The great inevitability of stories is that as sure as they are to begin, they will end. A thing cannot keep going no matter its popularity or success. (This includes a much-hyped and very profitable era of the MCU.) The show must go on, then the curtains must draw for a close. That’s the bittersweet feeling Game of Thrones leaves behind—the knowledge that this could’ve gone on to Season 10 onward to 100 episodes. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss instead went bold in not only concluding one of the biggest TV shows in the world, but also in giving the show the cinematic ending it deserves.
After the dust (or ash) settled, Daenerys has fallen, Bran has been crowned as King with Tyrion as his Hand; Jon/Aegon has been sent back to the Night’s Watch (LOL), Sansa is Queen in the North, and Arya is Eat-Praying-and-Loving it as she embarks west of Westeros.
Needless to say, if you placed bets that Jon would sit on the Iron Throne as the rightful heir a la Aragorn, you were in for a surprise. I myself predicted Daenerys would rule as the queen Westeros deserves. The final season turned out to be a gallery of holy-shit-I-did-NOT-see-that-coming plot developments, except maybe Cleganebowl. (Then again, Maester Aemon could see that one coming.) Despite whatever issues or misgivings you may have with the end points of certain characters, there is no denying that the series finale fulfills the experience that put Game of Thrones on the cross-cultural map.
Upsetting Convention (and Fans) for Eight Seasons
Let’s green-see ourselves back to Season 1’s penultimate episode, “Baelor.” Everyone assumed Ned Stark would live. After all, he was the “protagonist.” He HAD to live. Because that’s what protagonists do, and good ALWAYS triumphs over evil, etc., etc. Instead, Ned lost his head and we haven’t been the same since.
That guttering feeling was what defined the show from other fantasy stories and prestige dramas. (Game of Thrones, of course, would become the top Emmy-contender to beat.) The sheer treasure-trove of A Song of Ice and Fire’s mythology was ripe for the booming internet fan culture that’s risen over the years, IPs like the MCU and Thrones having a hand in that. But Thrones otherwise is a uniquely scripted series. No other show had mercilessly killed off those we rooted for while those we mercilessly hated were the ones who made it to the next season.
It’s disorienting and emotionally lacerating (or perhaps morbidly fascinating), and even stranger, it’s kept us coming back for more. Because so much of scripted television sticks to the fundamental assumptions brought by conventional storytelling. Game of Thrones didn’t just have dragons and walking dead-men, but an expansive world where protagonists were more in danger of the corrupt or becoming corrupted than the actual rot that surrounded them. Oberyn Martell didn’t live past one season. Walder Frey made it to the Season 6 finale.
Notions of an “ending” hasn’t exactly been the show’s forte as each season doesn’t wrap up thematically as most shows do. Every Thrones finale has been mere table-setting for the next season. Seasons never quite end; they just… stop, then pick up again a year later—the same way each book in A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t have a carefully crafted ending to satisfy you while you *patiently* wait for the next installment. GRRM is telling one long, massively porous story divvied into 5-parts so far. This is why anticipation is so fevered. Fans are left on cliffhangers and resolution is, well, nowhere in foreseeable sight.
The gaps in each installment is what makes the whole endeavor feel episodic – perfect for a television show, but Thrones’ built-in structure has been a double-edged sword. Take any one season of a character like Theon Greyjoy and it’s hardly compelling until you consider the bigger picture. In Season 3 for example, Theon is living the life of a Guantanamo Bay detainee. There is nothing redemptive about his arc that season. But watching him gradually redeem himself over the next 3 seasons – and then make the decision to fight the army of the dead in Winterfell – is what makes the arc worthwhile. (And, frankly, gives Jaime Lannister’s redemptive streak a run for his gold.)
The Night is Dark and Full of Expectation
Arya is another key example. It’s not that her arc in Braavos is unwatchable, it’s that she falls into the same geography-trap that Daenerys was in for 6 seasons. (Dany can gather as many allies to her camp as she wants, but she still wasn’t in Westeros.) I didn’t see Arya being the one to kill the Night King, but the trajectory arguably reconciles two halves of her arc – a daughter of House Stark and an assassin of the Faceless Men. Her killing the Night King was wholly unexpected, but it validated the journey we witnessed.
Was killing Ned Stark a betrayal to viewers’ investment? It probably seemed that way initially, but it exposed our ideas of a “protagonist” and how beholden we are to “expectation.” Moreover, it demonstrated how much we cared about these characters. We want them to live so badly that we assume they’ll survive somehow even when they’re kneeling before the executioner.
Even now – in a hyper-active fan culture rife with rolling predictions and threads and theories – we’re still very much tethered to expectation, a.k.a. the very thing GRRM has always been insistent upon subverting and upending.
