I was fortunate enough to learn seven-point story structure from science fiction writer, critic, and editor Algis Budrys. Most of the points are familiar to anyone who ever took a writing course, but Algis was particularly keen on point seven. That’s the point that happens after the climax of the book or film. The thing that happens when the hero is victorious. Or dead. Or shipped off to the North to reunite with a very good boy. It’s the part where the wookie roars at the medal ceremony. Or the camera pans around Rose’s room to show the artifacts of a life well-lived. Or some townie says “Who was that masked man?” Validation is the part of the story that shows that what you just watched or read fit into a larger picture, has ramifications that will echo, and was worth your valuable time. Without validation, a story just ends. With validation, it ends well. And Game of Thrones ended well.
Let’s walk through it, then we’ll come back for a talk over one last mug of something warm and mulled ladled up in a heavy clay mug. And you can throw the mug at me if you like.
The last episode of Game of Thrones had, for most of the 80-plus minutes it was on screen, something that had been completely absent for much of this season—pacing. In several scenes, particularly those involving Tyrion, the character was allowed to not just pass through the moment, but react to it. The viewer’s experience of the scene is informed because we get the chance to see the value that it has for those involved.
That certainly wasn’t true for the entire episode, particularly the point where everything takes a multi-week time warp followed by a three-minute overthrow of 8,000 years of government and social structure. But there are moments in “The Iron Throne” where the show takes a moment to breathe. If only the whole season had been that way.
Maybe the thing that makes the last two seasons of Game of Thrones so especially unsatisfying is that it didn’t have to be that way. HBO didn’t demand shortened seasons. HBO didn’t even want shortened seasons. That was the decision of the show runners. The excuse was that it allowed them to spend more money and more time on individual episodes, which then permitted the special effects and scope for action spectaculars like the big set piece battles. But the cost of that was huge.
The first few seasons were often criticized for episodes that spent their time moving people around the map, without really moving anything toward resolution, but those episodes served an important purpose other than just showing us that Winterfell isn’t within a day’s walk of King’s Landing (which now seems hard to believe). Those shows didn’t just give scope to the world. They gave us a place that had functioning systems. They gave an insight into the character’s interior life. They let us see who these people were and grasp the world they lived in. By skipping over those episodes in the last two seasons, not only did Game of Thrones lose any sense of scale, it robbed us of seeing who these people had become or how the collapse of their world had affected them.
Saying that every sign was there that Slaver’s Bay Daenerys was going to become Queen of the Ashes Daenerys is a different thing from living that transition. And we didn’t. That, more than what happened in the finale, is the real tragedy for the last queen of House Targaryen.
The final episode opens with Tyrion walking through ashes that were King’s Landing, followed slowly by Jon Snow and stalwart Davos Seaworth. The devastation and the bodies are shocking, but there are a couple of beats here that are awful in all the wrong ways. When the trio passes the little girl who burned with a toy in hand, there’s a callback to the death of Shireen Baratheon that fans recognize, but the camera doesn’t pause even long enough to give a reaction shot to show the impact this has on Davos. Things to do. Ashes to show. No time to give that sort of insight.
A block later, the trio passes one of the few really poor visual bits of the episode: a burned-out house that is populated by a half-dozen complete skeletons that have inexplicably been stripped of flesh as neatly as the model hanging in the corner of an osteopath’s office, and left completely articulated and undamaged. It’s hokey enough to have been lifted from Fright Night at Six Flags, and particularly jarring against the all-too-realistic horror most of the episode provides.
Approaching what remains of the Red Keep, Jon tries to step in as Grey Worm is executing Lannister prisoners. This is just the first of many reminders in the episode that while every other character has changed and grown throughout the series … that’s not so true of Jon Snow. His motivations in episode 74 are pretty much what they were in episode 1. Sansa Stark may have been the little girl who believed in all those tales of chivalry at the series’ opening. Jon Snow is still there.
There’s some good dialog here that really does show were the characters are: Grey Worm embittered and committed to a strict obedience that also happens to fulfill his personal vengeance, Jon as guileless as ever, Davos just done with it all. “How much more defeated do you want them to be?” says the onion knight. And unfortunately, Grey Worm has an answer. Davos intervenes to save Jon, as he is prone to do to keep people from getting themselves killed idiotically. But as they walk away, one of the prisoners gets taken out graphically. Astonishingly, that’s 50% of all deaths in the episode.
