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In the end, Game Of Thrones sings a song of ice, fire, and thematic consistency (experts)

In the end, <i>Game Of Thrones </i>sings a song of ice, fire, and thematic consistency (experts)
Screenshot: HBO
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Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Alex McLevy’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.

In the beginning, there were two types of Game Of Thrones viewers. There were readers and non-readers, or as we chose to call them, newbies and experts.

A few seasons ago, we changed the above spiel to acknowledge that these distinctions were no longer strictly necessary, and that all viewers were now on a level playing field. But this final season has reiterated that this isn’t true. In fact, eight years later, the Game Of Thrones viewership is more divided than ever, just not in the simple binary we imagined back when it debuted.

There’s the “Teams” of people rooting for specific characters. There are the people who consume all the content—the YouTube videos, the podcasts, the reviews (like this one, thank you for reading), the thinkpieces—and the people who just turn on their TVs on Sunday nights. There’s the book readers who reject Benioff and Weiss’ vision for the show’s ending and the book readers fed up with Martin for failing to execute his own. There’s the people who have lived with the show and its characters for eight years and the people who started watching eight weeks—or even eight days—ago.

I could go on, but my point is simple: every single one of these groups had a different idea of how Game Of Thrones should end. And so we shouldn’t be surprised that the final season has been divisive, or that some people have gone so far as to risk the public embarrassment of signing an online petition to force HBO to change the show’s ending. But we also shouldn’t pretend that the sheer diversity of the show’s viewership and the impossibility of pleasing everyone means that the writers get a free pass—it may be unreasonable to critique the show for not following an exacting set of expectations, but it is reasonable to hold the show accountable for a series of choices in these final seasons which took the show away from what it did best.

Much like a good part of the past two seasons, “The Iron Throne” doesn’t necessarily feel like an episode of Game Of Thrones, as weird as that may sound. When I think back on the show, I think about a complex web of storylines, where themes echo across continents, and where actions and consequences play out in concert with one another. It’s a show about accepting the call to adventure, or accepting the challenge of leadership, and then following that journey no matter where it takes you. For some, this journey led to cruelty and ruin; for others, this journey led to love and mercy. And while there were huge momentous battles along the way, they were always waypoints on that larger journey, pushing onward to the next challenge even in the face of tragedy.

But then in these final seasons, when the show’s biggest journey—Daenerys’ quest to return to her home and claim the Iron Throne—finally reached its endpoint, the show struggled with how to tell this final chapter of her story. It’s clear the writers knew the story they wanted to tell, in retrospect. They were telling the story of the girl who grew up believing that her family had been wronged, and that it was her responsibility to right that wrong. It was then the story of a woman who learned how to become a leader through a series of hard choices, which hardened her to the incongruences of justice and mercy. And it was then the story of a woman who arrived at her destination with a fundamental misunderstanding of what liberation looked like, believing—truly believing—that the only way to fix what’s broken in Westeros was to burn it all to the ground.

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Screenshot: HBO

When we describe it at this macro level, Daenerys’ journey works, but something about this last chapter felt wrong in execution, like the show’s engines weren’t built to tell this part of the story. When I listen to Tyrion explain Dany’s whole arc to Jon in “The Iron Throne”—in a scene that, like other parts of the episode, feels weirdly like a direct response to criticism of the last few episodes—it honestly sounds like a story that should work. And I’m sure that, as written up in “A Song Of Ice And Fire,” the groan-inducingly named in-world history written by the Archmaesters in Old Town, it is a poetic end to the latest tragic saga of the Targaryen dynasty. But something about watching the Targaryen train go off the tracks never felt right. Her struggles in Westeros felt arbitrary, driven by dumb military strategy more than anything else. The thematic value of her struggle was always there, but in execution the show was moving at such a different pace than before that it had none of the pathos that had grounded her story to that point. In order to derail Daenerys’ journey, Game Of Thrones had to become a different kind of TV show, with a quickened pace and a focus on sound and fury signifying the story coming to an end.

But as much as Game Of Thrones became known for sound and fury, I would contend that was never its best mode even when it was its most impressive, and “The Iron Throne” understands that as it plays out. It delivers a clear climax to the story it was telling, but an intimate one, which comes far sooner than you’d expect. And after it ends the story it’s been telling, it asserts that the story will keep going, contorting itself to create a new set of journeys, informed by those that came before. I said going into this finale that my test for a final season of a television series is whether it enriches what came before, but this finale succeeds—more or less, at least—by doing the opposite, putting most of its energy into constructing a vision of the future rather than relitigating the past. And the result is a finale that by its conclusion felt more like Game Of Thrones at its best than the season that preceded it, albeit in the process reinforcing how much the show struggled with how to integrate its final act into its larger story arc.

