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5 winners and 9 losers from Game of Thrones’ series finale

“The Iron Throne” is mostly anticlimactic, in ways that rarely feel intentional.

Game of Thrones
Tyrion’s had better days.
Macall B. Polay/HBO
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.


That’s my take on Game of Thrones’ series finale, “The Iron Throne.” Huh. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t really like it either. I watched it, and it entered my brain, and I thought about it to some degree. But I don’t know that I have any feelings about it at all. Anticlimactic might be the best way to describe it.

Anticlimactic is definitely a way to end your critically acclaimed TV series. My favorite series finale of all time — that of The Sopranos — is intentionally unsatisfying. A big mob war mostly fizzles out, and then Tony Soprano goes about his life. But the episode also carefully lets you know that it means to leave things this way.

By the time its justly acclaimed final sequence rolls around and you’re convinced that Tony’s life is in danger when he sits down with his family in a diner, the episode has you in its grip, no matter how little it erupts in fire and blood.

“The Iron Throne” ... doesn’t do that. It dutifully trudges through Game of Thrones’ remaining plot points, arriving at an ending that is just fine, until you start to think about it for a couple of minutes. (Here’s just one question worth asking: Why is Grey Worm suddenly so okay with letting the man who betrayed his queen set up a new governmental system for a country he cares nothing about? Is he a freshman poli-sci major who’s like, “Well, if America could just start over ...”?)

I can always respect an attempt to take a big swing — as the show did in its penultimate episode, “The Bells” — even if I don’t like the result. But just dutifully trying to conclude the story as perfunctorily as possible is somehow even worse than a big swing that misses. “The Iron Throne” is just kinda there, and for all its issues, Game of Thrones was never just kinda there.

Anyway. I have some winners and losers. One last time.

Winner: House Stark

Seated “Game of Thrones” characters in the final season.
Starks gonna Stark!
Macall B. Polay/HBO

Look, House Stark took some big losses there around the show’s midpoint. Ned died, and then Cat and Robb died. And somewhere in the vicinity of the Battle of the Bastards, Rickon died too. But the other Stark kids — Sansa, Arya, and Bran — and then the half-brother-who-turned-out-to-be-a-cousin Jon all hung in there, season after season, gritting their teeth and managing to not die even after they were actually murdered by an insurrection of the Night’s Watch.

Did House Lannister win a bunch in the short term? Sure. And did House Targaryen seem like it might rise up through the ranks to pull off a shocking win in the end? Definitely. But when the dust settled on the series, Bran was ruling the Seven (or, more precisely, Six) Kingdoms (with Tyrion reporting to him), Sansa had managed to separate the entire North into its own kingdom that she ruled, and Arya had sailed off to explore the high seas.

Jon, meanwhile, went north of the Wall to do ... something. Is he moving there? Are he and Tormund gonna be best friends now? Is he taking the Night’s Watch up into the tundra to join a reality show about Alaskans or something? Answer unclear, ask again later.

It’s not hard to imagine that some version of this ending will also play out in George R.R. Martin’s books, because his first book is so deeply focused on the Starks — fully half of its point-of-view characters are Starks or Stark-adjacent — and the man loves circularity. (Lest you forget, the first point-of-view chapter in the books from a main character is told from the point of view of Bran, the eventual king.)

And, honestly, Bran becoming king, Sansa ruling the North, and Arya setting out to make maps, and Jon going to live among the freefolk feels at least somewhat satisfying with regard to the TV show, simply because these characters remain some of its most purely sympathetic figures — especially since Dany tanked her “woman of the people” image in order to burn the people. (Way to blow the game in the last minute, Dany!)

Yes, “purely sympathetic” requires you to ignore that Jon remained a dullard throughout the series (outside of that one season where he died, and Game of Thrones had to make you care about him — he was pretty good then). It also requires you to ignore the flexible morality that every character on this show has indulged in. And, finally, it requires you to ignore that the series finale itself more or less suggests that Bran knew all the death that was about to happen and didn’t do anything to stop it because he’s a lil’ stinker who wanted to be king.

