The biggest TV show in history ended not with a bang, but with an understated slow-burner that took us on a strangely satisfying (if sometimes hollow) trip round the newly-formed seven kingdoms. And now our watch has ended.
Major spoilers for the Game of Thrones finale follow.
There’s a point in ‘The Iron Throne’ in which Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) asks Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), “Was it right, what we did? It doesn’t feel right.” He’s talking of course about the beautifully choreographed assassination of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), but you can just as easily imagine those words coming out of Benioff & Weiss’ mouths when it comes to describing one of the most anticipated season finales of all time.
It’s not that ‘The Iron Throne’ is bad, it’s just that, for the last eight seasons and 10 years we’ve been led to believe that all of this would have been for something. That there would be some cataclysmic shift in power – maybe the realm would break up and each of the Seven Kingdoms would be self-governing as they were before the Targaryens, maybe the Night King would win and destroy the Seven Kingdoms altogether. Or maybe, if there was still a king on that iron throne, that they would have fought their way there, outsmarting and out-battling everyone else to impose their vision on the world. Certainly as the episode started it seemed like that would be the case with Dany, as dystopian as her vision would turn out to be.
But in leaving Bran on the throne… It’s a surprising twist, and one that not many other than the biggest Bran fans among us will have seen coming, but it all feels a little hollow, like giving that one kid who contributed nothing to the group project an A. Sure, the lords and ladies of Westeros will choose a new ruler following his death and avoid the lines of succession that have to torn those kingdoms apart in the show’s history, and Sansa finally achieved her dream of an independent Northern Kingdom, but isn’t leaving a supposedly “good” main character on the throne with a small council of fan favourites and wrapping it up by saying “he’ll rule wisely” precisely the kind of fantasy trope George R.R. Martin worked so hard to avoid? Perhaps the broad strokes will happen the same way in the books, but you can be sure there’ll be more detail to fill in the gaps and leave us with less of a black-and-white ending than we got here.
Its in the finale, then, that Benioff & Weiss’ decision to shorten the final two seasons and rush the convergence and conclusion of plotlines has harmed the show the most. Rather than fully explain the political situation in Westeros, and how it truly affects the lords, ladies and smallfolk alike (what was up with those northmen Sansa was on about when picking a new ruler anyway?), it seems like the episode’s showrunners, writers and directors just wanted to have fun with the broad strokes that G.R.R.M had told them of the finale and see what they could do with them. To their credit, it turns out to be a surprisingly amusing watch, Game of Thrones going full-meta on itself with Samwell writing a book called “A Song of Ice and Fire” documenting everything the show has done and the final shot echoing the show’s very first with characters venturing out beyond the wall. But at the same time, all these payoffs, whilst enjoyable to watch, feel like they’ve had no time to be set up and in the end fall a little flat (aside from Jon finally petting Ghost, a move that makes me feel like his reluctance to in ‘The Last of the Starks’ was now a deliberate one on the part of the directors to make us feel this interaction even more). You can’t help but feel like if this finale had been split in two, with the second half being its own thing, we’d have had more time to set up and understand exactly where we are as this epic show finally hurtles towards its conclusion.
Extending the episode’s first half into its own full-length episode would have helped it out, too. ‘The Iron Throne’ in many ways feels like two episodes crammed into one; the first a realisation of the horrors Dany committed in ‘The Bells’ and a commitment to end her reign of terror, and the second a final construction of a new status quo. The first half revels in the horrors of Dany’s madness, the second half largely ignores it. Neither half is particularly poor but when staged like this (together with an unannounced time jump) it produces a feeling of whiplash as the tone shifts from desolation and desperation to surreal hopefulness in the space of an ad break. I don’t want to be one of the ones to tell the showrunners how to do their job – god knows, it must be a tremendously difficult task, and even harder to get right – but I can’t help but feel like if we’d had more time to explore Dany’s reign, Jon’s eventual decision to kill her would have felt that much more powerful, and if we’d had more time to explore Bran’s reign, our understanding of the state of Westeros as the final credits rolled would have been that much more full and satisfying.
None of this is to take anything away from the production staff, actors or even at times the directing choices. In its finale – as with the rest of this monumental show – the world of ice and fire was brought to life like nothing else on TV, with fully believable sets and costume design and the characters positively oozing emotion from the screen, in the first half of the episode in particular.
Tyrion’s walk through the ashes of King’s Landing, and his breakdown upon finding the bodies of his siblings, is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and delicately crafted acts of the entire show. Dany’s speech to the Dothraki and Unsullied is as terrifying as that of any revolutionary throughout history whose methods have gone much, much too far. That shot of Dany walking out to face the King’s Landing crowds, with Drogon’s wings unfurling behind her, is one of the most gorgeous things to come out of the whole “mad queen” storyline. And Tyrion’s desperate conversation with Jon Snow as they harken back throughout the show’s history in an attempt to understand what’s going on – and decide what to do about mad queen Daenerys – is utterly superb. So too is the banter between the new small council, the elevation of lowly Podrick Payne to a member of the Kingsguard, and the riveting final shots of Sansa, Arya and Jon embarking on their new adventures.
By this point, I feel like I should have covered everything, but with a show as enthralling as this, and a finale as surreal as this, it’s hard to wrap my head around the emotions I felt while watching and even harder to understand how I felt afterwards. For a while I considered not giving this episode a star rating at all, so rapidly was my opinion flip-flopping between love, hate and abivalence towards the whole thing. It’s a good episode of TV, but then, this was supposed to be TV history, an utterly transendent hour and a half of entertainment which would engage and enrapture and leave us utterly, completely satisfied. But then, what else could Benioff & Weiss have done, aside from splitting ‘The Iron Throne’ in two to give each half more time to breathe? It’s not like I saw any more compelling fan theories online ahead of this decisive final episode.
I guess that explains why this episode feels largely flat. Once again, it is about endings. Game of Thrones thrives on the calculated chaos of the present, of the myriad personalities of the millions of characters who inhabit its vast world and the way their narrative threads bounce together and collide in fascinating and often shocking ways. It thrives on satisfying our deepes impulses towards sex and violence whilst subverting fantasy tropes to hold up a mirror and ask us questions of ourselves. It thrives on keeping the story going, of keeping the roster of characters steadily rotating so we can all see some twisted reflection of ourselves in them. It does not thrive on saying goodbye to the world it has worked so hard to meticulously build up and maintain.
So Benioff & Weiss did what they could with G.R.R.M.’s “broad strokes” of an ending and ran with it, and who can blame them? Who wouldn’t want to include a cheeky reference to the source material from Archmaester Samwell as our show’s favourite banterers discuss the governance of the Six Kingdoms if we were in their shoes? Who wouldn’t want to include Podrick Payne as a Kingsguard, or a magnificent shot of Drogon melting down the Iron Throne? It doesn’t make for Game of Thrones pedigree, that much is clear. But what would have done? Instead, we’re presented with surreal, meta-level fun that in many fans’ eyes may as well count as fan-fiction. And why not? The world of ice and fire is all about jumping in and making your own stories. Benioff & Weiss made theirs.
It won’t go down in TV show history as an utterly fantastic finale that ties up all loose ends and reflects the show’s themes, like the terrific finales to The Sopranos and Breaking Bad have. But it was at least entertaining, and, in a way, strangely satisfying. It may not have been the ending we were all desperately hoping for, but ‘The Iron Throne’ proves that when you end the Game of Thrones, there is a middle ground.