“The Iron Throne” does a lot of work justifying its choices with Dany, both within the diegesis (Tyrion’s explanation, Daenerys’ deluded speech to Jon) and in how the finale becomes so much less foggy the second Jon plunges a knife into her. It’s a surprising development, although I ended up liking the choice. After switching the presumed roles during The Battle of Winterfell, with Arya being the one to kill the Night King instead of Jon, Benioff and Weiss turn the tables here: I naturally presumed that she would switch her target from Cersei to Daenerys, but before Arya gets a chance Jon takes matters into his own hands. Was I at all moved by the sweeping romantic moment right before he stabs her? No, but I’ve never been moved by this relationship, and it’s at the core of the show’s struggles the past two seasons. And I think it was a bit strange that Jon’s choice was treated as so difficult when Daenerys’ actions were so baldly horrifying, and I can’t help but imagine how much more conflicting his choice would have been if Daenerys’ cruelty had been limited in scale. But in the end, Jon doesn’t leave this story as a hero, or a King: he leaves it as a Queenslayer, who like Jaime before him committed treason in the best interest of the realm.

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Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

Beyond that thematic throughline in an episode full of them, the best thing about Jon’s story is that it removes him from the center of the narrative: yes, we return to him when the final montage reinforces the central nature of the Starks to this story, but moving him out of the way at the end of the episode’s first act creates a far more compelling second. The episode opens with Tyrion Lannister walking through the ruins of King’s Landing, and it becomes a showpiece for Peter Dinklage, first in his work convincing Jon to do the right thing and then in his reconstruction of the realm in a new image. With Daenerys dead and Jon in prison for treason, Tyrion is the last remaining authority, albeit a prisoner himself. And so when the leaders of the great houses gather in the Dragonpit, it’s the moment that Tyrion’s journey was (apparently) always leading to: a pragmatic solution to a chaotic situation, reimagining the wheel instead of breaking it.

Tyrion’s solution—installing “Bran the Broken” on the Iron Throne with the assent of the assembled Lords and Ladies and Major Supporting Characters Who Probably Shouldn’t Be There But Are Because They Are Important To Us—is not really about Tyrion. I don’t think there’s a clean way to describe Tyrion’s journey: he was a very smart man disrespected by his family, who then went out in search of someone who deserved his guidance, but then committed to a cause that was (he argues, honestly pretty unsuccessfully) beyond saving. And so the lesson learned would seem to be what Drogon reinforces when he melts down the Iron Throne in mourning: the desire to rule is the enemy, which is why Bran—who barely wants to be a human being, by all accounts—is the ideal cypher to sit in power while someone like Tyrion who thrives on managing the mechanisms of power can keep the kingdom running. Which is why Tyrion’s journey doesn’t end with anything more than what he was doing when he first served as Hand of the King: successfully and happily managing the day-to-day affairs of King’s Landing, right down to the rearranging of chairs. It doesn’t give Tyrion the kind of poetic ending that his siblings received, leaving his journey as something of an endless string of failures and bad decisions with a blunt conclusion, but a “broken thing” placing another “broken thing” on the throne is enough poetry to feel satisfying if not particularly rousing.

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Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

Beyond giving Dinklage some choice monologues that will likely win him another Emmy, the story in King’s Landing is about giving the show’s supporting cast their own endings. When Tyrion sits at the head of the Small Council table, the chairs are empty, but one by one they fill with familiar faces in exactly the roles you might have imagined for them. Look, there’s Samwell Tarly, now Grandmaester Tarly! Remember Bronn? Well, now he’s Master of Coin, and he’s prioritizing brothel reconstruction! If you were wondering about your old pal Davos, why he’s Master of Ships, of course! And if you thought anyone but Brienne of Tarth could be Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, you were probably logically imagining a somewhat less wish fulfillment-focused finale for the series. The truth is, in the wake of fan petitions angry that the writers didn’t deliver exactly what they wanted, this section of the finale felt like it was checking off what anyone emotionally attached to these characters would have wanted for them, right down to the knighting of Ser Podrick Payne for good measure.