But you know what? I like these Stark kids, and one of the hidden strengths of Game of Thrones is how beautifully structured it is as a coming-of-age story, particularly for the Stark children. Ending the series by cross-cutting among Jon, Sansa, and Arya as they strode into new phases of their lives — call them adulthood — I think it coulda worked. But ...

Loser: Daenerys Targaryen

Game of Thrones
Daenerys has also had better days.

The entirety of Game of Thrones’ final season requires you, on some rock-bottom level, to buy the character arc of Daenerys Targaryen, and with “The Iron Throne” under our belts, I feel more and more confident in saying that, uh, the show didn’t manage the feat of making that arc believable. Emilia Clarke was amazing in her efforts to play the beats her character was given, but the show never once tried to explain her decision-making beyond “Hmm ... her family goes mad sometimes” and “Well, she did kill all those slavers ...” And that buried the whole season.

Even more telling is how this final episode, when it comes time for Game of Thrones to try to make coherent sense of Dany as a character, doesn’t put words in her mouth. Instead, it puts words in Tyrion’s mouth. It has him tell Jon just how badly they’ve all been misled and just how terrible of a leader Daenerys will be. Peter Dinklage is a good actor and all, but the scene can’t make the argument for this character arc on a level other than “THIS WAS ALL FORESHADOWED!” screamed at you by a Twitter egg.

What’s more, when Dany herself speaks in this episode, it’s treated as scary that she’s speaking in a foreign language (and there are frequent cuts to her unsavory hordes of nonwhite people, which ... uh ...). And all her revolutionary rhetoric about breaking the wheel and changing the system is revealed not to be an earnest desire on her part, but basically a self-serving way to proclaim herself the best person alive.

And you know what? She had me for a bit, when she was telling Jon that building the world we need requires major changes to the world we have. This is basically true, and the major tension in most of politics is rooted in the fact that changing things often requires breaking them beyond comprehension, then reassembling them somehow. It’s a real problem, and Dany and Jon probably aren’t going to solve it in an afternoon.

Plus, I am so, so susceptible to a “meet the new boss; same as the old boss” ending, in which Daenerys is revealed to be just as self-serving and terrible as every other ruler, because investing absolute power in any one person inevitably leads to this kind of outcome. But Game of Thrones didn’t want to bother building this theme in a concrete way. Instead, it wanted to present a series of shocks and surprises that would make us gasp when Dany broke bad. Speaking of which ...

Loser: subverting expectations

The scene where Jon stabs Dany should be such a gimme. He talks to her, then realizes that she can never be the right ruler of the Seven Kingdoms for [insert whatever reason you like here]. He kisses her, and then he draws on her, stabbing her (maybe even in the back, for maximum Jaime Lannister kingslayer parallels).

This is more or less what happens, right? So why am I complaining?

Because you didn’t see it happen, that’s why!

Directors (and Game of Thrones’ showrunners) David Benioff and D.B. Weiss put Jon and Daenerys in a shot that crops in close enough that you only see their chests and above. The two of them kiss, and the kiss breaks off because Dany is clearly in pain. Surprise! He stabbed her!

Now, to be clear, we probably know what’s happened here, because Jon is thinking about doing harm to his lady love, and there’s a pretty clear knife sound effect. But we don’t actually see what happens, just the aftermath, when he lays her down with the dagger sticking out of her.

Did we need to see that? No. But the moment’s emotional impact is so much more muted because we don’t. We only see the aftermath, and not the wound. We only see the subversion of expectations — this isn’t a kiss! It’s a murder! — and not anything that would establish what the expectations should be.

Thus, Game of Thrones, especially in its most pivotal moments, died as it lived: trapped by the sense that it needed to be as surprising and shocking as possible in every single moment, rather than trying to tell a coherent, cohesive story with even a few moments of emotional heft.

