- Warning: Spoilers ahead for HBO’s “Game of Thrones” season eight, episode six, “The Iron Throne.”
- Sunday’s highly anticipated series finale has disappointed many viewers and divided the fandom.
- Daenerys Targaryen’s death,Jon Snow’s exile, and Bran Stark’s ascension to power are among the most controversial twists.
- But while the last season had significant problems with pacing and plot development, the finale didn’t betray the show’s primary themes.
- Many beloved character arcs were also given satisfying conclusions.
- Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
The last-ever episode – and the last-ever season as a whole – has disappointed many viewers and divided the fanbase. Many complaints have been valid. I won’t try to defend the rushed and problematic execution of Daenerys Targaryen’s face-heel turn, for example, even if it had been planned for many seasons.
The eighth and final season certainly had its problems with pacing and character development. Too much focus was placed on shock value, which made nearly every twist feel sudden and unearned.
But having accepted that fact, I hoped I would at least be satisfied with where the chips ultimately fell, even if I wasn’t thrilled with how each chip had fallen.
Most of all, I wanted to feel as though the series finale didn’t betray the show’s primary themes – how each character’s arc was designed to grapple with existential, political, and moral questions.
Should we give power to the people who crave it? In war, do the ends ever justify the means? If love is the death of duty, when can that be a good thing? And, most importantly, can we ever truly break the wheel?
As expected, “Thrones” addressed each of these questions in ambiguous ways, but that’s what has always made the show worth watching. We shouldn’t want fictional characters (and the men who write their dialogue) to dictate what’s right and what’s wrong.
Each time we spent another Sunday night in Westeros, we were left with these questions, and charged with confronting them in the real world. The series finale stayed true to that tradition.
Here’s why I, a longtime “Thrones” fan and meticulous nitpicker, felt satisfied by the show’s ending.
Dany’s legacy is complex and ambiguous
As a character, Daenerys Targaryen was never meant to be “good” or “bad.” The main issue with episode five, “The Bells,” was that she was portrayed simplistically, as though she had suddenly flipped a switch and become the latter.
It feels fair to say that it was never Dany’s descent into madness that viewers didn’t buy, but rather the show’s lack of exposition of how she came to that point. When she made the decision to burn down King’s Landing, it wasn’t clear why – and the only reasonable explanations seemed disappointing at best and sexist at worst.
“The Iron Throne” didn’t give us a clear reason or motive for her actions, as many had hoped it would. It further complicated her character and, in turn, our feelings towards her.
That may seem like I’m insulting the writers, but it’s actually a compliment. The entire purpose of Dany’s story line has been to create a complex web of emotions – pain, guilt, admiration, validation – surrounding her goals and her methods to achieve them.
As INSIDER’s Kim Renfro noted, the magic of Dany’s story line is that we found ourselves rooting for her success, even when that meant cheering as her enemies burned alive. Her violent tendencies were there all along. Watching her fall from grace reminded us how we can be deceived and enchanted by the so-called “glory” of war. (Notable: “Thrones” author George R. R. Martin was a conscientious objector during Vietnam.)
“[The show] led people to believe that her particular acts of war or violence were being done for ‘better’ reasons than most of the other characters,” Renfro wrote. “But what if Martin’s whole point is that there’s virtually no way for war to be justified?”
Emilia Clarke has said that she studied dictators to deliver Dany’s final speech, but wanted her final scene in the Throne Room to recall Dany’s innocence on season one.
“Young, naïve, childlike, open, and full of love and hope,”Clarke told the New Yorker. “I wanted so much for that to be the last memory of her.”
Dany’s final moments stayed true to her complex arc – how she came to embody the tensions between love and fear, justice and bloodshed. They allowed us to mourn for her, even though we saw what she just did and knew what she would continue to do.
Sure, she was in denial about the suffering she’d caused. Perhaps she was completely delusional. But we definitely weren’t left with the impression that she was pure evil.
Even in Dany’s so-called “madness,” there were hints of the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains. There’s a reason why Missandei believed in her, why Tyrion Lannister defended her, why Jon fell in love with her – characters we all understood to be thoughtful and empathetic – and why we felt the same for so many years.
The truth is that she was doomed from the start. Dany could’ve never achieved her goal of “breaking the wheel” by sitting on the Iron Throne. Her belief that it was hers to sit on, by divine birthright, is the very definition of the wheel she described.
But ultimately, with her death, Daenerys Targaryen still fulfilled what she saw as her destiny. We can’t really feel grateful for her, considering the sheer level of brutality she displayed. But we also can’t ignore that she helped rid the realm of tyrannical monarchy and, hopefully, ushered in a new era of peace in Westeros.
