“No-one is very happy, which means it’s a good compromise, I suppose.”
This is how Tyrion Lannister described the ending of Game of Thrones, unwittingly speaking for many viewers too.
After years of theorising over how the show might answer the question implied in its title, what ultimately transpired was a bittersweet mix of story endings that felt balanced and yet strangely unsatisfying. Destiny has been a core theme of the show, but felt absent here, as though the final ruler was chosen not by fate but tombola.
Scientific logic is not something I really look for in a show where people can give birth to dragons, and the pedantic “a raven could never have flied there that fast” concerns levelled at the show season after season slightly baffled me. But character logic is another matter, and was strained heavily in season 8, which sailed straight over ‘humans can be unpredictable’ and landed firmly in ‘I have no idea who these characters even are anymore’.
Last week, we had to swallow Daenerys’ hearty embrace of despotism, while this week it was paragon of virtue Jon Snow acting like he might genuinely consider kneeling to a queen who incinerates innocent men, women and children just for kicks. There’s a version of this story where Daenerys is legitimately forced into scorching King’s Landing, and Jon’s dilemma becomes whether there there is ever a situation where slaughter is acceptable. This wasn’t it though, so of course he stabbed to Daenerys in the heart, kissing his queen as he did it, a tragedy ending that on a charitable day you might describe as Shakespearean.
Jon’s subsequent stand-off with Dany’s only remaining dragon child was one of the more compelling elements of the episode, Drogon sparing his relative and melting the Iron Throne in anger. This might have been a good place to end the show – the animal destroying the symbol of power that has proven man’s weakness time and time again – but the showrunners had other plans.
When Jaime Lannister stabbed the Mad King for fear his monarch would “burn them all”, he was named Kingslayer and celebrated for the good sense behind his betrayal. Jon, in a similar position (only his Mad Queen actually did burn them all), was banished to The Wall. Isn’t history a precedent? Couldn’t something be worked out? Is the rightful heir to the throne and its best shot at a peaceful reign really going to be denied just to appease Grey Worm and a few remaining Targaryen-loyal troops?
Never mind that, the show seemed to say, because after three weeks in a cell Tyrion’s had the brilliant idea that it should be Bran who rules! Why? Something to do with people liking stories! The best ruler is the best historian, apparently. The lords and ladies gathered in the Dragonpit didn’t take much convincing, so it was decided: Bran would rule even though it’s not clear if he’s really human anymore, what motivates him, or if he can even have a conversation that doesn’t end in witty but dour non-sequiturs.
The Starks’ reactions to Jon’s exile and Bran’s election were quite unexpected:
Bran (smiling): “Why do you think I came all this way?” Boom, he was playing the long game!
Jon: This sucks and I already killed the threat north of the Wall remember, but hey Tormund and my dog are here, let’s get back to nature!
Arya: Brb going to discover the rest of the planet
With advanced diplomacy abandoned in favour of everyone just getting out on time, Bran was installed on the throne and a who’s-who of fan favourite supporting characters became his council. We faded to black as they joked about redeveloping the city’s brothels and Sam previewed his new book ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, only he didn’t end up writing the thing, his contribution was solely coming up with a catchy title. What on Earth is happening, dear viewer?
And so we closed with Jon back at the Wall. “The shield that guards the realms of men” always was an identity that suited Jon much better than bastard or king or heir, and it would have been a fitting end to his arc, if only it seemed necessary or, better still, if he had returned there of his own volition.
Season 8 ultimately proved consistently entertaining but incredibly rushed, some developments requiring a whole season but only getting 20 minutes of one episode. What an enjoyable show it’s been, and what silly fun dissecting it, but this final run sunk its ambitions toward prestige TV status into the snow.
Then again, is that truly how the story ends? The way Drogon’s disappearance with a dead (for now?) Daenerys was left unexplained and then referenced near the finish was suspect. Does anyone think Jon will seriously spend the rest of his days abstinent and childless at The Wall, his true identity not known by the masses? One of the final shots may have been a door emphatically closing, but it felt like others were intentionally being left open here. A Game of Thrones season 9 is unimaginable now, but 10 years down the line when HBO struggles to repeat the show’s unprecedented success? It’s hard to believe they’re not banking on these question marks sticking around.