend.

Cersei, meanwhile, was devastatingly diminished: the once-formidable opponent, one of TV’s best, spent her scarce appearances this season watching from the window of the Red Keep, glass of wine in hand. Her absence from most of the season led fans to believe we’d be treated to a jaw-dropping denouement in the later episodes, but instead, this famously aggressive villain was delivered a pathetically passive death.

With just one episode to go, there’s unlikely to be room to devote to the emotional beats and rich storytelling that made GoT great. It looks as though the showrunners have committed to the idea that “bigger is better”, but the shock factor that elevated Ned Stark’s death and the Red Wedding doesn’t carry the same narrative impact here: rather than enriching the story, Dany’s about-face simplifies it.

Next week, then, is likely to be all about Jon and Arya Stark’s response to Dany’s genocidal madness. And we can almost certainly expect another major twist: is Dany pregnant? Could she end up burning down the throne? Will Jon take her down and return to the North?

Game of Thrones deserves a smarter resolution — perhaps the throne will be dismantled, giving rise to a democracy with an elected president such as Sansa or Bran Stark. Hopefully, there’s still time to learn that bigger isn’t always better.

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