So here we are, friends. The end of the road. Eight seasons and 73 episodes have led us to this. Let’s be clear: the showrunners had a near-impossible task in front of them. With so many beloved characters still in play, there’s hardly a way to conclude the story in a way that would please all the fans. And this show didn’t become popular by giving the audience what it wants.
So did the finale do what it needed to do? We suppose so. Nearly every storyline got wrapped up in a bow. It was perhaps too clean an ending, considering the messiness of Westeros. A concrete ending like this is probably more crowd-pleasing than something more open-ended. And this ending was significantly happier than we would expect, given the general tone of the show. Had George R.R. Martin been at the helm, we’d expect a smattering of happiness juxtaposed with a staggering amount of grief and misfortune for nearly everyone. This cruel, misogynistic, hateful world isn’t going to change overnight because there’s a new king. Martin was a realist. The men behind the HBO series are significantly more optimistic.
Let’s dig into the episode to see what worked, what went sideways, and how all the puzzle pieces came together.
Game of Thrones Series Finale recap/review
We begin with Tyrion Lannister walking through the ashes of King’s Landing. He’s intent on finding Jaime and Cersei. Jonathan Freeman, the director of photography, really outdid himself on this episode. You could almost watch the episode with the sound off and the story would still work.
While Tyrion discovers Cersei and Jaime’s fate, Jon confronts Grey Worm about the Unsullied’s zero-tolerance policy toward Lannister troops drawing breath. Grey Worm says he’s just following orders.
Jon continues on to find Daenerys about to address a monstrous gathering of Dothraki and Unsullied. We need to pause a moment to mention how reckless this season has been with the size of these forces. The Dothraki seemed all but extinguished in the battle against the Night King until they showed up in force in the last episode. The army standing with Dany during Missandei’s execution was significantly smaller than the one she addressed in the King’s Landing courtyard. Maybe next time, put a Post-it note with the numbers of surviving troops on the corner of your computer screen when you’re writing your complicated fantasy epic.
Anyway, Daenerys appears in front of her army and we get the coolest shot of the season as Drogon’s wings unfurl behind her:
Daenerys gives off a real psycho dictator vibe during this speech. She shouts about breaking the wheel and bringing her brand of freedom to every man, woman, and child, whether they want it or not. Tyrion recognizes Daenerys for what she is, and he discards his Hand of the Queen pin.
Dany is understandably furious, so she orders Tyrion taken into custody. Jon watches this all go down with a lump in his throat. Arya emerges from the shadows to alert Jon that Dany is a stone-cold killer, as if watching King’s Landing immolate wasn’t his first clue.
Jon visits Tyrion in his cell. Tyrion expects to be executed but tries his hand at convincing Jon to take out Daenerys. Like his Uncle Ned, Jon is a hardheaded and loyal man. He swore a vow to follow Dany, and those Stark vows are not easily broken. But Tyrion continues his plea, leaning on all of Jon’s weak spots – as a battle commander, as a leader, as a former member of the Night’s Watch, and as a brother, Jon knows Daenerys is dangerous.
With a heavy heart, Jon heads off to confront his queen. Again, the cinematography here is phenomenal.
Daenerys is overjoyed to have reached the Iron Throne. Instead of sitting on it, she merely touches it. She’s been chasing this metal chair for years. Now it’s hers.
Jon arrives to poop in the punch bowl, reminding Dany of the whole “million corpses just outside the window” thing. Daenerys tries changing the subject. Sure, tons of innocent people died, but from now on, everything should be fine. Jon is rattled by Daenerys’ moral certainty. What if their subjects don’t agree with the queen’s rules? “They don’t get to decide,” Daenerys says.
“You are my queen,” Jon says, “now and always.” They kiss. And while they’re kissing, Jon shoves a dagger through Daenerys’ heart.
This moment was entirely predictable, but both Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke were fantastic in this scene. The biggest issue is that we haven’t seen this version of Daenerys in a long time. This season has put the character through some rushed and confusing developments, not the least of which was her Mad Queen turn in the last episode. Even within this episode, Dany was in full foam-spitting dictator mode atop the steps. And then, in the throne room, she becomes hopeful and innocent and naive. Daenerys has always worked best when we’ve seen at least some vulnerability. When she’s been screaming platitudes to crowds of people, she’s been harder to see as human. So do we mourn our idealistic queen? Or do we cheer the death of a dictator? Both, somehow? It’s clear this is intended to be a sad moment, which would be easier to swallow if we erased our memories of the previous episode.
As Jon surveys his lover’s corpse, Drogon appears. He considers roasting Jon, then turns his fire on the Iron Throne itself. The coveted metal chair liquifies.
Drogon nudges Dany’s body, then picks it up and flies away. It’s the last we’ll see of the mighty beast.
