“Love is the death of duty.”
“Sometimes duty is the death of love.”
So. After 8 years and 73 episodes, the biggest TV show of the last decade has finally come to a conclusion. It’s fair to say that, even with the last couple of years admittedly reducing and simplifying the show’s multifarious convoluted plotlines, tying up every loose end satisfactorily was always going to be a tall order. Expectations for a series finale have rarely been higher – and harder to meet.
Tricky things, series finales. If the show is popular, those high expectations are always there, and often impssible to meet. Sometimes, a series finale is utterly disappointing, and makes you wonder why you wasted so many years of your life only for this to be the ending (Quantum Leap, Lost). Sometimes, on the other hand, it’s absolutely perfect, and a fitting capstone to the years of storytelling that preceded it (MASH, Star Trek: The Next Generation).
But there’s a third category. The series finale that makes sense, fits in with the established universe of the show, and satisfactorily ties up loose ends – without ever being all that inspiring as a piece of television. Think Battlestar Galactica, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer; both huge shows, carrying that same weight of expectation that Game of Thrones does. The endings for both were entirely… satisfactory. But nothing more. And I felt that the same was true here.
To be fair, this ep had a lot to do. Especially with the eleventh hour gambit last week of Dany Targaryen completely losing it and raining fire down on the innocent populace of King’s Landing in the name of freedom. That had to be resolved, along with the other burning question – who would end up sitting on the Iron Throne?
And in the literal sense of the expression, it was no-one at all. One of the ep’s more inspired strokes was the actual destruction of said uncomfortable chair; as a fitting representative of everything that was wrong in Westeros, that made perfect sense. It was also nicely poetic that it was melted into slag by the very dragon whose ‘mother’ had hoped to sit on it.
The death of said ‘mother’ was pretty much an inevitability since she went kill-crazy last week. I mean, I doubt even this show would have such a downer ending as to leave an obviously unhinged megalomaniac with a weapon of mass destruction in charge of its carefully-constructed world. I know a lot of fans were very angry about this development last week, but I still maintain it’s a perfectly logical development for a character who we’ve seen react utterly dispassionately to the horrific death of her brother, and who considers the most fitting punishment for her enemies to be incineration or crucifixion.
It’s debatable whether that’s justified even with the likes of Viserys Targaryen or the slave masters of Meereen. When Dany decides that her ‘enemies’ included anyone who even tacitly accepted Cersei Lannister’s rule, she was plainly demonstrating the mindset of fanatics who think they know best throughout human history.
And like other such fanatics (Caligula, Hitler, Farage), the burning question (as it were) became: “how do get rid of the mad bastard?” In a thoughtful (if slow-moving) ep, this was discussed at length, most notably in an absolutely gripping scene between Jon and the imprisoned Tyrion, now out of favour with the capricious Queen after his release of Jaime last week.
As a script, Benioff and Weiss’ final effort eschewed action and spectacle for thought, and was all the better for it. Given something to do other than sulk like a teenager, Kit Harington was actually good in this scene, more than holding his own with Peter Dinklage as both discussed what could be justified in winning such a war. Harington, in a genuinely good performance, made it clear that no matter what Jon’s post-hoc rationalisations for the holocaust were, he didn’t actually believe any of them himself.
It was a long scene in an ep dominated by long scenes, which gave the drama (and the characters) room to breathe. The ep started with a very lengthy slow walk through the carnage of what remained of King’s Landing; the blackened, incinerated corpses once again reminiscent of Pompeii (a natural disaster) and Hiroshima (an entirely manmade one).
The slow pacing of the scene served two purposes – it gave viewers an extended, clear look at the aftermath of Dany’s rage, and it emphasised the shellshocked and horrified reactions of the characters onscreen. As Tyrion and Jon’s heads slowly turned to follow the path of that horrifically burned survivor, the echoes of Hiroshima couldn’t have been clearer.
