For the final time…Spoilers below. Watch the last episode of Game of Thrones before reading.
Iconic television programs often struggle to nail the ending. For every M*A*S*H, Newhart and Big Bang Theory (which absolutely stuck its landing last Thursday night), there is a Seinfeld, a How I Met your Mother or a Sopranos, that either tries to do too much, leaves too many head-scratching empty suggestions or just relies on a gimmick before fading to black. None of those shows was anywhere near as complex as Game of Thrones, and none of them approached the scope of its expansive cast or intricate story lines. Yet even some of them struggled to sign off in style.
In this context, it would have been unfair to expect HBO show-runners Benioff and Weiss to tie everything in Game of Thrones up in a neat, little bow. The show ventured down so many alleys that some were bound to turn out blind. That is no excuse for clear missteps, and we have pointed many out through the years. But no creative endeavor is entirely in the hands of the creator. I remember that immutable truth every time I sit down to write these recaps, which never come easily. Best intentions aside, on occasion inspiration evades us all. On balance, Game of Thrones hit the inspirational sweet spot more often than not, and its final episode seems to be a fair representation of the show as a whole.
Remnants of King’s Landing
In the aftermath of Queen Daenerys’s assault on humanity, Tyrion leads Jon and Davos into the smoking remnants of the Capital city. Corpses line the street, many of them formerly civilians and children. Tyrion leaves the party, rejecting Jon’s offer to send men with him. As he rounds a corner, the camera lingers on the girl Arya had failed to save and the toy horse the child’s burned hands still hold, now a charred memento of her stolen life. A broken bell lies in the street, reminding us that none of this was necessary.
The atrocities have not ended. When Jon interrupts Grey Worm in the process of executing Lannister soldiers who are kneeling in surrender, the Unsullied turn their spears on him. Davos calms the situation, but as they walk away, Grey Worm slits the first man’s throat. In his thirst to avenge Missandei, he is indifferent to reason or mercy.
In the basement of the Red Keep, Tyrion confirms what he already knows. Quite improbably, he finds the bodies of Jaime and Cersei, buried under a suspiciously thin layer of bricks only a few feet from daylight. He weeps inconsolably.
The Dothraki (again, did they all reincarnate after having their flames extinguished at the beginning of “The Long Night?”), who have never shown any moral reluctance to destroy cities, are whooping in celebration as Jon passes improbably large ranks of Unsullied survivors of the two wars and climbs the long stairs outside what is left of the Red Keep. Daenerys makes her grand entrance on Drogon’s back, and as she approaches, clad in black, the dragon unfurls its wings behind her. The image, with all its implications, is deftly done. Her soldiers beat their spear shafts on the ground as she promises to bring “justice” to the rest of the world.
Tyrion approaches, knowing he is surendering his life. “You freed your brother. You committed treason,” Daenerys says. “I freed my brother,” replies Tyrion. “And you slaughtered a city.” He tosses his Hand of the Queen pin down the stairs. Though Daenerys has summarily executed others for such actions, plot armor saves Tyrion, who is merely arrested. Arya emerges at Jon’s side as the queen and her soldier escort walk away. She reminds Jon that his birth will always make him a threat to Daenerys. “And I know a killer when I see one,” she adds.
In the first pivotal scene of the evening, Jon (again, we assume, because of plot convenience only) is allowed to visit Tyrion in the room that serves as his prison. The former Hand laments that since he betrayed Varys, the eunuch’s ashes would soon be able to tell his own ashes, “See; I told you.” Jon tries half-heartedly to argue that the war is over, and Daenerys will now implement her plan to protect the innocent. Tyrion says she’ll go on liberating until the world is “free” and she rules them all. They argue about whether their house slogans doom them all to be nothing more than a continuation of their families’ failures. Tyrion reminds him, “My father was an evil man. My sister was an evil woman. Pile up all the bodies of all the people they ever killed, and there still wouldn’t be half as many as our beautiful queen slaughtered in a single day.”
