One Year On: ‘The Iron Throne’
And so it came to an end. On May 19th, 2019, Game of Thrones aired its final ever episode and left our lives forever. How did it say goodbye?
David Bordwell once said that “TV is like a long relationship that ends abruptly or wistfully — one way or another, TV will break your heart.” In other words, to commit oneself to a television show is to be doomed to misery. The show will either cease production and take with it the excitement of anticipating new episodes, or it will change into something you no longer recognise and continue on as a shadow of itself. In the week leading up to the Game of Thrones series finale, ‘The Iron Throne’, I was acutely aware of the people who no longer recognised the HBO series — mostly because of how distant I felt from them. As someone who still loved the show, I felt like an increasingly rare breed, and so I made concerted efforts to avoid hyperbolic discourse. No matter how much it had changed over the years, I still recognised Game of Thrones for what it was and I still loved it, and so I wanted to mourn in peace. And sometimes, whenever I sit down to watch this episode (either in full or in clips), I believe that’s what David Benioff & D. B. Weiss wanted to do as well.
The Iron Throne (s08, e06)
Directed by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Written by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss
Original broadcast: May 19th, 2019
Where ‘The Bells’ was ginormous and climactic, a set-piece prioritising terrifying fury and devastating chaos, ‘The Iron Throne’ is quiet and contemplative, a reflective epilogue that prioritises careful analysis and honest scrutiny. With this being its final offering to the world, Game of Thrones views its last episode as an opportunity to ruminate on the power of stories and assess the delights and perils of uniting people with them, both in its own universe and in ours. The show holds up a mirror to itself, to its characters, and to its audience, asking how on earth we ended up here — a popular character sent over the edge by trauma and power, a city destroyed and its surviving population now rudderless, beloved characters suddenly the enablers of a catastrophic war crime. It’s something we all played a part in. We celebrated Daenerys’ coming to Westeros and we were eager to see her take King’s Landing. With ‘The Bells’, Miguel Sapochnik made a deliberate point of saying to the audience, “You wanted this. Here. Is that really what you wanted?” With ‘The Iron Throne’, showrunners David Benioff & D. B. Weiss try to uncover the reasons behind the audience’s desires.
As King’s Landing is obscured by a nuclear winter brought on by an almighty ash cloud, those who survived Daenerys’ firestorms are forced to seriously reckon with themselves and question how they allowed the situation to turn so dark. In an attempt to reach a bloodless compromise, Tyrion, who fought to keep his family alive while striving to put Dany on the throne, made several personal and professional errors that set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the graveyard he now walks through. Burnt corpses of children in the arms of their dead parents, shadows of scorched civilians blasted onto the city walls, a man blindly stumbling past him with severe burns from head to toe. After such sights, he might have already been expecting the worst as he approached the demolished Red Keep, but his siblings’ broken bodies lying beneath the rubble are the devastating final lesson he receives. No matter how hard he tried, he was never going to stop the war machine, and desperately attempting to do so resulted in thousands of deaths, including those of his only remaining family. He believed in the stories told of Daenerys by those around her before spreading it with his own mouth. These are the consequences of the mistakes he will have to fix as Westeros starts to recover.
Jon Snow, too, follows such a road. He’s known of Daenerys’ potential for tyranny for a much shorter period than Tyrion, but he fell for her and followed her nonetheless. Upon her return from ambushing the Lannister army in ‘Eastwatch’, he implied that he was uncomfortable with her enjoyment of ruthless slaughter, but still bent the knee to her and buried his head in the sand when those around him were beginning to acknowledge the path his queen was headed down. By telling Sansa about his true heritage while hoping she wouldn’t spread such earth-shattering information, he naively assumed — much like Tyrion— that he could salvage a bloodless compromise to prevent all out war. He ignored Daenerys’ pleas to keep his mouth shut and inadvertently caused the massacre he barely escaped from. It’s not that Jon and Tyrion have always been one and the same, and it’s not that they were in the wrong (I mean, neither of them burnt down a city), but when it came to Daenerys they were both enraptured by her natural charisma, the aura surrounding her journey, and therefore ignorant of her darker side until it was far too late. As Drogon’s wings briefly appear to be Dany’s own in the finale’s defining shot, it’s (staggeringly) the first time Jon allows himself to believe the truth about her. He really did know nothing.
