It is in the nature of endings to disappoint.
Endings let us down because they are isolated moments in a life—be it the life of a person or the life of a story—that are forced to stand for the life entire, and thus assume unfair and exaggerated significance in the pattern of the whole.
Endings let us down because they are charged with the impossible task of providing those things we crave even though we know, deep down, that they are probably illusions: closure, and meaning, and the assurance that it was all, somehow, worthwhile.
Endings let us down because they are inherently artificial: because we know in our hearts that nothing ever really ends, and that therefore even the most seemingly decisive conclusion is nothing more than an arbitrary stopping point in a tale that could go on forever.
And—as I have written before, when the ending of another beloved show was looming—endings let us down, finally, because we do not, really, want from them what we think we want. All stories are mysteries at their hearts, and, however much we think we want to know the solution, we really don't, because all the pleasures of a story lie in the not knowing. It is in the speculation, the wondering, the endlessly teasing potential of a story that we can fully immerse ourselves, and become active, imaginative participants in the telling. "The period of not knowing is when the story truly lives in us," I said then, and still believe now. "In the final chapter, the author yanks it back from us, and pins it down on paper in a way that makes it smaller, somehow, than it was when it was ours."
The more complex and expansive the story, the more likely we are to be disappointed by any pat and discrete conclusion. The more speculation we've enjoyed about the questions at the heart of the mystery, the less likely we are to be satisfied by the answers we're ultimately given. The more genuinely and deeply we have loved the thing that is ending—whether it be a story, a life, or a journey we have experienced—the less happy we'll be to see it end at all.
I launched The Unaffiliated Critic in April of 2011, and, just a few weeks later, I began writing about Game of Thrones. It is only the second TV show I ever wrote about—a couple of posts on Doctor Who came first—and, to date, still the only show that I have written about through its entire broadcast life, from beginning to end. It was in writing about Game of Thrones that I really figured out how I wanted to write about television in general, and the process of figuring that out inevitably changed how I watch television. I have written more about Game of Thrones, at this point, than I have written about anything in my life, and these pieces have been (by a rather embarrassing margin) the most popular work I have ever produced. So it is no exaggeration to say that, right now, Game of Thrones is inextricably woven into my identity as critic, and even as a writer.
All of which is to say that I needed "The Iron Throne"—the series finale of Game of Thrones—to be something that it had, in retrospect, very little chance of ever being. Yes, I needed it to bring this expansive, complicated, multi-layered, multi-themed, often messy and contradictory story with a dozen major characters to some kind of satisfying conclusion. That, in itself, may have been an unrealistic expectation. But I also needed it to justify and validate the eight years of my own life that I have spent watching, and writing about, and thinking about Game of Thrones: to reward the time and effort, to pay back the investment, to tell me that my work was not only worthwhile and meaningful but right.
That is a lot of pressure to put on a single episode of television. And, for a critic, it is a criminally unfair amount of pressure to put on anything that one intends to review.
"Was it right, what I did?" a broken Jon Snow asks Tyrion in the series finale of Game of Thrones. "It doesn't feel right." And Tyrion doesn't really know what to tell him. "Ask me again in ten years," he says. As an answer, it is less than reassuring, but it is probably wise. Was it right, all the time and effort and investment—both intellectual and emotional—that I put into Game of Thrones? Today, it doesn't feel right, but it is an intrinsic failing of my chosen medium that reacting to isolated chapters—even, or especially, the final chapter—is a terrible way to assess a work of art.
Ask me again in ten years, when the sting of this final episode is not so fresh. Ask me when I am able to see the shape of the entire story from the perspective of this final vantage point. Ask me when I can once again remember the countless pleasures of the journey, more than the dull, damp disappointments of the destination. Ask me once I am finally able to put "The Iron Throne" in perspective as nothing more or less than what it is: a single, slightly disappointing episode of television.
Because that, ultimately, is all it is. And—though I will inevitably fail—that is how I am going to attempt to treat it in this piece.
"What we decide today will reverberate through the annals of history." — Edmure Tully
Which is to say that—though I suspect this will not be the last thing I ever write on Game of Thrones—I would like to go out here doing what I have done all along.
As my longtime readers know, it has mostly been my shtick, over the past eight years, to focus on one common theme in each episode. Going all the way back to "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things"—the first full review I wrote—I have delighted in finding the connective thematic tissue that linked all the separate storylines of an episode together. In the early days of Game of Thrones, there really were half-a-dozen or more disjointed storylines happening in each episode, among characters who had never even met. In those days, I thought it was both fun and helpful to tease out the common themes, and to show how all the seemingly disparate segments of a certain episode were all, for example, exploring the concept of justice, or family, or whatever. It helped illuminate the quiet integrity that lurked beneath apparent discordance, and—frankly—it made it easier for me to organize my own thoughts into something vaguely coherent.
(Sometimes, the common theme was so clear that I couldn't doubt that the writers had been deliberate about it. At other times, it seemed more like a natural throughline that arose organically, even sub-consciously, from the preoccupations of the overall story. And occasionally—just once in a while, mind you—I desperately fudged something together, using an otherwise haphazard episode as an excuse to talk about an aspect of the show I'd been wanting to discuss anyway. But I always found some way to impose order on the chaos.)
Over the last couple of seasons, however, it has been both more difficult and less necessary to do that. Around the beginning of Season Seven, all those "separate" storylines started crashing, then melding, together, until the story was just the story, and the theme was just the theme. (Honestly, it was a little disorienting for me—and kind of inconvenient—when all the characters started hanging out together. It became harder to compartmentalize my thoughts about each episode, and I suspect these posts got a little more unwieldy in the effort.)
So I felt a little nostalgic—in fact, I felt damn near sentimental—to realize that "The Iron Throne" has such a unifying theme running throughout its various components. And that theme is memory.
"What we decide today will reverberate through the annals of history," says pompous fool Edmure Tully, as he launches a hilariously short-lived campaign to be king. Throughout the episode, characters are keenly aware—almost as if they know their stories are coming to a close—of their places in history, of how they will be remembered, and judged. "I've had nothing to do but think these past few weeks," Tyrion says. "About our bloody history. About the mistakes we've made." Later, as I've already mentioned, Jon and Tyrion have a discussion about how their actions will be judged ten years down the road. Elsewhere, Brienne of Tarth picks up a pen to record the deeds of Ser Jaime Lannister in the official record of the Kingsguard, so that he will be remembered. Towards the end of the episode, Samwell Tarly delivers, to Tyrion, Archmaester Ebrose's history of everything that has happened since King Robert died, which will become the "official" record of the events of Game of Thrones. ("We are this world's memory," Ebrose once said, of the Citadel.) And, of course, Brandon Stark—"Bran the Broken"—is named King of the Six Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm, largely on the strength of his uniquely comprehensive grasp of history. ("He is our memory, the keeper of all our stories," Tyrion argues, in nominating this unlikely candidate for a crown.)
It is not a surprise that the final episode of this sprawling, multi-generational story would be concerned with history, with looking back to its own past and looking forward to the legacy it will leave behind. Neither is it a surprise that this final chapter in the tale makes a case for the importance of stories. ("There's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story," Tyrion says. "Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.") It's a little meta, and more than a little self-aggrandizing, and it is—as Monty Python might have said—no basis for a system of government. But I happen to agree with the sentiment, so I don't mind very much.
But there's a difference between histories and stories, and it is all the difference. As we discussed way back in the Season One finale "Fire and Blood"—when Grand Maester Pycelle was lecturing Ros meaninglessly on "the thing about kings"—historical records rarely allow for any true understanding of the fact that rulers are just people, and that huge political and social upheavals arise from their deeply personal failings and completely petty concerns. As we see from the fact that Archmaester Ebrose's official record omits Tyrion Lannister completely, history tends to focus on the what, while painting a very reductive picture of the who, and completely missing the why.
Which is to say that history misses the human element. That has always been a very important theme for Game of Thrones, and it's nice to see showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss return to it here at the end. But, ironically, they themselves—having written and directed this episode—seem to have forgotten the lesson, for they make the same mistakes now. "The Iron Throne" is so preoccupied with settling what happens that it forgets to focus on who, and why. As a result, it is an unsatisfying and strangely unemotional conclusion to this extraordinary tale, because it neglects everything important the story was about, and everything that made its telling worthwhile.
It neglects the humanity.
"The world we need won't be built by men loyal to the world we have." — Daenerys Targaryen
"The Iron Throne" follows a structure that is familiar from other series finales. Its 80-minute running time is split at just over the halfway point, making what is effectively two separate episodes out of one. The first of these is dedicated to wrapping up the loose ends of the plot: It is slower, and darker, and (by only the tiniest of margins) more frustrating. The second is a glorified epilogue, in which the survivors are abruptly and implausibly settled into their (mostly) happy endings. (This is the Battlestar Galactica model of finale, and I do not mean that as a compliment.)
