The great game came to an end in Game of Thrones 8×06, “The Iron Throne.”
Dialogue, death, and decisions; the Game of Thrones told the story it thought it should, coming full circle while stepping past a few missed opportunities. Here’s our breakdown of the series finale, “The Iron Throne.”
What happened on the ‘Game of Thrones’ series finale?
Tyrion, Jon, and Davos make their way into the blasted ruins of King’s Landing, as a snow-like ash settles over the city. Tyrion is horrified, but goes to seek out his brother and sister. He weeps as he unearths their corpses in the wreck of the catacombs.
Jon attempts to stop Grey Worm from executing the surviving, surrendered Lannister soldiers. Grey Worm refuses, acting out the cruelest letter of Daenarys’ orders, and returns to the slaughter as Jon seeks out his dark queen. He finds her delivering a speech promising yet more conquest and slaughter to the Dothraki and Unsullied, though Dany uses the language of liberation and the fall of tyrants. Nowhere, from Winterfell, to Dorne, to the Summer Isles will safe from her violent attention.
(If you hadn’t gotten the message yet, Dany is really bad now.)
Tyrion resigns as Hand of the Queen. Dany accuses him of treason — he shoots back that she slaughtered a city — and orders him imprisoned. After a meaningful look at Jon, she walks away, surrounded by her Unsullied. Arya appears by Jon’s side, warning him that Dany will not be satisfied with this victory, and that he, as Aegon Targaryen, will always represent a threat to Dany’s sovereignty.
Jon refuses to believe this, a stubborn loyalty that survives his meeting with the imprisoned Tyrion. Jon persists in defending Dany, and Tyrion tells Jon that they were both blinded by love for this violent, glorious liberator. Tyrion insists that Jon would not have burned the city (because Jon is good) and — as Tyrion can now see clearly — Dany’s aggression against evil men meant that she was always destined to turn against the innocent as well.
Without using so many words, Tyrion asks Jon to do a “terrible thing,” reminding him of his sisters’ inevitable intransigence. Jon leaves, passing Drogon, who sniffs him without comment.
Dany explores the blasted Great Hall, where the Iron Throne still stands amidst the drifting ash. She caresses the throne, grasping the hilt of one of the ancient swords, but turns when Jon enters. Dany tells him of her childhood spent dreaming of the throne, and Jon confronts her over the slaughter of the Lannister soldiers. She insists that she will not grant “small mercies,” but instead create a new, good world — a world that is good because she knows what is good.
(Dany has not been told that she is bad now, and does not know what good is.)
Dany urges Jon to “break the wheel” with her, and he vows that she will always be his queen. They kiss, and Dany staggers; Jon has stabbed her.
Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, and so briefly Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, dies in Jon’s arms as he weeps over her.
Drogon enters the shattered keep and noses at his mother’s body. When she fails to wake, he turns on Jon in rage — but directs his fire instead at the Iron Throne, which melts to red ribbons under that blasting heat. The great dragon gathers Dany in his claws and takes flight.
Later, Tyrion is led to address a council of the nobles of Westeros, including Sansa, Arya, and Bran, Edmure Tully, Robin Arryn, Yara Greyjoy, Gendry, and some nameless newbies from Dorne. Arguments are waged over the fate of Tyrion and Jon Snow, both of whom are in Grey Worm’s furious custody. Unable to decide on a proper course of justice, the group sets about selecting a king.
Tyrion… more or less just picks Bran because he has a compelling story. Unsurprised, Bran accepts with alacrity despite his lack of interest in power. As he cannot have children, it is decided that future rulers will be selected in the same way. The council affirms “Bran the Broken” as King of Westeros, though Sansa demurs, instead declaring the North an independent kingdom.
And thus did the Seven Kingdoms become six.
Jon is exiled to the Night’s Watch in a compromise between the Unsullied and Sansa and Arya. Dressed in black once again, he departs for Castle Black, bidding a tearful farewell to his siblings. Sansa, not quite forgiven, will speak for the North; Arya is setting sail to discover what is west of Westeros, likely never to return.
Brienne completes Jaime’s page in the miraculously whole White Book, ending his story with the words, “Died protecting his Queen.”
