It’s hard to end stories. Premises are easy, even a developing a great climax can be straightforward, but rewarding conclusions can be evasive. The television medium adds an extra layer of difficulty, since the audience has put years of energy into consuming a story. Sometimes showrunners have a set ending from the beginning and it still fails (How I Met Your Mother), sometimes there’s no plan at all, and that fails too (LOST). Throw in the kind of massive scope a show like Game of Thrones had and it’s easy to see how challenging it is to write a finale that wraps up every storyline, stays true to the tone and themes of the show, and manages to make the majority of fans happy.
“The Iron Throne” wrapped things up surprisingly neatly for such a messy, sprawling, show. It’s a much happier ending than I expected, giving us pretty satisfying payoffs when looking at the broader scope of the series. If you only saw the pilot and then saw “The Iron Throne,” you’d think it’d make sense. And if we had a different lead up to it, if it didn’t feel like important scenes were cut, “The Iron Throne” might have been a great, emotional send off to such a significant series. Instead, it’s merely OK, a clunky, only sort-of logical, episode that just feels like it’s checking off a to-do list. It’s a fine, shallow, ending to an alright season.
I don’t have complaints about most of the final beats really—Daenerys dies, Jon returns beyond the Wall, Sansa as Queen of the North, Arya traveling the world, and Tyrion, Davos, Brienne, Sam, Bronn on the High Council all are great endgames. Bran’s a little dicier for me, but still, the idea that all the Starks, the true protagonists, are safe and happy and ready to begin the next chapter of their lives is beautiful. It’s just the execution that leaves something to be desired.
To get technical stuff out of the way, I think the scene transitions were unusually clumsy this episode. I’m not sure if that’s due to Benioff and Weiss’s limited directing experience or something going wrong in the editing room, but it gave the episode an unpolished feel, rare for a show that almost always manages to look great, even when the story’s a mess.
And for that story, I had a few big asks from this finale, which I outlined in my preview for “The Iron Throne.” I wanted character moments to take precedent and for us to really have Jon, Tyrion, and Daenerys own up to their decisions. Daenerys got a little bit of this when she talks to Jon about how Cersei used mercy as a weapon, and how they would not be able to build a new world hiding behind small mercies. It wasn’t perfect, but Emilia Clarke sells it, as usual. It’s fascinating to see that after it all, Daenerys doesn’t think what she did was wrong. She doesn’t have remorse, but not because she revels in destruction, but because she legitimately thinks it’s necessary to build her utopia.
It’s interesting that there’s a brief moment when Jon reminds Tyrion that your family name has no bearing on what type of person you are where it seems like they were going to go back on the idea of the “mad queen.” Naturally, that didn’t happen. There were moments before where it felt like Daenerys was self-aware and understood her flaws, but here she seemed deluded, still blinded by what she thinks is her destiny, which unfortunately leaves her characterization a bit muddled. But regardless, what I’m impressed by is that at the end of the day, Daenerys still is sympathetic, and I give all of that credit to Clarke for her dynamic performance this season. And of course, in a way, Daenerys did succeed in breaking the wheel. In her death was born the idea of choosing a ruler. Dynasties are dead.
In terms of Jon and Tyrion getting to grapple with their decisions, we kind of got them struggling with the aftermath of “The Bells,” but I was surprised by how much of it was Tyrion having to convince Jon that what Daenerys did was wrong. What’s funny is that over dinner yesterday, I joked that Jon was so dumb and loyal that you could almost see him rationalizing what Daenerys did. And that’s exactly what happened. I also dismissed the idea that somehow Bran would become king because it was so utterly silly. And that’s exactly what happened. It’s not a good sign if the ideas deemed so ridiculous that people joke about them are actually what happens.
The greatest disappointment was how little I felt while watching “The Iron Throne.” Although it started off with Clarke giving everything she has in Daenerys’s victory speech (and there’s an amazing bit of cinematography when Dany is walking out and Drogon is behind her—it looks like she has wings. Just gorgeous.), but as quickly as became Queen, she was killed. And I wasn’t necessarily surprised or upset by her death, but there was a certain sharpness missing, and I think it’s at least in part by how fast it happened (from the start of Dany’s big speech to death is about 20 minutes).
