Well, that’s it. Our watch had ended. We will probably get some spinoffs and prequels, and I hope we get the final books in the novel series, but the TV series Game of Thrones is over. This was a difficult and emotional final couple of seasons, though for the fan/critical discourse as much as the narrative itself. Putting it alongside series finale episodes from shows such as LOST and Battlestar Galactica — which were similarly divisive, ambitious, unwieldy, beautiful, and flawed — “The Iron Throne” becomes yet another example of how difficult it is to complete these large, sprawling, epic, serialized TV shows. This does not mean we let the showrunners off the hook for all their mistakes; neither does it mean we write them off as incompetents. That’s demonstrably not true, and anyway, it seems a naive thing to conclude that good writers never write anything bad. What is, “bad”, anyway? What do we mean by it, and how can we ever agree on it? I digress. This is one episode of one story. We’re not going to solve all the philosophical questions of narrative satisfaction now, if ever. The point is, while I’m told there are some perfect finales out there, I think most of us would agree they are the exception that proves the rule. TV by its nature is primarily about the journey. Do I wish the finale was perfectly satisfying (or at least, what I consider perfectly satisfying)? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that not getting exactly what I wanted invalidates what came before, or those elements that I did love.
A brief word about crit-fic: “Crit-fic” is Corey Olsen’s term for an idea articulated by C.S. Lewis that I’ve found very useful. If fanfiction is fiction written by fans, then crit-fic is the fiction written by critics. It is the assumption (usually born out of critical laziness or some high emotion such as anger) that we know what the author of a given text is thinking. So rather than use our critical skills to identify problems of pacing within a text, we will jump to the conclusion that the author was “rushed” (i.e. he didn’t spend enough time thinking about the pacing, or didn’t care enough to give it the attention required). Now, that may be true but we don’t know. It’s a useful thing to remember when trying to articulate whether or not something works, or in trying to explain what it’s doing. Let’s look at the text and try not to assign motives to the creators.
I’ve seen a lot of crit-fic out there this season, even in the service of points that I more or less agree with, and I’m afraid that it becomes even more difficult to avoid crit-fic when discussing a finale. Endings are so often about the “message”, trying to find out what the “point” of it was, wondering what the authors are “saying” about this or that character, etc. — the language we use around endings is inherently crit-ficcy, so I will likely slip into it occasionally. I wanted to acknowledge upfront that I don’t actually know what the writers were thinking, and I certainly don’t think any less of them for telling the story they wanted to tell. As Ronald D. Moore recently said in an interview, art isn’t a democracy and they are entitled to tell the story they want to tell.
On a macro level, one thing that struck me about “The Iron Throne” was the unexpected inversion of what I’ll call the mythic vs. the political elements. By and large, fans have been critical of the show’s ability to pull of the mythical or fantastic parts of the narrative, at least when not closely following the text of George R.R. Martin’s novels. This was less apparent during the earlier more adaptation-heavy seasons, but has asserted itself more recently with the confusing presentation of Bran’s powers, the downplaying of the direwolves and dragons, the use of prophecy and religion, etc. Conversely, when the show dispatched the Night King surprisingly early, a lot of people (myself included) said, “That’s fine! They can get back into the politics now, the backroom dealings and plots and gritty character stuff, which was always the show’s strong suit.”
Except, in this final episode at least, that doesn’t seem to be at all what happened. All of the sequences that worked best for me were those that embraced the mythic, and leaned into the visual and thematic poetry:
- Tyrion weeping over the broken remains of the family he both hated and loved, that he worked to advance yet also ultimately destroyed
- The over-the-top yet beautiful image of Dany as the dragon
- Drogon the dragon hidden under Snow: A metaphor for Jon/Aegon?
- The fulfillment of Dany’s vision in the House of the Undying
- Jon’s reenactment of the Azor Ahai legend, stabbing his lover in the heart to save the world from evil
- The melting of the Iron Throne and the departure of Drogon back east with Dany’s body
- The stunning ending montage of the Starks with its focus on tight close-ups of hands, details, and iconography (Long Claw, Needle, the direwolf sigil on the crown and sail, etc.)
- The individual fates of the Starks (Bran conspicuously not included)
These are the moments that sung and I’ll get into some of them in more detail below. Bizarrely and unpredictably, I was largely unconvinced by the material, human politics. The Throne was melted but it wasn’t. Bran is king but he isn’t. Tyrion invented democracy in ten minutes except not. The North gets independence but not Dorne or the Iron Islands who had previously (successfully) asserted their right to independence. Bran doesn’t want anything but he kind of does. The wheel has been broken but seems to keep on spinning past the finale.