Several days, weeks, or months (?) later, Tyrion is brought to the dragon pits to face the leaders of Westeros. Grey Worm is understandably pretty irritated at the death of his queen. Now, the assembled leaders have to decide who will rule. Edmure Tully, last seen convincing Riverrun to surrender to the Lannisters, nominates himself. Sansa shuts down his campaign speech in a hurry. Sam suggests democracy and gets laughed off the stage. Sam is also sitting next to a plastic water bottle in this scene. You’re a trainwreck, Samwell! Pull it together!
Tyrion has an idea: What about Bran? If stories can unite a people, Bran has a great story, he argues. Not to mention, Bran has access to all of Westeros’ memories. He’s a walking encyclopedia. Shockingly, everyone agrees Bran should be king. All except Sansa, who pulls a last-minute bid for northern independence and gets it.
While this scene is supposed to be a powerful statement about the will of the people, breaking the wheel and all that, it’s the worst moment in the episode. Let’s break down why…
Start with the attendees. In many cases, we have no idea who these people are. There’s the nameless Prince of Dorne, Yara Greyjoy, Edmure Tully, Sansa Stark, Gendry, and Robin Arryn. That’s fine. They’re the leaders of great houses. What’s weird are some of the other attendees – Sam shouldn’t be there since House Tarly isn’t a big deal and he renounced his title when he joined the Night’s Watch. Brienne comes from the Sapphire Isle, but is House Tarth suddenly important? Davos even admits he has no idea why he might get a vote on this thing. Yohn Royce serves Robin Arryn, so why does he get a vote? Arya has no claim to House Stark, so her attendance doesn’t make sense. There are also some lords we’ve never met before, so that lessens the impact of their attendance. In reality, this assembled group seems super-random, and not technically empowered to choose a king.
We’ll also examine Tyrion’s argument. Bran has a great story, sure. But what about virtually everyone else? Jon came back from the dead, which is more impressive than falling out of a tower. Sansa has survived calamity that would have crushed most other people. Arya saved the entire world by stabbing the Night King. Pretty compelling story there. Sam also has a great story – rejected by his father, he’s the first man alive to kill a White Walker. Gendry has a claim to the Iron Throne by virtue of his bloodline, and his story is also great: the king’s bastard who survived a purge, armed the humans against the Army of the Dead, and became Lord of Storm’s End. Tyrion also has a fantastic story as the unwanted son of a great house, the hero of the Battle of the Blackwater, and the man who negotiated a truce that saved humanity at Winterfell.
Ever since Bran went all Three-Eyed Raven, he’s become an insufferable, personality-free bore. He can travel through time, which you’d think would be a useful narrative tool, but that’s been completely discarded since the revelation of Jon’s true lineage. And he can warg into some people and animals, which, again, you would think would be useful from a storytelling sense. But that talent has been useless since the “hold the door” moment. During the battle for Winterfell, he warged into some ravens and did nothing. It’s just odd, like if you saw a Superman movie that was only about Clark Kent trying to write a front page story for the Daily Planet without any of that flying or heat vision or bulletproof nonsense. Bran has been a wasted character, so choosing him as king feels weird.
This moment also doesn’t ring particularly true to the series. The Greyjoys are notoriously independent, so after Sansa pulled her move, you’d think Yara would want a piece of that. Instead, Yara votes for Bran as her king. Remember, the Starks defeated the Greyjoys years ago, which was why Theon was serving at Winterfell. And, as Yara points out, she pledged to follow Daenerys. Supporting the “brother” of her queen’s assassin seems like an odd move.
Tyrion also asserts that Bran is a great choice because he can’t have children, which means the lords and ladies of Westeros would have to elect a new king or queen upon his death. But the next king or queen could easily have heirs. Regardless of the offspring, is there another vote upon the next king/queen’s death? If so, isn’t that an awesome incentive to kill the king/queen – to generate a new vote? All of these people just agreed to a new form of government without thinking through the ramifications.
This scene could have been an opportunity to show Westeros descending into chaos. “Game of Thrones” has always been about greed and self-interest above the greater good. To see these proud leaders giving up autonomy to pick the weird mostly mute kid who claims to have magic powers doesn’t ring true. In fact, the most “Game of Thrones” twist here would be for everyone to realize that Daenerys, fearsome as she was, was the only one who could have united the seven kingdoms. Perhaps this handful of leaders can convince their people that Bran is a just and worthy king. Perhaps…
Tyrion visits Jon to deliver the news: he’s got to go back to the Night’s Watch. The Unsullied will allow Jon to live, so long as he’s stuck with a life sentence at Castle Black.
Jon prepares to take the long journey north. He passes Grey Worm, who is about to set sail for Missandei’s home of Naath.
Jon shares some emotional farewells with his “siblings.” Jon’s goodbye with Arya is the biggest tear-jerker. He asks if she still has Needle. She does, of course. Arya says she plans to sail west of Westeros – beyond the edge of all the maps.
