The Game of Thrones series finale is a success, because it is all about the characters. (Well, all save one, but more on that later.) In cinematic epics, everyone always remembers the big action scene. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings or the chariot race in Ben-Hur. Yet, where these epics shine, where they become indelible marks on the culture happens in the quieter moments. It’s the moments focused on the characters that resonate, because they are our windows into the story. After last week’s divisive episode, some fans felt the show was irredeemable. Game of Thrones spoilers, out in the wild for weeks, took on new credence as the specific details were proven right. This outraged fans even more, and thus the wheel of tyrants was not the only one that failed to break. The wheel of fandom outrage spun at full speed.
Yet, almost no one denied that they were definitely going to watch the Game of Thrones series finale to see how it all turned out. Even the most outraged fans invested far too much time, emotion, and money (in HBO subscriptions) to not see this through. No matter how you felt about the previous episode. The Game of Thrones series finale delivered on everything that a finale is supposed to. It closed out plot and character storylines, including doling out a number of happy endings to fan-favorites. The show ended in a much more banal way than probably most expected. Life goes on, and it arguably starts to improve. At least for those not burned alive by the giant dragon. Obviously, nothing but spoilers below.
The Biggest Problem with the Game of Thrones Series Finale
To its credit, the episode starts mere hours after the last one ended, with the ashes of the people of King’s Landing covering everything like snow. A winter, of a sort, has come. The storytellers anticipated much of the reaction they got to the last episode. So, we open with characters slowly walking through the destruction. We don’t see Dany until almost 20 minutes into the episode. She rallies her troops, promises to keep the war going forever, and then goes to take a gander at her new throne. Then, some 20 minutes later, she’s dead, stabbed in the heart by her love interest and nephew Jon Snow. In a truly heartbreaking sequence, Drogon senses her death. In anger he sprays fire angrily, melting the Iron Throne into melty drops. Then he takes his mother in his claws, and flies away with her body. Then the screen fades to black.
The image we next see is Tyrion’s face with a significant beard growth suggesting time has passed. He is taken to the Dragon Pit for a trial of sorts with the heads of the great houses of Westeros. From when the screen went black to this scene, there is a season’s worth of story. In fact, the Game of Thrones series finale suffers from the problem of every episode had since the Battle of Winterfell. Too much happens in a short period of time. George R.R. Martin originally said he believed the show could run for ten season, with ten episodes each. This final season strengthens that argument. While the books sometimes dawdle in their telling of the story, the storytellers here rushed through it too much. With more time, Dany’s heel turn could have been the tragic heartbreak it was supposed to be.
The Dragon Queen Deserved Better from Game of Thrones Writers
One character who doesn’t get a close focus in the Game of Thrones series finale is Queen Daenerys. The scene where she crosses the throne room, destroyed and covered in ash like her vision, is the only intimate moment we get with this important character. The rest of her limited time in the episode, she’s almost set dressing. This is no disrespect to Emilia Clarke’s portrayal, on the contrary she was brilliant. Rather, Dany makes a badass entrance—with perhaps the coolest shot in the series—and then promises to wage war against the whole world. When she is killed by Jon Snow, a knife to the heart, the character is so unreactive and robotic one almost wonders if a Westworld script didn’t get mixed up with the one for the Game of Thrones series finale. Her death is perfunctory and presented as the only choice to make.
It’s clear the storytellers anticipated the criticism they would face after the last episode. When Tyrion and Jon essentially hatch the plan to kill her, Tyrion makes many of the arguments the show’s defenders make. He points out her brutality in dealing with the Masters of Slaver’s Bay, the Mereenese nobles, and the leaders of the Dothraki. He even says that “we” cheer because they deserve it. This does not justify the sudden shift on Daenerys’s part or her willingness to torch the city after they surrendered. Still, it shows the storytellers thought about it. Did they earn this ending for one of the best characters in the series? No, not even close. We’ll never know what really drove Dany to murder civilians, and that’s the question that most needed answering. Without a doubt, the character deserved better than she got.
Bran, Sansa, and Arya: The Last of the Starks
This story has always been about the Starks. George R.R. Martin said that his first idea for the story was the scene where the Starks find the dire wolves. So, it’s fitting that the Game of Thrones series finale ended with the Stark children’s happy endings. In a surprise that no one would have guessed, Bran is elected as “Bran the Broken” the new ruler of Westeros. When he dies, the heads of the houses will elect his replacement, thereby breaking the “wheel” of tyrannical rule. (Kind of.) Sansa gets to be the queen she always wanted to be, refusing to bend the knee to her brother. Arya goes exploring, trying to find the “new world” on whatever planet this is. And Jon Snow ends up right where he started, at the Wall. Without question, these are the happiest endings these characters could hope for.
