The HBO phenomenon Game of Thrones has come to an end. The story of brutality, power, and war that has gripped tens of millions for years bowed out with its final episode. The story of A Song of Ice and Fire will continue in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. HBO certainly hasn’t abandoned Westeros, Essos, and the other places that inhabit the world of Planetos. But this specific saga has come to an end and it most certainly will leave as many questions in its wake as it answers. There were five moments in this series finale that I loved, a few that I found bemusing for a variety of reasons, and disappointments in the rest. Certainly the reaction to this finale will be just as varied.
Thematically the series finale was perfect. The world George R. R. Martin created has never been a narrative that celebrates the inherent pursuit of power, it understands the loss and tragedy warfare leaves behind on those who do not cause it, and it conveys the importance of understanding the past in forging a new future. The Iron Throne is destroyed by Drogon in a fiery rage of grief and in the end that terrible damn chair that has been the cause of so much tragedy and destruction was brought down by the very instrument that forged it.
Narratively the episode suffers from the story being condensed down into less episodes. That happened for a multitude of different reasons and there simply isn’t anything that can be done about it at this point, but that it did have an effect on the resolution is simply undeniable. The relationship that suffers the most from this condensed version of events is that between Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Within a handful of episodes, they had to go from being introduced to one another to falling deeply in love and that never clicked, if perhaps for the inevitable feeling that it simply was not going to end well.
That feeling that the tragedy was inevitable because it needed to be and not because the characters were organically progressing in that direction has been an unfortunate mainstay for the series since a part of last season. That problem only has magnified in the show’s conclusion, in which its very strength becomes burdened in a way that feels fundamentally unfair. The characters are to be served by the plot and not the other way around. The condensed nature of both this and the show’s penultimate season was unveiled in unfortunate ways in both its final and penultimate episodes. I felt that Daenerys was going to burn civilians not because that is where I felt her character was heading but because that’s where I felt the writers really needed her to go. That feeling was echoed with Jon’s assassination of Daenerys, an early episode death that felt tragic because it wasn’t earned.
A part of the problem is that the show, whose lack of subtlety at times has been incredibly effective, finds itself relying upon that lack of subtlety to lift up some of the heavier plot points simply because nuance requires more time and they certainly didn’t have time to spread the nuance around. I think to one of my five favorite moments from this episode is Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) becoming the Queen in the North. Or to my second, where Drogon breaks down in a downpour of grief. Or even to my third, where Arya sails to whatever is West of Westeros, wanting to discover the answer to the question she had posed to Lady Crane (Essie Davis) so long ago. The fourth moment holds the same for when Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) fulfilling his pledge to Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). He sets off for the island of Na’ath with the Unsullied, presumably to protect its people from further colonization and slavery. The last but not least is a quiet scene where Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) chooses to honor the knighthood of one Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and brings the series’s most engaging question of its themes to a contemplative close.
Themes alone cannot carry a narrative. They are necessary if the narrative is to mean something, to stand some sort of test of time, to be cohesive. But themes need to be matched with narratives that walk alongside them like true partners. In “The Iron Throne,” it is obvious where that partnership has been maintained and where it has crumbled apart. Sansa’s story was held together by a theme of becoming a powerful, independent woman breaking away from the strings that tied her to the puppeteers around her. Arya’s story was held together by a theme of wanting to be her own person and finding a home within that being. The narrative decisions, albeit with some questionable detours, largely maneuvered in that direction. Those conclusions felt earned. The same could be said for Jon, a man was bound by the honor of the Seven Kingdoms but was at true peace North of it.
In relation to Daenerys, the conclusion is sadly different. Much has been written about whether or not the series earned her decision to raze King’s Landing. The words “character development,” “character assassination,” and “foreshadowing” have been adopted quite frequently but what it comes down to is whether the show’s narrative meets the thematic strength. Thematically, the understanding that no matter how noble a person’s intentions may be, the uninhibited pursuit of power is a losing game with disastrous consequences. Narratively, the series executed that in a thoroughly scattered fashion and in hindsight, that roadmap needed to be much more concrete far long ago for Daenerys’s fate in this episode to feel as earned in its tragedy as the feeling it imparts upon the audience. It instead feels empty and an embodiment of the old tropes this series had seemingly been so committed to breaking. It seems hollow.
Game of Thrones concludes with Bran the Broken (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) on the throne and an independent North ruled by Queen Sansa. It’s a royalty determined in a parliamentary system, a way to crack the wheel even if Drogon understood the importance of actually breaking it more than the humans around him. The idea of a direct democracy, which frankly feels like an aspiring goal even today, is shot down and Samwell (John Bradley) once again proves that he is simply ahead of his time. But the progress made feels more natural to the world Martin and the showrunners have created, even if it comes about some leaden dialogue and announcements over an intercom of things that we should have seen instead of just being told. The bittersweet ending the show and George R. R. Martin promised is certainly present here but when you not merely taste but digest it, there is a feeling that some ingredients are missing.
Thank you for this journey and I hope to see it continue down whatever stone Kingsroad is laid down before us.