Both exhilarating and maddening, the series finale of Game of Thrones felt like -- surprise -- a Game of Thrones episode. In the first half, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who wrote and directed the closing 79 minutes of the final season, delivered a fiery blast of dread-soaked, ash covered apocalyptic fantasy storytelling, packed with impressive special effects and brutal character deaths. The less unrelentingly bleak and spectacle-driven second half, which crowned a new king and provided a handful of tearful goodbyes, was a talky political drama, complete with detours into record keeping, mysterious sailing adventures, and groan-worthy jokes about brothels. To the end, the series remained true to itself.
Many characters in Game of Thrones have a tendency to over-idealize the past -- think of sentimental look in Daenerys's eyes as she approached the Iron Throne, thinking of her youth where she imagined a chair made of "a thousand swords" -- but the show has consistently cut that golden-hued nostalgia with muddy moments of cynicism. The finale, an occasionally awkward but entertaining work of fire and ice, didn't deviate too aggressively from the larger sensibility forged over the course of eight seasons. It didn't "pay off" every theory or "answer" every question, but is that a task that a colossal, ever-expanding prestige TV show could realistically accomplish? What did you really expect?
Over the last few weeks, you've likely read a version of the argument that the series "fell off" somewhere after the fourth season as Benioff and Weiss began to deviate and expand from the source material of George R.R. Martin's book series. Though the exact point of when this dip in quality apparently occurred often varies, it feels to me like the larger sense of exhaustion saw a major uptick around the time of "Beyond the Wall" in Season 7, an unevenly paced heist adventure based around an ill-advised plan, and only intensified through controversial Season 8 episodes like "The Long Night" and "The Bells," which culminated with Daenerys's dragon-powered attack on King's Landing. As you may already know, a futile petition to "remake" Season 8 with "competent writers" currently has over a million signatures.
With the series now officially over, it's not exactly fun to argue about the specifics of past episodes. If you didn't like them or found them lacking in nuance, that's fair enough. However, it's perhaps worth noting that the finale contained a handful of big picture plot twists and smaller character beats that simply worked as slick TV drama, hitting that Tolkien-esque sense of melancholy the creators were clearly aiming for. Even in its best seasons, Game of Thrones was always messy, and the finale was no exception. Let's dig into the rubble a bit and see what's there.