This Game of Thrones review contains spoilers for the series finale.
Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 6
What a difference an episode can make. Last week, I speculated that we’d be processing that episode of Game of Thrones for many days, weeks, and perhaps months to come. I think it’s fair to say that this process is still in its infancy, despite the current online histrionics of fanboys demanding a reshoot/rewrite of season 8. While the final season of the most popular series of the decade has had numerous issues, it was in its last two chapters—and especially the final one—that storylines took on new and often bitter dimensions. Some of it might be rushed, some of it might’ve needed further detail, yet nevertheless I believe these final two episodes are the closest we’ve come to capturing George R.R. Martin’s tone and vision since Hodor held a door to a grim end.
And sure enough, there was grimness tonight too, but also hope and a gracefulness that has long been absent the final two seasons of Game of Thrones. This might not have been the ending we all wanted (it certainly wasn’t the one I imagined), but it was a good one that has brought appropriate, if not astounding, closure to “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Even if Game of Thrones fumbled a handful of that song’s lyrics at the end, the series still found music in its final refrain.
Alas that this must begin, and in truth, end with Daenerys Targaryen’s final fate. Having rewatched “The Bells” and lived with Dany’s decision for seven days, I am still heartbroken with the Mother of Dragon’s choices, but less so in Martin’s, whose hand clearly guided showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Daenerys turning into a conqueror every bit as bloodthirsty as her ancestors is an ugly conclusion to her arc, but a sadly believable one.
While I tend to agree with the general consensus that season 8 failed to properly set-up the precise moment of her turn, it is harder to say it was unearned when one looks at the history of the Dragon Queen. A monarch who has always embraced the Fire and Blood mantra of her House words, there have been numerous clues throughout the series that she could fulfill her father’s wishes and “burn them all.” And as I’ve recently considered, electing to feed a man she admits might be innocent to her dragons isn’t just “foreshadowing;” at best, it’s a personality defect we hoped she would outgrow.
The fact that she did not is agonizing, but it encapsulates the saga’s inherent conception of the distance between the use of power and the way stories, including this one, glamorizes it. Daenerys from the beginning threatened to burn cities to the ground when her dragons were grown, and promised her Dothraki first as Khal Drogo’s Khaleesi and then as her own unbowed, unburnt deity that they would know the spoils of Westeros if they but help her tear down the milk-colored men’s stone homes. It was not bluster, and we uncritically accepted her autobiographical mythmaking as she crucified men and burned possible innocents alive—these lapses turned out to be a harbinger of what happens when things didn’t go her way in Westeros. Instead of a happy fantasy ending with the rightful monarch restored, horror and nightmarish echoes of the realities of war (and the war crimes that can often accompany them) tore our hopes and expectations to pieces.
Which is where “The Iron Throne” picks up. Some unknown amount of time after the slaughter of King’s Landing, ash and snow alike mingle above the ruined capital. Genuinely it’s a wonder there are many survivors at all, not that those who did make it out get to live for long. For tonight’s hour-plus episode begins with a deep breath as Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister survey the destruction wrought by their queen. It’s a masterful sequence for Peter Dinklage, whose best material since surpassing the books has always been better the more remote he becomes in his lonely isolation and disillusionment. Tonight, that journey to an island at the center of an endless sea is complete.
Around him is the city he once saved from Stannis Baratheon, and whose annihilation he invited to this shore with open arms. He even considered himself “A Gift” for Dany, and for all his bumbling decisions as her Hand, perhaps he was. Because a fool who can smooth relations over with some allies—like Jon at the beginning of their courtship—is very helpful indeed right up until his pleas for “the bells” can go ignored. Now, however, he’s so outlived his usefulness to a queen he betrayed. I initially thought Jon Snow was worried about Tyrion’s safety from Daenerys when he offered to send men with the last Lannister into the Red Keep. Nay though, it was just a pretense to think there are still souls rumbling around this destruction beyond the ghosts.
And it’s ghosts Tyrion finds when he enters the ruins and goes straight to where Cersei and Jaime were supposed to escape. I’ve had problems most of the season with the unsatisfying structure of Jaime’s arc—as well as the general lack of Cersei on screen, period—but their demise has never bothered me. In retrospect, it would have been more cinematic if they were consumed by dragonfire in the throne room before the chair that apparently drives men and women mad than in the crypts of the Red Keep. Either way, however, the end is the same: When the heroine we bet it all on gives in to her demons, who cares about villains too pathetic to even save themselves until all is lost? Cersei died how she lived, oblivious that the power of the Iron Throne was a thin illusion that could crash down on her head at any moment. And so it did.
