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Game of Thrones: Worst Finale Ever?

A TNR roundtable discusses “The Iron Throne,” the last episode in the final season of the HBO fantasy series.


Each Monday, members of The New Republic staff will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones, now in its eight and final season. Join Josephine Livingstone, Alex Shephard, and Ryu Spaeth as they contribute their little drop to the ocean of Game of Thrones content, which this week will feature a kiss of death, political parables, and a rare defense of Bran Stark becoming king.

Ryu: The Game of Thrones finale was always bound to be something of a letdown. Only one character could prevail, after all, which meant others must fall or bend the knee, and certain fans must be disappointed. Throughout the long life of the series, fans’ loyalties were divided, with some rooting for Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen, Sansa or Arya Stark, or some combination of the Lannisters. The more depraved among us even rooted for the sadistic Ramsay Bolton or joined Team Night King, and you know what? I admired their sick irreverence.

But I feel quite comfortable saying that no one—no one!—wanted Bran Stark, who does nothing but fall asleep at pivotal moments in the action, to become ruler of Westeros. Do we all agree that this was the worst of all possible endings to the show?

Jo: Ryu, for literally the last time, he’s not asleep.

Ryu: Well, he’s not really present either.

Jo: I’m glad that, if anything, the end of Game of Thrones will end your painful misapprehension of the art of warging. I like Bran—he rarely murders anybody—and I’m glad he’s king.

It is still technically possible that Bran meant for all this to happen, knew it would, in fact, and has orchestrated everything to end with most of the power to himself—and the only other power with his own sister. But the possibility does feel quite remote.

Alex: In setting up a new world order in which elite families and technocrats manage the state’s affairs, Tyrion summoned his inner Samwise Gamgee. “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?” Tyrion asks. “Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken? The boy who fell from a high tower and lived?” Of course, as we know from the events of literally the entire show, nothing tears people apart like stories either—the story of the abduction of Lyanna Stark, for example. Also, for what it’s worth, Jon and Sansa both have better “stories” than Bran and both would have made better rulers.

Jo: At least Tyrion didn’t give a tiresome speech about the word “history” deriving from the word for “story.” Small blessings.

Alex: One question I keep coming back to is, what does this all look like to the common people of Westeros? Dany comes in, slaughters hundreds of thousands of people, but does so promising to revolutionize the country, tearing down the insular, corrupt families that have fought war after war forever. She is then slaughtered by her nephew and replaced by ... those exact same families, who have now decided that they can rule in everyone’s best interest. The supposed point of this new system is to do away with the rot and corruption that undid the old one. But Tyrion’s first act as Hand of the King was to reward a mercenary who blackmailed him and his brother! It’s a bad look.

Jo: Ah, Alex but recall how deeply local the people’s political allegiances are. It was smart of the show to emphasize those differences and community borderlines that still exist, even after the Last War. You can see the grudges being formed that will spark the next war into flames.

Not much on Game of Thrones has tickled me the way that Sam Tarly’s failed attempt to invent democracy did. After that, I was so sure they were going to decide to rule by council. Oligarchy it is, and so be it: This was a warped kind of Act of Union for Westeros. And Sansa even invented Scotland.

Ryu: The politics have been all over the place this season, but they went off the rails last night. In the final episode, we find that Dany’s story all along has been a parable about the dangers of revolutionary politics, as if she’s a kind of Lenin whose attempts to free the people will invariably result in a totalitarian cult of personality and drench the world in a sea of blood. I’m fine with that! But how does that square with the other political allegories and storylines that have been left by the wayside? Just seems like this was shoehorned in at the last minute out of convenience, much like the council resembled Athena descending from Mt. Olympus to calm the Furies.

Alex: Westeros embracing constitutional monarchy is a reflection of its inability to resolve the various political ideas it contained in earlier seasons. Truly breaking the wheel and establishing, I don’t know, some kind of benevolent anarcho-communist society wouldn’t have tracked with the show’s general cynicism. But George R.R. Martin has always been insistent that this is not a nihilistic story, that change is possible even if it’s difficult. Dany’s arc, though, crumpled under the weight of the show’s incoherence. She ended up as nothing more than a Westerosi version of horseshoe theory.