Game of Thrones has never been a show that traded in happy endings, but even here it was clear that the only satisfactory ending would be for the fanatic Dany had become to face a reckoning. Here, though, I felt it became somewhat predictable. Just as we always knew the Hound would die killing the Mountain, or that Cersei would die in the arms of Jaime, Dany could only ever have been killed by Jon Snow. After, of course, a pathos-filled final snog in the remnants of the throne room, now finally looking like the devastated vision of it Dany had all those years ago.
So I didn’t exactly jump out of my chair when the snog ended with a knife to the ribs of the unsuspecting Dany. It’s actually quite a common narrative gambit: Doctor Who even managed to do it with two versions of the same character (Missy and the Master). But kudos to Emilia Clarke for giving an entirely consistent, believable portrayal of the character, even as she descended into madness.
Fanatics are difficult to play convincingly, what with their ability to delude themselves into thinking that evrything they do is for the Greater Good; here, Clarke’s bewildered expression as she died in the arms of her treacherous but well-meaning lover summed it up perfectly. This wasn’t supposed to be how it went, the baffled expression on her face clearly conveyed. The cry of fanatics everywhere who don’t get what they wanted, whether it be Caligula’s desire to become a god, or Napoleon’s wish to rule half the world.
Less predictable was the reaction of Dany’s final, grief-stricken dragon, Drogon. Significant that the only dragon left standing was the one named after her only real, true love? In an even lengthier coda to the scene, we were unsure what would happen this time. Would it incinerate her murderer? Would it rain down further destruction on the city that killed her?
Benioff and Weiss, directing as well as writing this week, played this part of the scene brilliantly. Yes, it was slow-paced; but that just built up the suspense as we wondered what this semi-sentient equivalent of a nuclear bomb might do in reaction to the death of the person it loved most in the world. I may have been glancing at my watch waiting for Dany’s inevitable and predictable end, but this part of the scene had me on the edge of my seat.
It may not have been predictable, but Drogon’s ultimate decision was the most perfect and poetic ending for Dany’s storyline. The Iron Throne represented everything that had caused all the death and destruction for the last eight years; its reduction to molten slag wasn’t predictable, but was, in hindsight, the only way this could have ended. It was perfect.
Less perfect, I’m sad to say, were the resolutions that followed. “If you’re expecting a happy ending,” Ramsay Bolton once commented to the increasingly damaged Theon Greyjoy, “you haven’t been paying attention”. Yet here, somewhat conveniently and less than believably, that’s exactly what the surviving characters got.
Most notably, of course, ‘Bran the Broken’. Many fans had been wondering what the show would do with Bran now the war with the Night King had concluded his narrative purpose; so, okay, he gets to be King. Fair to say, I don’t think any of us saw that one coming (correct me if I’m wrong).
I’m not saying it’s an unbelievable, or even bad, decision. I get the impression that he’ll be a more sensible ruler than any other contender in previous years. That’s ok, even if it required a somewhat sudden and surprising (read ‘unbelievable’) change from his mystical Yoda-like demeanour to a chilled monarch with a dry, ironic sense of humour.
But however eloquent it was, Tyrion’s speech proposing the idea wasn’t all that convincing. “Stories matter. And nobody has a better story than Bran.” Really? What about Arya, who singlehandedly took out the Unstoppable Supernatural Menace? Or Jon, who fought two massive battles with the Walking Dead, and came back from the dead himself to carry on the fight? Affecting though Bran’s narrative has been, I’d say those two, just to pick random examples, are waaay better stories.
Still, however shonky the justification may have been, it’s not all that bad a decision – though as a nickname for the King, however alliterative it may be, ‘Bran the Broken’ seems a little insulting. The trouble was that it became swamped in a seemingly endless succession of happy (or at least ‘not sad’) endings for the show’s more beloved characters.
So, Tyrion ended up as Hand to the King he himself chose, against his own will. Fine, I can buy that, it makes sense. Sansa ended up declaring the North’s independence – obviously her brother, the new King of what’s now the Six Kingdoms, would back her up on that.
