Everything ends, and I think I liked it?
There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.
I came into Game of Thrones at the end of Season 1, when I heard that there was a wild fantasy series on HBO that had just killed off its main character in Sean Bean. A lot of people — though a humorously small number compared to what the show would become — were obsessed with it, and I wanted in. So I devoured the first ten episodes, then books one through four, and I became a card-carrying member of the club. The series, as television and as novels, was never really about the spectacle for me, as well done as it was or how much I enjoyed it. It wasn’t about the shocks, either, though that became Thrones’ stock in trade, driving years of conversations and creating a cottage industry in YouTube reaction videos.
No, it’s always been about the world, and the characters who populate it. Their dreams and their flaws; the “wheels within wheels” of court intrigue; George R.R. Martin’s clever subversion of Campbellian “hero’s journey” tropes while piling on layer after layer of history and meaning, an interconnected web of houses and families and geography and shifting alliances where you were perpetually on your heels trying to keep up. That’s when the show was at its best: The richer the world, the more rewarding the journey, and the easier to forgive some of Benioff & Weiss’s decisions in plotting their adaptation.
That’s what’s been so frustrating about this final season for so many people — the journey is over, and it’s been all about getting to the destination as quickly as possible. With one glorious exception, episodes became bullet-point lists to skip through without delving enough into the characters’ interiority to explain certain choices to the audience. We’ve just had to go with it. Daenerys becoming a tyrant, and Jon having to be the one to take her down, feels like destiny at the story’s macro level — especially for book readers — but like I wrote last week, something’s been missing in the execution. We were locked out of Dany’s point of view when we needed it most because the shock of her turn was more important.
There’s a poetry to Bran the Broken being the one to put the world back together, but also a great deal of silliness, with all the lords and ladies of Westeros being talked into it (by a prisoner, no less) within the span of one scene, because that’s all the time the show had. It played like a Wikipedia summary of an episode — or, gods forbid, a recap, without any of the detail or mind toward the practicalities that the show portrayed so well in its first five-ish seasons.
But, on the whole, I was actually satisfied. There were so many moments that really did work, or even moved me. I don’t think a genuinely transcendent finale would have been possible, given the amount of work the showrunners had to do, but they got the job done with some level of visual flair (that shot of Drogon’s wings sprouting behind Daenerys!), and with help from their always-excellent cast. So in contrast to last week’s “Biggest Loser” format, let’s break down “The Iron Throne” by counting down the biggest winners of the Game. LAST RECAP, LET’S GO:
Unranked: Edmure Tully. LOL. Next!
10. Daenerys: She died! I mean, we all saw it coming, and maybe that’s why it felt so abrupt in the moment; Jon stabs her, she stares up to the throne room’s broken ceiling for a few seconds, and then she’s gone. Eight seasons of deep investment, debate, and real babies named after her, and she is dispatched with all the hastiness of a minor early-season villain. Even Cersei got a better death scene.
When she makes her victorious landing on the steps of Red Keep, she thanks her army (which suddenly seems a lot bigger than it was a couple of weeks ago), naming Grey Worm her new Master of War and declaring that the Unsullied will “break the wheel” all over the world, from Dorne to Astapor. As Tyrion puts it later, that glorious vision of “liberation” — however altruistic it was at the beginning — now just sounds a lot like tyranny of a different stripe. “Everywhere she goes evil men die, and we cheer her for it,” he tells Jon, and every victory has only convinced her that she is all the more good and right. The little girl who only wanted to come home, and couldn’t imagine the sight of a thousand swords, has drifted tragically (inevitably?) towards despotism. “I know a killer when I see one,” Arya warns Jon.