Still, if the actual scenery of that demise is underwhelming, it regained a certain lyrical potency when Tyrion spotted their corpses by way of the same item that saved Jaime’s soul in season 3 yet damned him in season 8 when the Unsullied spotted him: his golden hand. Standing above the bodies of the brother he loved and the sister he hated, Tyrion ironically could most relate to Daenerys in this moment—he is the last of a troubled and complicated family. He is all alone in the world, losing even the sister he once upon a time dreamed of murdering before the whole court of King’s Landing. He was too good for them, but that doesn’t make the pain any easier.
I especially appreciate the impotent sounds of a brick he grabs smashing with meaningless anger across the soil that constitutes Cersei and Jaime’s graves. Not coincidentally, it is in the same rhythm of Tyrion’s approximation of Orson Lannister, the “simple” Lannister cousin who spent his days joyfully smashing beetles. At the time, Tyrion compared the pointlessness of this absent-minded action to the uncaring nature he perceives in the gods, but it can also apply to monarchs who think themselves divine. What are the people smashed beneath them but so many beetles?
Tyrion knows as much when he makes his first wise decision in season 8 and resigns his post henceforth as Hand of the Queen. Of course this is not a position you simply walk away from—particularly if you do so while embarrassing a queen on a bloodlust high in front of her entire army. It’s Dinklage’s other great moment of the night (again sans almost any dialogue) when he tosses a pin that once meant the world to him in season 6 down into the snow and ash. “You slaughtered a city” is all Tyrion says, but his face also accuses her of slaughtering all of our hopes for a better world—the characters and audience alike.
Which brings us to who Daenerys is in tonight’s episode and the painful truths and shortcomings therein. Likely the aspect that the finale most hinged on was selling, or at least justifying, Daenerys’ heel turn. It’s a “twist” that should have been organically weaved into the final season over at least three bridge episodes between the two major battles of this year, and instead was compressed to the evermore frustrating “The Last of the Starks” episode. And by denying a vantage of Daenerys’ face as she burned the innocent and guilty alike of King’s Landing—letting “my dragons decide” as she previously contemplated doing to Meereen in season 5—it fell on this episode to explain her rationale.
Personally, I wish it was a coldly Machiavellian calculation after realizing that her claim would be challenged by the lords of Westeros because of Varys and Sansa’s treachery. What she did is an atrocity and war crime more severe than anything committed by Cersei or Tywin Lannister (as Tyrion later helpfully reminds us), and both of them had put portions of the capital to the torch! Yet by comparison of such commonplace medieval cruelty, this better resembles the terror of nuclear war in the modern world, with images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki emulated in the fallout just as much as Pompeii or 9/11. And somewhat similarly, the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Japanese was the foundation on which America built a new world, one in which it was a super power and its military might went unquestioned. Chances are the history text books you read in high school focus more on how the nuking of cities brought about a swift end to World War II (and quickly ushered in the dawn of the Cold War) than it does the lives lost.
Dany’s choice of mass killing of civilians is not entirely analogous to this historical comparison since King’s Landing did surrender before she dropped the proverbial bomb—although I would note that as late as December of 1945 more than one out of every five Americans wished our military had nuked more cities—but the effect could’ve still been her attempting to build a world where her super-powered might would not be questioned by the other dragon-less lords of Westeros. So I am somewhat disappointed that the series went all in on the “Mad Queen” aspect of her Targaryen legacy. When we finally see her standing above her Unsullied she is more composed and articulate than Aerys II was by the end, but a certain unhinged zeal has crept into her eyes.
Dany has won “The Last War” but now she desires many more last wars. Calling her Dothraki and Unsullied “liberators,” she has decided she wants to liberate more than just King’s Landing. Winterfell and that smug auburn-haired Stark girl must burn too, and then maybe Dorne even though they’re an ally. She wishes to
“liberate” (which she is making synonymous with the word “conquer”) every city under the sun. To Emilia Clarke’s credit she plays this moment, and all of her final scenes for that matter, with a shockingly elevated level of subtlety.
