The game is over. The epic saga of Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and whoever managed to survive through eight seasons of murder and mayhem ended last night in a finale that was often too obvious and probably too happy, but still got more right than it got wrong. More importantly, it was the ending the show needed—and deserved.
I assume the finale will be divisive, because finales of shows this beloved always are, even when they haven’t riled up fans to the degree Game of Thrones has done by fast-forwarding its way to last night’s conclusion. But given those problems, I think this is the best ending we could have hoped for—not in terms of the storytelling, necessarily, but the story itself.
In a way, the story was also the “best” ending people could have hoped for, in that it was a lot happier than I expected. Given the show’s penchant for killing off main characters, I—along with a lot of people—assumed there would be a bit of a blood bath to close off the show. But no, things worked out shockingly well for everyone but Daenerys and Jon—and that was exactly what Game of Thrones needed to get right, more than anything else.
The episode—aptly titled “The Iron Throne”— started strong, as Tyrion and Jon (and third wheel Davos) wander through the ashes of King’s Landing, seeing the destruction and carnage Daenerys had wrought first-hand. It’s a long time before anyone talks, and it’s terribly effective, really hammering home the horror without overdoing it—until Jon and Tyrion encounter Grey Worm, who’s executing captured Lannister soldiers per his Queen’s orders, as if the audience needed another reminder that Daenerys broke bad right after showing a dead child on rubble. Then Tyrion splits off to find the dead bodies of Jaime and Cersei in the underground passage, not because it makes a ton of sense for him to assume they’d be there, but so the character can have that closure. But both scenes are basically fine.
Daenerys’ speech to her troops of hooting Dothraki and eerily silent, motionless Unsullied didn’t work quite as well, as showrunners/finale writers/finale directors David Benioff and D.B. Weiss hit the “dictator addresses their troops” motif a bit too hard. Dany surveys her conscienceless armies from above, yelling about how they’re going to rid the world of all tyrants everywhere and murder anyone who happens to accidentally be in their way. It’s the very traditional way for movies and shows to depict evil leaders (e.g. General Hux addressing the First Order in The Force Awakens). See for yourself:
The scene gets more interesting when Tyrion walks up to her, not only because he’s essentially committing suicide—he freed Jaime last episode, which was his final act of treason—but so he can admonish Daenerys for slaughtering a city full of people, and then slowly, deliberately take off his Hand of the King badge and throw it down the stairs. Of course, Daenerys has absolutely zero doubts that what she’s done and what she’s doing is right, so she hears nothing he says, and the Unsullied take him away as an increasingly upset Jon watches.
When Jon visits him later in his cell, Tyrion makes Dany’s danger very explicit. Although Daenerys started off murdering evil men—slavers, the Dothraki who had captured her, etc.—“Everywhere she goes, evil men die, and we cheer for it and grows more powerful and sure she is good and right.” Jon desperately tries to convince Tyrion—but mainly himself—that Daenerys is still good. He’s so desperate that he even briefly tries to justify Dany’s actions in massacring the people of King’s Landing. It probably belongs on the Jon Snow Highlight Reel of Stupidity, but Kit Harington really sells how much Jon knows this is bullshit, but is trying wildly to find a way to serve the queen he’s sworn allegiance to, and save the woman he loves. It’s a very good scene that the show gives plenty of time to breathe, which is always a pleasant surprise these past two years.
The following scene between Daenerys and Jon also gets a solid amount of time, although how well it works probably depends in large part on how much you’ve accepted that seasons seven and eight have been told in fast-forward. It starts wonderfully as Daenerys approaches the throne she’s been told of since her birth, standing alone, untouched, in a throne room that is otherwise totally destroyed. (There’s essentially no wall behind it whatsoever.) Dany approaches slowly, reverently, like the throne might fly away like a butterfly if she spooks it. A small smile breaks across her face as she touches the armrest—there’s some really great subtle acting from Emilia Clarke here—but, crucially, does not sit down. Because that’s when Jon comes in.
Again, if you think Daenerys’ heel turn last week was unsupported by the narrative, I imagine you’ll agree it’s because the show didn’t spend enough time (or didn’t have enough time, or didn’t give itself enough time) properly building to it. By the same token, I imagine a lot of people will find Jon’s tearful, agonized murder of Daenerys to be equally unsupported, for the same reason. Between last week’s episode and this week, I think there are only about 60 minutes of screentime between Jon standing alongside his queen, ready to attack King’s Landing, completely on her side, to him killing her. That’s a pretty quick turnaround.
