There’s a detail in the Game of Thrones series finale, which aired for the first time one year ago today, that may or may not have slipped your mind. Towards the end, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), presiding over a meeting of the small council, is presented with a massive tome documenting the recent history of Westeros, written by Archmaester Ebrose (Jim Broadbent). However, newly appointed Grand Maester Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) says proudly that he helped with the book’s title: A Song of Fire and Ice.
This is, of course, a meta-reference to George R.R. Martin‘s book series, which gave birth to one of television’s most undeniably epic shows (at least for a significant portion of its run). It is also a moment that doesn’t say anything about whatever message showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were trying to communicate with the final minutes of the series. Except for this: Tyrion asks about how the Archmaester’s version of events treats him in the final rundown, and Samwell basically says that despite eight seasons of scheming and the odd moments of heroics, he doesn’t get mentioned.
The history of any event, in short, lives on in what people say about it, which is enough reason to reconsider “The Iron Throne” today. Rewatching the series finale a year later is, by nature of the current state of our reality, an incredibly surreal experience. But even if we weren’t living in a sad and scary era and the concept of time is completely in flux, it’s still staggering to dive back into a show that, for a long time, deserved the world’s attention.
Rehashing the mess that is the Thrones series finale feels a bit like punching down, except that it did win that damn Emmy last year for Outstanding Drama Series. It could be argued that Academy voters were more swayed by earlier episodes in the season, such as the epic “Long Night” battle or the preceding character-focused episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” But unlike other shows which won Emmys for their final seasons, like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, few will argue that the show stuck the landing in the way it really should have.
Because so much death has preceded this final episode, it’s a relatively action-free episode beyond Jon (Kit Harington) confronting Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and ultimately stabbing her. Instead, it both literally and figuratively drags the viewer through the clean-up, including Tyrion searching through the rubble of King’s Landing to find the bodies of his brother and sister — Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey) as united in death as they were in life. Dinklage does his best to sell that moment, but it’s impossible to know how to feel about two of the show’s most notorious characters being killed in this way, and no amount of rock-slamming on Dinklage’s part can fix that.
There are moments of “The Iron Throne” which are not totally lifeless. The final humiliation of Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies), whose awkward plea to rule Westeros gets interrupted by Sansa’s (Sophie Turner) firm but kind “Uncle, please sit,” features just enough humor to penetrate the gloom. Tyrion presiding over the first meeting of his new small council, attempting to rebuild Westeros society for the better (even though his advisors can’t agree on whether boats or brothels should be the priority) offers some level of hope that as one of the smartest men in the country, now granted enough power to make a difference, might actually make life better for the people of the land.
But otherwise, there’s palpable exhaustion in the last hour and 22 minutes of the series that makes the things mentioned just now feel relatively rote. “The Iron Throne” isn’t a bad series finale because it devotes itself entirely to sweeping up the ragged plot ends of the show, with no attention paid to the sort of epic battles or powerful drama which were a key part of its identity. Instead, what stands out with the gift of hindsight is how emotionless an episode of television it ended up being.
This is a series that, in its first two episodes, featured 10-year-old Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) being shoved out a castle window and Sansa’s pet dog being murdered by her own father. Congrats to all those characters who did manage to survive, but it was clear from the beginning that few, if any, happy endings were in store for anyone.
In the end, the two characters who reach the most satisfying conclusions are Sansa and Arya (Maisie Williams) — the former, ascending as Queen of the North after years of being treated like a powerless girl, and the latter on board a ship in search of adventure beyond the maps. There’s power in these stories, especially for Arya, the girl who once despaired that the life of a lady was the only fate she was allowed.
But Benioff and Weiss tangled up these final moments in a montage that also features Jon Snow’s next step: traveling to the Wall to rejoin the Night’s Watch and head north with the free folk. There’s no sense of hope for him, no sense of further adventure or what we might look forward to — and that’s a big deal, because over the course of the series, as character after character got murdered, Jon was one of the last remaining true protagonists. Perhaps he’s being punished for his decision to murder Daenerys earlier in the episode? But Daenerys had become (very suddenly) power-mad and so it was a good thing that she died? It’s muddled, and sloppy, and the fanbase that fell in love with the show in 2011 — hell, the fanbase that fell in love with Martin’s books beginning in 1996 — deserved better.
Game of Thrones rose to prominence just as online television criticism was evolving into its current state, creating a hyper-level of attention that both benefitted the series, by making it inescapable television, and meant that every creative choice came under intense scrutiny. This, combined with the very important fact that Benioff and Weiss eventually had to forge their own narrative path after running out of material from Martin’s published books, made this a defining show of the near-decade it ran, for better or for worse.
That said, while it’s only been a year (at least, according to this thing we call a calendar), the legacy of the series already seems to be fading away into dust. The early seasons remain impeccably well-made, gripping television, but that’s because no matter how fantastical things get, those episodes never lose sight of their characters. Meanwhile, the series finale is so disconnected from basic human emotion that it’s hard to feel anything, even when it comes to the young men and women we’ve literally watched grow up on screen. Unlike Tyrion and the history of Westeros, TV history will remember Game of Thrones. But it may not remember it kindly.