In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen perches on the walls of King’s Landing as the bells of the Westerosi capital toll in surrender. Hope flickers across Tyrion’s face, Lannister soldiers throw their swords at a relieved Jon Snow’s feet, Cersei purses her lips in defeat, and Daenerys, after a brief moment of tension, launches Drogon into the city, beginning an interminable, relentless massacre.
It’s the last time Daenerys appears in the episode, relegating the would-be-queen to what feels like an unnatural anonymity. Daenerys, who was sold by her brother like timid chattel to the Dothraki, who came into her own as Khaleesi, who inspired both love and unrest in Mereen, was rendered inaccessible at her most pivotal moment, her point of view obliterated along with the citizens of King’s Landing. She’s just one of many Game of Thrones characters whose interiority has been destroyed this season, contributing to what has become the show’s slow collapse.
It’s not that cruelty and violence are out of the norm for Game of Thrones; it’s that cruelty and violence without a point of view are. For the majority of eight seasons, the show has taken its time with character development, ensuring that the audience is well acquainted with each character’s internal conflicts, dialogues, drives, and urges. Consider the Red Wedding: an utter blood bath reveling in shock value and gore, but nevertheless subtly teased by previous episodes that established Robb Stark as well-meaning but obtuse, and Walter Frey as ruthless and petty. When Theon tried to conquer Winterfell with a single crew of Ironborn in season two — and then burned two children alive to cover for his own failure — his point of view had already been well-defined through interactions with both his real family and his de facto one. As an audience, we’d witnessed Theon’s awkward dynamic with the Stark siblings — not quite a brother to them, but not exactly a complete outsider either — and had seen that even after his long-awaited homecoming to the Iron Islands, he was still unwelcomed and uncelebrated, considered to be less Ironborn than his sister, Yara. We understood Theon’s internal struggle to prove that he belonged, and so his betrayal made sense, even if it was stupid and cruel.
Interiority is crucial to this sprawling story. It’s why we cared enough to keep such a big roster of characters straight in the first place. It’s why we root for Tyrion but shuddered at Ramsay Bolton, even though both character murdered their fathers. When the explosions end and the dust clears, we want to know who is still standing and who we’ve lost, who has learned something and who will return to their old ways. The spectacle of dragons, White Walkers, and epic battles draws us in, but it’s the feelings, failures, and growth of Game of Thrones’ characters that keeps us locked in its thrall. At its best, the show is as much a series of intimate psychological portraits as it is sweeping fantasy drama.
But over the course of the last two seasons, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have largely abandoned the POV-focused storytelling that made Game of Thrones shine. There seems to be a few reasons for this, including the departure from George R.R. Martin’s original source material beginning in season six. Anyone who has read the books know that each chapter is written from a different point of view, setting up the show to be written in a fashion that prioritizes a similar POV-heavy narrative. The early seasons did just this, maintaining a sense of individual perspective across storylines. (When Catelyn Stark arrested Tyrion at an inn in season one, believing he sent an assassin to kill Bran, the scene used Lady Stark’s fierce maternal desire for justice as a lens, not Tyrion’s sense of bewilderment, maintaining the POV set out in Martin’s first installment.) But going off-book isn’t the only explanation: Before season seven, it was rare for a typical scene to feature more than two or three principal characters, keeping each interaction tightly focused on individuals. As characters converged and the ensemble cast began to share one screen, focus drifted from individual self-reflection, resulting in ensemble sequences like Tormund, Brienne, Pod, Davos, Jaime, and Tyrion reminiscing and drinking before the Battle of Winterfell, which, while fun, also felt hollow and sitcom-like (the notable exception being Brienne’s knighting).
Even more apparent is that Game of Thrones has traded in the interiority of its characters because it needs to rush the plot across the finish line. This descent into a reliance on action and dialogue began in earnest in the last two episodes of season seven, characterized by a harebrained scheme to kidnap a wight from beyond the Wall, orchestrated by a veritable treasure-trove of characters. Jon, Jorah, the Hound, Tormund, Gendry, Beric, and Thoros — whose development and growth many viewers have relished over six seasons — were reduced to caricatures. Jon Snow scowled angstily. The Hound brooded on some snowy hillocks. Tormund delivered horny soliloquies about Brienne. In effect, the show reduced what could have been an interesting combination of characters into a doomed, cartoonish walking tour. Then, when the season-seven finale served up a grand meeting of Daenerys and Cersei’s advisors in the Dragonpit at Kings Landing, both the Lannister and Clegane sibling reunions felt paltry and sidelined. Even the showdown between the two queens reduced each character to a sketch: Daenerys was a tardy ruler who showed up with her dragons (barely registering her momentous arrival in King’s Landing, the city that houses her supposed birthright), and Cersei was no more imperious and cold than she is to any other human being. Rather than delve into each character’s perspective, they became interior-less pawns meant to push the plot forward, establishing a pattern that’s become commonplace throughout the eighth and final season.
Of course, there are still glimmers of interiority as Game of Thrones draws to a close. Tyrion freeing Jaime from captivity, choking back tears as he proclaimed that Jaime was the only person who never treated him as a monster, at once rings true to Tyrion and Jaime’s character development as well as advancing the plot. Sansa’s suspicion toward Daenerys and her loyalty toward her family are natural consequences of her long, painful journey back to Winterfell. Arya stumbling through the wreckage of “The Bells” brings to mind a similar sequence of her staggering through Braavos to escape the Waif, reminding us not just of her persistence and strength, but the great vulnerability and harm she experienced to get there. Even Daenerys sacking Kings Landing and descending into madness had the potential to act as a function of her interior if worked in gradually, giving the audience reason to believe that this sort of hellfire and brimstone could be a part of her inner conflict. All the way back in season two, Daenerys saw a vision of the Iron Throne wreathed in something that could have been snow or ash, which is to say: The events of “The Bells” was established as a possibility six seasons ago. But instead of more thoroughly developing that character arc over the years, Game of Thrones relied on one scene of Daenerys sulking in her quarters (sans makeup), a wig with undone braids, and Emilia Clarke’s impressive facial contortions to carry this violent outburst.
From Cersei’s sudden sentimental frailty moments before her death, to Arya allowing the Hound to talk her out of the revenge she’s obsessed over for years, the crucial moments leading to Game of Thrones’ conclusion are rendered hollow because the characters we’ve loved and loathed are reduced to mere plot devices. In the end, the “game” was always a ruse. The real heart of the show was the people it portrayed, not the political machinations, the scheming, or the epic battles. Without interiority, the whole story becomes empty.