When Game of Thrones ended its eight-year run on Sunday, the series finale, titled “The Iron Throne,” received a largely negative critical response. Many writers pointed out that the show’s last season had given up on the careful character-building of Thrones’ early days—a problem that, in truth, had started a few years back. The result was a seemingly rushed conclusion where multiple characters made poorly justified decisions and important story lines felt only halfway developed.
The show made plenty of mistakes in its final episode, but among the most significant was Thrones’ abrupt and uncharacteristic turn to moralizing—and its use of heavy-handed allusions to 20th-century history to do so. Characters who were once morally complicated, whose actions fit within well-developed personal motivations and fueled the show’s gripping political drama, became mechanisms to bring the story to a hasty, unearned conclusion. Characters like Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister—previously complex and fully formed—became, in “The Iron Throne,” mere tools in the service of a plodding message about the dangers of totalitarianism.
The reliance on contemporary historical allegory pervades the entire first half of the final episode, but the most glaring instance comes about 10 minutes in, after characters have walked through rubble-strewn streets and debated the ethics of summarily executing prisoners of war. Daenerys enters the scene upon her dragon, descending from the darkened sky. It’s a visceral case study in dramatizing evil as authority, which is to say it’s cribbed from Triumph of the Will. Daenerys’s appearance mimics Adolf Hitler’s entry in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film. The queen arrives on dragonback, he on an airplane. Both come from above, seemingly higher and mightier than the mortals watching. Daenerys dismounts and walks through the blasted hulk of the Red Keep’s gates, directly toward the camera. When the wings of her last living dragon spread out behind her as if they were her own, the message is clear: The dragon has awoken. Dany gazes upon serried ranks of soldiers, fires still burning over miles of city and ash falling from the sky. Somewhere on the way to becoming the dragon, she has left behind the medieval machinations of earlier seasons and adopted the manicured totalitarianism of 20th-century dictators as her own.