But when Dany finally touches the throne, mirroring the shot from her vision at the House of the Undying, she is — for a moment, at least — that girl again. When Jon grimly arrives on the threshold, she’s warm, even giddy. This was her dream, and the cost was worth it, because “it’s not easy to see something that’s never been before: A good world.” “How do you know?” Jon asks. “Because I know what is good,” she says earnestly, an hour after slaughtering thousands of people in a fit of pique. Yikes. That line seals her fate, and Jon’s unending misery at being the one to bring it about. Drogon arises from slumbering in the ash to bellow terrifyingly, but directs his flame at the throne itself instead of Jon, showing a keen understanding of symbolism for a dragon, then flies away with the body. Drogon, the real MVP.
So pour one out for Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, titles, titles, titles, who flew too close to the sun in her quest for power and toppled like every other doomed character who has tried. She deserves a better eulogy than that, frankly, but the show didn’t see fit to give her one.
9. Grey Worm: Look, I feel for Grey Worm here. Both the woman he loved and the woman who freed him are dead. He didn’t question Dany’s orders to execute Lannister soldiers in the street, which isn’t a good look, but the Unsullied have been nothing if not unquestionably loyal. (“How much more defeated do you want them to be?” Davos asks incredulously). And he has no recourse but to seethe in silence when Jon is exiled and Tyrion spared, turning down a spontaneous offer of Highgarden from Davos (“Start your own house”? Uh…how?) before simply taking his troops back to Essos to continue Dany’s mission of
city-sacking liberation (First: a pit stop in Naath!) I wish him satisfaction in that, before he dies a glorious battlefield death somewhere in Slavers Bay.
8. Jon: Every bit the tragic figure as Daenerys, Jon’s story ends with him in exile, escorting a group of Free Folk back beyond the wall. There are plants on the ground. Winter is over (perhaps forever?), and Jon’s got his people, his North, his Ghost. Considering that he never wanted to be king anyway, it’s not hard to view this as a victory by his own melancholy standards. All he has to do to get it is kill the woman he hasn’t exactly loved convincingly on screen, wait out some time in the dungeon, and say goodbye to his
siblings cousins forever. And in order to do that, Tyrion first has to convince him, though you can argue that Jon doesn’t come to see him in his cell without already knowing what must be done.
Actually, that’s exactly what Tyrion argues: “You always tried to do the right thing. You tried to protect people. Who is the greatest threat to the people now?” Then an even simpler, but more powerful question: “Would you have done it?” Of course not. But Jon’s still stubborn, and says he’s not going to defend what Dany did, then tries to defend it anyway. Maester Aemon once told him that “Love is the death of duty,” and Tyrion ruefully suggests that it’s the death of reason, too: “Look at my brother.” Jon even thinks that his sisters will be loyal to the throne, which is a new level of stupid, even for Jon. “You have to choose now!” Tyrion begs.
As I said before, Jon and Dany’s confrontation is dripping with inevitability, and it’s a credit to the oft-maligned Kit Harington that he makes sure we know how miserable he is throughout. “You are my queen, now and always,” he breathes, and he means it. Even at the end. He’s miserable when Tyrion tells him the council have agreed to send him back to the Night’s Watch, though it does raise a lot of questions about what the organization’s purpose is now: “The world will always need a home for bastards and broken men.” (So it’s…just an especially cold military outpost? What purpose does the wall serve? Who are they defending the realm from?)
Jon is miserable when he boards his boat for the North, his very own Grey Havens moment. He awkwardly kneels to King Bran and apologizes for not being there when he needed him, and Bran responds how Bran always responds: “You were exactly where you were supposed to be.” (Thanks again, Bran.) Jon’s only moment of happiness — again, by his standards — comes when he finally re-enters Castle Black, where he is greeted by a strangely inscrutable Tormund, a group of grateful Free Folk, and his wolf Ghost, who doesn’t seem as put out as he should be considering how Jon straight-up abandoned him two episodes ago. Whether he is going completely AWOL at the end is unclear, but I suppose that if they never find him, they can’t execute him.
He could have gotten away with it, though. “I saw Drogon slag Daenerys on the throne, then carry her away! I always knew dragons weren’t safe pets!” Who was gonna prove otherwise? Bran?