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The high and low points of Game of Thrones’ final episode

Warning: spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones’ finale, “The Iron Throne.”

Game of Thrones’ finale left us with a lot to talk about. Like the rest of the eighth and final season, it moved startlingly quickly, skipping ahead weeks at a time and blitzing past some major plot points. At the same time, it finally took a deep, slow breath to linger on some key conversations, and it spent more time resolving the story for ancillary characters than some fans thought it was going to. Right after the finale, we paused to hash out our immediate reactions.

Tasha: Chaim, you’ve already addressed the main plot questions Game of Thrones left behind, but you didn’t address the one that most haunts me: how smart are dragons on this show, anyway? The series finale has Drogon apparently instantly knowing when Daenerys Targaryen dies, and flying up to check on her. But even though Jon Snow helpfully leaves the murder weapon in her chest, Drogon doesn’t seem to realize Jon killed her. And yet he does realize the Iron Throne is symbolically important and was the thing that she most wanted and will now never have, so he slags it with his fire-breath. At least that’s how I took the scene. This whole series has been about who will take the Iron Throne, and the answer “No one!” seems appropriately nihilistic. But like so much of this season, the way it plays out doesn’t entirely make sense either. What did you make of it?

Chaim: I’m honestly pretty satisfied. I agree that Drogon’s oddly specific firestorm was a bit convenient, but given where Daenerys ended up last episode, there wasn’t really a question in my mind that she wouldn’t be surviving the show and keeping the Iron Throne. In the end, she and her dragons did sort of break the wheel, in the metaphorical sense where “the wheel” is a metal chair made of melted swords, anyway.

Plus, having her dragon break the symbol of ultimate authority was poetic enough to work for me — certainly more so than Jon just taking the throne due to murder and a technicality of birth, which would have been an easy way out that I’m very glad the show didn’t take.

Photo: HBO

Tasha: I’m with you. I’ve spent most of this season frustrated at the quick plot turns and complete lack of nuance — the feeling that we were seeing plot points that would have been brilliant and heartbreaking if stretched out over a season, but that just whizzed bafflingly by when played out over the course of a scene or two. (I’m thinking of things like Varys’ betrayal of Dany and his execution, which barely had time to register before he was dead.) So I was mostly deeply impressed with the finale, in part because the pacing finally slowed down and gave the audience a little time to sit with our emotions, and the characters some time to sit with theirs.

A particular highlight for me: Tyrion’s slow procession through the city and the Red Keep, looking for signs that Jaime did find Cersei and smuggle her to safety. We know what he’s going to find, but the episode gives him a long, slow sequence to find their bodies and process their deaths. Tyrion mourning over his beloved brother and hated sister was one of the season’s most powerful moments, not just because it’s been so long coming, but because it doesn’t blitz by. and because Peter Dinklage’s performance is so strong.

Chaim: I was shocked by how long the episode took to really let us stew in the aftermath. And after glossing over Tyrion’s role for most of the past two seasons, it was really nice to give Dinklage one last chance to shine. Between the scene of him sobbing over his siblings, his heart-to-heart with Jon Snow, and the broken man at the pivotal election who just wants to set things right, it was a great reminder of the calibre of show Game of Thrones could reach when it isn’t just going full “OMG DRAGONZ” on us.

Looking back, it took the show more than a third of the episode to get to the big turn of Jon stabbing Daenerys, which is a remarkable level of restraint on the creative team’s part, letting us stew in Dany’s “victory” for so long. On that note, I’m curious how that ending for Dany sat by you?

Photo: HBO

Tasha: I’m still not buying Dany’s spontaneous leap from “obsessed with freeing slaves and protecting the innocent” to “fervently believes murdering children is helping them.” That plot point has been hashed out a billion times online over the past week, though, including at least 1.4 million times in our own comment sections, so I’ll just reiterate that the problem isn’t her massive change in behavior, it’s that it was executed in an abrupt, slapdash way. So I was impressed with this episode giving her time to savor having conquered Westeros. It feels like a vote of respect for a character who’s been so important to the show since season 1. I’m glad the showrunners let her briefly experience the triumph she fought so hard for and suffered so much for.

