So the series finale made me cry.
Last week, I wondered whether or not the series finale of Game of Thrones would have a satisfying conclusion. Standard questions for any television swan song, but what made Game of Thrones so different was the varying quality over the last four seasons as it sped into its endgame. What were these struggles about? What journeys brought these people to where they are today? What does the series have to say about power and the people fighting for it, or trying to survive it? There were so many balls in the air, they couldn’t possibly catch them all with finesse or grace. Right? But this was the ending the showrunners intended to aim for. It’s why the back half of the series changes pacing and how it treats character drastically different from their initial outings. The series sought out its endgame without regard for character. There was no time to dwell on the impact of warfare. How could those discussions occur when we need to budget major set-pieces almost every other episode?
It turns out the biggest twist Game of Thrones would throw at us in the finale was David Benioff and D.B. Weiss actually being solid directors. The images, while certainly obvious, conveyed power and even atmosphere. The apocalyptic massacre of King’s Landing still dwells on the shoulders of our few likable protagonists. The impending winter season remains never fully realized while Dany has brought her own metaphorical nuclear winter (the dragons being the Weapons of Mass Destruction to the White Walker’s “Climate Change”). While completely unearned over the course of these later seasons (foreshadowing is not the same as storytelling), the matter of fact-ness of it all is a welcome change of pace.
That’s the other thing that struck me watching the finale, the scenes are long. So long, in fact, that I’m pretty sure the closing chapter of this spends the first hour on maybe five total scenes? The pacing itself needed some refinement, as too often we watch people move from location to location without motivation for actually necessitating struts down ruins and hallways. We’re sitting in the aftermath of the entire series (mostly just last week, but bear with me) as our characters now have the fate of Westeros in their hands. In Westeros, no one’s hands are clean as long as the power structures reside.
Of course Jon was going to kill Dany. The optics of the only women rulers being categorically defined as “villains” is certainly a look. In a series that once prided itself as being morally grey, more interested in what drives people to their actions or inactions, it reads false. We still don’t know what kind of Queen Cersei was to the people. We know Dany was a Mad Queen, though once again, it’s important to reiterate the series needed to pad that out better. The showrunners had been aware of this heel-turn long enough to make the landing stick. They didn’t but we’ll roll with it anyways.
The Jon vs. Dany climax doesn’t entirely work either but I found myself feeling scared of Dany for the first time, maybe ever? Last episode did great work to terrify us with images of Drogon’s devastation. This episode made Dany feel like a true conqueror, with all the terror that entails. The image of Drogon spreading his wings behind her as she addresses the remnants of her army in ash? God damn iconic.
Tyrion reminding Jon of his oath as a member of the Night’s Watch, “To guard the realms of men,” made it all click for me. The story bends over backwards to have accommodated these outcomes, but I found myself choking up as Jon swears fealty to his Queen (also his Aunt, but Targaryen gonna Targaryen?) recognizing his duty to protect the people of Westeros and beyond. Credit to Emilia Clarke, who I may not have always said nice things about in her performances on the series. She did great work this season with difficult material. Her death, like Cersei’s, was anti-climactic; although, I think I’m okay with that. These women, powerful and tragic in their own ways, are ultimately victims of the quest for power. Guided by lesser men in their lives, pushed around as chess pieces by Tywin Lannister or Viserys Targaryen, they both took their own agency. The real tragedy is they were never able to realize a life without needing to claim power over others. And honestly? I think the direction Show Dany was headed before this season could’ve worked in that direction. As it stands, her final moments atop the ashes of King’s Landing were among the best work Clarke has ever done.
And then they did it. Drogon, swooping in and mourning the death of his mother doesn’t lash out at the man who killed her. Instead, Drogon burns down the Iron Throne! I’m not sure if the character momentum tracks because we never actually see Drogon as anything more than a plot device or pet, but his moments in this finale also sang for me. Nudging Dany’s lifeless body tugged at my heart strings. His burning of the cursed symbol of power had me cheering. The liquid iron joins the rest of the King’s Landing ruins, declaring whatever comes next simply cannot be the same. So Drogon takes his mother, and flies off into the unknown. Last of his kind, alone in the world. The mystique of Game of Thrones returned and I ate up every second of it.
