SPOILERS UP TO GAME OF THRONES S8E4
I actually have been enjoying this season fairly well. Better than most viewers, it certainly seems. I thought the first two episodes produced wonderful character moments and were generally pleasant to watch; it felt like a marked improvement over Seaaon 7’s way of introducing characters to one another, which often felt just like a novelty. And I thought that Episode 3’s battle was a well-earned and well-choreographed climax for the series.
But one thing that disappointed me was the death of Rhaegal, which felt very unearned, and in that way, completely unlike Thrones. Namely, it didn’t feel earned.
In my Journey to the Throne series, I’ve been examining the deaths of every major character and explaining that most of them, while upsetting, are not as surprising as they are often said to be.
Good or bad, hero or villain, Thrones knew exactly how to kill characters. (I might have some people trying to tell me that since Rhaegal is a dragon, he doesn’t have a personality and doesn’t qualify as a character. While I would say that Rhaegal and Viserion both had less personality than Drogo. But I don’t think that stops them from being characters.) Let’s briefly take a look at Thones’ method of “Foreshadowing,” or, as I like to call it, “Overtly telling the character that they will die due to their own stupidity.”
The Starks repeatedly fall victim to this. Jon is told he should send Aliser Thorne to Eastwatch; he doesn’t, and Thorne kills him. Robb is told that Walder Frey is dangerous and will be upset if he breaks his wedding vow, is told not to send Theon to treat with Balon Greyjoy, and is warned that his army will be weaker if he executes Rickard Karstark. He does both of these things, hence the Red Wedding. (And he’s told not to go the Red Wedding, advice he promptly ignores.)
Perhaps the most egregious is Ned. Ned is directly threatened by Cersei (who various characters wisely suggest he should put in prison or executed). He doesn’t support Renly’s claim to the throne, losing Renly’s support. Perhaps the most famous element of the lead-up to Ned’s death is that he famously works with the inherently untrustworthy money-lender and whore-monger who is romantically infatuated with his wife. “Perhaps I was wrong to mistrust you,” Ned tells Littlefinger. Littlefinger, a clear villain, announces, “Distrusting me was the wisest thing you’ve done since you climbed off your horse.” And then, when Littlefinger ultimately does betray him, he gloats, “I did warn you never to trust me.” Ned is then taken prisoner and killed soon after. It just seems like the Stark men are just very bad at picking up on obvious clues.
The point of all this is – a good story foreshadows dramatic moments. And, ideally, longer stories that happen to be good strive to be consistent. Hopefully, the story is structured so that everything pays off and that all of the dramatic beats feel earned, as they do in the above examples.
Having Ned’s death be foreshadowed so clearly and built up to so gradually logically makes for a better story than just having him suddenly get his head chopped off by one of Cersei’s soldiers. This is something that the show learned from the books, and it very early on became an integral part of the show’s DNA.
So all this is why I absolutely hated Rhaegal’s death. Here was a case where they really seemed to be aiming for a death that was shocking, rather than one that was actually earned.
I often find myself scoffing at people who try to rewrite scenes from movies or television their own way, but it’s not hard to imagine some changes they could have made to this scene to make Rhaegal’s death more exciting and earned. Obviously, it shouldn’t have happened so suddenly. The first shot from the Iron Fleet probably should have missed or been less fatal. Or, the dragons should have seen the Iron Fleet before they started firing. Simply put, the length of time between seeing the Iron Fleet attacking and Rhaegal dying should have been longer, giving more time to build tension. The time between the first bolt hitting Rhaegal and the time he hits the ocean is exactly 20 seconds. Rhaegal is suddenly demoted to the role of Star Trek redshirt – his death is just to symbolize to the other characters that the stakes are just a little higher.
Not to mention, this scene could have given Rhaegal – a dragon, mind you – some character development. Rhaegal was pretty thoroughly injured after last episode – why not give him an arc around that fact during this scene? Maybe he doesn’t immediately go after the Iron Fleet because he’s not flying well, but if he were to see Dany in danger, he might suddenly get protective and try to fly in to save her, and then dying. That way, the show can have its cake and eat it too; its a death with the force of a dramatic gut punch but enough story logic. (I assume that the CGI budget might have been limited, but at the same time, this added sequence could probably be conveyed in a minute or two of television.) Or maybe, you could have Rhaegal trying to fly away – y’know, because he’s injured after his battle with the Army of the Dead – only to realize that he can’t get away fast enough, and Dany has to reconcile not being able to do anything to help him without dying herself. Either of these makes for a much more interesting scene as opposed to “Wham! that dragon’s dead!”
Generally speaking, I do think that Season 8 is better than Season 7 so far. But Viserion’s death felt like it had so much more meaning. The situation was so much more dramatic – going beyond the Wall to rescue our favorite characters as they fight the powers of darkness, rather than just moving a navy from Point A to Point B.
The point I’m trying to make here is just that Rhaegal’s last scene just felt hollow, for a few reasons. A) It happens too quickly, B) there doesn’t seem to be any logical or compelling story reason for it, and C) there was none of the well-structured foreshadowing that the show has made its reputation on.
And again, I don’t think this season is bad. I was very pleased by the first three (and a half) episodes were all phenomenal. But when telling a story with the level of scope and magnitude of Game of Thrones, you’re bound to have difficulty sticking the landing.