In the end, “Game of Thrones” was about blowing up the game of thrones.
'Game of Thrones' series finale recap: All hail king who?
Season 8, Episode 6, ‘The Iron Throne’
At times, Sunday’s series finale rendered this literally, as when the Iron Throne itself, the inspiration for most of the terrible things we’ve seen over eight seasons, was grief-torched by Drogon after Jon Snow killed its mom.
More thematically, the show that has been broadly about a society’s transition from murderous, dysfunctional dynastic rule and entitlement politics to a more collectivist model consummated that concept, killing off yet another conquering monarch and replacing her with an elected king.
Of course the thing is, that king is Bran.
Bran is in some ways a fitting choice. On a show frequently about how those who forget history are doomed to repeat it — in dynastic revenge cycles, conquering tyrants, sacks of King’s Landing — Bran can access all of history. In a tale in which pride and ego can lead to travesty, Bran has neither.
Tyrion leaned hard into the humility argument and also into a cornier one about stories being the most powerful thing on earth. Bonus: Bran can’t sire a lunatic like Joffrey because he can’t have kids at all.
But it doesn’t change the fact that Bran has long been one of the most unsatisfying characters on the show. He’s almost a man, as he told Jon back in the season premiere, but he’s mostly a tool of convenience designed to relay narrative information we couldn’t get otherwise — whether its scouting the White Walkers, revealing “Thrones” prehistory or dropping knowledge bombs.
Bran theoretically has access to all information but seems to access it only when and in which way the story needs him to. This was refected perfectly by his response to Tyrion’s pitch: “Why do you think I came all this way?” OK, then why were you so hyped about telling Jon he’s supposed to be king a few weeks ago?
This can sound like nitpicking, but internal logic is part of what gives a story power and resonance. In a show that was once defined by a kind of gritty realism within a fantastical setting, Bran is the ultimate cheat.
So his promotion to the Rolling Throne was a sort of final confirmation that over the past couple seasons, at least, the series became something different from what most of us signed up for.
“Game of Thrones” became a global phenomenon largely by upending expectations, and one way it achieved that was by using the calcified conventions of the fantasy genre against us. The noble patriarch defined by his morals? Gone in the first season. The prince valiant son who followed his heart? Slaughtered along with his pregnant wife.
This was a Shakespearean saga about power, blood and loyalty, we once told our skeptical, fantasy-averse friends. Not some show about dragons and wizards.
And then in its final episode, a dragon committed the story’s most potent symbolic act and a wizard was put in charge.
The council that elected him included some of our favorite people, at least. This included the future Small Council members Sam (grand maester), Davos (master of ships), Brienne (lord commander of the kingsguard, maybe?) and Bronn, who in a fun twist, was made master of coin. (As political commentary, putting a louche mercenary in charge of the treasury is pretty great.)
Yara Greyjoy and Gendry were there, too. Randomly, so was the former Suckling Robin, Yohn Royce (I think?), and some other people I didn’t recognize. Edmund Tully made it out of Walder Frey’s cell, apparently, but he’s still the same goober he was when he went in.
The mix of highborn and low was meaningful, and combined with the depictions of the Targaryen Regime — the Nurembergish rally, the tyrannical doublespeak about “liberating” people who had just been butchered — it unsubtly hammered home the show’s main themes: Power corrupts. Working together is our only hope.
Along the way we got a variety of “Thrones” greatest hits. There was yet another regicide, yet another jailing of Tyrion, yet another scattering of Starks. The parting of Sansa, Arya and Jon inspired real emotion, intensified by the fact that just as they would never see this family together again, neither would we. Other nice moments included the dragon-wing shot of Daenerys and the nobles’ guffaws at the mere thought of actual democracy, one of the night’s funnier moments.
But the episode, directed by creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff (who in the past few weeks have become the show’s biggest villains to a vocal fan segment), was also plagued by the same incoherence that has inspired abundant Twitter rage this season and at least one effigial petition.
There was Jon killing Daenerys and then escaping the immediate wrath of both Drogon — maybe his Targaryen blood helped — and the Unsullied, who instead took him prisoner hours after cutting peoples’ throats just for supporting Cersei, much less murdering their queen. There was the oddly sudden appearance of the council — who summoned them? — and the still fungible size of the Unsullied and Dothraki forces.
Am I saying the show has been ruined, as so many former fans claim? Not at all. (I’m certainly not signing any goofy petitions.) I will always admire “Game of Thrones” and never forget the artistry and wonder of its most provocative moments (Hardhome, the Red Wedding, Cersei’s takeover) and the sense of disbelief that such stunning and audacious artistry could be delivered into my living room.
But endings are hard, and this one was always going to be harder than most.
That’s partly thanks to a story that methodically killed off its most interesting characters (and some of its best actors) as it winnowed into a more traditional good-vs.-evil tale centered on its least interesting ones (Jon and Dany). And it’s partly because the things that established “Game of Thrones” as a phenomenon — the epic scale, the shocking twists — began to work against it as moves got more abrupt and story was sacrificed at the altar of spectacle.
And it’s partly because Benioff and Weiss failed to anticipate the ways in which dramatically abbreviating the past two seasons would exacerbate all of the above.
I’ll go deeper into all of this soon. But for now, here’s what else happened in the series finale:
— It was sad to see the Starks go their separate ways again, but they each got fitting ends. Sansa got a crown and an independent North, making her one of the few people in the show actually qualified for the job they have. Arya is off for further adventures in the land beyond the map. Jon is going back North to where he fit in best of all, a poignant end for a man who was always an outsider, even when he was at the center of things. And he has already made up for his dis of Ghost a couple weeks ago.
— “There’s still a Night’s Watch?” he asked Tyrion, speaking for all of us, when it was proposed to him. Yep, Tyrion said, but maybe there wasn’t after all? It just looked like Tormund and a bunch of Wildlings, and then they all headed north of the Wall.
— Freed of their pillaging and storm-trooping responsibilities, the Unsullied are on their way to Naath, all 100 or 10,000 or however many of them are going to live the dream that Grey Worm hatched with Missandei back at Winterfell. Also, if you had Grey Worm in your survival pool, congratulations. Drinks are on you.
— A popular theory held that Sam was ultimately going to be the one who wrote the story we’ve just watched. Close. Turns out it was Archmaester Ebrose (the head guy played by Jim Broadbent). But Sam helped with the title.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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