I wish the ravens had sent better news. I wish we were all sitting here glowing in the aftermath of Queen Sansa’s well-deserved ascension to the Iron Throne or smarting from the unexpected deus ex machina of the Westerosi lords’ riding in to depose Daenerys and launch some unexpected gentry onto that cold metal seat. Instead, it’s grim news out of Westeros—pseudo-democracy be damned—and the only person wise enough to skedaddle off that continent was Arya, a woman who willingly washed dead bodies for a year as an assassin intern but isn’t willing to stick it out in a country run by her own brother.
The finale, which had to live up to the impossible demand of encompassing both the sweeping and the personal, did offer some of both. The neat lines of the Unsullied and the draped red banner of House Targaryen in a blasted amphitheater were chilling echoes of Hitler’s unsubtle Third Reich rallies: a massive set piece that hammered home the fact of Daenerys’s dedication to her own tyranny. On the intimate side, Jon and Tyrion’s scenes in their respective dungeons, while far too compressed for a show that has locked up Tyrion before for entire seasons, delivered heartfelt performances. Sansa’s crown was elegant and refined, and every last inch of me cheered that she finally bowed to no man.
But in the end, I couldn’t help but feel that the show gave up on the magic of the books because its writers didn’t have the puzzle skills to really work through them. (I know, I know, the books and show are now two separate entities, but it’s impossible to fully separate them.) The religious fervor of the books, and of the series up to this point, was entirely zapped out of the finale. The Prince Who Was Promised — to Melisandre, to followers of the Lord of Light, and to us, dammit — was never revealed. (Was it Arya, who lived up to the covenant by killing the Night King? Or possibly Jon, for bringing together fire and ice in that Throne Room scene? We’ll never know, and that is maddening.) Daenerys’s prophecy from the witch who killed Drogo — that she’d bear children only “when the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. When the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves” — was left unfulfilled and unexplained. Every lingering supernatural element of the show — Bran’s connection to the Weirwood trees, Kinvara the Red Priestess’s relevance — flew away long before poor grieving Drogon flapped on out of King’s Landing. Which left us with a game of mere politics and a show missing the special chemical reaction that made it such an original when it broke out in 2011.
Had Game of Thrones given itself more time — an added season, perhaps, or even just a few more episodes — it might have worked its way to a similar place but laid its bread-crumb trail more effectively, so that we could all follow along and the right kind of closure could be achieved. Instead, a show that’s had quite a bit of trouble with time (Varys zipping across the Narrow Sea like he’s headed to a weekend house in Hudson, Jaime riding several thousand miles north in as much time as it takes to say “Azor Ahai”) stuffed so much into the finale but timed it all so bizarrely that our only clue as to how much time was passing was the increasingly sorry states of Jon’s and Tyrion’s beards.
Ultimately, there are two major questions about how Game of Thrones concluded. Did it do what fans wanted it to? And, more important, did it do what made sense? Well, yes and no.
If you turned against the show last week after Mad Queen Daenerys gritted her teeth and zoomed around the sky above King’s Landing lighting up the city like Oprah on her worst giveaway day (“You get some fire! And you get some fire! And you get some fire!”), nothing was going to make you happy. But if you made room in your narrative heart for the fact that Dany’s turn toward the darkness had been brewing for many seasons, the first third of the episode was gorgeously put together, and a haunting reminder of George R.R. Martin’s long-standing commitment to demonstrating that the glory of war is a lie our governments feed us. (Remember: He was a conscientious objector during Vietnam.)
The resemblance between King’s Landing’s shelled state and the bombed-out cities in the wake of World War II was uncanny. Daenerys’s speech (damn, that girl can project!) was as deluded as one might expect. (“You are liberators … You have freed the people of King’s Landing from the grip of a tyrant.”) The sight of those dragon wings spreading behind Dany as if an extension of her own body underlined the degree to which she’d surrendered to base animal instinct. Even her outfit, a black bodice cut quite literally from the same leather cloth as Cersei’s war gear, was a flashing arrow pointing at her greed for power.
Tyrion’s sense of honor, of course, demanded that he walk away from that self-hoodwinked destroyer (even if it was a case of quitting before you’re fired). We’d known for awhile that he would toss that little hand that’s graced his jerkin at Daenerys’s feet the moment he had a chance. There was some nice pattern work in putting Tyrion, a man whose personal morality is imperfect but deeply felt, on trial yet again — third time’s a charm? — and a graceful parallel between the conversation in which Varys attempted to persuade him to ditch Dany and his attempt to do the same with Jon. That conversation between two men in Tyrion’s “cripples, bastards, and broken things” club sounded like a round defense, and a well-argued one, of the show’s (or George R.R. Martin’s) decision to send Daenerys ’round the bend. Haters will argue that handing all that power to Jon Snow and thereby placing the fate of the continent in Mr. Emo’s hands is lazy storytelling. And yes, it is easy to build a character up into an automaton of honor and dignity, to put a strong, confident man in the spotlight from the beginning and then turn him into the decider of all things.