I would be fine with an ambiguous, or even a dark ending. But at the risk of crit-fic, that doesn’t seem to be what they’re going for. The “tone” of things, if I can use that fuzzy term, seems to support a bittersweet ending in which the characters we love have emerged from the rubble of their terrible mistakes and losses with the resolve to build a better system. It’s just hard to see how this new boss will be better than the old boss. It’s telling that the readings which seem to work best with the facts as presented are those that embrace a disturbing amount of darkness or nefarious intentions on the part of the characters. Some have even ventured that such a dark ending is Martin’s intent, and that Benioff & Weiss “missed the point” — presenting merely the outline of his intended outline with none of the more sinister or complex implications. I like some of these readings and could definitely see them working:
- That Tyrion, as he confessed to Shae early on, loves being near power and talked his way back into his role as advisor to a weak and easily-manipulated king (see Tyrion’s fiddling with the arrangement of the Small Council chairs for evidence of this)
- That Drogon, who was spotted heading east, is taking Dany to a Red Priestess in order to resurrect her
- That the pathetic remains of the Great Houses of Westeros have voted themselves back into power without the consent of the people
- That Bran (or possibly the previous Three-Eyed Raven, who was originally an illegitimate Targaryen) intentionally manipulated everyone and everything to get the Iron Throne for himself and rule eternally as a God-King-Tyrant
None of those theories are inconsistent with the world as we know it. I’m not opposed to leaving these threads dangling. As with the ending of Battlestar Galactica, the ending of Thrones asks, “All this has happened before, but does it have to happen again?” And yet I can’t shake the feeling that these readings are in tension with the actual presentation. Why confuse things by melting the Iron Throne and claiming to break the wheel? I’m not at all convinced that Benioff and Weiss intended any of this dark ambiguity, in so much as that matters. They seem to genuinely believe that there must always be a king in Westeros (but why if there’s no throne?) and that Bran’s role as the keeper of all stories qualifies him to rule. Perhaps it’s fitting that the episode is called “The Iron Throne”: Its influence lingers on past its destruction. Is the “dream of spring” the promise of new life and hope, or merely a dream?
I regret my lament a few episodes ago that Bran’s story was apparently over. While I was correct that they would not be fleshing out any of his powers to a more detailed and satisfying extent than they were already, I would rather they had dropped him entirely than use him in this way. If this is indeed Martin’s intended ending (which is a sizeable “if”) then I look forward to reading what I’m sure will be his very detailed and well-considered reasoning behind why it makes sense. It makes no sense on the show. I think that what we have is a character who the writers had no idea what to do with, and the actor had no idea how the play. I can see how changing Bran’s fate would have seemed disrespectful to Martin’s authorial vision, but here is a case where I wish they had deviated. I find it hard to believe that Benioff & Weiss don’t realize that the show has a Bran Problem. I wish they had acknowledged this and said, “This isn’t the right move for the particular story we are telling.” The show is not the books. They are not obliged to always follow Martin, and in the past they have often felt justified in deviating. Whatever Martin means by it, the end result on the show is an all-seeing, all-knowing, basically immortal god with dubious intentions and possible (?) knowledge of the future who is now rightful monarch of the continent. And this is supposed to be an improvement. Good? Yeesh.
Futile though it may prove in the long run, I am at least grateful that we got the definitive melting down of the Iron Throne along with the tacit acknowledgement by the super-smart and sensitive Drogon that it was the root of much evil in Westeros. It was a fascinating choice to play post-Bells Dany as cold and detached — when Jon asks if she’s been down below to see the carnage you just know that she can’t. To come and see the result of her conquest would be to humanize what she’s done and acknowledge it. She’s above that now, the literal dragon come again. There’s something inevitable and yet sneaky about Jon’s slow progress across the ash-covered throne room. You know what he’s about to do, and you have to wonder if a part of Dany knows, too. When he actually stabs her, the camera keeps so close that it’s not clear at first who is holding the knife. And then in a few seconds she’s dead, peacefully and quietly. The expected clash of Targaryens never comes. We’re left in as dubious a place as Jon. Was his deed merciful or cowardly? Unlike Jaime he stabbed his monarch in the front rather than the back, but does that really make him more honorable than the Kingslayer? Do we admire him more? Though it may be undercut by what comes after, it is an effective and surprisingly unsettling scene.
And then we cut to black and things get a little dicey. How much time has passed? Why haven’t the Unsullied killed Jon or Tyrion? Why doesn’t anyone assert Jon’s place as the rightful king? None of this is clear or handled particularly smoothly. I’m with the folks at Talk the Thrones that while Jon’s return north is good and fitting, it would have been nice for it to be his choice. I would have liked to have seen him definitively abdicate his claim and choose to return to true home in what Tormund called the “real north.” It’s clear from the ending that this is what he wants anyway, so why not let him embrace it? Why treat it as a punishment? Anyway, I was gratified to see him give Ghost some love and that cheeky little look backward when the gate closed seemed to imply that Jon would not be coming back south of the wall. Just as well — Stark men don’t do well in the south.