Winner: Drogon

Game of Thrones
Once and future king!

Drogon, having read the SparkNotes before class, realizes that the symbol of corruption that has led to his mother’s death is the big chair made out of swords, so he does what any sensible dragon would do and melts it down for scrap. Then he picks up his mom’s corpse and flies east, where Bran is occasionally going to try to find him with his mind powers.

(Honestly, put Kelsey Grammer in the Drogon role and substitute “a budding relationship with Laura Linney” for “his mom’s corpse” and “to a new life in Chicago” for “east,” and it’s a little like the ending of Frasier if you think about it.)

And good for Drogon! That chair caused nobody anything but trouble, and he’s the only one who seems to be willing to do something about it. Cheers to our dragon prince, the only person who pretended to read the material before class.

Winner: Tyrion Lannister and the members of King Bran’s Small Council

It’s been several seasons since Tyrion came up with a plan that actually worked, which turns out to have been ... character development?

Now that he realizes just how badly he misread Dany, now that he’s lost every other member of his family, now that he is the last Lannister standing — he’s finally gained the wisdom required to sort of invent democracy (but only for the lords and ladies of the great houses) and a method of choosing kings that has nothing to do with inheritance. And then he backs Bran? Yay?

Setting aside just how strange it is that Tyrion seems to think Bran’s lived experience boasts the kind of strong narrative that will unite all of the Seven Kingdoms behind him, and setting aside that Tyrion keeps calling him “King Bran the Broken,” because okay, sure, Peter Dinklage was as good as he’s ever been in Game of Thrones’ final two episodes, as the full scope of Tyrion’s arc (if you can call it an arc) became clear.

It feels obvious to me that the weird problems with Tyrion’s story in the last few seasons largely stemmed from how much George R.R. Martin has struggled in getting the character from where he is to hanging out at Dany’s side in Meereen (in the books, he is still trapped outside the city, a plot point the show blitzed right past). But for all of the characters whose arcs have largely disappeared into a fog of weird motivations and unlikely decisions, Tyrion is the one who is perhaps been most redeemed by this final season.

And then there’s a small council that, so far, is made up of Sam, Bronn, Brienne, and Davos. Davos and Sam, sure! Brienne as the head of the Kingsguard? I mean, who better!? But Bronn? As Master of Coin? If ever there were a clear sign that a character hung around without anybody being quite sure what to do with him, it’s Bronn’s “sure, whatever” of an endpoint. Last one at the party gets the last piece of cake, I guess.

Loser: George R.R. Martin

Look, maybe Benioff and Weiss didn’t intend that scene where everybody dunks on the book literally titled A Song of Ice and Fire to come off as a jab at the guy who wrote the books they adapted (and that they then passed right by), but it still felt pretty uncomfortable, like a couple of teenagers thumbing their nose at their dad, who silently fumes while they make fun of how he’s not cool enough, man.

Loser: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

Game of Thrones
Not the Game of Thrones writers room.

Yes, yes, yes. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are going to make the next Star Wars trilogy. They’re the very good boys who managed to land this gigantic plane. They brought this story to an ending, something that Martin hasn’t been able to do, at least not yet.

And now they’re the belle of Hollywood’s ball, taking all kinds of meetings to set up an overall production deal. They are about to become two of the most powerful men in the entertainment industry, and even a year ago, I would have said, “Sure. They earned it.” Now my response is closer to a heavy sigh and a groan.

Benioff and Weiss co-directed “The Iron Throne” (only the second directing credit for either on the series so far), and the two of them made an already flat episode with lots of people talking even flatter, complete with the absolutely abysmal staging of Dany’s murder that I outlined above. It was by far the worst-directed episode of the season, staid and stagey without any of the visual verve David Nutter and Miguel Sapochnik brought to the previous two episodes.