And it mostly works, because it creates such a clear sense of a future that I’d love to spend time in. In that one brief Small Council scene, we can imagine the arguments that will be had at that table, and there’s something warm and affecting about that. It’s not a particularly powerful emotional catharsis, and as someone who was mostly uninvested in Daenerys and Jon’s romance I think this is the one area where this finale was sorely lacking. If I want to discuss how I “felt” about this finale—ugh, feelings—the only time I felt legitimately moved by anything onscreen was when I realized that Brienne was about to write Jaime’s pages in the White Book (or the Book of Brothers), the history of the Kingsguard. It’s a detail that the show didn’t really spend a lot of time on compared to the books, and so to see it revived in such a perfect way stirred my emotions. But everything else in the finale aims for a sort of pleasant satisfaction, a nod of approval or acknowledgment all that really felt natural as a response to what was happening onscreen.

And for the most part, to be clear, this finale earns a polite and at times even enthusiastic nod of approval. So much of the show was about how a younger generation didn’t choose to fight this war, but were forced to grow up fast as the previous generation made choices that thrust their children into conflict. But “The Iron Throne” is invested in the idea that that younger generation is now in a position to make choices. After Sansa spent an entire series being treated as a pawn, physically and psychologically used and abused by those who sought power, she chooses not to bend the knee to her own brother, asserting the independence of her people and beginning her reign as Queen in the North. While trained to lose herself in the role of assassin, Arya turns away from death, but chooses not to return to her past life, instead traveling west on a journey into uncharted lands. And Jon, after choosing to murder his queen for the good of the realm, is banished to the Wall where he chooses to ride beyond its gates with Tormund and the Wildlings, retracing his steps to rebuild a new version of himself independent of either of his family names. None of their stories are over, exactly, but they’ve all reached the point where each character is fully in control, something that seemed impossible when they first left Winterfell so many years earlier.

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Screenshot: HBO

In this vein, there’s something a little too optimistic about the portrait of Westeros painted in “The Iron Throne.” Sure, Sam’s suggestion of a democracy is still laughed off by the leaders of the realm, so the show didn’t entirely erase the hierarchies that restrict choices for the people of Westeros. And although a Queen rules in the North, and a woman leads the Kingsguard, the finale didn’t go so far as to suggest the patriarchal structures of the realm have disappeared overnight or anything like that. But it’s telling that the Small Council has no Master of War, and no Master of Whisperers: they speak as though these positions need to be filled, but do they need to be filled given the peaceful freeze frame offered by the finale? There will be challenges along this journey, but the episode doesn’t even lean into the challenges of the ominous winter that was warned about for so long, and there’s no glimpse of the Iron Bank knocking of the door asking for its debts to be repaid.

Perhaps the optimism is an effort to force emotional catharsis by getting the warm, fuzzy feeling of a happy ending, but there is still nothing happy about living in Westeros, even if the characters we care about are living their respective best lives within this dark world. The characters might have more control over their destinies than ever before, but they are still inheriting a broken world that remains defined by the kind of social problems that can fester and create unrest, lawlessness, and new threats to the realm. Drogon melted the Iron Throne, sure, but it was always just a symbol, and power can corrupt without a menacing object standing in for it.

The hope, one supposes, is that Bran the Broken is going to wield the power of memory to keep from falling into the mistakes of the past. I’m open to the argument that Bran becoming king is just flat out silly, and I will admit I lightly guffawed when I realized that this was Tyrion’s conclusion while in captivity. His logic that Bran has the best story, that his journey is the one that can unite the people, is laughable on its face: Bran’s story is eventful, sure, but it was also fundamentally inscrutable, driven by vague destiny and by a character turn that stripped him of his entire character. His role during the Battle of Winterfell was literally close his eyes and go somewhere else with no explanation, and he’s your choice to lead?

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Photo: Helen Sloan (HBO)

But I get what the show is saying: the Three-Eyed Raven is the bridge between the present and the past, and that bridge is what you need in order to move forward into the future. It’s what the show argues everyone was unable to do with Daenerys Targaryen, failing to see the signs that she was losing sight of what was “good” as she worked her way toward power. It’s the show making the argument that everything that happened in the series to date does not solely define its future, but rather serves as the basis for the decisions that characters now choose to make having gained the agency to do so. Bran’s whole story arc is about how his transformation into the Three-Eyed Raven ended his story but created the possibility of others to continue: he ceased to walk so that others could run. And so rather than have someone else faced with the burden of sitting on the throne, the Three-Eyed Raven reimagines the throne as a source of knowledge, to support the journeys of the men and women who serve and honor the realm in various ways.

