TV Review: Game of Thrones Melts “The Iron Throne” and Viewers’ Hopes in Its Series Finale

In the end, the series fell down and faltered just as so many of its characters did...

Game of Thrones, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, HBO

The Pitch: King’s Landing is in cinders. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Jon Snow (Kit Harington), and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) survey their work, responding with shock, horror, and triumph as befits where each of them stands. Now the three of them, in their own way, must decide what the future looks like, and what part they might play in it. In its final hour, Game of Thrones wallows in the aftermath of its fullest and final culling of those who stood between “The Iron Throne” and its biggest contenders.

But in the end, the series finale spends as much time dealing with the aftermath to the aftermath, assembling the remaining great lords and ladies of Westeros to choose a new ruler. Soon the Iron Throne is no more, melted in Drogon’s flames. But in order to make peace, to deliver justice, the assembled luminaries of the Seven Kingdoms must choose a ruler who can unite them all and lead the way into a new tomorrow. Instead, they pick Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright).

With that bit of business taken care of, it’s time for a grand send-off. The finale bids fond farewell to the Starks who have, in the final tally, both won and lost the game of thrones. It reassembles the advisors to the king and populates the small council with only the most familiar faces. It soaks up the imagery and goodbyes among the characters whose journeys end here, and charts a distinct but uncertain way forward for each of them.

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Game of Thrones, HBO, Emilia Clarke
Game of Thrones (HBO)

True Friends Stab You in the Front: The best thing to say about “The Iron Throne” is that it spends nearly half of its supersized runtime being quiet and unhurried, ruminating on what has happened and what must be done, with its three biggest characters in focus. As much as Game of Thrones has been about map-shaping political struggles and skirmishes among warring factions, it has been just as much about long, languid, and piercing conversations within dimly-lit rooms, between people who care about more than those grand clashes. For the episode’s other clumsy narrative devices and frustrating choices, this finale honors that important aspect of the series.

That first and best portion of the finale is operatic, full of stark imagery, grand ideas, and big emotions. It spends long stretches shooting its trio of main characters from behind, letting the audience take in the triumph and tragedy of King’s Landing as they do. It places all three into poses and framings that grab the viewer’s attention, from Tyrion’s excavation of his siblings, to Daenerys’ Triumph of the Will moment, to the ember-tinged drips of the Iron Throne brought to nothing beneath a spray of dragon’s fire. In its final hour, Game of Thrones goes big and goes symbolic, letting the already heightened tone of the series rise with the moment.

Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones, HBO, Final Season
Game of Thrones (HBO)

In these scenes, the show forces a moral choice with deep personal costs, between love and duty, between what’s noble and what’s necessary, between a beginning and an end. Tyrion implores Jon to learn from his mistakes and stop a reign of terror before it starts. Dany speaks to a man done ill by the old world of her dream of making a new one, and getting to decide what’s right and wrong within it. Jon, in turn, probes the psyche, the moral compass, of the woman he loves. He then plunges a knife into her heart, in the name of what he believes to be the greater good, just as was once done to him.

At times, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (who both wrote and directed the finale) strain to justify the path to get to that moment. Still, they realize it in grand, operatic tones, which befit the weight and scope of a series finale, and lock in on the three major characters who’ve moved so much to this point.

I’d Rather They Chose a Bran Muffin: Bran? BRAN?! After so many years of speculation of who would rest their highborn behind on the Iron Throne in the end, the series melts it down — signifying it as a prize no one is meant to win. Still, when push comes to shove, the potentates of the Seven Kingdoms must choose a monarch (since Sam’s suggestion of democracy is laughed off). Forced to pick someone who all can agree on, who will be able to combine the forcefulness of Dany, the admirability of Jon, and the craftiness of Tyrion, they pick … the expressionless, riddle-spitting weirdo whose creepy stare has become one of this year’s hottest memes.