Couple that with the massive backlash to Game of Thrones’ final two seasons — where shorter episode orders led to curiously rushed and truncated storytelling — and you find the two right at the cusp of their power, precisely at the moment when they need to be incredibly careful in their next steps, because their next project will be read through the lens of the problems with these final two seasons of the show.

That is almost always a recipe for disaster, and even in the case of, say, The Leftovers — where many problems that viewers had with Damon Lindelof’s earlier series Lost were read into his new one — it took a while for many viewers to forgive and forget. And these guys are gonna make a Star Wars trilogy? Pfft. Good luck!

Loser: Edmure Tully

Look, the biggest laugh I had in this episode was when Edmure Tully stood up to start explaining why he should be king and Sansa quickly shut him down, like one of the bottom-tier candidates running for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Better luck next time, dude!

Winner: Ghost

Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?? Yes, you are! Yes, you are!

Game of Thrones
Ghost did it! He got skritches!

Winner: George R.R. Martin

The question of whether Martin will ever finish the Song of Ice and Fire books that gave rise to this series has been a pretty uncertain thing for years in Game of Thrones fandom. Honestly, he’s more or less written himself into a corner, with a narrative that has sprawled so far off his original plot that wrangling everything back into place is going to be a massive challenge, and now there’s a whole TV show that gave away some of his best twists, since Benioff and Weiss adapted what amounted to his outline for his final two books.

But — surprise! The response to Game of Thrones’ final season has been ... mixed, and “mixed” is me trying to put it diplomatically. If season eight had been a massively acclaimed, deeply beloved final season of television, it’s easy to imagine that Martin might have just given up.

But since it hasn’t been, he now has a huge opening to waltz through, which is labeled, “We, the Game of Thrones fans of the world, would like an ending that makes slightly more sense, please.” And since it’s enormously rare for the reputation of a TV show’s finale to improve over time, well ... that door is only going to open wider.

Will he walk through it? I don’t know. There’s so much in the books that needs to be trimmed and culled in order to make sense of the story. And Martin, even at his best, is a pretty slow writer, who now has multiple commitments to other projects that are Game of Thrones-adjacent. But if I’m Martin, tonight is the first time I feel like I have a duty to finish these books, lest their legacy be sullied somehow.

(Also, as a bonus, Martin’s longtime love of pacifism — a burbling thread in the subtext all along — has more or less been affirmed by the show as well, which largely concludes that war is hell, with few if any redeeming qualities. Just like the books always said!)

Loser: the Unsullied

Yeah, they get a resolution in this episode, but it’s so handwave-y, and I still don’t buy the whole thing where Grey Worm is just okay with the Seven Kingdoms moving on after the murder of his queen. They end up being one of the biggest plot points in the whole series, rather than characters.

Loser: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Crown, and Stranger Things

Three of the 2018 Best Drama nominees at the Emmys — including the 2017 winner, The Handmaid’s Tale — are sitting out this year’s drama race. On the one hand, all three are huge productions that needed as much time as possible to finish making their upcoming seasons, so getting more time to work on them was surely welcome. But on the other hand, all three are highly suspected to have sat out the Emmys because Game of Thrones winning one last Best Drama trophy seemed like such a fait accompli.

And you know what? Game of Thrones will probably still win. But honestly, it’s going to be for lack of competition, more than anything else. The series, while still beloved, has just had by far its most controversial season yet, and it wouldn’t be too hard for an enterprising Emmy competitor to say, “Listen, wouldn’t you rather reward us?”

But nah. The show’s stiffest competition is absent, and now we’re probably just going to see a Game of Thrones sweep that will age poorly.

Loser: women

Game of Thrones
What to write, what to write?
Helen Sloan/HBO

We’re now all the way down here where the people who hate reading Game of Thrones through a sociopolitical lens hopefully have not followed us, and I have to say — for a show that many people have read as a tale of what it would mean for women to wield power in lots of different ways, the final episode of Game of Thrones didn’t suggest to me that anybody involved in the series was interested in that sort of thing at all.