Despite the argument, Jon’s rigid and confused honor will not let him break his vow to Daenerys. To his question, “What’s it matter what I’d do?” Tyrion responds: “It matters more than anything.” Tyrion understands Jon’s reluctance, in part, because he loved Daenerys, too, and believed in her with all his heart. When Jon recalls something Maester Aemon said long ago—“Love is the death of duty”—Tyrion turns the phrase around and adds part of the Night’s Watch oath. “Sometimes, duty is the death of love…You are the shield that guards the realms of men.”
Though Tyrion is employing every tool of persuasion he can muster, Jon seemingly cannot be swayed. As a parting shot, Tyrion asks Jon whether his sisters will bend the knee. Sansa told Tyrion Jon’s secret because she did not want Daenerys to be queen. One might wonder that the Mad Queen has not flown to Westeros already to lay waste to Winterfell. She will not coexist with Sansa and Arya’s resistance for long. “She doesn’t get to choose,” Jon says. “No,” Tyrion replies, “but you do. And you have to choose now.”
In the ruined Great Hall, Daenerys is rapt at the sight of her life’s obsession, the Iron Throne. As she contemplates the realization of her dream, she almost can’t bring her hands to touch it. Whatever magic it holds continues to fill her when she sees Jon in the doorway. She smilingly begins telling him stories of the throne from her childhood. But Jon is angry about the executions and the burned children. The queen spouts an empty excuse about the children being used as weapons against her. She gently refuses Jon’s request to forgive Tyrion and assures him they can make a world of mercy together.
Tyrion had said that every victory increased her belief that she was good and right. Jon asks her how she knows the world they plan to build will be good. As if echoing Tyrion’s words, she replies, “because I know what is good.” When he objects that others may have different views about a just world, she says, “They don’t get to choose.” She urges Jon to rule with her. He says she will always be his queen. They kiss, and he sticks a dagger in her chest. (Daggers seem to have unexpected importance the last two seasons, don’t they?)
Drogon senses her death and flies to the broken chamber. He glares at Jon and gathers flame. Turning, he directs the geyser of fire first at the remnants of the chamber, and then at the throne itself. It is as if he realizes the seat of power, the all-encompassing obsession that consumed his mother, killed her. He melts the throne to smoking, molten liquid, formless and unable to hurt anyone again. If the dragon blames Jon for stabbing Daenerys, he does not punish him for it. He gathers Daenerys’s corpse in his talons and flies away.
Because the show is in an awful hurry now, Jon’s arrest is not depicted. The next scene shows Grey Worm escorting Tyrion to the Dragonpit, where an unlikely assortment of the heads of great houses have assembled. Along with the three Stark siblings, Lord Edmure Tully, Davos, Lord Gendry, Yara Greyjoy, Lord Manderlay, and Robin Arryn hold seats on the assembled council, as do others who have appeared at various times in the series. Oddly, a stand-in for Dorne who we’ve never met 72 episodes into the series is there, too. Sansa complains that Jon has not been brought out with Tyrion. Grey Worm says that Tyrion and Jon are prisoners of the Unsullied. They will do as they like with Jon, who murdered their queen.
Because this is Westeros, Arya threatens Yara, and Sansa and Grey Worm take turns threatening each other. Tyrion brings them around to deciding that a new ruler must be chosen. But who? Edmure begins a speech promoting his own candidacy in the Kings Landing Kingsmoot, but Sansa politely orders him to sit. Sam suggests that since the chosen ruler will rule everyone, maybe everyone should have a say in choosing the ruler. Showing that enlightenment comes in sips, rather than gulps, Manderlay and the others mock the notion of allowing commoners to have any voice in the selection. “May as well let my dog have a vote,” one of them says.
When asked if he wants the crown for himself, Tyrion says he can’t fathom a worse choice, since both Daenerys’s supporters and detractors have reason to hate him. In a long speech suggesting that nothing is more powerful than a story (or history, really), Tyrion works to the conclusion that Bran Stark is the best choice. All of the others assent. All, that is, except Sansa. She tells Bran she knows he will be a wonderful king, but that the North will remain independent, as it has been for thousands of years.
Over Grey Worm’s and Tyrion’s own objections, Bran names Tyrion his Hand, so he can spend the rest of his life correcting the serious mistakes he has made. Bran’s second official duty is to mediate a dispute about what to do with Jon. He decides to send him back to the Wall, though what purpose the Night’s Watch serves now is entirely unclear. Sansa and Arya object to the decision, and Grey Worm does, too. Sounding like a lawyer, Tyrion proclaims that since nobody is happy, the decision must be a good compromise.
