Did Viewers Win or Lose in Game of Thrones?

Three Atlantic writers discuss the HBO epic’s divisive series finale, which tries to break the wheel one last time.


Every week for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers have been discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts on the series finale in installments.

David Sims: Let me start this review by listing a few of Brandon Stark’s qualifications to hold the Iron Throne (or whatever throne takes its place) of Westeros. One, as the eldest male Stark, he’s got the lordly bloodline to appease the country’s more tradition-obsessed members. Two, he’s got the temperament—ever since he assumed the mantle of the three-eyed raven, I haven’t seen him get remotely upset about anything, so no Mad King potential there. Three, he can see across the sea of time and has the power to mentally experience every memory anyone in Westeros has ever had, which is definitely a helpful skill set going forward. Honestly, someone should have thought to crown Bran earlier.

The sudden decision by Tyrion and company to name Bran the new Lord of the Seven—sorry, Six—Kingdoms might have prompted a fair bit of whiplash for viewers. In all the warring between Daenerys, Jon, and Cersei, Bran was mostly overlooked as a contender, having become a living Wikipedia database and losing his personality in the process. The move to crown him was arrived at with the same kind of alarming speed that accompanied just about every big plot twist this season. The difference for me was that, by the time of the finale (titled “The Iron Throne”), I was less worried about plausibility and more just wondering how everything would end up. After a largely disappointing lead-up, I was at least satisfied by where the pieces fell.

To summarize: Daenerys the conqueror quickly indicates that she’s not done with warfare and promises to “liberate” people from tyranny all over the world. After a long chat with a depressed and imprisoned Tyrion, Jon realizes he’s not into that plan and stabs his queen (and aunt and former lover) in front of the Iron Throne, which Drogon then impressively melts before taking his mother’s body to parts unknown. In the wake of that carnage, Westeros’s surviving leaders gather to sift through the mess and appoint Bran king. “Bran the Broken” then names Tyrion as his hand, sends Jon to the Wall as punishment for killing Dany, and allows Sansa to run the North as an independent kingdom. Arya, eager to do something new, hops on a boat and sails west into uncharted waters.

After the misery of “The Bells,” it was a finale undeniably steeped in fan service, giving audience favorites such as Brienne, Davos, Sam, and Bronn seats on the new small council and doing away with literally every bloodthirsty or unstable member of the cast. Seriously—anyone important in Westeros who ever spent a minute scheming about anything is dead, except for Tyrion, who professed himself thoroughly cowed by the whole war and promised to atone for his sins going forward. Jon even got to pet his dire wolf Ghost, finally, before he journeyed with Tormund and the other Free Folk beyond the Wall to make a new life.

As a book reader who hopes that George R. R. Martin will one day finally deliver the ending he’s been working toward all these years, I was reassured. Daenerys’s flip to madness was utterly unearned by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, but in the end, her dream was achieved, and the wheel was ostensibly broken, partly by the bloodshed she wrought in King’s Landing. Sick of the wars of succession that consumed the nation for years, the lords of Westeros will now pick rulers by committee, a system that sounds lovely in theory and that is incredibly fraught in reality. So much of Bran’s rule will probably be plagued with its own issues, but that would be a story for another series, not the Song of Ice and Fire (a title that was helpfully embossed on a large volume for Tyrion to read).

As a fan of the TV show, I felt battered into submission. This season has been the same story over and over again: a lot of tin-eared writing trying to justify some of the most drastic story developments imaginable, as quickly as possible. As usual, the actors did their best with what was on the page; Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage, long the two standouts of the show’s ensemble, wrestled mighty performances from unwieldy monologues, with Clarke trying to justify Daenerys’s belief in the burning of the city, and Tyrion finally investing his support in Bran, a living archive of Westeros’s history. Pause and think about the logic of it all for a second, and it’ll collapse under scrutiny. But time and time again in recent years, Benioff and Weiss have opted for grand cinematic gestures over granular world building, and Drogon burning the Throne to sludge was their last big mic drop. Spencer, Lenika, was that enough to win your fealty?

Spencer Kornhaber: The penultimate episode of Game of Thrones gave us one of the most dramatic reversals in TV history, with the once-good queen going genocidal. The finale gave us yet another historic reversal, in that this drama turned into a sitcom. Not a slick HBO sitcom either, but a cheapo network affair, or maybe even a webisode of outtakes from one. Tonally odd, logically strained, and emotionally thin, “The Iron Throne” felt like the first draft of a finale.

When Dany torched King’s Landing last week, viewers were incensed, but I’d argue it was less because the onetime hero went bad than because it wasn’t clear why she did. Long-simmering madness? Sudden emotional break? Tough-minded strategy? A desire to implement an innovative new city grid? The answer to this would seem to help answer some of the show’s most fundamental inquiries about might and right, little people and greater goods, noble nature and cruel nurture. Thrones has been shaky quality-wise for some time now, but surely the show would be competent enough to hinge the finale around the mystery of Dany’s decision.

