Game of Thrones finale was so disappointing I actually miss the books

I loved how the show distilled the novels. But I will stomach George R.R. Martin's bloated, rapey prose again if it can help me understand Daenerys.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
5 min read

Daenerys may have got what she deserved, but viewers deserved to understand more about it.


The Game of Thrones finale achieved what I thought was impossible: I'm actually longing to know how author George R.R. Martin will write it.  

Unfortunately, it'll be a long wait. When Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books left off eight years ago, Daenerys Targaryen was still stuck in Essos, figuring out how to control her dragons -- and Martin's conclusion is still two books away.

I got hooked on Game of Thrones when the first season aired in 2011. Daenerys rose from the ashes of a funeral pyre with three dragon babies, and I decided to dive into Martin's series of novels to find out what would happen next on her journey to the Iron Throne. Reading in tandem with my husband, we blew through 3,000-plus pages.

But somewhere halfway through Dance of Dragons, the fifth and latest novel Martin published, I put the book down and didn't pick it up again. And until this eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, I expected I never would.

The books were bloated and slow. Too many characters. Too many obscure sigils. And crucially for me, too rapey.

Martin is a master of fantasy world-building, and he invented a world where rape is so common he routinely describes it happening in increments of "half a hundred." It's a turn of phrase common throughout the novels -- half a hundred trees, half a hundred spells, half a hundred graves. But a world where that act of violence against a woman must be multiplied by 50 or 100 or more, for it to carry dramatic weight? It became a world I simply got tired of visiting.  

Watch this: Game of Thrones season 8 finale: Our watch has ended

I'm not giving the television series a pass. One of its biggest controversies was the rape of Sansa Stark in the fifth season, a flashpoint in a larger debate about television's portrayal of sexual assault.

But I'll give the writer of that episode -- and Game of Thrones generally -- credit for approaching the subject with gravity, at least. 

After the executive producers suggested closing the door on the camera, writer Brian Cogman advocated against blunting the reality of Sansa's nightmare, according to an interview with Vanity Fair: "I am the one, God help me ... who said, 'If we do this are we being dismissive of what that real horror would be behind that door? Are we being disrespectful of the severity of that situation?'" Cogman said.

I prefer that over Martin's casual dismissiveness.

It's telling that Sansa's season 5 scene provoked an outcry. However, pre-phenomenon Game of Thrones season 1 faced no backlash when it portrayed the same thing happening -- and more graphically -- to Daenerys. The audience was a fraction of the size then, but it was also when Game of Thrones was most faithful to the author's world. A single rape is bad but let's not get all bent out of shape about it.

So after 3,000 pages and with only a few hundred more to go, I stopped. More than that, I would routinely tell people who didn't read the books that they shouldn't start. Watching the TV series, which distilled the best parts of Martin's books with less drudgery, was enough.

But Game of Thrones' last season wasn't enough.

Here's your official warning:   

One reason the show's telling felt freer than the books' was that it broke from Martin's convention of point-of-view chapters. Each chapter of Martin's books is told from the perspective of a different character. On the downside, that slows down the narrative. But it has the benefit of giving readers intimate access to characters' minds and motivations.

Daenerys, with her heel-turn to tyranny and her tragic end, is the mind I miss most in Game of Thrones' final season. I wish viewers had been afforded more scenes like the one between Sansa and Daenerys in Winterfell's library in this season's second episode, where we got one glimpse of Daenerys bristling at ceding any part of the Iron Throne's dominion. Or -- it nearly gives me hives to say it -- I wish we had more scenes between Daenerys and Missandei talking while they braid each other's hair, like in season 4.

Would it have helped explain Dany's enraged snap decision to go on a genocidal dragonfire bender across King's Landing at the moment her quest for the Iron Throne was won? Maybe not. But I wonder whether Daenerys Targaryen's tragedy will make more sense if and when Martin writes it. Will it knock my feet out from under me, instead of making me scratch my head and shrug?


Watch the Throne.

In Tyrion's crowning monologue of Game of Thrones' finale episode, he questions what unites people. Armies? Gold? Flags? No, it's stories. 

"There's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it," he says. "And who has a better story than Bran the Broken?" 

Oh really, show? It would have been great if you'd told more of the story behind Bran's mysteries then.

On Monday, Martin said the book series' conclusion will mirror the show in some ways and diverge from it in others. 

The entirety of Twitter, it seems, has already debated the quality of Game of Thrones' storytelling as the seasons progressed beyond the books and downsized from 10 episodes to just six. And people much keener than I am -- I bend the knee to Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair and Mallory Rubin at The Ringer -- have discussed it insightfully. Like them, I don't have grave misgivings about where these characters eventually ended up.

Going into Sunday's finale, it felt irreconcilable that fans could spend so much time watching eight seasons of Game of Thrones and still lack enough time to understand why characters are ending up where they are.

Now that our collective watch has ended, my reconciliation is to embrace that this last season deftly delivered some astonishing feats of television spectacle. That it was an unprecedented achievement. And that the last season's storytelling was also so bad it made me nostalgic for books I don't even like. 

Game of Thrones stars, from season 1 through today

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Originally published May 21.
Update, May 22: Adds details about Martin's books and his characterization of the book series' ending.