Stories about pure good prevailing over pure evil are boring. “Thrones” had never promised neat endings, heroic triumphs, or one-dimensional villains. In fact, it promised the exact opposite: Nuance, conflict, instability, and queasy moments when we realise the “good guys” are capable of cruelty too – or we wonder things like, “Am I actually kind of rooting for Jon to kiss his murderous aunt right now?”
Dany’s downfall, topped off with a hint of redemption, is the perfect example of why the show gripped our attention in the first place.
Her death shed light on the corruptive effects of power
In the most basic sense, “Thrones” is a story about power. It posits that absolute power is corrosive, shows us that striving for power leads to the suffering of innocent people, and examines who deserves to wield it.
Drogon: the sight of this accursed thing sickens me. This throne stands as a symbol of the oppression of the proliteriat, and as long as people seek it, this world will never know peace. Dragon fire can't melt steel beams, but on my honor, I shall liquefy this sham
— ???? ⁶ (@sporker_) May 20, 2019
The final season set forth a bold thesis: Those who don’t want to rule are the best people for the job.
We saw Dany’s thirst for the throne become progressively more destructive while the prospect of King Jon Snow, who has only ever accepted positions of power reluctantly, became more and more alluring.
But because this is “Game of Thrones,” it could never be so straightforward.
Crowning Jon would have been cliché and dull
The reborn, prophesied hero saves the world from a tyrant and becomes king. How many times have we seen a variation on that ending?
Crowning Jon after he killed Daenerys would have been even worse, a betrayal of the internal logic of the show – and of Daenerys, who then would have only been killed to advance the arc of her male murderer.
Instead, Jon became a tragic hero, which is far more fitting for the “bittersweet” ending that George R. R. Martin always promised.
Jon probably saved the realm. Plus, he reclaimed his identity as a Northerner and went back beyond the Wall, where he made his happiest memories.
But he was also forced to kill the woman he loves in order to save his family. As Jon always does, he had noble intentions, but he’s thoroughly traumatized and will be haunted by his decision for the rest of his life. He may never know if he made the right one. As Tyrion told him: “Ask me again in 10 years.”
King Bran makes the most sense if those who crave power aren’t fit to rule
So if we were led to believe that Jon would make an ideal king, but he can’t actually be king, who’s the next best choice?
How about an all-knowing, impossibly level-headed lord who doesn’t really want anything at all?
True, an earlier version of “Thrones” would have debated the intricacies of this decision, dedicated multiple episodes to the debate over Dany’s successor. It was pretty lazy to jump forward in time and gloss over the consequences of her murder, but that’s what happens when you try to shove a full season’s worth of narrative storytelling into one 80-minute episode.
So if we’re willing to accept the time constraints and inevitable plot holes, we can appreciate the cyclical nature of Tyrion’s speech. Seven seasons after he designed Bran a special saddle, he’s still a champion for the downtrodden, uplifting “cripples, bastards, and broken things.”
“I find it an extraordinary character arc to see him go from a vulnerable character totally dependent on others to the one person who holds all the keys to understanding the world,”Isaac Hempstead Wright, who plays Bran, wrote in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter.
He added: “Bran becoming king is a victory for the still and considered people of this world, who too often get sidelined by the commotion of those who are louder and more reactionary.”
If we subscribe to the worldview of the final season, the Three-Eyed Raven has all the makings of a great ruler. He literally cannot become corrupted by power. He won’t put love over duty – or, as Sansa Stark put it, “do stupid things for women.”
But it’s not as though Bran is completely unfeeling. During the Battle of Winterfell, he had the empathy and understanding to tell Theon he was a good man, which gave him the redemption he needed before death.
Bran also has the “single most important quality” for a king, according to Tywin Lannister’s lesson for Tommen on season four: wisdom.
He’s the perfect person to prevent Westeros from repeating its mistakes. Bran has access to the nation’s entire history, the memories of individual people, and the inner workings of each peaceful reign.
Sure, his powers weren’t properly explained onscreen, and his important role on the last season was undercooked. But it would have been more annoying if Bran had been hyped up as a magical tree god since season four, and then his arc culminated in sitting as bait for the Night King.
It’s true that the gender politics here are not great, considering that Tyrion claimed Bran has the best “story” while passing right over Arya and Sansa, both of whom arguably overcame the most trauma and came out the strongest.
But I think we’re meant to understand that Bran is more of a figurehead – a neutral symbol of a transitional period with little to no risk involved.