Nope. The first parts of the episode loaded up on ponderous scenes of the characters whose horror at the razing of King’s Landing had been made plenty clear during the course of the razing. Tyrion speculated a bit to Jon about what had happened—Dany truly believed she was out to save the world and could thus justify any means on the way to messianic ends—but it was, truly, just speculation. When Jon and Dany met up, he raged at her, and she gave some tyrannical talk knowing what “the good world” would need (shades of “I alone can fix it,” no?). But whether her total firebombing was premeditated, tactical, or a tantrum remained unclear. Whether she was always this deranged or just now became so determines what story Thrones was telling all along, and Benioff and Weiss have left it to be argued about in Facebook threads.

The Dany speechifying that we did get in this episode was, notably, not in the common tongue. Though conducted in Dothraki and Valaryian and not German, her victory rally was clearly meant to evoke Hitler in Triumph of the Will. It also visually recalled the white-cloaked Saruman rallying the orc armies in The Two Towers, another queasy echo. People talk about George R. R. Martin “subverting” Tolkien, but on the diciest element of Lord of the Rings—the capacity for it to be seen as a racist allegory, with Sauron’s horde of exotic brutes bearing down on an idyllic kingdom—this episode simply took the subtext and made it text. With the Northmen sitting out the march, the Dothraki and Unsullied were cast as bloodthirsty others eager to massacre a continent. Given all the baggage around Dany’s white-savior narrative from the start, going so heavy on the hooting and barking was a telling sign of the clumsiness to come.

Jon’s kiss-and-kill with Dany led to the one moment of sharp emotion—terror—I felt over the course of this bizarrely inert episode. That emotion came not from the assassination itself but rather from the suspense about what Drogon would do about it. For the dragon to roast the slayer of his mother would have been a fittingly awful but logical turn. Instead, Drogon turned his geyser toward the Iron Throne. Whether Aegon’s thousand swords were just a coincidental casualty of a dragon’s mourning or, rather, the chosen target of a beast with a higher purpose—R’hllor take the wheel?—is another key thing fans will be left to argue about.

Then came the epilogue, a parade of oofs. David, you say you were satisfied by where this finale moved all its game pieces, and if I step back … well, no, I’m not satisfied with Arya showing a sudden new interest in seafaring, but maybe I can be argued into it. What I can’t budge on is the parody-worthy crumminess of the execution. Take the council that decides the fate of Westeros. It appears that various lords gathered to force a confrontation with the Unsullied about the prisoners Tyrion and Jon Snow and the status of King’s Landing. But then one of those prisoners suggests they pick a ruler for the realm. They then … do just that. Right there and then. Huh?

It really undoes much of what we’ve learned about Westeros as a land of ruthlessly competing interests to see a group of far-flung factions unanimously agree to give the crown to the literal opposite of a “people person.” Yes, the council is dominated by protagonist types whom we know to be good-hearted and tired of war. But surely someone—hello, new prince of Dorne! What’s up, noted screamer Robin Arryn?—would make more of a case for another candidate than poor Edmure Tully did. Rather than hashing out the intrigue of it all as Thrones once would have done, we got Sam bringing up the concept of democracy and getting laughed down. The joke relied on the worst kind of anachronistic humor—breaking the fourth wall that had been so carefully mortared up over all these years—and much of the rest of the episode would coast on similarly wack moments.

It’s “nice” to see beloved characters ride off into various sunsets, but I balk at the notion that these endings even count as fan service. What true fan of Thrones thinks this show existed to deliver wish fulfillment? I’m not saying I wanted everyone to get gobbled up by a rogue zombie flank in the show’s final moments. Yet rather than honoring the complication and tough rules that made Thrones’ world so strangely lovable, Benioff and Weiss waved a wand and zapped away tension and consequence. You see this, for example, in the baffling arc of Bronn over the course of Season 8. What was the point of having him nearly kill Jaime and Tyrion if he was going to just be yada-yadaed onto the small council at the end?

One thing I can’t complain about: the hint that clean water will soon be coming to Westeros. Hopefully, someone will use it to give Ghost a bath. As the doggy and his dad rode north of the Wall with a band of men, women, and children, the message seemed to be that where death once ruled, life could begin. Winter Is Leaving. It’d seem like a hopeful takeaway for our own world, except that it’s not clear, even now, exactly how and why the realm of Thrones arrived at this happy outcome. Lenika, do you have answers?

Lenika Cruz: Do I have answers? Who do you think I am—Bran the Broken? Before I get into this episode, I need to acknowledge how unfortunate it is that Tyrion decided to give the new ruler of the Six Kingdoms a name as horrifyingly ableist as Bran the Broken. You could, of course, argue that the moniker was intended as a reclamation of a slur or as a poignant callback to Season 1’s “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” when Tyrion and Bran first bonded. But given the “parade of oofs” this finale provided—including the troubling optics of Dany’s big speech—it’s hard to make excuses for the show.

