As King’s Landing lies in smoldering ruins, “The Iron Throne” begins with the evocative images of Tyrion slowly making his way through Dany’s vengeful destruction of the capital city. Opening on a moment designed to revel in the horrible glory of her victory, the final hour of Game of Thrones wants to force the audience to consider the cost of revolution, of failed prophecies and broken dreams. Even more cynical, however, is the iconography of the scene, and how it reinforces the idea that while all men must die, the traditions they’ve instilled in Westerosi politics never will; all that bloodshed and destruction, and yet the ancient structures of King’s Landing remained. And though “The Iron Throne” makes a big show of Drogon burning the Iron Throne, those opening images resonate through the entire final episode: a wheel can be broken – but ultimately, Game of Thrones argues, the only thing that can replace it is another wheel.
“The Iron Throne” is but a collection of scenes rehashing and reinforcing the past, too afraid to challenge itself and engage with the potential of a more complicated resolution in its definitive moment.
For eight seasons, Game of Thrones has painstakingly examined the various structures of society that binds humanity together; love, war, political bodies, genealogy… over the years, Game of Thrones took great care to explore the disruption of traditional systems, and just how devastating the cost of revolution can be. Most importantly, it explored how challenging and unsatisfying change can be; the flawed nature of human beings made any victory a morally ambiguous one, as dangerous as it was liberating. But at its core, it always argued these revolutions, failed or successful, were worth the cost; from Dany, to Brienne, to Arya and The Hound, the characters of Game of Thrones found meaning in their journeys, seizing opportunities to break the cycles of their ancestors.
And yet, somehow the world is rebuilt in the exact image of the old, with the one added wrinkle of the North seceding from the Seven Kingdoms. In that light, Jon killing Dany is not just a conflicted man trying to end a tyrant’s reign; it is Game of Thrones playing the centrist card, refusing to truly reflect on the cost of destroying an established political system, or observe the difficulties of trying to rebuild the world in a new image. And it feels like an empty display of cynicism, a superficial reflection on the cyclical nature of civilization: once Dany is dead, it is but a few weeks before a council of people name Bran the new King of Westeros, laughing off the idea of a representative democracy and taking the simplest, most straightforward solution possible.
After years of reveling in the complicated nature of prophecy and revolution, Game of Thrones shies away from making a definitive statement about anything in its finale: “The Iron Throne” is but a collection of scenes rehashing and reinforcing the past, too afraid to challenge itself and engage with the potential of a more complicated resolution in its definitive moment. What plays out is a rather predictable checklist of events, led by perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the final episode: it suggests the world can change, but only under the power of men – or at least, not these women. Dany dies so Jon can be the tragic, conflicted hero, Brienne’s legacy is deifying Jaime’s selfish actions in the annals of history, and the crown is ultimately given to the most nonchalantly disinterested part in Westeros, the eternally smug Bran Stark – who, you may remember, has spent the entire last two fucking seasons telling everyone he is no longer Bran, and no longer has any wants or desires in the world…. except being King.
I get what Game of Thrones is trying to say in this moment: the only way to forge forward is with the knowledge and perspective of the past to draw from. But this is an inherently known entity of Westeros – look how many fucking maesters maintain the history of the realm and serve its leaders, to understand how important the past is. What makes this turn so disappointing is how little it actually reflects these values, in rebuilding its world in some nebulous vision of the future, that alarmingly looks and sounds like the exact same world of the past, right down reverting the voices in power back to the same families of men who decided things before. It is presented as optimistic, but is there any actual potential to see a vision of the future, that isn’t just the same shit happening over and over again?
For years, Game of Thrones teased the audience with its lofty speeches about breaking chains and rejecting the preconceptions of history; though a deeply nihilistic show about the absolute corruption of power, there was always a hint of optimism to the journeys of characters like Dany and Tyrion, offering hope for a world not absent of complications, but built on an altogether different foundation. Rather than seek out what that truth might be, Game of Thrones instead took the path of least resistance, hurtling itself towards a number of problematic story choices in its pursuit of nothingness, closing on 45 minutes of pomp that doesn’t take the time to consider its own circumstance.
Instead, it shrugs and suggests a handful of happy, simplistic endings for its characters, at whatever cost to narrative consistency or emotional resonance. Grey Worm (despite being an equally despicable war criminal) is given his happy ending of bringing his people to Naarth to let their gene pool die out in peace, Tyrion is set free and Jon is sent back to the Night’s Watch, Sansa gets to rule the North… each and every climactic moment in “The Iron Throne” reinforces the rushed laziness of these final seasons, a series of endings that, without the context of the proceedings this season, might almost seem logical on their face. But they all feel unearned and easy, obvious byproducts of a truncated writing process, a series of one-note moments unabashedly embracing the hollow reprise of Westeros being built in its old image.
Game of Thrones presented itself as a challenge both to its own universe, and fantasy fiction as a whole; in the end, it came up short on both accounts, ending by embracing the regressive tropes it rejected in a rushed attempt to finish its story. Rather than consider the fascinating implications of ending Game of Thrones in a world that felt different in some meaningful way, it simply just ends beginning the cycle anew, a perfunctory ending that feels as hollow as Jon’s feeble justifications for his actions the past two seasons, or just about anything that came out Bran’s mouth since he met the O.G. Three-Eyed Raven.
