It’s a brand (and Bran’d) new day in Westeros. The finale of “Game of Thrones,” entitled “The Iron Throne,” aired Sunday, and it sent out the long-running fantasy epic with a solemn, character-focused installment that contained the shocking death of one key player and laid out unexpected fates for the others. Here are some immediate takeaways:
■ Even before it was clear who’d emerge triumphant in this game of thrones, Tyrion, wandering the ruins of King’s Landing, had lost. When you consider his journey throughout the series, detested by most of his family and desperate to seat a just monarch on the Iron Throne, it made sense that Dany’s victory felt existentially Pyrrhic. Cersei was a cruel queen, but she had nowhere near the Mother of Dragons’ destructive potential.
■ Cersei and Jaime really did perish as the Red Keep fell around their heads. Tyrion uncovered their bodies in the rubble, his shell-shocked demeanor giving way to genuine anguish as he realized he had become the last of the Lannisters. It was a dark turn for the house that most often kept others in Westeros on the defensive, threatening to wipe out other bloodlines entire in their quest for power.
■ Dany, descending on dragonback after razing King’s Landing, walked out before her surviving armies, a blood-red Targaryen crest hanging from the remnants of King’s Landing’s walls. “You killed my enemies in their iron suits,” she says. “You tore down their stone houses. You gave me the Seven Kingdoms!”
Naming Grey Worm her Master of War, she set her sights terrifyingly high. “From Winterfell to Dorne, from Lannisport to Qarth, from the Summer Isles to the Red Sea, women, men and children have suffered too long under the wheel,” she said, referencing the same wheel of power she once told Tyrion she’d break rather than simply ride, though in these terms her mission of liberation sounded markedly more fascistic. “Will you break the wheel with me?”
■ Tyrion, for one, had enough. After Dany noted he had committed treason by freeing Jaime last week, he renounced his duties as Hand, tossing his pin onto the charred steps. She had him escorted away, but not before he cast one meaningful look at Jon: stop her. When he met with the imprisoned imp later, Tyrion reflected to Jon that Varys, incinerated for his wariness regarding the Targaryen queen, had been right all along. “I can’t justify what's happened,” said Jon. And yet he tried: “She saw her best friend beheaded. She saw her dragon shot out of the sky.”
They both knew the truth, though. Dany rose in Westeros in part because of their counsel. “Everywhere she goes, evil men die, and we cheer her for it,” Tyrion said. But that fanfare had turned her into a demagogue, and their love for the Targaryen queen blinded them to that evolution (in fairness, it doesn’t help that this shift in Dany’s character ramped up dramatically in the past couple episodes).
“Sometimes, duty is the death of love,” Tyrion told Jon. He meant it literally: Dany must die, he stressed, before it’s too late to avert her reign of fire. It’s not necessary, that said, for Jon to focus on the greater good. He’d do well enough to remember that he, as Dany’s only challenger for the throne, and his sisters, who’ve had enough of tyrants, would be next on the chopping block after Tyrion.
■ There was an eerie calm to much of the finale’s early action that stood in stark contrast to all the fire and brimstone of past weeks. When Dany finally stood before the Iron Throne, somehow still intact after all the destruction, the hope on her face suggested a kind of homecoming. But the mournful music accompanying Jon’s approach presaged that it’s to be her last.
“The world we need is a world of mercy,” he pled. “And it will be,” she replied, her eyes wide. Dany’s shift into a full-on zealot happened suddenly; it’s one of the many fronts on which the series attracted criticism for rushing through its endgame. It’s noteworthy that this finale marked the only chance fans had to really get inside Dany’s head after her slaughter of innocents last week; once her massacre in King’s Landing was underway, the camera never cut back to her.
“It’s not easy to see something that’s never been before,” she insisted. “A good world.” Jon countered that those in power always assume theirs is the righteous path; self-belief is at the heart of every tyrant. But she was too far gone to hear him. “We break the wheel together,” she said, asking Jon to stand by her side. Her love for Jon still lingered, and it’s not hard to imagine part of her drive to rule unilaterally stemmed from knowing no one would challenge that love, even if news of Jon’s parentage spread across Westeros.
“You are my queen,” Jon said, embracing her. “Now, and always.” But family had always come first to Jon, and his nobility — the same trait that got Ned Stark killed in the betrayal that came at the start of the series — won out. He drove a dagger into the Mother of Dragon, and she died in his arms, stunned by the betrayal. With Drogon crying out in the background, some may have anticipated Jon would be toast for such an act. But when the dragon realized its mother had perished, it grieved in a curiously more constructive way, melting the Iron Throne down to nothing.
Now, there are a few explanations for why Drogon would take out his rage on a piece of particularly uncomfortable furniture, lazily symbolic writing chief among them (Don’t you see! It was a game of thrones, but now there are no more upon which to sit!). It’s possible Jon’s Targaryen ancestry allowed him to broker a kind of psychic connection with Drogon; his sentiments being that Dany's need for power made her death necessary to save millions, both Jon and the dragon could have primarily blamed the Iron Throne for her death. Whatever the reasons for his animosity toward the fateful armchair, the dragon soon shifted his focus to Dany, carrying her away one last time.
■ With the lords and ladies of Westeros gathered to figure out what to do given Dany’s death, Edmure Tully got up to start monologuing about why he should be in charge. Sansa told him, evenly, to sit down. Samwell Tarly questioned why they alone should be choosing the next ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, in the process making a pretty radical case for democracy; the assembly promptly burst out laughing.
