As I watched the final episode of Game of Thrones, I felt a sinking sense of ‘eh’. The episode was like a lot of season eight, at times visually impressive (Daenerys’s speech in front of the Unsullied,) occasionally rewarding, (Sansa becoming Queen of the North, Jon finally petting Ghost!), but also confusing (wait, why is Arya leaving to explore?) and often muddled or unsatisfying (Jon stabbed Daenerys real quick, and Bran?). Ultimately, I felt, well, not much of anything. And as the week went on and I struggled with GoT’s rushed finish, I started to feel flashbacks to the ending of another epic that was near and dear to me, Mass Effect.
GoT and Mass Effect might be separated by medium and genre, but the two share some surprising connections. In Mass Effect, the player character, Shepard, must amass an alliance of fractures alien species to face a greater threat, the mysterious Reapers. Much of the later seasons of GoT were focused on Jon Snow’s struggles to build an alliance of the warring Westeros kingdoms to fight the mysterious Night King and the White Walkers. Both GoT and Mass Effect were huge, beloved franchises that focused on a massive cast of characters that fans got invested in and both had trouble sticking the landing, for largely the same reasons.
The original Mass Effect pulled off one of the best, most satisfying twists I’ve seen. It’s revealed that the villain, Saren, is being controlled by his ship, Sovereign and that Sovereign isn’t a ship at all, but an ancient, near unfathomable life form. It takes an entire fleet to kill Sovereign and they just barely pull it off. The game ends revealing that Sovereign is one of thousands of Reapers, a race of synthetic beings that arise once a cycle to destroy all organic life.
The first game did a lot to establish just how devastating the Reapers are. I remember having no idea how Shepard was going to beat them. Likewise, some GoT’s best episodes and moments helped to establish how much of an unstoppable, inevitable force the White Walkers were. Hardhome showed how futile fighting the dead was, and season seven showed how effortless the Night King could bring down even one of Daenerys’s dragons.
The Reapers and the White Walkers were mysterious, powerful and terrifying. Both wanted to wipe out all life and the audience desperately wanted to know more about them. Who made the Reapers? What was the Night King’s deal? And in the writer rooms of both Bioware and HBO, no one had any idea how to actually beat these unstoppable monsters.
Both the Reapers and the White Walkers fall after a brutal final stand in their respective stories, to plot conveniences. The Reapers have an off switch, the Night King is a final boss, beat him and you win the game. The answer to both the Reaper and White Walker problem turned out to be unsatisfying and did a lot to sap both the Reapers and the White Walkers of their menace and mystery.
A Massive and Beloved Cast
ME and GoT had a problem that most franchised would have killed for, a huge cast that people loved. Mass Effect 2 basically put the problem of the reapers on hold to tell a side story and shove even more characters into the mix and it was the best game of the series. GoT was at its best in the early middle seasons where it wasn’t clear if anyone would survive and you clung desperately to your fav.
Perfect little character moments became memes. Favorites developed and the creators listened. Tormund’s role expanded and his crush on Brianne, a throw away joke, became a full-on love triangle (kinda). Garrius and Tali both became romance options. Everyone was having fun, shipping their favorite couples, hoping the character they hated died and that their favorite would get more screen time; then came the ending.
A massive and beloved cast means that you have to give everyone a detailed and satisfying end to their individual story and that is just not going to happen. Mass Effect 3 seemed to pick squadmates out of a hat, side lining some of ME’s beloved cast and introducing new characters like the roided up Vasquez that nobody asked for (he was voiced by Frieddie Prince Jr and I actually liked him by the end). Some characters got little to no time and their endings felt unsatisfying because of it.
Game of Thrones whittled it’s cast down almost arbitrarily at the end, moments that should have felt immensely satisfying, like Cleganbowl, felt very ‘meh’. Some characters like Missandei were done away with for very obvious plot motivations. Both ME and GoT also spent time introducing villains that did nothing and nobody liked. Looking at you Euron Greyjoy and Kai Leng, seriously you two could be the same person for all the impact you had.
This all leads to same poor conclusion. In both ME 3 and GoT the plot took over, the pacing picked up a maddening tempo and both rushed, fumbling to the end. You could feel them running out of budget, time or interest and just trying desperately to get it all done. Characters did things that didn’t make sense because they had to be at X place because the plot said so. Moments that both should have been building to like Jon stabbing Daenerys and Shepard selecting the fate of the universe, felt hollow and forced. The excitement that fans had been feeling for years, petered out and turned vicious, there were online petitions, hate mail, cupcakes!
It’s unfortunate, because I actually don’t think that ME 3 and the final season of GoT are bad. Rushed and unsatisfying at times, sure, but they have their moments, points where you remember why you loved the series to begin with. I also believe that both had an Icarus problem, they flew too close to the sun. ME 3 was never going to be able to resolve all it’s threads and beat the Reapers in 3 games, they needed a fourth one for that. GoT too needed a full season just to give the White Walkers a satisfying end and probably another season after that to make us believe that Jon would go so far as to actually kill Daenerys and that Daenerys was really a tyrant, or at least to muddy the waters better. Instead it got one little small season to do both.
For both series it’s interesting how the questions that drove most of the plot and fan speculation turned out to be the least important part. It never mattered what ending Shepard chose, or who sat on the iron throne. In both series, it’s hard to move past the ending because so much of the story was building to–something. We’re now left wondering what do we do with the rest of it? For GoT fans feeling let down, ME might have answer, you let go of the ending and you focus on what you loved in the first place…or you bake cupcakes.