Fire and blood, or a dream of spring?
By Laura Prudom
This Game of Thrones series finale review contains spoilers for GoT S8, Ep 6, “The Iron Throne.” For more on the series finale, here’s why that A Song of Ice and Fire callback is so meaningful, the significance of Naath, and who all those mystery people were in that big council scene.
Though we were warned long ago that “if you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention,” for the most part, the Game of Thrones finale subverted Ramsay Bolton’s ominous words, delivering a conclusion that was as “bittersweet” as George R. R. Martin always promised, but one that still promised a hopeful dream of spring for many of our favorite characters.
It was a neater ending than some of us might have predicted. Aside from Daenerys, there were no major casualties (RIP nameless Lannister soldiers) – and while the lords and ladies of Westeros laughed off Sam’s optimistic suggestion that they should establish a democracy in place of a monarchy and finally allow the people of the Seven Kingdoms a vote (nice try, Tarly), everything seemed to work out okay despite Dany’s mass genocide. Despite Sansa’s observation that there were thousands of angry Northmen outside the walls of King’s Landing rooting for Jon’s freedom, we never got a sense of how this conflict affected the wider world, or whether the civilians in other parts of Westeros were even aware of the petty squabbling between queens. It was almost too clean. (P.S.: did winter really come and go that quickly, after all that hype?)
In the end, it came down to the cripples, bastards, and broken things, with Bran’s wisdom – and more importantly, his knowledge of the past – proving to be more of a qualification for rule than violence or blood; hearkening back to Tywin Lannister’s lesson to Tommen about what makes a good king – someone who listens to his counselors and doesn’t try to make every decision on his own. And it’s a relief that after seasons of Jon insisting he didn’t have any desire or ambition to rule, it wasn’t forced upon him because of something as arbitrary as who his parents were.
Sansa became Queen in the North, presiding over an independent kingdom that will no doubt benefit from her keen sense of strategy and care for her people; Arya set herself up for a perfect spinoff, setting sail to explore whatever’s west of Westeros and living like the wild, untamed creature she’s always been; Tyrion became Hand to a ruler who is basically content to let him rule instead; and despite all that nonsense about being exiled to the Night’s Watch again, it’s clear that Jon intends to go up into the real North with Tormund and Ghost and the rest of the wildlings, to find the kind of simple, peaceful life he might’ve had with Ygritte, if people had stopped trying to thrust some grand destiny upon him years ago.
“The Iron Throne” followed the show’s longstanding tradition of going big in each season’s penultimate episode and using the finale to tie up loose ends, which felt a little more anticlimactic here than usual, given that we’ve had eight seasons of build-up to get to this point. And I’m no happier about Daenerys’s poorly-executed heel turn now than I was after “The Bells,” especially when we finally got to hear her justify herself. This was clearly no psychotic break or vengeful spree against the people of King’s Landing for any perceived crime against her, just a delusion that Cersei was using “their innocence as a weapon” against Dany to try and make her hesitate in taking what she wanted, despite the fact that she didn’t need to attack them at all to claim the throne.
No one challenged Dany that she could’ve gone straight for the Red Keep and still triumphed, since it was entirely clear (even from the back of a dragon) that Cersei wasn’t in the streets, and the Lannister soldiers were mostly defending the wall that she and Drogon had already destroyed. Nothing about Daenerys’s character up to this point has implied that she would countenance the needless slaughter of women or children – indeed, she emphasized to the Dothraki and Unsullied that they had “liberated the people of King’s Landing” and that her priority from now on was in freeing the men, women, and children of Westeros from “the wheel” with no trace of irony. Her lack of remorse in this episode didn’t come across like the ravings of a dictator who was prepared to win at any cost, as one might’ve expected with all of those “Mad King” comparisons – it just played as if the showrunners had made up their minds that what Daenerys did was the most efficient way to get Jon and Tyrion to switch from supporting her to betraying her, never mind if it lacked any narrative logic or justification.
Just as the show did a huge disservice to Cersei this season, relegating Lena Headey to a mere 25 minutes of screentime in Season 8 and offering us no insight into her mental state or motivations (beyond subtly touching her belly or staring mournfully out of a window), Game of Thrones similarly fumbled Daenerys’s Anakin Skywalker-esque descent into villainy. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss said that they purposefully avoided showing us Dany’s expression once she started laying waste to King’s Landing in “The Bells,” but by keeping us at a distance, it was impossible for us to follow Daenerys’s reasoning or empathize with her, something that’s vital when you’re trying to transition a beloved hero into a villain.