Ryu: The one surprise, at least for me, was that it was Jon who did Dany in.

Jo: He had the good grace not to stab her in the back. The kiss was a nice touch, recalling the mafia’s bacio della morte, the kiss of death, which itself references Judas kissing Christ.

Ryu: And the scene with Brienne rewriting Jaime’s legacy? Can we talk about that?

Alex: Like a lot of parts in this episode, the failure of that scene points to earlier shortcomings. Jaime Lannister, as we may recall, shacked up with and abandoned Brienne in the exact same episode. The show, which basically has played at 32x speed for the past two seasons, never really gave us the payoff for his storyline—the evil Prince Charming who, thanks to Brienne, discovers his humanity. So it ultimately felt a little weird to watch Brienne doing him a solid, filling out the empty page in the Book of Brothers that was the source of so much consternation and mockery. I guess this was another example of the finale’s larger theme, of the power and necessity of stories—showing the kingdom an ideal version of Jaime was the ultimate act of love.

One thing that wasn’t? Sending Jon to the Night’s Watch. Why is there a Night’s Watch? Tyrion acted like it was this romantic thing—where else can we send those pesky cripples, bastards, and broken things! One problem though: Bran, a cripple, is King and Tyrion, a dwarf, is Hand. Jon, meanwhile, got the short end of the stick. I like him going beyond The Wall with Tormund and Ghost, but what are the other Night’s Watch brothers supposed to do? They should’ve turned it into a public service corps instead.

Ryu: Right, do we need a Night’s Watch if the White Walkers are dead? I also got the strong impression that Jon and his crew were going to become a new Children of the Forest. But honestly, WHATEVER, I’m done speculating about this show. Arya is going West, where no one has ever gone before? WHO CARES. Drogon is still alive, flying around with Dany’s corpse? I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT.

Alex: It was cool that Drogon realized that it was lust for power (represented by the Iron Throne) that really killed Dany, not Jon. “Dragons are intelligent,” Tyrion said a few seasons ago. Drogon seems particularly smart! He apparently got a semiotics degree from UC Berkeley.

Jo: I’d like to mount a defense of the finale. Bran’s crowning pleased me for another reason: It finished his rather beautiful personal arc, which began with injury and ended with honor.

Game of Thrones has played with disability in a number of inventive ways, from Tyrion’s celebrated sexuality to Hodor’s brain injury, which is one and the same thing as his heroism. We see mental illness of all kinds, from Lysa Arryn’s deluded violence to Selyse Baratheon keeping her dead children preserved in chemicals. Serious mental illness seems to develop in about half of the entire Targaryen house, a fact that shapes the story’s outcome profoundly. Injuries have long-reaching consequences on the mind and body: I’m thinking here of The Hound, Theon, Khal Drogo.

Bran’s fall opened the show, and his rise ended it: one was physical, the other almost spiritual, monarchical. As Bran the Broken, this new king has a lot of cognates in European history, where physical impairment was no real obstacle to a political career. In fact, you could argue that his injury has protected him, keeping him out of the field of combat. He reminds me of a number of very complex historical figures: Baldwin IV, the “Leper King” of Jerusalem; Richard III of England, Shakespeare’s evil, brilliant, hero; Sigobert the Lame, a Frankish King with a famous knee injury, to name at random one of the countless medieval rulers with some impairment. Disability made none of these rulers beyond reproach (Richard III was not nice), but in many of their legends disability confers on them a kind of sophistication, or perspective on life not shared by your average knight-king, like Henry VIII or ... Jon Snow.

Ryu: Unfortunately, Bran himself is as interesting as oatmeal. I wish your interpretation of the show was the right one, but I feel that Game of Thrones, which started off with so much swagger, has fallen back on the tritest of political themes: that the meek shall inherit the earth.

Jo: Meek! You call saving the world and winning a staring competition with the Night King meek?

Alex: After the final season of Game of Thrones, I am (almost) exactly where I was after the first season: waiting for George R.R. Martin to publish The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Help us GRRM. You’re our only hope!