Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Nope. None at all. Definitely not spoiling any of the series here.
Audience Assumptions: I’m just going to hope you’re familiar with the series by this point.
Episode Six: The Iron Throne – ***
Part One: Exactly What I Want in My Epic Fantasy Series Finale: Multiple Prison Cell Conversations Between the Same Two Characters, Congress, a Council Meeting About Nothing, and a Lot of People Walking Slowly
Here we are. Ten years, hundreds of millions of dollars (probably more, all told), eight seasons, and seventy-two episodes. And now it’s finally over.
A series this big will continue in some iteration for years to come, through all of those sequels HBO has promised and the last two books once they come out. I don’t doubt that in another decade or two, after the books are complete, people will be clamoring for a new version. A “correct” version, if the books end up being different.
I could go on about how this series works as an adaptation, I could talk about how the unfinished nature of the books makes comparison between the unpublished manuscripts and the end of the show impossible for anyone outside of Martin’s personal circle, and I could rant about the books not being nearly as good as people give them credit for. I don’t care to do that right now, though. I am admittedly curious to see the path the showrunners took, if the larger beats are unique to this adaptation or if they’re here in an attempt to suit Martin’s original vision. I imagine that when they do come out, whether they’re different or not, people will question the influence the show has had on them. People might view the show as a proving ground for ideas that get rejected in the final draft of the manuscript, a source of inspiration for the final books, completely independent of the books, or an attempt at a faithful adaptation before the source material has been finalized. Game of Thrones is a curious adaptation, falling alongside its inspiration and concluding sooner.
But all that’s in the far future. If I ever get around to reviewing the books or discussing the show as an adaptation, I’ll wait until they’re finished first, given the overarching narrative structure of both series. I’m a pessimist, so I expect disappointment when the books do come out, but I can’t deny the situation warrants discussion. If I don’t get to them, I hope to see others giving thoughtful takes on the matter more nuanced than mine would ever be.
Enough musing. How was the episode.
Honestly? I think it was fine. As I posted on Twitter, it’s imperfect and clunky, and its merits don’t excuse its shittier moments, but compared to the rest of the season and taken on its own, it’s fine.
I don’t have many thoughts on the episode in particular, really. The structure of the season hurts it quite a bit, as the bulk of the episode is devoted to denouement, wrapping up loose threads and sealing up the surviving characters’ arcs. As such, there’s little that I would call development here, but the pace of the episode makes it seem like the show wants to keep going. It could, and I can’t help but wonder if we’re going to be inundated with side guff in the form of comics and novel spinoffs detailing the lives of these characters. That honestly wouldn’t be terrible were it to happen — series like Avatar: The Last Airbender have shown that with some care, you can end a series effectively while still putting out sequel-like works that follow the characters through other stories. But for Game of Thrones, I come away feeling like the series cauterized itself when it came time to finish.
The potential reasons for this are numerous. The episode is framed around a lot of distinct scenes that have tenuous relationships to one another (which is also true of the rest of the season, looking back at it), so I wouldn’t be surprised if the plan for the season started with specific character beats and less time was devoted to smoothing the transitions between beats. In my experience, jarring character beats like the ones seen here tend to come from inability to change a scene that was written before the material that leads up to it — either because of emotional attachment to the scene or a lack of time for revisions. Regardless, the more ambling nature of this series and the large cast of characters can’t have helped.
Part Two: Turns Out the Dragons Were Self-Aware All Along. Who Knew.
The episode is effectively split into two parts, one covering the aftermath of Danaerys burning King’s Landing to cinders, and the other covering where the rest of the characters are going to go now that the world seems to be at least somewhat stable. Both imply tension, but following the tone of earlier seasons, concern themselves with light character interactions.
