When I picture the deaths of Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, the first word that comes to mind is obscene.
The dragons are technical filmmaking achievements of a scale and quality never before seen on television. They are emblems of high-fantasy spectacle with real awe and real bite, in a field now dominated by literally and figuratively bloodless blockbusters. Most guttingly, they are symbols of the wonders of the natural world, pointlessly destroyed by merchants of death. For all these reasons, their killings made me want to look away … which is exactly why I felt the need to look closer. And the survival of the third, greatest, and last dragon in the Game of Thrones finale made that need impossible to resist.
Surviving the deaths of his siblings, Drogon leveled King’s Landing at the behest of his master and mother, killing countless thousands. Yet after her death, freed from human control for the first time in his life, he appears to decide against further devastation in favor of escape. He flies away and his future is unknown.
But while the minds of these dragons remain a mystery, what they symbolize can be sussed out more readily. With two of the creatures killed by two very different enemies and the third taking off on its own, the departures of the dragons track with the trajectory of the show’s final season. As such, they serve as legends on a map of the future. Two paths say, “Here be dragons.” The third is wide open.
Named after Daenerys’s abusive and ultimately pathetic brother Viserys, Viserion is the first dragon to go. He has just participated in the rescue of Jon Snow’s Magnificent Seven from the undead hordes who’ve encircled them beyond the Wall. Roaring out of the skies following a sequence of muted sound and slowed-down action, that rescue is both a shock and a spectacle. It’s the delayed promise of a zombie versus dragon, ice against fire showdown that the show had been making since the first and last scenes of season one, realized at last.
What happens after this soaring, triumphant moment of high fantasy? Death, on a scale unmatched by even the biggest giants and mammoths and direwolves. Taking his sweet time, the Night King grabs a magical ice spear from one of his White Walker lieutenants and hurls it skyward, like a cold, dead inversion of Zeus and his thunderbolts. The weapon catches Viserion mid-flight as flame still blazes forth from his mouth. It takes him down in a torrent of fire and blood, turning Dany’s own house words against her. The creature’s pained shrieks as it falters and falls sound incredulous, as if an animal this magnificent and destructive is as stunned to find itself dying as everyone else is. Skidding across the weakened ice of the frozen lake upon which Jon and his men have made their stand, Viserion comes to a stop, closes his eyes for the last time as a living thing, and sinks beneath the water. When he opens them again, they are the ice-blue eyes of the living dead.
The second death is that of Rhaegal. This is the dragon after Rhaegar, the brother Daenerys never knew — and secretly the father of Jon Snow, the man she loves, whose claim to the Iron Throne she spent her young life unwittingly usurping. The creature dies near the seat of power of his namesake, whose titles included prince of Dragonstone. This time, there’s no tension, no suspense, no build at all. As rousing, hopeful music plays, Dany and her dragons soar above their fleet. Nineteen seconds and three scorpion bolts later — one lodged in the breast, one shot through the wing, one jutting through the neck — Rhaegal is already sinking into a watery grave.
The culprit this time is no supernatural force millennia in the making, but an asshole pirate named Euron Greyjoy, king of the Iron Islands and would-be king of Westeros. Euron is a chuckling, swaggering void in the shape of a man. He lacks the grandiose ambition of his fuck buddy Cersei and his embittered brother Balon, or the extravagant cruelty of past heavies like Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton. He’s just a dipshit who kills things because it’s how he gets his jollies, and he just so happens to be pretty good at it. (In the end, he’s as happy to die as he is to live, as long as that death is bitchin’, bro.) With the awful gurgle of Rhaegal’s last breaths still fresh in our ears, the look of pure yeet on Euron’s face is insufferable. He gives off the impression that if he weren’t shooting down the most magnificent animals on the face of the earth, he’d be down at the junkyard, lighting fires and shooting rats.
That leaves one last dragon — the one who lives. Drogon’s survival marks the point at which the show’s finale itself shifts from the business of war to the struggle for peace, from death on a colossal scale to the preservation of life.