While Jon heads north, Arya sets out into the west, which is so beautiful I could cry. There is a long and wonderful tradition of westward journeys in fantasy. Think Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings, Scyld Schaefing, King Arthur, etc.. You’ll notice that all these westward journeys signify a kind of metaphorical death. Tolkien’s notes for his unfinished poem The Fall of Arthur end with the line “Goes in ship West and is never heard of again.” In the Irish tradition, westward sea voyages mingled the pagan and Christian, from Bran’s trip into the Celtic Otherworld to St. Brendan’s more spiritual and allegorical journey. Naturally, one of Arya’s ancestors is the appropriately-named Brandon Stark who sailed west and was never heard from again. What more fitting ending for Arya, who has always been a restless spirit but also the most closely associated with death, and specifically the conquering of death? I would love to see Arya’s island-hopping immrama adventures, but if all we ever hear is that she went in a ship to the west and was never heard from again, I am completely at peace with that. That gives our imaginations plenty to work with.
Speaking of perfect endings, Sansa is the one monarch in Westeros who I stan for. Ever since she finally escaped King’s Landing and built a little model of Winterfell in the snows of the Vale, it has felt as though Sansa’s true and right destiny was as the Lady of Winterfell. Starting as a vain and naive girl who couldn’t wait to leave her home and travel south to the decadent metropolis of the capitol, it is amazing how no one in the back-half of the series has embodied the true spirit of Winterfell as well as Sansa. She survived Ramsay and Joffrey, learned political subtly at the feet of Littlefinger and Cersei, and all the while reclaimed her Stark and Tully values of honor and loyalty. Has she made mistakes? Of course. But it’s possible that no other character deserves her ending more than Sansa. Often associated with beautiful, embroidered costumes, her coronation dress with its direwolf and weirwood tree details was incredibly moving. This article at Vox explicates her parallels to Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, and what that signifies for her story:
“When it’s time for [Elizabeth’s] coronation, she wears her hair down, which is a big, big deal,” Oliveira said. “It signals her virginity: to be unadorned for her, is the ultimate adornment. It says, ‘Screw all of you, I’m in no way sexually complicit or guilty.’ Sansa’s silhouette is identical: the long, flowing hair and the tight hourglass.”
While I’m baffled that Yara Greyjoy and the Prince of Dorne didn’t follow suit (“Wait, can we change our answers?!”), I’m so proud of Sansa for sticking to her guns and demanding independence for her people. And the last words of the series are the northmen declaring her “Queen in the north!” What’s not to love?
As I said above, that last Stark montage is gorgeous. I’ve always felt most connected to them as a family, so ending with them happy and fulfilled, though separated and unlikely to meet again, feels wonderfully fitting and bittersweet. They started as the first house to be ripped apart but the pack survived. It is very telling that Bran is not included in this final montage. Is that because he is not technically Bran Stark anymore? Or does his ending not strike the same tone of full-circle fulfillment and happy destiny? Regardless, I’m thankful that we ended with the Starks and not the messy politics of King’s Landing.
As for the supporting characters, nothing felt particularly surprising — everyone got a nice, cushy Small Council seat to enjoy. Daavos as Master of Ships and Sam as Grand Maester are fine, I suppose, but did I need to see it? Don’t they both have wives and families to get back to? Brienne as Commander of the Kingsguard is absolutely essential, although I would have preferred her with Sansa over Bran. (I also thought her understated performance while writing in Jaime’s great deeds was lovely, though it would have been nice to see her add a new page for herself.) Bronn as Master of Coin? Eh, that’s a harder sell, and I’m not at all sure why he’s not off kicking his feet up in Highgarden, patting himself on the back for the most successfully-played game of upward mobility in the entire show. Finally, Tobias Menzies popped back up to give us one of the funniest moments of the series in Edmure Tully’s spontaneous and ill-advised campaign speech.
LOST and BSG, shows that I love unreservedly, also had flawed endings. None of these finales are anywhere near my list of favorite episodes. And that’s OK! I will return to all of them again and again in years to come, and I look forward to continuing to think about and re-evaluate them. As Tyrion said, “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.” Though I very much doubt this truism qualifies Bran to be the Protector of the Realm, King of the Andals and the First Men, that doesn’t diminish the truth of Tyrion’s sentiment. Game of Thrones was a damn good story.