Never before have I felt so much anticipation for a single episode of television. Never before, have I been so disappointed. After one of the most perfectly executed routines in film & TV history, to say that the creators of Game of Thrones failed to stick the landing would be an understatement. They went in for the final backflip, sailed through the air, near-perfect form… and fell flat on their fucking faces. Here, in my never-humble opinion, is how it happened.*
We’ll start with the first half of the episode. The first half was great! It picked up on the mood of unprecedented horror that the previous episode had shifted us into after an eight season run that was, though often dark and even macabre, never quite so chillingly post-apocalyptic. That shift followed logically from everything we’d witnessed in the last episode and tapped into a pattern the show has mastered over the years – plunging us suddenly into what we realize upon inevitable [trauma-induced] post-show reflection is a whole new depth of character and world. That said, the level of prevarication surprised me. I expected the majority of Daenerys’ own forces to have turned on her decisively by the time the dust settled. After all, she turned on absolutely everyone in that last episode. Her dragon breathed indiscriminate fire on the entire city, and there were plenty of shots to drive home the point that even her own forces who managed to escape death by dragon fire, just like the few civilians who survived, did so only as a matter of luck. Jon and Tyrion have dumb-lucked their way through nearly every battle to date, between them, and I’m fine with them dumb-lucking their way through this one. But their luck was no thanks to Dany and her dragon. So it didn’t completely work for me that we were dropped into a state of affairs in which multiple main characters were still on the fence about her – if only from fear or love – and the remains of her own surely-singed army still stood unquestioningly beside her. But, I wanted it to work, and the contrast between my expectations and Dany’s re-emergence struck a bone-chilling note that arguably only added to the power of the episode and the eerie turn the show was taking. All it really needed, like everything else this season, was more time. I needed to spend more time in the aftermath of that battle, watching the characters wrestle with what happened, witnessing the processes that shaped their thoughts and feelings by the time she walked back out into the open.
Forced to accept the pace as it was, I was still captivated by the complications shaping up. The conversation between Tyrion and Jon was a little too facile a device to sort of “move things along here,” but it worked well enough and helped me better understand Jon’s own prevaricating. (He still loved her – how could I have forgotten? But I had, in a way). The final scene between Jon and Dany only heightened the tragic, dystopic, darkly thrilling weight that felt right to anchor the end of a show that is, for so many, the end of an era. When the dragon melted down the very source/representation of all the chaos and of his own mother’s tragic demise (Jon, as usual, standing a few feet from the lava-inducing flame and molten iron without so much as a sunburn, nbd), my own long-standing speculation that the answer was going to be, “no one, no one sits on the iron throne in the end,” seemed to be validated in an incredibly powerful and unexpected way. The dragons in “Game of Thrones” have always been said to be incredibly smart and perceptive; for the dragon to turn on the throne itself and literally liquidate iron to bring it down was incisively meaningful; it was thrilling. It was worthy of Game of Thrones. It made the episode feel EPIC – and we were only halfway through!
Aaaaand then it all came tumbling down. From one of the most powerful scenes of the series, we cut to: a bright sunny day. 6 weeks later. Upon which the leaders of every house have miraculously assembled in King’s Landing to bicker over the fates of Tyrion, Jon and the kingdom itself. My first reaction to this, when I was trying to make sense of the episode after the fact, was: since when do the Unsullied or the Dothraki give a shit about who rules the kingdom, if it’s not Daenerys? When, between finding the man who murdered their queen (the queen they liked so much that they still stood beside her after she murdered their own kind, in bulk, during battle), and immediately murdering him in retribution, did they instead think, “Oh my, we have a bit of leadership vacuum on our hands here, best call in the rest of the kingdom – none of whom would necessarily stand up for us after witnessing the results of yet another Targaryen going fucking batshit – But hey, leadership vacuums: now there’s something we’re afraid of!” Since then, I rewatched parts of the episode and realized that Grey Worm does in fact state, at the beginning of this scene of assembled leaders, that the city is theirs (the Unsullied’s) now. Which makes a little more but also possibly less sense? It means Grey Worm coolheadedly decided to take Jon prisoner as a negotiating tool instead of tearing him to fucking pieces, which means he (Grey Worm) must have felt immensely threatened by the manpower with which Sansa, indeed, directly threatens him (as a presumable reiteration) at the top of the scene. But…but…with what remaining northern army is she threatening two of the most notorious and fearless groups of killers alive, who now have absolutely nothing left to lose? Two episodes after we watched Dany force every fighting man in the north to continue into another war directly following the war with death itself that had been literal centuries (not to mention an entire series) in the making?? After Grey Worm himself states, in this very scene, that he only wants “justice” and we saw mere scenes ago what “justice” means to him in an already-routed city? And yet, here we are, council assembled, ready to boss around an army that basically imposed martial law 6 weeks ago and has no convincing reason to fear of any form of retribution from the North.
