'Game of Thrones' Finale Recap: 'The Iron Throne' Was a Controversial, Unsatisfying End
With Season 8, episode 6, "The Iron Throne," our watch has ended.
Joining the annals of event television in the sweet afterlife of shows that were not cancelled but got to end on their own terms is HBO's Game of Thrones, a loose adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novel series. The show, initially picked up as a "fantasy Sopranos" that had five novels to work with, eventually had to surpass the source material and make its own ending, for better or worse. With a few scant mile markers provided by Martin on the road to a conclusion, the writers of Game of Thrones had the doomed task of bringing this story to its conclusion for the first time, before Martin got to have his say in the world he created.
It's been three whole seasons of television since the show drastically departed from the books, and in them we saw the development of our favorite characters switch pacing from a novelistic meandering to a "final big-budget season" rush to the finish line. Characters like Sansa, Theon, and Brienne got full and satisfying arcs where their mettle was tested and their trials manifested as personal growth. Corner characters from the novel's narrative, like Jon Snow and Daenerys, had end-points decided by Martin, but written by television writers who were just as concerned with making dragons look cool on screen than what each character was thinking from moment to moment. That's part of the reality of turning a novel into a TV show that becomes the most popular series on the small screen, but unlike other adaptations that are pulling from a finished work, Game of Thrones has to compete with two unwritten novels, and as long as those novels don’t exist, they can be better than the show in the realm of imagination.
This is the weird part about Game of Thrones ending with such a divisive season: Because it's an adaptation of material that might one day exist, qualitative decisions about how "good" the television show is can get bogged down in fan-fiction debates over two unfinished novels. "Daenerys from the book wouldn’t do that" is a valid argument only as much as it's a spin on "Daenerys hasn't done that yet in the books." As the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones moved towards its endgame, it became apparent that the show hadn't been pulling from George R.R. Martin for some time. When we finally had to pivot back to what -- we assume -- will be the actual ending of A Song of Ice and Fire, it felt like a conclusion apart from the show we'd been watching since Season 5.
"Was Daenerys' turn satisfying?" will likely be the point that divides fans on this season for months, and maybe it will be the ultimate question to assess someone's feelings about Game of Thrones on the whole. Martin always seemed more interested in how one rules after winning the great battle against their enemies, while event television is about displaying large, surprising moments. Game of Thrones didn't have much time to dedicate to Daenerys' frame of mind in the final season. Instead of an examination of her psyche, the Season 8 premiere showed us Jon riding a dragon and sharing a happy kiss with Dany by a frozen waterfall: two lovers that would have run away with each other in that moment if they didn't have to fight the Army of the Dead.
In earlier seasons of the show, Daenerys was an isolated Targaryen in Essos where she learned about ruling by liberating slaves. She was often cruel (crucifying the masters, burning the Unsullied training camp at Astapor), but once she got to Westeros, her character development sped. This season, everything was stripped away from Daenerys, but there were many climaxes (Ser Brienne! The Long Night!) that drew focus from her arc being front and center. All those choices were made knowing this is where we'd end up for Daenerys of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, The Unburnt, Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Protector of the Realm, Lady Regent of the Seven Kingdoms, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons, Queen of the Ashes.
We start the final episode from Tyrion's perspective as he, Davos, and Jon Snow walk through the streets of a destroyed King's Landing. A shirtless man staggers amongst the bodies of children before we pull out to see ash raining on piles and piles of bodies. Tyrion stumbles across the mother and daughter Arya tried to save last episode before deciding to go into the ashes alone. We think, because of the horrible surroundings, it might be to confront Daenerys, but it's actually to investigate the Red Keep and see if his siblings managed to make it out through the secret passage he told Jaime about. Tyrion realizes he's the last Lannister when he comes upon Jaime's fake hand in the rubble. Peter Dinklage acts the hell out of his following breakdown, allowing the character to break in a way that he hasn’t in the series up to this point.
Daenerys then delivered a speech to the Unsullied and the Dothraki, framed as a tyrannical rant from the start, just in case there was any ambiguity about her choices from last week. Not only is the new Queen orating from atop a staircase of ruins, but she doesn't use the common tongue of the people she is conquering. Sure, she lays out how what she's doing actually isn't conquering, but in the context of this final hour, we only have three or four scenes to debate if the Mad Queen's turn last episode made any sense. When her speech ended, Tyrion and Dany have a quietly intense exchange -- she accuses him of treason for freeing his brother, he says she slaughtered a city -- and imprisons Tyrion for committing treason; then we're onto a prison conversation scene between Jon and Tyrion where the show argues with itself.