The first half, of course, is all about dealing with Daenerys Targaryen. Among the many, many problems plaguing "The Iron Throne" is the overwhelming shadow of Dany's genocidal rampage last week. The opening shots—of Tyrion, Jon, and Davos making their way through the smoldering pile of ashes Dany has made of King's Landing—are powerful, and appropriately solemn. But this crime is larger, sadder, and more existentially monstrous than anything Benioff and Weiss are ultimately able or willing to deal with in this final episode. For all its flaws, "The Bells" felt like a final verdict on everything the characters and society had gone through in Game of Thrones, eight years of story culminating in a mission-defining moment of cruelty, ruination, and despair. As much as I disliked "The Bells"—and as much as I resisted its bleak message—I now wonder if it shouldn't have been the final episode of Game of Thrones, because there should be no walking this story back from such despair. "The Bells" should have made it impossible for Game of Thrones to have any kind of happy ending.
How many innocent people did Dany kill, after all? We never hear any numbers, but the population of King's Landing was roughly one million, and its population was swollen with thousands of people from the surrounding countryside who took refuge inside the city gates. Now, it seems that pretty much all of those people are dead: Isolated survivors remain, but we encounter no crowds of refugees, we see no relief efforts, we hear no screams and wails of grief. King's Landing is as quiet as a graveyard, for that's what it is now. The second half of the episode—in which the nation's new leaders cheerfully discuss building brothels—is a grossly inappropriate leap of logic and tone, and one that Benioff and Weiss utterly fail to justify. (Dany's holocaust is scarcely mentioned in the second half of "The Iron Throne.") You can't show the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people and jump to brothel jokes an hour later: not without demonstrating that you staged the genocide itself merely for cheap effect. Not without fatally violating the realism and emotional integrity of a show that used to care about having such things.
And one of the ways "The Iron Throne" glosses over what should have been the show's defining, despairing moment is by turning Daenerys Targaryen into a cartoon villain.
And I mean this almost literally: The ham-fisted and desperately unimaginative staging here is straight out of Disney. Dany becomes Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty as Benioff and Weiss—in what they no doubt thought was a "clever" shot—frame her with Drogon's wings seeming to sprout from her shoulders. And she becomes Scar from The Lion King as, surrounded by painfully obvious Nazi imagery, she delivers her version of the "Be Prepared" musical number to her goose-stepping minions. It might have been clever when Disney did it, but Disney makes films for a child's mentality: Game of Thrones never used to.
(As a side-note, I find it a curious and unfortunate that Benioff and Weiss chose to direct the finale themselves: It is not their strong suit. The only other episodes the showrunners directed were Season Three's "Walk of Punishment" and Season Four's "Two Swords." Neither episode was particularly bad, but neither was particularly demanding, either: They were talky, largely forgettable entries. The direction in "The Iron Throne"—in both the big visual moments and the quiet intimate interactions—comes off as, at best, adequate but uninspired. At worst—as in these scenes—the direction exhibits an overreaching obviousness.)
Nothing about the denouement of this story plays out with the emotional and thematic sophistication that has characterized its development all along. And it all doubles-down on everything that made Dany's turn last week so troubling. Now, Jon, Tyrion, and Davos—the white men—have all realized the truth about Dany, and stand in horror as she lays out her plan for world domination to her black and brown foot-soldiers. (The irony of the Nazi imagery in this scene lands like a lead balloon, since this is basically a white supremacist's worst nightmare: this woman, screaming in two different foreign languages, explaining how she and her mindless, savage, dark-skinned minions will force the white men to submit to her social-justice-warrior agenda.)
But simplistic imagery and problematic symbolism are the least of the problems with the resolution of this storyline—which is, after all, the central plot-line of Game of Thrones. It comes off as horribly offensive, in part, because it is horribly reductive, because Benioff and Weiss have stripped out every single nuance that made Dany's story more interesting and challenging than its broadest beats.
This is another unfortunate side-effect of the shock-and-awe campaign Benioff and Weiss had her launch in "The Bells": It effectively ended all debate. There is no question—none—that Dany needs to die. That's how blatantly evil her acts last week were, how categorically unforgivable. This, too, was avoidable: If her destruction of King's Landing had been overly aggressive and recklessly destructive—but not quite so deliberately, undeniably evil—the show could have preserved some of the exquisite moral and ethical ambiguity that we have enjoyed being challenged with for eight seasons. Instead, this show—which has trafficked so admirably and beautifully in grey areas—ends its main storyline in the starkest blacks and whites.
This is a last-minute insult to the overall thematic sophistication of Game of Thrones, and it is an insult to the carefully constructed complexity of all the characters involved, particularly Daenerys. As I said last week, Dany hasn't really been a character since she arrived in Westeros: The moment she disembarked at Dragonstone, she went from being the nuanced and sympathetic star of her own story to the simplistic object of other peoples' points of view. And that othering of Daenerys reached its culmination in "The Bells," as we barely even glimpsed her atop her dragon, and never saw anything from her point of view. Except for one long, wordless shot of her simmering in growing rage and bloodlust, we never had the slightest inclination what she was thinking or feeling.
Think about that. This woman who once tried to save the women of the Lamb Tribe from being raped by Drogo's khalasar; this woman whose fury at the Masters of Meereen was unleashed by their crucifixion of children; this woman who once locked up her own dragons because one had killed a little girl: She deliberately roasted innocent women and children in the streets of King's Landing. I am not saying I could not believe that she would do what she did: I am saying we should have seen some conflict—or at least some emotion—on her face as she did it.
And we should hear some guilt or doubt in her voice now—but we don't. Like too many other scenes this season, the final confrontation between Jon and Dany falls flat because there are no actual human beings involved, and certainly not the human beings we have gotten to know over the past eight years. "It was necessary,"" Dany tells Jon, simply, when he accuses her of murdering little children. "I tried to make peace with Cersei. She used their innocence as a weapon against me." Dany is utterly soulless here, refusing to shed a tear for the people she has killed, and refusing to apologize for the people she is going to kill in her mission to "break the wheel."
This—to return to our theme—is the despot's view of history: Memory is counter-productive, and must be erased, eradicated, in order to clean the slate for a reimagined future. ("It's not easy to see something that's never been before," she says.) There are any number of genocidal maniacs in our own history to whom we might compare her, but the one that leaps to mind for me is Pol Pot, the leader of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. In 1975, when they assumed power, the Khmer Rouge essentially decided that the past two thousand years of human development had been a mistake, and they set out to correct that mistake by rolling Cambodia back to "Year Zero." Over the next four years they emptied the cities, forced the people into the countryside, and attempted to transform Cambodia back into a pre-industrial agrarian society. To achieve this radical revolution, they decided, it would be necessary to slaughter every single person whose mind had been "corrupted" by education, technology, or foreign influences. Between 1975–1979 the Khmer Rouge murdered at least two million people, roughly a fifth of the country's population: They made a heartless decision to brutally cauterize the current generation, in the hope of making a better world for all future generations.
This is Dany's mentality here. "Mercy is our strength," she said last week. "Our mercy towards future generations who will never again be held hostage by a tyrant." And now, to Jon Snow, she argues for the necessity of murdering anyone who clings to their memories of the old, flawed order: "We can't hide behind small mercies," she says. "The world we need won't be built by men loyal to the world we had." Memory, you see, is a weakness, and the future is worth any amount of suffering in the present.
This, by the way, is a philosophy we have heard before on Game of Thrones: It is how Jaime once justified his support of Cersei's reign. "She's a monster," Lady Olenna told him, and he didn't really disagree. "But after we've won, and there's no one left to oppose us, when people are living peacefully in the world she built, do you really think they'll wring their hands over the way she built it?" According to this philosophy, being a monster is acceptable—and perhaps even necessary—if the monstrosity achieves a better world. History—this argument goes—will forget all the human suffering that was necessary to get there.
It is not really a philosophy we have ever heard Daenerys espouse before. (She did not slaughter masters and slaves alike in Essos, for example, on the theory that the next generation would never know what a world with slaves was like.) And, though I can almost believe she might use this theory to justify her actions, we know Dany too well to believe this soulless monster is who she really is. Unfortunately, we do not see the Dany we know anywhere here.
How much more interesting might the scene between Jon and Dany have been if we did? How much more interesting would it have been if she had expressed guilt and regret over her actions? If she were as surprised and traumatized by what she had done as everyone else is? If she wept over those children, even as she attempted to convince herself and Jon that their deaths had been necessary? Alternately—or additionally—how much more interesting would it have been if Jon had called her out on the real reasons she torched the citizenry of King's Landing? What if he had said, "That's not why you did it: You did it because you were pissed off"? What if she had admitted that she did it simply because the people of Westeros didn't love her enough? That might have led to a final scene that was worthy of the character and her long, complicated arc. Emilia Clarke, and the character of Daenerys Targaryen, deserved more emotional complexity here, and we deserved to see Dany actually grapple—at least a little—with what she has become.