And while I don’t know if I expected an ending this optimistic, there’s a thematic consistency to the story here that rings true to me. I wrote above that the fanbase has been divided, with each of us bringing our own perspective, and I’m a viewer who values the thematic core of a show over an attachment to particular characters. And if I’m being honest, I think this was an act of self-preservation going into the series as a book reader. There is nothing more frustrating than watching a story change for unclear reasons in an adaptation, whether it’s the whims of the interloping writers or legitimate if frustrating logistical concerns, so the easiest way to avoid disappointment is to disconnect from that approach. Viewing the show through the lens of ideas doesn’t entirely resolve the issues with the adaptation once they strayed from the books, but it lessens the burden, and enables the show and the books to more successfully coexist as two ruminations on the same themes.

And “The Iron Throne” more or less passes that test: this feels like it would be a thematically appropriate ending to A Song Of Ice And Fire, even if it’s pretty clear it won’t be the ending to A Song Of Ice And Fire in the strictest sense. The question of how much of this came directly from Martin is going to drive all future speculation regarding the books that may or may never be released. It is in no one’s best interest to confirm or deny whether major story developments—Daenerys’ descent into madness, Bran becoming King, Sansa as Queen in the North—are part of Martin’s master plan, and the debates that will ensue here and elsewhere will only fuel interest in the series’ future. But my gut feeling is that the points Benioff and Weiss chose to make in the finale are, in essence, the ones that Martin told them he was hoping to make. Power corrupts. The present learns from the past to create the future. When faced with the darkness of winter, humanity will fight to see Spring.

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Screenshot: HBO

By its conclusion, “The Iron Throne” feels like an episode of Game Of Thrones. You can imagine what the show would look like if it were to move forward, even if the show elides the conflicts that would exist in Sansa reestablishing the North as its own kingdom or Arya sailing west into the unknown. It’s basically an epilogue, but it doesn’t use that device in order to provide more closure to the story (which is why the Harry Potter epilogue is so fundamentally terrible). Instead, it uses it to provide less closure, sending characters like Arya and Jon into fundamentally uncertain futures. The choice to end on the image of Jon, Tormund, and the Wildlings walking into the woods north of the Wall provides a literal bookend with the prologue that started the series, but it also draws out the contrast over how the characters are moving forward from this story. In Sansa’s return to the independence of the North and Bran’s assertion of memory, Westeros moves on by looking back: but for Arya sailing to the unknown, or Jon going beyond-the-Wall, the door is closing behind them. They have two choices as they move onto the next phase of their journeys: they can either pore over their entire history to decide their next course of action, or they can sail or ride away from it all, to start something new fueled by the person they became.

Benioff and Weiss chose to have it both ways with this finale. “The Iron Throne” works better as a turn to the future than a reflection on the past, but that’s no surprise: the past is dark and full of errors, albeit ones that Martin himself might not be able to avoid when and if he manages to face the same problems inherent to wrapping up this story. Game Of Thrones, as a television series, was unprecedented as a production, but these final seasons revealed that its story was maybe not as complex as we imagined it was when it was operating at its peak. But to suggest the show was not a groundbreaking television narrative, but rather a soap opera fantasy on an unprecedented scale, does not diminish its impact. If anything, it explains it: to see this niche fantasy series I picked up as a teenager become a cultural phenomenon has been as perplexing as it was rewarding, and watching the show boil down to its essence in this finale helped explain why people cared enough to sign a dumb petition when they didn’t get their way. For as much as the show devolved somewhat in its final seasons, it always held onto something beyond spectacle, and its series finale asserts that in ways that reinforce Game Of Thrones’ status as a singular television experience.

Well, at least until HBO tries to convince us the prequel will let us relive it. And then our watch begins anew.