Jon Snow betrays his queen, aunt, and lover, whose visions of scouring away the sins of the world with fire and blood have consumed her, by stabbing her during a post-victory embrace. Inevitably, Drogon’s roars start soon thereafter. At first distant and muted, they rise to a crescendo. Then the colossal black monster arrives in the flesh. He enters the ruined throne room to demand answers and, perhaps, justice from a killer, just like Ned Stark did with Cersei Lannister so long ago. Jon Snow, born Aegon Targaryen, prepares to accept the judgment of the beast that is his family’s birthright. But if Jon expected an execution, he is instead granted a reprieve.
Drogon nuzzles his mother in the simple, tender way of so many animals when they have yet to accept that another creature they care for has died. When he finally accepts the truth and vents his rage, he aims it not at Jon, who can only cower from the furious inferno, but at the Iron Throne itself, the thing Dany brought him all this way for only to die before claiming it as her own. Now, no one will be able to do so ever again.
His work done, Drogon picks up the corpse of the woman who brought him into the world, then used him to set much of it alight, and flies off. East, we’re told later by Samwell Tarly — the direction of both his birthplace in the lands of the Dothraki, and the birthplace of dragons themselves, the now-fallen empire of Valyria. Only Bran Stark — Bran the Broken, king in the South, the Three-Eyed Raven, heir to the collective memory of humankind — is depicted as having a chance to find where the grieving fugitive has gone.
Author George R.R Martin’s source material often repeats a single prophetic refrain: “The dragon has three heads.” Taken literally, it describes the sigil of House Targaryen. Adjusting for the facts on the ground, or in the skies as it were, it is seen as a reference to the three dragons Daenerys has inherited and awoken. Rumors and theories, within both the books and their fandom, speculate that three people, not one, are heirs of the Dragon and fated to drive back the Long Night.
But here, the saying takes on a new meaning: three dragons, three fates, three ways of looking at the show’s central themes and conflicts and understanding the show in which those fates are met.
Viserion is slain by the Night King, the personification of death. Supernatural in origin, he is the enemy that faces all people, a collective and existential threat. Such is his power that Viserion is reborn as his own ultimate weapon, an undead dragon breathing blue fire. This is a threat we all should see coming — indeed, we in the audience are given a painfully long look at its approach — but do not move past our own immediate concerns to stop until it is almost too late.
But when Arya kills the Night King to end the Battle of Winterfell, it marks the end of the un-Viserion as well. In a surprisingly optimistic development, humankind successfully bands together from across Westeros and the world at large to put an end to the catastrophe that is their common enemy. What now?
Euron Greyjoy, that’s what. With the question of humanity against literal inhumanity settled, the series shifts its focus back to its longtime wheelhouse: humanity against its own inhumanity. That this proves to be the final struggle feels, in some ineffable way, insulting to the nature and scope of the threat defeated at Winterfell. That’s precisely the point. People can do such great things together, yet they’ll return to destroying each other given the slightest opportunity.
Rhaegal’s death at Euron’s hands feels repulsive, almost absurd, because so are the venal forces he represents. We see those forces reach their zenith in the fall of King’s Landing — perversely carried out in part as vengeance for that death. When Daenerys burns King’s Landing and its people to ash, she’s doing something that the man who killed her child would recognize, understand, and enjoy. (Indeed, his dying act is to get in on the action by forcing a pointless duel with Jaime Lannister, just to meaninglessly add one more body to the heap.)
While the conqueror of King’s Landing dies herself, her last surviving child does not. Yet Drogon’s departure speaks just as directly to the course of the final season as do his siblings’ deaths. Faced with the choice of killing someone close to him to avenge the death of another — a killing that would have eliminated the human bargaining chip that forced the conflicting sides of the war to the negotiating table in the end — Drogon says, or rather roars, Fuck it. He burns the symbol of power, though he leaves the system and its governors largely intact, and sets off for the unknown, clinging to the embodied memory of the life he’d known before.
