Season 8, Episode 6, ‘The Iron Throne’
In the end, “Game of Thrones” was about blowing up the game of thrones.
At times Sunday’s series finale rendered this literally, as when the Iron Throne itself, the inspiration for most of the terrible things we’ve seen over eight seasons, was grief-torched by Drogon after Jon Snow killed its mom.
More thematically, the show that has been broadly about a society’s transition from murderous, dysfunctional dynastic rule and entitlement politics to a more collectivist model consummated that concept, killing off yet another conquering monarch and replacing her with an elected king.
Of course the thing is, that king is Bran.
It was one of several head-scratchers in a finale that, like much of the season, was a mishmash of poignant moments and puzzling turns.
There were definitely some nice touches, like the dragon-wing shot of Daenerys and the nobles’ guffaws at the mere thought of actual democracy, one of the night’s funnier moments. In some ways, the finale was a compendium of “Thrones” greatest hits: There was yet another regicide, yet another jailing of Tyrion, yet another scattering of Starks.
But the episode, directed by the creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff (who in the last few weeks have become the show’s biggest villains to a vocal fan segment), was also plagued by the same incoherence that has inspired abundant Twitter rage this season and at least one effigial petition.
There was Jon killing Daenerys and then escaping the immediate wrath of both Drogon — maybe his Targaryen blood helped — and the Unsullied, who instead took him prisoner hours after cutting people’s throats just for supporting Cersei, much less murdering their queen. (And how did they know what had happened, without a body? Did he confess?) There was the eternally fungible size of the Unsullied and Dothraki forces.
There was also the weird pacing that has marred much of the past two seasons, since the show cut from 10 episodes a season to seven last season and then six in this one.
On Sunday, minutes of screen time would be devoted to Jon walking and then, with a quick fade out and in, Tyrion had a bushy beard and the heads of Westeros’s big houses had suddenly appeared in the dragonpit. (Who summoned them?)
After eight seasons of anguish and death that amounted to a case for a new political system — “We need to find a better way!” Davos urged — Tyrion laid the whole thing out in a few minutes, Scooby Doo-style, as Grey Worm glowered nearby but reluctantly went along with everything.
It was clumsy and frustrating, especially because if you squinted, you could see how the outcomes could have been powerful if the lead-ups hadn’t been mismanaged.
Jon’s assassination of Daenerys was the stuff of Greek tragedy — a man murdering his lover for the greater good. (And here’s where I brag about bringing up Maester Aemon’s “love is the death of duty” speech back in Week 2.) Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington gave moving performances, but the scene lacked the impact it deserved because the turn that got us there was unconvincing.
Bran is in some ways a fitting choice for a kingdom that is looking to forge a different path. On a show frequently about how societies that forget their history are doomed to repeat it — in sectarian revenge cycles, conquering tyrants, sacks of great cities — Bran can see all of history. In a realm plagued by rulers who slaughtered their way into power, Bran is physically broken. In a tale in which pride and ego can lead to travesty, Bran has neither.
Tyrion leaned hard into the humility argument and also into a cornier one about stories being the most powerful thing on earth. Bran got shoved from a tower and then became the Three Eyed Raven, Tyrion said. Who has a better story than that? (Rebuttal: Arya and Sansa, sitting on either side of him.)
And as a bonus, Bran can’t sire a lunatic like Joffrey because he can’t have kids at all!
But none of it changes the fact that Bran has long been one of the most unsatisfying characters on the show. He’s almost a man, as he told Jon back in the season premiere, but he’s mostly a tool of convenience designed to relay narrative information we couldn’t get otherwise — whether it’s scouting the White Walkers, revealing “Thrones” prehistory or dropping knowledge bombs.
Bran theoretically has access to all information but seems to access it only when and in which way the story needs him to. This was reflected perfectly by his response to Tyrion’s pitch: “Why do you think I came all this way?” O.K., then why were you so hyped about telling Jon he’s supposed to be king a few weeks ago?
One response might be, because that’s what needed to happen — this is Bran’s response to pretty much everything, which makes it essentially meaningless. This all can sound like nit-picking, but internal logic is part of what gives a story power and resonance. In a show that was once defined by a kind of gritty realism within a fantastical setting, Bran is the ultimate cheat.
So his promotion to the Rolling Throne was a sort of final confirmation that over the past couple of seasons, at least, the series became something different from what most of us signed up for.
“Game of Thrones” became a global phenomenon largely by upending expectations, and one way it achieved that was by using the calcified conventions of the fantasy genre against us. The noble patriarch defined by his morals? Gone in the first season. The prince valiant son who followed his heart? Slaughtered along with his pregnant wife. The gentle giant who lived to protect a plucky young lad? Doomed in multiple ways by the actions of said lad.
This was a Shakespearean saga about power, blood and loyalty, we once told our skeptical, fantasy-averse friends. Not some show about dragons and wizards.
And then in its final episode, a dragon committed the story’s most potent symbolic act and a wizard was put in charge.
It all could have worked better if the past two seasons had felt less like headlong rushes toward predetermined outcomes, at the expense of character and story believability. (Whatever that means in a dragon epic.) I might have even accepted King Bran the Broken and his “everything happens for a reason” rhetoric if the show had just … nah, actually, I probably wouldn’t have. But so many of the things that drove fans loudly crazy this season most likely wouldn’t have if they’d been given more room to breathe. (More on this in a minute.)