Still, though, this is what had to happen. Jon had to talk to Dany, realize that she was her own zealot, that she had no regrets or compassion for even the children she slaughtered last week, and for him to swear his love for her even as he stuck a dagger in her heart. We all knew it was coming, so in that sense, it’s completely obvious. But it’s also so necessary that it doesn’t matter. It’s simply how Daenerys’ story had to end; anything else would be felt wrong and unsatisfying.
It was also completely unsurprising that Drogon would realize something was amiss, fly in through the hole in the room, nudge his mother in that heartbreaking way animals do in movies and TV series to show they’re too pure and innocent to understand death, destroy the Iron Throne in his fiery rage, and then fly off with Daenerys’ body. But again: What else could have happened that would have felt as right?
At least the finale did have one major surprise in store. After a flash-forward of indeterminate length, Grey Worm brings Tyrion out of his cell to the Dragonpit…where the remaining cast of Game of Thrones is sitting. It’s presented as a meeting of the most powerful lords in Westeros—Sansa, Yara Greyjoy, Gendry, some new guy from Dorne, and even Riverrun’s doofus-in-chief Edmure Tully is there—but Arya gets a chair, along with Samwell Tarly, and Brienne, and Davos. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, except in that the show wants all the surviving characters to be a part of the decision to figure out Westeros’ new leader—although of course, Tyrion is the one who ends up picking him
I definitely did not see this coming, because I assumed Bran being a magic raven boy sort of disqualified him for public office. Tyrion explains to those gathered—and the audience—that Bran has the best story, being disabled and adventuring beyond the Wall and becoming, well, a magic raven boy. Peter Dinklage sells it well enough that by the time you realize, wait a second, Jon Snow also has a pretty great story and also he’s the good-hearted Stark-Targaryen hybrid people wanted on the throne last week, Tyrion has moved onto how Bran’s inability to have kids (which is not necessarily true) is actually his best selling point, because being part of a bloodline doesn’t automatically make someone a good ruler. So when Bran dies, all these lords and ladies will come back together at the Dragonpit, and elect a new leader for Westeros.
Westeros turning into a republic-monarchy hybrid is a far, far more positive outcome than I expected Game of Thrones to provide for Westeros( Maybe too much?) but still, there is a very necessary satisfaction in realizing Daenerys did inadvertently manage to break the wheel. Bran names Tyrion his Hand of the King, which is also a much happier ending for the character than expected. Grey Worm isn’t happy—he wants to follow his queen’s wishes and kill him—but the new king gets to make these calls, and as Bran says, “He’s made many terrible mistakes. Now he’s going to spend the rest of his life fixing them.”
Honestly, once Daenerys is dead, a lot of the finale is fan service. Sansa gets Winterfell its independence and becomes Queen in the North, despite the fact that her brother has literally just become the ruler of the Seven (Six?) Kingdoms. Fan-favorite Bronn manages to become Lord of Highgarden, as Tyrion promised, which is sort of absurd. He also joins the King’s Council, along with Davos and Samwell, who seems to suddenly be an archmaester. Brienne becomes the new leader of the Kingsguard and finishes writing Jaime’s bio in the Big Book of Kingsguard Members. Samwell gives Tyrion a new book written about the wars called A Song of Ice and Fire, except Tyrion isn’t mentioned in it (cue laugh track). Maybe people weren’t necessarily hoping Arya would jump on a ship to go exploring beyond the known world, but it makes more sense than her hanging around Westeros.
That just leaves Jon, and here’s where the Game of Thrones finale gets it just right. Imprisoned by the Unsullied after killing Daenerys, the people who were loyal to Daenerys—mostly the Unsullied and Yara—want Jon dead. The others want him freed because he saved Westeros from another mad Targaryen and/or they’re related to him by blood. Although King Bran still gets to make the call, there’s only one compromise that will satisfy everyone and keep the realm from plunging into another war: Jon is banished to the Night’s Watch.
