‘Game of Thrones’ Ends Not With a Bang but a Whimper
The Season 8 finale of ‘Game of Thrones’ wrapped up things in an unsatisfying fashion, to say the least. [Warning: Spoilers]
“Quiet and contained” are not qualities Game of Thrones is known for, and neither are happy endings. Yet what was once the most sprawling, shocking, unpredictable fantasy show on TV went out gently, with an ending both satisfying and a little strained.
“The Iron Throne” wraps up the series’ most important loose ends, revealing the future of Westerosi governance and what becomes of the characters we’ve watched grow, regress, kill and survive until now. True to George R.R. Martin’s promise, the sum of their fates is bittersweet. But while everyone ends up mostly where they should at the end of a stirring, at times even beautiful final episode, a lot of it lands with less of the emotional resonance it deserves because of the series’ late-stage bum-rush to get here.
Take Bran Stark’s fate as the newly crowned ruler of Westeros, now divided into six kingdoms and an independent North. Handing the responsibility to him makes sense on paper—as Varys died insisting, the best ruler is likely someone who doesn’t want power, and in his own words Bran “doesn’t really want…anymore.” He’s a fittingly unconventional victor for a fantasy series that sought to zig wherever Lord of the Rings zagged; Bran is not just the anti-Aragorn, he’s an anti-character period.
But even in the context of the scene in which Tyrion rallies a council of Westeros’ surviving lords to elect him, the choice feels rushed, out of left field, and underwhelming. “Who has a better story than Bran the Broken?” Tyrion asks, reasoning in one of the episode’s handful of meta moments that the surest way to unite people is through a good story. But look any further back than this episode, and Bran’s story is hardly a rousing one, especially compared to those of the people sitting around him. (Have these people met Sansa Stark?)
Bran is “the boy who fell from a high tower and lived,” as Tyrion explains. “He knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly. He crossed beyond the Wall, a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven. He is our memory, the keeper of all our stories. The wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs, our defeats, our past.” He also spent an entire season offscreen and has functioned more as unintentional comedic relief since returning to Winterfell, with his middle-distance stare and deadpan delivery of one-liners.
He’s been a passive observer of the story ever since last season, when he handed Arya the Valyrian steel dagger she used to kill the Night King. The revelation of his very purpose as the Three-Eyed Raven was condensed to a line or two in Jon’s pre-Battle of Winterfell war room. And his old nemesis, the Night King, is barely less mysterious than he was before this final season began. Thematically speaking, Bran is a natural choice—a triumphant one, even. This story was the Starks’ all along; that it ends with new beginnings for each of them is fitting. Yet Bran’s falls flat in light of how little groundwork the show laid for this moment.
What was true of this season before the finale, in other words, is still true now that it’s done: All of this would have worked so much better with more time.
More time for that council to arrive at its conclusion, more time for them to act the way the show has taught us people do when power is in question. Why is Sansa the only person to vie for her home’s independence? Wouldn’t Yara want the same for the Iron Islands? Wouldn’t all of them? Sam makes an admirable case for direct democracy and is promptly laughed out, and Edmure Tully reappears from thin air to make a case for himself as king. (No one bothers introducing the new prince of Dorne.) Yet apart from that, there are no major quibbles and no one questions Tyrion, despite his lackluster strategic record all season. Grey Worm stands aside and lets his prisoner name a new king. Everyone agrees Bran is right for the job and it’s all over in a few minutes. It’s ridiculous.
The episode’s first pivotal moment, though, is the one that suffers most from this season’s condensed timeline, and lands with a fraction of the impact the show clearly hoped for.
Jon puts a knife in Daenerys’ heart after Tyrion convinces him there’s no other way to save the world from her bloodlust. And it’s true. In one of the episode’s most striking scenes, Dany stands with pride and addresses her armies, congratulating them for “liberating” a city, never mind the mass murder and pillaging. With all the propagandistic verve of a little fascist, she rallies the Dothraki and Unsullied to her vision of beating every corner of the known world into submission, and they cheer. She’s too far gone to hear the irony when she tells them, “You have freed the people of King’s Landing from the grip of a tyrant.”
She is not repentant in the least and will never be swayed. And though it takes Jon a considerable while to admit it, she must be killed. But Daenerys’ turn as a villain is cut short and her reasoning for burning King’s Landing barely explored, never convincingly. For eight seasons, Dany struggled to balance innate ruthlessness with her desire to help people; there are any number of reasons she could have used to justify what she did to King’s Landing. Maybe she hoped burning the capital of Westeros and all its men, women, and children to ash would ensure another city never stood in her way, and that in the long term, this meant less bloodshed.
But showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who wrote and directed the finale, don’t give Dany (the character they’ve unveiled as the ultimate big bad!) so much as a hackneyed monologue in which to explain her side of the story—disappointing for the end of a series that based its greatest conflicts on competing, often equally considered perspectives. The closest we get is a spiel about how she’s coveted the Iron Throne all her life. She tells Jon that Cersei “used” the innocence of King’s Landing’s citizens against her, betting that it would “cripple” her. Then she makes overtures to him to be her boyfriend again. Then he stabs her. She dies without saying another word.