Entering the keep, Tyrion doesn’t go looking for Daenerys, but instead picks up a torch and tries to follow the escape route he laid out for Jaime and Cersei. It’s not clear if he knows they have not managed to escape. Probably he knows that the boat he sent their way via Davos was not taken. But finding their bodies is clearly a gut-punch to the youngest Lannister sibling.
Finding the pair manages to give Cersei’s end more emotional closure than just seeing a rain of blocks fall on her head. As with other scenes involving Tyrion, this one is allowed to linger, and to let the play of light and dark, along with the soundscape of the crumbled passage, contribute to the emotion of the scene. It gets the space it needs to develop, along with the musical cues and reaction shots. It plays out at not a slow pace, but an appropriate pace—a rarity in this season.
As the view moves outside again, Arya momentarily becomes the viewpoint character. But … somehow she’s still in King’s Landing, and somehow she’s lost the white horse she was riding at a fast trot out of there at the end of the penultimate episode. Both of these things feel like continuity issues.
Speaking of which … splayed out before the steps of the ruined keep, Dany's army looks more or less as large as it did before the Battle of Winterfell, with neat ranks of Unsullied and a roiling horde of Dothraki. But why? Not only did we see both those groups take losses at Winterfell that had to run into many thousands, but why was it important that Daenerys have such a massive force at this point? Wouldn’t the idea that she had only a ragged remnant of her original force not only have worked just as well, but added another note of pathos to the speech she is about to give?
In any case, it does service the shot. The magnificent shot. The Maleficent shot: Dany striding out of the broken gates with Drogon’s wings unfolding behind her is certainly of the most striking visuals of the entire series, and when the camera moves behind her to show the forces arrayed in the ruined plaza with the city still burning at their backs, there is such a feeling of Nuremberg that Leni Riefenstahl’s estate should get some royalties.
Somewhere, Dany has found a black leather outfit that out-evils the Evil Queen look Cersei rocked for the last two seasons. But she does look just tremendous. And powerful. And satisfied. As she begins her multi-lingual speech to her followers, it’s clear that the fires of King’s Landing have burned away every trace of self-doubt. She has seen the promised land, and she’s going to liberate the hell out of everyone to get them there, even if it kills them. Especially if it kills them.
And it’s definitely worth noting that as Daenerys explains she is going to bring the same kind of “liberation” to other places that she delivered in King’s Landing, the very first location on her list is Winterfell.
Dany’s speech is chilling on every level. It’s also really, really impressive. From every angle, this scene is simply spectacular. Honestly, other than the David S. Pumpkins house of spooky skeletons, everything about this episode looks spectacular. It sounds that way, as well, with lots of subtle sounds and musical cues to heighten emotional impact. I wouldn’t be surprised if more than half the budget for the whole season went to these scenes … because, boy, it looks it.
At the end of the “lets go burn down the world together” pep rally, Tyrion steps up to take his medicine. There is never a moment in which it seems that Daenerys might let his actions slip or feel regret for what she’s done. She’s all in.
Jon watches Tyrion’s capture then goes down to see the former Hand in his temporary prison. Jon admits from the beginning that “I can’t justify what happened. I won’t try,” but his own personal idea of honor still welds him to Dany. It takes not-too-subtle hammering from Tyrion to repeatedly get across the point that King’s Landing is just the start of the burning women and children tour, and Sansa and Arya are sure to be extra crispy. Even so, Jon leaves still telling Tyrion he can’t do what he wants. All those Night’s Watch words—the words about honor and duty that only Jon seemed to take with perfect seriousness —come back. But they fall on both sides of the Daenerys line.
Finally, Dany enters the ruined throne room and, just as she did in her season three vision, advances on the Iron Throne. As she touches the ugly, ash-covered chair, there’s no doubt about her feelings: delight. Even when Jon enters and spills righteous anger all over the floor about what she’s done, Dany has no doubts, no second thoughts. “We can’t hide behind small mercies,” she tells him in defending unnecessary deaths. In a very real way, Dany is no longer even concerned with the people falling in her path. Her vision has moved on to “the good world” she intends to create. Somewhere on the other side of all that destruction, she knows there is a utopia—one where everyone is loved by, and loving of, Good Queen Daenerys, first, last, and only of her name. She is transcendent.