The remaining Stark children survive. Each guided by fates set in motion by powers that be, supernatural or institutional, the last of the Starks share final scenes before heading into their new lives. Maybe that’s the most subversive thing Game of Thrones did in the end (outside of the showrunners being not-bad directors). The truest subversion wasn’t in self-sacrifice. No, Game of Thrones asks us to move on from the dark, nihilism it made its reputation on. As another powerful woman once said, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”
Mistakes, betrayals, failures: potentially an apt portrayal of how certain fans feel about the series at this point, (if my twitter feed is anything to go off of) the series finale of Game of Thrones positions its characters to live. It won’t be easy because it never is. Democracy is laughed off stage. Jon will never be sure if he acted out of love or duty. Tyrion will probably never be remembered. Arya fits into the world about as well as Drogon by this point. Sansa… actually gets a perfectly happy ending because hell yeah she’ll rule the shit out of the independent North. But true heroism isn’t defined by what’s written in the history books. It’s in the choices made by the people in the story. They’ll make mistakes again. How could they not? They’re only human. And having empathy for those around them wasn’t the death sentence people assumed it once was. Empathy turns out to be the very thing that allows them to continue on, long after our time with them has been spent.
Yeah, dropped arcs, themes, and misconstrued ideas of what the series was truly about will probably haunt me for the rest of my days. Oh god, they even dropped “Winter is Coming” from the final season. What happened to Meera Reed? I don’t understand why Missandei had to die. This really should have been split into at least two separate seasons between the Night King and Iron Throne stuff. Brienne doesn’t speak anymore? Brienne’s last solo scene is about Jaime (okay, that one was still kinda heartbreaking but still very male writing!). I could keep going about the gaggle-fuck of issues abound here.
Look, it’s not a perfect series. It sure as hell isn’t a perfect ending. But given the holes they continued to shove themselves in? I’ll be damned if I didn’t shed tears as I said goodbye. Not that the characters were perfect either. But just maybe, there’s hope for a better Westeros in the future.
I started Game of Thrones about a month after the first season finale had aired. A lot has changed since then, in the series and my own life. Some things worse, some better. I binged the season fast and my obsession brought me to buy all five available books, as “A Dance with Dragons” was just released at this point. My fondest memories were falling in love with these characters and their worlds, sharing my admiration with every possible person I knew and/or met. Viewing parties galore, I actually started watching with just me and a now severely outdated macbook. Shit, I’m writing this farewell on the very same one. As if it didn’t already feel like the end of an era. It’s not every day that we get to share a communal experience of this magnitude, both online and off. Our passion, our anger, our appreciation all coalescing into a whirlwind of emotion that reminds us why we love these cultural events. That’s the power of art. That’s the power of storytelling. Yeah, I’ll cherish that feeling the most.
I’ll miss these characters and their stories dearly. Whatever my criticisms of late, I’m proud to have spent time with them.
Whether or not this ending holds up after another viewing? Ask me again in 10 years.
Some tidbits and thanks:
- Sansa leading the Independent North is the shit I live for. Sansa Stans ate fucking good this year.
- Some criticism about Arya potentially inventing colonialism, which is hilarious, but I honestly thought the act of her becoming an explorer (more Starfleet than Columbus) was a beautiful way of ending our time with the character. Our end is her new beginning.
- Tyrion once brought a jackass and a honeycomb into a brothel-
- If anybody “won” anything in this Game of Thrones, it’s Bronn. Right? Granted land, became the Master of Coin, is still alive. A great cockroach style character.
- Jon had the true north in him. He might have been born a Targaryen and Stark, but his identity was always Snow. A title thrust upon people as critical of their birth stature became a symbol of pride for him. Now his watch begins, though that takes on a more empathetic meaning as he heads north of the wall with Tormund and the Wildlings to settle them back home. I was deeply touched by how they waited for him.
- Thank you to the cast, crew and showrunners for crafting a cultural event that defined a decade of television. I haven’t been shy about my issues with the latter seasons, but I’ll be thankful for the ride. Sometimes the best part of the journey isn’t the destination, but I’m glad I got to enjoy that too.
- Thank you George R.R. Martin for creating this wonderful series filled with tragedy, beauty and creative inspiration. I can’t wait to see what other stories await us (and those final books, of course).
- Thank you to composer Ramin Djawadi, the unsung hero of so many iconic moments in Game of Thrones history.
- Thank you again to MovieFail for letting me join the discussion on “The Long Night,” an episode I still consider a high-mark of television directing. Søren and Esther were ahead of the curve on hate-watching the series before the rest of y’all. Step up, nerds.
- Thank you to Emily Sofia who recorded a many episode recap/reviews with me many moons ago as the series began its falters. I don’t regret a single recording and I’m happy to have shared the ups and downs with her.
- My pal Kirsten made these back when the series first began! I’m honored to have them, and I’ll cherish them for many years.
And now my watch is ended.