The series finale is a crucial, important part of a TV series’ lasting legacy. But it ISN’T the end all be all to one’s relationship to a series, or how we might perceive it in the future.
That’s something I’ve been trying to remind myself for years now, especially in the face of series finale’s that end up disappointing me. I might have hated where How I Met Your Mother ultimately chose to hang its entire storyline, but why should that ruin my love of such incredible episodes as “Lucky Penny,” “The Time Travelers,” or “Slap Bet.” Orphan Black might have completely fizzled out on any sense of narrative urgency on the path towards its end, but that doesn’t eliminate the pure excitement and joy I felt watching the series introduce itself in its first season. Arrested Development might be a shell of a series as it concludes its fifth (and 95% last) season…but it’s still goddamn Arrested Development. A show ending poorly does not equal a series being poor. As cliche as it might be to say it, it’s all about the journey, not necessarily the destination.
So that little mantra is of course floating through my head as I approach Game of Thrones’ final denouement, entitled “The Iron Throne.” Hell, if we’re being honest, it’s been something I’ve been telling myself for the last two years: while I went in hopeful this could turn out well, it wasn’t like Breaking Bad or The Leftovers where I had complete and utter faith things would end satisfactorily (and, spoiler alert for those two shows — things did!) Game of Thrones had made enough mistakes in its past few seasons, and had such a massive challenge in wrapping up this long, winding story, that I always knew disappointment could be a possibility. Scratch that: a probability.
So while I expressed a fair bit of frustrations and outrage at last week’s “The Bells,”, realistically, it’s nothing that should be super shocking — the show was almost doomed to fail expectation-wise for many of its biggest moments, as I expressed earlier this season. Now I don’t agree with the piss poor reasoning from many of the show’s current defenders that my frustrations stem from not wanting the show to end, or that I held on to my own fan theories too long, or any other silly arguments that puts the opus of the series’ failure on the viewer’s shoulders. Quite frankly, all those hot takes from the series’ defenders are basically saying “the show is great, YOU are flawed!” which, honestly…go fuck yourselves. Game of Thrones Season 8 was an unwieldy, deeply flawed, rather problematic, and occasionally downright bad conclusion to this overarching story. It dug its own grave here, and well I’m sure expectations keyed into some of the bigger feelings of disappointment surrounding the show, that’s only because the series failed to leave us with anything else.
As I’ve argued many times in the past on other beloved-but-controversial geek franchises, the need to gravitate to fan theories only arises if you were, on some level, deeply dissatisfied with what the series gave you in its place. You (or at least I) stick to the fan theory not because you wanted to be proven right and God King of All the Nerds, but because what actually transpired with the story left you cold. And that’s Game of Thrones Season 8, and that’s “The Iron Throne” — like The Night King (who, let me remind you, at one point was kind of a big deal on this show), I’m cold as hell, with all of this.
Which is an odd sensation, really. Going into “The Iron Throne,” I expected to really hate it. After the show took a shit on itself last week, my expectations were pretty bottom of the barrel here. But this wasn’t a complete and utter disaster of a finale (I know, low bars and all.) It was..fine. Bland, kind of cheesy, and rushed as hell (what else is new for this season?), but not outright terrible. In no way would I call it a strong conclusion, or necessarily even a good one. But, uh, it was an ending. And to further quote The Simpsons, I guess that’s enough?
I will give “The Iron Throne” this, though: for the first 45 minutes or so, I was actually kind of digging what the episode was doing. Sure, I had to completely push to the back of my mind the “why” of the whole thing, but the aftermath of Dany’s actions was pretty well staged, and rather boldly so I would say. The start of the episode is like a full minute of Tyrion just slowly walking looking sad, which I know might sound unbearable in theory. But I think it actually works here, and I appreciate the balls it took from Weiss and Benioff to have the ending of this massive blockbuster TV show be something relentlessly slow, dark as hell, and filled with remorse. In many ways, this feels more like Game of Thrones than anything else we’ve gotten this season.
Really, the big issues in “The Iron Throne” don’t crop up until after all the Jon/Daeny drama is dispensed with, and boy howdy does the episode throw itself off the cliff after that. It’s funny that this entire last half of the season has, in my mind, suffered heavily from that problem: I’m with it up until a point, then mid-way through it goes to crazy town and never quite regains its footing. Here, that division point is pretty clear to see: Jon stabs Daeny, in a scene that was as inevitable as it was oddly kind of cheesy and unremarkable. Drogon comes in and burns the throne, in a moment I felt very much was the show making its grand statement (until it takes it all back 10 minutes later but, wait a second, we will get there.) Then Drogon takes off with Daeny’s corpse, Jon Snow looks sad (as he does), and the show literally fades to black. At this point, “The Iron Throne” becomes another, far weaker episode.
