Warning: contains spoilers about the final episode of series 8.
One day, a prestige HBO drama will likely be made out of the momentous fall-out from last week’s penultimate Game of Thrones episode. After fans expressed growing discontent with the show, the decision to have Daenerys torch the whole of King’s Landing and its citizens with dragon fire finally blew the roof off the whole enterprise for many – only for others to fire back that these grumblers were wilful killjoys who should accept what was, in their eyes, a perfectly reasonable plot twist. Since last Sunday, the argument on social media has not let up.
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For what it’s worth, I think the events of last week were ruinous, in more ways than one – and it’s also worth emphasising that most of us who moaned about Daenerys’ wholesale transformation into the Mad Queen never thought of her as ‘good’ or expected her to be an upstanding ruler of the Seven Kingdoms – far from it. It’s just that pushing her into committing unprompted mass genocide seemed both a touch extreme and rather too obvious – a clunking privileging of plot over character. But I accept that there is a point at which one’s grievance also becomes excessive, even as a critic.
Which is why, in reviewing this week’s finale, I have vowed to try and be as even-handed as possible. To swallow my objections, take what has happened as read, and see if the ending can satisfy on the terms the creators have now set out. And, largely, it does – beginning with a remarkable, wordless opening sequence in which Tyrion wanders through the ashen remains of the citadel, surveying the wreckage, and the charred bodies. Saturated in grey, the scene eerily evokes a nuclear holocaust – and it is a terrible and powerful irony, of course, that after eight series of fear around the Night King bringing winter to Westeros, in the end, with ash falling like snow, it is human misdeed that should create that seasonal effect in the hitherto sunny King’s Landing.
It seemed likely that, for all the committed cynicism of the show’s worldview, in the final reckoning it would not allow the instigator of such a cataclysm to go unpunished – and so it proves. In a Nuremberg rally-like address to her armies, our self-righteous tyrant Dany suggests her whiffy ‘liberating’ mission is far from over, while kitted out in a fetching but distinctly fascistic black leather ensemble. Then she gets what’s coming to her.
Are we expected to believe that dragons have a finely-tuned appreciation of the symbols of autocratic power?
Amid what remains of the Great Hall, her nephew-cum-lover-cum-dopey-wingman Jon Snow stabs her through the heart, while snogging her and declaring her “my queen now and always”. The scene, thankfully, really lands – fuelled, perhaps, by the sheer torturedness of their predicament, Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke suddenly find a chemistry that has been notably absent between them up to this point. It is a moment only slightly diminished by the clunking absurdity of what follows, when Drogon makes an appearance. Clearly more than peeved at the death of his mum, he nevertheless refrains from flaming her traitorous boyfriend and instead decides to melt the Iron Throne. Which works well to hammer home the show’s central message about the inherent corruption of monarchical rule, but does beg the question: are we expected to believe that dragons have a finely-tuned appreciation of the symbols of autocratic power?
Thankfully, the story recovers its footing in the next scene, when a committee featuring all the show’s surviving lead characters convenes to decide on the fate of the Seven Kingdoms, now that it’s lost two queens in quick succession. I’m particularly glad that, for all that the show has condemned despotic rule, it does not succumb to the pat option of having the characters happily establish a democracy in its place. Indeed, when Samwell Tarly (with a stray water bottle next to his leg, another continuity clanger that has already had the internet frothing) suggests that they might consider having the people vote for their king or queen in future, he is laughed down by his comrades – a knowing upending of expectations, which somehow expresses exactly what has made the series, at its best, so refreshing.
Instead, what we get is a compromise, both on the part of the characters trying to fashion a secure future for Westeros and the show’s creators David Benioff and DB Weiss, looking for a way to end the story that is neither fancifully idealistic nor impossibly bleak. A new head of state is appointed, but one who has little interest in power for its own sake, and cannot bear children, thus paving the way for a new system of non-hereditary rule, with leaders chosen by an oligarchy. That leader, not entirely unpredictably, is Bran, the seer Stark who finally has something useful to do after many series of slightly superfluous and obscure visions.
He’s a choice that makes narrative sense, though it has to be said that there is something quite humorous about Tyrion’s justification for picking him being that he has the greatest “story” – given that, for many viewers at least, his storyline has been quite the dreariest. In any case, true to the show’s sense of realpolitik, it’s very much only a contingently happy ending: when Jon asks Tyrion if he did the right thing in killing Daenerys, he simply replies: “ask me again in ten years”.
In fact, though, not one but two new rules are established. Those of us who have found ourselves cheering on an ever-more-emboldened Sansa Stark – one of the few characters with a truly well-constructed character arc – can rejoice in seeing her declare the North independent of the other six kingdoms, and crowned as its queen. In other plot tie-ups, Jon is packed off back to The Night’s Watch, as a way to appease Daenerys’ followers while saving him from a death sentence, while, ever the lone ranger, Arya vows to continue her adventuring by travelling West of Westeros into the great unknown. A final scene cuts between the three of them taking up their new destinies, and provides an efficient, if disappointingly uncontroversial, ending.
I think the complaints about the show over the past couple of series have been mostly justified. It’s easy to sneer at Game of Thrones’ so-called ‘entitled’ fans, as some critics have done, particularly when they sign petitions asking for its final season to be remade – but, at the same time, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to be upset at seeing something you have invested so much time in being debased by pure-and-simple bad writing.
However, it is also true that a sprawling epic like this, with chaos built into its very narrative DNA, was always likely to have faults. In fact, that in-built imperfection seems to be wryly referenced in one of the closing scenes, where George RR Martin proxy Samwell reveals he is in possession of a book detailing the history of everything we have seen over the last eight series. And its title? ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ – the same one, of course, as for Martin’s series of novels. However when Tyrion asks about how he is portrayed in it, he discovers, humiliatingly, that he doesn’t even get a mention. In the end, similarly, some characters were served better than others by Benioff and Weiss – spare a thought for example, for poor Brienne of Tarth, that one time vanquisher of gender norms whose character, in the end, was sacrificed to a gratuitous romantic plotline.
But, finally, let us remember the good times the show gave us – the shocks it provided, the gasps it induced, the caustic quippery it revelled in (Olenna Tyrell 4 Eva), and the sheer amount of conversation it inspired, something which in itself is proof of its cultural power. And hopefully see you back here in the next year or two, to pore over the affairs of Westeros once more, when the upcoming Games of Thrones prequel series begins.
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