As we saw later on the finale, he’ll likely leave most of the ruling up to Tyrion and his small council.
Again, it’s definitely unfortunate that the new Westerosi government will be led almost entirely by men, especially in light of the accusations leveled against the “Thrones” showrunners for mistreating female characters. I won’t argue with those criticisms, or in favour of a predominantly male government.
But I cannot deny that each and every one of these characters – Sam! Davos! Brienne!!!!!! – brings a special brand of savvy and empathy to the table.
Sansa finally got her due
From what I’ve seen, the most common critique of King Bran is that Sansa is more deserving. But who says Sansa wanted the crown?
Don’t get me wrong: Sansa certainly seems to want at least some degree of power. But her entire arc has been a homecoming, an ascent that builds upon the legacies of her murdered father, mother, and brother. Sansa is driven by a her desire for freedom and the North’s independence. She only wants power as far as she can use it in order to bring justice and prosperity back to Winterfell.
There’s plenty of rich symbolism in Sansa’s coronation scene, but one detail in particular feels significant.
Sansa spent the show learning from the most politically savvy people in Westeros: Cersei Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and Littlefinger, most notably. She’s been known to adapt her appearance to different situations, using her style to communicate loyalties.
“Sansa’s hair is constantly reflecting the people she’s learning from, or mimicking, or inspired by at the time,”Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa,told Refinery29 in 2017. “When she’s Cersei’s prisoner, and she’s kind of absorbing all her manipulative techniques, it’s reflected in her hairstyle, and when she’s finding the spirit of Margaery in herself, she wears her hair like Margaery.”
But as she was crowned, Sansa wore her hair completely down, indicating that she’s finally comfortable in her surroundings and confident in her own identity.
This was the most gratifying conclusion of Sansa’s arc that I could’ve ever expected. It’s not insignificant that the last-ever words spoken on “Game of Thrones” were, “The Queen of the North.”
Wish fulfillment doesn’t necessarily take away from the story
It’s unlikely that anyone who followed “Thrones” since the series premiere didn’t get a little choked up when the show ended with Sansa, Arya, and Jon trying to find peace and move forward.
To some, it may seem underwhelming that such a bleak, shocking story ended on such a heartwarming note. But the conclusions of these arcs don’t feel out of place when they’re in line with the characters’ longstanding ambitions and pay homage to their struggles.
And honestly, the show has conditioned me to feel grateful for this ending.
My favourite character watched his pregnant wife get stabbed to death, before he was shot with multiple arrows and died while staring into his mother’s eyes (R.I.P. Robb). Then my new favourite character had his skull crushed (R.I.P. Oberyn). Then my next favourite character was blown up with wildfire, even though she was smart enough to realise it was a trap (R.I.P. Margaery).
Can you blame me for being relieved when some of our original favourites made it out safely, or wound up on top? For enjoying a montage of happy endings?
“Thrones” is at its best when it subverts our expectations. Way back on season one, Ned Stark’s death led us to believe that his version of justice could never prevail – and that his kids, raised with his honour code, were probably doomed.
But the wolves learned, grew, and adapted. Bran and Sansa, who began as the family’s two most helpless members, became the two most powerful people on the continent. Allowing the last of the Starks to have freedom and authority was the show’s last and best subversion.
here’s to house stark, the family who stole our hearts from the very first episode and despite having had the most tragedy story still managed to make it until the end. the pack does indeed survive. pic.twitter.com/WM6Gq0lcNy
— rita (@samucarIas) May 20, 2019
Of course, nothing is neat and tidy in this world. No one is saying that Westeros is saved and King Bran’s reign won’t be fraught with problems. But at least we know that everyone will try. So much has been lost. The noble houses are absolutely decimated. Everyone is tired of war.
As Clarke explained in an interview with Variety, the show asks, “how we can live together in a world that is ruled by the politics of individuals.”
“That question is asked in the final episode and I don’t think it’s answered because it shouldn’t be answered,” she said. “We can’t. There is no answer. We’re just trying to do it all the time.”
Maybe peace never lasts, as Olenna Tyrell once said, but that’s a story for another day. “Game of Thrones” had to end somehow.
- Read more:
- ‘Game of Thrones’ author George R.R. Martin says the books will have a very different ending from the show’s controversial finale
- Why this shocking moment from the ‘Game of Thrones’ finale might have been the last major surprise George R.R. Martin revealed to the writers
- A guide to the major houses on ‘Game of Thrones,’ including a final tally of who’s still alive and who’s dead
- ‘Game of Thrones’ finally gave Ghost his due and fans don’t care about anything else
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