But the surprisingly happy endings just kept piling up. Yes, the Dothraki and the Unsullied may no longer have a candidate to rule the country, but they’re still in Westeros in huge numbers. I’m not entirely convinced that they’d accept the banishment of her murderer, Jon Snow, back to the Night’s Watch.
But like Admiral Kirk’s demotion to Captain at the end of Star Trek IV, it was clearly a back handed punishment that gave the character what he actually wanted. Just the other week, Jon was telling Tormund that he wished he could live with the Free Folk; here, we saw it happen, as he reunited with Tormund at Castle Black and led the remaining wildlings back beyond the Wall.
And that actually was one of the unhappier endings. Arya got to sail off to “where the maps stop” as Westeros’ own version of Magellan, while Sansa was last seen being hailed by fierce fur-clad chieftains as “Queen in the North!” By the time we realised Brienne had become head of the Kingsguard, Sam had become Grand Maester, and Bronn (of all people) had ended up as Master of Coin, it was all a bit too nice. Game of Thrones has never been a ‘feelgood’ show; it felt a little late to start doing that now.
So by the time Sam presented the Small Council with Archmaester Ebrose’s account of the war, and it turned out to be called A Song of Ice and Fire, I have to admit I was groaning a bit. There’s fanservice and there’s fanservice; I’d say giving all the popular characters a happy ending, then leaning on the fourth wall with an in-show chronicle sharing the title of the book series, may have been taking fanservice a little far.
I also have to agree with those discontented fans who’ve said that, as the show went on, its narratives became oversimplified and rushed in its quest for an Epic Ending. The show could certainly have spent a little longer on Dany’s transformation from would-be liberator to unhinged fanatic; and there were loose ends aplenty. Yes, Bran might be able to track down the errant Drogon, last seen heading off into cloudy skies clutching the dead body of his beloved ‘mother’ – but what will happen when/if they find him? They just got rid of Jon, potentially the only other person who could have controlled a dragon.
And what of House Stark’s Words – “Winter is Coming”? We were told earlier that winters in this world were fantastically cruel and long-lasting, to the equivalent even of fifteen years. We were also told that, even before Dany’s incineration of King’s Landing, there was doubt as to whether Westeros’ stores of food would suffice to feed the populace while crops couldn’t grow.
All that seemed to be forgotten here, and the final scenes in King’s Landing, a mere few weeks after Dany’s death, took place in bright sunshine, as though that feared and fierce Winter had ended when it had scarcely begun. I might have been happier with all the other, somewhat improbable in combination, happy endings if we had ended up with the Six Kingdoms facing up to another time of hardship and tribulation; giving the whole world a happy ending really seemed to be taking it too far.
Still, that’s not to say this was a terrible finale. It wasn’t. There was much to like here, particularly in the ending to Dany’s epic journey from captive, to liberator, to (well-meaning) tyrant. The visuals too were fantastic – a word of praise is merited for cinematographer Jonathan Freeman, who gave us memorable images like this:
And the astounding moment when what appeared to be a snowbank reared up and revealed itself to be the snow-covered Drogon:
Sex and violence
Actually not much of either, especially in the final ep of a show that had made both things something of a trademark. That’s fair though, the last few eps have been an orgy of violence, and the slow, thoughtful pace of the finale was a refreshing change.
No sex at all here, but a bit of violence. The horrifically burned survivor seen by Tyrion and Jon in the opening Armageddon Walk was nicely underplayed, kept out of focus throughout. Our attention was where it should have been, on Tyrion’s and Jon’s horrified and shamed faces:
Similarly, Grey Worm’s throat-slitting of the hapless Lannister prisoners took place out of focus and in the background. The important thing for the story was Jon’s reaction to the agenda of the woman he loved:
Not violent per se, but there was something unutterably poignant about the weeping Tyrion’s discovery of the (tastefully) mangled corpses of his beloved brother and hated sister, truly dead after all the uncertainty last week:
Dany’s death too was subtly underplayed. Yes, we knew what had happened as soon as she gasped, but we didn’t actually see the knife in her chest until she started to crumple to the ground. As mortal wounds go, it was all rather tasteful, meriting no more than a few dribbles of blood from her mouth.
