Beyond The Wall

The 'Game of Thrones' Finale Failed Because It Coddled the Audience

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HBO

This post contains spoilers for all seasons of Game of Thrones. Proceed with caution. And visit Beyond the Wall, our official Game of Thrones hub page for recaps, theories, spoilers, explainers, and the best episodes of all time.

As viewers, we were never going to win Game of Thrones. The narrative television series grew too unwieldy to ever yield a finale that would lend closure to all parties invested in the narrative of Westeros. Too many people had conflicting ideas over what the show was supposed to be. For some, it was a character drama cloaked in fantasy drag. To others, it was consumed like a sporting event, at a bar with friends who would scream whenever a surprising moment came along. On corners of the internet like Reddit, it was a mystery to unravel, with theories and clues gleaned from George R.R. Martin's unfinished texts.

If there was anything that united the various factions, it was investment in the story's streak of nihilism that began back when Ned Stark was decapitated. Watching it was fun because it didn't coddle its audience. There was always a possibility that the bad guys were going to win, or that ostensibly good guys were going to get trapped in a moral morass, enticed by religion (like Stannis Baratheon) or revenge (like Arya Stark).

For any other drama, "The Iron Throne" probably would've served as a satisfying finale. It offered one last "shocking moment" as Jon plunged his knife into Daenerys' heart; Tyrion got to speechify about the importance of "stories" in the world. In just under an hour and a half, the episode tied up most of the loose ends without leaning too heavily into treacly montages. In short, it offered some sense of closure. Westeros is safe, for now. Reasonable characters are ruling. On a purely technical level, it did all it needed to do, so why did it land with a leaden thump?

One theory: It just wasn't mean enough. 

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HBO

For many viewers, the cardinal sin of Thrones' last season was its supposed sloppiness. And, sure, there are errant coffee cups and water bottles to support this claim, but the more convincing argument is how haphazardly the show seemed to ignore its own history while crossing the finish line. Arya's sojourn in Braavos training with the Faceless Men was nearly rendered irrelevant, as was her kill list. Daenerys' turn to villainy was expected, but maddeningly rushed, and executed without thought to the nasty gender dynamics it was perpetuating. 

The last six episodes felt both bloated and undercooked. Ultimately, the keys to the whole kingdom were handed over to Bran, a character who was abandoned for an entire season because his plot felt too irrelevant to the overall action. Plots were introduced that had little to no payoff -- Arya's romance with Gendry, for one -- while crucial relationships were confined to a few quick scenes. Yes, that includes the supposedly central relationship of the final two seasons, between Daenerys and Jon. For a couple whose destiny would determine the future of the Seven Kingdoms, they barely had any time to meet, fall in love, and split apart by the time Jon stabbed his aunt. What could have been a genuinely surprising moment was rendered clunky by the way their relationship unfolded, and the blatant foreshadowing of Dany's fate throughout the season.  

Not even the visual spectacle of the show could cover up these plot and character slip-ups. Game of Thrones remained TV on a grand scale, water bottles and coffee cups be damned. When you could see them, the two major battles were bigger than they had been before, truly impressive at least in how expensive they looked. But the wow-factor couldn't overtake the lack of narrative urgency. 

In these last few weeks, it became clear that Benioff and Weiss weren't aiming for any of that delicious murk that has defined the best episodes. Characters with dubious backgrounds were neatly offed, like the "hateful" Jaime and Cersei, whose deaths were anti-climatic given all the chaos they caused. When the walls crumble on top of the siblings, it's a surprisingly sympathetic moment for some of the most morally bankrupt characters on the show, but it's not a surprise at all to see them die together. Meanwhile, Daenerys' path from liberator to unequivocally evil war criminal deserving of punishment happened over the course of a few episodes. Jon only halfheartedly defends her, and that's out of "duty," not any nuance imparted on her actions. Oh, and the White Walkers? Yeah, they were just zombie guys, swiftly defeated in one blow.

The end of a monumental show like Thrones has prompted me to think about some of the most affecting series finales of recent years. Many of them leave more questions than answers, from the purgatory fate of the central spies in The Americans to the open-ended ideas of Halt and Catch Fire to the primal scream of Twin Peaks: The Return. Sticking a Coke commercial on Mad Men was divisive because it was provocative -- not, well, boring. Getting everyone on board with a Thrones ending would have been an impossible task, but at the end a daring work of entertainment played it safe. And that's the most aggravating conclusion of all. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.