A lot of the early tension in ‘The Iron Throne’ comes from total desolation. But for the crackling flames there would be complete, deathly silence. The characters we see are simply too scared to talk. The silence doesn’t even provide space to think; it only creates a vacuum that quickly fills with panic. The battle for King’s Landing may be over, but this is still a volatile environment. The terror lingers on. Jon and Tyrion thought they knew Daenerys but, as they walk through burning bodies and clouds of dust in order to locate their queen, they have no idea what version of her they’re going to encounter. Benioff & Weiss directed this episode, and the former had previously displayed a knack for communicating emotion through expression rather than dialogue on the one occasion he’d been seated in the director’s chair before. In this instance, the way the action leans so heavily on absence (of explanation, of dialogue, of sunlight, of anything) creates unbearable tension that’s only punctured by imagery frighteningly reminiscent of Triumph of the Will. It only darkens the mood further. By bringing Daenerys and her armies to Westeros, this is what Tyrion and Jon have inadvertently wrought. At this moment, the situation could go in any direction except backwards. What’s done can now never be undone.
The pair of them eventually realise this in the episode’s best scene, as Tyrion is jailed following his arrest. It’s here that the episode really begins to scrutinise the pros and cons of just how impactful storytelling can be. It begins as a patient, delicate two-hander between Jon and Tyrion as they try to understand how things turned south, before it gradually transforms into a tense debate, the two of them arguing over what must now be done to prevent further bloodshed. Tyrion’s dialogue does a wonderful job of explaining Daenerys’ actions in King’s Landing, and the truth dawns on him as it dawns on us: we endorsed and celebrated the actions of an authoritarian. Jon rightly argues that her nature wasn’t always fire and blood, but it has been ever since she worked out that dragons gave her the means to overcome her enemies and accrue serious power, allowing her to write a grand story along the way. It’s a nuanced and eloquent interpretation of a sensitive and uncomfortable subject that mirrors trends and actions in our own world, and it clearly tortures them both to realise what has to happen next. Jon denies the truth that’s staring him in the face until, somewhat selfishly, he only acts when it clicks that the lives of his own family will be in perpetual danger. They have to bring Daenerys’ story of “liberation” to a close before she ends everybody else’s.
The scene of Dany’s murder is complicated. Much like the rest of ‘The Iron Throne’, it leans heavily on the power that stories have when convincing a person of their destiny. Daenerys recounts a tale her brother once told her about the episode’s eponymous chair — she almost expresses disappointment that the throne is a modest seat as opposed to a towering structure. But the way her story leans on her recollection that she was once “a little girl who couldn’t count to twenty” feels unnatural and, to be honest, corny, especially when she bookends her tale with the same refrain. The idea of her retreating into a childlike state now she’s secured her lifelong dream feels appropriate, but the way the script condenses such emotions into a single speech undercuts the effect it might have otherwise had. The same goes for Jon’s emotional arrival to this scene — it feels like he needs to live with the prospect of murdering his lover for a little longer. In the wake of such awful destruction and in anticipation of such pain, it cheapens the moment ever so slightly. The incident itself, though (and the aftermath, as Drogon melts the Iron Throne because symbolism), is carried by the anguish on Kit Harington’s face and the genuine confusion on Emilia Clarke’s. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch it, as Drogon flies away with the Dragon Queen’s lifeless body I always think to myself, “Wow, I’ve just see Daenerys Targaryen die.”
This feels like an appropriate time to compare Jon and Daenerys’ stories. For the first six seasons, they were situated at polar opposites of the map and represented the fantastical strands of the story— they shared their screen time with White Walkers, direwolves, and dragons; they were both resurrected and overcame serious hardship to gain power; and, of course, they were both Targaryens. Many characters, and many members of the audience, believed them to be “ice and fire” uniting to bring Westeros into a new age. The eventual truth was tragically different. As much their journeys were parallels, their behaviours along the way revealed their fundamental differences. While Dany saw her resurrection in the fire as part of her destiny, Jon was often embarrassed by his own; while Dany’s list of titles grew over the duration of her story, Jon’s remained incredibly short; when it came to executions, Jon often struggled to bring the sword down when Daenerys rarely hesitated when burning people alive. In season 7’s ‘The Queen’s Justice’, one of the pair’s first ever exchanges reveals their differing perspectives on their respective talent for killing: Daenerys remarks that “We all enjoy what we’re good at”, only for Jon to quickly respond that he doesn’t at all.