When the series began, I was a much harsher critic on Clarke’s acting, but as the years have passed, her talent has become a tremendous asset, perhaps one of the most crucial in the final few seasons as her command of Daenerys is arguably more nuanced than the dialogue that is placed in her mouth. There are no wide-eyed expressions of mania or overt “madness;” Clarke allows us to see a natural progression between Daenerys, the Breaker of Chains, and Daenerys, the Cracking Conqueror. Those elements were always there, but more so in the books. Perhaps I have accepted Dany’s descent easier than many viewers because as a reader of the books, it’s not that big of a twist, although it is one I had rooted and hoped against. Prone to visions (or delusions), she much more freely on the page accepted some of the entitlements that turned her brother into a sniveling monster, including referring to herself as a dragon.
That Daenerys is the one I see standing before the Unsullied—one who has decided she prefers being a conqueror instead of a ruler. The one who seemed to reject ruling Meereen benevolently at the end of A Dance of Dragons by stating to herself, “dragons do not plant…Fire and Blood.” This is clearly Martin’s ending. Seasons 7 and 8 might’ve failed to properly prepare this descent, but it was always a likely direction of her arc that fans always debated, and Clarke sees it through with acute clarity now.
The rest of it falls to Jon Snow and Tyrion in the other weak spot of the finale. While Clarke overcomes the shortcomings of season 8 here, Kit Harington fares not so easily in portraying the conflict of a man reduced to whine, “She’s my queen” one or six too many times. He sees Grey Worm execute Lannister survivors in the street and, realizing if he attempted to stop it he’d only be adding his body to the pile, quietly sulks off. One would hope this would be the last straw, or Arya pointing out that he and especially Sansa will be next on the chopping block, but Jon continues to drag his feet to the inevitable conclusion of this passion play. It is left up to Tyrion to act as a mouthpiece for Benioff and Weiss, walking Jon and the audience to the inevitable outcome.
Dinklage is fine in this scene, and perhaps his words need to be said since so many viewers apparently forgot about Daenerys’ penchant for torture and terror, but it is still a rather heavy-handed moment when Tyrion’s lips move, and out comes the showrunners’ words, giving their closest to an “Inside the Episode” this week. As Tyrion says, “Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it,” Tyrion sums up the complicity viewers and readers have been set-up to have signed on for with Dany. She conquered with ease, but her rule in seasons 5 and 6 was shaky at best. She might’ve locked up her dragons, but she still used them to threaten and frighten her enemies in Meereen, even if they really were evil men. It’s easy to overlook your very flawed hero isn’t becoming a superhero but a leader with a messiah complex when the only ones suffering at her whims are people we think have it coming.
Still, it’s a neat trick that Tyrion could articulate all those warning bells we ignored when he wasn’t there to cheer for any of them.
… Anyway, Tyrion’s pep talk is probably the most successful political machination he coordinates in the whole final season, as it forces Jon Snow to stop brooding and start facing hard truths. I would’ve preferred the ambiguity of Daenerys not being mad at all, but the episode at least does not forget she is still the Daenerys we’d come to love over nine to 23 years (depending when you jumped on). She is still the young woman who dreamed of one day seeing the Iron Throne her brother always spoke longingly of, and who reverts to something adjacent of that girlhood when finally standing before it. In a visual remake of her vision in the House of the Undying from season 2 when she approaches a throne covered in snow and ash alike. Her family’s dragonfire is responsible for the ungainly chair she now worships, and her personal dragon has charred the throne to a brittle husk, but it still stands. That and everything it represents.
It’s this woman who Jon Snow must approach and, yes, murder. And I’m not going to lie when I say it is a chilling scene in which a man kills his lover as an act of heroism on television. Derived from a story that predates our current and ongoing conversation about how we depict women and violence in media, the scene is most obviously politically incorrect. This is worthy of discussion, but it can also become a narrow prism to view the entire breadth of the series with. Evaluating Dany’s journey solely by how heroic and godlike she appears as a savior misses the point of what this says about a feudal system of governance—and our still persistent need to be “rescued” by a strong leader, even as they encroach on our rights to enrich their own power and self-purported mythology. Likewise evaluating her death solely by the fact a man kills her can miss the melancholy point of the scene.
