I remember distinctly watching the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation. The reason why I remember is that I was one of 125 people who won two tickets to watch the series finale as it was broadcast on the IMAX screen at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh. The excitement in the theatre before the show began was palpable. We few, we happy few, we Trekkers who were going to see GIANT PICARD and company sail off into the sunset in “All Good Things…” on the big screen were excited to share in the end of the beloved show. Two hours later, the feeling in the room was very different. The episode was, frankly, meh. Yes, seeing the show on a giant screen was cool (Yay, big Enterprise!), but the size of the screen was not matched by the scope of the episode.
Since then, I’ve always believed series finales are usually like proms: really built up in the mind and the hype, but just the same thing as a regular school dance with much more expensive clothing and tickets. None of the Treks ended in truly memorable and well-made episodes. Battlestar Galactica came close. Buffy not so much. Now that I’m thinking about it, the only series finale that both made sense and had satisfactory endings to character arcs was M*A*S*H, which ended the Korean War and sent everyone home. That made sense.
Which brings me to this past Sunday night. By this point, millions of words have been spilled about “The Iron Throne;” the series set up so much of the finale in the first season. Kudos. The series lost its edge in the last two episodes. True. The female characters, so strong for much of the narrative, are betrayed in the last three episodes. True, as well. It has one of the lowest scores of any Game of Thrones episode on IMDb. (4.4 as of this writing – in fact the lowest six scores for GoT are all in season eight. The next lowest is 8.1 in Season 5). An unscientific study of Facebook shows a fair split between love and hate for the episode.
But since I began with the ideas that final episodes are often just episodes and never the best episode of a series, let’s consider “The Iron Throne,” at least initially, as just another episode.
We open with Tyrion walking through the rubble. Kings Landing looks like it was hit by a nuke, down to the shirtless man walking past him with his skin falling off his back. (I immediately went to John Hershey’s descriptions in Hiroshima.) In a lovely visual callback, he walks past a fallen and cracked bell. Snow falls (or is it ash)?
Jon and Davos come across Grey Worm killing prisoners. Jon objects, but Grey Worm does not care; we have an Unsullied standoff. Jon is clearly not cool with the vengeful new world order.
Tyrion wanders the ruin of the Red Keep. He descends to the cellars and crypts, which last week were filling with collapsing building. This week, they are cluttered and dirty, but passable. He finds his siblings corpses under a handful of bricks. If only Jaime had embraced his sister fifteen feet to the left, they would have lived. I know what they’re going for here, but the pathos is undermined by the utter improbability of it all.
Dany, in the meantime, either found or brought a Targaryen banner to hang on the ruins and has her own Triumph of the Will rally. Again, visually pretty, but how are there that many Dothraki left after the Battle of Winterfell? Tyrion very publicly quits and is arrested for freeing his brother. Jon comes to visit him. “Did you bring any wine?” is the first thing Tyrion asks. I miss that Tyrion – the one who embraced his vices and knew who and what he was. Now: “Oblivion is the best I can hope for,” Tyrion tells him. Tyrion then points out the obvious: Dany is a fanatic who believes she is the sole arbiter of what is good, what is right, and what is just. It is obvious there is no dissent. “Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer for it.” But now, she gets to decide who is evil, and her definition of evil is anyone who disagrees or stands against her. That is tyranny. She is not the breaker of chains, she is the replacer of chains – meet the new boss, same as the old boss, just with a dragon. The scariest thing in the world is a fanatic who thinks they know better than you what is best for you and everyone else.
The winning argument, though, is that Dany will eventually be driven to kill Arya and Sansa. When she tells Jon that she knows what is good and she will eliminate anyone opposed to the good, Jon puts a dagger in her heart. Drogon knows momma is dead and shows up to stomp, threaten, and then melt the iron throne. He leaves Jon alone, grabs Dany’s body (with Jon’s dagger still in it), and flies east – perhaps to do some crazy “Weekend at Dany’s” in Essos.
For some reason, Jon must have told everyone what happened, as they all know the truth of it. For an even crazier reason, the fanatical followers of Dany imprison him (instead of tearing him to pieces the second they learn what happened) and let everyone else know things have gotten weird in Kings Landing.
A human Entmoot is called, and a large number of people sit in the dragonpits and discuss who should be king. Edmure Tully self-nominates and is told by his niece to sit down.
Sam Tarly suggests democracy and everybody laughs. Tyrion suggests Bran be named king. He cannot have children, argues Sansa. Perfect, counters Tyrion – then it is no longer about creating a dynasty. It’s about ruling now. With the death of a king, a new king will be selected by and from the ruling houses instead of primogeniture being the law. Bran (who refused the lordship of Winterfell and who told people he is no longer Bran) announces the only reason he came south was to take this job. Sansa announces the north will remain a separate nation and is subsequently crowned queen of the North. So, two Stark children sit on the two thrones at the end of the series. Although, an argument can be made that Tyrion, now Hand to King Bran the Broken, first of his name, will run the day-to-day aspects of the kingdom. Bran is more of a figurehead. And why is Bronn on the small council?