It’s not difficult to see what Benioff and Weiss (and George R.R. Martin, if this is indeed his ending) were going for with this move. There is poetry in “Bran the Broken,” the little boy whose tower-side fall sparked this series of events, rising to assume the throne. If there’s one thing storytellers are convinced of and always glad to proselytize, it’s the idea that stories are The Most Important Things in the World™. Game of Thrones has been establishing the Three-Eyed Raven as the living memory of men, the keeper of our stories, for some time now. And there’s a fair argument that crowning a childless, detached-from-humanity soothsayer as your king is, if not breaking the wheel, then certainly making it much more wobbly.

Bran Stark, Game of Thrones, HBO, Final Season
Game of Thrones (HBO)

But my god, who wants this? Who thinks this is a good idea? Even apart from what the fans might want (a dubious rubric to judge an ending), it doesn’t feel like Game of Thrones adequately built to this moment over the past eight years. Has Bran ever shown himself to be just, to be wise, to be capable of any kind of leadership or management whatsoever? Maybe the association of lords and ladies are banking on his ability to see the future to guide the kingdom to prosperity. The other side of the coin is that he’s been pretty tight-lipped about super important details so far, and let scores of people die to get to this point, so you better be damn convinced that this is the strongest timeline if you’re ready to bend the knee to his royal weirdness.

What’s worse is that after basically an entire season of questioning whether the people of Westeros would follow Dany despite her being an outsider, or Jon because he’s able to command respect, we’re supposed to believe that the fractious luminaries of the realm will line up and curtsy to the charisma-less Bran? It’s best to take a charitable view of most stories, to try to see them in the best light. But even with the grandest amount of leeway, King Bran is a choice for ruler that strains credulity, and barely makes any emotional sense, let alone actual sense. At least Sansa (Sophie Turner) was smart enough to carve out the North as an independent kingdom.

The Long Goodbye: With that mystifying choice, Game of Thrones spends its final moments putting its surviving heroes in their final places on the game board. We see familiar faces like Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli), the previously-referenced but devoid-of-dialogue Dornish prince, and even long-lost Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies), all there to represent the various lands of Westeros. They’re more props than characters at this point, but they do help make the rest of Westeros feel accounted for in this last installment.

We also see a new small council assembled, with Tyrion once again assuming the role as Hand to the King, Bronn (Jerome Flynn) as Lord of Highgarden and Master of Coin, Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) as Master of Ships, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) as Grand Maester, and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. It’s a fan service-y gathering, rife with the sort of backroom banter that used to be the show’s trademark, but the sop to the fans is at least somewhat welcome given how mixed the rest of the finale is.

Brienne of Tarth, Game of Thrones, HBO, Final Season
Game of Thrones (HBO)

In its final moments, though, Game of Thrones bids farewell to the rest of the Starks, mirroring and intercutting the paths to the next chapter of their lives in a manner that is warm but mournful. Arya (Maisie Williams) sets off for adventure, flying the wolf banner of her homestead high, but setting off to find a place with fewer antiquated strictures and grudges to hold her back. Sansa takes her rightful place as Queen of the North, having proven herself the wisest ruler to come from a family where many have been crowned or championed, but few have had her savvy or smarts to rule.

And last but not least, Jon Snow is the bearer of the show’s bookends and callbacks to the series’ beginning. He is sent back to The Wall, reduced to where he started this journey so many years ago. There, he reunites with Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and (through a pet that soothed the angry souls of a million dog-lovers) with Ghost as well. In a scene that mirrors the fateful journey of two rangers of the Night’s Watch that kicked off Game of Thrones, Jon rides north through the gates of The Wall with his rough-hewn pal at his side. But this time, the crows are not alone. Jon is flanked by the Wildlings, off to start a new life back where the greatest threat to Westeros once lurked, where can finally leave behind the highs and lows of this endless bloody game, the politicking and rival families, the tainted heroism and hard choices, once and for all.