Early online reaction seemed to be that those not dissatisfied with Dany’s end were dissatisfied with Jon’s. Some say that him ending up at the Wall means all of his struggles were for nothing. Others think, like Sansa, that this is a punishment for him. But when Jon goes North he becomes the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and, essentially, the King Beyond the Wall leading an army of Wildlings. He’s where he always wanted to be, emulating his favorite relation, his Uncle Benjen. Jon didn’t want to rule. He wanted to range and serve and prove himself to be a good man. He took care of that last bit, and now he gets to do the rest. Also, if he doesn’t just go native, he can return to Winterfell or King’s Landing whenever he wants to.
The New Small Council Serving King Bran
The first small council we saw belong to King Robert, filled with liars, tricksters, and fools. The final small council we see in the Game of Thrones finale, are all characters audiences grew to love. Brienne is the commander of the gold cloaks, and able to write a fitting epitaph for her one true love, Jamie Lannister. She has honor, a title, and will get to protect the son of Catelyn Stark for the rest of her days. Sers Davos and Bronn are also on the council. A sellsword and a smuggler are now the masters of coin and ships. It’s as fitting as any ending for those two. Finally, Samwell Tarly is a Grand Maester and the co-author of a history book called “A Song of Ice and Fire.” A book which is wildly inaccurate because it doesn’t mention the perennial Hand of the King, Tyrion Lannister.
At the start of the episode, Tyrion mourns both his brother and the sister he claimed he wanted dead. He makes his way down to Maegor’s Holdfast to dig their bodies out of the rubble. After this, he throws his Hand pin away, fully prepared to be arrested and executed. When Jon Snow comes to essentially say goodbye to him. He convinces Jon to kill the queen. When we see him again, he’s still in chains (how he survived is a mystery) but as in charge as he ever was. When Bran is named king, he orders Tyrion to be his Hand as a “punishment.” So, since Bran is so detached from the world, Tyrion is the winner in the Game of Thrones series finale. Bran may make the final decisions, but while he’s warging away chasing dragons, Tyrion will handle the business of ruling the realms.
The Great Exodus of Ethnic Characters from Game of Thrones
Save for the Dornish, the majority of Westerosi people are played by white, European actors. The crew surrounding Dany, from across the Narrow Sea, were almost exclusively played by people of color. So, their ending is not happy and, though sensible, sends a poor message, if only accidentally. As mentioned, the biggest problem the show has is that the last seasons have felt rushed. In between a fade out and a fade in, the Unsullied and Dothraki went from being in martial control of King’s Landing to standing on some boats to go to the island where Missandei wanted to visit. This makes sense narratively speaking. These aren’t their lands and the woman they followed is dead. Still, the optics of this in times where xenophobia is on the rise is troubling at best.
With more time in the show, we could have seen how they reacted to the death of their queen. We could understand how they didn’t take her last command to heart and wage war on the lords of Westeros. It’s not that their ultimate decision doesn’t make sense, it’s that how they made that decision is the actually interesting part. Even the Wildlings, originally another hated group of “others,” are sent packing. Though, in an earlier episode, that is presented as their choice. Even still, the Westerosi, as represented by the Starks, want them to stay. In today’s social climate, these considerations should be taken, if only to avoid controversy. By giving these characters their own agency outside of Dany, this could have played as an empowering moment for them. Instead, its as if they are skulking off, unwanted and defeated, despite helping to save all of the realm from the Army of the Dead.
The Legacy of Game of Thrones
Beyond just the immediate reaction to the Game of Thrones series finale, audiences can also consider the series as whole body of work. Even if these final three episodes were just extended single takes of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss dancing on a pile of Star Wars money, Game of Thrones would still be one of the best shows ever made. Even when the writing suffered, the acting, the set design, the effects, and cinematography were always excellent. There are films being released in theaters today that don’t look as good as this television show. Fans got at least six solid seasons of good storytelling, and the entire series ends in a way that is, mostly, satisfying. Even though the ending for all characters may not feel earned, the story does feel complete. That’s more than a lot of shows ever get.
Also, this is possibly one of the last “event shows” that we’ll get to see. HBO had to work out deals with other providers so that the show premiered globally at the same time. They did this to cut down on leaks and piracy, though both of those things still happened in abundance. Nonetheless, this series is one that touched everyone’s lives. Even those who don’t watch it feel the need to declare it, as if it’s a life choice they feel the need to justify. With streaming and binge-watching, we’ll still all watch the same stuff, mostly. However, having a story like this unfold week-by-week etches itself into pop culture through the fans that are compelled to talk about it with others. Though, one has to wonder if binge-watchers won’t enjoy the series more than fans who watched it as it aired. They may be more forgiving of the flaws in its final seasons than those who had to wait for it.
What’s Next for Game of Thrones?
There are no more episodes as this is the Game of Thrones series finale. Yet, that doesn’t mean there isn’t new stuff for fans. George R.R. Martin recently published a new book, Fire & Blood, which is a history of the Targaryen family. HBO is reportedly developing at least one new series set in the universe. Also, a standalone movie featuring Arya’s further adventures seems possible, especially if AMC has success with their Rick Grimes movie spin-offs of The Walking Dead. Finally, there are the last two books in the series to come, and George R. R. Martin says he’s working on the next book right now. There is plenty to come for fans of Westeros.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.