Maybe I lack nuance.
Maybe I’m naive.
Maybe I’m uncouth.
I thought the Game of Thrones finale was good.
I thought the whole season was good. Flawed. But good.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading the books for nearly two decades, spent countless hours debating the potential ending with friends when R+L=J was just a far-fetched fan theory. We went through every inevitability, every possible outcome. So, when Dany burned King’s Landing, I wasn’t surprised. Her goal has never been peace or justice, it’s been violence and death. When Bran took the crown, I wasn’t surprised. He’s the heir to the Stark family, who readers and viewers have been told since the very first episode are a family of fair and (stupidly) just rulers. When Arya killed the Night King, I wasn’t surprised. She’s trained for years to be able to kill those no one else can. When Sansa refused Bran’s rule and declared herself Queen in the North, I wasn’t surprised. She’s always been destined to rule.
Nothing surprised me.
And that’s okay.
Arya and Sansa both had perfect endings, and their entire story arcs over the course of the eight seasons were among the best on the show. I LOVED seeing Sansa stick to her guns, even when her brother was crowned king, to keep the north independent. At first I thought it was strange that Arya spent most of the last two episodes running and hiding, rather than chasing Cersei down or killing Dany, but the more I watched, the more I loved the way she chose her life over her list. She could have become the Hound, but she didn’t. She saw so much tragedy in her short life, just like Sansa, but she’s not much of one for stillness, and I love the way she threw off the shackles of her previous life and embraced new opportunity. I love the way she rejected Gendry. I love that she sailed under the Stark banner. Like her ancestor before her, Bran the Builder, she represents the future. I just hope she’s kinder to the natives of Westereros (as I saw it affectionally called on Twitter) compared to the European settlers who “discovered” North and South America.
Also, please, please, please HBO give me a show about Arya exploring the world.
My biggest disappointment was with Jaime Lannister’s backslide through the final three episodes. He’s always been my favourite character, and his journey through A Storm of Swords is one of the most profound I’ve ever read. His journey on the show, alongside Brienne’s, couldn’t touch the nuance of the book—but, with brilliant, complex, and flawlessly executing portrayals by Coster-Waldau and Christie, they became one of the highlights of the entire series. For me, a more just end for Jaime would have involved him turning on Cersei for good, perhaps taking the black, in the end, as atonement for all his sins against the realm. Cersei did not deserve her moment of peace at the end, in Jaime’s arms, but the show has always wanted us to empathize with her as a scared mother—that’ll never be enough to justify her actions or make me forget about them, though.
I won’t speculate on why fans were so upset with the final season—I think the reasons are as numerous, complex, and varied as there are disappointed viewers—but this essay from Scientific America, “The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones,” does a good job of exploring how the show’s shift from sociological to psychological storytelling affected fan reactions.
On Dany’s heel turn, I won’t say too much—it’s been covered to death already. I will say, however, that I was behind on the show, just at the beginning of S7 when I heard the spoiler about her ravaging of King’s Landing, and so I was able to catch up with all the foreknowledge of what happened, and I felt that the show did a good job of telegraphing Dany’s actions. It’s all there, right in the script. Could the handling of it have been a bit better in “The Bells?” Yeah. Sure. Saving her second dragon’s death for that moment would’ve worked. A random civilian throwing a rock at her in defiance would’ve worked. It’s not perfect, but it’s wholly justifiable and backed up by Dany’s past actions and the concerns of her counsel. Missandei’s death, on the heels of her two dead dragons, obviously rattled Dany, but I don’t think that’s what really motivated her to raze King’s Landing. Dany talked a lot about justice and peace, but that’s never been her goal. Not in Westeros. She has always led with violence and death. Always—always—Dany picks war over peace. It’s who she’s been raised to be. As King’s Landing sat there, its gates open, its soldiers dropping their swords, she saw a future she did not want: peace, governance, acceptance, healing, renewal. These were never her goals. As we found out in the final episode, she was not a ruler who would sit idly on her throne. Already, with King’s Landing still smouldering, she wanted more. More enemies. More death. More blood on her hands. If she wanted peace and stability, she would have deferred to Aegon Targaryen. This would have achieved her stated goals: the Seven Kingdoms ruled by a strong, loved, respected, and stable leader; peace; justice for her family. But her stated goals were not her real goals. I knew a long time ago reading the books that Dany was an antagonist just as much as Cersei or the Others, so I wasn’t surprised by anything Dany did. I think the biggest flaw, and why many people were surprised/upset, was because they chose Dany’s penultimate moments to introduce her to Jon Snow and finally show viewers her vulnerable side. For seven seasons, we saw who she was, but how easy was it to forget when we saw her through Jon’s eyes. In a way, it’s clever writing. We were fooled, just like Jon.
