After eight seasons and 73 episodes, Game of Thrones drew to a close tonight. It was a finale that failed to give many fans what they wanted. But did it succeed in giving us the ending the series needed?
*** Beware: Here there be spoilers! ***
Let me start by putting my cards on the table. I fell in love with Game of Thrones from its very first episode. I spent two years writing weekly previews and reviews for the Metro website. So I’m not one of those fans who think this final season has been an unmitigated disaster or one of the million-plus who have signed an online petition demanding a do-over. But neither am I blind to the fact that this has been an imperfect ending. Much has already been written, quite rightly, about questionable character development and frenetic pacing. I won’t rehash those arguments here.
Ultimately, though, tonight’s The Iron Throne saw a return to what the show has always done best: an intimate, introspective examination of the choices people make in pursuit of power and the shades of grey that surround those decisions. While far from perfect – some key plot points don’t really hold up to much scrutiny – after all the sound and fury that preceded it, it made for a satisfying coda.
If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.
Ramsay first said this to Theon Greyjoy/Reek, but he should have said it to Daenerys and #TeamDany fans too.
To me, it has long felt inevitable that Daenerys Targaryen would fail to fulfil her presumed destiny. Too obvious; too cliched. Fans protested that her decision to raze King’s Landing in The Bells betrayed eight years of character development. There is some truth in that. On the other hand, in short order she lost her father figure Jorah, Varys betrayed her, Jon rebuffed her advances and Missandei, the nearest thing she had to a best friend, was beheaded. Surely that’s enough to make anyone snap?
Many thought Arya would be the one to finish her, based on Melisandre’s “brown eyes, blue eyes, green eyes” prophecy. But this never seemed likely. The youngest Stark had already had her big moment, killing the Night King. The Hound’s parting gift of deflecting her from assassinating Cersei signposted a different path.
Thematically Jon made more sense. The tragic romance. His deep sense of duty and honour. Killing Dany was his contribution to the endgame after his peripheral role in the Battles of Winterfell and King’s Landing.
Closing the circle
There’s a large element of box-ticking throughout this final episode, closing some chapters and opening up potential spin-offs. Pretty much everyone achieves some sense of closure.
Bran becomes ruler of the Six Kingdoms. Not by virtue of being the strongest, most heroic or most ruthless, but a king born out of knowledge and consensus.
Tyrion’s ‘Bran has the best story’ argument doesn’t really hold water. (Why not any of his siblings, for instance?) Bran’s leadership skills are unproven. And yet, who better to break the wheel and ensure the past doesn’t repeat itself than the one person who can see all of human history? It’s an illogical decision – I don’t agree with it myself – but it does make some sense.
Tyrion becomes Hand of the King for the second time. Humbled by the mistakes he has made, he’s well placed to oversee the task of (literally) rebuilding King’s Landing as a new seat of power.
Brienne achieves her natural end-point, commanding the Kingsguard, and gets to finish Jaime’s story for him. Giving him a noble footnote in the Book of Brothers – “Died defending his Queen” – completes the Kingslayer’s redemption post-mortem.
There is a certain comedy (but little logic) in Bronn, the mercenary driven by money, becoming the new Master of Coin. Sam as the new Grand Maester and Davos as Master of Ships are more natural fits. And Grey Worm’s decision to go to Naath fulfils his promise to Missandei. As a Master of War, Westeros’ new world order doesn’t require him.
The sense of coming full circle feels most complete with the other surviving Stark siblings. Jon’s punishment for his treason is to return to the (redundant?) Night’s Watch, the only ‘family’ he has ever truly felt at home with. In effect, he becomes King North of the Wall. Sansa becomes Queen of a newly independent North. (Although I didn’t buy how easily the other Lords agreed to this.) And Arya, who long ago stated she wanted to see what exists west of Westeros, gets to do just that.
In many ways, Arya’s arc best represents the ‘breaking of the wheel’. She didn’t choose to be drawn into the Game of Thrones. She trained to become a master assassin, consumed by her kill-list. But ultimately she takes the opportunity to walk away from bloodshed and start a new story where she chooses her own path. (Would I tune in for a West of Westeros spin-off? Hell, yes.)
For each character, their destination felt right, even if the final leg of their journeys felt too rushed, with several wrong turns. But equally it was always going to be impossible to make everyone happy. The writers ultimately did alright. Not great, but okay.
No one’s very happy, which means it’s a good compromise, I suppose.
The moral of the story?
So what ultimately is Game of Thrones‘ overriding message?
There’s certainly a repeating motif about the power of stories and how they are the final arbiter of which side of the good/evil divide we end up on. (Daenerys the liberator/invader. The Kingslayer and the Mad King. Jon’s true parentage.)
But history itself is a double-edged mistress. It can be a shackle that compels us to repeat the same events over and over. Or we can learn from it so we don’t make the same mistakes. Remember the past but don’t be beholden to it.
Okay, the meta-ness of Sam presenting the book, A Song of Ice and Fire, had all the subtlety of a brick. But overall I felt the finale tied up just about enough loose ends.
Two final notes. For all the hand-wringing over plotting, pacing and stray Starbucks cups and water bottles, Game of Thrones has consistently excelled in two key areas: music and cinematography. A hat-tip to Ramin Djawadi, whose score for this final episode is exquisite. And the finale also gave us one enduring image to match any other from all eight seasons: Daenerys’ entrance, framed by Drogon’s wings unfolding behind her, every inch the Dragon Queen. Bravo.
Game of Thrones is over but the debate will rage on. Did season eight tarnish the show’s reputation? Or were showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss always doomed in their attempts to square the impossible circle?
Personally – and the overwhelmingly negative reaction on Twitter after the episode aired suggests I was in a tiny minority – I felt they just about stuck the landing, albeit with a couple of big wobbles. But I suspect most fans will over time be kinder to the conclusion of this mammoth, game-changing series that proved that an insanely complex fantasy saga can be translated to television.
HBO brought us eight seasons of intricate, layered storytelling and movie-quality spectacle. Game of Thrones rewrote the rules for what can be achieved on TV. Ultimately that is both its biggest achievement and its biggest failing. In setting an ever higher bar, GoT failed to clear it at the last. But its legacy should remain intact, and deservedly so.
Back in its early days, HBO pitched Game of Thrones, somewhat loftily, as ‘The Sopranos in Middle-Earth’. It turned out to be everything that promise entailed. And then some. Whatever comes after GoT has big shoes to fill.
And now our Watch is ended.
Ratings: S8E6 The Iron Throne: 7/10. Season 8: 7/10. Overall: 9/10