And a lot of that has to do with how little anything that occurs in this half holds up under even the tiniest amount of scrutiny: I know, I know, at this point it should be expected with Game of Thrones that you have to ignore like half of what’s going on in order for anything to register. Which is exactly what the show itself does in this moment by fading to black, once again “yadda yadda yadda”-ing the craziest, potentially most exciting parts! What happened when Grey Worm found Jon? Did Jon admit he killed Daeny, because he’s a dummy? I mean, conceivably, he could have said nothing and no one would have known anything. He had the perfect murder! And why, after all that killing of the Lannister men because Daeny didn’t want to take prisoners…did Grey Worm proceed to take Jon Snow a prisoner? Why did this angsty murder bro decide now would be a good time to institute some mercy, rather than going completely ham with his massive army and kill everyone?
How did the news spread of Daeny’s death? When did Sansa decide to ride south for this procession? How did they get all these people in a room to discuss the Jon Snow situation? Half these fuckers didn’t even show up for the goddamn war, and now Edmure Tully is just going to stroll in and try to contribute? How long had it been by that point? Days? Weeks? MONTHS? And if has been a long amount of time (logistically it would almost have to be, to get everyone down here), you’re telling me Grey Worm just had both the Unsullied and Dothraki, who literally spent years traveling to Westeros to conquer for their beloved Queen, and now saw her murdered by the enemy…just hung out, generally? No big activities? They, and the whole damn realm while we were at it, just sat there and allowed no power structure to exist for an extended period of time? OH FUCKING K Game of Thrones, suuuuuuure.
Yes, the tone of my last few paragraphs probably betrays the whole “whatever, it was fine” thing that I was setting up in the first few, but what can I say? While these things did and still do bother me, I’m kind of playing them up for the sake of the review: in theory, my reaction to them is…yeah, whatever. It makes no sense that Bran became king because he has a good story (????), and that Grey Worm is just okay with that, and that Sansa gets to keep the North, and no one else in the seven kingdoms finds that all a point of contention (there is literally 100% no chance in hell the people of Dorne and the Iron Isles wouldn’t argue for Independence too, at that point), but, in the moment, I really didn’t care. I was numb. I just wanted the damn thing to end.
And then it finally did, and look — I got some emotional catharsis out of it. Seeing all the Starks embrace their future was kind of nice. And Jon finally petting his goddamn dog was cool. Tyrion heading up a new small council was also a satisfying grace note I guess, if you can ignore everything that happened with Tyrion for, oh, three seasons now. Things ended, and Ramin Djawadi’s score was cool, and that was that. I turned it off, shrugged, and grabbed dinner. There goes a decade of my TV watching life, I guess.
I feel I’m not the only one living with such pure apathy about this finale, and a part of me does wonder why — did the events of “The Bells” just numb me so? At this point, was I happy just to move on? Well, yeah, that’s certainly a part of it. But I think, as I thought about the finale a little more and really honed down my issues with it in my mind, the failings of “The Iron Thorne,” and perhaps the season, and unfortunately maybe the series overall, is this: I don’t know what the theme of Game of Thrones ultimately was.
For the longest time, I thought it was about how the quest for power is ultimately a silly thing, and that who has the crown is meaningless in the face of pure oblivion. But then pure oblivion rolled in and was swiftly dealt with in one episode, with the show shifting back to the quest for power, and framing it as the end all be all of the series. So I guess that theme is shot. So if it’s instead trying to make a thematic point about that quest for power…what is it? I kind of got something about the thin line between good intentions and self-service, and how people thinking they are the moral “good” can quickly lead to monstrous actions…but that seems like a theme that barely popped up like right now, and was mostly just a way for the show to once again work up to some, ANY type of reason for why Daeny did what she did. So as an overarching, series-wide theme, it doesn’t sit with me either.
At the end of the day, what became of the literal game of thrones in Game of Thrones was going to factor heavily into the story that this entire enterprise was trying to tell. And there was two directions that this endgame could have been leading to, based on how they set it up in the last few episodes.