Instead, Dany becomes a one-note James Bond villain, coldly monologuing about her plans for world domination. Even forgetting the insult to the complicated character Benioff, Weiss, and Clarke have built over eight seasons, it is just terribly bad dramatic construction, because it means there is no question or suspense about what needs to happen now: Dany needs to die.
There is so much to regret about how this has all played out. One can see how this entire storyline would have worked if it had been executed more carefully. (We do not know what information George R. R. Martin gave the showrunners about the planned ending of his story, but I have to assume that they got bullet-points on all the major beats. My guess is that what happens is what was always supposed to happen, but it's in the how and why it happens that Benioff and Weiss dropped the ball.) For example, Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke were never going to have a lot of chemistry. (Both well cast for their individual characters, they turned out to be unfortunately poor casting for the ultimate merging of those characters' storylines.) But Benioff and Weiss could have put a lot more effort into convincing us that they were really, truly in love. Looking back, only a few scenes between them ever really worked. (Their first "date," spelunking a cave together in "The Spoils of War," was probably the most successful, I think.) But in general we've seen too few real conversations between them, and felt too little actual passion.
As a result of all of this—her transformation into a cartoon-villain, and our lack of real emotional investment into their relationship—the final confrontation between Jon and Dany falls completely flat. It does not feel, as it should, like the final move in a debate on the uses of power and the worthiness of rulers that Game of Thrones has been having since the beginning: It feels like a simplistic, painfully reductive distillation of that conversation. And it does not feel like Jon Show is being forced to kill the great love of his life: It feels like he's breaking up with a girl he barely knows, after going on a couple of dates with her and gradually realizing she's a psycho.
And it's a crying shame, because this should be the culmination of both their story arcs. Jon and Dany have, almost inarguably, been the two main characters of Game of Thrones, and this should have been the moment to which everything they have ever done, separately and together, has been building. In the conversation where Tyrion argues for Dany's death, Benioff and Weiss call back to one of the defining themes of Jon's character arc, as expressed by Maester Aemon—Dany's Great Uncle, and Jon's Great-Great Uncle—way back in Season One. "Love is the death of duty," Aemon told him. "What is honor compared to a woman's love?" It was Aemon who asked Jon the question that has never stopped being important in Game of Thrones: WWND, or What Would Ned Do? "If the day should ever come when your lord father was forced to choose between honor on the one hand, and those he loves on the other, what would he do?" Aemon asked.
"He would do what was right," Jon replied, rejecting the false binary of the question. Jon's entire arc has been about making difficult choices, finding third alternatives, and daring to do what was right according to his own morality and despite the demands of love, honor, and duty. This moment with Dany, then, should be the final, tragic expression of those internal conflicts. He is not only forced to give up the woman he loves—as he did years ago, when he had to leave Ygritte, go to war with her, and eventually watch her die—but he is also forced to give up his honor by murdering his sworn liege. (Obviously, his regicidal act here mirrors the one Jaime Lannister committed all those years ago when he murdered Dany's father. Jon becomes "The Queenslayer," surrendering official honor—as Jaime did—in order to do the right thing.) Jon does the right thing here, by sacrificing his personal love and duty both, out of love for, and duty towards, all of Westeros.
As flawed as the execution of this story is, it does work on a thematic level. I have long argued that the most important theme running throughout Game of Thrones is the importance of empathy. From the beginning, this series has been about characters learning to engage their sympathetic imaginations and realize that everyone else in the world—no matter their gender or clan or class—was also a person, and not an object. It has been about recognizing the individual humanity of others: their agency, their subjectivity, their inherent right to exist and the intrinsic value of their existence. If Game of Thrones was, as I've suggested, a school of empathy, Jon Snow has been its most successful student, and Daenerys—as it turns out—was the institution's most disastrous failure. What Dany did in "The Bells" was the ultimate rejection of empathy: reducing hundreds of thousands of people to meaningless and disposable objects in her pursuit of power.
So, all told, this confrontation between Jon and Dany should be the most powerful and important and tragically resonant moment in all of Game of Thrones—but it just isn't. It isn't, because we don't believe in their love. It isn't, because Benioff and Weiss squander all emotional and ethical nuance and make the resolution too obvious. It isn't, because these characters don't feel human anymore, let alone like the complex, well-intentioned, deeply flawed people we've known for eight years. They themselves have become just soulless objects on a chessboard, being unceremoniously manipulated through the motions of a joyless, obligatory endgame. In an episode about the importance of memory, we have trouble remembering why we ever loved Daenerys Targaryen at all. In the finale of a show about empathy, Benioff and Weiss have made it impossible to feel much of anything for one of its two protagonists.
Even Drogon has his stupid, heavy-handed part to play in this unfortunate pantomime. Suddenly exhibiting a surprisingly comprehensive understanding of literary symbolism and political synecdoche, the Last Dragon expresses his grief and rage not by blasting the person who so obviously killed his "mother," but by melting the physical representation of her doomed quest, the Iron Throne itself. (This is another poor directorial choice: If Drogon had simply had a temper tantrum and destroyed the entire room, that would have been fine, but his incendiary ire is very specifically focused.) Like everything else in this scene, it feels less like an emotionally motivated act, and more like Benioff and Weiss ticking off boxes on a checklist of predetermined moments they couldn't bother to sufficiently earn.
To reiterate: Even maintaining the broad strokes, this whole thing could have worked. It is, after all, a good story: The exiled princess who becomes the corrupted queen; the hidden prince who becomes the tragic hero; the doomed love affair; et cetera. But the charm of Game of Thrones was always that these archetypal fantasy tropes were played out through characters who seemed like authentic people, whose stories revealed more complicated and complex aspects than the storybooks ever told us. Yet here, at what should have been their climactic moment, Benioff and Weiss reduce it all back down to fantasy tropes operating at a storybook level.
"Died protecting his queen." — from the entry on Ser Jaime Lannister in The Book of Brothers
Perhaps—if we were feeling more charitable than I am actually feeling—we could see all the flaws of this disappointing episode as a final point Benioff and Weiss are making about the nature of memory, and the nature of stories, and the nature of endings: They all, inevitably, get it wrong, and leave out everything important.
For as much as we object to how Benioff and Weiss send Daenerys Targaryen offstage as a cartoon villain, can't we also recognize that this is the way history will remember her? When the histories are written, Dany will be the Mad Queen, the Dragon Queen, the monster whose brief, blood-soaked rise to power almost put her on the throne. The books will remember Dany as a terrible footnote to history, reigning for a few mere hours between Queen Cersei Lannister and King Brandon Stark. She will be important, but only as a thing that happened to the Seven (now Six) Kingdoms. She will not be remembered as a person, as an actual human being. The scared little girl victimized by her older brother will be lost. The young woman sold into sexual slavery will be lost. The khaleesi who somehow found not only love but her voice and her power will be lost. The tender-hearted ascendant ruler who wanted to make the world a better and more just place will be lost. Perhaps, in Essos, someone may remember Dany as the Breaker of Chains: In the history books of Westeros, however, she will simply be the heartless would-be conqueror who committed the greatest mass atrocity the world had ever seen.
So, if we were feeling charitable, we could say that is the real lesson of "The Iron Throne": It is an ending that recognizes that, in the end, none of us get to be complex, fully realized human beings. Perhaps this final episode is painfully reductive because memory itself is reductive. It doesn't matter if you are a king or queen being written up in the history books, or just an ordinary person with a one paragraph obituary in the local paper: The final words written on you will probably reduce you to your broadest strokes, and utterly fail to capture the full essence of the life you lived, and the things you did, and the feelings you felt, and everything else that made it all worthwhile.
We'd all like to be remembered as the complex subjects of our life stories. But all of us become objects in the end.
This, anyway, is the lesson "The Iron Throne" keeps teaching us, intentionally or not. Ser Brienne of Tarth, the newly appointed Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, opens The Book of Brothers, the official record of every member of the Kingsguard, and completes the entry of her late friend Ser Jaime Lannister.
Way back in the Season Four opener "Two Swords," the odious Joffrey Baratheon mocked his uncle/father over the brevity of his recorded accomplishments, which consisted merely of squiring for Ser Barristan Selmy, murdering King Aerys II, and being "hereafter known as the Kingslayer." "Someone forgot to write down all your great deeds," Joffrey scoffed. "There's still time," Jaime replied. A few episodes later, Brienne read his paltry page in the book aloud to him. "It is the duty of the Lord Commander to fill those pages," he said. "And there is still room left on mine." A few moments later he gave Brienne his Valyrian steel sword—which she would christen Oathkeeper—and charged her to fulfill his promise to Catelyn Stark to see her daughters to safety. She—he seemed to be saying—could be the knight, the hero, the person, that he himself could never be, a relationship that came full circle when he officially knighted her in "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms."