Daenerys has what she dreamed about but it isn’t enough. Dragons do not plant, and she’s had her fill of ruling ungrateful people after Meereen. She wants to move on and continue what she does best, unable to accept she has enough. What she at last does accept though is that she is no longer alone. Ever since Viserys died, the knowledge that she is the Last Targaryen has festered as a birthright and an added pressure on Dany. Discovering Jon was her nephew was neither welcome news of kinship or even unwelcome news of romance; it was just one more obstacle on her quest for power… perhaps the biggest one. In this moment though, she offers Jon Snow something she never had from Viserys, much less the parents didn’t know: acceptance of family.
Jon Snow, poor fool that he is, loves her too, as a queen, a lover, and mayhaps even a final connection to a heritage he didn’t know was his until a few months ago. And he still is compelled to betray her. I’m sure some fans will squint to see if there is any meaning in his stabbing Daenerys like the prophecy of Azor Ahai stabbing his wife to allegedly forge a sword that would defeat the White Walkers in millennia past. And there is probably something to unpack there, considering even if they already saved the world from ending in Ice, he is doing this to save it from ending in Fire (poet Robert Frost would be pleased). But the greater tragedy is that a man is killing a woman he loves as well as the last bit of Targaryen family they both have in this world because of an earthlier demon within us all.
There is supernatural meaning aplenty to be gleaned—Jon Snow’s betrayal of love also echoes a prophecy from season 2 where Daenerys was told she’d be betrayed first for gold (Jorah), then for blood (Mirri Maz Durr), and finally for love (Jon)—but the potency is in the human scale. In Daenerys’ thirst for “breaking the wheel” she ended up becoming as ruthless a driver of it as any this world has seen. She became consumed by her own human failings instead of living up to the divine ones she imagined. Whatever prophetic meaning in Jon’s betrayal that’s hidden becomes immaterial to the human and psychological cost of what he does. It’s been noted that Martin’s favorite part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is the “Scouring of the Shire,” an epilogue so long-winded even Peter Jackson did not adapt it in Return of the King. Aye, even after defeating Sauron, the problems of the world continued when a civil war broke out in the Shire due to reasons too convoluted to list here.
The point, however, is that the end of Game of Thrones mirrors the end of the literary Lord of the Rings, save the scouring of the Shire becomes more paramount to the story than destroying the Great Evil (Sauron or the White Walkers). Humanity’s gross pettiness lives on, and the woman who made defeating the Evil possible still succumbs to her own much less fantastic demons, and it leaves the last person left in the world she loves almost as much in total ruin.
Martin is also prone to quote William Faulkner when he says, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself,” and that conflict is in Daenerys giving into her worst impulses and also in Jon Snow killing a woman he loves. It breaks both of them. Similarly, Jon once had to consider whether he would kill Ygritte (it is ambiguous on the page if he does, even to himself, and on the show he clearly does not), but with Daenerys he plunges the knife in. He stops her heart and destroys his own.
It’s as ashen as the debris beneath their feet, but the quiet acceptance of it is represented by neither character—that honor belongs to Drogon. Admittedly, I suspect the reason he does not roast Jon Snow is he knows Jon is a Targaryen, but the dragon which is said to have the intelligence of a human does not kill the murderer of his mother or really consider the sight beyond his despair at losing Mhysa. He instead makes the choice we all want to: Drogon roasts the damnable Iron Throne she so coveted and that has driven many mad with ambition. He returns the monument of Targaryen power to the dust and with a surprising amount of dignity, and to my chagrin, takes Dany’s body and flies off back to where they were both happier. I dreaded how the series would handle Drogon, not least of all because there didn’t seem to be a satisfying way to defeat the beast, and it instead became one of the most tasteful moment of the finale.
The events following Daenerys’ death could’ve easily been their own episode, but instead here make for a satisfying if somewhat quick-footed epilogue. Like much of season 8, I could’ve spent another hour with the lords and ladies of Westeros deciding their fates and growing accustomed to the new status quo, but unlike a good chunk of this final season, the plotting and intelligence with which it is presented feels true.
After a decent amount of time has passed, and the snow and ash have been wiped away, Tyrion Lannister is summoned from his cell to where what at first appears to be a trial; it instead turns into the most festive war council the show has seen in years. To know the true devastation this series has had on the gentry class of Westeros, one need only consider that there are so few families left that Samwell Tarly, Edmure Tully, and Robin freaking Arryn are among the most powerful and influential on the continent! The Seven help us all. There’s even a Dornish prince there whose name no one knows!