“There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story,” offered Tyrion. “No enemy can defeat it.” He singled out Bran to tell one, helpfully recapping all of the mystical mumbo-jumbo the kid’s been through on “Game of Thrones.” A few weeks ago, Tyrion and Bran shared a moment in Winterfell, pondering how much they’d both changed since first intersecting in the season 1 episode fittingly titled, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things.” It’s clear that Tyrion has great respect for Bran, who went from a boy pushed out a tower window to the Three-Eyed Raven, a living history of Westeros.
“Who better to lead us into the future?” Tyrion asked, making a case for someone who’s not a king, can’t father children and never once vied for the throne. “I know you don’t care about power,” said Tyrion to Bran, pleading with him to rule justly until his last day. “Why do you think I came all this way?” Bran replied, a know-it-all to the end. Curiously, this was Tyrion’s most convincing speech ever; the council near-unanimously agreed to crown Bran king; the new ruler of the Six Kingdoms (more on that in a second) then named Tyrion his hand. It was a thoughtful way to drive home the message that “Game of Thrones” has always cared about underdogs, relatively powerless residents of an unforgiving world who had to fight with clever words and intrepid deeds to survive. These two were the outcasts of their houses; that they’ll rule Westeros together suggests a breaking of cycles more fruitful than Dany’s eventual mission of world domination.
Sansa stressed that the North has fought too hard and suffered too long to ever bend the knee again, no matter to whom. Much has been made of Sansa’s narrative of endurance against abuse and violence in this show, and it made real sense for the character to resolve that her days of being someone else’s unwilling subject are behind her. Even with Bran on the throne, she is more than capable enough of standing by herself. The North, it was decided, would remain an independent kingdom; and she was to rule as its queen.
■ Jon was sent to the Night’s Watch in punishment for his crimes against Dany, this to appease Grey Worm and the Unsullied more than anyone. He didn’t seem heartbroken about the idea. He and Tyrion said their goodbyes; and the Stark siblings saw him off. For Arya, it may have been a more permanent goodbye; she doesn’t feel at home in the Seven Kingdoms these days, she said, and she’s earned the chance to blaze her own trail. “What’s west of Westeros?” Arya asked. “It’s where all the maps stop. That’s where I’m going.”
■ Other characters were seen preparing for a hopefully brighter future. In the harbor, Grey Worm set sail for Naath, hoping to see the beaches he and Missandei had once planned to visit together. The character became a residual antagonist in his last moments, slaughtering those who’d been loyal to Cersei, but his battle rage subsided. Brienne of Tarth was seen recording the story of Jaime Lannister; she noted, finally, that he “died protecting his queen.”
■ Sam gave Tyrion “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the history of the Seven Kingdoms since King Robert’s death as recorded by Archmaester Ebrose (Sam, ever the George R.R. Martin stand-in, came up with the title). Tyrion, to his astonishment, was not mentioned. He had plenty of duties to keep him busy, such as managing the boasting Bronn of the Blackwater, the new Master of Coin.
■ “Game of Thrones” for a second seemed poised to go out on a cut to black as Jon reached the Wall to begin his new, lifelong sentence on the Night’s Watch. Instead, we got to see the Starks beginning their new journeys, Arya setting sail for parts unknown, Sansa donning her crown as the new Queen in the North, and Jon mingling with the Wildlings and reuniting with Ghost (and, finally, giving him a good petting that many viewers took him to task for not providing a few weeks ago).
■ The Starks introduced us to Westeros; “Game of Thrones,” especially given the twists and turns of this final season, has always been their story first and foremost. It was heartening to see that their struggles to escape the long shadow of their parents’ wars had not, for the most part, been in vain. As a choral rendition of that theme plays out, Jon led a procession into the North. And, with that, our watch ended.
■ Some will likely say “The Iron Throne” was too clean by half, a polished ending to a series that’s more often delighted in the jagged cruelty of its fantasy landscape. With Dany dead by Jon’s hand, the path became surprisingly clear to a happy ending for most of the survivors, and for those who’ve become attached to these characters, seeing Sansa empowered so directly and Arya set free to enjoy her own adventures surely packed a cathartic kick. But for others, the sense may linger that these characters were forced into strange positions in service of a predetermined ending, rather than written a conclusion that more organically served them.
Still, endings tend to encourage audiences to consider the story that preceded it as a whole. However “Game of Thrones” wrapped up, it was always bound to stir up complicated feelings from audiences who’ve been watching it play out across eight long seasons.
If that petition demanding HBO reshoot this final season wasn’t indication enough (and it should be – over a million signatures had been obtained by this time last night), the show’s endgame has not been exactly well-received by viewers. The main criticism levied by fans, as Globe TV critic Matthew Gilbert noted even before last week’s controversial “The Bells,” is that its writers rushed through this climax instead of slowing down to resolve their epic, eight-season story and let the important character arcs breathe.
Nothing in the finale was ever going to reverse those decisions, justify uncharacteristic actions made by many characters (especially Dany) or soothe the sense that fans were being cheated out of a more deliberately paced swan song. But this final episode, absent all but the most fleeting of violent clashes, did attempt to administer an antidote to all the frantic plot maneuvering and battle bloat that plagued season 8. It was an emotional, character-focused, feature-length farewell to a series more than sprawling enough to have earned one.