‘Game of Thrones’: “The Iron Throne” Was a CliffNotes Version of a Series Finale

     May 20, 2019

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If at any time before this shambolic final season of Game of Thrones someone had handed you a few notes about the series finale, there might have been some poetry to it. You might have imagined how Daenerys Targaryen’s slow, subversive turn into a megalomaniacal, dragon-wielding villain would play out, or how the beleaguered Stark family would eventually find their way back to power by ruling the North as its own kingdom. The stuff about Bran controlling Westeros (despite formerly insisting that he’s not “Bran” but the Three-Eyed Raven) is weird enough to pique your interest probably, after the presumption that (of course) the mythology around his warging abilities and connection to the Night King and the Children of the Forest would be further explored. As for the series’ “politics as usual” final scenes, well, the show (and George R.R. Martin’s books) has always spent a lot of time exploring the realpolitik of the Great Houses of Westeros, so them choosing Bran as King would surely have interesting practical basis.

Except none of that happened. The plot points happened, but any emotional connection or deeper exploration of the material did not. It was a slap in the face to viewers as well as, frankly, the actors themselves to spend as long as the show did building up a complicated and nuanced world only to shove together a hasty outline of where these characters end up. It’s why the finale, titled “The Iron Throne,” felt mildly satisfying as it played out, but doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It wasn’t an absolute abomination, because there is a general sense that the story might have been heading this way all along. And yet, the particulars of how it played out and the pacing that got us there were a disgrace.

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Image via HBO

There are a few key scenes that really showed what thin narrative consideration was given to this final season. In one of the most glaring, we’re told again and again that Dany is evil because she torched King’s Landing, but the only comment she gets to make about it before Jon Snow murders her is that she wants to make the world a better place. No one bothers to have a conversation with her about it after she is soothed by victory rather than destroyed by the death of her confident and her dragon son, but a quick stab is the easiest way to shut that plot point down.

And that’s the crux of this final season’s issues: the characters ceased to be characters and instead became means to an end. The council that appears at the end of the episode, which chose Bran as King after a short speech from Tyrion (the last person anyone should trust at that point), was essentially a farce. It should have been a powerful moment, but it wasn’t even clear who everyone was. Ten points to Gryffindor if you are a show-only watcher who remembered or cared who Edmure Tully of Riverrun was, or Robin Arryn of the Vale (not to mention the nameless Dornish prince who didn’t speak — let us not forget that Dorne was free from the crown for longer than Winterfell). The great houses of Westeros haven’t mattered in a long time for the series, and so the significance of this council (where, curiously, three Starks and an Onion Knight each get an equal vote with the Lords and Ladies of the Realm) was completely lost.

The choosing of a king would have, in previous seasons, taken up at least an entire episode of its own if not half the season, diving in to the individual interests of each Westerosi region, and forging an eventual alliance that would have meant something. As it stands, the “we’re too tired to really care” vote to make Bran King and Tyrion Hand will undoubtedly lead to eventual insurrection and unrest, with plotting about who will replace him upon his death already surely in play. Yes, that’s the most realistic ending, but if we wanted that we could have just watched a show that is actually about the English Civil War (there’s a great one currently on Starz). This was a story with dragons and zombies and direwolves and meddling gods … none of which ultimately mattered.

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Image via HBO

I have long said that the Game of Thrones finale would reveal to us what showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff really thought the show was about. It’s not about fantasy to them, that much has been clear for awhile. But it’s also not really about politics, either. It’s about spectacle and brothel jokes, essentially, two of the most shallow aspects of a story that initially used those trappings as part of a much bigger and more interesting tale. And sure, some of the changes that Weiss and Benioff have made to Martin’s books over they years have been good. When it counted though, when it came down to sticking the landing, the care and crafting that went into making Game of Thrones such a dense, cerebral show were thrown out in favor of cheap twists and narrative nonsense. Maybe they just “forgot.”

“The Iron Throne” could have, and should have by all rights made for a satisfying conclusion to this story. It was always about the Starks, and seeing Sansa and Jon end up back with their people worked really well (Sansa wanted to be Queen and will be great as one; Jon never wanted power and felt more at home with the Free Folk than anywhere else). Arya and Bran’s endings would have been more complete with more time (Arya never took another face, either, which is a whole other issue). Bran’s small council with Bronn, Davos, Brienne, and Sam (with Tyrion back as Hand) should have been exceptionally triumphant. But there was no time to even consider that reality before zooming elsewhere to hurry and wrap things up.

There was no real reason why the final season had to be as rushed as it was, which makes the entire thing all the more frustrating. Whether or not Weiss and Benioff worked backwards from Martin’s ending to smash in as many plot points as they could in the remaining time they set for themselves isn’t known, although it can be reasonably guessed. The fact that they had to use their “Inside the Episode” segments throughout the season to explain character motivations rather than, say, highlighting VFX or stunt work shows how someone involved with the series realized that the writing didn’t stand on its own in these final episodes. The actors, bless them, did everything they could to give us emotional resolution where possible, but it was mostly impossible to overcome the speed with which everything blew past.

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Image via HBO

A series finale does, fairly or not, define a show’s legacy. A great one can make us remember a series fondly despite its faults, while a terrible one can erase any good feelings we had about it. Yes, many of us feel like this final season fumble tainted Game of Thrones’ overall run. But regardless of how things ended, Game of Thrones was a cultural experience, and that can’t be changed even by this disappointing end. Our anger and frustration (or praise and acceptance) of this final season came in thundering waves each week like no other series has done in a long time — and perhaps like no other series will ever do again. The show even helped legitimize the fantasy genre in the awards circuit, and became a societal touchstone that won’t soon be forgotten.

But the grievances towards Season 8 are sound, and something that will forever haunt the show. Yes, its scope and spectacle and juggernaut status will ensure it enters the canon of great television, but there will always be an asterisk when it comes to considering its overall place due to this final season and the results of “The Iron Throne.” Its lasting impression may well be that final shot of Jon and the Free Folk going back north, an inversion of the White Walkers and their march south which started the series. It should have be poetic callback. Instead, it’s really just a bunch of people trudging back to the ways things were now that the magic is gone.

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