Game of Thrones: The big final review (spoiler-free) and recap discussion (with spoilers)

The decade’s long journey has finally reached its conclusion, and not without controversy. The reaction to this season has been mixed, to put it mildly, and this episode will do nothing to change that. After last week’s divisive episode, there was no way this finale wouldn’t generate more of the same reaction.  

As always the music and visual spectacle were phenomenal, the two elements that have never wavered, instead going from strength to strength. So too the acting, with yet more wonderful performances from the whole cast, although Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage and Maisie Williams stand above the rest in this finale. 

The whole focus of the last two seasons has been to bring the story to its conclusion, rushing through plotlines and skipping significant character development, instead resting on its laurels, in order to get to the end. So the stakes were high for this finale, to say the least. And, much like the rest of the season, it only partially delivers.

There are incredible moments of high drama and tension, with a couple of elegant twists, but the end result feels distinctly unexceptional. The showrunners promised a bittersweet ending, and this is certainly it, although probably not the way they intended. 

Regardless, it’s been a magnificent run and it’s hard to imagine any other programme having quite such a grip on the public consciousness. It has certainly changed television drastically — a look at the upcoming fantasy sagas, such as Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequels or BBC’s His Dark Materials series, is a testament to that. And that is certainly something for which we can be eternally grateful. 


S08 E06: The Iron Throne — Episode recap and discussion

WARNING — SPOILERS AHEAD

Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

We open with Tyrion assessing the still-burning city, tormented and distraught. Meanwhile, Grey Worm is executing Lannister soldiers, at Daenerys’ behest, which Jon finds suitably appalling. But he is not about to stop because Jon asked him to, leading to a rather tense stand-off before Grey Worm resumes slicing Lannister throats. 

Tyrion goes on the hunt for his brother and sister and finds their remains buried beneath the collapsed dungeons. Peter Dinklage is at his magnificent best here, his heartbreak expertly portrayed without any words, which given the writing this season, is probably for the best. He is well and truly alone in this world now, no more Lannisters and his oldest friend, Varys, gone at his bidding. 

There is a rally oddly reminiscent of a Nazi-era demonstration. Although this time it’s the brown people doing the rallying and conquering, so it’s subversive? The imagery here is far from subtle, so too the decision to have her speech in Dothraki and Valyrian rather than English, and Daenerys’ speech promises more horrors to come. There is no remorse in her expression or her words, despite looking across a city burnt to a crisp. Tyrion joins her atop the steps and relinquishes his handship before being promptly arrested for treason. 

Arya sneaks up on Jon and states the bleeding obvious, that Daenerys is a killer and Sansa will not bend the knee. Jon visits Tyrion in his cell and Tyrion says much of the same, as well as imploring Jon to take the throne.

Daenerys is in the throne room at long last, her vision from the House of the Undying finally fulfilled. She reminisces about her childhood to Jon, who is in no mood for whispering sweet nothings. Daenerys tries to justify her burning a city of a million people and her planned conquests to come, to build a better world, but Jon is having none of it. 

Daenerys begs Jon to rule with her, to create her vision of a just world. They embrace in a passionate kiss and Jon stabs Dany through the heart with his dagger, a clear nod to the Azor Ahai prophecy that they had seemingly abandoned (where the Prince That Is Promised stabs his beloved through the heart in order to save the world). Drogon swoops into find his mother dead, and, in a tear-jerking scene borrowed from The Lion King, implores her to move before crying out in anguish. There is a tense moment as it looks to all the world as if Jon is about to be burnt to a crisp. Drogon instead turns his fury on the throne and melts it to smithereens before flying off into the distance with Dany’s body.

In the lore of Game of Thrones, dragons are said to be as smart as men, if not smarter, and Drogon’s decision to burn the throne rather than Jon clearly shows an awareness of the true cause of his mother’s death, even if the show has rarely portrayed them as more than wild beasts hell-bent on burning things. 