Dany wasn’t a remorseless, murderous, bloodthirsty tyrant through and through, but she enjoyed the power that killing gave her whenever she had the chance. Jon, on the other hand, was often pained to take the lives he did. Hanging Olly for his own murder is one of the examples he cites when attempting to convince Sansa that he’s tired of fighting and can’t help her reclaim Winterfell. It’s hard not to hear Ser Barristan’s words from season 5’s ‘Sons of the Harpy’ (“Rhaegar never liked killing, he loved singing”) when thinking of Jon’s nature after his resurrection, and it’s why he and Dany weren’t compatible. Even as he takes her life, knowing there is no other option, he lives in denial right up until the moment he slides the knife in. As much as Jon seemed to walk in Ned’s shadow through the entire series, he was too much like his biological father and not enough like his aunt to ever find happiness with her. They appeared to be star-crossed lovers, but only in another lifetime, or another story. In Game of Thrones, they weren’t so much ice and fire as they were two sides of the same coin, never capable of truly facing each other or seeing the other for who they really were. As for their destination in the books, who can say?
. . .
If the final season had contained the regulation ten episodes, it’s likely that episode nine would have closed on Dany’s death, and episode ten would then have opened on Tyrion being escorted to the dragonpit. However, with one scene beginning directly after the other, the change in weather and tone, as well as the sudden absence of drama, is jarring. I’m glad they didn’t rest on Sam’s suggestion of total democracy because to jump from total nihilism to fairness and optimism within the space of a single scene would have given the audience serious whiplash. As it is, an uncomfortable compromise is reached instead: instead of being set free or executed (which would start yet another war) Jon is punished for murdering Daenerys by being sent to the Night’s Watch, the Dothraki and Unsullied presumably leave Westeros on those terms, the North secedes from the Seven Kingdoms, and Brandon Stark is crowned as the new king. The coronation itself quickly ties a few disparate plots together, but maybe the overarching idea is that humans can only get along if a supernatural being is there to guide them? The Iron Islands could retaliate for their queen’s murder, Lord Edmure could mount a claim to the Iron Throne and assemble the Tully army, the Unsullied could respond with all-out war if Jon isn’t executed.
But, honestly, it’s a relief that the most powerful people remaining in Westeros are generally decent folk now, because the story has to end some time. That’s not say Westeros will never see another war, but these characters — Sansa, Arya, Bran, Tyrion, Davos, Brienne, Gendry, Yara, even Yohn Royce and Robin Arryn — have endured enough pain to last a lifetime. I like to think they’re exhausted now and, like Jon, simply desperate to rest. Tyrion takes a moment to break the fourth wall, almost addressing the audience directly by acknowledging how millions of people were united by the story of Game of Thrones. It’s not like the writers to be so meta, but if any episode calls for it, it’s the series finale. He then pivots to argue that the story of “Bran the Broken” should unite them all. Surviving two attempts on his life, returning from a treacherous journey beyond the Wall, becoming a supernatural being who can see literally everything. And as the Three-Eyed-Raven, Bran contains everybody else’s story, too (“Our triumphs, our defeats, our past”). He represents the humanity that the Night King wanted to destroy, and now he’ll lead Westeros into a new age.