It is apparent that these lords and ladies have gathered for a détente to end all the squabbling. Like the viewers, they’re rightly weary after drinking deeply from the well of apocalypse. The Unsullied and Dothraki have apparently turned King’s Landing’s crispy shell into a defensive stronghold, but without Daenerys they lack the leadership or the will to really fight another war. They simply want a way off the cursed land and to return home—and they’re using Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister as their bargaining chips. Perhaps unsurprisingly they also reserve a greater level of animosity for the man who plunged the knife into their queen than the betrayer who talked him into it.
Before the sad state of Westeros’ ruling class, Tyrion states the obvious about what they should do next for leadership and guidance: “You’re the most powerful people in Westeros. Choose one.” There is plenty of humor to be gained by a gladly welcomed Tobias Menzies as Edmure attempting, with not-so-much-welcome, to make himself King of the Seven Kingdoms. Of even greater humor still is Samwell Tarly, always the good boy, suggesting essentially a form of democracy… something more radical than even the most optimistic “A Song of Ice and Fire” fan’s predictions. The guffawing and mocking laughter is also a nice palate cleanser after all the dour despair of the first 45 minutes. (Not that this scene still isn’t a baby step towards Westeros’ magna carta!)
Eventually they settle on something close to what I had expected, but not quite. Like many, I had come to see Sansa Stark as the best choice for queen or king. Her entire character arc has been a trial by fire in political leadership—and no I’m not referring to her wedding night with Ramsay. Rather she has sat by the hand of terrible kings and queens (Joffrey and Cersei), good queens (Margaery), excellent administrators (Tyrion), and masterful schemers (Littlefinger and Roose Bolton). That’s worthy of an advanced apprenticeship in governance, and she was by far the most regal when she told her hapless Tully uncle to sit down and shut up. She’s even framed at the center of this war council.
However, it wasn’t quite to be. The real answer for the future ruler of the Six Kingdoms is… Bran Stark?! I do not believe anyone saw this coming, myself included. I certainly have not read a single fan theory predicting the Three-Eyed Raven as king, but there is a small amount of elegance in it. Tyrion Lannister again takes on the cadence of his showrunners when he asserts a story has the greatest value in attaining political power. And while that’s true to a point, many a campaign manager will tell you how all stories can be massaged, and Sansa or Arya’s is just as (or frankly more) compelling than Bran’s. Yet Bran is like his namesake, Bran the Builder, a crippled man who still wields a great power.
Thematically, he continues the narrative of “Bastards, Cripples, and Broken Things” having greater value than a regressive feudal and patriarchal society gives them credit for—and his inability to father children allows monarchs to be elected amongst the highborn, which is something of a fusion between monarchy and rudimentary parliamentary rule. Again, baby steps!
For my money, however, its greater value is in the fact that Sansa can rule in the North. My final episode 6 predictions were that Sansa would rule as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms in a relocated capital at Winterfell, as she would never be comfortable in the south again. The second best thing is she achieves something both Robb and Jon failed to do at the edge of a sword—she earns the North their freedom. And she does this with nary a single life being taken, albeit it helps when the new King of the Six Kingdoms is your brother.
It all has the makings of a happy ending… even for Jon Snow. While Bran Stark can talk Grey Worm into accepting Tyrion Lannister becoming once more the Hand of the King—much as how Tyrion’s father comfortably slid from being a Targaryen’s Hand to eventually being Hand to the son of that dynasty’s usurper—Jon Snow is punished by being sent back to the Night’s Watch by the war council. A longer episode could’ve belabored Arya and Sansa’s efforts to prevent this fate, but the truth is it is probably a happier ending for everyone involved not named “Stark.”
What would’ve been fascinating to see is if the unspoken agreement between the other lords and ladies of Westeros is if they simply did not want another Targaryen as king, or even able to father lawful children. Rhaegar, Jon’s father, started a civil war by choosing Lyanna Stark over his current wife during a time of political unrest due to his father’s growing insanity, and Daenerys proved to sadly be her father’s daughter. Jon might have more Rhaegar in him than Aerys, but the Targaryen’s dynasty really should end with that blasted Iron Throne. And frankly, he would’ve been as ill-equipped as Ned Stark even before likely deadening a piece of his soul with Daenerys.