I won’t pretend I ever loved Danaerys, but I’ve been even less enthusiastic about her sudden turn in the last few episodes of this season. To its credit, this episode almost works on its own — almost. In the aftermath of a terrible war, Danaerys has used her terrifying draconic weaponry and destroyed the very thing she hoped to capture. The image of her in the destroyed throne room, finally having claimed her throne by making it functionless, is striking. This calls back to her vision in Season Two, sure, but far more importantly, it leaves us realizing that she is a child, only interested in the trophy, not the weight that comes with carrying it. This is consistent with her character, as we saw with her attempt to govern Mereen; Danaerys craves glory, but lacks the patience and resilience to actually rule. Then the flaws of the series come rushing in when she and Jon embrace, declaring their love for one another with all the charisma of dead salmon, and Jon stabs her. Whelp, that’s the end of Danaerys, I guess.
Much of the rest of the episode is occupied with negotiations, meetings, and exchanges. While these are often dressed up to present character, they’re really more expositional in nature, with the exception of the small council banter. Jon’s multiple prison discussions with Tyrion are a good example of this, with both of them exchanging dialogue that sounds deep and witty, but boils down to Tyrion telling Jon he needs to kill Dany. Some of the lines imply more nuance, but this all the scene functionally communicates — it doesn’t further these characters’ relationship, and it doesn’t further their understanding of themselves, and it doesn’t give the audience anything to shew on. The actors do much more to impress meaning upon their words, but a lot of it still comes away as gibberish in the context of the scene. I get that some people love these sorts of exchanges, so I imagine the quieter character moments that make up much of this episode will appeal to those seeking the quasi-political sparring the series is known for. I found it grating, personally.
All of this isn’t to say that the episode is without its better moments. The cinematography is pleasant, occasionally even spectacular, even though it remains subdued, and the imagery of certain scenes, as I mentioned for the destroyed throne room, is beautiful.
Narratively, the conclusions a lot of characters get are satisfying as well. Dany is the only character who dies in this episode, so Jon, Sansa, Arya, Bran, Tyrion, Sam, Grey Worm, Bronn, Brienne, Davos, Tormund, Drogon, and even Ghost make it through to the end. Most of this involves the characters settling into new jobs or leaving. Some of them are going back to where they came from, while others are off to find something new.
Drogon flies off with Dany’s corpse after burning the iron throne, which is a delightfully awkward scene that seems to imply that he A) understands metaphors for man’s hubris, B) has a concept of not only mortality, but murder and funerary rites, and C) empathizes with Jon’s ethical dilemma to the point where he’s willing to overlook Jon’s actions and blame the tragedy of the monarchical paradigm that led to it. That, or he just hates this specific chair for no reason. It’s extremely strange, and it’s kind of my favorite part of the season.
Arya sets sail for the west in an homage to The Lord of the Rings. Grey Worm and the rest of the Unsullied set sail for the islands Missandei came from. Tyrion declares Bran king after an oligarchical vote from the other leading houses (which rather amusingly includes a bunch of characters we have either never met or don’t recognize because we haven’t seen them in several seasons). Tyrion, Sam, Brienne, Davos, and for some ungodly reason, Bronn, are all on Bran’s small council, offering him advice. You do you, Bronn. You do you.
Sansa, meanwhile, declares the North a separate kingdom and returns for her coronation. And Jon gets sent back to the Wall where he hopefully won’t cause trouble with this “Last of the Targaryens, True Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms” nonsense, which he seems more than happy with. He also gives Ghost pats and heads north of the Wall to do gay stuff with Tormund, so I’d say that’s a win for all of them.