So this is actually a sweet little scene, providing at least a suggestion of some much needed closure on Jaime's long arc and his complicated relationship with Brienne. I know the treatment of Brienne this season has come in for a lot of criticism, and some of it is deserved. Last week, I myself described her weeping at Jaime's leaving her in "The Last of the Starks" as part of this season's regrettable pattern of debasing the show's female characters. In retrospect, however, I am (perhaps generously) inclined to view her grief as being less about the abrupt end to their strange and sudden "romance," and more about the tragic end of Jaime's near-redemption arc. For their relationship was never about her wanting him to be her lover: It was about her wanting him to be better, to be the man and hero that she thought he had the potential to be. She knew he would die if he returned to King's Landing, but more than that she knew that his returning to Cersei represented a relapse, a giving-up on himself: It was, for her, like watching a recovering alcoholic uncork a bottle. ("You're not like your sister," she pleaded with him. "You're better than she is. You're a good man and you can't save her. You don't need to die with her.")
So I feel better about how we leave Ser Brienne of Tarth. She began her story in Game of Thrones by being appointed to the short-lived Kingsguard of "King Renly," and she ends her story as a Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, and Lord Commander of the real Kingsguard, with a seat on the Small Council that rules the realm. No little girl in Westeros will ever again be told by their fathers—as Arya was—that the only life-path open to her is to marry a lord and bear his children. Now, those little girls will be able to say "I think I want to become a knight." That—in this unjust society where history seems to just repeat itself—represents real, well-earned progress.
And I feel better about the closure she gives Jaime Lannister, recording his actions in the Book of the Brothers, and testifying to the annals of history that he was important, that he did matter. He was much more than just the Kingslayer: He was a knight, and, sometimes, almost a hero.
At the same time, however, this is another example of how history leaves out everything important, and another reminder of how Benioff and Weiss have left out too much that it is important. Every word Brienne writes is true: Jaime did get captured at the Whispering Wood, he did win victories at Riverrun and Highgarden, he did pledge himself to the cause of humanity and die protecting his queen. But those are just facts: they will not tell future generations anything about who Jaime Lannister really was. They will not know how he pushed a 10-year-old boy out a window. They will not know how intensely, and perversely, and weirdly admirably he loved his sister. They will not know how he was sometimes smug and selfish, sometimes brave and noble, sometimes funny and infuriating. They will not know how hard he tried to overcome his own weak, deeply flawed nature, and how—in part through the influence of his friend, surrogate-sister, and brief lover Brienne of Tarth—he very nearly succeeded.
Like Daenerys Targaryen, Jaime Lannister deserved better than he got from the final season of Game of Thrones. (Without question—and as I discussed last week—Cersei, too, deserved better. But Cersei—despite Lena Headey's fantastic performance—was not as interesting a character. Her power waned and waxed throughout the series, but Cersei never really changed. This was part of her guilty appeal, in fact: how fiercely she managed to stay unapologetically herself.) Nikolaj Coster-Waldau was always one of the most under-appreciated actors on this show, and almost no other actors were given a character with such fascinating and frustrating contradictions to play. To have him run back to die in Cersei's arms could have been an interesting and justified conclusion to both of their stories, but Benioff and Weiss didn't spare either of them the time or effort to let that ending resonate. The way it unfolded, it didn't feel tragically earned: It just felt dismissive, as though the showrunners either didn't know what other conclusion to give them or couldn't spare the screen-time to do it justice.
(Here's my personal, unprovable theory. Even ignoring the prophecy from the books that she would be killed by one of her brothers, the logical, story-shaped conclusion to Jaime's story would have been for him to kill Cersei, strangling her to death to prevent her from committing some worse atrocity. That, to me, would have been a perfect completion of their twisted love affair, and a perfect completion of Jaime's redemptive character arc, bringing him full circle back to his killing of Aerys II. But this would have been a near Xerox-copy of the Jon/Dany endgame. I suspect that Benioff and Weiss recognized that having both men kill the monstrous queens they loved would have been both excessive and repetitive, and so they saved that storyline for the main characters and screwed over Cersei and Jaime as a result.)
But this is another way in which endings inevitably disappoint. Either characters get perfectly symmetrical and satisfying completions of their character arcs (which can feel overly convenient and slightly phony), or they don't (which feels more realistic, but far less satisfying). And we have gotten a mixture of both kinds of endings in this final season of Game of Thrones, to decidedly mixed results.
"He is our memory, the keeper of our stories." — Tyrion Lannister
If there is a single moment in "The Iron Throne" that encapsulates everything wrong with both this episode and this entire, dissatisfying conclusion to Game of Thrones, it is the selection of Brandon Stark as the new King of Westeros. "Who better to lead us into the future?" Tyrion asks, and we respond to his suggestion as any sane person must: Anyone else. No, seriously, literally ANYONE else. How about Hot Pie? He's a really sweet guy, and he can bring delicious pastries to the Small Council meetings. Can I get a show of hands for Hot Pie?
I have long argued that the titular game of thrones was something of a red herring in Game of Thrones: The question of who would ultimately rule was never the most important issue, and in fact it symbolized the petty and destructive squabbling that distracted characters from the real concerns of the show and nearly doomed the human race. And so, from that perspective, I am almost amused by how the throne goes to the show's most annoying major character, emerging from its most poorly developed storyline. How little does it matter who becomes King? So little, in fact, that we're going to let Bran have it.
Let us be generous and skip over the stunning lack of logic in how this all unfolds. (Why on earth would Grey Worm and the Unsullied—let alone the Dothraki—have even agreed to this meeting, let alone agreed to submit to the authority of whomever the assembly chose? Why, in fact, would Grey Worm not have murdered Jon Snow the moment he found out Dany was dead, and why would he not have executed Tyrion immediately thereafter? Why would anyone listen to Tyrion at this point? Why would all the Lords of Westeros agree that this weird crippled boy whom no one really knows—who not only has no claim, but also has no military or political leadership experience—would make the best king?)
But, like everything else in this final season, this development could have made sense—from the perspectives of both plot and narrative—if it had been better executed. So, before I explain why I hate this development so very, very much, let me grit my teeth and lay out some arguments for why, on paper, Brandon Stark is the perfect choice for ruler.
He is, after all, the last remaining son of one of the last Great Houses, so I can just about believe that the Lords of Westeros would settle upon him as an acceptable choice. And, in theory, we should find him an acceptable choice by now. After all, the Starks were always our heroes, and this entire story began with Brandon Stark: We saw the pilot episode largely through his eyes, and it was his attempted murder that set the entire plot in motion. If we look at just the broad strokes of it, Tyrion is right: Bran does have a good story. To us, as viewers, his ascension to the throne should feel like the completion of a great arc, and it should even feel appropriately symmetrical and story-shaped.
(It doesn't, of course, but I can see how it was supposed to when George R. R. Martin—presumably—made this decision.)
And, on paper, Tyrion's argument in favor of Bran makes a certain sense, both logically and thematically. "He is our memory, the keeper of our stories," Tyrion says. "The wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs, our defeats, our past." In our discussion of the final season premiere, "Winterfell," I talked about how large a problem it was that all the characters didn't know everything that we, as viewers, knew about everything that has happened, and what everyone has been through, and how everyone has changed. In theory, Brandon Stark—"The Three-Eyed Raven"—is the exception to that. He does know everything. He knows exactly what everyone in this story has been through: not just the facts that the history books will remember, but all of it. He knows all the quiet triumphs, the shameful secrets, the fleeting joys and passing griefs. If we believe this story contains important lessons—and I do—then Brandon Stark is the only person in the story who sees it whole and remembers all its lessons. The new king has the entire history of Westeros, and the collected wisdom of Game of Thrones, in his head, and so should theoretically make better decisions going forward than have been made in the past.
And finally, I would say Brandon Stark is a decent choice for king precisely because he's had so little to do over the past eight seasons. He hasn't done much, but that means he hasn't done anything wrong. He has made no enemies, and he is one of the only candidates for the throne whose hands are completely clean.
(It is another unfortunate side-effect of Dany's brief reign of terror that everyone on her team should be immediately disqualified from power. Even Jon Snow, the rightful king who—in every other conceivable way—would be the perfect and obvious person to rule, deserves to be eliminated from consideration: not for killing Dany, but for unwittingly helping her to murder hundreds of thousands of people. The poor bastard, in the final analysis, just isn't very bright.)
(The only other obvious candidate for the throne—far more obvious than Brandon—is Sansa Stark, and it is infuriating that no one even puts her name forth for consideration. She didn't have to actually become Queen of the Seven Kingdoms: All that had to happen was for someone to suggest that Sansa rule, and for Sansa to say that her place is in the North. That's it. Instead, Benioff and Weiss continue this season's ridiculous devaluing of its female characters by having no one in the Dragon Pit even think of Sansa as a potential ruler. The slight makes me angry, and—though I may be projecting—I think we see hints in the performance that it makes Sophie Turner angry as well.)
