• Ben Erickson

Game of Thrones (Season 8)

Review originally published in May 2019 issue of Film Score Monthly:

Season eight of Game of Thrones has finally arrived, and with it the most polarizing events of the entire series. The final season aired a total of six episodes, with showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff already suffering heavy criticism for their ostensible rush to have it done with. Joining them for the end of the series and seeing the work on his magnum opus through to the end is composer Ramin Djawadi, who won an Emmy for his scoring of season seven and whose style of writing has been all but defined by his music for Game of Thrones. Season eight brings with it a few new musical elements that add to the world-building experience (despite the scope of that world having shrunk considerably), and it boasts the largest recorded ensemble in the history of the show: a 60-piece orchestra, a 40-voice mixed chorus, and a 12-voice children's chorus. The volume has been raised once again for the massive battles within the series end, all the while keeping to the 'no concert flutes' policy, established early on by the producers in making a different sort of fantasy. For the most part Djawadi recycles themes written previously for the show, as can be expected. For instance the first episode opens with the King of Westeros theme as Jon and Daenerys make their "Arrival at Winterfell", drawing a parallel with the arrival of King Robert in the very first episode of the series. However, there are a number of sequences in this season deserving of our attention that depart from the rampant leitmotivic approach towards intense, experimental levels of sound design far and away from what we are used to hearing. Thus, readers will be spared the humdrum nature of a thematic laundry list while we focus on a handful of these crucial moments. The Battle of Winterfell, encapsulating everything on the soundtrack album from "The Battle of Winterfell" to "Dead Before Dawn", exemplifies the composer's most radical departure in this regard. Though the dependence on melodic devices here remains irrefutable, it is tempered by a dark underlay of steely, sawing strings, metallic scraping and hissing, the inescapable ticking of time, and gnarled brass groans. These techniques coalesce into what I can only describe as an incessant fuzz; a nauseous, relentless, unfeeling advance of ostinati and rising, warping electric cellos, as if the dead were on stage performing their own march. Unsurprisingly, the ensuing battle and fallout of the episode is the last we hear of any of the White Walker or Lord of Light material composed for the show, the latter of which is given a gracefully mournful performance on violin as Melisandre fades ("Dead Before the Dawn"). Two new settings were introduced for season eight, that of "Jenny of Oldstones" and "The Night King". The first, "Jenny of Oldstones", proved an arresting addition to the score, performed in the second episode by Podrick as a melancholic prelude to the Battle of Winterfell. Formally the song is structured as another verse-chorus tune, as is Djawadi's wont, adapted from A Song of Ice and Fire and quoting the first two lines directly from the books, while the remaining lyrics were invented for the show. The lyrical content is loosely concerned with a character known as The Ghost of High Heart, administering an intricate albeit debunked reference to the prophecy of the Prince Who Was Promised. It is performed again by Florence + The Machine during the end credits, bringing to mind the separate For the Throne album release that features various artists and original songs inspired by the events of the show.

Jenny of Oldstones High in the halls of the kings who are gone

Jenny would dance with her ghosts

The ones she had lost and the ones she had found

And the ones who had loved her the most The ones who'd been gone for so very long

She couldn't remember their names

They spun her around on the damp old stone

Spun away all her sorrow and pain < Chorus > And she never wanted to leave,

Never wanted to leave. They danced through the day and into the night

to the snow that swirled through the hall

From winter to summer and winter again

To the walls that crumble and fall

"The Night King" was a less satisfying addition. Performed during the final confrontation between Bran and the Night King, it uses a clichéd strategy of the composer's arsenal I call the 'set-piece' cue. From its onset the music completely shifts the tone of the episode, entering into an altogether new sequence of events. Djawadi has done this before on Game of Thrones, most notably with "Light of the Seven", which "The Night King" mirrors in its use of piano. But the method really took off with his scoring of HBO's Westworld, which in turn had been influenced by Ennio Morricone's music for spaghetti Westerns. Morricone had done much the same thing by writing musical set-pieces in the style of Italian arias to create moments of extreme melodrama (eg. "The Trio" from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly). Where "Light of the Seven" inspired a certain anxiety in its listeners and provided a stillness never before experienced in the show, "The Night King" does little more than pace out the scene. The melody returns at the beginning of episode four as a funereal dirge, accompanying the dead as they are laid to rest ("Farewell").

Much of the tension leading to the siege and subsequent destruction of Kingslanding in the penultimate episode is ushered in by a repetitive, throbbing octave portamento, forecasting Daenerys' decision to burn the capital ("The Bells"). What follows is the struggle for dominion over its ruins, pitting Daenerys' theme against Queen Cersei's arpeggiated ground bass ("The Last War"), and in the midst of it all arrives a swell of sorrowing strings as the Clegane Bowl comes to its bitter end, scored with a brief sequence of ascending fourths ("Into the Fire"). The Rains of Castamere, one of the most infamous pieces of music born of the show, cues the end of Cersei's reign as she is reunited with her twin brother ("For Cersei"). "Master of War" opens the last, large-scale succession of cues in the final episode, employing itching dissonances to elicit the muted fear inescapably associated with tyranny as Daenerys enters the throne room of the demolished Red Keep. Delicate tremolos and ambient tones surrender to the pristine, celestial entrance of the Dragon theme on glass harmonium, echoing with shivers back to the first time we ever laid eyes on the dragon eggs, and moving into soft, moaning vocals on the Game of Thrones melody as she stalks the Iron Throne. The vocals abate at her touch, entering into a positively excruciating performance of Jon and Daenerys' love theme ("Be with Me"). Concluding the scene is "The Iron Throne" cue, introducing the fateful Game of Thrones ostinato as Drogon melts the seat of the monarch, and transforming gracefully into a lament for the deceased Queen. Other noteworthy moments include the use of a single string line from what had formerly been a harmony in Grey Worm and Missandei's theme, performed as Grey Worm casts her slave collar into a fire to suggest a loss; the return of the Oathkeeper theme, accompanying both Ser Jaime's knighting of Brienne ("A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms") and Brienne's first act as the new Lord Commander of the Kingsguard in recording Ser Jaime's deeds ("The White Book"); and the arrival of the Stark theme with Bran's ascension to the throne ("Break the Wheel"), heard again as the Stark children venture their separate ways ("The Last of the Starks"). Moreover, the soundtrack album is comprised of several Old Valyrian choral (and other) additions unheard in the show, including: Serj Tankian's take on "The Rains of Castamere", "Jenny of Oldstones", "Not Today", and "Stay a Thousand Years". This has been a big year for film and television enthusiasts, what with Avengers: Endgame, the conclusion of the How to Train Your Dragon series, the end of Game of Thrones, and the imminent end of the Skywalker legacy. As it so happens I am frequently unmoved by many of these colossal stories by the time they reach their natural conclusion, my deep investment of them notwithstanding. That is to say, I am a pretty tough egg to crack, the type to reach for criticisms far sooner than compliments, and that Djawadi was able by Game's end to impress upon me the emotional weight of the story came as a wonderful shock. An argument can be made that Djawadi relied too heavily on his thematic canon this season, with a number of banal and predictable reprises, but it was also filled with remarkable moments of beauty and majesty becoming of the show. Ultimately, it is my feeling that season eight was neither the pinnacle of the series musical journey nor the lowliest addition, but merely on par with what had come before. The series as a whole marks an achievement. The season does not. Still, Djawadi has set a new precedent in television by hugely inflating the potential budget available for a score, and he will doubtless be greeted with more success as he continues hosting the Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience, the last tour of which will include music from the final season.