Fast forward a few weeks and a Great Council of Lords has been called to determine the future of the realm. Jon is notably absent from these discussions, another peculiar decision by the showrunners given that he is “the rightful heir”. Tyrion tells the council to choose the next ruler, here and now, and there is a stunned silence. Edmure Tully (did anyone else forget he was alive?) steps forward to make his claim, being very selective with the truth. Veteran of two wars, proven track record of statecraft? Sansa very quickly shuts him up. 

Sam votes for democracy. Cue laughter. Tyrion proposes Bran the Broken as the next king. His story is certainly a compelling one, as Tyrion points out, although on paper he is a far more interesting candidate than in practice. The council all agrees, except Sansa. A nice little political move by Sansa, allowing everyone to affirm their fealty to Bran before her, meaning they can’t really take back that fealty when Sansa proposes the North’s independence. She learned from the best. 

Tyrion informs Jon of the Council’s decision to send him back to the Night’s Watch to appease Grey Worm and the Unsullied. Jon still can’t really come to terms with killing his beloved queen, and Tyrion still seems on the fence about it all, but at least he’s there to clean up his mess.

Gwendoline Christie in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO

From there it’s all about tying up the loose ends. The remaining Stark children say their goodbyes, the ultimate winners in the Game of Thrones — a comeback story for the ages. Arya is off to explore new worlds to the west of Westeros. Screw all the prequels, this is the spin-off I want to see. Jon returns to Castle Black, stripped of titles and lands, as if that was a punishment for a man so uncomfortable with power and haunted by his decision to murder his queen.

In the end, Dany’s vision was realised, even if she wasn’t the one to see it fulfilled. The wheel has been broken, at least for the time being, although I can’t imagine any future Great Councils will be quite so smooth when determining the new king or queen. Sansa is the first female Queen in the North while Ser Brienne is the first female Lord Commander of the King’s Guard. Bronn finally got his castle, and much more, while Ser Davos gets his seat on the Small Council. The final scene is a call back to the very first episode as Jon rides out beyond the Wall. All rather neatly tied in a bow, with a hopeful message that Winter is gone and Spring is here to stay.

It’s hard to tell whether or not this is a satisfying ending. There were a couple big twists, but for the most part, it was a fairly saccharine episode. The biggest question that remains from both this episode and the season as a whole is whether they’ve done enough to justify those twists.

Daenerys’ future was foreshadowed for several seasons, but the lack of build-up to her descent into self-righteous madness cheapened and diminished its power. Bran being put on the throne makes a lot of sense, but it feels unearned given the role he has played this season, barely on screen other than creepy, emotionless stares and dry dialogue. Not to mention how calm and unselfish the council that crowned him was. Thousands of Ironborn fought to be an independent kingdom and yet there was no objection from Yara Greyjoy when only the North was given independence. Maybe they have done the maths and realised that all of their kingdoms were too weak and this method promises the possibility of one of their own ending up on the throne. It was all perfectly logical, but that is perhaps the problem. It was reasonable, calculated and ultimately lacking emotion.

Reflecting upon eight seasons, the contrast is stark between the material sourced directly from the books and when it overtook them. The shift to a plot-driven, spectacle based show rather than characters scheming makes it very much a series of two halves. The second half produced some exceptional television, particularly when it came to portraying big battles, but the writing definitely suffered from that swing in tone. There is a reason George RR Martin has not been able to finish his sprawling books, despite having been working on them for decades. And all those reasons were exposed in the final few seasons of Game of Thrones as Benioff and Weiss did their damnedest to achieve what Martin could not.

The ending was all very hopeful, and there is nothing inherently wrong about that, it just felt rather unlike Game of Thrones. There’s never going to be a way to please everyone, but this season really hammered home that Game of Thrones is in the end just a television show. It was still a damn good one, but it suffered as most programs do when trying to find a satisfactory conclusion. It is undoubtedly a shame that viewers will never get the product that might have been had the books been completed, although perhaps it is fallacious to assume that Martin will be able to pull of what the showrunners ultimately couldn’t – find a way to end the story while maintaining its thrilling and subversive nature.