Brienne picks up a quill and opens the book about the Captains of the Kingsguard. She finishes Jaime’s story. He died “protecting his queen.” Never mind that the Jaime-Brienne sex scene added absolutely nothing to this show. Their relationship peaked when he knighted her. That, alone, would have been reason enough for Brienne to finish Jaime’s story with honor. Let’s all agree the sex scene never happened. It didn’t impact anything, so it might as well have been a horrible dream.
In the small council chamber, Tyrion prepares for their first meeting. Bronn shows up as the new Lord of Highgarden and Master of Coin. (Since he wasn’t at the vote, Highgarden must have been stuck with whatever the other lords decided.) Also, Bronn seems like a terrible choice for Master of Coin, but whatever. Lord Davos is now Master of Ships. Brienne appears to be Captain of the Kingsguard. Sam has become the Grand Maester. He shares “A Song of Ice and Fire” with Tyrion. Apparently, the Lannister got left out of Archmaester Ebrose’s epic history of the wars after Robert’s death.
King Bran arrives at the small council meeting to note that they’re still shy one Master of Whispers, one Master of War, and one Master of Laws. Uh, isn’t Bran’s election supposed to end war? And why does the Three-Eyed Raven need a Master of Whispers. Have we seen any Masters of Laws in this entire show before now? What is happening? Doesn’t “King Bran” sound like a cereal aimed at constipated people?
Oh, Podrick is a knight now. So that’s nice.
As the Small Council begins their meeting, the topic rolls around to brothels. Tyrion once again begins his joke about entering a brothel with a honeycomb and a jackass. This is the third time we’ve heard the beginning of the joke. We’ve never heard the punchline. It’s a nice callback for longtime fans.
As the camera pulls back from the Small Council, we see the map of Westeros with a big crack down the middle. Again, the director of photography doing some heavy metaphorical lifting.
From King’s Landing, we cut between the remaining Stark siblings. Sansa is crowned Queen in the North – a fitting end for the iron-willed woman.
Arya is aboard a custom-made Stark ship, headed for parts unknown.
Jon is back at Castle Black, where he reunites with Tormund and finally pets Ghost. (Fans have been waiting forever for that moment.)
Instead of manning the Wall, Jon and all the wildlings open the gate and head north. The last shot of the series shows Jon and the freefolk disappearing into the woods.
So did this episode work? At times, yes. At times, no. You can’t fault the actors. They were uniformly good. The cinematography and music and special effects were top notch. The script had some moments of brilliance, but more than a few head-scratchers. If the story ends with Jon headed north as an exile, Daenerys dead, Sansa as the Queen in the North, and Arya off to adventure, we buy all of that.
The choice of Bland the Broken as king is a real weird development. If he was always the choice, you’d think they would have invested more time on his scenes. He basically has superpowers, but the show doesn’t seem to care. Also, didn’t he turn down his claim on Winterfell because he had Three-Eyed Ravening to do? But his schedule cleared up in time for him to rule the Six Kingdoms?
You know Bran is a bad choice because his own sisters don’t even bother with a goodbye scene to him. There’s no, “Gee, Mom and Dad would be so thrilled to see you on the throne,” or, “Rule well, little brother.” They make a big deal about Jon’s departure, but the Stark girls bounced out of King’s Landing without so much as an “atta boy” for their broken brother.
It seems clear that other than the dragons, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss didn’t care for the mystical elements of George R.R. Martin’s world. Characters would be alarmed by the White Walkers one episode, then forget about them for eight straight episodes in favor of mortal matters. The fact that an army of the dead was dispatched with three episodes remaining was incredibly anticlimactic.
The pacing of this entire season was a mess. Virtually nothing happened in the first episode. The second episode was a gem of a character study. The third episode was a nonsensical battle with some awesome visuals often obscured by darkness. The fourth episode showed all our characters being dumb for the sake of plot contrivance. The fifth episode was a one-note slog. And the finale tried to make up for wasting the Night King and Cersei by putting all its chips on the Dany-Jon murder kiss.
On the first watch through, this episode seemed fine enough. The Bran choice really stuck out as odd, but the images, music, and the performances really elevated the story. Upon a rewatch, however, it feels like the showrunners were gasping for air, having used up all their energy in an earlier sprint. This might be a good episode for most shows on television, but for an epic series like “Game of Thrones,” the story did not meet or surpass its previous highs. It felt like fan fiction.
Ramsay Bolton once told Theon, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” Well, we ended up with a mostly happy ending. So maybe Benioff and Weiss weren’t paying attention to their previous work.
We will miss “Game of Thrones.” At its best, it was unlike anything on television. And even in its worst moments, we kept rooting for those old thrills to return. And now our watch is ended.
Final Score: 2 out of 4