And at the same time, she gets time to prove she really doesn’t see or care about the human cost. Her claim that she “liberated” the people of King’s Landing and will now “liberate” the rest of the world is authentically chilling, because she’s promising more massacres, making it clear she thinks she did everything right here. Her argument with Jon about her actions made it pretty clear that there’s no good ending that has her sitting on the throne. But where you apparently thought the show spent a long time leading up to her death, I thought it disposed with it pretty early in the episode, and I found that a relief. Jon killing her was a foreordained conclusion, so I’m glad the episode didn’t draw it out for an hour and leave us less time to see what the world becomes next.

Chaim: Did… anyone survive in King’s Landing? It occurs to me we didn’t see any civilians left standing at all this episode.

Tasha: That’s not true. There’s Nearly Naked Covered In Burns Guy, and Weeping Alley Soldier, and probably one or two other people. Plenty to build a new population with. And if that’s not enough, there are probably still dozens of other people left alive around Westeros somewhere. Hot Pie can cook for them.

Photo: HBO

Chaim: Right, right, and The Five Lannister Soldiers That Grey Worm Executes On Daenerys’ Orders And Definitely Not Because He’s Still Angry About Missandei. Totally forgot about those guys.

As for Dany, I feel like the showrunners tried to defend the transition for her with Tyrion’s speech in his cell about her faith that her cause is just. But while he convinced Jon, he didn’t convince me. The argument, “She killed a lot of bad people, which led her to kill a lot of not-bad people” just didn’t work for me. But at least the writers were aware that, like Jon, viewers were going to need some convincing to accept her sudden change in heart.

That plotline in particular feels like it would have benefited from a longer season to grow a bit more, but given the way the season shook out time-wise, it feels like they did the best they could with it. Besides, Drogon did escape with Dany’s body, and if Game of Thrones has taught us one thing, its that no one is ever really dead so long as you can find the right priest.

Tasha: Oh boy, let’s not even go there. Pretty sure he’s either going to eat her out of respect or cremate her out of respect, and we can just leave it at that.

We’re probably always going to be debating Dany’s leap to the dark side, and evidence so far suggests we aren’t going to get anywhere with that debate. So let’s talk about the rest of this episode. Some major high points for me: the cinematography was fantastic. Deserted city or not, it looked amazing covered in falling ash/snow. That shot of a snow-covered Drogon waking up to inspect Jon and deciding he passed muster and could go up for his audience with Dany was particularly lovely and memorable. I loved the slow, sad female-vocal version of the theme song as Daenerys finally sees her goal, the Iron Throne — in a room she shattered to get to it.

We’ll have to talk separately about the actual result of the lords’ summit, but I was impressed that they brought all these characters back. (Someone finally found Edmure Tully! And he has the balls to try to stand up and take the throne, and Sansa gently, rightly, slaps him right back down again!) It would have been so easy to lose the politics entirely in this final episode, and completely forget the show’s roots, but here, we see the first hints of Westerosi traditional society returning. Someone actually thought about who’s left of the great Houses, and who would represent them. They even dusted Robin Arryn off for this meeting! It’s laughable, in a way, that these pale, subdued people are what’s left of Westeros’ leadership, but they’re still arrogant enough to look down on their own people, and laugh at them having any say in their own rule. But I was glad to see Game of Thrones acknowledging its roots, and thinking seriously about who would be in charge of putting the country back together.

Chaim: The Game of Thrones score has always been a highlight for me. Ramin Djawadi, the show’s composer, has been an unsung hero for years, and he just swung for the fences with the music in the finale across the board. I also have to shout out the fantastic shot of Dany, framed triumphant in the Red Keep, Drogon behind her to provide the wings for the Dragon Queen ascendant in the ruins of ash and snow. Oh, and Ghost finally got a pat from Jon, because he is a Good Boy.