Then again, Dany may have become a monster recently, but she’s spent most of the last eight years as a Beloved Character; it didn’t feel too much of a cheat to give her a fairly mild death. Even if the show has rarely shown such mercy in the past (consider the Red Wedding).
Choice dialogue this week
In a thoughtful episode, most of the memorable bits of the script were similarly noetic.
The imprisoned Tyrion, reflecting on recent events: “I betrayed my best friend and watched him burn. Now Varys’ ashes can tell my ashes, I told you so.”
Tyrion again, trying to talk the besotted Jon into some kind of reality regarding his beloved Dany: “She liberated the people of Slavers’ Bay. Liberated the people of King’s Landing. And she’ll go on liberating until the people of the world are free – and she rules them all.”
Ser Davos, as ever the voice of sanity in a fractious meeting to decide who gets to be monarch: “We’ve had enough war. Thousands of you, thousands of them. We know how it ends. We need to find a better way.”
Sam, in an inevitably doomed attempt to introduce actual democracy to Westeros: “Maybe the decision about what’s best for everyone should be left to… well, everyone.”
Bran, commenting on the ‘justice’ of appointing the unwilling Tyrion as Hand rather than just executing him: “He made many terrible mistakes. He’s going to spend the rest of his life fixing them.”
But amidst all those happy endings, there was room for a little of the humour the show has always done so well. Brienne, passing Small Council judgement on Bronn’s unsurprising priorities for state spending on reconstruction: “I think we can all agree that ships take precedence over brothels.”
And Bronn himself, chafing at Davos’ sniffy correction of his English: “What, are you Master of Grammar now too?”
Not a perfect ending then – with those high expectations, how could it ever have been? But a satisfactory one, nonetheless. You might baulk at all those happy endings; or, like so many, object to the ‘monsterisation’ of your beloved Dany. Could it have been done better? Yes, probably – I would have preferred some more of the show’s trademark gloomy ends for at least some of the Beloved Characters.
Overall though, The Iron Throne did the job. There’s no way to end a series this huge and please everyone; I think what we got here was probably the best compromise, and Benioff and Weiss deserve credit for creating, and ending, the biggest TV show of the last decade. Yes, it got more broadbrush and simplified in its last couple of years: and yes, these final, truncated seasons have been too short to bear the brunt of the storytelling needed. But nothing’s perfect (the ending of MASH, maybe).
There were elements of ‘tickbox storytelling’ here, especially in all those happy endings. But there were moments of genius too, in the ultimate fate of Dany and Drogon, and especially in the incineration of the titular Iron Throne as an emblem of everything that had brought misery to the people of Westeros.
Yes, there were loose ends – what did happen to Drogon, and why was the terrifying Winter so easily brushed over? But at least all the characters left standing from one of the biggest casts in television history got some sort of closure. Even the nondescript likes of the still-pompous Edmure Tully (the Boris Johnson of Westeros) and weird ruler of the Vale, Robyn Arryn, turned up for an encore. There was still plenty of attention to detail. And I must admit, Nino Facioli, who plays Robyn, has grown up from being a funny looking kid to a rather hot young man.
And even humble young Podrick is now Ser Podrick, charged with guarding the new King.
Farewell then, Game of Thrones. You came from humble beginnings to change the face of genre TV. Not many shows have managed that – Star Trek, Doctor Who, Buffy, Battlestar Galactica… And not all of them had perfect endings either. This finale may have been workmanlike, but it had flickers of genius, and importantly it got the job done without cheating (I’m looking at you, Lost). Game of Thrones leaves a huge, blood and sex-drenched hole in the television landscape. I wonder what will come along to fill it?
At the end, as it should be, we caught up with the Last of the Starks, in a montage beautifully soundtracked by Ramin Djawadi. We began the show, eight years ago, with these characters. It’s only fitting that we finish with them too.