After ages and ages of having only men as rulers, the Seven Kingdoms had two consecutive queens who did horrible, terrible things and lit large sections of King’s Landing aflame, killing thousands upon thousands of people.

And, yeah, in the end, Brienne gets to be on the small council, while Sansa rules the North. But now that the North is apparently its own independent thing, Sansa and Bran’s cordial agreement also is probably sowing future sectarian conflict for the people of Westeros.

And even beyond the level of the text, there’s all the subtext of, like, Brienne writing the ending of Jaime’s story instead of looking for her own name in the annals of knights, or Arya basically just leaving the story behind entirely. I genuinely don’t blame any of these characters for any of the above — but when you add up all these details, you end up with a show that talked a great game about depicting the complicated inner lives of women, then blinked at the last possible second.

Like so many things on this show, Game of Thrones liked to talk a big game when it came to telling stories about women with power, but in the end, it was all in service of the same fantasy story as always. And if we’re going to leave the show anywhere, maybe we should leave it there — Game of Thrones subverted its own storytelling so massively that it chased itself right back to the place it had tried to avoid all along.

Loser: Game of Thrones

In the end, what did any of it mean? Arya with the face-swapping assassin skills, or Jon coming back from the dead, or Tyrion’s scheming, or Daenerys’s time in Meereen? Look beyond even that. What about the Children of the Forest, or the battle with the Night King? What about the ice dragon? What was the point of any of it? Did any of those things add anything to the story beyond, “Well ... that happened”?

That there are so many elements of this show that don’t add up to much in the end doesn’t have to be a bad thing — plenty of shows have gotten away with worse, because their storytelling was so propulsive. But at its best, Game of Thrones argued that everything mattered, and here at the end, it really doesn’t seem like much of anything did. Some elements just seemed like they were completely forgotten about (the face swapping! Jon’s resurrection!), while other stuff just sort of came up without much follow-through (the ice dragon broke down the Wall, but then ...).

It’s not Game of Thrones’ fault that viewers tended to read the show as a puzzle where all of these characters’ journeys would lead them to a place where they would guide this story toward its conclusion. And that happened in some cases — Sansa’s character arc more or less makes sense, for instance, so long as you set aside her apparently psychic hunch about Dany’s evilness. But most of the time, the show seemed like it was barely even trying while it was flitting from idea to idea, looking for what would be coolest.

For years and years now, the idea of a disappointing finale — not a bad finale, but a finale that bit off more than it could chew in a way that alienated fans — has been epitomized by Lost. The failures of that show, rightly or wrongly, have been laid at the feet of the writers’ refusal to plan ahead of time, to map out where the whole series was going.

I don’t really think their lack of planning is to blame, because I tend to believe that planning too far ahead in TV results in bland, boring storytelling that feels deeply schematic. (See also: the How I Met Your Mother series finale, which was planned out in season two but failed to account for how much the characters would change between that season and season nine, when it finally ended.) But for quite a while there, Game of Thrones, with its carefully etched narratives, felt like it was proving me wrong.

Well, guess what? Game of Thrones pulled a reverse Lost! Everything was accounted for, and the writers certainly had a plan. But to put that plan in motion, they had to twist and contort the characters so heavily that the whole show became a warped, funhouse mirror version of itself.

Most of the time, that was fine. The spectacle was enough, and the actors were fun. But now it feels ever more like so much of what Game of Thrones made us care about for all of those years was worth very little.

In the end, Game of Thrones — a show about the illusory nature of power and how difficult it is to govern, much less lead — was undone by its commitment to the most obviously awesome elements in its text.

When the show needed more and more subtext, it kept leaning into the biggest, most spectacular things possible, and all subtlety was lost. That worked for a while. But it couldn’t work forever.

Correction: David Benioff has previously directed another episode of Game of Thrones.