The cynical conclusion to this series would have been everything reverting back to normal, no fundamental change actually occurring, and all the actions of our characters being pretty much useless in the face of the face of insurmountable, neigh unbeatable establishment. I can dig a cynical ending, if the show truly understood and reveled in that cynicism. On the other side of the coin there would be the “happy” ending, in which the characters all found some form of redemption and/or earned conclusion, their actions led to a better society for Westeros, and the march of progress continued forward for every part of the Seven Kingdoms. I can also a dig a happy ending, because it would be both emotionally satisfying and proof that the show was working towards this entire Song of Ice and Fire being a momentous, important time for the history of Westeros. But “The Iron Throne” tries to have it both ways by giving this a “happy” ending (or as happy as it can be for Game of Thrones), while also fundamentally having everything stay very close to the same by the very end. Based on what this series was trying to be from the beginning, you had to make a larger point with the final state of Westeros here. But the show, maddeningly, does not.
Everything goes back to (relative) normal, and the long term repercussions of The War of Five Kings or The Long Night or Daeny’s invasion really don’t seem to have changed the state of Westeros. Yeah some people died and some houses fell, which kind of sucks. But the system stayed in place, for the most part, and the series is kind of saying that’s a…good thing? It presents no reason for us as an audience to think that Bran as king is doomed to fail (even though, yeah, it’s stupid, and doomed to fail), and presents it very much as the “best” person in Westeros getting the job. And for some reason, the show seemed to be going about all this as thought it was all a surprisingly happy ending (it’s final “shocking twist,” probably.) It makes me think of a quote from a pretty notable writer, about the fallacy of the “good” ruler concept:
“Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. “
That man is of course George R.R. Martin, as it probably comes as little shock to you. The whole time King Bran the Broken (such a LOVELY name by the way) was ruling and everything was going back to normal and a council was in place and everyone was laughing and having a good time once more, I was left thinking: this is all way too easy. Jon defeated the “villain” because I guess that’s what Daeny is now, and got to go and live with the Wildings and his dog, which by all accounts is a pretty good life for him. So the villain was slain, peace was restored to the land, yadda yadda yadda. Cool. But once again: at the end of the day what with this series trying to impart? What. was. the. point?
The best series finales I can think of found ways to end their stories in ways that not only delivered on story and character, but left a lasting impression on WHY the story they were telling had to be told. What, thematically, it all meant. Walter White came to terms with how he was a bad man, and how his selfish actions destroyed his life. The Leftovers concluded that, even with the world in chaos and so many people gone, “I’m here.” And The Americans taught us there was no path to real peace for our central spies, but they still had each other, and that at the end of the day would get them through it, as it always kind of did. I left those finales feeling satisfied, because I felt like a story was told, and that a lesson was imparted. The plot didn’t just end: it said everything it needed to say, and concluded on that note. That, through all these hours of actions and twists and turns, we reached a point where the series MEANT something. I don’t know if Game of Thrones means something, not anymore. At the end of the day, it seems like these writers were unsure what story they were ultimately trying to tell. So they instead went with the default “happy” ending, in hopes that would be enough to satisfy (a happy ending for the characters, at least: you have to REALLY stretch and outright ignore things in order to buy this as a happy ending for the kingdom, but that’s what the creators did here, so…) But this is Game of Thrones — you would hope for something more exciting than that, right?
It’s ironic that I’m very much coming to the end of this stream-of-consciousness, and unsure how to really end things. I mean, this is the last recap I’m ever going to write for Game of Thrones, and I guess all I can think about is the fact that I feel tired. And that I’m really looking forward to watching the Barry finale after this. And that the Westworld Season 3 trailer looked very cool, and I hope that show doesn’t break my heart again.
In the back of my mind I’m trying to live by the words I typed in the opening paragraphs, and remember that I loved this show at a time, and that it still gave some of my favorite moments that I’ve ever seen in a TV series. I’ll hold on to those moments, from the Red Wedding to Hardhome, to The Light of the Seven and the Loot Train Battle. But that’s all, unfortunately, I think I’ll remember from Game of Thrones: it was a collection of great moments, and cool scenes. And, the longer it went on, the more it became just that. I’ll paraphrase the only other series that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ever wrote for, and then free you from this review forever. Game of Thrones was politics. And then penetration. Politics. Penetration. Politics. Penetration. And on and on and on until the TV series just sort of..ends. That’s the legacy of “The Iron Throne.” And that’s the legacy of Game of Thrones…for better or worse.
A Song of Ice and Loose Ends:
- My alt closing here was going to just be the final scene of Burn After Reading, in which J.K. Simmons questions just what the fuck just transpired. Never before have the words “What did we learn, Palmer?” rung so true.
