Game of Thrones finale, season 8, episode 6, The Iron Throne, review: a great story betrayed at the death

Ed Power
Grave endings: Tyrion

Warning: This review contains spoilers...

The most crushing thing about the Game of Thrones finale was how empty it all felt. Jon killed Daenerys, Bran became king, Arya sailed west. And not once did the feature-length farewell come close to tugging the heartstrings. It was a blasted heath of exposition and loose-ends tied off, with nothing for viewers to grab on to as they sought closure after nine years of living and mourning, cheering and crying, with these characters. 

Actually, that’s not quite true. Even those of us by now dead inside will have experienced a sad shudder at the final scene of Jon, Ghost, and Tormund riding north of the Wall. 

There was, at the very end, some truth here. At least for Jon. The Bastard of Winterfell had only ever really felt free as a member of the Night’s Watch and an ally of the Wildlings. So, with the final curtain looming, the story did him justice. Jon clopping north also mirrored the first scene of the first episode, when a Night’s Watch patrol passed through the Wall and was butchered by the Walkers. 

Here, by contrast, the butchering was mainly at the hands of the writers. Jon’s return to the Wall brought to a close 80 minutes of exhausting crescendo that pummelled us with big flourishes it hadn’t earned. The really important stuff was mucked up rather spectacularly. Jon stabbing Mad Queen Daenerys should have been a searing betrayal – their doomed love affair reaching a cathartic climax. Instead the moment plodded by, predictable and weightless. 

Game of Thrones surely could not sink any further. Well yes, of course it could. As we discovered in the next scene as the Lords of the Seven Kingdoms – and, randomly, Ser Davos – met and elected Bran their ruler. 

Bran! There is surely a universe somewhere where the elevation of the Three-Eyed Raven to the Iron Throne – oops, sorry Sad Drogon had melted it in a fit of dragon pique – makes sense. But not in the reality David Benioff and DB Weiss have wrought, where it landed as just another box ticked as the show runners rushed to wrap up the story and pursue the destiny foretold for them (making mediocre Star Wars movies).

As the credits rolled, the sense that lingered, then, was a muted shock that a series that had once meant so much could depart with such insouciance. Thrones was over but it didn’t feel as if our watch had ended. More that our time had been wasted, our emotions toyed with – a great story betrayed at the death. 

Jon killing Daenerys should have felt more tragic than it did

Here was the bittersweet ending George RR Martin had promised. One Game of Thrones was now making a mess of. The original sin was of course the lack of build-up around Daenerys’s descent into mania and Jon’s decision to kill her.  

Was our imagination playing tricks or did the actors not quite believe it either? Emilia Clarke has been fantastic this season – often the only reason to continue to invest in Daenerys. But here, as she outlined her plans for the future to Jon – in short, burn all her enemies – her delivery had all the heft of a newsreader squinting at a teleprompter. 

And then they kissed and Jon (Kit Harington) stabbed her and Drogon was sad. So sad that he melted the Iron Throne but not so sad that he did anything to Jon. Off the dragon flew with his queen in his claw, in a sequence that should have reduced us all to puddles. Instead we just sat there watching with hearts of purest ice. Daenerys was dead to Jon (literally) and Game of Thrones felt dead to us. 

If there’s no Night’s Watch – how was Jon sent back to the Night’s Watch? 

The Night’s Watch was established to guard the realms of men from the existential threat of the White Walkers. But despite the defeat of the Walkers nobody had thought to wind it down. The world still required a place to send the broken and the irredeemable was Tyrion’s logic – but even he didn’t sound as if believed it. 

Anyway, the Wall was where Jon was bound. And that notwithstanding the minor business of him being legitimate heir to the Iron Throne (remember Jon’s arc… the secret of his parentage, his Targaryen blood? No, neither do Benioff and Weiss). So it was farewell King’s Landing and off the Castle Black. 

There were some tearful farewells along the way. Greyworm (Jacob Anderson) still wanted to execute Jon, but otherwise no hard feelings. Sansa (Sophie Turner) felt vaguely guilty about exiling her half-brother-turned-cousin… but, well what could she do? It wasn’t as if she – the Queen of a newly independent North – had any clout. Also there was Arya (Maisie Williams), whose storyline looped back to the end of season four when she sailed for Essos. The difference was that this time she was headed west to discover America – assuming she and her crew didn’t die of scurvy three weeks out. 

These were theoretically heartbreaking partings. So why did it all feel so lightweight and random? The most moving moment in the entire episode was Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) updating Jaime’s journal in the White Book, which chronicled the deeds of the Kingsguard. The Westeros equivalent of a Wikipedia revision provided the emotional centrepiece of the finale. 

Daenerys’s Mad Queen speech was the best part of the episode – perhaps the entire season 

As the ashes rained down, Arya, still caked in grey, padded through the shadows and looked concerned. Meanwhile Jon, having failed to prevent Greyworm butchering bonus Lannister soldiers, went to confront his Queen. 

And there she was, in stunning silhouette with Drogon behind her, surveying the devastation. Game of Thrones hadn’t even sightly earned this moment, the Mad Queen arc having come at us like one of Euron’s surprise crossbow bolts. But goodness it made your neck-hairs stand up hearing Daenerys, speaking in Valyrian, telling the Dothraki and the Unsullied that their war had only just begun. 