Tyrion is named Hand of the King, despite his protests. A meeting of the Small Council reveals Lord Bronn of Highgarden as Master of Coin, Set Brienne as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, Davos as Master of Ships, and Sam Tarly as Grand Maester. Sam has arrived with the “Song of Ice and Fire,” the scholarly chronicle of the War of Five Kings and Daenerys’ invasion that somehow fails to mention Tyrion. Bran is wheeled in for the session, but leaves governance of the realm to his council as he seeks out Drogon with his mind.
Jon, Sansa, and Arya take their rightful places as the story of Westeros moves on. Jon returns to Castle Black, where Tormund, dozens of wildlings, and Ghost await. Sansa is crowned Queen in the North, finally having earned the freedom for which she so long suffered. And Arya sails a ship with the Stark Direwolf as figurehead, and blazoned on its sails.
At Castle Black, Jon leads a party of wildlings and Black Brothers through the gate and beyond the Wall. Wildling women and children stream into the dark forest, unearthing new green shoots beneath the snow. Back where the story of Game of Thrones began, the tale moves forward.
“There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story,” muses Tyrion Lannister at the end of Game of Thrones. “Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”
It’s an uncharacteristically idealistic view from a series that often strove to defy the conventions and comforts of story. There is a relief in believing that that what has been created here (both within the world of Game of Thrones and in our own world with that creation) is essentially enduring, virtuous by dint of its existence. What has been must have been, and all has gone to plan.
The wars of Westeros and their ghastly aftermaths were merely bloody brushstrokes on a long canvas. The suffering of characters great and small were only dips and shadows of passion and paint. A boy is thrown from a tower window; an interim of awful years, and that boy becomes a man, becomes a king.
Within the framework of the Game of Thrones series finale, Tyrion’s words have a practical end, justifying the coronation of Bran Stark as King of the Seven-Turned-Six Kingdoms. It will remain for fans to debate whether Tyrion’s apparently sober wisdom is as altruistic as it seems to be. But as lines written by Game of Thrones show runners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, Tyrion’s words are rather more clearly self-serving.
Here at the end of this good story, we reflect on good stories — not just their power, but their composition. And what is a good story but a creation definitionally greater than the sum of its parts? Justified by reflection and the distance of history and time, recognized by those who remain to appreciate its lingering highlights.
It isn’t unreasonable for Benioff and Weiss to advance this thesis in one of the most anticipated television events in history. Most series finales wear a sheen of indulgence, blending art with the gloss of the glory days. And there is no question that Benioff and Weiss have created a landmark piece of television in Game of Thrones, an epic that proved the power of drama in any setting; they have earned their pride in their accomplishment.
But in using Tyrion to define stories as reflective processes, Benioff and Weiss are also acting to justify the choices, controversies, and indeed the mistakes that often characterized the writing on Game of Thrones.
Narratives of inevitability have a tendency to privilege the familiar. Look at the balance of character in the episode — the grand, emotional philosophizing is dedicated to Jon and Tyrion. Their beneficiary is Bran. Daenerys is left to howl demagoguery, Arya to offer incomplete warnings, Sansa to speak little and edge sideways toward her destiny.
As subversive as it often thought itself (and sometimes truly was) Game of Thrones never shed many of the sensibilities that drive traditional concepts of story and character.
Dany’s fierce wrath on behalf of the downtrodden inevitably led her to madness and genocide. Her death at Jon Snow’s hands is framed as tragic not because of what she has lost, but because of what he has suffered. Bran Stark, absolutely disinterested in and disengaged from rulership is the inevitable choice for king; he is, at least, firmly male. Jon Snow goes back to the remarkably extraneous Night’s Watch, returning to his place as the morose leader at a distant end of the world.
The problem is not that these are inherently bad stories. The problem is that they fail to question the assumptions that support them. That Tyrion’s diagnosis of Dany is correct, that power unsought is more noble than leadership striven for. That justice comes from collectives of earnest men. That for once, the cynical eye through which Game of Thrones viewed governance can at last be dismissed, because Tyrion has catapulted himself into the prime actor of power for a reliably disinterested king — but look how modestly he has done so.