So Grey Worm – previously seen slitting throats in continued service to a tyrannical murderer – leads prisoner Tyrion to said council. Tyrion tries to speak, and Grey Worm is like, “STFU.” Tyrion keeps speaking, and Grey Worm suddenly morphs into a glowering teenager, standing by sulking while he waits for the grownups to get on with it already . Tyrion is like “you know, you could choose someone to be in charge here.” The council seems to think this very obvious point (that yet completely contradicts the powerful message of the previous scene) is a good idea. I’m not even going to address Sam’s cringe-worthy pitch for democracy that follows except to say that its timing and delivery veers us jarringly off course from the genre and world we’ve been occupying for the entire series and borderline breaks the 4th wall in the process. At least the pitch gets laughed aside. Back to Tyrion, who, in a meta-referential moment that feels bizarrely Oscar-baity (do Benioff & Weiss realize this is still TV?), makes us all want to vomit when he suggests that the real way to choose a leader is based on who has the best story. And then in a move that comes across like it could only have been designed for the purpose of delivering an unpredictable answer to the question of the whole goddamned series, he lands on…wait for it… Bran. Well no, not “Bran,” as we’ve known him for eight seasons literally up until this point halfway through the last episode, but “Bran the Broken.” It’s bad enough to pull stories out of your ass as a justification for choosing the king to resolve the whole fucking series; does Tyrion really have to start whimsically coining new [insulting] titles while he’s at it? Does it have to be a ‘b’ word for the alliteration? (Because “Daenerys Stormborn, Breaker of Chains, Mother of Dragons” established such a great alliterative precedent…?) It’s not just that the name is cheesy and kinda snide; I think it strikes us as so immediately out of place because Bran has done some dope shit since breaking his legs in episode 1, and I could name two or three things that have kiiinda come to define him more than those broken legs. If we look at him and think “broken” now, it’s not because of the immobile bottom half of his body that we’ve had the entire run of the show to get used to, it’s because he became a fucking weirdo when he lost all human emotion and personality in a cave two seasons ago!! And now, this unfeeling creature who’s been all but completely left out of the increasingly in-depth character study that Game of Thrones has presented is someone we’re supposed to feel anything about seating on the iron throne? I guess so because, one by one, the houses agree. Yara experiences a sudden bout of amnesia RE the longstanding Iron-born insistence on independence from the throne** – not to mention the fate of Jon Snow, which she seemed to feel pretty strongly about mere minutes prior – and gives an “ay.” Now-grown and undeservedly attractive frat boy Robin Arryn, who has, apparently, somehow remained alive since his last aggravating appearance (in season 6), is like “Wut, ok!” And I guess everyone else is just like, “ok sounds good, after all, stories,” because we continue round a semi-circle of consent until Sansa declares that she shall rule the North as an independent kingdom while supporting her brother on the iron throne. Funny how no one else seems to find this unfair and how, you know, not a single one of them even makes a case for Jon, prisoner or not. Are they still afraid of Grey Worm, brooding in his self-prescribed corner? Operator? Jon had a claim? The claim? And hey, sorry to get cringey myself here, but his claim wasn’t just to the Iron Throne, it was to his viewers’ hearts. That’s where “story” actually comes into play; if something feels right and justified and satisfying to your audience, then it’s probably the right move for your story – because your story is taking them on their journey. Your recipients become your arbiters. Predictable or not, an ending with Jon on the throne would have been satisfying for the actual show we’ve been devouring, loving and nurturing for close to 10 years. This scene was a fucking massive disconnected disappointment, and it set the tone for the rest of the episode.
What should have set the tone for the rest of the episode was the scene directly preceding this one. Remember that? Benioff? Weiss? How the last remaining dragon burned the iron throne to molten lava and it’s completely gone now?? That was some poetic fucking shit, and it was inarguably, in that moment, setting us up for an ending that, at the very least, grappled seriously with the question of the legitimacy of the iron throne itself. I would have cried real goddamned tears for the poignancy of it all if the episode had delivered on that scene by making the symbolic significance of the burning (and literal disappearance) of the throne bear some actual fundamental significance to the resolution of the series. What if Grey Worm tried to kill Jon, Arya fought him off, the entire army fucked off to Naath, and everyone else walked away from an empty city? What if anyone we care about landed on “the throne” and we got some real, bone-chilling foreshadowing that alluded to the tragic/inevitable continuance of the vicious circle? What if the throne was replaced by a council of houses with no singular decision maker, or the houses made a pact to henceforth rotate leadership from house to house, or Jon became king and proposed any one of these solutions to “break the wheel” and distribute power less chaotically throughout the realm, which is all we really would have needed to see to believe wholeheartedly that the realm was in good hands and change was afoot?? Really anything would have made more sense than what we got.
