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Shock and Bore: How ‘Game of Thrones’ Surprises Lost Their Edge

Yes, Benioff and Weiss have subverted expectations in Season 8. But the biggest twist they could deliver on Sunday is a finale true to the show fans first fell for.

HBO/Ringer illustration

According to IMDb data, it takes one of two things to make a classic episode of Game of Thrones: a big-ass battle or a shocking twist. The show’s all-time top 15 installments, per millions of user ratings at the encyclopedic site, include “Battle of the Bastards,” “Hardhome,” “The Spoils of War,” “Blackwater,” and “The Watchers on the Wall,” all episodes centered on large-scale combat and carnage. As the rest of the top 15 makes clear, though, Thrones has also excelled when it’s centered on a small number of deaths that the audience didn’t see coming.

The series’ highest-user-rated episode is its eventful Season 6 finale, “The Winds of Winter,” in which Qyburn’s spies kill Pycelle and Lancel, Cersei murders Margaery and the High Sparrow by blowing up the Sept of Baelor, Tommen commits suicide, Arya assassinates Walder Frey, and Bran discovers Jon Snow’s parentage. Most of the other non-battle-based entries delivered indelible twists of their own: “The Rains of Castamere” (the Red Wedding), “The Door” (Hodor’s death), “The Children” (Tyrion revenging himself on Tywin and Shae), “The Mountain and the Viper” (Ser Gregor crushing the skull of an overconfident Oberyn), “The Lion and the Rose” (the poisoning of Joffrey), and “Baelor” (the execution of Ned Stark).

Even more than the massive CGI spectacles, the expectation-subverting scenes from that second group of episodes made Thrones the subject of the world’s watercooler conversations. One iconic killing at a time, Thrones became known as the show that could shock us—the rare long-running series that was willing to break rules and remove both heroes and villains from the board before what we thought was their time.

In some respects, it still is. The three episodes leading into this Sunday’s series finale have featured two giant battles and several significant character deaths—in theory, a crowd-pleasing formula for lofty user ratings. Yet those episodes are currently the show’s lowest-user-rated episodes ever, and only the nadir of the Dorne season stands in the way of Season 8 sweeping the bottom five slots. Dragging David Benioff and D.B. Weiss has turned into Twitter’s new national pastime, culture critics are churning out thinkpieces (like this one!) about what went wrong, and a petition to “remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers” has garnered more than half a million signatures. Even the cast has been critical.

The odd thing about the series’ frustrating finish (so far) is that it hasn’t actually abandoned its penchant for plot twists and daring deaths. Eight years and 70-plus episodes into its run, Thrones is still startling us. It’s just doing so in different, unwelcome ways. What we think of the D&D-directed finale—and, in the heat of the moment, perhaps the series itself—depends on whether they leave us with the sort of surprise that once thrilled us or the kind that’s currently leaving us cold.

In D&D’s defense, it’s difficult for a show that ascended to must-see status partly by killing core characters to keep culling at that pace. For one thing, even a series as rich as Thrones contains only so many characters whose sacrificial value outweighs what they deliver alive. Some of the surprise deaths transferred the focus to more compelling characters: Removing Margaery and the Lannister kiddos put the spotlight on Cersei, and killing Catelyn and Robb made more room for Arya, Sansa, and Jon. But certain subtractions would have weakened the show. (OK, they could have killed Theon.)

Beyond that, shock isn’t an endlessly renewable reaction: Once a show develops a reputation for being willing to wipe anyone out at any time, it’s no longer so surprising when it pulls the plug again. It’s even less surprising as the end approaches; after all, the final season of a violent drama is when we expect the decks to be cleared (in this case, sometimes literally). It’s harder to wow us with a well-chosen death than it was before, and defying fantasy tropes settles into its own predictable pattern if the writers overcorrect from “They all live happily ever after” to “They all break bad or die.”