There are no final surprises, or poignant turns of events; look no further than Arya’s lazy ending or Sansa’s inconsequential freedom of the North for how empty much of “The Iron Throne” feels. Most of it just feels like a show tired of its own existence – or even more frustrating, a dramatic series afraid of really making a statement in its final moments, embracing the empty comforts of repetition in a collection of self-appeasing epilogues. Jon gets welcomed back up North, Arya gets interested in exploring, and Tyrion is “sentenced” to be a man of influence and riches the rest of his life (a sentence demanded by a military leader who immediately leaves King’s Landing, one of many signs how little logic was considered in the scripting of this episode): though the journey is always more meaningful than the destination, there’s a damning lack of conviction in this final episode that undercuts any of the resolutions it offers its characters.
Hundreds of thousands of words will be written to disseminate the various plot points and closing moments of “The Iron Throne“; but every moment in the final 85 minutes of the series boils down to the same nihilistic choice, in what is an ominous reflection of the current state of politics, the helpless feeling that no matter how many people try to reach a better compromise for society, the traditional structures will always remain intact. It’s a decidedly strange choice for a show so absorbed by the potential of revolution, to ultimately say that civilization is doomed to repeat itself, no matter what: that even the unifying threats of climate change and mutually assured destruction are not enough to ever bring a collection of individual cultures together, and we are doomed to let the (mostly male, completely white) leaders of the world fail us time and time again.
Game of Thrones didn’t have to make Dany a beloved queen to accomplish this; whether she remained in power or was immediately assassinated, the complications of her victory offered potential resonance to whatever GoT decided to do when it made its final political statements. The only way to truly rebuild is by destroying what came before; “The Iron Throne” never considers this possibility beyond a fleeting thought behind Dany’s final speech, and it lessens the impact of the series as a whole with the damning reveal of its superficiality in its last episode.
Yes, war and conquest can be empty and meaningless, but there is poignancy to be found in those moments that Game of Thrones never seeks, in its rushed attempts to tie everything off with a neat bow. Rather than contend with the complexities of an uncertain future, Game of Thrones ends by seeking the simplistic comforts of the past – and in doing so, ends a cultural touchstone on a dissonant, shallow bummer of an ending.
- I’ll never understand the choice to end the story on two truncated seasons. It allowed Game of Thrones to lean into its worst habits, and develop a few new ones: there isn’t a single coherent arc to any character in these final seasons, merely a series of unsatisfying checkpoints engineered to deliver any number of unearned resolutions.
- What is a stranger ending: Game of Thrones going all Not These Women, or Bran the Leader of Westeros’ First Surveillance State? you decide.
- boy, Grey Worm really devolves into a violent asshole in these final two episodes.
- Bronn might be the only character who gets their true happy ending, and that’s ok.
- Jon Snow should probably never fall in love again: he’s had two lovers, both who have died horrible deaths to further his own beliefs.
- Drogon ends Dany’s arc by melting the Iron Throne, then taking Dany’s lifeless body to some unknown location out East. Farewell, big dragon.
- the final image of the Starks walking towards their futures should be such a powerful, strong moment: but instead, it feels surprisingly rote.
- “I freed my brother, and you slaughtered a city.”
- Dany’s prophecy of walking to the throne comes true… but she never gets the chance to sit on it, shived in the chest in order to advance the goals of men in Westeros. I’ll never stop being disappointed by her truncated descent into madness these final seasons, but boy, her unceremonious ending is particularly upsetting.
- so…. what happened to the Dothraki?
- JON PET GHOST, WHO IS A VERY GOOD BOY. That is all.
- So Arya rode that horse to…. the edge of the gates and then walked the rest of the way? Game of Thrones is as quick to discard symbols as it is themes and core philosophies in its final hour.
- boy, there are a lot of Dothraki for an army that was slaughtered but a few weeks ago at Winterefell.
- Bran’s smug as fuck “Why do you think I came all the way down here?” is an absolute middle finger to any sense of social progress in Westeros.
- “You master of Grammar now, too?” if there’s one callback reference in this episode I liked, it was Davos’ learning how to read back in seasons four and five.
- Democracy in Westeros? What a joke!
- It’s very strange to come to the end of a series I’ve spent 7 years and thousands of words writing about, and feel like there isn’t much to say at the end. Maybe it’s being burnt out on a series that revealed its whole ass to the audience in its final dozen episodes, or maybe it’s just “The Iron Throne” is as dramatically inert as it is thematically hollow – as Tyrion says, “Ask me again in ten years.”
- I’m sure I’ll end up writing something about the inevitable Game of Thrones spin-offs, but this review marks the end of a journey that began in 2012, when I was but a lowly self-published blogger. A big thank you to everyone who has read, commented, and followed along this journey over the years with me; it’s been an absolute pleasure, and despite its eternally uneven quality (and roundly terrible final two seasons), I am sure going to miss this goofy, inconsistent, frustrating, unsatisfying series.