Game of Comparison

It’s been over 24 hours, so we have at least 24,000 thinkpieces about Game of Thrones finale / final season’s compressed narrative, character inconsistencies, political absurdities and lack thereof, etc.

Your mileage may vary, but I say season eight had 2.5 Great/Good Episodes out of six. Much of the Great exists despite the compressed timeline, muddled arcs, and uneven dialogue.

A conservative estimate would be 10,000 things from acting to design to makeup go into making every scene, but no matter the number, they all go through the director. The biggest difference between 8.05 “The Bells” and this week’s “The Iron Throne” isn’t that one is better written, motivated, or acted: it’s pure direction. From long tracking shots which are motivated by action or to instill a sense of panic or immediacy or intimacy, versus long tracking shots which are motivated by having as much time as you want on HBO’s schedule, the two episodes feel intensely different. I’m going to break down two specific directorial choices which sum up a lot of how the season went wrong.

1. Dany’s presentation

Yes, this section is mostly wardrobe and design, but it’s clearly a big directorial choice. Of course the designer puts things forward, but the director gives a brief and approves the final pieces. In a different episode, one might argue that it’s the writer who’s specified, and while generally a director can change something stylistically even if it’s specified in the script, here writers and directors are the same, so the point is moot.

They wardrobe and styling is so different than Dany’s prior presentations, it was something which would have been asked for well in advance.

Whether you argue Dany’s heel turn was an egregious out-of-nowhere sharkjump (dragon jump?), or that it’s been clearly building for the last 8 seasons though rushed in its execution (my take), the aesthetic switch is instant and drastic. From white fur robes to all black leather, natural finish to darker eyebrows and lipstick, and massive statement banners, Dany went full Sith.

‘Suspension of disbelief’ is the audience assuming Dany could get her traveling wardrobe team to create a perfect Dark Queen ensemble in the middle of a ruined city. This is about eight steps beyond that. Overnight abandonment of royal blue and white robes for black capes is jarring for the audience, and not in a good way. Not only that, the shift doesn’t work with Dany’s history or her present. Everything she says and thinks in this very episode contradicts such a tonal shift.

Her oration under these banners is peppered with ‘break the wheel’ and ‘free those enslaved’ – Dany still believes she is fully on the side of justice and mercy and is actively positioning herself as a saviour and liberator. One point of her madness is her belief she’s still just making the tough decisions, as she argues with Jon before he stabs her. She sees herself as the same person who burnt her would-be rapists and necessarily executed those who spoke out against her . . . and someone who believes that is going to continue to dress and present her armies accordingly.

Sure, putting her in black is easy shorthand, and if we got a Season 9 and a not-stabbed Dany she could believably work her way there. But even if you’re not into the story being a clear parallel of American imperialism under the guise of liberation being founded on a Good Guy narrative, this choice feels like a way to avoid making viewers confront a moral grey. (It also feels quite a bit like this.)

It looks gorgeous, the wardrobe designers did good work. But what it says is incongruous at best, while dangerously exculpating the audience from any ‘identifying with someone who does awful things under the guise of goodness and light’ at worst. And that’s all directorial choices.

2. Shots and composition

“The Bells” had some of the most gorgeous shots and sequences of the series. “The Iron Throne” has its moments (including some excellent use of Drogon), but its strain is often palpable in reaching for the heights.

For example, after a few of the aforementioned Very Prestigious Tracking Shots, Tyrion finds Jamie and Cersei on top of a rubble pile, a perfect brick death spiral with their faces perfectly lit by the room’s only beam of light. I know we had to see their bodies, and Peter Dinklage did his damndest selling it / the whole episode (though I hope to the gods he submits “The Bells” for his Emmy tape and not this), but it was still a bit much. Alone, it would have been fine, but the episode is stuffed with such attempts.

Let’s compare two stillframes, one from “The Bells” and one from “The Iron Throne”:

The top evokes a renaissance painting. We’ve seen the fire, the crowds, and this young girl before, and now they converge in a way which feels both natural and chaotic. It has three depths of field, a complex colour scheme, light and dark, it goes from raging fire to panicked chaos to terrified stillness, back to front. Its idea is that what’s contained within the frame is ongoing, and amidst the turmoil careful observation and viewer placement make this picture possible. 

On its surface, the lower looks pretty, but it is painstakingly constructed for a camera without caring whether it works within the story. We’ve covered the scene in a bunch of closeups, at the end we draw back for no other reason than to really impress on us how the mother and daughter look small. Making them small and insignificant is not of itself a bad thing, but the framing is so intensely staged. In case you missed the two bodies obstructing our heroes’s path even though somehow all other bodies and rubble have been cleared and piled on the sides of the road, they are made to pop with a circle of white ash to draw the eye. It’s egregiously overdesigned, down to the spotfires to provide that pop of orange amongst the teal.

I’m obviously in favour of composing beautiful frames, and to create them often requires breaking with realism. But the bottom shot goes for pure emotional manipulation in lieu of working angles, realistic staging, and blocking in the scene leading up to it . . . which makes it feel very much like the season at large.

It could have been so much better, had it paid more attention to what it was actually doing, and had it taken more care what things like design are actually saying about the characters, the story, and the world.


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