Game of Thrones Final Episode: The Case for Compression
This week, we’ll be discussing the Game of Thrones finale. However, we’re not going to join in on all the negative feelings about this episode. Everybody knows the problems.
Instead, we’ll take a deep look at the episode and ask ourselves the same questions we’d need to ask if the ending of our own script or series wasn’t working.
Despite everything that’s wrong, all the problems and disappointment, what actually works in this episode? And how could we have built on that in a rewrite and transformed it into an episode that works?
It’s important to remember that though everybody is now asking for David Benioff’s and D.B. Weiss’ heads, these are the same writers who gave you all the episodes you loved. They gave you The Red Wedding, The Battle of The Bastards, Hodor, and all those moments you fell in love with while watching Game of Thrones.
So why did these same writers, who were able to give us those wonderful episodes we fell in love with, struggle in Season 8? What made this final episode feel like it fell apart for most of the people who watched it?
All the elements needed to make Season 8 of Game of Thrones great were already there. But the experience of watching this final season was like watching a rough draft, a draft that hasn’t been through all the steps we need to go through as screenwriters.
This is what makes the lessons of Season 8 incredibly valuable for you.
Typically when studying great movies or a great series, you’re looking at scripts that are truly finished. You don’t realize even great writers have had to go through the same crap you do, that their early drafts don’t look perfect. In fact, their early drafts are just as much of a mess as yours! They have to do the same work as you to make those drafts effective.
So, let’s discuss what that work looks like and how you do it. But before we do, I want to talk about the biggest thing getting in the way here.
There have been issues with Game of Thrones before. There have been small problems, big problems we’ve forgiven, and the same leaps in character logic that suddenly everyone is up in arms about now. However, most viewers found this season very difficult to forgive.
While I want to talk about what made everyone so upset, I also want to talk about what happened to the writers this season that changed everything.
Although people are asking for a Game of Thrones Season 8 redo with good writers, I would suggest that, in fact, these are good writers. Unfortunately, they are just good writers who shot and showed you a draft a little bit too early.
This is why it’s such a great lesson. I’ve seen so many of my students, brilliant writers, shooting drafts or sending scripts to producers, managers or agents a little bit too early. They take things that should have been moving and powerful, that everyone should have loved, but because they did it all a little bit too early and didn’t go through that final revision, they end up not getting the effect they wanted for their audience.
Something else also happened to these writers. If you were watching Game of Thrones this season you probably noticed you were staying up later and later.
That’s because Game of Thrones changed its format. Instead of short, hour-long episodes in a 10-episode season, Season 8 had fewer and longer episodes.
I would suggest this was actually the biggest mistake Game of Thrones made, and potentially the main source of the negative reaction the audience is now having.
When you allow yourself more pages in a script, as Game of Thrones did, you have to make fewer choices.
When you give yourself fewer pages and try to do everything as quickly as you can, you have to make very strong choices differentiating between your great stuff and your good stuff. What is the stuff you need to include and what stuff makes you say, “It would be great if I could fit it in, but I’ve got to cut it out?’”
If you look not just at this final episode but the whole season of Game of Thrones, and if you listen to my podcasts about this season of Game of Thrones, it will help you understand how the bloating of these scripts affected the editing process.
Because the writers didn’t have to make those hard decisions about the use of time in each episode, they ended up including a lot of stuff they really shouldn’t have. They moved the characters much more slowly in this season than in previous seasons.
Most writers think their script is all about a great ending, but this isn’t true.
The truth is, if things aren’t working along the way, then your great ending isn’t going to matter. If your great ending doesn’t grow out of character, out of the stuff we care about, it doesn’t matter how brilliant and visual and epic your storytelling is.
You can see this in Episode 5. There’s a dragon blowing everything up, there’s a level of spectacle and an amount of money spent that you’ve never seen in a TV series before. Yet all you feel is a disappointment because you don’t actually care about the spectacle. You care about the characters.
When we get to Episode 6, what we’re watching is two hours of dénouement, of resolution. The writers are attempting to tie up all the loose ends, and you simply cannot do that for two hours.
Think about the last image of Episode 5. For me at least, that’s the most powerful moment in Game of Thrones, Season 8. It’s the moment Arya approaches the white horse and rides away, where she lets go of revenge, and where, after this war, we have this moment of beauty.
The message the writers are trying to send is: How do you leave war, the desire for the throne and for vengeance behind? How do you break from that cycle and instead find your white horse and ride off into the sunset? How do you pursue your own journey?
The problem is that by the time you get to Episode 6, all the characters have already changed.