In general, however, let us acknowledge that there are actually good reasons for Brandon Stark to be named King.
And, having dutifully acknowledged that, allow me to also acknowledge that I absolutely fucking hate it.
I will mostly resist the urge, here, to gloat about how little attention I paid, throughout Game of Thrones, to Bran's entire storyline, and to all the mystical mumbo jumbo it entailed. I always felt like the mystical and prophetic aspects of this story were completely at odds with every other aspect of this story, which were all about the consequences of individual choices. And I am, for the record, feeling quite vindicated on that front: All the prophecies, all the quasi-spiritual blather, all the half-assed magical mythology, turned out to mean nothing in the greater scheme of this story, and to have virtually no pay-off. (I am sure it all meant more to George R. R. Martin, and perhaps it will have a better pay-off if his final books get written. But I believe Benioff and Weiss resisted that whole storyline from the start, evidenced in part by how they more or less completely dismissed it in the end.)
But that's exactly the problem with Bran's being chosen as king: He was always a character from some other fantasy show, not from Game of Thrones. Since the beginning, Game of Thrones has explored the ways in which all politics are personal, and how even the noblest or vilest people contained fascinating complications and contradictions. The show has reveled in the messy, complex minutiae of human emotion, and demonstrated that this is what truly drives and shapes history. And, as part of this argument, the show has constantly reinforced the importance of empathy and understanding: Over and over again we have learned that it is in recognizing the complex humanity of others that any hope for salvation lies.
Could there be a greater repudiation of the key lessons of Game of Thrones than to put Brandon Stark on the throne? This has been a show that glories in the richness of humanity, and Brandon Stark is not human. Bran was never a complex character, and—at least since he became the Three-Eyed Raven in Season Six—he has not really been a character at all. He is not even—as he has repeatedly said—Brandon Stark anymore. "You died in that cave," Meera Reed said to him, in "The Spoils of War," and Bran agreed that he did. "I'm something else now," he told Jaime, just a few episodes ago, and shortly thereafter he said to Tyrion "I don't really want anymore."
Perhaps this is supposed to be Bran's ultimate qualification to be king: that he not only doesn't want to be king, he doesn't want anything. If one of the lessons of Game of Thrones is that all politics are personal, and that petty human desires and resentments have vast and far-ranging consequences, are we supposed to therefore believe that the best person to rule is someone who has no human emotions? Someone who doesn't want, doesn't love, doesn't hate?
But I don't believe it. Everything that has made Game of Thrones worthwhile—the emotional complexity, the empathy, the humanity—is a quality that "Bran the Broken" lacks completely. He has no emotions, he has no human foibles, and he has repeatedly demonstrated that he has no empathy. (Remember how thoughtlessly he dismissed Meera? Remember how coldly and tactlessly he told Sansa that he had watched her being raped?) Selecting Bran to be King is the equivalent of a science-fiction show ending with putting a computer in charge. (And I think we all know how that scenario plays out in every science-fiction story.)
"I suppose I come in for some heavy criticism." — Tyrion
I suppose, however, that we are meant to take some comfort in the fact that "Bran the Broken" is not really the ruler of Westeros. Just as Ned Stark did in the very first episode of Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister reluctantly assumes the very thankless job of Hand of the King. The first meeting of the new Small Council makes it clear that King Brandon will not be much more of a "hands-on" sort of ruler than Robert or Joffrey was. ("Do carry on with the rest," the King says, rolling off—and undoubtedly rolling back his magical raven eyes—to search for Drogon.) The inhuman Bran, it seems, will be a creepy figurehead, while the delightfully human Tyrion Lannister will rule the Six Kingdoms.
To be honest, this is another good reason for Bran's selection. Despite being ill-served by the writing for these last couple of seasons—I mean, seriously, when was the last time he made a good decision?—Tyrion is probably the most qualified person to rule among the survivors of Game of Thrones, and there was no way he was ever going to be selected King himself. (As he acknowledges bitterly to the gathered lords in the Dragon Pit, pretty much every faction hates him, for one reason or another.) This entire episode, really, belongs to Tyrion, almost as if he'd manipulated himself into power. (And how fun would it be if we realized he had?) It is he, after all, who persuades a reluctant Jon Snow to assassinate Dany. It is he who invents the Electoral College, and somehow sells Brandon Stark as a candidate for King. And it is he who ends up running the world while Bran goes off to—presumably—merge his broken body and vacant stare with the trunk of a tree.
It is one of Game of Thrones' many recurring lessons that history is really shaped by the people the history books forget. We get a very literal reminder of that here, as Tyrion discovers that Archmaester Embrose's massive tome, A Song of Ice and Fire, omits him completely. (And this is not the first time Tyrion has suffered such an insult: After he saved the city of King's Landing in The Battle of the Blackwater, he saw his father Tywin receive all the credit. "There are many who know that, without you, this city faced certain defeat," his friend Varys reassured him. "The king won't give you any honors, the histories won't mention you, but we won't forget.")
And, perhaps of all the surviving characters, Tyrion most perfectly represents Game of Thrones when Game of Thrones was at its best. Tyrion was always one of this story's most fully-rounded characters, and perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the show's exploration of how the personal is political, and vice versa. He has been at the center of so much political and social upheaval—working variously for causes both noble and reprehensible—but he has been motivated throughout by deeply human concerns: driven by love and hatred, by the need for friendship, the desire for respect, the longing to have an accepted place in the world. One of the "cripples, bastards, and broken things," he belonged nowhere, and therefore was comfortable everywhere, cheerfully crossing (and forging alliances across) lines of class, gender, and nationality. He has made friends—on both sides of the Narrow Sea—with noblewomen and whores, Hill Tribes and Night's Watchmen, cutthroats and knights, slaves and queens.
Jon Snow may have been the story's most successful advocate for bringing all of the warring clans of the world together, but Tyrion Lannister was the person who proved that you could get along with anyone, so long as you could share a good bottle of wine and trade a few bad jokes. Unlike Jon Snow, Tyrion has made terrible mistakes, and done immoral things, surrendering to his baser instincts. Unlike Arya and Sansa, he has lived a rich, full life, finding love and sex and humor and friendship in the cracks of all this political drama. He is, in the final analysis, the perfect person to balance out the coldly ethereal presence of Bran the Broken: Bran is blandly otherworldly, but Tyrion is fantastically, complexly human. (Spare me Bran's know-it-all aloofness: I'll take a ruler who nervously arranges the chairs around the Small Council table any day.)
So, the more I think about it, I actually rather like this ending for Tyrion. And—though he claims he doesn't want the honor—it is, I suppose, as upbeat an ending for him as we might have hoped for, since he was never happier than when he was being Hand of the King/Queen. "It's what I am, and I like it," he told Shae once, when she begged him to leave politics behind. "I like it more than anything I've ever done."
And—though they do, as mentioned, represent a severe and unearned tonal shift from where the episode begins—the scenes in the Small Council chamber feel more like Game of Thrones than anything else in the "The Iron Throne." Westeros would seem to be in pretty good hands with the transition team Tyrion has assembled. Particularly compared to the first Small Council we knew—which consisted of Littlefinger, Varys, Pycelle, and Renly—the government of the Six Kingdoms has been stocked with surprisingly trustworthy individuals. Three of them, in fact—Ser Brienne, Ser Davos Seaworth, and Grand Maester Samwell Tarly—are among the most fundamentally decent people in all of Game of Thrones, and it is somehow comforting to imagine them ruling the world after their long and improbable journeys. (The fourth, Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, is not so decent, but I suspect you want your Master of Coin to be a bit of a crook.)
"No one is very happy. Which means it's a good compromise, I suppose." — Tyrion
As I come nearer to the end of this very long post—and thus nearer to the end of my very long journey with Game of Thrones—I am finding that I am feeling slightly warmer towards "The Iron Throne" than I was when I began, and strangely—if not surprisingly—more sentimental than analytical or critical.
"No one is very happy," Tyrion says, of the deal that sends Jon Snow back to the Wall. "Which means it's a good compromise, I suppose." No one, I think, is very happy with "The Iron Throne," either, which means, perhaps, that it is a good compromise of a finale.
Make no mistake, I thought Benioff and Weiss's entire endgame was a mess. Major events unfolded in episodes that should have taken a season. (It is easy to imagine the war against the Night King lasting an entire season, for example, and the same is true of Dany's war against Cersei. The War of Five Kings lasted more than two full seasons, and we only saw one real battle in it.) And, as a result, character turns that might have been developed convincingly over several episodes passed implausibly in mere moments. (As I said last week, imagine if Dany's turn to the dark side—and the realization on the part of her allies that she would need to be stopped—had happened more gradually.) Once, Game of Thrones could have built an entire season around the period of reconstruction that barely gets underway as "The Iron Throne" comes to an end, and I would love to be able to watch that season unfold.
