game of thrones

Game of Thrones and the Function of Finale Callbacks

Starks in charge of our days and our nights. Photo: HBO

Series finales do not always do exactly what the audience expects or wants them to do. For more on this, see the internet anytime between five seconds after the Game of Thrones finale ended Sunday night and right now. But one thing they reliably do these days is sprinkle in callbacks to previous moments and episodes before bidding that ultimate good-bye.

Callbacks play on the nostalgia felt by viewers and by the artists behind our favorite TV shows about letting go of a beloved story. They also reward the most attentive, loyal fans for their years of meticulously rewatching and dissecting a show. Implicit in a subtle finale reference to something that happened all the way back in seasons one, two, or three is the idea that true fans will immediately catch their significance. And the rest of you — well, you’ve been watching but you haven’t been really, really watching.

“The Iron Throne” packed with plenty of callbacks, and many of them function as a reminder of how far the journey of this series has taken its characters. As noted in this piece about Tyrion’s role in the finale, the scene where he leads the Small Council meeting begins with him making sure the chairs are set in place, a nod to a moment in season three when a much less powerful Tyrion was forced to watch as a game of Small Council musical chairs unfolded. (He responded by sitting at the other head of the table, opposite his father Tywin, an act of rebellion that, in retrospect, seems like foreshadowing.)

As IGN notes, Arya’s decision to sail off and find out what’s west of Westeros hearkens back to the question she asked of Lady Crane in season six: “Essos is east and Westeros is west but what’s west of Westeros?” At the end of her story, Arya wants to go off and find answers herself, and not ask questions anymore.

The Great Council meeting where Tyrion made his grand speech about the importance of stories was a who’s-who of callbacks to characters we hadn’t seen in a couple of seasons (“Hello, Edmure Tully, nice to see you, no, seriously, you can sit down now”), characters we weren’t sure we recognized (hey, what’s up, breast-milk drinker?), and even characters we had never seen before representing places the final season couldn’t manage to carve out time to revisit. (Dorne represent!) This is another purpose callbacks serve, especially on a show as expansive as Game of Thrones: They allow the showrunners and writers to acknowledge that they remember that a person, place, or thing was important, but that at this stage in the narrative, there’s not really time to explore them. Depending on your perspective, this is a clever way to engage in economical storytelling or just lazy. Or, possibly, both.

Callbacks can be funny, too, and Game of Thrones worked that angle. At the end of the Small Council meeting, Tyrion starts to tell a joke we’ve heard him begin to tell twice before and never finish: “I once brought a jackass and a honeycomb into a brothel.” In the finale, he doesn’t finish it either; the scene fades away before we can hear the rest. The end of that joke was the GOT equivalent of The Sopranos’ cut to black. We’ll never know how it ends.

Game of Thrones is by no means alone in its obsession with callbacks. At this point, it feels like a prerequisite in any series finale, though some wield them with more success than others. The Veep finale last week — and by the way, spoilers ahead — contained a number of moments like that, including the best one of all: the fact that Selina’s funeral, 24 years in the future, was ultimately overshadowed by the death of Tom Hanks. That served multiple purposes: It was a reference to something Mike McLintock said in the very first episode, a continuation of the running theme that Selina always loses somehow, and a smart way to drive home the point that attention and power are fleeting.

Veep also did something that a number of great finales have done: It flashed forward while simultaneously looking in the rearview mirror. Parks and Recreation did it. Friday Night Lights did it, in its signature, sentimental fashion. Earlier this year, You’re the Worst did it, too, by pushing its narrative forward in time in cryptic, ultimately satisfying fashion while also squeezing in plenty of mentions of the nonsense that had popped up (trash juice!) during six seasons of debauchery.

A callback only works, though, if it feels natural. When The Big Bang Theory wrapped up last week, the finale revealed that Kaley Cuoco’s Penny was pregnant, despite the fact that she had said she did not want to have children. Showrunner Steve Holland told Entertainment Weekly that the reason behind this switcheroo was to tip a hat — or a uterus? — to a line that Leonard says about Penny in the pilot: “Our children will be smart and beautiful.” By emphasizing earlier in the season that Penny and Leonard were not planning to start a family, Holland says the writers were able to make Penny’s pregnancy more of a surprise. I was never a regular watcher of The Big Bang Theory, but to me, if you have to make major character adjustments just to justify a callback, it might not be a callback worth doing.

Whatever you thought of the final Game of Thrones — judging from Twitter, I’ll just go ahead and assume you hated it — it handled its callbacks with slyness and subtlety. Arguably the biggest callback of all was the fact that Westeros and its surrounding territories were put in control of the Stark family, and that speaks to what callbacks achieve on a larger scale: They bring a big, sweeping story around full circle. Again, you may not like the crayons the writers chose to color in that circle. But a finale that is aware of its own history usually does, at bare minimum, what we want stories to do: It brings closure.

Game of Thrones and the Function of Finale Callbacks