I’ll admit, it took me a second to even remember who Edmure Tully was (thank you, costume designers, for including some fish on his lapels), although I’m going to have to disagree on Sansa’s putdown there — there was nothing gentle about it. Dude just tried to walk in after contributing nothing for eight seasons, other than losing Riverrun to the Lannisters and the Freys, and getting the Blackfish killed? And then he tries to take the Seven Six Kingdoms? Nope and nope. Sit down and shut up, Ed. As for Robin Arryn: definitely the Game of Thrones winner of the Neville Longbottom Award for Best Glow-Up over the course of a series.

Which brings us to Bran, or should I say, King Bran the Broken (which, kind of rude title there, Tyrion?), Ruler of the Six Kingdoms, and all the other bits and bobs attached to his name. He’s certainly not the most exciting choice for ruler, but the more I think on it, the more it makes sense to me. He’s practically omnipotent: even if he can’t see the future (and I’m pretty sure he can), he has perfect knowledge of all the mistakes of the past. His weird Three-Eyed Raven zen state means that he doesn’t bear any particular allegiance to anyone or anything that could influence his decisions unfairly. And the ability he possesses to enter the minds of ravens and get nearly instantaneous knowledge of events around the realm seems like a wildly useful thing for a monarch to have, especially in a world where most messages take days or weeks to convey.

Tasha: Yeah, but. While this is all useful and sensible data, in actuality, this is the guy who sat blankly in a frozen courtyard for weeks on end, staring blandly through his sister Sansa when she hugs him hello after not seeing him for years, and barely talking to people except to deliver cryptic information in a creepy monotone. It’s great that he’s a king without ego or desire, but I question how useful his ability to foretell the future is when he so clearly doesn’t act on it, except in the broadest cases. The Battle of Winterfell could have gone very differently, with a lot less loss of life, if he’d shared what he knew, or if there was any evidence he cared about the soldiers falling in battle, and not just the ultimate outcome of the war. And he didn’t even try to warn anyone about the King’s Landing massacre of tens of thousands of innocents?

Being a good, just, and wise ruler isn’t just about power, especially not the power to disappear into a raven’s head to gather intel. It’s about caring about the people and making decisions based on their best interests. It requires empathy, and Bran has none. It requires a desire for justice and peace and balance, and Bran says he’s no longer capable of desiring anything. And in Westeros, it requires being a politician, and Bran is not that.

But he’s still going to make a better king than Jon “I obey the orders of anyone who tells me I’m doing a principled thing” Snow. Throughout the series, Jon makes a lot of strong, risky moral choices — supporting the Wildlings, becoming King in the North, abdicating to follow Dany, killing Dany. It’s always someone else with the idea, though, talking him into it, and pressuring him until he caves. He’s sad-eyed and soft and suffering and people love him, but boy would he have made a weak king.

Photo: HBO

Chaim: Thing is, I’m not sure who’s left who would have made a better king. Sansa is the only candidate who even comes close to qualifying, and she seems pretty focused on running the North and getting as far away from the Six Kingdoms as possible, not integrating it back in and ruling over the rest of them.

As for the rest: Tyrion, a clear no for the reasons he gives in the episode; Jon, who, as you correctly point out is just completely unsuited for leadership; Edmure Tully, who is just the worst; Sam, who would clearly rather be reading a book; Gendry, who was just legitimized as a heir a few weeks ago by the now-dead queen who razed the city; Yara Greyjoy, who previously razed Winterfell; and the Fresh Prince of Dorne, who is not even a character with a name. Not the best pool of leaders. Will Bran be a good king? I don’t know. I certainly like the North’s chances under Queen Sansa a whole lot better. But I don’t think he’ll be an outright bad one. And after the Mad King Aerys, the drunk King Robert, the cruel King Joffery, the timid and easily manipulated King Tommen, the power-hungry Queen Cersei, and whatever adjective best describes Queen Daenerys’ short-lived but fiery reign, maybe a “good enough” king is good enough for Westeros.