Most people expected Jon to die in the finale; he’s always seemed destined to sacrifice himself to save Westeros (and he did die once). But the banality of him being forced to head up north, back where he started in season one, to spend the rest of his life doing a job that presumably is no longer necessary (at least not for a few more thousand years) is tragic in a way that is much more brutal, much better, and much more authentically Game of Thrones. He was forced to kill the woman he loved to save the world, and his “reward” is effectively exile to a lonely life of quiet desperation. He’s also haunted by his decision to kill Daenerys, not just because he loved her, but because he still isn’t even sure if he did the right thing.
The show takes its time following Jon travel out of King’s Landing, to the Wall, and through the Night’s Watch keep that he’d left behind long ago. Again, Harington does a fantastic job here; right on the edges of Jon Stoic Face, you can see he’s practically sick at the realization of what his life now is. His final act, the only choice he can still make for himself, is to leave the Night’s Watch entirely (to be fair, it doesn’t seem like they’ll be needed, except maybe in a few thousand years) and join Tormund and the Wildings as they travel back beyond the Wall. This whimper of an ending for Jon is a greater tragedy than any hero’s death could have been, and it is perfect, both for the character and the show. Jon has won countless battles, united the people of Westeros, defeated an ancient evil, ridden dragons, and even come back from the dead. But at the end, the only semblance of freedom he can have is to leave everyone and everything in Westeros behind him, forever. It’s a completely unsatisfying end for Jon, and that’s exactly what makes it so great.
Admittedly, it’s not quite so great that it somehow fixes all the problems of season eight, but knowing the show got the most essential parts of the conclusion right certainly makes those flaws easier to bear. Or maybe I’m just relieved because now I know that despite all the recent issues, all those wonderful earlier seasons still eventually led somewhere worth getting to (although let’s not pretend everything the show did prior to season seven was perfect by any means. This is a series that has often been very good, but has always had its flaws). The ending was never going to be completely satisfying—it couldn’t be—but it stayed true to the show we fell in love with, at least in its most important, essential aspects.
The heroic queen who was supposed to save Westeros turned evil. The secret king who was forced to kill the woman he loved for the good of the entire world was punished for his sacrifice and will languish in obscurity, his true heritage unknown. The classic fantasy tropes that Game of Thrones was built on subverting were subverted yet again. If Tyrion’s fate was a bit too rosy—and if the show got too cutesy at the end while trying too hard to please its fans—well, that’s okay. It’s good enough.
It’s got to be, because the game is over. These final rounds have been rough, but now that it’s done, I’m still very glad we got to play at all. We certainly didn’t win as much as we wanted to, but a win is still a win. Of course, as we all know, when you play the Game of Thrones you either win or you die. So given the alternative, things could definitely have gone worse.
- Where did Dany get that giant-ass House Targaryen sigil banner? It was crazy-quick to get it hung in the smoking ruins of King’s Landing that fast, let alone sewn.
- The shot of Daenerys effectively sprouting dragon wings because of the way Drogon was positioned behind her looked just badass enough to make up for how horribly cheesy it was. Barely.
- I liked Jon bringing back Master Aemon’s “Love is the death of duty” line from way back.
- If you’re wondering how the Unsullied knew Jon killed Dany after Drogon flew away with her body, it’s because Jon instantly told them, because of course he would have.
- I will never not tear up at animals, mythical or otherwise, nudging their dead owners trying to wake them up.
- There’s only one thing that made me super-mad in this episode, and it’s that Tyrion was left out of the Song of Ice and Fire book. This makes zero sense—he’s been a much bigger part of the throne-jockeying than Jon—and it’s only for a dumb, unfunny joke.
- Samwell suggesting Westeros try democracy was pretty groan-worthy, but it was basically just more fan service. People have been joking about the idea for years, so all the lords had to hear the idea and laugh at how ridiculous it is! Hee hee!
- On the other hand, character actor extraordinaire Tobias Menzies’ reappearance as Edmure Tully was brilliant. I was genuinely wondering if the show was going to let him do a big important speech, as if he’d been on-screen for a minute over the last three-plus years. Instead, he was there purely so Sansa could tell him to sit down and shut the fuck up, which was glorious.
- “All hail Bran the Broken!” Tyrion, I’m pretty sure history is supposed to give kings their nicknames. At the very least, calling Bran “the Broken” to his face seems extremely rude.
- The consolation prize that Jon gets to reunite with Ghost up at the Wall actually made the ending a little sadder for me.
- Tyrion: “I once brought a jackass and a honeycomb into a brothel.” There’s your Game of Thrones prequel, HBO.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.