But that's the problem. Part of the magic of Game of Thrones was always that it kept expanding. We kept encountering new characters, new developments, new peoples and places, and we loved it, because the world-building was part of the charm. And we kept discovering new aspects of the people and places we already knew: The writers kept turning different faces of multi-faceted individuals to the light, excavating and exposing different layers of emotional depth, and challenging us by having characters we thought we knew say, and do, and experience things that we never thought they would. For a long while, everything kept changing, and everyone kept growing, and our understanding of this world and these people kept getting simultaneously both more familiar and more surprising. And it was glorious.
But it couldn't go on forever. No story can. Eventually, world-building has to end. Eventually, characters have to stop transforming into new versions of themselves, and settle into the forms they will wear for the final act. Eventually, even an ever-expanding universe has to begin contracting, and centrifugal narrative forces must change direction and become centripetal. Eventually, perhaps, complexity has to narrow back on itself and tend towards simplicity, or else an endpoint could never be reached.
(We can quibble about the exact moment that Game of Thrones reached that point where its outward narrative momentum got redirected inward. Personally, I would mark it clearly at the beginning of Season Seven, though I think we saw signs of the shift as early as Season Five. It coincided—quite understandably—with the moment Benioff and Weiss realized that they would have to bring this massive ship into port without George R. R. Martin's detailed charts to guide them.)
I am not apologizing for Benioff and Weiss, any more than I would apologize to them for finding many of their choices unsatisfying. I am saying, however, that I recognize that most of my issues with this finale—and with these final two seasons—boil down to my wanting what they were no longer able or willing to give me: more. More time for events to unfold. More examination of character choices. More conversation, and complexity, and nuance, and explanation. I do not, in the end, have a great many objections to what happened, only to how quickly and clumsily it played out. I didn't want something else, necessarily: I just wanted more.
And I would always have wanted more. I still, somehow, want more. As frequently disappointed as I was throughout these last two seasons, I still wanted more. As happy as I am not to see this show try to go on too long, and inevitably become an even paler shadow of itself, I still want more. As unbelievably relieved as I am that Game of Thrones is finally over, and as excited as I am to turn the considerable energy I've been spending on it in new directions, I still, God help me, want even more.
That is the nature of a good story: It always leaves you wanting more. And that is the nature of, not all endings, but of a certain kind of ending. There are, it seems to me, two basic types of ending: There is the kind that ties everything up neatly (whether it be in a marriage knot, a funeral wreath, or some other decisive manner). And then there is the kind of ending that leaves questions unanswered, and possibilities open, so that we have to—or get to—imagine the story continuing beyond the closing of its covers.
I honestly expected Game of Thrones to give us the first kind of ending. I expected something definitive. I expected something darker, and deadlier. I expected a finale that was truly final: one that would provide a final judgment on the majority of our characters (most of whom I expected to be dead), and one that would provide the final word on the show's ultimate meaning and message.
Curiously, "The Iron Throne" felt, on first viewing, like an unsatisfying example of that sort of ending. It all felt too neat, too pat, too deliberately and simplistically tidy. But I have realized, on subsequent viewings, that it actually isn't that kind of ending at all. It's the other kind: the kind that leaves everything open-ended, and unsettled. It's the kind of ending that doesn't reward our longing for closure, but plays into our longing for more.
What is settled, after all, at the end of Game of Thrones? The Night King is dead, but the Night King simply represented Death, and Death can never be defeated. As we saw throughout the series—and as Dany reminded us again last week—humanity was always a bigger threat to itself than any supernatural forces could be, and humanity has not changed at all.
Dany didn't break the wheel. The wheel cannot be broken, it just goes round and round: That's the whole point. Yes, one generation of leaders joined together to save the world, and learned some important lessons, and perhaps will go forward more empathetic and inclusive than the generation that came before. It is conceivable that life for people in the Six Kingdoms, and in the North, and even in Essos, will all be better, for a while, and that is probably the best possible outcome for which we might have realistically hoped. I said last week that I had dared to hope, throughout Game of Thrones, that this story might end with at least the tentative possibility of a more just world, and that is exactly what we get here.
But do we doubt for a moment that intrigue and rivalries and resentments will all stop? That hatred and injustice and oppression and war will stop? That people will no longer be killed, raped, burned, enslaved, and thrown from seven-story windows? Just from studying Game of Thrones—let alone from experiencing the real world—we know too much about people to ever believe there could be such a thing as an idyllic or utopian society. If we think this has a happy ending, we haven't been paying attention, because nothing ever ends. The wheel just keeps rolling along.
And a surprising number of the characters keep rolling along as well. (No offense intended, Bran.) I mean, be honest: Weren't we all a little disappointed—as we were after "The Long Night"—that so many major characters were still alive? This show has trained us to anticipate the worst, especially in "big" episodes, and at this point we actually crave the emotional blow that comes when a beloved character dies. (Besides, a death is a very neat and satisfying way to end anyone's story, providing us the comforting feeling that we are able to see that story whole and weigh its final worth.)
But no. We lost Jaime and Cersei last episode, and we lose Dany here, but most of the "main" characters—surprisingly—get out of Game of Thrones alive. Who would have predicted—after "Baelor" and "The Rains of Castamere"—that House Stark would be one of the strongest and most populous houses left standing? Somehow, four of the eight original family members we first met, way back in the courtyard of Winterfell in "Winter is Coming," made it through their eight seasons of trials alive.
I do not have the space here to give their now-complete arcs the full treatment they deserve, but I find I am strangely okay with where we leave them all. Without bringing any of their stories to a phony resolution, they all seem to have become more or less the people they were meant to be.
Arya Stark is sailing off to new adventures. "Essos is east, and Westeros is west," she said to Lady Crane in Season Six's "No One." "But what's west of Westeros? That's where all the maps stop. The edge of the world, maybe. I'd like to see that."
Way back at the beginning of Season Two, when Yara Greyjoy first appeared, I commented on how the anagrammatic similarities between her name (changed from what it was in the books) and Arya's might be intentional. "Yara Greyjoy is what Arya Stark would like to be: a woman, but a woman who can be herself and be as formidable as any man." I don't believe these two women ever actually met prior to sitting down together in the Dragon Pit this episode—when Arya threatens to slit Yara's throat—but it is hard not to think of the Queen of the Iron Islands as Arya strides confidently on the deck of her new ship.
Arya has not stopped moving since we met her in Season One. Her journey has taken her from Winterfell to King's Landing, from Harrenhal to the Twins to the Eyrie, and all points in between. She has journeyed across the Narrow Sea to Braavos, and sailed back again to Westeros. She has been so many places. She has met, and traveled with, and learned so much, from so many different people. She has been so many different people: She has been everyone, and she has been No One.
But she has never been happy. She has never felt safe. She has never found a home. She has fled to avoid being killed herself, and she has gone forth with plans to kill others, but she has never really had anything to live for. We saw this, last episode, as she almost mindlessly rushed into the crumbling Red Keep, hell-bent on killing Cersei. She didn't care if she died: Why would she? Her life has been nothing but misery and revenge for as long as she can remember now. It took the Hound—one of her most important traveling companions and teachers—to point out the obvious: Dying sucks, and living as an angry, vengeful bastard like the Hound sucks almost as much. After learning from so many teachers throughout Game of Thrones, Arya finally decided to go back to one of her first lessons, and say Not today to the God of Death.
Like many important character turns this season, Arya's sudden abandonment of her endless quest for revenge was not necessarily unearned, but it seemed to happen too quickly. The shorthand Benioff and Weiss have used all season requires us to do a little too much work in order to follow it, but the breadcrumbs are there if we scrounge for them. We need to think about what it meant that she refused to kill Lady Crane, and left the House of Black and White, and reclaimed her name. We need to think about what it meant to her to finally return home to her sister and brothers. We need to remember back to her brief dalliance with Gendry on the eve of The Long Night, and how she decided she'd like to at least try—just once—having some joy and affection and pleasure in her life. We need to think about what it might have meant for her to become the Hero of Winterfell—even though she rejected being called a hero—and putting her skills as an assassin towards literally saving the entire human race. And we should probably think about how, after she left the Hound in "The Bells," and fought for survival through the streets of King's Landing, she took the time to attempt to save other people, too. "If you stay here, you'll die," Arya told the gathered survivors, paraphrasing the words Sandor Clegane had said to her a little while earlier. We need, I think, to realize that Arya has been losing her taste for misery and revenge for a while now, and daring to think that there might be something better.
Arya still doesn't have a home, and perhaps she never will. Maybe she has been traveling so long, and has become so independent, that—like Nymeria—she'll never be domesticated again. After traveling the entire known world—and finding every place and every person disappointing—she is going off, now, to the unknown world, to see if there's anything or anyone there for her. And Arya probably still doesn't know who she really is, or whether she is good or bad, or what her place is in the world. She has been so many people, and she has been so many things: a scared little girl, a monster, a hero. All of these identities and more are within her, as she sails off to No Place, where she will once again be—in the beginning, at least—No One. She has a clean start, and a blank slate, and a new world to explore.