So of course Jon kills her. Because it’s the fate of Jon Snow that he become Jaime Lannister. The queen slayer. The person who betrayed and killed the one person he swore to love and protect.
Drogon comes in a rush, tries to raise his fallen “mother,” and lets out a heart-breaking scream. Jon doesn’t run. He not only expects to die, he thinks he deserves it. Instead, the last dragon melts down the Iron Throne, gathers up the Mother of Dragons, and flies into the lowering skies.
And then there’s that time jump. How much we leap past isn’t clear. Long enough, apparently, to send forth the ravens and summon the surviving leaders, such as they are, from all corners of the realm. Tyrion is hauled from his cell and taken to stand in front of the curiously guard-free nobles at the dragon pit—which is now less ruined than rest of city.
There’s some bitter back and forth, and despite the solemnity of the occasion and efforts to keep things civil, the momentary prospect of an Arya/Yara showdown is exciting. But … Davos steps in to keep people from killing each other (I really should have made a macro out of that a long time ago).
In the middle of the bargaining, Grey Worm, the sole remaining character of color and a former slave who has led an army of former slaves, declares “We do not need payment, we need justice.” There are enough angles on that line that whole papers could be written. They probably will be.
In any case, Tyrion proposes that they name a new king or queen and let them decide the fate of Jon Snow, as well as a few other important things. Like what happens now. Of all the unlikely people, Edmure Tully senses his moment and immediately rises to begin delivering an absolutely tepid campaign speech, only to be shot down in three words by Sansa. That part is kind of delicious.
Then Samwell Tarly suggests that it shouldn’t be just the lords making the decision, but everyone. The idea is immediately laughed off. Even Sansa can’t help but smirk. But there’s a reason that this idea came from Sam, and that he believes it might work. It’s not that Sam has read an old volume on something called a Dem O Cracy. It’s that he’s seen one in operation, and he liked it. The Night’s Watch elects its Lord Commander on a one-man, one-vote basis. And notably, ex-felons get to vote (which … okay, that’s about two-thirds of the Night’s Watch).
But in any case, the idea of an outright democracy is pushed aside for the moment. We can probably all be glad for that, because if the last episode of Game of Thrones came down to being about hanging chads in Dorne, there might have been riots in the streets.
Instead we get a king by acclamation of the nobles, something we’ve already seen in the North at least three times. Given his turn, Tyrion recommends Bran. And this is probably the point where the shortened season hurts the most. Characters have no interior life, and Bran is all interior life. Even on those few occasions when he’s been allowed to speak on screen, he’s barely had anything to say. We can assume that he and Tyrion had a nice discussion that weighed into this decision back around episode two of this season when they sat down to talk. We might have seen some of that rather than, say, Tormund’s speech about drinking giant milk. It definitely wouldn’t have hurt, because Bran is just an enigma. We’ve seen so little of his thoughts that it’s made him a massive chunk of irritating.
Oh yeah, and when Tyrion is recounting the wondrous things that Bran has done, he fails to note that Bran crossed beyond the Wall, on a sled dragged by the long-suffering, ever-vigilant, but massively unrewarded Meera Reed. Where is the validation for Meera Reed, people? See how that’s unsatisfying?
The affirmation of Bran loses some power because in large part we simply don’t know the people saying “aye” though … hey, look how much Robin Aryn has grown! Then the count gets around to Sansa and she says that the North will remain independent. It’s a perfect response from Sansa, and it sets up a perfect end for Sansa, but it’s hard to believe that, with the sister of the new king opting out, no one else says “us too.”
But Bran accepts, Tyrion becomes hand to his third ruler, and Grey Worm joins them in some verbal byplay that’s among the best of the episode. So ... all hail the ruler of the Six Kingdoms.
Then it’s time to deal with Jon. Tyrion is the one who breaks the news to Jon that he’s going back to the Night’s Watch which … still exists? Okay. But it doesn’t really seem to matter to the tortured Jon who is, weeks after the event, still wrestling with the morality of his action. And in the course of this discussion, Tyrion makes the most critical statement of the episode: “Check back in 10 years.”