Jon Snow, Grey Worm, Game of Thrones, HBO, Final Season
Game of Thrones (HBO)

The Verdict: Endings are hard, especially for a series like Game of Thrones. For these arc-heavy shows, it’s easy to say “focus on the journey,” but the show itself has focused so heavily on the destination. “The Iron Throne” is a finale full of stellar performances that paper over questionable narrative shortcuts, of emotions earned from eight years of adventures and character-development that are then channeled into endpoints that aren’t necessarily worthy of them, and of gorgeous bits of technical and visual craft that soothe the pain of some of the episode’s most bewildering choices.

This ending isn’t satisfying. To meet that standard would be a challenge for any series finale freighted with so much expectation from audiences all over the world. But “The Iron Throne” does represent both the good and the bad of this series: its compelling throne room colloquies and its tedious narrative piece-moving; its momentous choices that change the fate of a kingdom and its confounding moves that seem to emerge only from plot convenience; its complex characters who suffer and grow and change in believable ways and those who bend awkwardly to fit the needs of the story the creators want to tell; its beautiful tapestries of sight and sound and the hours-later epiphanies that you were too lost in that beauty to realize the whole thing didn’t make much sense.

In that, Game of Thrones died as it lived — an oft-compelling, rarely boring series that always flirted with greatness but never fully seized that slippery devil. It was a show that gestured toward complicated ideas about rule and right and destiny, but often settled for easier narrative tie-ups. It entertained us for 73 installments of backstabbing intrigue and grand battles and humanized combatants all across that famously-constructed map. But in the end, it fell down and faltered just as so many of its characters did — in trying to unite so many disparate corners of that world into one, unified whole in a way that anyone could defend, or hope to hold together.

Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones, HBO, Final Season
Game of Thrones (HBO)

Final Questions:

–Did anyone get Varys’ letters? Maybe Bran warged into all of the letter-carrying ravens and had them drop his notes in the Narrow Sea? Or maybe Varys was never actually able to send them? Or maybe no one has Jon’s forwarding address anymore?

–Where did Drogon take Dany and where is he now? Let’s bet on Old Valyria. It’s the place where the original dragonlords came from in the distant past, so it seems like a nice final resting place for the last of the literal and metaphorical dragons.

–So what happens when Bran dies? Tyrion’s whole pitch is that Bran breaks the wheel because he’ll have no children and so the noblemen will have to continue to choose their leaders in King’s Landing rather than consulting bloodlines. But in 10, 20, or 50 years, will the people of Westeros still be on board with that? Will it just result in another war of succession with different factions jockeying for the throne? The leading men and women of Westeros are putting a lot of faith in the idea that everyone’s going to be just peachy keen about ending the divine right of kings for a very long time.

–Who’s going to read that giant book? Game of Thrones follows past precedents as varied as Little Women and Gilmore Girls in having one of its characters write a story about all of these events that’s cheekily implied to be the thing you just experienced. It’s a corny trope, but it at least confirms that Game of Thrones is a fantasy, because it’s a universe where A Song of Ice and Fire gets finished.

–How will HBO do without its biggest hit? More than a decade ago, people were wondering how the network would fare without The Sopranos. Then, some little sword and sorcery show came along, had just as much success, and delivered an ending that’s sure to be just as crowd-pleasing and uncontroversial as The Sopranos’ was. As desperate as some of HBO’s pre- and post-show ads were (“Please don’t cancel your subscription! We have other shows, we swear!”) we expect the network will be just fine.

–What will I do with my life now? Who knows? But suffice it to say, it’s been our absolute pleasure to review this show through its dizzying highs and facepalm-worthy lows for you. Even the best television shows wax and wane, and only a select few of them stick the landing. In good times and bad, though, it’s been a treat to dig into a show that, whatever its faults and glories, always kept us talking. Thank you so much for reading each week, and we’ll see you in whatever’s west of Westeros.


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