As the finale of Game of Thrones, “The Iron Throne” is largely an incurious sequence of actions. It does not feel unsatisfying, because it is so dedicated to its inevitability. Instead, it feels like a decent meal eaten backwards; theoretically correct, and yet illogical and ill-suited for its purpose.
Ultimately, the inevitability of the end of Game of Thrones is calculated to serve effectively. When the end is the beginning, when your meal is out of order, how else can we think of it but as a whole — greater, as it must be, than the sum of its parts? Like Bran the Broken, King of the Six Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, Game of Thrones asks no questions and probes no mysteries.
It already knows how this story will end. It does not want to look at its parts, but rather be content in the whole.
That luxury can perhaps be afforded to Benioff and Weiss. But for viewers who have followed and considered and analyzed this world for eight years, the taste of inevitability is simply harder to swallow.
The conclusions of Sansa and Arya’s stories — the former crowned Queen in the North and the latter set off on adventures west of Westeros — may be imperfect grace notes for the two embattled sisters. But as far as endings in the Game of Thrones finale go, they ring mostly sweet.
Sansa has unquestionably earned her place, and it’s rewarding to see the steely, commanding confidence she exhibits in adopting the mantle of monarchy. Questions still remain — the details of Sansa’s leadership in the patriarchal North, as well as the practicalities of queenship are ignored in favor of gorgeous ceremony and spectacle. But after a long and painful arc, it is almost a relief to see the Queen in the North alone, in command of her own destiny, and (dare I say it) possibly even happy.
Similar questions remain as Arya begins her new adventures. Game of Thrones has never addressed Arya’s sudden desire to leave Winterfell forever, after so many years spent in return. Nor has it invested much time in establishing her as a hopeful explorer. Still, Arya’s ability to achieve calm purpose after years of self-sublimation and violence is moving. It is unilaterally good to see her story no longer defined by death, and if her wanderlust has not been sufficiently explained, at least it leads her somewhere brighter than her old dark path.
It’s not surprising that Daenerys died in the Game of Thrones finale. The character had been summarily pushed far past the point of no redemption last week, as she gathered the full power of her fire and fury against the innocents of King’s Landing. “The Iron Throne” only amplified the boundless degree of her violence, as she delivered a Hitler-esque speech to her largely faceless brown soldiers.
In a blink, the hopeful young queen was gone, replaced by a monster already too accustomed to cruelty to consider any consequence. In a story driven by inevitability, such a creature could only be killed.
But the manner of Dany’s death — slain by the righteous, sobbing prince — is disturbing in a way that Game of Thrones does not intend. The show views her murder as a tragic necessity, but the object of the tragedy is Jon.
Look what you made him do, Dany, with your cruelty and intransigence. Look how sad he is as you die in his arms.
Once again, Game of Thrones picks the wrong frame for the violence suffered by women. Dany is not innocent here, but she is an undefended woman alone with a man she does not know she can’t trust. Far too often, that is a situation that innocent women find themselves in, with equally terrible consequences.
Come on, Game of Thrones. Arya slew the Night King because you thought it would be cool; think of something better than another toxic trope.
Deaths: Queen Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, the rightful Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, Queen of Dragonstone, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons.
Battles: Only for Jon Snow’s soul, and then a small political maneuver for the kingship which Bran won without playing.
Sex and romance: Jon kills the woman he loves. Grey Worm takes the Unsullied to protect Missandei’s home of Naath. Brienne struggles to come to terms with Jaime’s choices and his death. Hopefully the Citadel has changed their rules about marriage, or else Grand Maester Samwell has left Gilly a single mom with two very small children.
Daenerys: Will you break the wheel with me?
Arya: I know a killer when I see one.
Tyrion: I supposed there’s a crude kind of justice… Now Varys’ ashes can tell my ashes, “See? I told you.”
Jon: You think our house words are stamped on our bodies when we’re born and that’s who we are?
Daenerys: It’s not easy to see something that’s never been before. A good world!
Jon: How do you know. how do you know it will be good?
Daenerys: Because I know what is good.
Sansa: Uncle? Please sit.
Bran: Why do you think I came all this way?
Davos: I’m not sure I get a vote, but aye.
Brienne: I think we can all agree that ships take precedence over brothels.