By no means has Thrones subverted expectations perfectly. See Sansa in Season 5—which further subverted Sansa’s preteen fairy tale view of the world but wound up hampering the progression she made in Season 4. Or going beyond the wall in Season 7 to “bring the dead” to Cersei and losing Viserion in the scuffle— not to mention the weird dynamics of the Night King selecting a dragon far out of throwing distance when Drogon is clearly right fucking there. But to say that Arya killing the Night King destroys Jon Snow’s arc still sounds like sexist trolling. (Also, I had no idea so many of you were invested in the Night King???) Because Jon Snow clearly has more to do in the final episodes. The same could not be said of characters like Varys or Bronn.
Do some seasons betray certain characters? In some cases, yes. But characters like Arya, Jon, and Daenerys – the trinity of fan division this season – are cases where we’re made to challenge our ideas and expectations of them. That’s something Thrones can be good at (i.e. Ned, Robb and Catelyn, Oberyn, Hodor) when the show sets its creative minds to it.
The Mad Queen: Unearned or Unanticipated? (Two VERY DIfferent Things in Storytelling)
And so we arrive at Daenerys’ descent into madness. This writer admittedly saw her walking across the throne room as the final scene of the series. That perhaps she’d do something unspeakable as, say, killing Jon Snow to remove all threats to her claim. She’d sit atop what she was led to believe was her birthright for so many years, and she’ll realize it wasn’t worth it—that her pursuit for a chair and crown had rendered her inhuman. A final, absent look directly into camera. Cut to black.
Daenerys in the end was the one to fall, and there is something beautifully devastating about the final strokes of her journey. That her quest for the Iron Throne created the best version of her. She liberated slaves, cities, broken chains. It’s the same way Stannis saved the North from the wildling army and was its perceived savior for a time. Stannis essentially foreshadows Daenerys’ tragic end as those who pursue the Iron Throne inevitably become corrupted. Because their quest, ultimately, is a corrupt one – for power, to reign supreme.
In Season 7, Tyrion poses the paradox of Daenerys’ reign: How do you “break the wheel” when Aegon the Conqueror was the one who built it? Daenerys had come all this way to rule so she will, she says, and that’s the end of that discussion.
The revelation of Jon’s parentage is what truly kills her. Because she believed herself to be the rightful heir as the last surviving Targaryen. That was the entire basis of her claim along with raising 3 dragons from stone – the notion of her manifest destiny. Jon threatens her guiding belief that saw her free cities and cross the Narrow Sea; her existence, basically. She cannot live with herself having come all this way and finding out someone else was destined, or worse, better suited to rule. There is no turning back for her.
Daenerys as Conqueror is a consequence of a line of rightful heirs and entitled claims. There can be no breaking of the wheel when your ultimate goal ensures that the cycle self-sustains. It’s Daenerys’ fatal flaw. She achieved peace in Essos, and briefly achieved peace in King’s Landing. But peace had never been enough. Essos wasn’t her birthright, but the Iron Throne was— as goaded on by those in her corner. She chose war. She chose fire and blood.
Of course it’s tragic that Daenerys’ own ambition corrupted her (because, as proven by all who vied for the throne, that ambition is inevitably corrupting), just as its tragic that Jon had to be the one to kill her. We care about these characters. We wish for them to succeed despite the monstrous things they’ve done (Jaime, The Hound, Stannis). Daenerys’ end trajectory isn’t a betrayal so much as it completes the story of Game of Thrones that Cersei made a prophecy: you win, or you die.
The Guessing Game of Thrones
As much as I’ve subscribed to certain endgame theories, I’m glad none of my predictions came true. Me guessing ahead to perhaps better protect myself from the next gut-wrenching death or game-changing reveal; that’s never been the case. (Heck, I subscribed to R + L = J like everyone else, but not even book fans were prepared for how earth-shattering that confirmation would be.) That, for me, would truly be a disappointing end—for Thrones to have become predictable, to betray the subversive element that got me hooked in the first place.
To be clear, I’m not saying that unpredictability is key to what I think of as a good story. I share some of the same pacing criticisms that Thrones has unfortunately let slip in its mad-dash to the end. But the show having maintained its penchant to surprise me each season is what I find fulfilling, from Arya killing the Night King, to Daenerys fire-bombing King’s Landing, or Jon slaying the Dragon Queen. It caps off the promise set by the beheading of one protagonist we didn’t see coming.
I didn’t see Bran becoming king either— and yet I love the choice the more I think about it because it’s a literal “breaking of the wheel” established by Aegon. Bran’s moniker as King seals that promise. There, too, is a special kinship in Tyrion being the one to proclaim Bran as king.
Sansa emerges as the Queen the North deserved all along – her mode of self-preservation that kept her alive ultimately seeing her through the entire series; Arya unshackled from her need for vengeance and thus free to find a new home; and Jon leading a pack of wildlings North towards a new beginning in a place that encompassed so much death.
I always saw Game of Thrones ending in tragedy, but there’s something rewarding and undeniably cinematic about this ending to me as a fan, one that kept me guessing all the way to its moving final shot. Knowing what started these never-ending promises of a looming winter, and here at the end of this eight-season symphony, seeing the Stark children rising to such conclusive prominence – of cripples, bastards, and broken things leading the way toward and onward to a dream of spring.