Warning, there are spoilers ahead…
The moment Jon Snow stabs Daenerys, you want to feel it; you should want to cry. The problem is, it’s very challenging to cry over a character who has become pure evil dying at the hand of a character who is pure good.
The Danaerys you want Jon Snow to meet isn’t the Dany who is bent purely on viciousness and power, who will definitely kill his sister in Winterfell and extend the war forever.
You don’t want to meet that Dany. You want to meet the Dany who is cognizant of her mistake, or the Dany you might at least believe is not just being manipulative but is actually trying to do something good. This way, you and Jon Snow can be in the same position of not being sure, of wishing and wanting to believe that Dany might not be the person you’re afraid she is.
You can’t mourn the death of a character you don’t care about anymore or whose actions you don’t believe.
But, if you were to find a different way to that moment, and I suggest one approach in my Episode 5 podcast, by which you believed and understood her actions while also knowing her actions were unforgivable, then it would put you in the position of feeling what Jon Snow feels in this episode which is, “It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel right.” That would be extremely powerful.
Structurally, you can’t take a character who is good like Jon Snow, who always does the right thing, put him up against a character who is now evil and consistently doing the wrong thing, and then have him slay her and have us feel sad about or feel anything. Our understanding of her has to be as complicated as his is. We have to feel the pain with him.
However, let’s assume the moment works. The problem is, what the hell happens next?
What happens next is, again, the same problem Game of Thrones has had all season. None of the characters, not even the dragon, can stay in character.
Yes, even the dragon, who until now we’ve assumed does not have a general sense of morality, whose main goal is to protect its mother, and who we understand to be a reptilian-brained creature.
Suddenly, rather than making a believable character choice, the dragon makes a symbolic choice to burn down the throne.
In order for us to believe this choice, we would have to logically accept several things: first, that dragons understand what a throne is and that Daenerys’ desire for the throne was what corrupted her, and second, that these dragons understand what was wrong with Daenerys as well as what Jon’s motivation was, along with all other aspects of the human world. Lastly, the dragon makes a decision to burn down the throne.
It is absolutely impossible to accept any of this the way the show is currently built.
If you wanted to build to this moment, you would have to start building the dragon’s reluctance many episodes ago.
Now, I don’t think that’s the right call. I think there’s another way to get that dragon to burn down the throne which would actually feel believable and still allow a dragon to be a dragon.
But if you want to believe the dragons are cognizant, you need to start feeling the dragons rebel earlier against Daenerys’ quest for power.
The shame is there is a moment that could have been used to do this, which is instead abandoned this season as just another loose end.
In the first episode, we find out the dragons aren’t eating and Dany is worried about them. There could have been a moment in the rewrite, a couple of moments, where you start to dramatize the dragon’s protest, or even their desire to fly away from this war. Then you might start to feel the pull of the dragons and the push of Dany, so that moment the dragon finally burns down the throne and flies away with her body would have some resonance.
When we build the structure of our scripts, just because a moment doesn’t work in your current draft doesn’t mean it’s never going to work. There’s a way to make anything work, you just have to be willing to keep rewriting.
So, the first problem is we don’t believe that good Daenerys became bad Daenerys, and we don’t feel Jon’s conflict because we’re ahead of him. We already know what he has to do.
The second problem is that the dragon doesn’t act like a dragon.
The third problem is that Grey Worm doesn’t act like Grey Worm.
We’ve been led to believe Grey Worm is willing to execute people on the street based on his queen’s orders.
Exactly how Grey Worm found out Jon did what he did, who knows? But it doesn’t matter. We all know the real Grey Worm would have slit Jon’s throat the moment he realized Jon had killed his queen. There is no way Grey Worm would accept a compromise that allowed Jon Snow to live, no matter how convenient it might be for the political point the writers are trying to make.
What happens is we lose our belief in all these characters’ choices. Even though we get a happy ending, we don’t believe the happy ending. We don’t feel happy because we don’t believe the choices the characters make.
Another problem is that the moment the sword is plunged into Daenerys’ chest all the action happens away from the character we care most about right now.
Up to this point, the dramatic structure of the episode has primarily existed between Jon and Daenerys. Once he’s killed Daenerys, everything that happens after doesn’t happen by Jon, it happens to Jon.
It doesn’t happen through the choices the main character is making. We don’t watch Jon walk away from the throne and disappear into the north lands under his own power, which would have been a beautiful moment we could have rooted for and cared about.
Rather than watch him walk away, we see him banished. He doesn’t earn his sad ending or his happy surprise. The ending is decided for him.
