[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 8, Episode 5, “The Bells.”]
Following Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) epic heel turn in the penultimate episode of “Game of Thrones,” fans who feel betrayed by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have alternately called for a redo of the season or to just burn it all down like so much of the Red Keep. Ending the series was never going to be an easy task — even if the duo had author George R.R. Martin’s rough master plan at their fingertips — but this season’s missteps have corroded fans’ faith seemingly for good. Fear not. The problems that have been present throughout the season are actually why the finale will stick the (King’s) landing.
The season began with a promise from the showrunners to be more respectful of time and pacing, but they overcorrected with the first two episodes’ static plotting. However, they included several lovely character moments, and herein lies the key to their storytelling style. “Moments” are where Benioff and Weiss appear to excel. In the first five seasons when Martin’s texts had set the pace, they were able to craft their moments meticulously — such as creating the atmospheric horror of the Red Wedding — always knowing where the characters would go next.
Once Benioff and Weiss surpassed the books, they used the moments to give characters zippy lines and heroic actions, such as the epic Clegane Bowl, but stringing together these moments to give emotional authenticity and evolution — forget it. Instead, meatier storytelling time is given to the action and spectacles since those are the end goal – when it should be the other way around. That’s why in Episode 5, Daenerys is rarely the focus after becoming a villain, while the death and destruction she delivers is put front and center — and feels interminable.
While this narrative shift could be interpreted as a sign that the finale will be a miserable affair, this is precisely the reason why the ending will be fine. And no, this is not an ironic “fine” like the meme with the anthropomorphic dog in a burning room. Benioff and Weiss are good at hitting the moment, no matter how loosey-goosey they are at leading up to it. That’s why the War of Winterfell — with its abysmal military strategy and nonexistent stakes for the main characters — ultimately feels satisfying. Give Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) a surprise Night King assassination set to Ramin Djawadi’s score, and it’s pure magic on a show that increasingly seems to abhor magic.
So too with the finale. All the pieces have been maneuvered — albeit poorly and illogically — and are now poised for each of their big moments. With nothing left but these end points, Benioff and Weiss can allow themselves to fully realize each one, since they wrote and directed this final episode.
While everyone will have some sort of spotlight to wrap up their stories, the big, notable moments will go to five central characters — Daenerys, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) — whether they live or die, become rulers or outcasts, or just go their own way. Something definitive and significant will happen for each of them, and this is why the finale will feel emotionally resonant, if maybe not entirely fulfilling depending on the viewers’ particular allegiances.
Here’s a look at where these five big players stand and what could be in store for their final moments:
After the Mother of Dragons’ murder spree, only two likely outcomes are left. She will either continue on her trajectory and become a complete tyrant of a ruler, plunging the show into pure nihilism, or she’ll have to pay for her actions, which could lead to any number of grim fates. No matter what, a happy and popular ascension to the Iron Throne doesn’t look to be in the cards for her. Ultimately, Daenerys will have the most dissatisfying personal journey in service to the greater story.
And to be clear, this is not merely a judgment on making Daenerys a bad guy. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) was one of the show’s most fully realized and fascinating villains ever. Her popularity to the end was not diminished. Same with Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). If anything, fans objected to their fates because they were given endings unworthy of their previous character development. Sound familiar?
One of the biggest questions fans are asking is, “Who will kill Daenerys?” It’s a gruesome thought experiment, but in keeping with the show’s morbid nature. Ultimately, if this comes to pass, her fate will likely be determined by one of the other four below.
The King in the North has been steadfast in support of his queen, but his eyes are now open to how she’s capable of immoral and disturbing acts. His conscience will be sorely tested in the finale when it comes to backing Daenerys and her horrifying actions.
His Stark blood has been his moral compass, and while it may steer him to make the ultimate sacrifice — ending his dangerous queen’s reign — it also may draw him back up North. He’s never wanted to rule, even if his lineage gives him a claim. Then again, as some may argue, this is what makes him perfect to wear the crown.
She’s always been a fan-favorite character for her indomitable spirit and no-nonsense manner. Saving the world from the Night King is her grandest achievement, but her recent presence in King’s Landing makes no narrative sense after she traveled the country and waited years to kill the queen… only to be talked out of it with a few words.
All of her random activities in the Red Keep trying to stay alive feel like bizarre contrivances with no point — other than perhaps to keep her in viewers’ minds or exacerbate the beef she has with Daenerys. There are still murder prophecies to fulfill, after all, and what’s the difference between killing one bad queen or another? Should Arya survive (queenslaying is not without risks), she doesn’t seem destined for the Iron Throne, but she’d make a good enforcer for whoever ends up there.
Tyrion is tied with Jon as perhaps the second-most tragic figure left alive. Yes, his faith in his queen has been shattered, but even more unforgivable, her thirst for power and the destruction of her enemies killed his brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Tyrion had said a tearful goodbye expecting to never see his brother again, but he had the hope that Jaime would be alive elsewhere. Daenerys killed that hope.
Tyrion’s intelligence has been called into question several times this season, and that has to be disheartening since that and drinking are the two skills he has to offer. His identity and his family are gone. He really has nothing left to lose and his future feels the most uncertain. Tyrion could drown in despair (and wine), seek revenge, stay by Dany’s side, or perhaps just buddy up with Bronn (Jerome Flynn) who promised to seek Jaime and Tyrion out after Cersei died. As the last of the Lannisters, perhaps it’s incumbent on Tyrion to continue the family line or let it wither away and die to the strains of “The Rains of Castamere.”
Having sat out the battle for King’s Landing, she’s still fresh and not disillusioned by witnessing such carnage. But she did warn Jon against Daenerys, and even advised the queen to not jump back into conflict so quickly. None of what went down in King’s Landing will be a shock to Sansa, and she’ll have an answer beyond “I told you so” for that mess down south.
Sansa represents the North, which is where the story all began. And while she has Ned Stark’s steadiness, she has none of his principled naivete. How she’s come into her own is one of the reasons why fans have backed her as the final victor. Although she certainly has the level-headedness for ruling, but she’d be hard-pressed to leave Winterfell unless a family member she trusts — perhaps a disillusioned Jon Snow? — takes over. Or she could stay put and helps whoever ends sitting on the Iron Throne.
The time for predictions and theories has come to an end. No matter which of these scenarios play out for these characters, the finale will be bittersweet. Although that has an air of inevitability to it, that doesn’t preclude reasons to celebrate; the end will be emotionally engaging because fans have invested over 70 hours enjoying this world and its characters.
Benioff and Weiss also love Westeros and its people. Now that all the pesky connecting of the dots is done, it’s their time to shine with the storytelling aspect they do best. They delivered Ned’s death, Daenerys’ first dracarys, the Red Wedding, Hodor’s tragic end, Cersei’s Mad Queen shenanigans, and Viserion’s twist. This is their last big moment. It’s going to be fine.
”Game of Thrones” airs its series finale on Sunday, May 19 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.