Our watch is almost over, and it’s been a bumpy ride. Whether you’re looking at Rotten Tomatoes scores or Twitter discourse, the back half of Game of Thrones‘ final season has proven controversial, to put it mildly. While not absolutely everyone would say disappointing, a huge contingent would—and has, very loudly.
To be fair, so much of Game of Thrones remains incredible—the acting, the score, the cinematography, the VFX, the production design, to name a few. That all of this outstanding work is stuck with writing that can’t even remember a character’s name (who the actual fuck is Gendry Rivers?) only makes the situation all the more frustrating. The final season has been a strange mix of racing to the finish line and wasting time, deeming Sansa and Arya’s reaction to Jon Snow’s “Aegon Targaryen” reveal unworthy of screentime, but making room for one last lengthy “Tyrion can’t speak Valyrian” joke. And what even is Bronn’s plotline?!
But I digress. To be clear, I’m not about to spend this article trying to break down what is or isn’t wrong with season 8. There are already more than enough hats in that ring. What I mean to do here instead is to address one particular argument I have seen gaining traction online: the idea that a bad ending makes the entirety of Game of Thrones a waste of our collective time.
Even though I vehemently disagree (more on this later), the sentiment is also deeply familiar. Prior to starting Game of Thrones, I avoided getting into television series as a general rule for this exact reason. It seemed a significant investment more or less doomed to end in disappointment, between the rock of cancellation and the hard place of a bad finale. Why would I do that to myself? No, I’d stick to movies and the occasional BBC miniseries, thank you very much.
Even now, will only be, by my estimation, the fifth long-running television series I have ever watched in its entirety. There are a handful of other shows I keep up with that are still airing, and then a very long list of ships I jumped mid-journey. Television is one regard in which I have no loyalty—one truly aggravating season, or in special cases one particularly inflammatory episode, and I’ll toss a show aside like yesterday’s trash (e.g.: Fringe, Once Upon a Time, Arrow, The Walking Dead, How to Get Away With Murder, and Doctor Who, just to name a few).
And then came Game of Thrones.
I started watching the show to celebrate the end of my high school career. It was senior spring, and I felt like Henry Bemis in “Time Enough at Last” before he dropped his glasses—suddenly, my schedule was freer than it had ever been. There was finally time now. I could turn to the long backlog of TV shows and books and movies that had built up throughout my high school career and get cracking, guilt-free. I can’t even remember what the other items on the list were now, but I do recall that Game of Thrones rose to the top because I had started to get really into the band The National, and I figured it would be cool to appreciate “The Rains of Castamere” in context. It’s the little things.
Anyway, I got really into it. To be clear, I’ve always had a fannish personality—I wore sparkly red shoes as a toddler because Dorothy did in The Wizard of Oz and my favorite dolls were my Star Wars action figures—but by the time I graduated high school Game of Thrones had become my new main squeeze. When season 4 began in April 2014, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Stark and a Lannister, but by the time “The Children” aired in June, I was not just fully caught up and watching episodes live, but had read all the books and become the family expert on everything Westeros. I bought merch and embroidered house words on pillowcases, wrote fanfiction, and drew fan art. The one time in college I actually dressed up for Halloween I went as Missandei because finally there was a character from something I liked that I could bear something of a resemblance to without wearing a wig or feeling like I was low-key white-washing myself.
Somewhat poetically, my Game of Thrones journey began in the last days of my high school career, and now, as it comes to an end, so does my time in college. I started watching this show by myself, on my laptop, wearing headphones. Now I watch it every week with a group of friends.
As I wrote back in 2017, season 7 left me decidedly underwhelmed, so I entered this final stretch with low expectations. And, relative to that low bar, I was pleasantly surprised by the first half of season 8. “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” had some of the best character moments on the show in recent memory (you’re a real one, Bryan Cogman) and “The Long Night” was superbly directed, even if the battle tactics were conceived entirely in terms of what would look cool as opposed to what would strategically make even a modicum of sense. But then came “The Last of the Starks,” and suddenly I was thinking back to my old high school attitude towards television shows.
Had 16-year-old me been right all along? I didn’t know how to feel. Sad? Betrayed? Like a total idiot for being suckered yet again?
And then, a few days later, one of my viewing party friends said she had something to show me. She took out her phone and pulled up a video. A more casual viewer than the rest of us, she had discreetly filmed a snippet of our post-show reactions to the latest episode. The room was dark so that you couldn’t see much. You could, however, hear us very clearly—a cacophonous chorus of enraged fandom.
I burst out laughing.
At that moment, I finally realized an important point that my darker musings had overlooked: the sum total of the journey is far greater than the destination. Nothing can take away the good things that Game of Thrones has brought into my life—not even Game of Thrones itself.
“The Bells” in particular might have divided social media, but in real life, I have overwhelmingly experienced Game of Thrones bringing people together. I have watched it help build friendships and foster a sense of community. The series has proven its usefulness as an icebreaker on more occasions than I can name—less pathetic than talking about the weather but not nearly as high-stakes as bringing up politics—and sparked wonderful moments of connection between strangers. (On that note, a special shout-out to that one gregarious Cheesecake Factory waiter who excitedly joined me in the 2016 installment of my “Gendry is an important character, where the hell did he go?” lecture, delivered annually to my father during the great rowing trip of 2013–2017, when he inevitably forgot Gendry ever existed.)
Of course, I wish Game of Thrones was coming to a more triumphant end. I wish I were looking forward to Sunday with excitement rather than a sense of tired resignation. It’s a terrible way to end what has, overall, been a wonderful journey. But no matter what happens this weekend, the journey was, and always will be, incredible. The show has changed my notion of what television can be, of the epic heights to which “small screen” media has the potential to climb. All of this will still be true even if the series finale proves to be the worst disaster imaginable.
Game of Thrones is the biggest thing to ever happen on television—one of the great pop culture phenomena of our times. There’s never been anything like it before. Some might be quick to say there won’t be anything like it ever again. Even though I’ve never been accused of being much of an optimist, I don’t think this will prove true. From Trilby in the 1890s to Harry Potter in the 2000s, history indicates another story is bound to burn its way through the Zeitgeist like a particularly infectious virus sooner or later. Considering the current state of things, it seems like a television series—likely something from a streaming service—is the most probable candidate for the next Biggest Thing Ever.
And when that Next Big Thing does arrive, there’s a decent chance it will end up coming to a disappointing end. I’ll be there with bells on, anyway. Because if my experience with Game of Thrones has taught me one thing, it’s that the journey was worth it. To whatever end.