Hence Jon Snow was probably ecstatic that he’d no longer have to play a single part in politics and the games of thrones, be it in the North or the south. Tyrion, Arya, and Sansa treat losing Jon to the Wall as if it’s some kind of punishment, but the truth is they granted him his greatest wish… to get the hell away from these crazy people and leave him alone to play with his doggie and chill with the bros.
Nevertheless, it’s the definition of a bittersweet scene when the Stark children are forced to break up on the edge of King’s Landing impressively still functional port. They came together like a wolf pack to fight the Winds of Winter, but now that spring is imminent, the children who couldn’t grow up together appear doomed to grow old apart.
It is here that I and every other viewer’s theory is confirmed that Arya is going to sail west and chasing the setting sun across an endless sea. I’ve long anticipated this as her fate, one filled with adventure and wonderment. She spoke briefly of this fantasy in season 6, and if you know your Westerosi history, you know she bears a striking resemblance to Elissa Farman, a young woman who attempted to discover a New World by captaining the Sun Chaser past the horizon (she also just so happened to steal from her lesbian Targaryen lover three dragon eggs to pay for the ship… three eggs that fortuitously found their way to Daenerys several hundred years later).
Granted Elissa never returned from her adventures, but just as Vikings reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus and died there, this does not mean there aren’t new worlds to discover. And Arya being able to find them while forsaking the shackles of her society is almost as rewarding as Sansa’s fate. Strangely, Sansa’s farewell to Jon Snow packed a greater emotional punch than Arya’s. Then again, Kit Harington and Sophie Turner have had more scenes together over the years, and there’s also the fact that both Jon and Sansa most resemble her parents: Ned and Catelyn. That give-and-take is echoed when they stand on a dock. Although… I wish there was more resolution with Arya and Jon, or Arya and Sansa for that matter.
As it stands, they all go in their different directions. Arya sails west, Jon embarks towards the true North, and Sansa accepts her place ruling the North. I might add that for those wishing to examine the complicated and sometimes contradictory gender politics of Game of Thrones, there is nothing sweeter in this bittersweet finale than the little girl who left the North anxious to live in the south now proving to be the Starkest of all of Ned Stark’s children. Neither Dany or Jon Snow get the Iron Throne (thank the gods), but Sansa achieves something perhaps more impressive than either doing so while on the back of a dragon.
Of all the sights during the montage of endings, Sansa Stark taking her rightful seat as Queen in the North is easily the most delightful because it is also the most revelatory. From naïve young girl to wise and politically astute young woman, she played the game of thrones better than anyone in the later seasons and won independence by diplomacy instead of war. She outdid Robb and Jon, and finally did away with the last vestige of Targaryen rule in her homeland. Right down to her ginger hair, there is something vaguely Elizabethan about it all, which is ironic since so many of us predicted Dany would be the Westerosi Elizabeth.
Another welcome relief during the closing montages is the fate of Grey Worm and Daenerys’ army. It would’ve been too glib to have Jon Snow execute Grey Worm for his war crimes, nor any more satisfying than seeing Daenerys die. The Breaker of Chains might’ve been doomed, but at least Grey Worm can live with the sins he committed. It might be years, decades, or never when he can admit he needlessly sipped from the cup of nihilism, but he can take that unshakable sense of failure and put it to good use in Naath. Last week, Daenerys attempted to make Grey Worm remember Missandei by the slave collar that only remarked on her bondage. Instead he’ll honor her life by protecting a homeland she loved and never got to see again.
It’s a small step toward penance, but a significant one. He and the Unsullied are also wise to get the Seven Hells out of Westeros. They’re offered space to live there, but these white devils would be terrible neighbors for at least several more centuries and they, like their queen, knew only despair and heartache on this continent. Still, I suspect even if the Unsullied took no payment, much gold was put in the Dothraki’s pockets to get them on those ships headed back to Essos—which is also a happier ending for those who survived to keep the flame of their nearly extinguished culture alive. Go forth and multiply.