When I think about various deaths on the show, like Ned’s beheading, or Tommen wordlessly stepping through a window, it’s clear that the images have stayed with me. I wanted Daenerys to be afforded the same respect. And although they did basically act out the Azor Ahai death (Azor Ahai kills his lover, Nissa Nissa, by plunging a sword into her heart), it didn’t grip me in the way I wanted. I think Kit Harrington also did incredible work in this scene, really beautifully showing the conflict Jon is feeling, but the set up as a whole was underwhelming. It was all too fast, and the time jump right after means we didn’t get to see anyone react to this what should have been the most significant event of the episode.
This sort of thing has happened repeatedly this season. It’s frustrating that a lot of the difficult explanations are hand waved away, or not included all together, theoretically because the writer don’t know how to handle them. On the surface, it’s hard to figure out why the Unsullied and the Dothraki wouldn’t execute Jon right away after they found out he killed Daenerys.
But instead of thinking up an explanation and actually sharing it with us, the Benioff and Weiss just ignored the issue by jumping ahead a few months. Not only was that lazy writing, but the time jump was poorly telegraphed, it robbed us of Daenerys’s death having any weight, and it seems like a missed opportunity in terms of how the final two episodes of the series could have been structured. Couldn’t we have kept “The Bells” at 80 minutes long, tightened up the battle sequences and the Arya scenes, and added the first section of “The Iron Throne” to it, so the episode ended with Drogon flying away with Dany’s body? If we wanted the time jump, the finale could have opened with Sansa in transit to King’s Landing saying something like “I still cannot believe he turned himself in. What an idiot. Let’s hope the the Unsullied and the Dothraki don’t go back on holding him prisoner instead of killing him.”
Time wise, we also didn’t need to see Tyrion find Jaime and Cersei, since he already got his goodbye in the last episode (and it wouldn’t have been revealed how confusingly intact the Red Keep really is). We could have had more time with Dany. And we could have spent more time justifying why Bran deserves to be king.
I don’t really buy that Bran is the best choice to rule because he has the best story (Arya clearly has the best story, come on), and I’m not sure why him being a magical nearly-omniscient wizard wasn’t the reason Tyrion gave (because, fair). There’s a line in this scene where Bran agrees to be king; he says “Why do you think I came all this way,” and it’s seems like it’s meant to be humorous. But there’s this slightest hint of malice in it, especially when combined with his “You were exactly where you needed to be,” to Jon Snow.
We know that Bran spent a long time talking to Tyrion about his journey in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” so we could assume he planted some kind of seed that led to Tyrion nominating him as king. This plus the fact that Bran was central to discovering Jon’s true parentage, which absolutely only existed to push Daenerys over the edge into madness, makes it feel like we could have had a puppet master for the ages on our hands. After all, he said repeatedly that he could never be Lord of Winterfell, because he was no longer Bran Stark. But is it because he knew what his real destiny was, to be King of the Seven, I mean Six, Kingdoms? The problem is we don’t really understand the extent of Bran’s power. And possible orchestrator aside, it truly seems like Bran will be a reasonable ruler, and he also managed to give everyone in his family a relatively happy ending. Either way, a bit more time with Bran could have added a lot of complexity to this otherwise fairytale ending.
As far the other Stark kids, I’m neutral-to-negative on Arya’s ending (it’s kind of boring considering her past), but count me in if there’s ever a show with her adventuring in foreign lands. Arya’s always been driven by family and justice for them, but her family is safe now. She doesn’t have to protect them, or avenge for them. But what she has been doing this entire series is traveling to places she’s only ever heard of. This plus the fact that she was never going to fit into normal society after her her time with the Faceless Men, means the only option is to leave. Just like Jon Snow became a Wildling at heart after his time north of the Wall, Arya became a wanderer.
I think considering all the Jon has been through, ending up with the Wildlings is probably the closest thing to a happy end he’ll ever get. Sending him to the Night’s Watch was likely a ruse by Bran, since he knew there would be easy for Jon to join the Wildlings who were camped out at Castle Black waiting for winter to break. But it also highlighted how the decision to not have everyone immediately turn on Daenerys was an excellent one. It made Daenerys that much more complex, but the fact that Yara and the Iron Islands considered Jon Snow a traitor was also really the only reason it made sense to permanently send Jon to the Night’s Watch (since the Unsullied are gone).