Hers does not turn out to be a redemption arc. Neither is it a damnation arc. It is not, in fact, an arc that has reached any kind of completion at all. Arya Stark is still traveling, and still searching, and she may never stop.
But, for the first time since we've known her, she's going with a smile on her face.
"And I'd be queen someday!" little Sansa Stark gushed to her mother, in the pilot episode of Game of Thrones. "Please, please! It's the only thing I ever wanted!"
Sansa Stark, when we met her, was the quintessential storybook princess: pretty, pleasant, prissy, a little vapid. She was destined to marry the handsome crown prince, to become his queen and the mother of his children. In terms of the strictly regimented gender roles of Westeros as we first knew them, Sansa had the inside track to the best possible life that a woman could hope for: She was, and wanted to be, the feminine ideal.
And the triumph of Sansa's story may be that she never stopped being that, even as she became quickly and progressively disillusioned with the life she'd been promised. From her first meeting with Cersei (who represented what she was supposed to become), and her first date with Joffrey (who was the man she was supposed to define herself through), the fairy tale kept giving way to a reality that was harsher and darker than anything she'd ever imagined. Through the first six seasons of Game of Thrones, Sansa kept living out versions of the fairy tale in dreadfully diminishing returns, bartered off to one "prince" after another who would turn out to be a monster. ("I called for a knight, but you're a bear!" go the lyrics of that old Westerosi ditty, "The Bear and the Maiden Fair." Handsome knights kept coming to rescue Sansa Stark, and every one of them turned out to be a bear in disguise, until she was ultimately forced to rescue herself.)
But even as Sansa was forced to survive the objectified life of a woman in Westeros, she never stopped, somehow, being the feminine ideal. Where women like Arya, Yara, the Sand Snakes, and Brienne of Tarth rebelled against gender expectations and embraced the ways and weapons of men, Sansa never did. (It was startling to have Arya hand her a dagger during "The Long Night," and have Sansa remind us that she has never used a weapon. How is it possible for anyone to have survived eight seasons of Game of Thrones without ever using a weapon?) Sansa never rejected the life of a woman. Instead, she learned: first to survive it, then to excel in it, and finally to expand it.
And she paid a high price for that. As women in Westeros so frequently are, she was bartered, and beaten, and raped. She was lied to and used. She was forced, constantly, to bide her time beside men—Joffrey, Tyrion, Littlefinger, Ramsey, Theon, even Jon—and to draw indirect power from their presence. Despite awkward dialogue earlier in this season that made it sound like she was grateful for these experiences, the price Sansa Stark paid was far too high. But she did get stronger. She did get smarter. She learned from the men, but she never tried to beat them at their own game. Following the lead of women she had learned from as well—Cersei, Shae, Margaery, Olenna, and her own mother, among others—she got better and better at being a woman.
"You have courage," Brienne told Catelyn Stark once. "Not battle courage, perhaps, but—I don't know—a woman's kind of courage." That's what Catelyn's daughter has as well: a woman's kind of courage.
In King's Landing, King Brandon observes that the Small Council is missing some members, including a Master of Whisperers. When I tried to think whether there was anyone left alive in Game of Thrones who could fill that post—taking the place of such brilliant politicians and manipulators like Littlefinger and Varys—Sansa Stark was the only qualified candidate that came to mind.
But of course, Sansa Stark isn't available to serve at the pleasure of those men. She already has a job.
Coincidentally, it's the only one she ever wanted.
And what of Jon Snow, née Prince Aegon Targaryen, Sixth of His Name, Protector of the Realm and the Rightful Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms? The clear protagonist of Game of Thrones, who is his himself the embodiment of the Ice and Fire from the song? The leader who united the realm against the forces of darkness, and sacrificed everything—including both his great loves, and once his own life—for the good of all humanity? The only person in this vast, unwieldy story who always tried to do the right thing, and never behaved selfishly or cruelly? You know, Jon Snow? Our hero?
Well, Jon gets screwed, of course. If Game of Thrones has taught us anything—right from the beginning—it's that being a hero is a low-percentage play, and no good deed ever goes unpunished. (We didn't even need to wait for Ned's death in Season One to learn that. Remember the guy who survived the White Walkers in the opening scene of the series, and ran back to Westeros to warn people about what he'd seen? Yeah, he got his head chopped off for his troubles.)
So yes, Jon gets royally—no pun intended—screwed. Stripped of his titles, stripped of both his crowns, stripped of his good name, the guy with one of the most extraordinary upward mobility arcs in all of Game of Thrones gets sent right back to the beginning: He's just a nameless outcast, exiled to the edges of the world with all the other cripples, bastards, and broken things.
And honestly? It's the best possible thing that could have happened to him. If he doesn't know it yet, I suspect it won't take him long to realize that this is his reward for services rendered. This is his happy ending.
I am reminded of a line from To Kill a Mockingbird, when Miss Maudie says—referring to Atticus Finch—"There are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us." Jon Snow, alas, is one of those men, and his entire story has been his undertaking one unpleasant job after another that he did not want to do. He didn't want to be Commander Mormont's steward and be groomed for leadership. He didn't want to take command of Castle Black when the Wildlings attacked. He didn't want to become Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. He didn't want to be King in the North. He never wanted to kill Quorin Halfhand, or kill Mance Rayder, or execute Alliser Thorne. He didn't want to be stabbed to death by his own men for saving thousands of Wildlings, and—after he was—he didn't really want to come back. He didn't want to take Winterfell back from the Boltons. He certainly never wanted to go to war against the first woman he loved, or assassinate the only other woman he loved, or watch them both die in his arms.
Jon Snow's whole life has been one shit detail after another, shouldering burdens that no one else would or could carry. And he has accepted it, every time, because he's a capable man, and because he cares more about other people's happiness than he does about his own. But he hasn't liked any of it. "We all enjoy what we're good at," Dany said to him jokingly last season. "I don't," Jon said, and he said it seriously, because truer words he never spoke. He is good at handing those unpleasant jobs, but he didn't enjoy any of it.
And—though he would have hated it, and though he repeatedly told anyone who would listen that he did not want it—he probably would have shouldered the burden of being King of the Seven Kingdoms. I will never understand why Grey Worm and the Unsullied got to have a say in what happened to Jon—Aren't you guys all buggering off to Naath anyway?—but he should be grateful they did, because the compromise that made "no one" happy is probably the only chance Jon has of ever being happy.
He was happy, North of the Wall. "He'll be happier up there," Jon said of Ghost, just a few episodes ago. "So would you," Tormund said, and Jon admitted that he wished he were going with them. The only real happiness he ever knew was with Ygritte. ("Do you remember the cave?" she asked him, as she was dying. "We should have stayed in that cave.") And it was not just that he loved her—though he did love her. It was that life with the Wildlings was free of absolutely everything that made Jon Snow's life so difficult in Westeros: governments, laws, houses, strict class structures, absurd allegiances, ridiculous rules of duty and honor, unnecessary conflicts between what you were supposed to do, what you wanted to do, and what was right. For eight seasons Jon Snow has tried to navigate a path between all those contradictory responsibilities, and he's hated every minute of it.
He's been the Watcher on the Wall, the Shield That Guarded the Realms of Men. But now, finally, his watch is ended. He's going AWOL, and joining the Free Folk, and going off to a place where no one ever has to choose between love and duty.
"That's what death is, isn't it? Forgetting. Being forgotten." — Samwell Tarly (in "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms")
As I said when I began, it is in the nature of endings to disappoint. They're either too happy, or too depressing. They either give us too much closure (wrapping everything up in a big phony bow), or not enough (leaving too many loose ends and unanswered questions). They either go exactly where we predicted (in which case we find them boring), or they go somewhere we never expected (in which case we think they got it wrong). If we love the story, we don't want it to end too soon (It's still great!), but neither do we want it to overstay its welcome even a moment too long (Oh, damn, it used to be so great!).
There are a million ways to fuck up an ending, and I've tried to be honest—throughout this very, very long post—about some of the ways in which I think Benioff and Weiss fucked up this ending.
But I also said that this post was about memory, and I have to be honest, too, about the fact that writing this very long post has made me remember all the things I loved about Game of Thrones all along. And I'm not trying to be clever when I say that I think memory is the key to coping with the ending of anything.
I have always said that I write in order to better appreciate the thing about which I'm writing. The process of forcing myself to grapple with a work of art—at, let us be clear, ridiculous length—is a way to get beyond my initial impressions and dig deeper into both the work's meaning and my own reactions to it. (I've always agreed with a sentiment that is usually attributed to Flannery O'Connor: "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.")