Jon says his good-byes, congratulating Sansa for winning back the North’s freedom. Arya says she is not returning north. Instead, she intends to find out what is west of Westeros. If you didn’t get choked up when Jon asked, “You have your Needle?” then you have not invested yourself in anything having to do with this show. He apologizes to Bran for failing to be there when he needed him. Bran espouses predestination, as always, saying Jon was exactly where he was supposed to be.
Brienne finishes Jaime’s entry in the Book of Brothers, celebrating his victories and concluding, generously, “He died protecting his queen.” She is the best. She has apparently been named Captain of the Kingsguard, because she joins the newly assembled Small Council, presided over by Tyrion. Also on the council is Sam, the new Grand Maester, who must have completed his courses by correspondence and somehow obtained a waiver of the “no marriage” clause in maesters’ contracts. Along with him, Ser Davos serves as master of the Navy, which must be rebuilt. Bronn of the Blackwater, newly minted Lord of Highgarden (a title which could only have been conferred by Bran, incidentally) and master of coin, argues that brothels should be rebuilt before ships. As the cameras pull back, Tyrion utters his final line: “I once took a jackass and a honeycomb into a brothel.” We will never get to hear the punchline of that long-standing joke.
Jon arrives at Castle Black, where Tormund and Ghost are waiting for him. He finally pets the direwolf, atoning for a sin that outraged fans two weeks ago. In the gravest of sins yet by the showrunners, Tormund does not utter a line. How could the wildling Giantsbane, who spit out gems like, “Which one of you cowards shit in my pants?” just ride off, saying nothing? Maybe Benioff and Weiss knew that line and the story of suckling a giantess could not possibly be topped.
The show closes with vignettes of the Starks starting their new lives. Arya boards a ship and looks to the far horizon, where only she has hope of a spin-off. Sansa receives her crown, and the stubborn northern lords who are so difficult to convince of anything cheer her “Queen in the North! Queen in the North!” Let’s hope her reign is longer and more productive than Robb’s or Jon’s. Jon and Tormund lead the wildlings through the wall. A symbolic green sprout reaches through the snow. They journey north into the woods. Whether Jon is escorting them or joining them is ambiguous.
Throughout the show’s run, and particularly in the past two seasons, the world has been full of online Mellisandres who look into their own metaphorical fires to explain the meaning of this and that and to make predictions about the eventual outcome of the story. Most of these predictions have turned out to be as wrong as the Red Lady’s premonitions about the Prince who was Promised.
Last week, seemingly everyone focused on Arya’s departure from the burning city on a white horse. Bloggers and commentators drew parallels to the apocalypse in Revelation, in which Death rides a white horse. In the end, the horse turned out to be nothing more than a convenient means of locomotion. Arya’s last kill was the Night King. She appeared in this episode only to give some advice and share a sad farewell. Since she authored the seminal moment of the series, it may be unfair to label her character arc a disappointment. She could have done so much more, though. All that effort to learn the skills of the Faceless men only resulted in revenge against Meryn Trant of the Kingsguard and the Freys. Those were rewarding moments. But the payoff from the tedium of Bravos should have been more than a couple of revenge killings.
Bran’s skills as both a greenseer and a warg were similarly neglected. Though he appears to suggest in an off-handed way that he will use those powers to check on the whereabouts of Drogon, couldn’t he have put them to use to ward off some of the horrible loss of life in both the Great Battle and the Last Battle? Though he told Tyrion he “doesn’t ‘want’” anymore, somewhere a blogger is surely still insisting that Bran is the evil puppet-master of the destruction that ultimately gave him the throne.
