Why didn't the penultimate episode of the beloved series stick the landing?
Ending TV shows in a way that is both satisfying and surprising is very hard. Time and again shows in this 'Golden Age of Television' have had finales that left viewers and critics alike angry, hurt, and screaming “DRACARYS!” At their TV sets. We're not here to do that today. Whatever you thought of "The Bells," there are a lot of flaming hot (pun intended) takes out there, so instead we're going to break down the 'why.'
Screenwriting is an art, but there are some near scientific elements to it that have been identified and honed over the centuries. Storytelling and making sense of the world in narrative patterns is innately human.
Many have studied it. The result is certain rules, guidelines, and commonly agreed upon methods that build tension, create drama, and deliver satisfyingly.
Did GoT break screenwriting rules or are people just angry because they like to be angry?
Well, it's a little of both, so let’s break it down as everyone plays Monday Morning Network Executive (or Showrunner).
This is one of the big topics that’s going to come up.
Might be a little harsh... but that's how some people are feeling.
The crux of the conversation will be “does it make sense that so-and-so did such-and-such” And since plots are built around characters and their choices, you could argue that this is… well… everything!
TV shows often face the challenge of creating big arcs that end because the medium is in its nature a series of small episodic arcs that must be renewed.
GoT was always a contained story arc (though it is based on a still unfinished book series), so finality existed.
The end, THIS END, to be specific, has been known for some time. Writer George RR Martin sat down with HBO Showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss to tell them how it would end so they could wind their way there.
We can assume that while they varied things in some ways, Daenerys Targaryen was designed to make this "heel turn." That is, she was set up to “become the very thing she swore to destroy”... and destroy everything in the process.
As many will point out, the seeds have been planted long ago...she crucified slavers, burnt Dothraki, and wanted to demolish Meereen. Weiss and Benioff even said themselves; she took some glee in watching her brother die at the hands of Khal Drogo. She's killed those who surrendered.
Her father was the 'mad king' who wanted to burn everyone to the ground as well.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=t95UtXbbPqk
At the same time, there is the suggestion she decided in the heat of the moment (pun intended) to burn King's Landing. But it had been motivated by a series of other events.
So why then are people unsatisfied with Dany's arc?
There is a lot to this question. Let's get out of the way right off the bat that "Dany" has become part of the cultural lexicon. Babies are named after her. There are a bunch of memes circulating now about how naming your child after her might feel a bit weird now…
We won’t get into her place in the cultural landscape here. We’ll approach this from the technical side of storytelling.
The old saying "truth is stranger than fiction" applies here. While Dany's actions make sense from a logical standpoint, they may not have unfolded in a satisfying way from a storytelling standpoint. Yes, people can "go crazy" suddenly with family history and plenty of recent trauma. But motivations are extremely important to a character's arc. Dany's goal for the entire show has been to sit on the iron throne. There was no obstacle left in her way.
She had suffered many losses in recent episodes; Jorah, Missandei, her dragons, and even Jon's love. But it all happened very fast, and you'll hear people say "the runway wasn't long enough.”
What does that mean exactly?
Just that we spent every year of the show MOSTLY seeing Dany as a breaker of chains, a person of mercy, and unwilling to hurt innocents. In a relatively short amount of recent screen time, she’s suffered a lot. But it was a disproportionately small amount of screentime.
It doesn't "feel" earned to everyone. Even if technically it makes sense.
Another problem: The last straw for Dany in her turn was actually Jon Snow resisting her advances the night before the battle because... she's his aunt.
This one is a tricky final straw since Dany and Jon only just recently fell in love. Fans wonder why she doesn't also feel weird about the incest. Or why she cares so much about Jon's reciprocated love that it would replace her caring about countless lives.
Little explicit there, but when we put 2 + 2 together in the sequence of events, it leads us here and it feels... weird.
But the bigger evidence that the evidence wasn’t quite there is that the writers themselves seemingly piled it on this season. They gave Dany one big motivating loss after another. Did they too feel this needed to work and they couldn’t find that ONE thing that made it work perfectly?
Truly smooth screenwriting makes you feel like big moments are surprising and yet inevitable at the same time. That’s very hard to pull off, but it requires some swiss watchmaking like precision.
The glut of ‘reasons’ Dany lost it stands on one side of the ledger. On the other side stands that fact that audiences feel it wasn’t earned. That tells us something important about those reasons.
Here is another character who's arc proved problematic:
Jaime Lannister went from an easy to hate villain to a conflicted kind of hero. He went from a liar to a man of his word.
His actions in the final season have been a bit confusing. He seemed content to walk away from Cersei and find new happiness and different life, but when he sensed Cersei was in danger all that changed.
When Jamie said goodbye to Cersei in Season 7 to honor the vow to fight for the living, he could have then reasonably wanted to come back to her eventually. But he chose Brienne. Until he changes his mind because Cersei is in danger.
