The series finale of Game of Thrones defied pretty much all the predictions as to who would emerge triumphant and sit on the Iron Throne, in what has proved to be the most polarizing and controversial season yet. (More than a million fans have even signed a petition demanding that HBO re-shoot the entire final season, which—c’mon, people. That’s not how any of this works. Save it for the fanfic.) Personally, I thought the series as a whole provided a gripping, trope-bashing narrative arc that was imperfectly executed in the crucial last two seasons. Showrunners David Benioff and David B. Weiss got the plane on the ground in the end—but it wasn’t a pretty landing, and there’s bound to be a lot of grumbling from dissatisfied customers. Ramsey Bolton did warn us: “If you were hoping for a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
(WARNING: It’s impossible to write a meaningful wrap-up analysis of this incredibly influential series without going into specifics, so there are MAJOR spoilers below, especially for the final season and last two episodes.)
Let’s get the controversial plot turn from last week out of the way up front, since it drove much of what transpired in the finale and pretty much encapsulates the best and worst aspects of this final season. In the penultimate episode, “The Bells,” Daenerys and her surviving dragon Drogon make short work of Cersei’s forces to conquer King’s Landing. (That showy Golden Company? Not so tough after all.) As the bells ring to signal surrender, we see a flurry of conflicting emotions play across Dany’s face before hardening into steely resolve. She proceeds to not just incinerate the Red Keep where Cersei has been watching the battle from afar—which is what everyone expected—but to rain down dragon fire on all the innocent civilians whom Cersei brought in to serve as human shields. Her decision lit up Twitter and launched a thousand hot takes, as disappointed fans howled in rage at seeing the Mother of Dragons break bad.
It was an especially horrifying twist in a show that has produced plenty of them. Dany has been a fan favorite for the entire run of the series, and nobody wants to see a favorite character commit genocide. That said, this should have surprised no one, since it’s been strongly foreshadowed all along. She’s always had equal parts kindness and cruelty, and she’s literally solved every problem she’s encountered over eight seasons by raining down fire and blood. That’s exactly what she explicitly vowed to do to take back the Iron Throne; it’s what Varys promised she would do when he recruited Dorne and the Tyrells of Highgarden to her cause. In a season three behind-the-episode interview, David Weiss observed, “As the sphere of her empathy widens, the sphere of her cruelty widens as well.” It’s why I have never been on Team Dany when it comes to who sits on the Iron Throne, even though I adore the character, too.
Look how far we’ve come
Think of everything she’s lost since she came to Westeros: two of her three precious dragon children; her oldest most trusted advisor, Jorah Mormont; and her closest female friend. She sacrificed a huge chunk of her army to fight with the North and help save them from the White Walkers. But the Northerners still didn’t embrace her, the ingrates. She is isolated and alone in a foreign land, and then the man she loves turns out to be her nephew and technically the legitimate male heir to the Iron Throne. This doesn’t in the least excuse what she did, mind you; it’s unforgivable. But the moment Cersei gave the order to publicly execute Missandei—with Missandei uttering one final, telling word, “Dracarys“—I knew the Mother of Dragons would be merciless in taking her revenge. And I knew she would pay a very high price for it in the end.
In the finale, we see the consequences of her ruthlessness. Daenerys is Queen of the Ashes; her season two vision of the Iron Throne in a destroyed Red Keep that she encountered in the House of the Undying is a reality. Plus, she has a taste for conquering now—and it’s clear she won’t stop at Westeros. Even more innocent civilians are going to be “liberated” with fire and blood if she isn’t stopped. All this naturally horrifies several key allies—Tyrion, Arya, and Jon Snow in particular. There’s no way for this to end without one of them taking her out, and it turns out to be exactly who we most expected.
