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David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s Rush to Finish ‘Game of Thrones’

The showrunners said they didn’t need full, 10-episode installments for seasons 7 and 8, but the breakneck pace ‘Thrones’ has taken is a clear departure from years past—and comes with disheartening side effects

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Midway through “The Last of the Starks,” the much-memed antepenultimate episode of Game of Thrones, the forces arrayed against Cersei assemble at Winterfell to plot their attack on King’s Landing and its beleaguered queen. “We will hit her hard,” Daenerys says. “We will rip her out, root and stem.”

Her advisers try to talk her down. Tyrion reminds her that indiscriminately ripping out roots without caring about collateral damage is more of a Mad King move. Varys notes that Cersei’s allies are already dwindling. Jon suggests a siege. And Sansa observes that the survivors of the Battle of Winterfell could use a bit of a break before marching south to take part in a second Miguel Sapochnik set piece. “You want to throw them into a war they’re not ready to fight?” Sansa asks.

Dany grudgingly accedes to the siege, but she doesn’t want to wait to put the plan in motion. “We have won the great war,” she says. “Now we will win the last war.”

With two 80-minute episodes remaining in its final season, Game of Thrones finds itself in a similar situation. The show has won the war for ratings, critical acclaim, and cultural cachet. Now it wants to win the war for a satisfying finale, delivering a pleasing payoff for fans that will prevent any tarnishing of the series’ reputation. But much as Missandei, Rhaegal, and Dany’s fleet paid the price for their leader’s impatience Sunday, Game of Thrones seems to be suffering from a similar hunger to arrive at its goal. Even more so than in Season 7, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are playing the part of Daenerys, so fixated on the finish line that they don’t seem to mind how many major story lines are diminished or how many minor story lines get killed in the carnage.

The perplexing part of Thrones’ hurry to remove itself from our screens is that almost no one was rooting for a rapid resolution. Viewers don’t want it to end. The media doesn’t want it to end. HBO doesn’t want it to end. Only the showrunners are ready to wrap things up. In an interview published before the final premiere, D&D made it clear that they were the ones insisting on stopping at eight seasons and limiting the last two to a total of 13 episodes. “[HBO] said, ‘We’ll give you the resources to make this what it needs to be,’” Weiss said. Benioff added, “HBO would have been happy for the show to keep going, to have more episodes in the final season.” But the showrunners refused. “We always believed it was about 73 hours, and it will be roughly that,” Benioff continued. “As much as they wanted more, they understood that this is where the story ends.”

It’s always tempting to keep a good thing going, and plenty of profitable franchises have overstayed their welcomes, whether out of a reluctance to cede the stage or a naked desire to make more money. If the showrunners were right about the series’ natural lifespan, their decision to walk away would be commendable. But the past two seasons strongly suggest that they’re pulling the plug prematurely, ending it all when the story had lots of fulfilling life left.

It’s not just the way that the series summarily did away with the Night King after seven-plus seasons of building him up as the ostensible Big Bad. The audacity of that decision is almost admirable; in a sense, the Night King’s death was as stunning as the stabbing of established hero Robb Stark. The difference is that we didn’t really know the Night King. Because the show never let us inside his horned head, his death felt like a letdown, an overly abrupt abandonment of a story line that might have gained greater depth.

Let’s suppose, though, that the Night King was unknowable, and that Weiss was right when he said in 2016 that the leader of the White Walkers was “just a force of destruction” and that “anything he said would be anticlimactic.” If his existence was never more than a means to the end of uniting other characters whose mouths actually move, the decision to deep-six him was defensible. In theory, less time spent on the Night King meant more time spent on the Lannisters, Starks, and Targaryens.

In practice, though, the series is speeding so quickly toward its denouement that the characters we care about are being given short shrift too. Jon and Ghost aren’t on speaking terms. (Narrator voice: Their parting did not play out “much more powerfully that way.”) Bran’s mystical makeover has made him more of a meme than a fascinating figure with thought-provoking powers. Tyrion’s intelligence fluctuates from week to week. In the span of a single episode, Jaime goes from good guy to dirtbag—admittedly, not for the first time—deserting a suddenly boy-crazy Brienne. Crucial scenes are omitted entirely: In “The Last of the Starks,” the camera cut away from both Jon’s defiance of Dany in telling his supposed sisters that he’s actually cousin Aegon and Sansa spilling the same tea to Tyrion.

Granted, we can infer what was said in both of those scenes, so if D&D were trying to strip the script down to its studs to save time, those exchanges were logical cuts. But why, when handed a blank check and a creative license with no expiration date, would they put a higher priority on trimming the running time than presenting two emotional, momentous, long-in-the-making moments? And why, when faced with those self-imposed constraints, would they choose to parcel out some of the screen time in such a frivolous fashion? If there’s room for a foursome and an Ed Sheeran shout-out, isn’t there space to see Sansa and Arya react to the revelation of Jon’s parentage and claim to the throne?