Tyrion takes the side of Game of Thrones recontextualized: retelling Dany's rise in Essos as a narrative of a ruler of fire and blood. When Tyrion lays out Dany's history in the aftermath of her burning down King's Landing, it sounds as if Dany's massacre was inevitable, but in earlier seasons, our perspective of Daenerys' actions had enough nuance for there still to be a healthy discussion about burning evil men. It's not that Jon is wrong about Cersei killing her best friend, or even later in the throne room when he tells Dany the new world must be one of mercy, it's that the show decides Daenerys is suddenly in favor of burning women and children in her pursuit to "break the wheel." As an acknowledgement that this feels weird, Tyrion manages to let some air into the room by admitting that he was also in love with Dany and what she represented. Maybe we all loved Dany too much to see what was really there, or maybe the show really did rush it, deciding to save the full and satisfying arcs for other characters.
At least Daenerys got a throne room scene with Jon Snow to bring home the series. Since we've been locked out of Dany's point of view since Missandei's death at the end of episode 5, the happiness Dany has while in a ruined throne room reads as... potentially sociopathic. She tries to rationalize killing thousands and pulls one of those "together we can rule the galaxy as father and son" Empire Strikes Back speeches designed to try to turn Jon to the Dracarys side. Jon says she'll always be his queen, kisses her, and then gives her one good stab. That's when the scene really kicks off.
What happens next doesn't make a ton of sense as far as our understanding of Drogon goes, but does make some strange sense emotionally. Drogon nudges his dead mom like a little puppy, then looks at Jon like he's about to burn the person who murdered her. Jon looks like he's ready to greet death (because up until the end of this episode, Jon Snow always wants to die), but instead of roasting him, Drogon destroys the throne room, melts down the Iron Throne, takes Dany's body in his massive claw foot and flies away.
Okay... what? As television symbolism, Daenerys taking the throne with her through her dragon child is pretty badass. The last female Targaryen didn't even get to sit in her hard-won throne (although, in her vision in the House of the Undying, she didn't get to sit on the Iron Throne before being called to the afterlife, so that tracks), instead her body is carried to... where?
Even for killing the queen, Jon Snow might actually have gotten a happy ending. After killing his complicated love, he's imprisoned with no real sense of what'll happen to him with no ruler in place to decide to his. Greyworm wants him dead, and his sisters obviously do not. As a compromise, he gets sent back to the Night's Watch. (We're all thinking what Jon said in the scene where Tyrion, now hand of the king, yet again, delivers his sentence: "There's still a Night's Watch?") He has to say goodbye to his family, but he gets to live, and the last shots of the show are him, Tormund, Ghost, and the Wildlings traveling North.
Tyrion, as a prisoner, manages to talk the Lords and Ladies of Westeros (including a much more suave-looking Robin Arryn of the Vale) into electing Kings and Queens. They don't say "President" or anything, but it is clear from Sam's suggestion they have a pure democracy getting laughed off the dragon pit stage that the writers are nodding to the idea that Dany's "breaking" of the wheel doesn't have to be killing anyone who ever pledged fealty in a feudalistic system of government. Not only does the Last Lannister get a king elected (pause for a moment to soak in the word ELECTED coming out of Game of Thrones, after all we've been through), but he successfully nominates Bran with a lame speech about the power of stories. So he's Bran the Broken, ruler of the Six Kingdoms (he lets the North remain independent, as Sansa sticks to), protector of the Realm. By the very end of the episode, King Bran is still warging around, keeping an eye on the one dragon in the world, while his still-growing Small Council -- Master of Coin Bronn, Archmaester Sam Tarly, Head of the Kingsguard Brienne of Tarth, and Davos Seaworth as Master of Ships -- debate how to keep this proto-democracy going.
The sisters Stark also get happy endings, relatively. Sansa keeps the North free, which is a huge deal in the history of Westeros. The Queen of the North promises the Northmen they'd never bend the knee again and she keeps that promise as the student of Littlefinger and Cersei that she has grown into. Arya, on the other hand, goes west, when she reiterates her question from two seasons ago: What's West of Westeros? She's dedicating the rest of her life to finding out what's going on beyond where the maps end.
It's a little frustrating to see Arya's end. She comes to an important conclusion by the end of her story, which is that she doesn't need to be constantly after revenge and death, but also she doesn't go full Batman after killing the Night King. Instead, she leaves and says she's never coming back. Westeros needs re-building and could use an assassin with face swapping abilities. Or were we supposed to forget that she had the ability to magically switch her face?
The finale had to balance two different tones: a harshing of our collective mellow as our girl Dany went the way of Dracarys mixed with lighthearted scenes like Edmure Tully getting laughed off stage after suggesting he could be King after being imprisoned by the Freys for years. Brienne finished Jaime's Kingsguard entry and Sam Tarly makes meta jokes about A Song of Ice and Fire and democracy. Game of Thrones was a literary narrative that came to a blockbuster television solution. It wasn't perfect, but we were rapt. And they did stick by Cersei's rules from Season 1: "When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die." Did you win?