[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the “Game of Thrones” finale: Season 8, Episode 6, “The Iron Throne.”]
“Game of Thrones” was often about believing in the impossible. Accepting that heroes could return from the dead, that fire-breathing beasts could patrol the sky, that the fairy tale rhythms of old could be used for less-storybook ends. With its final stroke, “Game of Thrones” added something to that list. It delivered an ending that fit.
Its final episode, “The Iron Throne,” saw a conclusion that didn’t so much serve as a corrective for the narrative shortcomings of its preceding installments as much as it reframed the last few dozen hours spent in Westeros. A punctuation of sorts to one of TV’s most massive installments, it cut through the myriad expectations and offered up an impressive closing chapter, balancing a litany of character sendoffs with a parting thematic statement on the nature of power.
The dread that pervaded the last moments of “The Bells” very much seeped its way into the following week, from the opening image of a somber Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) walking through the charred remains of King’s Landing. Choosing not to let a city torn asunder be forgotten in favor of lauding the installment of a new ruler, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) surveys a new world shrouded in the ash left behind by her own fury. Looking out over a seemingly endless sea of Unsullied and Dothraki hoards, there’s a hint of a smile as she considers the worlds still left to conquer.
In the tradition of George R.R. Martin’s framing of the series as an indictment of interventionist policy abroad, it’s surely no coincidence that “liberators” is the term of choice for Daenerys’ justifications. And speaking of veeps, as Daenerys condemns Tyrion to imprisonment and almost certain death, it brings to mind another recent HBO series-capping episode that also featured a woman in power realizing she has no one left to trust.
Much as Arya’s (Maisie Williams) fight to stay alive during the fiery siege was a tiny mark in the column of wanting to stay alive, Tyrion’s decision to cast off his duties as Hand of the Queen seems like a tick in the opposite direction. That one of the show’s main characters would rather die than live in the new political reality he helped create is its strongest case that the world “Game of Thrones” built was not destined to survive. After a lengthy holding cell conversation, Tyrion invokes Jon’s (Kit Harington) adoptive sisters as a reason for stopping Dany before King’s Landing’s fate is visited on the remaining kingdoms.
Following another “Thrones” tradition — characters meeting an untimely end at the end of a sword right after attaining something long sought after — Jon acts on Tyrion’s advice, delivering one literal and figurative heart-piercing blow to Dany within view of the Iron Throne itself. The resulting scene, with Drogon angrily reducing the show’s landmark symbol of power to globs of molten steel, is in line with Dany’s long insistence that these beasts were her children. In a long line of drastic “Game of Thrones” actions driven by parental allegiances and missteps, the last one rectified on a grand scale comes from what amounts to a son’s justified anger.
It’s also no surprise that this episode was one marked by interruptions. Dany’s commentary on items looming larger in one’s imagination is preempted from becoming a majestic monologue. An ode to the glory of yesteryear from a suddenly reemergent Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies) gets nipped in the bud by Sansa (Sophie Turner). Whether that’s episode writers and directors David Benioff and D. B. Weiss taking one last chance to control the narrative or them taking aim at their own assumptions after over a decade of shepherding this saga, “The Iron Throne” found surprising ways to redirect its own path.
Another of those mammoth changes of course is the collective choosing of Bran as king. It’s an abrupt development, to be sure, another element of this season that could have benefited from additional screen time to percolate. (The slightest prospect of a cadre of lords and ladies installing Davos Seaworth in the highest position of Westerosi authority was maybe the episode’s most thrilling development.) But the motivations behind the decision, however swift, is the effort to decentralize and remove the luster from a prize that has largely meant chaos and despair for those who’ve worked hardest to attain it. It’s the realization and correction of a problem that’s plagued much of this season’s events: If one action can shift the course of the future, if one dagger can fell an entire army, if one dragon can level the seat of power, then that’s a world destined for strife and instability.
Is it a naive or rose-colored outlook to make canon that legions of people with power within their grasp would relinquish it for the sake of easing global tension? With a look at recent headlines, maybe. Again, this is a larger geopolitical unpacking that’s going to take more than a snap reaction to do in a meaningful way.
But even with the first word in the show’s title, “Game of Thrones” was never going to be something “won” in a meaningful way. Yes, the prevailing attitude of “In the game of thrones, you win or you die” that seemed to guide so much of the series’ ethos doesn’t leave room for many happy endings. But the character who delivered those words is last seen under a sizable amount of rubble.
So, to paraphrase another power-minded figure from another corner of the monoculture, “Game of Thrones” let the past die. They killed it because they had to.
Was the destruction of the penultimate episode the most elegant way of making this frame shift feel like an inevitability? Perhaps not. There are undoubtedly some of these parting notes that don’t fully line up in harmony with everything around it. The one-two punch of seeing Jaime’s metal hand protruding from a pile of rocks and watching the wings of dragon look as if they’d sprouted from Dany’s own shoulders certainly felt like the precursor to a parade of on-the-nose endings that would have been interminable. And Sam delivering a written history to Tyrion, threatening to become the Ponyboy of the Six Kingdoms and institute a “The Outsiders”-style feedback loop where story and text loop onward for infinity, is its own level of winking tidiness.
But it’s through rejecting the easy sendoffs through most of what comes after that makes this the best installment of Season 8. For as much as the show has leaned on philosophical debates and backroom conversations that merely served to reintroduce plot details and underline thematic elements with a Longclaw-sized pen, this finale used its last minutes to offer up some powerful considerations of duty and honor and family. The subdued blend of melancholy and dark humor that ran through this series like a vein of gold plays out in that final summit of Davos, Bronn, Brienne, Sam, and Tyrion. Even down to adjusting the chairs around the table of advisors before they come in to rearrange things again, it’s in rejecting much of the pull of empty spectacle that makes this feels like a worthy farewell.
The assumption that “Game of Thrones” would end with an ultimate victor rarely entertained multiple notable figures left alive to share the spoils. In this, the waning moments of its story, “The Iron Throne” carved out space for a logical way for a split reign to feel righteous, if not completely earned in every respect. Still, the child whose fall marked the series’ first cut to black now sees over that same world’s fate. To complete the circle, the series ends in the forests of The North, where it began all those years ago. One last brushstroke of destiny. It’s almost impossible to imagine it ending any other way.