We also learn that Bran will apparently succeed as a king much in the same way he succeeded in becoming king—sit in the background and do nothing while he lets everyone else figure things out! (Hey, if a strategy ain’t broke, don’t fix it.) So he leaves the first Small Council meeting to Tyrion, Brienne, Davos, Sam, and Ser Bronn of Highgarden. The sequence recalls how Tywin Lannister formed his Small Councils in season 3, with Tyrion making sure everyone has equal seating (as opposed to letting them scramble for literal position), and it reveals that Sam let the arch-maester steal his thunder and write the definitive history book on their lifetimes (with Sam offering a Tolkien-esque title suggestion). It’s a number of funny moments, including Tyrion learning that his accomplishments will be minimized by history (much like his historic personage of Richard III) and a reminder that we’ll never hear the end of Tyrion’s brothel/jackass joke, but the greatest aspect of this sequence for me is seeing that Brienne has earned her place as Captain of the Kingsguard and likely soon-to-be one of the most respected and sung about knights of her generation.
Some viewers might question why Brienne is a Kingsguard to Bran instead of Queensguard to Sansa. If I had to guess, it is because she is of Tarth and the Seven Kingdoms split up. Narratively, I know it was so she could literally turn the page on Jaime in a touching scene (she gave him more credit than he probably deserved), but I can accept she’d stay in the south and be a true heir to Ser Barristan Selmy and Ser Arthur Dayne. Unlike the Lannisters’ corrupt rule, good people are finally being put in positions of authority again—seeing Pod as a knight is also a joy, even if he probably is the shoddiest swordsman to ever don the white cloak.
The final sendoff though is of course Jon Snow. He ends up where he started at the Wall, just as the series ended where it began on—a brother of the Night’s Watch wandering beyond the Wall. Yet rather than going out to hunt and kill wildlings (and possibly face the threat of White Walkers), Jon walks freely and safely with the Free Folk to a new world left unmade. The truth is Tyrion is just using the Night’s Watch as a saving grace for Jon’s neck and claims it’ll be a dumping ground for more broken men and bastards. But honestly, the Wall serves no point. It’s literally broken, the Free Folk are now allies to the Night’s Watch, and the White Walkers are gone.
Jon could even go south again and visit Winterfell in a few years after the Unsullied are truly gone. But that isn’t Jon Snow’s style. He took an oath to spend his second life at the Wall and beyond it, and I think he means to keep it. His kneeling to finally pet Ghost and tell him he is the goodest boy is the show at last giving viewers and Jon alike what they want. It seems I too hastily condemned Ghost’s apparent fate in the fourth episode of the season, but it would appear the point of the scene was to admit Jon was ignoring his true nature when he walked past Ghost.
Now at the Wall, he is finally giving Ghost all the pets he deserves and with people who didn’t need him to be a King or Targaryen to be of value. Leading the Free Folk into the trees, it is very much even open for interpretation if Jon Snow will become yet another a King-Beyond-the-Wall like Mance Rayder before him. Part of me hopes so, and that’s definitely up for interpretation. But the other part of me thinks he is done with titles, be they of royalty, lineage, or Snow. Hopefully, the Queen in the North visits him one day (she’d even have the power to commute his sentence), but that assumes he’s anywhere near the defunct Wall. By then Jon could find a wildling kissed by fire, and maybe some semblance of peace.
It’s a fitting end to Jon Snow and a fair ending to the series.
Game of Thrones’ final season has definitely had its fair share of bumps and bruises. Too many at times. Nine or 10 episodes worth of story was crammed into six chapters, and rushed moments of epiphany or resignation mar the ending of the series… but not the ending unto itself. I was unsure a week ago but am now confident that the final two episodes will age far more gracefully than initial online whining would lead you to believe. Likely by returning to Martin’s narrative outline for these last two chapters, the show returned to its bitterest snows and fiercest fires… and also a mournful optimism as delicate as the first flower to bloom in a thawing winter. The show did not end in nihilism, even if one of our favorite characters’ fates did. The Starks thrive, Jon has peace, and from the Wall to Dorne, it is A Time for Wolves.
If this is but a taste of a spring we’ll never fully know, it is a sweet one that sends the show off with a fair amount of satisfaction that seemed nearly impossible two weeks ago—and hopefully portends a more satisfying ending on the page (assuming Martin ever gets there). Game of Thrones was not a perfect show, but it is unquestionably a great one that has been unlike any other we’ve seen. Through heartache and triumph, devastation and hilarity, and even disappointment and joy, it has carried us through an expansive journey that in its best moments acted as a mirror to our world, and even at its weakest was still a narrative told with timeless quality and unparalleled craft. Even when it was “bad,” it was still a remarkable achievement that flew high above anything else we’ve seen on television.
We will not see its like again. And now our watch is ended.