But ultimately, Jon ends up in a fitting place. It might be a tired trope, but he has to choose between the woman he loves and what he knows is right. Once again, a woman he betrayed for a good reason dies in his arms. (Mercifully, he isn’t rewarded for his act and installed on the throne as Aegon Targaryen.) And in her final moment, as Daenerys grows feverish with excitement about how she and Jon will rule together, before he stabs her through the heart, Jon’s fear ends up acting as the arbiter of his morality. He has always questioned his own choices, wondered if killing Qhorin Halfhand, and betraying Ygritte and the Freefolk, and letting the Wildlings through the Wall, and taking on the mantle of King in the North, were the right things to do. His self-doubt was what made him so damn annoying sometimes, but it was also the sign of a good leader, someone who never stops fretting over the many lives that are lost in the battle for peace. Daenerys long ago gave up on that questioning — she left it somewhere back in Meereen. (Who can blame her? That place was a doozy.) And now she uses the logic of all dictators: that she has to do this one, very, very bad thing to make a “good world.” After which Jon’s choice is clear.
Then suddenly … in walks democracy! HAHA NO WAY, SIT DOWN SAM. This second annual Dragon Pit meeting — ostensibly a trial for Tyrion, a trial in absentia for Jon, and the most ragtag, high-drama co-op-board meeting you’ve ever attended — is a narrative … well, I believe the right word is clusterfuck. Logic entirely breaks down in what appears to be Benioff and Weiss’s last-ditch effort to pull all the A-listers into a heist scene where the only thing they steal is reason itself.
Before we discuss the minutes from this meeting, however, let’s note how abysmal a decision it was not to show anyone’s reactions to Daenerys’s death. Or not to explain exactly how Jon offered up all the information surrounding said death. (Did he try to kick some snow over that blood puddle and pretend nothing had happened? That’s what I would have done. No body, no conviction.) Or to act as if Jon’s stabbing the queen in the chest and then letting her dragon fly off with her wouldn’t have provoked a bloody battle between the Unsullied/Dothraki and the Northerners. Battles have been fought over far less in Westeros, and yet regicide apparently encourages sensible meetings under thoughtfully erected cabanas in ancient gladiatorial theaters.
Now, who are all these folks in the Dragon Pit? There’s a lot of GoT trivia to keep straight in my head, but I’m certain we’ve never met the fella sitting next to Edmure “I nominate myself to be king of the world” Tully. The new Prince of Dorne has sauntered in sporting an Oberyn robe, but nobody ever introduces him or explains how the fuck he’s related to Prince Doran. The folks of the Vale, including what absolutely cannot be but must be a freshly hot Robyn Arryn, have brought along another anonymous white dude, because clearly there weren’t enough of those here.
In this disastrously plotted fancy folks’ convention, Game of Thrones topples all of its carefully crafted credibility as a drama that understands the insidiousness and long-con nature of politics, by bringing together a group of people with wildly at-odds desires and weaknesses and then, after a nice little speech celebrating the glories of ye olde stories, has them unanimously elect a demigod with severe interpersonal-skill deficits and literally not a goddamn thing to offer as a ruler.
Bran? Really? Him? It’s a galling moment for women everywhere as Tyrion launches into a speech about how story is the most important thing (okay?) and how nobody has lived a more intriguing story than … [Camera pans over Arya and Sansa, arguably the two most fascinating characters in the whole show, and slides right to Bran, who has been high for the past two years.] As a Tyrion worshipper, I pooh-poohed people’s claims that he’d slid into foolishness, making bad decision after bad decision. But alas, it’s true. The “cleverest man in Westeros” nominated a glorified tree root to be king at a moment when public trust in the monarchy must be at all-time low (and stuck him with a cruel moniker to boot).
Some of the trouble here is with the way directors allowed Isaac Hempstead Wright to play Bran for the past few seasons. The Three-Eyed Raven whom Bran first meets beyond the Wall was mystical, yes, but warm and inviting. But when Bran took up the mantle he lost every shred of humanity, constantly fixing his gaze just beyond everyone’s heads like he was too high to focus. These qualities, apparently, were meant to endear him to us as a candidate for the position — someone who would never abuse his power because, as he said earlier this season, “I don’t really want it anymore.” Instead, his lifelessness drives home the message that being a walking textbook of Westerosi facts is a more important quality in a king or queen than, say, a keen desire to do the job well, or perhaps some small amount of leadership experience
What’s more, the showrunners never fixed the gaping, Bran-shaped hole in the plot wherein Bran could see exactly what was happening around the world and yet never warned or guided the Northern troops. Whoops!
So, where do all our (living) Westerosi end up?
The Unsullied set sail for Naath, where Grey Worm will presumably free slaves. Tyrion is sentenced to clean up his messes as Hand of the King. At his side are Maester Sam, who may or may not have abandoned his girlfriend, her child, and their fetus, but sorry, Gilly and Baby Sam, this show needed to make a few more jokes about brothels and couldn’t be bothered to tell us where you are. Bronn is Master of Coin, an absurd promotion earned only via blackmail. Davos, Master of Ships, still doesn’t get to sail home to his wife. Pod is, blessedly, a knight, but also Bran’s caretaker since the king can’t be bothered to attend meetings when there’s fun warging to do!