Part Three: MVPs: Bronn, Tormund, The Score, Drogon, Brienne, Sansa, Sansa’s Fancy New Hat, the Wood Carvers, Sassy Dornish Prince We’ve Never Met, the Weather, Melting Chair Goo, The Goodest Boy
There are a lot of small details in this episode that collectively add up to make it wonderful and cringe-inducing. I love the way the series frames the Starks, particularly Jon, Arya, and Sansa, as they prepare their separate journeys (something alluded to in the earliest teaser trailers), I love the snow, and how it looks like ash, I love the appearance of the melting throne, I love that no one sits on the chair, I love the symmetry of certain characters ending up where they were at the start of the show, I love the foreboding atmosphere and how the cyclicality of the ending indicates the wheel isn’t broken. I love the cinematography, the costuming, the colors and lighting, and I especially love the score. This is the sort of thing Ramin Djawadi is famous for, and with good reason; other decent bits of score have been sprinkled throughout the season, but they truly shine alongside the visual elements here.
However, I also hate that the series introduces concepts in the final hour that it never intends to fulfill, I hate how a lot of takes hold on character faces for a long time with no motivation, I hate how slow the pacing is, and how it thinks its deeper than it is, I hate how the fluffy philosophizing panders to fanbabies, I hate how the show still hasn’t figured out when to cut uninteresting characters and dialogue (Tully, I’m looking at you), and I hate the casually racist and sexist implications the series glosses over. Like, for instance, how Danaerys coming to power is presented with Fascist iconography, except that her army is made up of freed slaves and minorities. That’s a great look, show. You really nailed the allegory there. Once all of the brown people are gone from Westeros, the world is safe! And see, the boy had to kill his girlfriend. She was evil. He also had to do it duplicitously because she would have been too dangerous otherwise. You know, being unarmed with her dragon in another room. It’s not like we had time to explore the fallout on her as a person any further. We have to get to our fourth wall breaks, damn it!
A lot of my response to this episode is properly mixed, even down to individual scenes and plot points. For instance, I think it’s cool that Bran, as a disabled character, rises to a position of power because of his wit and capability. However, it’s also weird for them to call him “broken,” and as a male noble with the magical power to project his mind into other beings, I’m not sure how well he holds up to scrutiny. From what I’ve seen, fans who use wheelchairs have varied opinions of Bran, particularly in this episode.
Perhaps the best representation of the conflicting qualities of the episode is the shot where Danaerys first appears. Drogon has flown into the entrance hall of the Red Keep behind her, and as she walks out, he unfurls his wings, making Dany look like she’s part dragon. This is objectively a cool shot. It is also goofy as hell. It’s the sort of thing I would expect from a series that has a better sense of humor, but it’s played dead serious here, and that’s kind of why it doesn’t work for me. I enjoy it, but I don’t have much respect for it. It’s the sort of concept that gets through exactly one round of edits, is declared awesome, and makes it into the final cut with no regard for narrative or thematic significance, much less continuity. I’m sincerely glad it made it into the episode, but knowing my tastes, that should send up red flags.
So what of the series as a whole?
Honestly, I don’t know that I can say much I haven’t already. This season was disappointing, and I think that stems from a distinct attempt to subvert expectations without considering the consequences, and shallow character interactions tossed in as a response to backlash against the seventh season. I’ll continue to tout the seventh season as the best in the series, knowing full well that’s an unpopular opinion, because I think it managed to bring the series to a culmination far more effectively than this one. Yes it was silly, yes it had continuity errors, and yes it diverged from the tone of the rest of the series, but given where this show was always heading (a big multi-army battle with disparate characters coming together and fulfilling their story potentials), it needed to do that.
One of the most notable faults with this particular episode is that it doesn’t flow naturally with the preceding ones. The structure of the season weakens the ending, because this ending is fitted for the show Season Seven was, not what Season Eight was. In some ways, the differences are subtle, but they’re there. The more humorous parts of the episode, the hand-wavy conclusions, and the emotional weight put on the characters through the visuals and sound — all of that blends neatly with the seventh and preceding seasons. The eighth, though? Not so much.