Stray observations

  • This finale was obviously written and produced long before the internet got mad at anything that happened before it, but it really was wild how much it felt like a response to that, right down to Jon giving Ghost a proper greeting when he arrives back at Castle Black. Makes you wonder if all the comments the production gave about it were actively trolling us, knowing this would happen but refusing to even hint at it. But it still doesn’t absolve Jon from the sin of not giving him a proper goodbye. I’m choosing to believe that’s the real reason he was sent to the Night’s Watch.
  • I don’t think Game Of Thrones will get enough credit for how funny it was at times, and so I appreciated Sansa’s smackdown of her uncle during the Council of Tyrion. It’s a moment that could have been played dramatically with a big speech about how Edmure’s generation had their chance to lead, but Sansa’s matter of fact dismissal was just so much more fun, you know? And this is a show that really could be quite fun, and so I was glad to see some of that made it in here even with some of the show’s most consistent sources of humor (Tormund, for example) mostly on the sidelines.
  • Shoutout to my mother who read my reference to the Prince of Dorne in a previous review, Googled it to understand why I found the reference so funny, and then spoiled me on the fact they had cast someone to play the role this season (I forgive you, Mom). We still have no idea who that guy is, but I sort of admired the choice not to exposition out who everyone was and just let the realization that is what Robin Arryn looks like now wash over us.
  • Qyburn Qyburned So Where’s His Entry In A Big Book?: Seriously, the disrespect is just galling.
  • Benioff and Weiss’s first stint as directors was likely more for the story execution than the visuals, but the shot of Dany with Drogon’s wings behind her was an iconic one, and the work they did with the effects team on Drogon really showcased how much the show’s budget worked to get the dragons right as characters, not just creatures. The show never stopped making evocative images even as it went off the rails a little, and that was true right until the end. I especially loved the cross-cutting of the different weapons/items as Sansa, Arya, and Jon were suiting up.
  • I kept expecting Arya to use someone’s face over the course of this season—a White Walker to kill the Night King! Grey Worm to assassinate Dany!—but it seems like it was part of a larger trajectory of drawing her away from her Faceless Man training and toward a different journey.
  • Speaking of Grey Worm, his felt like a story the finale just chose not to tell: obviously, Daenerys’ death created a complicated situation for her Master of War, but the way he just sort of moves on and sails the Unsullied to Missandei’s home in Naath feels like a pretty shorthand attempt at a character “arc.” Sure, the Unsullied are designed to be stripped of emotion, but the show didn’t explore the tension of that like it could have, and the time jump before the Council of Tyrion skips over some key details.
  • “You Master of Grammar now, too?”—everything about Bronn and Davos at the Small Council was great, but this little reminder of Davos’ time in the cells of Dragonstone with Shireen was a nice little detail.
  • Lady Stoneheart Truther Corner: So just in case where was someone out there who still held out hope (bless you, if so), we can now officially say the dream of Lady Stoneheart is dead. But it lives on in all of us, except for the person I spoke to earlier today who stopped reading the books because of the Lady Stoneheart twist and chose not to watch the show but was never informed the show skipped that particular development.
  • I love it when a show goes out trolling me personally, so I have to admire the choice to feature multiple fades to black after which completely unclear periods of time have passed. When you’ve built your show on the fundamental elision of temporality, it’s the only way to go out.
  • As long as I’m picking nits: how did anyone hear what Daenerys was yelling into that giant open air crowd? And why was Yara so snooty about the idea of a democracy when the Iron Islands uses the Kingsmoot? These are my questions, and it’s only fitting I keep asking them when no one else will because everyone else is more well adjusted than I am.
  • How Much Of This Is Going To Happen In The Books?: It’s time to answer this rhetorical question I posed to myself despite your objections the only way that truly reflects our knowledge of the situation: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
  • As sincerely as I can muster, I want to thank everyone who’s been reading these reviews. There’s been talk that Game Of Thrones will be the last show that we watch this way, millions coming together to watch simultaneously and then react and discuss in real time, and there’s no doubt that the age of streaming is reshaping the way we consume television. But if Game Of Thrones has taught us nothing else, it’s that those of us who gathered here every week want experiences like this one, and value it in ways that I believe will overcome the barriers being created by shifts in distribution. There may never be anything quite like Game Of Thrones, but I choose to believe the instincts that brought us—whether as book readers or bookcurious viewers or indiscriminate content seekers—together will bring us together again in the future, whether around The Long Night or another spinoff or something else entirely. And while I was told I had to end this review with “and now my watch is ended,” I’ll make one correction—with your readership and comments and contributions (both here, and for some of you, back at my personal blog before I took over the expert reviews), this was truly “our” watch, and thank you for seeing it through to the end with us here at The A.V. Club.