Her campaign of liberation – i.e. invasion and and destruction – would rumble on, she said. She would continue to “Break the Wheel” by bringing her war to the rest of Westeros and back to Essos too. This was properly epic and a fantastic send off for Emilia Clarke. You could almost overlook that the hordes of Dothraki and Unsullied cheering her had theoretically all been wiped out at Winterfell. 

How did Bran become King? 

Tyrion the Traitor (Peter Dinklage) was dragged to the Dragonpit, where he was grilled by Sansa, Yara, Brienne, Ser Davos… in short anyone who mattered in Westeros and still lived. How did they all get south so quickly? Oh wait, there had been a time jump. And the Unsullied, fresh from butchering randomers in King’s Landing, had allowed Jon to live after he killed Daenerys. It would have been rude – or at least inconvenient to the plot – not to. 

Happily there wasn’t time to ponder any of that because Edmure Tully stood up to make a speech… and Sansa told him to sit. Because he was so very silly. He also banged his sword off a pole. Edmure, Catelyn Tully’s brother and heir to Riverrun, was now comic relief. 

What was going on?!  Had someone smuggled a Game of Thrones parody into an episode of Game of Thrones. I ask because then Sam interjected to suggest a transition to democracy. Cue: laughter. Yes, this is what we wanted from our Game of Thrones finale – Big Bang Theory level chuckles. 

Oh and then Tyrion – the prisoner pleading for his life, let’s remember – jumped in and proposed Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) as king. Why? Because Bran was thrown out a window and became the Three-Eyed Raven. What a journey! Who or what is the Three-Eyed Raven everyone who wasn’t Tyrion, Arya and Sansa should have asked. But they obviously didn’t and instead agreed with Tyrion, a traitor potentially facing execution, that a monosyllabic weirdo should be their leader instead. 

Bran accepted of course. As a clairvoyant with a lot of time on his hands he would have seen everything coming. So was all of it –  the burning, the death and destruction – part of his masterplan? If so, wouldn’t that make him the Most Evil Person in Westeros? 

Never mind because now Sansa was declaring the North independent, thanks very much. Everyone was fine with that too – even though the North declaring independence was the reason for the War of the Five Kings and eight seasons of Game of Thrones in the first place.

Did anyone receive a respectable send-off? 

Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) metamorphosed into Grand Maester George RR Martin as he turned up for his first Small Council with a tome called A Song of Ice and Fire under his arm. This was an entirely fantastical development as the book was fully complete and wasn’t missing its final two volumes. 

Bronn (Jerome Flynn) had become Lord of Highgarden – I’ve almost run out of sighs but here’s one I found behind the couch – and, as Master of Coin, was concerned with the immediate reconstruction of all the demolished brothels in King’s Landing.

Daenerys faces the remnants of King's Landing

This might have been a joke. Against the background radiation of general tragicomedy it was hard to tell. And then Bran was wheeled in and had seemingly undergone a personality transformation and was smiling and being jaunty. 

He promised, vaguely, to use his Jedi powers to find Drogon – a statement everyone considered perfectly normal. Brienne was on the Small Council, too, which seemed fair to her and Tyrion was, of course, Hand. And everyone lived happily ever after even though “happily ever after” was supposed to be an anathema to Game of Thrones. 

Nevermind, none of that silliness could detain Daenerys as she walked through the ruined Red Keep and came face to face with the Iron Throne, the prize she had pursued so long.  As she made herself comfortable Jon wandered in, even mopier than usual. 

“I tried to make peace with Cersei. She used their innocence, as a weapon against me,” said Daenerys as Jon awkwardly brought up that earlier bit when she had massacred thousands of screaming citizens. She wasn’t for turning – not even when Jon called her Dany. That’s when we really knew it was over between these two star-crossed Targaryens. 

Someone finally got around to asking Jon about that time he came back from the dead

“Is there life after death?” Tyrion asked Jon as the Imp sat slumped in the shackles Daenerys had clapped him in as punishment for releasing Jaime. Not really, shrugged Jon who then tried to look on the sunny side. At least the war was over. Was it, wondered Tyrion. Daenerys's campaign of liberation would go on and on until the entire world was reduced ashes. “Our queen’s nature is fire and blood.” 

Jon tried to defend her mass slaughter, which prompted Tyrion to deliver a potted history of Daenerys’s misdeeds. “Everywhere she goes evil men die.” When she ran out of evil men to kill, who would next taste her wrath?

The Bastard of Winterfell looked conflicted. It’s always a bummer when your girlfriend turns out to be a murderous despot. Tyrion then complicated the situation further by declaring – wait, what? – his love for Daenerys too (get in line muttered Ser Jorah’s ghost).

Jon was so upset he started quoting Maester Aemon – a character from that faraway time when Game of Thrones wasn’t rubbish –  and his observation that “love is the death of duty”. Tyrion, being clever and all, immediately flipped the sentiment on its head. “Duty is the death of love”. You know what you have to do Jon!