Walter White’s trajectory in Breaking Bad was so effective and so heartbreaking because we got to witness the slow but steady erosion of his morals and boundaries over the course of several seasons – positioning the story from point of view to help justify his decisions (something that Benioff and Weiss absolutely could’ve done with Dany this season, and that George R. R Martin will hopefully accomplish in his novels) while still allowing other characters to react to and be repulsed by his behavior. But by deliberately keeping the audience out of Daenerys’s head and showing her only through the lens of how others saw her, the final season missed out on a vital opportunity to offer context on why she made the choices she did, reducing a previously nuanced and fascinating character to a one-dimensional shadow of her former self. Both Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey deserved better, after putting such thoughtful work into Dany and Cersei over the past decade.
But despite how viscerally I responded to “The Bells” (enough to write a 3000+ word rant about it), at least it made me feel something, and the most disappointing part of “The Iron Throne” is that I didn’t really feel much of anything. I didn’t cry, I wasn’t shocked by Jon’s decision to stab Dany in the heart (one of many callbacks in the finale, mirroring Jon’s own betrayal by Olly), and the most poignant moments of the episode came from Drogon mourning his fallen mother, Lion King style, and Jon finally touching Ghost after three seasons – something that wouldn’t have even been emotionally affecting or resonant in the first place if the show hadn’t been so weirdly insistent on keeping the direwolf separate from his master for all this time. Brienne finally getting a chance to fill in the rest of Jaime Lannister’s great deeds in the White Book of the Kingsguard was an earned and beautiful callback, but it was a little soured by how callously and hurriedly he left her – again, offering no real insight into his feelings for either Cersei or Brienne.
But for the most part, the finale felt oddly flat. For a show I’ve invested countless hours in, both professionally and as a fan of Martin’s books, I figured I’d at least tear up about the prospect of saying goodbye to these characters. But as I discussed in last week’s review, that’s the problem with expectation versus reality,
And while the episode was beautifully directed and shot by Benioff and Weiss (the visual of Daenerys with Drogon’s wings outstretched behind her may be the most indelible image in the show’s history, while the moment when Drogon melted the Iron Throne was the only scene in the episode to truly give me chills) it felt like too many other episodes have this season, like we were checking boxes, rather than watching moments and character choices develop organically. And while Ramin Djawadi’s score once again elevated the episode’s most meaningful moments, it was most potent when it was absent – the episode opened with an almost 10-minute stretch with no musical accompaniment at all, heightening the horror and shock in the wake of Daenerys’s destruction right up until Tyrion discovered Jaime and Cersei’s bodies, a powerful showcase for Peter Dinklage’s consistently excellent performance, but one that was once again undermined by the futility of Jaime and Cersei’s demise.
“The Iron Throne” certainly wasn’t a disastrous finale, or one that will tarnish the legacy of the show (more than the reaction to “The Bells” already has for some fans, anyway), and by allowing some of our favorite characters to survive and thrive (the season undeniably wasted Bronn, but seeing the “Lord of Lofty Titles” on the Small Council, bantering back and forth with Tyrion again, was delightful), it offered a note of hope that last week seemed almost unimaginable. But compared to all the potential there was in earlier seasons, it’s impossible not to wonder what might have been, had Benioff and Weiss agreed to more episodes and more breathing room to let these conflicts develop in a way these characters deserved.
At least we’ll have Martin’s final books to offer more insight into how we got here and why, if they ever arrive.
“The Iron Throne” offered a bittersweet but ultimately hopeful ending to one of the most popular TV shows of all time, and in that respect, it’s probably more than we could’ve hoped for. But after last week’s undercooked (no pun intended) Daenerys twist, the finale couldn’t entirely stick the landing, struggling to resolve many of the show’s lingering plot threads in a satisfying and coherent conclusion (and ignoring others completely), and once again falling victim to the season’s needlessly truncated episode order. It’s not quite the dream of spring we might’ve hoped for, but it’s not a disaster either. And now our watch has ended.