Arya is sailing west into what better be a spinoff. Sansa has declared herself Queen of the North, the right role for her and a tribute to the fact that only Sansa ever remembered to feed troops or find backup armies to save the day, but it felt like a scrap the writers tossed to fans knowing they were rooting hard for Sansa to take the throne. That said, her chic crown far surpasses any of the other royal regalia we’ve seen on this show. Brienne is Commander of the Kingsguard, an honorable and well-deserved position. Others may disagree, but I found her (beautifully calligraphed) list of honorifics for Jaime sweet and fitting. She loved Jaime and knew how deeply he’d internalized the reputation he’d unfairly obtained for taking down a raging madman. And yet, given the moment for Brienne to literally turn the page and write her own story, instead she simply glops over his devotion to Cersei. Wrong.
Finally there’s Jon, exiled to the Night’s Watch, a community that does not exist anymore and whose raison d’être has vanished since the threat from beyond the Wall has been vanquished. No wonder he loops back up with the Freefolk (and Tormund! And Ghost!) and just keeps on walking, right by that one tender little green sprout pushing up toward the sky like a sign of spring.
And so we end up where we started, essentially, with Jon kissing his loved ones goodbye and ending up at the edge of the world. With a doubtfully capable Small Council bickering over the affairs of the common people. With a Westerosi man presiding over Westeros. Has there been any change? Is the wheel broken simply because a group of lords and ladies voted in a member of one rich house over another?
In the end, Cersei Lannister was wrong. Her binary wasn’t accurate: You don’t win or die in the game of thrones. Yes, many people died, but nobody won a damn thing, and thankfully it’s a whole hell of a lot messier than good guys and bad guys. Some characters float off into the ether with no clear future in sight. Others, like Jon and Tyrion, end up hacked into emotional bits. Some land with crowns on their heads, but only after sacrificing every ounce of their humanity.
The drive to tie up all the ends, to kill or marry off or firmly ensconce the characters we’ve watched cross the continent and love and screw and bleed — is powerful. No matter how much we inured ourselves to the Game of Thrones method of chopping off heads at a moment’s notice or poisoning a king at his wedding feast, we still wanted to believe that there would be victors at the end and we would cheer them on. But in this last season there was too little surprise, too many high-dollar digital theatrics, and less drive to really drill down into the essence of what made Westeros a place where so many people wanted to spend their Sunday nights.
Then again, any last bits might have felt meager. Any resolution might have felt wrong. Any end to something we all stepped inside of so delightedly might have left us unhappy. Game of Thrones is over. We shall never see its like again.
From the Ravens
• As Daenerys treads the Throne Room, fulfilling Bran’s and her own vision of the demolished room covered in snow, she lightly touches one handle on the seat itself. But you’ll notice she never gets to sit on the Iron Throne.
• Poor Grey Worm fell down the honor hole with Daenerys. I’m very meh on that decision.
• Where did Arya’s white horse go? Last we saw, she was rather showily barebacking it through the city on an animal straight from the Book of Revelation, and then here she was back on foot.
• The episode’s hairstyles were really a thing to watch: Daenerys shows up with a new braid as a sign of her victory; Sansa then steals the look and makes it her own with two long hanging braids at the Dragon Pit; and Arya stops wearing the signature half-up look she shared with her father and Jon and pulls her hair into a tight bun, a look entirely her own and ideal for sword-fighting.
• As unlikely as it would be that Tyrion would wander the severely damaged Red Keep (which no crew of engineers had declared structurally sound), find his way to the exact spot where his brother and sister died, and then discover Jaime’s shining hand sticking out, the scene was vital. The Lannister siblings and their constant push-pull of emotions were a piece of necessary connective tissue throughout the show’s many seasons.
• On his way into the Red Keep, Tyrion enters Cersei’s map room (map atrium? Map patio?) and walks right across the division between North and South, from his birthplace of Casterly Rock to Dragonstone, where he last stood with Daenerys.
• If you wondered why in hell the showrunners spent so much time sending Dany and Jon on a dragon joyride in “Winterfell,” this was why: Drogon would allow Jon—a Targaryen and someone who loves Daenerys—to enter the Throne Room alone.
• Why is Bran wearing a mozzetta (that little half-cape thing) and dressed like the pope in his final scene?
• Shaking my head so hard at the Song of Ice and Fire meta-scene in which Sam shows up with a (gorgeously illuminated) manuscript detailing the utter shitshow of the past several years and they all kinda longingly giggle at the fact that, oops, one of the most vital pieces of the story isn’t mentioned. Note to authors: This is tacky and hideous; please don’t do it.
• Nobody checked on Septa Unella or Ellaria Sand in the Black Cells.
• One loose end that is really bugging me: Why did Melisandre leave Westeros and return to Essos, only to show up again at the Battle of Winterfell? Did she do anything while she was abroad? Rally some followers of the Lord of Light? Visit a few favorite childhood landmarks? What was that all about? We’ll never know.