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No One Knows What Makes a Good Episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ Anymore

The more central the show has become to pop culture, the less agreement there has been on what keeps it there

HBO/Ringer illustration

Was the Battle of Winterfell an awe-inducing spectacle or a disappointing anticlimax? Was its follow-up a refreshing return to form or a failure of its characters? When Arya Stark instigated a tryst with her longtime friend, was it an assertion of agency or the disturbing sexualization of a protagonist we’ve largely known as a child? When her sister Sansa told the Hound she’d still be a naive child if it weren’t for her brushes with monsters, was it a feeble justification for gratuitous suffering or a fair portrait of a survivor’s attitude toward her own trauma?

For a television show that still has the unparalleled capacity to bring audiences together in historic numbers, Game of Thrones has proved critically divisive in its final season. Over the four episodes that have aired thus far, with just two still to come, the fandom has yet to experience a moment like the jaw-dropping final sequence of “The Winds of Winter,” or the surprise thrill of the retroactively titled Loot Train Attack, or even an expertly handled tête-à-tête on par with “I want her to know it was me”: an uncomplicated, that-was-awesome moment for viewers to rally around. Instead, every installment, and virtually every scene within them, has been met with dissension in the industrial complex—this site included—devoted to dissecting the show’s every twist and turn. The more central Game of Thrones has become to culture, the less agreement there has been on what keeps it there.

What widespread consensus there currently is around latter-day Thrones holds that the series’ M.O. has radically changed, an evolution that can be traced to a couple of inflection points. First, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss overtook the source material of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, around Season 6. The nature of this departure was less dramatic than it initially seemed. Martin had already walked Benioff and Weiss through the broad strokes of his master plan for the saga; Benioff and Weiss had already begun to streamline or otherwise tweak Martin’s original narrative, as book fans who spent years anticipating the arrival of Lady Stoneheart in vain can attest.

But this natural crossroads was soon followed by another, possibly more impactful shift: Benioff and Weiss’s decision to end the show after eight seasons. They also opted to do so with two abbreviated volumes, weighing in at just seven and six episodes apiece as opposed to the series’ usual 10. Seasons 3 and 4 stretched a single book of Martin’s writing into 20 hours’ worth of television; seasons 7 and 8 squash two novels’ worth of events into just 13. The showrunners have indicated this choice was theirs and not their network’s: “HBO would have been happy for the show to keep going, to have more episodes in the final season,” Benioff told Entertainment Weekly in a preseason interview. Suddenly, and of its own volition, Game of Thrones was saddled with the exact opposite of Martin’s dilemma in concluding the books. On the page, there’s a virtually unlimited amount of space in which to flesh out the battle for the Iron Throne, allowing the story to grow to the point of unmanageability. On the screen, a hard, looming deadline has forced Thrones to condense and speed up, fundamentally altering the show’s sensibility.

The results of Thrones’ new reality have been extensively cataloged, up to and including the accelerated travel times, the skipped-over conversations such as Jon’s revelation of his true identity to his siblings, and the ambiguous pacing around seemingly significant plot drivers like Cersei’s pregnancy. Naturally, toying with the internal logic of a show so driven by actions and their consequences will start to have an effect on its characters. “We’re used to having a whole season to get to a point. Now suddenly, a lot of things happen very quickly,” actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau told Vanity Fair earlier this week. For instance: In the space of a single episode, Coster-Waldau’s Jaime Lannister had sex with Brienne of Tarth, briefly committed to staying with her at Winterfell, and abruptly changed course to ride south and rejoin his sister Cersei—whether to help or harm her remains unclear. “Trying to connect the dots between the scenes was a little complicated because you invest so much time, so many years in these characters … there’s so many things that obviously you can’t go through, on-screen, all of these moments, but you have to still walk through them in your mind,” Coster-Waldau said. Old Thrones made tensions within families one of its richest mines of material. New Thrones engineered an unnecessarily forced conflict between Arya and Sansa, then resolved it offscreen for a dramatic reveal. It’s not just the actors who have trouble following their characters’ internal logic anymore.

Once distinguished by its dedication to process and the psychological aftermath of world-historical events, Game of Thrones has transformed from a series where circumstances generate outcomes to one where outcomes dictate circumstances. (Dany can’t take King’s Landing in a blowout? Kill one of her remaining dragons with a giant crossbow!) The impact of this fundamental pivot on Thrones endgame remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, the resulting confusion over how to evaluate or respond to the new status quo is telling in its own right.

An axiom of criticism holds that art should be evaluated for what it’s attempting to be, not what the critic would like it to be. That calculus is slightly different when it comes to a project like Thrones, which starts to deviate from the standards its own creators established and upheld in earlier seasons. But it does mean that at a certain point, protests of logical inconsistencies or rushed tempo start to fall flat, worn out through repetition. Clearly, what were once top priorities for Thrones are no longer guiding its overall direction. In the absence of such overarching standards, though, how does one judge late Thrones on its own terms? Even if one accepts as a given that latter-day Thrones lacks the transgressive qualities of its earlier years, they’re still left to distinguish between what weighs the show down versus what continues to make it exceptional.

For some, Thrones’ remaining pleasures lie in the feats of production that place it at a larger scale than any TV show in history; if you didn’t appreciate the Battle of Winterfell’s outcome, you still have to respect the two months of night shoots, hundreds of extras, and millions of dollars that went into it. For others, including myself, Thrones remaining highlights are concentrated in quiet moments between tremendously charismatic actors; even if you can’t justify what got them in a room together, you have to respect the chemistry between Bronn, Tyrion, and Jaime. Even when observers share the same rubric, however, its applications can be different. To some, Arya’s propositioning Gendry was a textbook case of Thrones hyperspeed taking a toll on a character’s natural maturation. To others, it was a rare moment of connection for connection’s sake on a show that rarely has time for them anymore.

As anyone who’s participated in the years-long debates over its portrayal of sexual assault could tell you, Game of Thrones is no stranger to critical controversy. But in Season 8, disagreements over the show’s execution have a different tone. Rather than holding Thrones to a generally agreed-upon standard of subverting fantasy tropes, there’s a collective attempt to sort out exactly where it’s moved the goalposts to, with little alignment to show for it. (Even the widely held belief that Thrones has waned creatively is not universal.) Of course, little is less exciting than groupthink. Yet the confusion outside of Thrones seems reflective of the confusion within it, as Benioff and Weiss scramble to tie off any number of loose ends by any means necessary. What makes for a great scene, episode, or season of Game of Thrones anymore? Even Thrones itself can’t seem to answer the question.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.