First off, this post is not an argument against character endings or anything of the sort. Who dies, who lives, who does what, I’m not even going to mess with. What we are going to look at is the structure of Game of Thrones and how (in my opinion) the HBO writers blew it. Does Martin share in the blame? Who knows. Nor am I trying to say it was horrible, I’m good with the ending, but it should’ve been better.
In order to see the structural point I’m going to make it’s best to just see how Martin structured the story at the very beginning, the prologue to Game of Thrones where we meet Ser Waymar Royce (which is nice, because historically my last name was Royce until it got switched in the US). What Martin establishes in the prologue is the Main Plot. Later, the war for the Seven Kingdoms is established, and it is the B-Plot, too big to be a typical subplot, but still beneath the Main Plot. In between all of these are a bunch of subplots we don’t need to worry about.
There is one other great way to establish that the Night King’s threat is the Main Plot. The first is this Epic question: Which plot line is the greater threat? Ding! The Night King. The Night King doesn’t want the throne, he wants to wipe out all of humanity! Who else knows this is the main plot? Well, Mr. Snow for certain, he runs around proclaiming that the Iron Throne is not the issue, its humans surviving as a species. The Iron Throne is secondary, and he is the driving cheerleader in the effort to convince us (the viewers) AND all the other characters of this simple fact. He might as well be screaming, jumping up and down, and pointing: The Main Plot is over here! So, the Main Plot is the Night King. Nothing else compares.
One major complaint for the HBO ending is being anti-climatic. Why? Simple.
HBO’s version of Game of Thrones climaxes in Season 8 Episode 3 with the death of the Night King.
Let that sink in for a minute.
How did y’all react to that death? Yeah! Hell yes! Woohoo! and all kinds of variants, right? Unless of course you were cheering for the bad guys. But either way…
The climax to any story is the end of the Main Plot, GoT is no different.
Episode 3. Climax.
This leaves the viewer with 4.5 hours of denouement. What the writers did was to Climax the Main Plot, THEN climax the B-Plot, with Cersei’s defeat. There was no way not to be anti-climatic without (maybe) Cersei winning.
From a basic story-telling structural point of view, what they needed to do was end Cersei’s chance of winning first (end the B-Plot), then go fight the Night King. What does this achieve, aside from putting the Climax where it belongs? And that’s a huge deal, but…
Instead of Cersei’s weak plan, she says screw you right up front, war commences… Let’s keep things basically how they played out. Deanerys lights up King’s Landing, just goes berserk as we saw. Instead of Sansa and others questioning her ability to lead before she’s proven to be like her father, WOW! Everybody except the most loyal is questioning what the hell’s going on.
The tension we have built heading into the war against the Night King would be through the roof, if done right. You can’t get rid of her, she’s your main hope to defeat the Night King and the army of the dead. But she just roasted tens of thousands of innocents! Drama drama drama, and not just a bunch of characters sitting around yacking at each other while waiting for the army of the dead to arrive, and waxing poetic about their dooms. We’re talking high and immediate drama whenever the Night King dies… which was inevitable.
Now that’s tension, and tension is what story telling’s all about. The infighting could be fierce, damned near ready to tear each other apart before the Night King even arrives. Arya kills the Night King! Damn! Woohoo! But smash! We’re straight into what do we do about this crazy Queen?
But most importantly, the Main Plot climaxes where it should climax, and the B-Plot climaxes where it should climax, and we only need an episode to clean up the loose ends in the denouement.
Nobody different needs to live or die or change their endings at all, all you have to do is flip the climaxes into the correct order.