If you were to tell me before the final season that Brandon Stark would end up on the throne, I’d wonder whether I was ready to witness the events that led to such a conclusion, but these episodes argue their case well. Let’s assume Daenerys is still dead in a hypothetical fanfiction, the next best candidate in the audience’s eyes would be Jon Snow. But, as much as that conclusion might make sense, ‘The Long Night’ (and every fibre of Jon’s existence ever since his resurrection) explained quite clearly that crowns, glory, and titles weren’t for him. To crown him and treat that as a victory would have undermined everything the show said about the way men are so easily corrupted by power. To have a just king leading the realm into a prosperous future would also contradict the reason George R. R. Martin began writing A Song of Ice and Fire in the first place. Up until now, I’ve tempered my personal opinions on the fan response to the final season, but, honestly, if you watched Game of Thrones wanting a character to “win” the Iron Throne then, frankly, you misunderstood the show and set yourself up for major disappointment. You wouldn’t watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the hopes of Frodo keeping the ring for himself and ruling Middle Earth.
As the Stark montage plays out, and as Arya, Sansa, and Jon take up their respective positions at the end of this story (and as I tear up), the tone isn’t one of victory, celebration, or even relief. All I feel is cautious optimism that the three of them can finally be allowed to heal. Orphaned, abandoned, abused, brutalised, even murdered in Jon’s case — as the family theme plays, it suggests that life in new lands (Arya), life free from oppression (Sansa), and life away from glory and politics (Jon) might allow each of them to become the people they really are. Hell, as conclusions for characters go, I think Jon gets the best deal under the circumstances: out beyond the Wall as the lands beyond it return to life again, with nobody begging for him to be a leader or a king. He just gets to hang out with Tormund. The sadness lingering over the montage, though, comes from the realisation that Daenerys was also orphaned, abandoned, abused, and brutalised, but responded to such adversity in a radically different way. The difference between the Stark children and Dany is that the latter saw ultimate power as the solution to her problems, and it led her to tragic downfall. I guess that’s the “bittersweet” ending right there.
And there it went. Just like that, Game of Thrones was finished. A show I’d re-watched more times than I could count (in one or way or another) was suddenly over forever, never to air another new episode. It’s not that I didn’t understand or enjoy the final season at the time, but a year’s distance — and a year’s debate, discussion, and digestion — has only solidified my appreciation for it. It wasn’t the ending we wanted, but it was the ending we needed. I got my wish to mourn in peace, but once I was read to rejoin the fandom, I spent a long time wondering if I’d missed the apparently glaring errors because I was wired incorrectly, or biased, or stupid. But what distance has given me is the realisation that, no matter how many people watched it and loved it along the way, Game of Thrones could have only ever been my story, and I could only ever take my conclusions from it. It’s the same for all art. Tyrion is correct when he says that stories are the most powerful force we have when attempting to unite mass populations but, in the end, our understandings of these stories can only ever be personal.
We’ll argue about the end of Game of Thrones for years, but we’ll never have the truth or the right answer. No matter how much time passes, Tyrion and Jon’s final exchange will always ring true when it comes to working out our feelings about the ends of famous tales.
JON: “Was it right, what I did?
TYRION: “What we did.”
JON: “It doesn’t feel right.”
TYRION: “Ask me again in ten years.”
- Ah, Bronn’s ending. Controversial that he would be Master of Coin and Lord of the Reach after everything he’s done in season 8. Though his overall storyline never made much sense to me, the ending absolutely did. His argument that powerful families and established dynasties only start simply because one person is good at murdering his challengers brings back all the key themes of the early seasons. It actually helps make sense of his position on the council. No, he doesn’t deserve those titles, but that’s precisely the point. Tyrion knows that Bronn might well kill him if he isn’t given the titles he has, which is exactly how Bronn sees how the world came to be. He’s a better cutthroat than anybody else and he’s good at killing people, so it’s only natural that he gets to make himself a lord by the end.
- Arya’s story comes to a close on quite a sobering note. She fought for humanity, saved it, and then watched it burnt itself down. She’s seen death in all its forms now and, frankly, she’s seen too much of it. Maybe setting off to find a new land and carve out a new identity might put her on the path to recovery, much like Jon. The remaining Stark siblings take leadership of their respective regions: Sansa fulfils her older brother Robb’s wish of leading the North as an independent kingdom, while Bran oversees the running of the remaining six.
- Brienne caps off her final moments as both head of the kingsguard and as one of the key advisers to King Bran. She closes Jaime’s story by filling in his pages in the White Book, a callback to season 4. I hope she finds happiness and purpose in her new role. Truly.