Now that we’ve gotten our “the real Game of Thrones/Iron Throne/Song of Ice and Fire was the friends we made along the way” jokes out of our system, where to begin? I basically agree with Spencer’s scorched-earth take on “The Iron Throne.” I was already expecting the finale to be a disappointment, but I didn’t foresee the tonal and narrative whiplash that I experienced here. At one point during the small-council meeting, my mind stopped processing the dialogue because I was in such disbelief about the several enormous things that had happened within the span of 15 minutes: Jon stabs Dany. Instead of roasting Jon, Drogon symbolically melts the Iron Throne and carries the limp body of his mother off in his talons. A conclave of lords and ladies of Westeros is convened, and Tyrion is brought before them in chains, and they know Dany was murdered, and Tyrion argues for an entirely new system of government while being held prisoner by the Master of War of the person he just conspired to assassinate. Excuse me? (The way that Grey Worm huffed, “Make your choice, then,” at those assembled reminded me of an impatient father waiting for his children to pick which ice-cream flavor they want.)

David, Spencer—of the three of us, I’ve been the most stubborn about thinking this final season is bad and holding that badness against the show. I don’t fault viewers who’ve become inured to the shoddy writing and plotting, and who’ve been grading each episode on a curve as a result. But I personally haven’t been able to get into a mind-set where I can watch an episode and enjoy it for everything except stuff like pacing issues, rushed character development, tonal dissonance, the lack of attention to detail, unexplained reversals, and weak dialogue. All of those problems absolutely make the show less enjoyable for me, and I haven’t learned to compartmentalize them—even though I know how hard it must have been for Benioff and Weiss to piece together an airtight final act solely from Martin’s book notes.

You mention, David, your feelings about the finale as a show watcher versus as a book reader. As someone who never finished all the books, I can’t blame you for feeling optimistic about how the story generally ends up. Much like with last week’s episode, I can actually see myself being on board with many of the plot points in the finale—if only they had been built up to properly and given the right sort of connective tissue. For all the episode’s earnest exhortations about the power of stories, “The Iron Throne” itself didn’t do much to model that value.

For example, I can’t be the only one who was let down, and at a loss for a larger takeaway, after seeing a high-stakes contest between two ambitious female rulers devolve after both became unhinged and got themselves killed. After all the intense discussion about gender politics that Thrones has spurred, and after seeing characters such as Sansa, Brienne, Cersei, Daenerys, and Yara reshape the patriarchal structures of Westeros, we’ve ended up with a male ruler (who once said, “I will never be lord of anything”) installed on the charismatic recommendation of another man and served by a small council composed almost entirely of … men.

Perhaps there’s no deeper meaning to any of this. Or perhaps this state of affairs is a commentary on the frustrating realities of incrementalism. I am, of course, beyond pleased that Sansa Stark has at least become the Queen in the North—a title that she, frankly, deserved from the beginning. But I haven’t forgotten that this show only recently had her articulate the silver lining of being raped and tortured. Nor am I waving away the fact that Brienne spent some of her last moments on-screen writing a fond tribute to a man who betrayed her and all but undid his entire character arc in one swoop. My sense is that the show’s writers didn’t think about Thrones resetting to the rule of men much at all, and that they were instead relishing having a gaggle of former misfits sitting on the small council. See? the show seemed to cry. Change!

At times, Thrones gestured more clearly to the ways in which the story was going a more circular route; this was especially true of the Starks. Jon headed up to Castle Black and became a kind of successor to Mance Rayder—someone leading not because of his last name or bloodline but because of the loyalty he’s earned. Arya’s seafaring didn’t feel out of character to me—it fit with her sense of adventure and reminded me of her voyage across the Narrow Sea to Braavos all those years ago. Sansa became Queen in the North in a scene that recalled the debut of “Dark Sansa” in the Vale, but that felt like a true acknowledgment of how much her character has transformed. I’ll admit, the crosscutting of the scenes showing the Starks finding their own, separate ways forward was beautifully done. It made me wish the episode as a whole had been more cohesive, less rushed, and more emotionally resonant.

Spencer, I think you smartly diagnosed so many of the big-picture problems with the finale—the sitcommy feel, the yada-yadaing of major points, the many attempts at fan service. So rather than elaborate even more, I’ll end this review by saying something sort of obvious: Viewers are perfectly entitled to feel about the ending of Game of Thrones however they want to. After eight seasons, they have earned the right to be as wrathful or blissed-out on this finale as they want; it’s been a long and stressful ride for us all. I’m genuinely happy that there are folks who don’t feel as though the hours and hours they’ve devoted to this show have been wasted. I know there are many others who wish they could say the same thing.