This is another lesson you can learn as a screenwriter.
If your script isn’t working, the first thing you should look at is your main character and ask, “Is my main character performing the action of the story or is the story happening to him? Is my character an actor in their own change or is the change being imposed upon them?”
If you could find a way to dramatize the action of the main character, the choices he was making, if you could watch Jon make a choice about the throne after the death of Daenerys and let go of the need for power that has plagued everyone in his world, we would have much more of a powerful ending. We would care. We would actually feel something.
The next lesson from this Game of Thrones episode is about staff meetings.
Staff meetings are boring. They’re boring in the real world of work and they’re boring in movies and TV shows.
We don’t want to watch a bunch of characters sit around and talk about their shit; we want to see characters doing stuff. If you are going to have characters sit around and talk about their shit in a staff meeting format, as Game of Thrones attempts in this episode, they’ve got to be the characters we love and something dramatic better happen! If you’re not going to do that, get out of there fast!
Instead, Game of Thrones has our main character sidelined and hanging out in jail, while secondary characters are sitting around talking and making decisions that are going to affect his life.
Tyrion is trying to do something; he’s had his great moment where he resigns as hand. But it’s hard to still feel connected to him. He’s spent the whole season making dumb decisions we know he’d never make, and we all know he shouldn’t even be alive right now given Cersei’s opportunity to murder him two episodes ago and Dany’s opportunity to murder him in this episode. He makes a somewhat corny, somewhat intelligent speech about storytelling saying storytelling is the way we understand ourselves and that stories cannot be destroyed.
Although I don’t love the execution of that speech, I do believe what he is saying. As storytellers, we control the mythology of our time. We create the mythology that allows people to know what it means to be a hero, to know what is good and what is bad, and to go on a journey in relation to themselves and find their vision of the universe.
In this way, all screenwriting is political. But the political aspects of screenwriting don’t come from speeches the characters make, they come from the character’s actions.
Obviously, Game of Thrones decided to get political in an overt way this final season. They decided their series is about tyranny and wanted to show how you take a dictator down.
There is clearly a reason to do this right now, which we can all probably agree to agree on regardless of our political views. We can all probably agree that tyranny is a bad thing and that we’ve got a problem in our country, so there is a reason to tell that story.
But when you want to take an audience on a journey where they come to some kind of realization about tyranny, you can’t do it with a bunch of speeches. You can’t do it with characters talking about the problem. You’ve got to move the characters in relation to the problem.
If you have a scene that isn’t working or, as in this case, you have a long sequence that isn’t working, there are a couple of things that you can do.
First, you can compress. It’s easy to see how this episode would have benefited from some compression. Squeeze it down, cut out everything bad, then cut out everything good, until you’re left with only the most essential stuff.
You can also see how simply having a 40-minute structure would have forced these writers to make the kinds of great choices they’ve been making throughout seven seasons of Game of Thrones. It would force them to move everything faster, to really use their writing and the moment to move the characters faster. They wouldn’t have time for these frickin’ staff meetings.
This brings us to the next element, which is the idea of engine we keep talking about.
We, as audience members, come to a show like Game of Thrones because we want a specific feeling.
If the writers give us that feeling, then we will accept any political message they want to deliver. But if the writers fail to deliver that feeling, then it doesn’t matter what they do because we’re going to tune out.
The feeling we have tuned in for over eight seasons of Game of Thrones is not a feeling of “morality.” It is a feeling of twisted morality. If a bunch of characters are sitting around giving speeches, we’re expecting a Red Wedding. If a bunch of characters are trying to do the right thing, we’re expecting someone to get killed.
If Jon Snow pierces Daenerys’ heart, we’re expecting the battle to end all battles with Grey Worm. If you promise that to the audience but give them something else, the audience ends up feeling baited and switched.
You simply cannot have an episode of Game of Thrones that isn’t full of action, because the engine of the show is action.
You have to find a way to outdo whatever your greatest moments are.
Let me tell you a story from one of my first experiences in the theatre world. One of my mentors was a guy named Jerry Zaks. I was lucky enough to be an intern when he was directing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway. I’m probably the first person to ever talk about Game of Thrones and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on the same podcast, but I think you can learn a lot from it.
The first thing to occur in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a big, silly musical number. The whole cast sings, “Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone, a comedy tonight!” It’s this big musical number that promises its audience exactly what they’re going to feel, which is, “Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns, bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!”
Jerry choreographed this moment so that while the whole cast is singing and they all run downstage, the curtain falls in front of them and the audience laughs. Then, while they’re all still singing behind the curtain, the curtain comes up to just their ankles and you only see their legs. They all continue singing behind the curtain as the curtain goes up to the ceiling and all the legs go up with it.