The thing with Jon Snow is that there’s this idea that he’s be “done dirty” because of his epic rise and his rapid fall. He started off a bastard, sent off to the Wall, rose up the ranks to become Lord Commander, became King of the North, then the true heir to the Iron Throne, even the Chosen One, all to end up back at the Wall. But I’d argue that he’s never wanted to lead. Hell, Jon straight up tells Tormund that he would be happier up north with him. His time with the Wildlings is obvious the most formative experience in his life, and otherwise his life has been defined by expectations of his various titles. With the Wildings, it doesn’t matter if he’s a bastard, or sworn member of the Night’s Watch, or if he’s Azor Ahai. He’s finally free. I wish we would have seen more of him dealing with the fact that Ned isn’t his father, but considering in the end Varys never did manage to get those letters out, and Jon’s Targaryen heritage was just a plot device, maybe we got a much as expected.
I adored Sansa’s final scene, which was beautifully cut with with Jon and Arya beginning their journeys as well. I’ve been all in on Team Sansa for so long, and it’s incredibly satisfying to see her take her place as Queen of the North. She’s always wanted to be queen, and although she probably would’ve jumped at the chance to rule all of Westeros (I saw how quick she was to say Bran didn’t want it), becoming the ruler of an independent North is quite appropriate considering how much terror being in south caused her. For so long she rejected her northern heritage, taking after the southern Catelyn, and quickly taking on the customs of the south when she was in King’s Landing. But her path brought her back home, to Winterfell, and she’s clearly more than fit to rule. There was a time when Sansa felt like the show’s punching bag, where more and more horrible things happened to her. Getting to see her put on that gown and wear the crown while the room hailed her Queen of the North is all I could have ever asked for.
At the end, although “The Iron Throne” tied most everything up in little bows, we were still left with a number of unanswered questions. Most of them are probably not worth mulling over, but it can be bothersome when a show that was so interested in the details glosses over major points. For example, why is everyone fine with the North being independent? Wouldn’t historically independent Dorne or the Iron Islands want that too? So the Unsullied are going to Naath, but what about the Dothraki? Why was Grey Worm fine with them choosing a new king or queen?
The people I know who are happiest with how Game of Thrones turned out are the ones who abandoned the notion that it’s anything like the show it was eight years ago. They managed their expectations, they didn’t spend too much time thinking about it, and they laughed at the shortcomings, because it’s funny! They didn’t treat it as “smart” political drama, but as a fun, action/adventure series. They didn’t watch it with a critical eye. It’s a cynical take, but maybe in a few years, I’ll rewatch Game of Thrones in that method, and come away with something even better. Even with my critical eye, I hold on to the belief that it’s a great show, with issues, like many others, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those who haven’t watched it.
But it’s hard to know how this ending and the series as a whole will reside in the zeitgeist moving forward. Tyrion made a good point when he told Jon Snow to ask him in 10 years about whether what they did was right. It takes time to digest a story and to accurately reflect on it. Throughout its highest highs and at its lowest of lows, Game of Thrones stood apart as a singular entity that connected so many people across the world, and it will always exist as phenomenon in that sense. But it will take space to understand its effect and to judge it from a place when we’re not clouded by the very fact that it is this global sensation. Until then, at least we have a prequel series to look forward to.
-Who did Dany’s braids? Like, girl looked good while she was giving that speech, but I thought Missandei did her hair.
-I love Grey Worm getting a cool title, even though the rest of the episode did him no favors.
-Dragons are boring to me, but sad Drogon trying to wake Daenerys up made me sad too. Poor boy, just trying his best, doesn’t have his mom or his siblings anymore.
-I was hoping Arya’s face swapping skill would come up again, but I guess that entire storyline had no greater purpose. Same with warging. At least Ghost got a pet?
-The costuming is just insane. I can’t get over my girl Sansa’s coronation gown. And you know she did her own stitching!
-Davos is so pure. I wonder if he’ll ever see his wife again.
-I liked Brienne’s adding to Jaime’s entry in the history books, though I wish she would have written her own entry.
-Pod’s a knight! Also, I didn’t mind the scene with the High Council planning. It was a little sitcom-y, but it also had hints of old school GoT, and I think we needed that.
-It feels like winter just started, but with those green blades of grass poking through the snow beyond the wall, I’d say spring is here.
-All the Starks spreading to different corners of the world sure felt like they were setting up spin-off options.
-And that’s it! Thanks for sticking with me and coming along for this wild Game of Thrones ride! I’m grateful that I got to watch it live, week to week, and to experience it with all of you. As Jon Snow says, my watch has ended (I’m sorry, that’s so corny, but I had to).
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