What we got for the rest of the episode was anodyne end-tying supported by feeble reasoning, delivered in an ill-fitting farcical tone that pushed one of the best-executed dramas of all time awkwardly in the direction of attempted comedy. I’ve noticed this comedic tendency a few times in the last couple seasons, like a crutch that Benioff and Weiss resort to when they’re floundering a bit with the plot. And while they are absolutely brilliant dramatic writers, they are very much not comedy writers. And this is not a comedic show. So the final half of the last-ever episode of their otherwise revered work devolved into vapid foolishness just as the plot and logic of the world crumbled (and brought our hearts down with it – I’m going full cringe now, I don’t care!!). Jon gets sent back to The Night’s Watch in a settlement with Grey Worm that’s only referenced after the fact and makes very little sense considering, a) the impotent posture in which we last saw Grey Worm (who perfectly conceivably, given what we’ve seen of him throughout the series, could have instead chosen to murder the entire pompous assembly sitting before him), and b) the fact that he and his army are then seen setting sail for Naath. They have no ties to King’s Landing, and there’s no reason to believe they would return or that they would give a fuck who rules the seven kingdoms after they (apparently) decided to just walk away from their own evident hold over the remains of King’s Landing. For a brief and lovely moment late in the episode, I actually convinced myself that as soon as Grey Worm et al landed in Naath, Bran would be like, “NOT! Jon is the rightful king (duh), I was just pretending until we got that army out of the way.” That little twist might have made for at least a slightly more satisfying ending, albeit with its own collection of issues.
And then there’s Arya. I think this comes down to a pure matter of opinion that’s probably splitting viewers more evenly than our collective opinion of the overall ending – but her ending did not work for me at all. Throughout these eight seasons, Arya has been my favorite character in a deeply relatable way; I see a lot of myself in her and have watched her grow with the sort of tender fascination that might befit…I don’t know, an older sister? A twin? Every step of the way, every time her arc went in a surprising or even frustrating direction, I came to understand her better and respect her more – and the moments when she reclaimed her identity, again and again in different and wonderful ways, were some of the most touching of the series for me. When she declared that she would be setting sail as an explorer of the unknown West, I see why it makes a loose sort of sense for a character who hasn’t hesitated to venture to faraway lands before, but I don’t buy at all that she would have come this far in her personal journey only to give up her family once again, and voluntarily this time. At every previous turn after the death of Ned Stark, she was motivated by her desire to reunite with her family, to seek vengeance for her family, then to stand strong together with her family against outside threats as she literally exposited 2 episodes ago in the course of expressing doubts about Daenerys to Jon. Maybe Arya would eventually decide to set sail. But not yet. Not anytime soon. Being disappointed about Arya’s ending could have been one of the worst blows of the whole show for me, but at least by this point in the episode all my expectations had been shattered.
We got our climax of “comedy” very near the end with a dumb scene in which a small council is reconvened for the apparent purpose of Bronn – ridiculously appointed Master of Coin – making bad jokes before Bran is wheeled in for two minutes and back out again. Then we get a bunch of match cuts of Jon, Arya and Sansa taking their respective places in once-again disparate corners of the world. That’s fine minus, you know, the massive disappointment of Arya’s and Jon’s ill-fitting endings. In the final scene of the episode, we see Jon leading a big group, including a bunch of wildling women & children, out into the wilderness north of the wall. Not really sure where they’re going or why. I guess someone just thought watching Jon’s back and a bunch of horse butts recede into the winter landscape with no immediately apparent purpose would be a nice closing shot? I don’t know. Like the whole second half of the episode and the whole ending overall, it was dumb.
One final thought about it all before I get back to, I don’t know, having a life or something. Maybe the ending itself didn’t actually need to be drastically different. If this single episode was split into, say, three episodes, and every other episode of the last season was split into two, Benioff & Weiss probably could have pulled off almost anything. We’ve witnessed so many shocking reversals in this show; it would be hard to convince me there’s a plotline they could not make work if they put the time and attention into developing it. What this whole season, but especially the final episode, lacked most was time. Everything was underdeveloped; everything happened too abruptly. In season 7, we suspended a little more disbelief than usual as the pace picked up and geographical realities started melting away. In season 8, we had to suspend a little more when the pace picked up yet again. I think most of us were able to stay mostly onboard as long as the pacing within the season was fairly consistent – but the last episode stepped on the gas again and just left too many dots woefully unconnected.
It might be hard to rewatch “Game of Thrones” and fully appreciate it, as I’d always hoped to do someday, now that I know what it all fizzles into. But hey, maybe I was released from my excessive fandom in the best way possible. If the creators themselves are so totally over it, I guess I should be too. To one of the most thrilling, awe-inspiring, and ultimately touching shows ever written: You were truly the best. Until you weren’t anymore. RIP.
*or just my final attempt to rant out ALL OF MY FEELINGS !!
**I mean I could be wrong about this. I didn’t read the books. I’m sure someone who did will correct me.