The job of wringing sense from Dany’s turn, for some reason, goes to Tyrion instead. He recaps her trajectory from Slaver’s Bay to Vaes Dothrak and the destruction she wrought along the way in the name of justice. “Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it,” he explains to Jon. “And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right.” Dany proves his point in one of the last things she says: “I know what is good.” But how much more impactful would her last moments have been if the series had dramatized her downfall from heroism in a way that made her breaking point feel inevitable, rather than abrupt?
I felt more for Drogon as he nudged and mourned his mother than I did for either Dany or Jon in the moment—which is saying a lot when one is dead and the other in tears. The mother of dragons’ favorite baby provides such a welcome jolt of genuine pathos that I barely blinked when, apropos of nothing, he melted the Iron Throne. Does the dragon think the chair stabbed his mom? Has he had this firm a grasp of symbolism all this time? We’ll never know. But it’s a sorely needed reason to really feel something, for the first time in this episode.
Again, it comes down to just needing more time. An extra episode before Daenerys’ turn toward villainy might have made the moment she succumbed to her bloodline’s worst instincts feel earned, tragic, and believable. A penultimate episode after she razed King’s Landing might have given characters more than just a few scenes to reckon with the world-tilting shift they’d just witnessed, and mourn the hero she once seemed to be. While the show treats this entire episode as a kind of epilogue—despite the monumental, series-defining decisions it crams in—this was time it needed after Daenerys’ death to dwell on the details of what the future looks like without her.
As it stands, only half this episode does that and, as in Bran’s crowning moment, it does the job in sort of a hurry. (As directed by Weiss and Benioff, “The Iron Throne” holds the dubious distinction of feeling both rushed in terms of plot yet strangely lethargic: long close-ups of actors’ silent expressions and minutes dedicated to characters just walking around contribute a noticeable listlessness.) As a result, certain nagging ambiguities go unaddressed. Does the Iron Bank not want its money back? What of Daario Naharis and all of Essos? Meera and Howland Reed? The red priests who proselytized about Dany as the Prince(ss) Who Was Promised? What happens to the Dothraki? Is it even still winter?
All of that said, I’m a sucker for happy-ish endings—Return of the King is my favorite from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and in its final minutes, Game of Thrones practically goes full Tolkien in its bittersweet optimism. Sansa is crowned Queen in the North. Jon is “exiled,” wink-wink, back north of the wall among the wildlings with Tormund and Ghost (and finally gives the latter the good ear scratch he deserves). Arya, too wild to stay rooted in any one place, sails off for more face-swapping, Needle-stabbing adventures wherever west of Westeros might be. That the Stark siblings all end up worlds apart is a little heartbreaking, but where each of them lands makes sense for their individual characters. (Except Bran, but again, he stopped being a real character in Season 6.)
I was thrilled to see that Pod had been knighted into the Kingsguard, and less thrilled with Brienne’s final moments being dedicated to recording Jaime Lannister’s deeds in the Book of Brothers. I hoped someone would before the start of this season. But having Brienne do it after Jaime broke her heart without a second thought is a lesser ending for the character than she deserved.
Sam, though he’s married, somehow gets to become a maester of the Citadel. In the episode’s goofiest moment (next to his apparent invention of plastic water bottles—was it no one’s job to keep drinks off this show’s hot sets?), he shows off the title he finally came up with for Archmaester Ebrose’s “history of the wars following the death of King Robert”: A Song of Ice and Fire. Hey, that’s the name of the books the show is based on! You get it.
Duped into believing Jon’s banishment to the “Night’s Watch” is an actual punishment, Grey Worm and the Unsullied sail off to the Isle of Naath, where they’ll presumably mourn Missandei, get some sun, and maybe some well-deserved therapy. The new lord of Highgarden, Bronn, who’s looking more and more like the real winner of this game of thrones, is named Master of Coin, a job he seems wildly unqualified for yet brandishes with utmost confidence. He’ll go far in this world.
Yara never gets to mourn her little brother onscreen, which is irksome. And I don’t think Gendry utters a word apart from “aye” in favor of Bran, which is fine. Tyrion is named Hand of the King—again, somehow, but what else is he qualified to do? It’s as fitting an end for the Imp as possible after being sidelined in Season 5 and never really regaining his momentum until this finale, which grounds a lot of itself in his perspective. His return to form as the voice of reason may be sudden, but it’s welcome. Like so many plot points from this episode, it’s just a shame it didn’t start happening sooner.
As for Westeros, it transitions now into its first stab at a parliamentary democracy—more united than the Seven Kingdoms were before Aegon the Conqueror brought them to heel, yet not as radical as the direct democracy Sam dreams up. It’s the only way the series could have ended without diving into nihilism and between the two options, I prefer this one. Daenerys broke the wheel and left the world better than she found it, as promised.
It just didn’t happen the way she, or much of Game of Thrones’ audience, always dreamed.