The council that elected Bran included some of our favorite people, at least. This included the future Small Council members Sam (grand maester), Davos (master of ships), Brienne (lord commander of the kingsguard, maybe?) and Bronn, who in a fun twist was made master of coin. (As political commentary, putting a louche mercenary in charge of the treasury is pretty great.)
Yara Greyjoy and Gendry were there, too. Randomly, so was the former Suckling Robin, Yohn Royce (I think?), and some other people I didn’t recognize. Edmure Tully made it out of Walder Frey’s cell, apparently, but he’s still the same goober he was when he went in.
The mix of highborn and low was meaningful, and combined with the depictions of the Targaryen Regime — the Nurembergish rally, the tyrannical doublespeak about “liberating” people who had just been butchered — it unsubtly hammered home the show’s main themes: Power corrupts. Working together is our only hope.
Of course, the defining pack of the show was scattered yet again to the corners of the earth. The parting of Sansa, Arya and Jon inspired real emotion, intensified by the fact that just as they would never see this family together again, neither would we.
It was sad to see the Starks go their separate ways again, but they each got fitting ends. Sansa got a crown and an independent North, making her one of the few people in the show actually qualified for the job they have.
Arya is off for further adventures in the land beyond the map. Jon is going back North to where he fit in best of all, a poignant end for a man who was always an outsider, even when he was at the center of things. He’s already made up for his diss of Ghost a couple of weeks ago.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you needed me,” Jon told Bran.
“You were exactly where you were supposed to be,” he replied.
Of course he was, Bran. Of course he was.
A Race to the Finish
Endings are hard, and this one was always going to be harder than most.
That’s partly thanks to a story that methodically killed off its most interesting characters (and some of its best actors) as it winnowed into a more traditional good-versus-evil tale centered on its least interesting ones (Jon and Dany).
And it’s partly because the things that established “Game of Thrones” as a phenomenon — the epic scale, the shocking twists — began to work against it. Plot swerves got more abrupt as the writers tried to stay ahead of the obsessive audience — without the benefit of a blueprint, once the show surpassed the books — and story was sacrificed at the altar of spectacle as the series strove to top itself over and over.
And it’s partly because Benioff and Weiss failed to anticipate the ways in which dramatically abbreviating the last two seasons would exacerbate all of the above.
I don’t pretend to understand the pressures of TV production — logic suggests that with the episodes getting ever more technically complicated, they would take longer to shoot, which results in fewer of them per season.
But didn’t the show already take as much time as it needed, with months and months between some seasons? Why not go ahead and take as much as it takes to get to 10 episodes for those last two? For that matter, why not break up some of these supersize installments from this season into two separate ones that let moments land and things develop less frantically?
I liked the Battle of Winterfell more than most people, but would it have felt less abrupt spread over two episodes? Would Jaime or Dany’s turns have felt more natural if they’d been given time to more gradually unfold? Yes, yes and yes.
But now I worry that I’m starting to sound nit-picky again. And listen: For all of my kvetching, am I saying the show has been ruined, as so many former fans claim? Not at all. (I’m certainly not signing any goofy petitions.)
I will always admire “Game of Thrones” and never forget the wonder of its most provocative moments — Hardhome, Hodor, the Red Wedding, Cersei’s coup, Arya’s killing of the Night King — and the beauty of its quieter ones. I was frequently astounded that such stunning and audacious artistry could be delivered into my living room.
I kvetch because I care. I care because at its best, there was nothing else like “Game of Thrones” on TV or any other medium.
A Few Thoughts While We Turn the Page
• The power of stories and the tension between actual and recorded history were big themes in the finale, and in the show over all. In addition to Tyrion’s rhetoric on Sunday, we saw Brienne faithfully filling out Jaime’s story in the Book of the Brothers — a callback to Joffrey making fun of Jaime’s scanty entry in Season 4 — until she got to his final act. “He died serving his Queen,” she wrote, a single-sentence gloss on one of the most complex and defining plots of this story.
• Then Tyrion himself, the linchpin of so much of “Game of Thrones,” was entirely left out of “Song of Ice and Fire.” A popular theory held that Sam was ultimately going to be the one who wrote the story we’ve just watched. Close. Turns out it was Archmaester Ebrose (the head guy played by Jim Broadbent), but Sam helped with the title.
• “There’s still a Night’s Watch?” Jon asked, speaking for all of us, when it was proposed to him. Yep, Tyrion said, but maybe there wasn’t after all? It just looked like Tormund and a bunch of Wildlings, and then they all headed north of the Wall.
• Freed of their pillaging and storm-trooping responsibilities, the Unsullied are on their way to Naath, all 100 or 10,000 or however many of them are going to live the dream that Grey Worm hatched with Missandei back at Winterfell. Also, if you had Grey Worm in your survival pool, congratulations. Drinks are on you.
• What did you make of the big finale? Did it make you mad about the rise of Bran the Broken? Sad about Jon’s expulsion? Glad Dany got her comeuppance?
• And finally, each of us has a role to play, and now mine is done. But before I stagger toward the horizon like Melisandre and collapse into dust, I want to say thank you to everyone for reading and commenting over the past few weeks (or years). Daenerys, Jaime, Cersei, Jorah, Missandei, Ned, Robb, Rickon, Hodor (Hodor) and about a billion others didn’t make it, but we’re still here. We were the watchers on the couches, and now our … wait, how does it go again?