What makes a “great” television drama? “Great” is a largely meaningless term. There are dramas that are well written, but not particularly influential. There are dramas that are influential, but not particularly well written. Then there is the cream of the crop, the dramas that are both well written and influential. While it is impossible to assess how influential a show will be two days after its series finale, I’m confident that Game of Thrones will fit squarely in the category of influential, but not particularly well written.
Was it well-written at times? Absolutely – especially when it stuck closely to its source material, George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” There were many times the writing was bad during the last two seasons, and there were times that the writing was as bad, if not worse, throughout the series. Examples include Daenerys’ visit to Qarth, anything involving Ramsey Snow, violence against women that did not happen in the source material, the mustache-twirling villains of Craster’s Keep, Arya’s layover in Braavos, and Jaime’s misadventures in Dorne. Theon Greyjoy, for instance, spent most of the series in a poorly written subplot, so his demise in the final season does not deeply resonate despite the fact that Alfie Allen has been in the main credits since the very first episode.
The rushed and sloppily written final two seasons may be the show’s most obvious writing failure at the moment, but let’s not forget that the show constantly underwhelmed in its depiction of one of the most compelling characters in the source material, Jon Snow. While Kit Harrington’s portrayal of Snow has proven popular, the book version of Jon Snow is one of the smartest and emotionally complex characters in the entire series. The show, on the other hand, often portrayed Snow as well-meaning, but dull and not very bright.
So yeah, Game of Thrones is flawed. But it is also pushed the technical boundaries of the medium of television drama further than any series that came before. Game of Thrones has given us hundreds of unforgettable images, from the birth of the dragons to the knighting of Brienne of Tarth. When I think of Game of Thrones, I won’t always think about how Daenerys’ heel turn at the end was sloppily written, but I will remember images, such as the one of Jon and Ygritte looking out from the top of The Wall.
I can reasonably predict that Game of Thrones will be more influential as a technical achievement than anything else. The way it handled a sprawling story that took place over a decade, over two massive continents, with hundreds of characters will be a text that creators will look at when designing their own equally ambitious television series. Game of Thrones proved that no series is “unfilmable,” and that may be its most important legacy.
I can’t quite “rank” Game of Thrones yet, but as of right now I would not put it in the same league as The Wire or Mad Men because of its inconsistent, and sometimes outright bad, writing. A better comparison would be The West Wing. The West Wing pushed the boundaries of technical achievement in television, not with dragons and white walkers, but by demonstrating a cinematic, “lived-in” feel that still resonates in the industry. Like Game of Thrones, The West Wing is a rewarding show on the second or third viewing. Also, like Game of Thrones, The West Wing suffered from poor writing, especially during its final seasons, which resulted in an ending that felt disappointing and failed to resonate as deeply as it could have.
In conclusion, Game of Thrones gets an A+ for technical achievement, but a C+ for writing. That said, here are some of my favorite moments from Game of Thrones:
- The Battle of Hardhome: A scene loaded with unforgettable images, not just the iconic “Night King raises the dead” scene.
- Jon and Ygritte climb The Wall: One of the few times the show did justice to a Jon Snow plotline from the books.
- Daenerys burns Astapor: This reads differently in retrospect – not so much a moment of triumph as an ominous harbinger of things to come.
- The Hound eats your chicken: Game of Thrones could be really funny at times, especially when it partnered interesting characters together, like Arya and the Hound.
- Arya reunites with Nymeria: the last two seasons were flawed, but Arya’s moment of clarity when reuniting with her lost direwolf was a highlight.
- Tyrion’s “trial by combat” at the Vale: with great dialogue and our introduction to the Bronn/Tyrion friendship, this was an early highlight.
- Oberyn Martell’s introduction: sometimes Game of Thrones brought in new characters slowly, sometimes it introduced them by showing you exactly who they were and what they were about.
- “No true king ever needs to say, I am the king:” man, Charles Dance was great as Tywin Lannister, wasn’t he?
- Battle at the Wall tracking shot: you know which one I’m talking about.
- “And you will know the debt is paid:” anytime Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey shared a scene it was pure gold.
That’s a wrap on the final season of Game of Thrones! Thanks for reading!
© 2019 D.G. McCabe