As a narrative twist, it’s conceptually brilliant. It takes this complex and initially sympathetic character, who has grown and overcome so much over eight seasons, and turns her into a tragic hero, corrupted by power and fueled by grief and rage. The series has always been about power, or rather, as Andrew Prokop observed at Vox, “the misuse of power, how innocents suffer when the high lords seek power, and the subversion of expectations.”
We even get a mini-monologue from Tyrion in the finale riffing on those motifs when Jon Snow comes to visit him in his cell. We’re reminded of how we cheered when Daenerys rained down dragon fire on her enemies in the past, because, after all, those were bad people who “deserved” it. “Everywhere she goes, evil men die, and we cheer for it and she grows more powerful and sure she is good and right,” Tyrion tells Jon. So it was all too easy for Dany to convince herself that the good people of King’s Landing “deserved” it, too, and her noble ends justified her brutal means.
The showrunners sat down with George R.R. Martin when they realized they would soon outpace the books, and he told them how it was all meant to end. There’s no reason to think Dany’s turn to the dark side wasn’t Martin’s plan all along. He has said the ending he envisioned would be “bittersweet.” But I do think the TV execution of the concept was lacking. The moment wasn’t quite earned. Perhaps if viewers had a bit more time to perceive and react to the shift in the Mother of Dragons’ emotional state, as the full weight of what she has lost, and the grief she’s been suppressing, sank in, the turnabout might have felt less abrupt and been less distressing for fans. (Also, someone should apologize to Varys posthumously, because the dude was so, so right.)
For the throne
That’s ultimately the same thing that has plagued much of this last season. As I observed after the first episode of season 8, Game of Thrones has always had its share of much-maligned placeholder episodes, where things advance incrementally and very little of major import happens. Yet such episodes serve a purpose in the overall narrative arc, shuttling characters around and setting up the relationships and conflict that make the big set pieces all the more powerful. We didn’t really get any of those this season because it was so short. HBO offered to give Weiss and Benioff a full final season, and the men opted not to take the studio up on that offer. I think it was a bad call.
The entire final season felt over-rushed, covering Martin’s outline for the ending, with all the big set pieces and narrative turns in place, but with none of that essential fleshing out that has made this such a richly satisfying series overall. We barely had time to mourn any of our favorite characters’ brutal deaths (R.I.P. Rhaegal) before moving on to the next shocking plot twist, marching relentlessly to an ending that proved far more bitter than sweet. Add in the showrunners’ fondness for withholding crucial information from viewers to enhance the shock value (R.I.P. Littlefinger), and it’s no wonder some fans are frustrated.
That said, there was much to love in this final season. The Battle of Winterfell actually exceeded my high expectations (complaints about the lighting aside), and count me among those cheering mightily when Arya took out the Night King. There were lots of fan-pleasing moments, like the final confrontation between the Clegane brothers (aka the Mountain and the Hound); Brienne becoming a knight of the realm; the moment when it finally dawns on Cersei that she’s lost, and a single tear rolls down her cheek; and the final touching reunion between Cersei and her twin/lover Jaime, who just couldn’t quit his drug of choice in the end. (He said he wanted to die in the arms of the woman he loved.)
So who got to sit on the Iron Throne in the end? Well, technically no one, because Drogon melted it down with his dragon fire while mourning the death of his mother. And good riddance. The surviving lords and ladies decide they will collectively choose their next ruler, and the position will no longer be inherited (it’s as close as Westeros is likely to come to having a representative democracy). And they choose to bend the knee to Bran the Broken—yes, Bran, aka the Three-Eyed Raven. See, there was a reason for keeping him around all this time. That’s bound to make absolutely no fans happy, but narratively, it allows our surviving favorites to choose their own paths, and I liked where they all ended up. For the record, I was rooting for Sansa, and she does get to be Queen in the North, which will retain its independence. Ned Stark would be so proud.
Love it or hate it, or any emotions in between, Game of Thrones is officially a wrap. As the men of the Night’s Watch are wont to say at a brother’s passing, “And now our watch is ended.”