- On the note of the whole book thing: UGGGGHHHH. This episode was filled to the brim with surprisingly cheesy, “cutesy” moments, but the Song of Ice and Fire being like A REAL BOOK IN THE SHOW WRITTEN ABOUT THE EVENTS OF THE SHOW, GUYS, WHAAAAA??? takes the case. It’s the most predictable thing imaginable, and once upon a time, GoT would have shied away from such a thing. Dear writers of other pop culture: stay away from this overplayed device, please.
- If it wasn’t cheesy, “The Iron Throne” was engaging outright trolling behavior. As hysterical as it was to see Edmure Tully’s campaign be shot down so instantly (and it was!), bringing the character back after such a huge gap, with little explanation for WTF he had been doing this whole time, was pure trolling to the fanbase who, quite validly I would at, had a lot of questions about his fate following his disappearance.
- Other troll moment: Sam proposing democracy, and being literally laughed down. I don’t know if Sam inventing democracy would have been a satisfying way for the show to take things either, but at least it would have been A way, right? It would have been a solution that wasn’t just “I don’t know, same thing, but it works this time maybe cause he’s magic?”
- Yeah, as you can probably tell, was not at all a fan of King Bran. It’s silly and doesn’t quite make sense with what we know of Bran to take the job, nor Tyrion for proposing it. Once again Peter Dinklage has to make a BIG SPEECH to sell a very weak plot point conjured up by the writers, and boy is he trying his very best to sell it. But it just doesn’t work, fundamentally.
- “So Jon kills Daeny…what happens after this then?” “Fuuuuuuuck I don’t know just skip over all that and get to the resolution, we have a Star Wars pitch due in the morning!” — David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, writing “The Iron Throne”
- I fucking HATED Grey Worm in this episode. Don’t get me wrong, he was never like my favorite character or anything, but I never had a beef with him…until now. He’s just such a pissy little shit throughout most of it, being all dark and edgy because, guys, HE LOST THE LOVE OF HIS LIFE!!! DON’T YOU GET IT??? Ugh, go to hell Grey Worm, I will not miss your presence. Have fun in Naath, dying of the butterfly fever, jackass!
- Tyrion throwing the hand of the king pin down the stairs was a badass moment, I’ll give it that.
- I know what you are thinking: so Jon petting Ghost at the end totally makes him not doing it back in “The Last of the Starks” totally okay, right? Ha ha, no are you kidding me? It still doesn’t make sense. In fact, wouldn’t it have made his moment with Ghost here all the sweeter if he had a tearful goodbye with his faithful companion then, and then got to lovingly reunite with him here? Nope, uh uh — Jon still did that dog dirty. Ghost should have just ignored him upon his return and ran off to be with his real master, Tormund.
- That Brienne scene is a sad way for her to go out, honestly, and not in a good way. And are we supposed to take it from that moment that Jamie’s final actions were at all “good?” That he died the noble thing by “dying with his queen?” Because, come the fuck on. If he died in battle during “The Long Night” or even by trying to stop Cersei, Brienne tearfully ending his story with praise would have been an insanely powerful moment. She could have written as the words in his official history that he was, in fact, a “good man.” But she couldn’t write that. Because he wasn’t. And that sucks for pretty much everyone involved.
- This is still a pretty solid conclusion for Arya, all things considered. Of all the characters, her story was by far the most satisfying, and with her being my favorite, at least I have that. And I will very much watch her spin-off series where she becomes a pirate adventurer, thank you very much. Leaving money on the table otherwise, HBO!
- No, I will not talk about the water bottle you can’t make me
- All your favorite characters return in the big tribunal scene, from Man #2 to Man #4! I particularly love Man #4, all the fun times we have had with him.
- Robin Arryn did come back though, and…he’s hot now?! Oh no. I was not ready for this.
- I can’t possibly end this piece, and thus my time reviewing Game of Thrones, with the sentiment of “Robin Arryn fucks now, gosh.” So I’ll say this: this is my last time reviewing Game of Thrones, yes, but it’s also probably going to be my last time recapping ANY show, at least for a while, as I transition into writing on the other side of things for the foreseeable future (but more on that, I imagine, later.) Recapping is frankly not an easy job, but it is a lot of fun to sit here and try to better understand my point of view on a thing I just watched. I’m sure a lof of it comes out messy and not very well composed and long as hell (how are you still reading this far, my guys?), but it is still a lot of fun for me, at least. And concluding, at least for now, with Game of Thrones, does at least feel right.
- Okay but really, one more bitchy note to end things on: that’s really the last shot? The wildlings just…wallking into the forest? If any series deserves a stunning, memorable final moment, it’s this one. But ten years from now, I think we’ll all going to struggle to remember where “The Iron Throne” actually concluded…if we remember anything about it at all.
Also published on Medium.
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