Given the smelly trash fire that the episodes leading up to it were, there was never any real chance of Game of Thrones’ finale, Season 8 Episode 6, “The Iron Throne,” being anything other than a disappointment. But at least they tried.
There’s a parallel universe somewhere where this exact episode was preceded by two full episodes of the phenomenal storytelling that Game of Thrones was once capable of, and in that brighter timeline, the show went out on the right note. It still would have been bittersweet, but it would have also felt earned, which this definitely did not. Too many plot points were swept under the rug and too many endings came from seemingly out of nowhere for this to feel satisfying.
Unlike the nonsensical Dothraki charge in Episode 3 or Euron’s magic scorpion bolts in Episode 4, there was nothing particularly terrible in the Season 8 finale; we got some surprises (Bran the Broken), while other plotlines concluded exactly as they needed to (Arya sailing West, and Brienne finishing Jaime’s page in the Kingsguard book). It just all felt a little tawdry thanks to the path we took to get here.
Look at where the show’s biggest characters ended, in broad strokes: Jon never fully embraced his secret identity, which was disappointing, but fitting; he’ll die a Stark, in the North, as he lived. (I kept waiting all season for something to make me start thinking of him as Aegon Targaryen instead of Jon Snow, but it never happened, seemingly by design.) Dany wound up being her father’s daughter after all, which is depressing, but not unrealistic. Some combination of Bran, Sam, and Tyrion–the characters who are supposed to be smart–rewrote the rules of Westerosi politics, transforming the realm from the hereditary monarchy it’s been for centuries into, essentially, something resembling a representative democracy. Sansa is Queen in the North, Arya leaves for her own adventure, and the Six-Plus-One Kingdoms are left in somewhat capable hands.
Let’s talk about King Bran the Broken, First of His Name (and here’s a good joke about that very weird title). On paper, yes, he makes a good king. And it’s not completely incomprehensible that he winds up on the throne, since the show established that everyone just sort of accepts his Magic Powers of Knowing Everything as fact for some reason. As with the rest of this, I think there’s a version of this ending that lands better–one that follows a story in which Bran wasn’t written out of an entire season and didn’t return to the show as a soulless, dead-eyed husk of a character who did nothing for several years.
There’s an alternate theory for why Bran winds up on the throne that involves things like the Three-Eyed Raven’s true identity, both characters’ skin-changing/warging abilities, and cryptic Bran statements about how he’s not really Bran anymore. But since the show never really committed to any of that (seriously, when was the last time Bran actually warged into anything or anyone and did something useful?), we have to just take what we got at face value. Whatever.
Jon killing Daenerys definitely falls under the umbrella of “things that were inevitable but that doesn’t make them any less sad.” This episode had some insanely beautiful and effective shots, from Dany walking out to address her soldiers with Drogon’s wings spreading behind her to the pivotal scene in the throne room, up to and including the dragon flying away with his dead mother clutched in one claw. Where did he go? Maybe Bran will find him, maybe he won’t. Like so many other things in Game of Thrones’ neutered final season, that’s beside the point.
This is the thing: An ending can make sense without feeling satisfying. The reasons why Game of Thrones’ finale felt disappointing have less to do with the ways things actually wound up, and more with how we got here. If Bran had actually been present as a character and not just a doorstop for the past couple of seasons, fans might have cheered at the idea of him ruling over Westeros. If Dany’s full-on murderous insanity had been properly built up to–as opposed to simply foreshadowed and then flipped on in an instant, which unfortunately isn’t the same thing–her death could have been one of the most emotional television scenes ever, rather than something that felt like it simply needed to be done for the Story to continue its breakneck freefall toward a Conclusion.
The moments that worked best in “The Iron Throne” were the ones that were properly set up long ago, like Brienne finishing Jaime’s page in the White Book of the Kingsguard. It’s the right kind of bittersweet: The Jaime that we got to know over these eight seasons (and five books) wanted nothing more than to leave a legacy that could stand alongside those of past Kingsguard greats like Ser Arthur Dayne. And who knew that side of the Kingslayer better than Brienne?
But therein lies the quintessential difference between page and screen: If you only watch the show, do you know that side of Jaime? In George R.R. Martin’s books, events play out from specific characters’ perspectives. When we’re seeing the world through Jaime Lannister’s eyes, we’re also privy to his inner monologue, thoughts, feelings, dreams, hopes, and fears. When the show was still based on the books, it felt similar–in early seasons we usually understood why the characters did the things they did. The show did a great job letting us get to know them.
In more recent seasons, it’s felt like the show kept us at arm’s length, deliberately leaving things offscreen–like Bran, Arya, and Sansa plotting against Littlefinger, or Dany learning to ride and control Drogon–in order to build up surprises and cinematic climaxes. Those moments often worked, but they also left us wondering exactly how the pieces fell into place behind the scenes. Maybe showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss orchestrated that shift deliberately, or maybe they just didn’t have the answers and so chose to not even try to come up with some. R’hllor knows George R.R. Martin has a hard enough time–the story’s complexity is often cited as one of the reasons the books take him so long to write.
The point is: The broad strokes of this ending may be what the author has in mind, and, if he ever manages to finish his own story, this may be the ending that we ultimately get. But the way we get there will likely be characterized not by the bad taste of a botched rush job, but by the careful plotting, endless detail, and realistic, complex characters that the story actually began with.
Here’s a silver lining: Even if you wanted Jon on the throne in the end, you have to admit that finally seeing him pet his direwolf again is an even better conclusion to his story. At least they got there in the end.
Photos: HBO/Helen Sloan
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