In the very first episode, the Starks found the direwolves who have stolen so many viewers’ hearts. Ghost has proved useful at times, and Summer killed the assassin sent to murder Bran and sacrificed himself before Hodor did to aid in Bran and Meera’s escape from the tunnels at the Three-Eyed Raven’s lair. In the end, though, how important were the wolves? Lady was executed in the first season. Shaggydog’s head was tossed on the battlefield as proof that Ramsey really did have Rickon. Grey Wind had his head sewn on Robb’s corpse. Nymeria went her own way, much as Arya has done. But she never figured in the outcome of the tale. Ghost existed at the end only to receive a past-due scratch of affection from Jon. The wolves were not altogether useless, but those who predicted they would play a pivotal role in the outcome must be disappointed.
Some little details are included in the show for fans to focus their speculation. Varys removing his rings. The toy horse that was supposedly loaded with meaning. Arya requesting a special weapon that surely—surely!—would be the key to defeating the army of the dead and the Night King. If the goal was to plant Easter Eggs to promote discussion, then various plants achieved the desired effect.
Other suggestions were hammered deeper into the story, only to amount to very little. Melisandre’s constant ravings about Azor Ahai and her repeated about Arya closing brown, blue and green eyes come to mind. Prophesies about a valonquar killing Cercei, about three betrayals befalling Daenerys, and about the dragon having three heads require mental calisthenics and questionable leaps of logic to explain. The show could not hope to answer every question that remains. There are just too many. Among them:
· Why did Bran so heartlessly dismiss Meera Reed after all she risked for him, and what has become of her now? Why did her father, Howland Reed, who may have possessed important information that could have helped avert some of the tragedies, never appear?
· Why did Drogon, the Dothraki and the Unsullied let Jon live? He killed their queen, and none of them exactly exhibited restraint at any other point in the show.
· Why is there still a Night’s Watch? And is it under the control of the Six Kingdoms or of the North?
· Since Daenerys had agreed to allow the Iron Isles to rule themselves, why is Yara so quick to join the consortium that names Bran king and then bow to him?
· Is the North also a fledgling meritocracy of sorts, or will power pass through primogeniture to Sansa’s heirs?
· What happened to Hot Pie?
· Why did so many characters seemingly overcome so much to become better people, only to revert to their baser natures in the last season?
· Can peace persist with a dragon remaining in the world?
· How did Sam make off with Heartsbane without his irascible goon of a father making any effort to retrieve it?
· Did the Iron Bank of Bravos tear up the Crown’s vast IOU’s?
· What is the rest of Tyrion’s jackass and honeycomb joke?
So, was it sloppy story-telling? Or are we just missing the point? Curiosity abounds.
As we said last week, there must be an underlying reason for the decision to devote so much time and effort into building a story like The Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones. Scholars pen long-winded analyses of books and dramatic creations, ferreting out details and drawing comparisons that may never have occurred to the writers or directors. Some fans and observers try to pin everything to a single platitude. Neither approach is particularly rewarding. A fair number of fans—particularly those of the show-only stripe—get frustrated that some of us insist on looking for underlying messages. “Can’t it just be entertainment for its own sake?” they argue.
In a world that too often tries to equate even commonplace athletic performances with the profound, it seems we should be able to find something of significance in the efforts of George R.R. Martin and the makers of HBO’s version of the story, other than awesome dragons, a little magic and cutthroat political violence. All stories are grounded in characters seeking something basic. Game of Thrones examined family, the dynamics of gaining and keeping power, love, trust, devotion, loss, disappointment, death, history and “honor,” whatever that is. The list is endless. There may be no single, deep message in the story. But there are many messages of varying depths. Far be it from me to tell you what lessons you should take from your entertainment.
Requiem for a Blog
When Wildcat00 ceded this column to me as a fledgling Fanpost, I did not know how much time and energy I would ultimately invest into writing one of the most comprehensive weekly recaps you’ll find anywhere. The banality of some of the space-filler columns published on professional blogs and news sites irritates me, and I have tried to take the subject seriously while still striving to entertain.
For me, at least, it has been worth the effort, even when the show occasionally disappointed me. After two decades of doing mostly technical writing, I have enjoyed the chance to stretch my more artistic analytical and critical legs again. I appreciate your indulgence of my long-winded narratives (on a sports blog, no less), and I hope you have enjoyed both the recaps and the banter they have encouraged in the comments section. Thanks for reading.
Pass/Fail: After 73 episodes, in the end I was:
This poll is closed
Satisfied with the show.
Dissatisfied with the show.