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The ‘Game of Thrones’ Series Finale Was Cynical and Idealistic, Satisfying and Disjointed

As Tyrion Lannister said, there’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. That goes for ‘Thrones,’ too—if only the show hadn’t rushed to the finish line.

HBO/Ringer illustration

Finales, traditionally, are when television series show their cards, or at least force viewers to internalize what may have been apparent for some time. Mad Men was not a damning indictment of capitalism; it was a fairly earnest account of one man’s ability to find self-actualization inside it. The Sopranos was not your mother’s gangster story; it was maddeningly ambiguous to the end, withholding even the catharsis of a shootout. Television is a medium defined by its possibilities, keeping as many open for as long as possible in a show’s quest to sustain itself. A finale’s job is to foreclose those possibilities forever, turning a dynamic story into a fixed object.

Conclusion is risky, but in the case of Game of Thrones, it was also tantalizing. Mere days before Sunday’s final episode, it was still reasonable to wonder exactly what this story about power, legacy, justice, and governance was attempting to say about any of these things. With Daenerys Targaryen a confirmed, if not convincing, despot, would Thrones double down on the futility of building a better world? Or would it veer in the opposite direction, contradicting many of its early lessons on the limits of idealism by echoing the late Varys’s endorsement of Jon? Until the very last moment, Thrones toyed with both extremes: the unrelenting cynicism it always flirted with, and the conventional heroism it once eschewed.

In the end, the show landed somewhere in the middle. The most definitive takeaway from “The Iron Throne,” written and directed by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, is that Thrones was the Starks’ saga all along. The direwolf sigil now flies all over the world, from Bran the Broken’s seat in King’s Landing to Sansa’s independent queendom in the North to Jon’s happy self-exile beyond the Wall to Arya’s travels in the West. The series ends with a montage of the siblings embarking on their respective journeys, their unimaginable pain mercifully transmuted into well-deserved new beginnings. Game of Thrones built a following on its epic scope, yet it exited the most intimate and pathos-friendly of family dramas, like This Is Us with genocide and CGI.

But “The Iron Throne” also offered some firmer verdicts on Thrones’ more abstract ideas. The Starks may have gotten the narrative last word. The thematic one, however, fell to Tyrion Lannister—unsurprisingly, considering his close ties to the show’s more conceptual streak. It was the Imp who proposed the system of government that would replace the Iron Throne, helpfully and symbolically melted down by Drogon to avenge the death of his mother, driven mad by and eventually slain due to her desire for it. Westeros, minus the North, will no longer have dynasties; in their place, a council of noblemen and women will select whoever is best fitted to the task, starting with Bran. “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?” Tyrion asked, rhetorically. His answer: “Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken? The boy who fell from a high tower and lived?”

Considering how much time earlier seasons of Thrones dedicated to powerful people pursuing their own self-interest over the common good, the idea that future lords and ladies can even be trusted to back the best candidate is more than a little out of character. For the most part, however, this political vision fits well enough. It’s not democracy, a concept invented out of whole cloth by Samwell Tarly and laughed out of existence within minutes. But it’s more democratic than what came before, or what could come from Dany using the means of her oppressors to replace the world order with one and the same. Game of Thrones isn’t nihilistic—it’s incrementalistic. And its version of a fairy-tale ending involves a small council bickering about boats.

Eventually, Thrones hit on a conclusion that was in keeping with its core identity. Unfortunately, finales never stand alone. Television shows are cumulative, and their climaxes can’t be separated from the relatively mundane plotting that makes them possible. Many have criticized late-period Thrones for cutting corners en route to its endgame. In theory, “The Iron Throne” presented an opportunity to justify this breakneck pace. In practice, it demonstrated its cost. Plenty of developments in “The Iron Throne” landed. They just could have landed much deeper if they’d been preceded by a more meticulous set-up.

Take the pivotal confrontation between Daenerys and Jon Snow. Ironically, eliminating a Targaryen conqueror and the seat of her house’s power along with her is exactly the kind of wheel-breaking Dany claimed she always wanted. It’s a poetic end to her story, and a sharp illustration of Thrones wariness toward the corrupting influence of power. But the character’s decision to slaughter thousands, which eventually spurs Jon to kill her, never squared with the principled, politically aware person we knew until mere episodes ago. Nor did the romance between her and Jon ever get time to develop. Consequently, her demise feels both overdetermined and underdeveloped: legible in the big picture, disjointed in the moment-to-moment storytelling.

Tyrion and his master plan for the realm suffered similarly. Once, and apparently still, the soul of the show, Tyrion’s been dealt a dirty hand for the last five seasons. His character arc may have been motivated by a need to make Dany’s victory less than inevitable, but he hasn’t been allowed to act as a true voice of reason in ages, making his sudden return to the post—in both the show’s eyes and other characters’—unconvincing. Why would this group of people suddenly listen to a man arguably responsible for the destruction of a city, not to mention the death of a dragon and the loss of several battles? Why would they trust him to administer a country, based on little more than Bran’s endorsement? Speaking of Bran: Is he really such a wise choice to rule mankind, considering he’s not exactly a man anymore? What’s positioned as a redemption instead reads as a spontaneous reversal, not based so much on the events of “The Iron Throne” as on what came before them.

Otherwise sound outcomes undermined by messy preambles only proliferate from there. What does Jon’s return to the North mean, given that the show hasn’t bothered to establish where the free folk stand after the fall of the Wall? Who’s the “new prince of Dorne,” besides a warm body to contribute to the Six Kingdoms’ newfound sense of unity? Have we ever known Arya to be an explorer for exploring’s sake, as opposed to a means of getting back to her family? The problem with valuing results over process is that process informs the results, particularly on a show as obsessed with minutiae as Thrones.

Plenty of “The Iron Throne” was authentically satisfying. The sight of Sansa being hailed as Queen of the North was a balm, as was that of Tyrion and Bronn interacting as true peers, not coworkers or adversaries. Much of it, however, visibly strained to satisfy, an instinct that feels antithetical to Thrones’ erstwhile ethos. The effort also could have been unnecessary, if earlier installments had more organically facilitated what “The Iron Throne” has to push. Ironically, Thrones scramble to the finish line made the finish less of a reward.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in Game of Thrones.