Ironically, in a show known for killing everybody in every episode, Dany and the Lannister prisoners are the only ones to die in this episode. Everybody else ends up happy. Bran is on the throne (alas, no longer iron), Jon must rejoin the Night’s Watch (Why is that still a thing?), and he is actually happier up north with Tormund and the Free Folk. Let’s be honest: Jon would have been miserable as king. He is happiest up north. His smile shows up in the final shots of him. Sansa is happy; she has freed the north from the seven kingdoms and is now a queen in her own right. Brienne and Podrick are happy; they are part of the Kingsguard, and Brienne is indeed the captain of the Kingsguard. She pays a loving tribute to Jaime in the official Kingsguard history. Arya is happy; she’s doing a semester at sea trying to find what is west of Westeros. Game of Thrones doesn’t just have a happy ending, it has a very happy ending. Weird.
The whole point of the episode, and indeed the series, comes from two moments, both involving Tyrion. Tyrion explains, “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story.” He’s right. (Cut to Neil Gaiman nodding sagely.) One of the reasons why people are so passionate (Read: angry.) about this show is that we have been captured by a story and feel a sense of ownership over it, as much as its creators. (See: Star Wars fans.) Those millions of words have been spilled because of the powerful story we have made a part of our lives for eight years. The second comes in the Small Council meeting, in which Sam produces the volume. A Song of Fire and Ice: The Chronicle of the Wars Following the Death of King Robert I by Archmaester Ebrose. There is certainly an inside joke here. A Game of Thrones (the indefinite article left off the HBO series title) was simply the first volume in A Song of Fire and Ice, George R.R. Martin’s series chronicling the wars in Essos. So, Ebrose gives the series’ history its correct IRL title. It seems appropriate, because there aren’t real winners in the Game of Thrones (King Bran? Really?), only losers. But the chronicle is a history of what happened – accurate!
The actual point, however, comes from Tyrion opening the book and stating his belief that he most likely comes under serious criticism in the history. Samwell eventually explains he is not in it. It’s a joke moment with very serious implications; the “official” history of the war does not include one of its prominent players. Already, the truth of the struggles is being subsumed under the need to frame and legitimize the resulting government, and it serves that history to not include Tyrion. It is also a reminder that stories are artificial constructions, even if they are histories, and what is left out is as significant as what is included.
Thus, the ending of the series gives us a twofold reflection of the world of Westeros, which after all, is just a fictional mirror of our own world. Endings are not endings; we simply leave the narrative, which continues. Jon, Tyrion, Arya, Sansa, Brienne, and Bran are all shown continuing their lives in the new normal. Life goes on; there is no end to the history or the game. After the horrors of the Battles of Winterfell and Kings Landing, life goes on, we mourn those who fell, and then we continue to live and do stuff. The end is not an end, it is merely a stopping point in the narrative. Similarly, any actual story, history, or narrative is a limited construct that does not contain the whole of it. Not only are there no endings, there is, at best, an identifiable narrative from which much that actually happens is excluded.
In that sense, the final episode is as good as any other episode in that the characters about which we are concerned do things and then move on through the consequences. Many, but not all, loose ends are tied up. Many, but not all, questions are answered. (Indeed, even more questions are asked.) Many, but not all, character arcs are concluded. I do not feel the time spent watching this show, thinking, writing, and arguing about it, and re-watching it has been wasted. A good story, a powerful story, is its own reward. We become fans initially because a narrative draws us in, generates meaning for us, and creates a story that we identify with and can make meaning in our life from. If that is true, then Game of Thrones owes us nothing, as it has already given us so much.
So yes, I remain a fan of Game of Thrones. I admire much of what the novels and show did and continue to do. And I regard its final episode as I did that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation; it’s not the best episode, it may not even be worthy of wrapping up the story which it does, but what ending would have? The point of “The Iron Throne” is that you can melt the iron throne, and life (and government, and the characters) goes on. It doesn’t matter what happened; the series as a whole is some of the best television ever created. Like many of you, I have had bad breakups, but that moment of breakup does not define the relationship. No ending defines the events that came before.
Thank you all who have read my musings this season and previously. It has been an honor and pleasure sharing thoughts and insights with you. Valar Remotelis (“All men must find something else to watch now…”). Thanks, as well, to House Dillon (Their words: “Comics are coming!” The House Dillon sigil is a nerd, rampant, reading a graphic novel whilst listening to a John Williams soundtrack – Indiana Jones or better). Barbra and Bryant have been kind enough to allow me to share; it is their world, we are just writing in it. Valar Fanatis! (“All men are fans of something!”).
See you next time – for the internet is dark and full of terrors (and many, many cat photos).