The final season of Game of Thrones has been disappointing at best and infuriatingly bad at worst. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised; we built up the final season in our mind for so long there was no way it could live up to the hype. But the quick collapse of the beloved HBO series calls to mind another infamously misguided ending that ignored years of story to deliver a rushed, predetermined ending. I am talking, of course, about How I Met Your Mother.
For those unfamiliar: After nine seasons, How I Met Your Mother's creators used the show's flexible narrative structure to throw out years of character development and story in order to give Ted (Josh Radnor) and Robin (Cobie Smulders) the happy ending that had been planned since early in the show's run. It made no difference the show's final season had focused entirely on Robin's wedding to another man, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), that Ted made a very big show of letting go of Robin, or that the Mother (Cristin Milioti) was no longer just an idea of a person but a flesh-and-blood woman whom viewers had become invested in. The creators, Craig Thomas and Carter Bays, seemingly refused to accept that the story they told for nine years no longer fit the ending they envisioned, or that they had no idea how to get from Point A (Ted meeting the Mother) to Point B (Ted ending up with Robin after the Mother's death). The finale was critically panned and remains divisive more than five years later.
Game of Thrones' collapse isn't exactly the same — if HIMYM went on too long, Game of Thrones isn't long enough — but it is worse, and not just because it's playing out on a far greater, more global scale. It's also because the show has been in decline for a few years now.
For its first four seasons, Game of Thrones was a richly woven tapestry made up of many delicate, interconnected threads. The show often moved at a glacial pace, but the slow-moving story gave the deepening narrative time to develop and the characters time to grow — and to react to what was happening to them and around them. The rewards of the show's labor were much sweeter, and Game of Thrones was better for it. But as the series approached the point where it would outpace George R.R. Martin's novels at the end of Season 5, the cracks started to show, and the quality of the series started to diminish (oddly enough, this is also when the show started to win Emmys thanks to Academy rule changes).
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss struggled to reach the same depths without the source material to act as a guide, and by Season 7 they were leaning on an accelerated pace and shorter seasons in an attempt to cover up the fact they too had no idea how to get from Point A to Point B (which is presumably the same ending planned for Martin's novels, should he ever finish them). At first viewers were happy to see the show pick up the pace a bit, but then characters started making wildly confusing decisions, relevant stories took place entirely offscreen, and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) — who is absolutely the Ted Mosby of Game of Thrones — was positioned as the show's true hero despite the fact that he failed far more than he ever succeeded. And this was all so Benioff and Weiss could reach their predetermined end in time for the finale.
It didn't have to be this way. In the same way How I Met Your Mother would have been better off (though still in no way satisfying) had the final season not chronicled the wedding of Robin and Barney and focused instead on the years between when Ted met the Mother and when he reunited with Robin, Game of Thrones could have been improved with different pacing. If the show had given Daenerys' (Emilia Clarke) descent into madness the proper time to develop rather than having her suddenly snap in the penultimate episode of the series, then her becoming the Mad Queen likely would have been better received by fans and critics.
This is because unlike HIMYM's finale, Daenerys as Mad Queen is a development that at least makes sense in theory, if not in execution. There have been hints at Daenerys' destructive destiny throughout the series' eight-season run, like her actions in Meereen or burning the Tarlys in Season 7. But until now her violent actions have largely been portrayed as heroic rather than unnecessarily brutal. In short, the series did none of the work required to get Dany to a place where she could believably set all of King's Landing aflame without regard for its people — the very people she claimed she wanted to free from tyranny — who were burned alive in the streets as they attempted to flee.
Leading into this week's episode, Daenerys had been betrayed by Varys (Conleth Hill) and had lost two of her dragons, aka her children. Those experiences, when coupled with the recent deaths of both Jorah (Iain Glen) and Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), clearly affected her in a major way. But that still does not add up to the young woman we saw in Sunday's "The Bells." Her character, who I suspect the writers never expected to become quite so beloved by fans, became the latest to fall victim to Benioff and Weiss' ineffective and rushed writing. And this pattern of complete disregard for story and character ultimately reveals that the two have no respect for either.
That's really where all of Game of Thrones' major issues lie. The show's accelerated pace in Season 7 initially had its fans; it meant we no longer had to wait entire seasons for characters to finally meet or for major action sequences to occur. But it quickly became very clear the writers were cheating us out of a thoughtful story in order to put the show to bed. They don't care about the characters they've been writing for eight years or the people who've invested nearly a decade of their lives in the show. Instead of taking the time to develop the final act of the series so the payoff made sense, Benioff and Weiss bamboozled viewers by trading substance for spectacle, something many may have thought they wanted but realized too late was about as fulfilling as cotton candy.
In the end, Game of Thrones' final two seasons have been nothing more than cheap illusions, and now we're left staring down a series finale that will likely be so unsatisfying that we will all have to think twice before complaining about the How I Met Your Mother finale ever again.
Game of Thrones' series finale airs Sunday, May 19 at 9/8c on HBO.