And it works. I hated "The Iron Throne" on first viewing. I absolutely hated it. I thought it was unearned, reductive, unsatisfying. As the last episode of the series, it was the first episode that made me agree with all the disgruntled viewers who have said that Benioff and Weiss were writing nuance-free "fan-fiction" based on Martin's superior work. If I'd written a review the night the episode aired—like that could happen—that would have been my verdict.
But that's not my verdict now. I find I am feeling—nearly 15,000 words later—weirdly accepting of "The Iron Throne" as the series finale of Game of Thrones. Writing about it has helped me remember the long, complicated, contradictory journeys of these characters, and of this world, and all those experiences are not lost or rendered meaningless by the journey's end. In fact, I find the memories of those experiences flesh out and fortify this ending. Yes, Benioff and Weiss have rushed, and reduced: They have dropped a few stitches in the logic, and they have elided important emotional beats. But I think they did that, in part, because they felt that they could: because we, the viewers, as active, engaged, imaginative participants in this story's telling, had—after eight seasons—all the information we needed to fill in the blanks.
Of the characters who died in the story, we are tasked to remember who they really were, because this final season didn't always have the time and space to remind us. Daenerys Targaryen's entire, complicated, deeply human arc was not adequately represented by this episode, but we remember who Dany was, because Benioff and Weiss painstakingly showed us for eight years. We were with her for every step of the way, and we can see that the journey of her life was so much more interesting and instructive than her final moments can encapsulate. The same is true of Jaime, of Cersei, of Sandor Clegane, of Theon and Jorah and Missandei, of all the characters whose stories have ended. We are tasked to remember all the stuff this final season left out, all the glorious, messy humanity that the history books forget.
(Think about the loved ones you have lost. Did they get meaningful endings? Probably not: Very few of us are that lucky. Whether slowly or abruptly, most of us die ingloriously, pathetically, without a lot of dignity, and for fundamentally stupid reasons. But none of us want to think that those endings will encapsulate our lives, or determine their worth, or provide any kind of final verdict on their meaning. They are just moments, nothing more, that happen to come at the end. To put them in perspective, we have to remember the entire experience.)
And, for the characters who are not dead, we are tasked with imagining that their stories continue. "The Iron Throne," after all, could be a season finale of Game of Thrones, instead of a series finale. Next season we might see Tyrion and the Small Council attempting to rebuild Westeros, and see how the people of the Six Kingdoms react to this new world order. We might discover that Bran the Broken is a terrible king, who will need to be—as kings before him have been—removed from power. We might see Sansa Stark grappling with the challenges of being the first Queen in the North, and strengthening her battered, independent nation. We might see Jon Snow with his new Wildling family, perhaps figuring out how to find love and be happy once again, and inevitably accepting more leadership responsibilities than he ever really wanted. And we might see Arya Stark arriving in a place we have never even glimpsed, perhaps becoming a hero, perhaps becoming a monster, perhaps figuring out how to become herself. The world-building would begin again; the story would keep expanding; the characters would keep growing and changing; the wheel would keep turning.
There are two types of endings, and this one is the second kind: It's a resting place, nothing more, in a story that could—and still can, in our imaginations—go on forever.
One of the greatest discussions about all of this—in relation to television—came from creator David Milch, after the abrupt early cancellation of his indispensable series Deadwood. In a segment called "The Meaning of Endings," on the final DVD box set, Milch processed his feelings out loud. (I quoted a little of this last week, but I think it's worth quoting more of it here.)
"The idea of the end of a thing as inscribing the final meaning […] of any experience is one of the lies agreed upon that we use to organize our lives […] Everyone tries to allegorize experience so that we think that we are tending towards some ultimate destination. But that really is a lie. I mean, that's a lie agreed upon. The truth is, all we get is a day and a time. And more than that, as an artist in this medium, you have to assume that every episode, in some way or another, is the end of things, and that the audience gets a sense of an ending. And then the miracle is that life goes on. Well, and then one day the miracles stop. The biggest lie is the idea that we are entitled to a meaningful and coherent summarizing, a conclusion, of something which never concludes. And in that regard—this is the lie I'm telling myself so I don't set fire to anything—I don't regret anything…"
Game of Thrones was an unlikely miracle. It was a show that never should have worked, but which somehow became a massive critical and commercial success. It was a show I originally dismissed as a silly sword-and-sorcery series, and never intended to write about at all. It was what could have been just a childish series with dragons, and demons, and way too many naked boobs, that nonetheless revealed itself to be rich in deeply humane themes, and sophisticated storytelling, and wise and wonderful observations about the human condition. It is a show that maintained its vision and integrity without, apparently, a lot of interference from its network. It is a show that somehow neither got abruptly cancelled nor overstayed its welcome, but got to tell its story whole, on its own terms, maintaining all of its talent and most of its quality, picking the day and time of its own ending.
That's a miracle, sustained over eight years and 73 extraordinary episodes of television. And, this past week, the miracle stopped happening, as all miracles eventually do. Valar morghulis, after all.
But that's okay. There's nothing more powerful than a good story, and I've enjoyed every moment of this one while it lasted. And I find—here at the end of the story—that I don't actually regret a thing.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- In my review of "The Long Night," I suggested that Game of Thrones has somewhat been a victim of its own success: As the show became an unstoppable pop-culture juggernaut, the budgets got bigger, and the limits to what Benioff and Weiss could do on-screen disappeared. The show became more cinematic, focusing more on large-scale spectacle than the small human drama it was when it began. (As I mentioned above, almost all of the War of Five Kings—in the first three seasons—happened off-screen, and that meant that the writers were forced to deal with things in dialogue, not in explosions.) I am sure many fans appreciate the big-budget spectacle, and I myself will admit that the show has delivered some thrilling action and heart-stopping visuals. But I have missed the behind-the-scenes intimacy of talking about wars, not seeing them. And this problem has carried over into this truncated final season. The episodes were longer, but Benioff and Weiss did not use the extra minutes in each episode for the dialogue that would have sold motivations and given character histories their due: They used them for more action sequences and showing off the incredible production design. (The opening of "The Iron Throne" is a good example: The scene of Tyrion walking incredibly fucking slowly through the ash-covered ruins of King's Landing was visually powerful, and even emotionally resonant. But I would have traded several minutes of that sequence for a more nuanced conversation between Jon and Dany.)
- I like how the scenes between Jon and Tyrion in this episode remind us of the scenes between Ned and Varys in Season One. ("And what of your daughter's life, my lord," Varys asked Ned in "Baelor". "Is that a precious thing to you?" And here, Tyrion's parting shot to Jon—in convincing him to do the right thing—calls back to that. "And your sisters? Do you see them bending the knee?") Obviously, Jon's imprisonment, too, deliberately evokes Ned's languishing in a cell through the back half of Season One. (If Grey Worm had had his way, I suppose Jon would have followed Ned's fate exactly, but that probably would have been too symmetrical.)
- Evidence that Dany's destruction of King's Landing was always the endgame: Her vision at the end of "Valar Morghulis," the Season Two finale, in which she entered the ruined throne room and found it covered in what we only thought was snow. Here, she finally touches the ash-covered pommel on the throne that she resisted touching then. (She never does get to actually sit on the thing, though.)
- Benioff and Weiss insert little references here to the two episodes they directed previously. Brienne's completing Jaime's entry in the Book of Brothers calls back to "Two Swords," as I mentioned. And Tyrion's arranging the chairs around the Small Council table calls back to one of my favorite bits of wordless comedy the show ever pulled off, from "Walk of Punishment."
- With all the rumored spin-offs HBO is planning for the Game of Thrones universe, it is possible, of course, that my speculation about how this story could continue have some crass, commercial justification. I do not expect to see any of these characters again—I assume this cast is done—but HBO has deliberately left this society and world mostly intact as a playground for future creators. (I am both okay with that, in theory, and pessimistically disinterested in those hypothetical future projects.)
- And that's it for now! Game of Thrones has been a labor of love for me, and I've been happy to make this work available free of charge. (Valar dohaeris, after all.) But, if you have enjoyed my analysis of Game of Thrones these past eight years, and want to support this and future work, I encourage you to pick up my collected writings in eBook form from Amazon. (The first book, covering Seasons One through Three, is available now, and contains three full essays that aren't on the website. The next two books—also containing new material—will be coming soon, so watch this space. And if anyone wants the books in some other electronic form besides Kindle, feel free to email me, so I can set you up.)
- And, if you're feeling just generally grateful and magnanimous, you can also make a donation to support The Unaffiliated Critic. It would mean a lot to me (like knowing my work is valued, and being able to buy food).
- I am feeling oddly excited to turn my attention to writing about other TV shows and movies now, but I want to sincerely thank all of you who have joined me on this long odyssey through Game of Thrones. You have engaged with my increasingly interminable posts, you have been patient with my frequent delays, and you have offered thoughtful observations, criticisms, and encouragements in the comments. It has been a genuine and unqualified pleasure, and I sincerely hope you'll come back to read whatever I write next.