(For a thorough look at Dany’s heel turn and everything that led up to it, I recommend Beth Elderkin’s That ‘Sudden’ Game of Thrones Turn Was Actually a Long Time Coming on io9.)
Okay, so maybe I did have a lot to say about Dany.
If I have one major criticism of the show, it’s the way the Dothraki and the Unsullied, and, really, all of Essos, became little more than pieces of a chessboard by the end of the series. Grey Worm stepping up and threatening Westeros in the wake of Dany’s death—before finally seeking catharsis by travelling to Naath in memory of Missandei—was a step, but so much time was taken developing these people, and to have them thrown aside and reduced to an invading foreign army representing all of Dany’s bloodthirst diminished the effort and time that went into developing them. Game of Thrones is a very white show, and it’s disappointing that, in the end, the coloured folk are the bad guys.
One thing that always bothered me reading A Song of Ice and Fire was that both Dany and Jon, for different reasons, were clearly unfit for rule. I’m glad to see the show address this in the end, rather than falling back on the easy ending, which would have seen either Dany or Jon (or both, hand-in-hand) on the Iron Throne with a lot of their short falls and sins absolved for convenience sake. That’s the ending I expected from the show, because, once it departed Martin’s original work, it often lacked nuance and I think the end we got for both of them—villain and tragic hero—was fitting. On Twitter, John Horner Jacobs, who has a lot of the same opinions as me about the show, wrote something interesting while speculating how the books’ ending might differ from the show’s:
It’s a strong hypothesis, and I think John’s right, but that Jon’s payment isn’t death, it’s a lifetime of being forced into being a leader when all he wants is rest and quiet. I think the show’s ending is perfect. He flees the shackles of his bloodline, wanting nothing more than rest, but, upon reaching the north, he is welcomed by the wildlings and, from atop his horse, leads them back into their homeland. In this way, he’s the opposite of Dany—loathe to rule, but doomed forever to lead.
The show’s masterful cinematography and visual storytelling was above and beyond in the final season. A morning after watching the finale, I can’t stop thinking about the ash falling on King’s Landing. From a cinematic perspective, it was beautiful, haunting. From a storytelling perspective, the way it mirrored the snow falling during The Long Night, tying Dany’s actions to those of the Night King’s, was brilliant. As someone who just wrote a book that features prominent ash falls, I’ll be revisiting the finale for visual inspiration.
In all, as the final scene ended, Jon leaving the North behind, once again a leader, despite his wishes, I felt satisfied. I’ve been following this story for nearly 20 years. I’ve grown up alongside the Stark children. Ultimately, it was the characters I stuck around for. Not the fate of Westeros—I think we know at this point, looking back at humanity’s long history that even happy endings (perhaps especially happy endings) are only short lived.
In my opinion, every good story the size of Game of Thrones’ should leave unanswered questions and new possibilities in its wake. I don’t want a comprehensive, exhaustive reckoning. Life isn’t like that. I also think the reader has a place within the narrative, and daydreaming about those loose strings, trying to tie them together with friends, or writing fanfic to explore the possibilities is a huge, integral part of enjoying this kind of work.
In the end, Game of Thrones was exactly what I expected it to be: a smaller, condensed retelling of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. It was the story of the Stark children, and they all ended up in the right place. Jon was not a fit ruler. Arya was not meant for stillness. Sansa was her mother’s daughter, not her father’s, and will rule with fierce intelligence. Bran is a symbol of learning from the past. This was a story about family, about bloodlines, and, with suitable complexity, Game of Thrones shows us that sometimes blood runs thick, and sometimes it runs like snowmelt.