Besides, Bran does have one thing going for him: his Master of Coin, the finally rewarded Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, Lord of Highgarden and Lord Paramount of the Reach. It only took eight seasons, but I have to hand it to Tyrion: a Lannister does (eventually) pay his debts. Good on Bronn!

Tasha: And I’ll add: good on Brienne, still my favorite character, who survived without being killed off for cheap pathos, and survived her annoying weepy episode over Jaime, and who takes the time to memorialize him properly. I found the scene where she writes out his deeds in the big book of Kingsguard Knights pretty touching. She saw that he got his proper legacy. She honored him in an honorable way.

So what are your low points from the episode? I was so pleased with the stately tone and beautiful visuals, and with the amount of time we spent with the weight of Jon’s decision, and his conversation with Tyrion about it, that it took me hugely by surprise when we get the big, awkward time-jump. We have no idea why Jon and Tyrion aren’t dead. Grey Worm made it clear just a little earlier in the episode that he doesn’t take prisoners — and these two conspired to murder his beloved queen. We don’t know where the Dothraki went, or why they similarly didn’t run amuck. There’s just a sort of, “Well, weeks have passed, and here we are” statement. Given how rarely Game of Thrones’ last few seasons have even acknowledged the passage of time, I guess good on them for getting “weeks” into the dialogue so we knew, but… a lot of really important things happened during those weeks, and the show ignoring them is much more typical of the way this season went.

And what are we meant to do with the episode’s goofy humor, around Tyrion arranging chairs around the Small Council table, and Davos and Bronn and Brienne bantering about brothels? Yes, we needed a “life goes on” moment, and a sense for the new normal, but nothing about the gags here really landed for me.

Photo: HBO

Chaim: The time-jumps were also weird — did winter pass so quickly? I know Westerosi weather is weird, but the impression I had was that they were facing a pretty long and pretty bad winter as part of the natural weather cycles. But I guess not, given how nice and sunny things were in King’s Landing at the end. I guess it was all fine. And given the recent season’s tendency to compress travel times, and the fact that our only real indication of how long its been was Jon and Tyrion — who already looked pretty scraggly before the time-jump — it was honestly hard for me to get any idea of how that gap really was.

But the biggest issue for me was Arya. Don’t get me wrong, her setting sail on a new adventure was a fine ending. But the rest of the episode just underscored how underutilized she’s been since killing the Night King. As she says herself, she came to King’s Landing to kill Cersei, got there too late, and then… just kind of hangs around for the rest of the episode. There’s no Faceless Man magic, or attempts to assassinate Dany, or to free Jon from his prison. It just felt like the showrunners had no idea what to do with her.

Finally, there’s a small part of me that’s a bit bitter that Sam got a finished copy of A Song of Ice and Fire, whereas I still have to wait for the however many years it will take George R.R. Martin to finish his version. But I can’t really blame the show for that.

Tasha: It’s fine. The finished version of the book on the show doesn’t even include Tyrion, arguably the show’s most valuable and humanistic character. How good could it possibly be?

I’m fine with Arya’s arc essentially ending when she killed the Night King — it would have been too over-the-top, too traditional-fantasy, too only-one-hero-in-this-story to have her get Cersei or Daenerys as well. And I’m glad to see her setting out on her own adventures, though it’s weird that she never really uses Faceless Man magic again after doffing her Walder Frey suit. Maybe there’s room for her in one of the upcoming spin-off series. Unlikely, since they’re reportedly all prequels, with no familiar characters in them. But hey, when you’re dealing with a girl who’s no one, who can look like anyone, you can always pretend she’s the secret protagonist of any story.

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