But why didn't Jaime realize Cersei was in danger when the surviving armies of the Long Night and the Dragons, started their march down to face her?
Some fans thought Jamie was going back to Cersei to kill her and save everyone, instead, it seems he just wanted to be closer to her. To save her? To convince her to turn good?
When he speaks to Tyrion in the tent before being freed he says he was caught for being stupid about exposing his golden hand. He also says he thinks Cersei has a chance to win. So has his allegiance changed again? When he was offscreen?
The core problem is you can feel the pull to get him 'back to Cersei', but so much of it is happening in the margins of the story, and without clear changes in the plot that would reasonably explain his changes of heart.
But what happens on Jaime's final road to Cersei leads us to other issues:
Coincidences in Writing
Coincidences happen in real life, and we are usually tickled by them. The universe aligned in a such a way that two people both wore the same outfit on the same day unplanned!
(Just don’t say it’s ironic)
Those are always bad.
Because audiences know that what they are watching isn’t real. So they also know that if a coincidence takes place, a writer decided that.
It follows then that they also recognize that the writer did this for a reason. And the reason usually serves some other goal or need, obvious or not, that takes everyone out of the story.
So you can see how a coincidence ruins the experience. It fractures the suspension of disbelief.
Is this fair?
No. Coincidences happen all the time.
Could Euron Greyjoy, having jumped from the wreckage of his Iron Fleet, found a way to the shore and cave that happened to have Jaime Lannister walking by that spot at that moment?
Sure, it COULD happen… but it’s not super likely… that makes it a coincidence.
And pretty soon audiences are looking at the situation recognizing that it’s the end of the show, Euron has been set up as Jaime’s rival and they must battle it out… and it feels very falsified. It feels fabricated. It ruins the illusion.
A coincidence that makes it harder for characters to reach a clear objective is said to work better if you must have a coincidence.
Euron was there to block Jaime from reaching Cersei, so this coincidence is bad for Jaime.
But does it work? It certainly is up for debate and people around the world have very strong feelings both ways. The bigger problem is that the last few episodes hadn't sharpened Jaime's character focus, they've dulled it because he's made a few choices, and statements, that contradict his past.
Jaime does end up with Cersei, as was his goal, and they die together, so whatever obstacle Euron provided through the convenience of his arrival on the shore, it was a very minor one.
Plant and Payoff
Finally, we’ll look at another screenwriting guideline that helps make stories flow, but if it isn’t utilized properly also takes audiences right out of the moment. The plant and payoff idea is pretty simple, and it’s often referred to by another name Chekhov’s gun. Here is how he put it:
“If, in the first chapter, you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story.”
It’s also called foreshadowing.
We sort of touched on this idea in the section about character arcs, but let’s also look at how it effects plotting even in one episode or action sequence.
In prior episodes, it was established that Cersei’s army had access to giant crossbows that could take out the Dragons. This re-appears as the Dragons fly to King’s Landing and the catch one by surprise.
This was a kind of plant-and-pay.
The threat established of the crossbows though, at that moment, seemed to pay off in reverse in ‘The Bells’. The scorpions (there were too many to count) all seemed useless at once.
The dragon, on the other hand, suddenly dispatched them, and every boat with them, with relative ease.
There are no actual rules to any of this of course, except the rules the show itself has established. The show planted that the crossbows are a real danger to the dragons.
It paid off that the dragon seemingly has no problem with the crossbows at all. This is one where having established a new tactic for the dragon against the crossbow would help the audience feel the resulting easy win was earned.
Even more dynamic could be a plan to handle the crossbows that goes awry, leaving the dragon and Dany to look for some other alternative route to victory, only finding one in another well established planted option that maybe audiences have forgotten.
Instead what we saw was a rock paper scissors game where the rules changed halfway through.
Again, did the rules really change?
Maybe not. Maybe a dragon can be attacked by a fleet of ships that were unseen, and then the next day the dragon uses some cloud cover to hide, and swoop in, anticipating the crossbows.
But the visceral experience we have of the action on screen is more important than how one explains the make-believe maneuvers.
One day crossbows posed a major dire threat. The next day they didn’t. We were given no new information about the reason for such a pivotal shift in power.
Up Next: other writing tools and what’s up with that lens flare?
Hopefully, we’ve helped illuminate some of why the choices made in ‘The Bells’ haven’t sat well with so many viewers.
There is always the fact that ending TV shows of this size and scope is hard, and wait… there has never even been one of THIS size and scope.
There will always be detractors out there, it becomes important (probably) to listen when many of them are saying the same things.
One rule of thumb always worth remembering is a quote from the great Rod Serling:
“Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.”
And while people will certainly blame Benioff and Weiss for the perceived flaws in Game of Thrones, it’s also worth keeping in mind that they wrote plenty of amazing episodes of television and helped craft and create a show that has captured many an imagination.
Also, maybe George R.R. Martin deserves at least some blame too. After all, he named the dragon Drogon.
He probably didn’t read our character names post.