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We Were Too Harsh on 'Game of Thrones'

The imperfect final seasons of Game of Thrones aren't bad enough to undo years of remarkable TV.

game-of-thrones-season-8-episode-4-dany-after-missandei
Daenerys Targaryen's descent into the Mad Queen was one of Game of Thrones season 8's most resented moments. 
HBO

Cersei Lannister was a woman of spite. "I want you to know what it's like to love someone, to truly love someone," she tells baby brother Tyrion in an early Game of Thrones moment, "before I take her away from you."  

Cersei made good on her threat, eventually turning Tyrion's lover against him. That pain of betrayal is one that about 2 million Game of Thrones viewers would go on to feel. By the time the dust settled and the wheel was broken, cries of outrage over Game of Thrones' ending season were ubiquitous.

HBO produced a show that viewers truly loved. Then took it away. But as we prepare to return to Westeros in the upcoming House of the Dragon prequel, it's time to admit something.

We were all too harsh on Game of Thrones.

For much of the 2010s, Game of Thrones was the most celebrated show on TV. It brought enormous acclaim and record-breaking audiences to HBO. A few episodes, like The Red Wedding, are legitimately iconic. Yet not everyone thinks of these accolades when Game of Thrones crosses their mind.  

Instead, they think of the show's final season. They think about a stretch of episodes that splattered ugly red on a most meticulously crafted painting. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones' showrunners, became villains responsible for killing our darling. Nearly 2 million people signed a petition making the implausible demand that HBO remake Game of Thrones' eighth season to give the show a suitably august ending. 

To be sure, Game of Thrones lost some direction in its final years. This drift began with season 7, after Jon Snow was declared King in the North and Cersei blew up the Sept of Baelor to become Queen. Season 7 had pacing problems and questionable character development: Cersei, for instance, became a caricature of evil, while the entire Arya versus Sansa plotline felt like a circuitous route to Littlefinger's death. 

These problems were amplified in the final season. Fans point to an array of issues. Daenerys Targaryen's sudden descent into the Mad Queen is perhaps the most common grievance. My biggest gripe was Jaime Lannister's character arc being shattered by his spontaneous return to Cersei. The fiasco of Bran the Broken and the nothingburger that was Jon Snow actually being Aegon Targaryen loom large among other complaints. 

Jaime Lannister's story arc shattered when he chose to die with Cersei.

Helen Sloan/HBO

But, as Stannis Baratheon told Ser Davos, a bad act does not wash out the good. Even when Game of Thrones was at its worst, it was still good

Saying that everything hit in the final years would be a lie, but resentment over the bad can blind people to the good. Even in the final two seasons, there were an abundance of great moments. The conference in King's Landing. The death of Littlefinger. Ser Brienne. The last 10 minutes of the Battle for Winterfell. Drogon burning the Iron Throne. Jon Snow shanking The Mad Queen.

Benioff and Weiss have been endlessly harassed online, but the most profound reason for their victimhood is their own success. Game of Thrones' final seasons were only bad if you're comparing them to Game of Thrones. 

The merits of controversial final seasons isn't the point, however. Irrespective of the sour taste Game of Thrones may or may not have left in your mouth, the truth is that the show changed the palate of TV watchers. It changed TV.

It seems obvious enough to point out that Thrones paved the way for grown-up fantasy epics like The Sandman, The Witcher or even Amazon's upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel (not to mention flat-pack fantasy filler like The Wheel of Time, which really shows how good Thrones was). But what about Stranger Things? What about Marvel? Would Disney have spread $200 million between Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist and Luke Cage if Thrones hadn't proved the huge appetite for TV with cinematic production values?  

That success was paved by a historic run of immensely captivating TV. The Red Wedding and The Battle of the Bastards are legendary episodes, but those are only a pyramid's tip of great storytelling. Below them is Blackwater Bay, Hardhome and the beheading of Ned Stark. The pyramid's foundations are the complicated-but-satisfying relationships that Thrones excelled in: Ned and Robert, Varys and Littlefinger, Arya and Tywin Lannister, Arya and The Hound, Jon Snow and Ygritte, Bronn and Jamie. While we're here, pour one out for Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton, two perfectly awful villains. 

The failings of Game of Thrones' final seasons are painful. But writing off a show that was so good for so long just because of those failings would be Cersei Lannister-level of spite.