Even so, on the surface this season has kept fans guessing—guessing what the showrunners were thinking, yes, but guessing nonetheless, which is saying something considering the decades of obsessive speculation that led up to this point and the narrowing of plausible possibilities during the denouement. D&D built up the Night King as the final boss of the series, then wrote him out of the script halfway through the last season. In Season 7, the closest thing Thrones has to a protagonist declared that “there is only one war that matters,” and the show ended that war weeks before the finale. Surprise! Conceptually speaking, that pivot was just as shocking as killing the head of House Stark before the first season finale, the new head of House Stark before Season 4, or an earlier villain, Joffrey, just a few episodes after the Red Wedding.

In other developments that took the audience aback, most of our heroes lived through the Battle of Winterfell, maybe because not killing characters is the new killing characters from an expectations standpoint; Dany, regarded by many viewers as a messiah in the making, rage-quit her attempt to win Westeros’s heart and turned into a tyrant; Jaime and Cersei made up and died in a loving embrace; famous prophecies that launched a thousand Reddit threads went by the wayside; and a fully leveled-up Bran, at least for the first five episodes, has mostly sat on the sidelines and stared. Plenty of fans have soured on this season, but while we could all see Cleganebowl coming, “It’s too predictable” isn’t the most common complaint.

So why aren’t this season’s surprises as satisfying as the old ones? It’s because of the contrast in what creates the surprise. Thrones’ past surprises stemmed from meticulous plotting and careful character work; we may not have seen the climactic moments coming (unless we’d read the books), but they felt right in retrospect. The recent surprises don’t seem so premeditated. These twists have upended expectations because they come off as half-baked.

We knew Ned, Robb, Catelyn, and Co., which made their deaths seem momentous and heightened the series’ stakes. We never knew the Night King, so his death felt less like a payoff than a disappointing dead end. Nor did we question the consistency of the characters involved in previous seasons’ surprises. The Freys would totally turn traitor and break the bond of bread and salt. Of course Cersei would wildfire the sept. But would Dany destroy King’s Landing after the battle was won? No one would question her capacity for violence or her hunger for the throne. But we could question how abruptly her bloodlust descended and how little it seemed to serve her purposes compared to her previous power trips. If a surprise flows from poor pacing and plotting—if a character flies into a trap because she “kind of forgot” about it, then survives an even more dangerous situation because the showrunners “needed it for the story line,” the surprise isn’t that we failed to foresee it, but that the writing failed to foreshadow or justify it.

Although the stumbles this season—and last season, and to a lesser extent starting soon after the series surpassed the books—have made George R.R. Martin look good, D&D shouldn’t bear all the blame for Thrones’ turbulent 2019. Martin may be the master of telling intricate tales in the setting he conceived, but he hasn’t landed his series smoothly either.

“I’ve been struggling with it for a few years,” Martin said late last year, talking to The Guardian about the missing sixth installment of A Song of Ice and Fire. “The Winds of Winter is not so much a novel as a dozen novels, each with a different protagonist, each having a different cast of supporting players, antagonists, allies and lovers around them, and all of these weaving together against the march of time in an extremely complex fashion. So it’s very, very challenging.”

No wonder Benioff and Weiss were tempted to cut corners and leave a lot of loose ends: If it’s taking the creator this long to finish his saga, maybe Thrones is a Gordian knot better sliced than untied. They may have made a mess of things lately, but at least they’ve kept cranking, producing seven much-watched seasons since A Dance With Dragons dropped. Now D&D are fielding offers for overall deals—and setting their sights on the next Star Wars trilogy—even as their reputation among their original audience erodes like George Lucas’s post-prequels. To restore that lost luster, the 80-minute finale would have to do a lot of lifting, revealing the fate of the Seven Kingdoms and charting the course of each central character while somehow recasting the season’s earlier episodes in a more flattering light.

Thrones drew viewers in years ago because it confounded them, and now it’s pushing them away because it’s confounding them again. Whatever we see on Sunday, at least one more surprise is in store: that the season some spectators have already written off found its touch just in time, or that a show that once knew how to please people couldn’t endear itself to the audience at the end.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.