Here, once again, we see the larger project of the show at work. “The Iron Throne” is not a series finale that either fully vindicates or fully condemns its survivors. It marks the start of a world that’s an improvement over the old one, but is neither a utopia ruled by an enlightened despot, nor an anachronistic democracy that would have scored some cheap points with the audience.
Instead, half-measures are the order of the day. The Iron Throne is gone and hereditary monarchy is gone with it, but the inheritance of power is preserved everywhere else. The North achieves independence, but the other Six Kingdoms stay under central rule. Tyrion Lannister is restored to his once-beloved position as Hand of the King, but this time it’s effectively a prison sentence he’d rather avoid. Jon Snow is spared the executioner’s sword for slaying his queen, but he, too, is forced to retake his old position as Lord Commander of the Watch. Grey Worm, Sansa Stark, and Arya Stark are all unhappy with a compromise that neither kills the accused nor grants him clemency, but they weren’t the first to make that decision in this episode. That complicated honor belongs to Drogon, who, rather than burning Jon alive or accepting him as his new master, simply flew away.
Drogon was a bellwether for the final stage of the Game of Thrones journey in one other respect: He moved on.
While the dragon flies east, Grey Worm sets sail for the Isle of Naath, rejecting lordship and power in Westeros so that he and his brothers in arms can live out the rest of their days in a place famous for its peacefulness. Their departure looks like any other “old-timey sailors pull anchor and rig the mainmast” sequence, but the scene’s true purpose is to show that the Unsullied soldiers have taken off their helmets and surrendered their shields to decorate and protect the sides of their ships, not defend themselves against new enemies in battle.
Arya Stark takes to the sea as well, but for her it’s the Sunset Sea, the vast body of water beyond which no land has ever been discovered. Sick of saying “not today” to death with the edge of her blade, she chooses instead to say it by insisting on finding a new life — finding any life — where no one, from any culture across the entire known world, has ever found it before.
Sansa Stark returns to her home, though it, too, is an undiscovered country now. The North has not had a universally acknowledged monarch in centuries. It’s quite possible that she’s the first queen to rule the North ever. And Sansa has never known power and agency that was not subverted or shaped by other rulers: Ned, Catelyn, Robb, Joffrey, Cersei, Littlefinger, Lysa Arryn, Roose and Ramsay Bolton, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen. Whatever she’ll do next will be a brand-new thing.
And in the final image of the series, Jon Snow rides into the unknown. In his regained position in the Night’s Watch, he’s leading the Wildlings back into their ancestral home beyond the Wall, from which they fled when the Night King’s army invaded. While the fresh-faced Free Folk march confidently onward, Jon casts one last look over his shoulder as the gates close behind him; he’s as uncertain about this new life, and as regretful about the one he’s left behind, as anyone.
But he’s choosing life over death, healing over killing, an open ending over a sure thing. He’ll live out the rest of his life in the cold, largely among people not his own, in relative anonymity, with his brief reign as king in the North and his true nature as lord of the Seven Kingdoms left behind. Yet in doing so, he has a chance to do something good, and yes, something new. It’s a start.
In his speech to the Great Council, Tyrion Lannister argues that King Bran represents the breaking of the wheel Daenerys sought before breaking herself in the attempt. He could just as well have cited another magical and mysterious being altogether. The death of Drogon’s brothers showed us what we stand to lose if we continue to fight each other, succumbing either to a collective threat to us all, or to our own murderous folly. But the departure of Drogon shows us what we stand to gain if we know when to stop fighting each other and try something new.
In this process there are no magic bullets, no guarantees, no happily ever afters. The path to a better future is one of uncertainty and imperfection. It is measured in decades rather than days. It is charted in thousand-mile journeys rather than single bold steps. Its final destination is unknown — not a place we can see, but a hope we can share, and work together to build. Through the last of the dragons and their human counterparts, Game of Thrones’ final argument is that this is the only path worth taking.
Isn’t that what Drogon chooses when, instead of turning his fires on the people of Westeros one more time, he flies away, removing himself from their story and allowing them to find a destiny of their own?