It’s a showstopping moment. It’s so funny and had the audience laughing so hard, they had to stop the musical until the audience could get their shit together so they could continue.
I’ll never forget a producer running up to Jerry at the break when we’d done our first run-through of the scene who said, “You can’t do this joke. You can’t do a showstopping number at the beginning of your musical.”
Jerry always clapped his hands and replied, “Why not?”
The producer said, “Because if you don’t get that funny again, the audience will eat you alive.”
And Jerry said, “That’s why we just have to keep getting funnier.” That was one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned as a screenwriter.
If you think about Game of Thrones, the writers make an incredibly bold decision this season. In Episode 3, they decide to have the big battle with the Night King, the most epic battle ever. Then, in Episode 5, they burn down all of King’s Landing and have another battle that, hopefully, outdoes the previous one. We can argue whether it did or didn’t, but the spectacle was certainly something.
The mistake the Game of Thrones writers made was they didn’t keep getting “funnier.” They didn’t keep getting bigger. You cannot have the last episode and not outdo what came before.
This is where compression comes in because in a rewrite you might say, “You know what, we just have to end with Episode 5.” There is enough story to end with Episode 5, or to fit the first 5 episodes into 8-10 episodes of reasonable length, and all you’d have to do is weave Daenerys’ death into the battle sequence at the end.
All you’d have to create is some feeling of what might happen with the throne beyond this. Even though you wouldn’t get to wrap everything up with a neat little bow, the audience wouldn’t care about the bow. The audience cares about the feeling.
Sometimes, to find out what the real moments of your story are, you actually have to write past them. Just as with the Game of Thrones finale, you have to write the bad draft and then ask yourself, “How am I going to build this in a way that’s believable and dramatic?”
Sometimes, to figure out what happens, you have to write the version you don’t believe, the version where the character acts in a way you don’t buy. Sometimes you just don’t have a choice! It’s the best you can do and that’s fine. But then you have to work backwards into it and ask, “How can this happen differently? Or, how can I build up to this in a way that makes it believable?”
This brings me to where I’d like to wrap up, which is with Grey Worm.
Grey Worm is, for me, the ultimate symbol of the power of tyranny in Game of Thrones.
He is a man who has defined his whole life as a slave. He is then freed and finds a new master, once again subjugating his will to hers only this time by choice.
Grey Worm is a man who believes he is free, but is really serving someone whose desire is not the protection of the people around her but her own power.
Of course, this is how wars happen. Without willing people who believe they’re fighting for freedom, who believe their leaders are good, you can’t have any of the atrocities that we see in Game of Thrones.
Quite frankly, you can’t have any of the atrocities we see in our daily lives.
If you want to take your audience on a journey that makes them wrestle with their own view of tyranny, you have to take the character who, like them, maybe isn’t aware of which “god” he is actually serving or how he’s subjugated his own will, not through slavery but through choice. You have to take that character on a journey.
You have to ask yourself, “Okay, I don’t believe in this draft that Grey Worm wouldn’t kill Jon Snow, but what would have to happen for that to be possible? What would have to happen in the structure to build to the moment where Grey Worm would step off that ride, where he breaks the wheel for himself? And how can I get him there in a way that doesn’t turn the world of my series into a two-dimensional, binary moral universe, but rather remains the complex, morally ambiguous, and often perverse one these characters have always inhabited and the audience has always tuned in for?”
If you can take the character on that journey, it’s going to outdo any symbolic action by a dragon. It’s going to outdo any speeches. All the elements are already there. It just needs a rewrite.
If you want to take your audience on a journey that changes their political view, you have to find a character they identify with and you have to change that character.
This is the incredible power we have as artists. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an “issue” movie, a big fantasy journey, an action movie, or a rom-com. We do shape the consciousness of the people watching.
But it’s not our words that do it. It’s not the character’s words or speeches. And it’s not our morality or the way we wrap things up with a bow.
It’s the choices the characters make and the way characters change that allow the audience to feel like “that’s me up there,” and to see some part of ourselves making the kinds of choices we either fear we would make or believe we should make.
As those characters go on a journey of change, so too do we.
If you’d like to develop your screenwriting skills, come study with me! I’ve got some amazing classes starting up in the coming weeks, including a brand new, Write Your Screenplay Level II Weekend Intensive in June.
You can also check out our next Write Your Screenplay Level I Weekend Intensive in July.
As with all our classes, you can join us here in New York City or attend online from anywhere in the world.