Because … have we really broken the wheel? After all, this is where we came in, with Jon taking the role of Jaime in taking down a ruler who had gone over the edge. And sure, things may look better now, but they probably looked pretty good to those who first set that crown on Robert Baratheon and sighed in relief that it was “over.”
Is the wheel really broken, or is this just another turn?
In any case, Jon gets to stride down to the harbor with his cape billowing out behind him and give a farewell to the family. George Martin has mentioned his fondness for the ending of Lord of the Rings. If last episode was the the scouring of the Shire, this week definitely has notes of Grey Harbor as everyone from Arya, to Jon, to Grey Worm boards ships.
Interestingly enough, Grey Worm is headed for the Island of Naath. That’s where Missandei was from before she was captured and enslaved as a child. Is he going to see her people and let them know what happened to their long-lost sister? Is he going to fight those who attacked her island? Is he just going to see were his lost love once lived? Maybe, should the books ever appear, we’ll have a better idea.
Meanwhile, in another Tolkien throwback, Arya is sailing off the map to the West. But she’s not, so far as we know, going to see where Elves go when they’re tired of the world. Instead she’s off for adventure. Will she run into the Westeros version of America (Aryaica)? Will she run into Drogon still flying east? Who knows, but the Arya the Explorer show seems like the thread that would most lend itself to a spinoff. Just think, every week, Arya can meet new people, kill them, and teach us to say “All men must die” in a new language.
At what remains of the Red Keep, things are settling down for the reign of Bran the Broken. Brienne, who is apparently the new head of the King’s Guard, writes out the final entry for Jaime Lannister—and does it while wearing full armor, so you know she’s taking it seriously. In the small council chamber, Tyrion prepares for his first meeting as the Hand of Bran and his nervous fidgeting and chair straightening is exactly the kind of character note we might have seen more often in a season not crushed to the level of outline plus a few extended scenes.
The council meeting is full of fan service as Bronn and Davos banter (Bronn’s position on the council, and the way in which he became Lord of the Reach, is still the least believable thing in a show with ice zombies). Bran hints at being able to contact Drogon through his poorly-explained powers. And Sam drops an ultimate tribute prop in the form of A Song of Ice and Fire history book … that leaves out Tyrion.
Then, for about five genuinely glorious minutes, we get the interspersed stories of the Stark children over the next few months: Jon entering Castle Black, finally giving Ghost that well-deserved head scratch, and leading the wildlings back beyond the wall; Arya at sea with map and compass, confidently sailing for the edge of the world; Sansa in a rather marvelous dress adorned with the red leaves of the Heart Tree as she accepts the crown as Queen of the North.
There’s not just a sprig of grass coming through the snow, to hint at the approach of spring. This whole sequence is scored witha slightly altered version of the series’ central theme. Pacing has been changed. Notes have been inverted. This is the theme song for a new story, one that begins where The Game of Thrones ends. Then the old theme breaks out in full choral majesty and .. that’s all. It’s over. And over. Amen.
Okay, where’s my mug. Overall, these endings are as good as you could hope for. Not pat. Not happy. But with a promise that the story will continue, outside your view. Arya will have adventures. Brienne will valiantly protect Bran from challenges you know are coming. Sansa will fix Winterfell and maybe run the North better than it has been run before. Or worse. We don’t know. Maybe somewhere out there, there are still giants. Maybe there are still more dragons. There are certainly dangers, and romances, and wonders. Wonders. We don’t get to see them, but these people we’ve loved for a decade … maybe they will. We just won’t be watching.
And Daenerys. Yeah, I know. A lot of people had their hearts set on Dany for a lot of reasons. She was a powerful woman … and it didn’t work out. But Sansa is a powerful woman. Arya is a powerful woman. Brienne is a powerful woman. Back in season one, “hero” of the series Eddard Stark explained to his tomboy daughter what was expected of women in this world: settle down, marry well, run a household, have children. None of these women accepted that role and together they reshaped—and saved—the world. Trying to draw the simple equation “powerful woman = threat who must be shot down” requires shutting out an awful lot of characters.
It’s really not a bad record for powerful women in Game of Thrones. After all, it’s not like Stannis Baratheon got the throne. Or Renly. Or … honestly, we ran through a lot of powerful men.
Anyway, hurl that crockery one last time. I’m at the bottom of my glass, and the end of my watch.