If the show’s characterizations were the lone casualty of its sprint to completion, tight plotting could still save the season. But because the pace is so accelerated, many corners are cut. Characters come and go without purpose or preamble. (Hi, Bronn. Bye, Bronn.) The Golden Company, which may play a pivotal role in the fight for King’s Landing, has barely been seen. The world of Westeros, which once seemed so big, has shrunk to a pinhole: Yara retakes the Iron Islands (and presumably learns about Theon’s demise) off screen, additional updates on the political picture arrive via low-effort lines like, “The new prince of Dorne pledges his support,” and the commoners Varys pledged to protect are abstract, faceless fodder for the fighting queens’ ambitions.

Euron repeatedly pops up to even the odds, bearing weapons we didn’t know existed (except in a far less effective form). Dany “forgot about” his fleet, which she was warned about in the previous scene. (We have ample evidence that Jon, while brave and skilled at swordplay, is legitimately bad at battle strategy, but someone should be better at this.) Those legendary dragons are easy fodder for projectiles, and Dany doesn’t hold off on her strafing run until nighttime or simply circle around from the stern. Cersei, never one to be bound by propriety, passes up a chance to take a shot at Dany (or at the very least, her hand) instead of beheading the dragon queen’s personal assistant. And Euron doesn’t react when Tyrion announces that he knows about the baby Euron believes to be his son.

Sometimes Season 8 has been too dark to see; at other times, it’s felt like looking at a strobe light, as the apparent teleportation that started last season has sent characters careening around the realm via jarring jumps in time and place. “We’re used to having a whole season to get to a point,” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the actor who plays Jaime Lannister, recently said. “Now suddenly, a lot of things happen very quickly.” We know our way around this world, so maybe it makes sense for the series to fast-forward through tedious travel or yadda-yadda Dorne in the interest of sustaining excitement as the climax nears. But excising those slow moments still comes at a cost. Although the fates of the core characters are almost certain to be decided, events are unfolding with so little time for reflection that Thrones is in danger of not being about anything. Maybe the message is that it’s easier to talk about breaking the wheel than to do it when the throne is truly attainable. But with another large-scale conflict looming, we’re running out of time to see our aspiring rulers wrestle with their inner needs and desires.

It’s long been evident that D&D are less besotted by the fantasy elements of the series than many fans who fell in love with the books, but lately they’ve been slipping in the places where we expect them to excel. If we can’t count on complex characters or satisfying storytelling, we’re left with little except obligatory battles, box-checking death scenes, and CGI spectacle (provided direwolves aren’t involved). The anachronistic coffee cup that sneaked into Sunday’s episode would have gone viral regardless of the circumstances, but the timing made it a metaphor. Although it may have been unfair—this wasn’t the first time that the show has flubbed a production detail, and that oversight isn’t necessarily indicative of other ills—the cup seemed to symbolize the sloppiness that’s plagued the rest of the season. And unlike the coffee cup, frustrating writing can’t be wiped away after the episode airs.

If Thrones loses its last war because its stewards wanted their watch to be over, the series’ rushed ending could be remembered as one of TV’s all-time unforced errors. Shepherding Thrones is a draining responsibility, and D&D can’t be blamed for wanting to do something different after working on the show for more than 12 years (although they can be blamed for Confederate). Handing off the series they started to someone else would have been a difficult decision, but it may have been the best one if their hearts and minds were far, far away. Pushing to end a series sooner than the network and audience dictated isn’t always a worrisome sign, but the only winner will be George R.R. Martin if the results in this case are closer to Lost’s than Breaking Bad’s.

There’s still time to avoid a Lostlike legacy. And even in abridged form, Thrones remains riveting because of the investment viewers have made in its characters. But that deep identification makes it seem like a bigger betrayal when those characters act in ways we don’t recognize—especially when those deviations arise because the showrunners are seemingly more eager to exit this world than we are. Asked before the premiere about his plans for the finale, Benioff told EW, “I plan to be very drunk and very far from the internet.” Considering the responses to Sunday’s episode, that bender may begin earlier than planned.

In his recent spot on 60 Minutes, Martin said that to be faithful to his books, the show would have to run for another five seasons. That might be a bit much (not that we wouldn’t watch), but the show’s abbreviated endgame has made it more movielike in its choices about what to skip past. We’d forgive the show for eliding the odd prophecy or failing to tie up every last loose end; after all, Martin may never finish the books (although he vows that he will), whereas D&D are delivering at least some resolution. But based on what we’ve seen so far, the series’ final season may leave fans pining for a compromise between never finishing and finishing too soon.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.