Looking back at the season as a whole, there are a lot of details to nitpick and moments that land with a thud, but the fundamental problem is that it’s trying to merge two unrelated arcs so that it has two climaxes. The show has to figure out what to do with the Night King and what to do with Dany reaching King’s Landing, but it’s set up both as action conflicts, and it wants to keep the focus on the characters. This is not impossible, but it’s tricky to pull off effectively, especially in a TV series. The Night King is the more exciting conflict, but King’s Landing is the more character-driven one. You could try to merge them, make the Night King attack King’s Landing at the same time as Danaerys and reach the same image of Dany burning the city down when it becomes the center for the fight. But that would undermine her descent into villainy which means Jon can’t kill her tragically. You could stagger the events closer together, have Cersei do something to screw the northern army over just before the battle, then have Dany go immediately to King’s Landing after it’s over to exact revenge. But showing up only to peace out before the fight wouldn’t quite be in-character for Cersei, and still doesn’t solve the issue of Danaerys suddenly up and murdering civilians.
There are fixes, but all of them would require a completely different plot and a different understanding of what the show is about than the series opts to portray. In total, as is, Game of Thrones is a narrative about people from powerful families trying to find a way to create a stable government within the cutthroat society they come from. The show delivers this story through compelling character archetypes who can, hypothetically, die at any moment. Action, spectacle, and banter are the main means through which the plot moves, with characters making political decisions as a means of communicating their strength to one another. The result is a series that is mostly soap opera with epic fantasy dressing; characters scheme against one another, but their schemes need to be simple because their motives are simple because if the audience gets too invested in any particular plot threads, they’ll lose interest when those plot threads are abruptly severed for shock value.
What an audience member gets out of Game of Thrones will depend largely on how well they connect to the characters, and whether they find any of the peripheral details worth it. For me, the show is engaging enough in the early seasons to make me interested in where the plot is going, and once it starts to pay off its promises of spectacle, those become my main reason for watching. A lot of the general scenes in the show are fine — production values are high, and there’s always something impressive to look at or listen to, even when the plot and dialogue are lacking. However, the show has a lot of filler, and that filler ranges from dull to downright sadistic, making parts of the experience a grueling slog. The show gets by on curiosity about the next scene, next episode, next season, so when it does come to an end, it has difficulty stopping and kind of falls all over itself.
It’s fine. I’m not sure Game of Thrones ever could be quite what we all hoped it would be. It’s similar to Harry Potter in that it brings up some interesting ideas and is overall enjoyable, but compared to even the bulk of its genre, comes down as competently generic. It needed more tweaking to be something truly unique, and given the cost of the thing and the popularity of the books it was based on, it was never going to push the envelope too much. This is easily the closest thing television has ever come to presenting The Lord of the Rings, and it’s still something spectacular given how few major fantasy series have been put to film. However, its format means that it will inevitably draw comparisons to its influences and predecessors, and at the end of the day, it’s no Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. Maybe we’ll get a fantasy series one day that exceeds the bar set by Jackson, or sets its own bar in some way, but aside from being a television phenomenon, I don’t think Game of Thrones is it.
I won’t be rewatching this series anytime soon. I can see myself returning to it some day, though. It’s left me exhausted, and not in a good way, but the send-off recovered some ground, and I appreciate that. I’m glad that the crew involved in making this series completed such an ambitious project, and their emotional responses to it are genuinely heartwarming. There are a lot of talented people behind this show, and whether you enjoyed the series and its conclusion or not, they deserve your praise and sympathy. I complain a lot because it helps me understand my environment and myself better, but as an artist, I can tell you that no one is harsher on the work they create than the people who create it. When you spend so long with a piece that you know every blade of grass, every rock, every line of dialogue, you second-guess yourself a lot. You nitpick the details like nobody’s business, trying to polish everything to a perfect gleam, only to turn around and realize that by doing that, you’ve messed something else up completely. Art is often a thankless endeavor, a Sisyphean task that is often only completed by saying, “Fuck it, they’re just going to have asymmetrical eyes. I have dinner to cook.” And that’s okay.
So be nice, enjoy the show, and give the puppies all the pets they deserve.