After sacking Kings Landing, Daenerys Targaryen promised to lead her army to neighborhoods we hadn’t thought about in a while.
In the series finale of “Game of Thrones,” the killing was minimal, the writing of books maximal, and the primacy of “story” questionable. “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,” Tyrion says at one point. “Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” At the conclusion of an icy, fiery, truncated season full of abruptly concluded plots, this narrative-as-king motif was, as some might say, a weird flex. (Just ask Gendry, Arya’s bag of faces, Brienne of Tarth’s love life, or, heaven forfend, the Night King. Who was that guy?) The episode, which had to solve a problem like Daenerys and resolve the question of the Iron Throne, did so, and more, with moments of real beauty. But it also hit us over the head with its theme. By the end, a leader is chosen because he has the best “story”; a book with the title of the series’ source material, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” is proudly unveiled; and we watch a tender love scene between pen and paper. I found myself thinking about one of the all-time great Charles Barsotti New Yorker cartoons, in which a middle-aged man is typing at a desk, smiling a little, the caption revealing what he’s writing: “ ‘A writer?’ she gasped, her perky breasts heaving. ‘My God—I love writers!’ ” In the end of “Game of Thrones,” the writers claimed victory, but the viewers weren’t always so sure.
As the episode begins, Tyrion is walking through the smoldering remains of King’s Landing, looking like we all feel: grim, contemplative, uncertain. He runs into Jon Snow and Davos, then stumbles on in search of the charred or pulverized remains of his siblings. Grey Worm, recently turned unsympathetic, is about to kill a bunch of soldiers on their knees, per the queen. Jon and Tyrion disagree: no, Grey Worm, we should not kill everybody. Tyrion makes his way into the Red Keep, across my beloved floor map—Goodbye, floor map!—and heads downstairs to look for Lannister cremains.
Agony! A pile of bricks, and a golden hand poking out of the rubble. Tyrion’s not happy about it, either, and he begins some of the saddest reverse masonry we’ve ever seen. He uncovers a square that perfectly frames Jaime and Cersei’s faces; in death, they lie side by side, attractive heads unscathed. Put those bricks on my heart, Tyrion, because I am furious. (I wonder what will become of the hand.)
Outside, Arya and Jon wander among the Dothraki, who are lustily waving their adorable arakhs. (Still scythey after all these years.) “Blood of my blood!” Khaleesi says. (I’m nostalgic for her Season 1 Dothraki dialogue, which was more “moon of my life.”) “We will not lay down our spears until we liberate all the people of the world!” she hollers, and starts naming neighborhoods we haven’t thought about in many episodes: Dorne, Qarth, the Jade Sea, Lannisport, Hyannis Port. Where will it end? “Will you break the wheel with me?” she yells, making a handful of sane onlookers uneasy. Friend, you were supposed to break the wheel—not melt it and the entire cart. Then she starts talking like Cersei, telling Tyrion he committed treason by freeing Jaime.
“And you slaughtered a city,” he says. Touché. He removes his little Star Trek hand-of-the-queen insignia and tosses it aside, glaring purposefully at Jon as he is marched off to his doom. Jon looks even glummer than usual—and even more so when Arya reminds him that Dany is dangerous. “I know a killer when I see one,” Arya says. Oh? How could you tell?
As ever, Tyrion is in a dungeon, awaiting death, when he is visited by a friend. This time, it’s Jon, because Jaime was crushed by that pile of rocks. Tyrion, feeling philosophical and psychedelic, asks Jon what it’s like to be dead, and wonders what Varys’s ashes will say to his. Although Jon, like all present, has seen Dany commit genocide, somehow he still needs convincing that she’s an untrustworthy leader. Luckily, Tyrion is eloquent—mostly. “I know you love her. I love her too. Not as . . . successfully as you.” (Eeew, David!) “But I believed in her with all my heart.” His well-reasoned words begin to bore a hole through Jon’s dopey certitude; he would like Jon to murder her, please, and soon. Tempus fugit!
In the half-destroyed throne room, now snowily alfresco, Our Queen approaches the stabbiest chair in the realm, her expression dreamy and contented; as she touches it, a voice coos an angelic song. Jon wanders in, just in time for a speech. “When I was a girl, my brother told me it was made of a thousand swords from Aegon’s fallen enemies,” Dany says, and rhapsodizes about childhood and mountains of swords and power. Jon isn’t having it. What’s with all the damn executions?! he wants to know. “Little children burned!” he yells. She makes excuses; they argue about the meaning of “good.” This is turning out to be one of those political mixed marriages, but Carville and Matalin they’re not.
“You are my queen—now and always,” he whispers, kissing her passionately—and, I cringe, a bit yuckily—and then, mid-kiss, there’s a mysterious sword noise. He’s stabbed her! Blood runs out of her mouth; he cries a quiet tear as she dies in his arms. Good god. Drogon shows up, like What the hell, Stepdad. A moment of catlike nuzzling, a roar of agony, and a fire blast, like a kid in a movie kicking a tree in angry grief. But he’s not blasting a tree: he’s blasting the Iron Throne. Its swords keel over in a molten soup. (Maybe we should have listened to Drogon all along. Well, not last week. Or the time he killed the Tarlys. Never mind.) He picks up Dany’s body, in his talons, somehow, and they fly off into the ash cloud, the loveliest mother-and-son team since “Psycho,” leaving behind a definitive answer to who gets to sit on that dastardly thing: nobody.
The regicide, throne-melting, exit-the-dragon scene is a hard act to follow. But we’ve still got some bureaucracy to sort out, in a B-team reboot of the magisterial Let’s-show-Cersei-a-wight scene. (Which, I learned recently, was filmed at the time of the election of Donald Trump: evocative.) They all need to decide the fates of Tyrion and Jon Snow, and also to choose a leader. The remaining gentry are present, as well as any other named cast member worth a damn, including the startlingly hot Robin Arryn, of all people—there’s another plot line we’ll never fully explore—and the grim cousin Edmure Tully, of the even grimmer Frey arranged marriage and the memorably terrible wedding reception. Edmure starts making a speech about being a veteran, and statecraft, à la John Kerry in 2004, and Sansa tells him to shut up and sit down, à la John Kerry in 2004.
We have to choose someone, they all bluster. “Why just us?” Sam Tarly says. Sam is about to invent democracy, mes frères! A kindly intellectual, he is promptly laughed at. Tyrion has a better idea: narrative. “What unites people?” he asks. “Stories,” he says, a little too on the nose. “And who has a better story than Bran the Broken?” Or a worse personality! Hang on, Tyrion—what about the rather interesting stories of, say, you, Sansa, or Arya? One of whom is a capable, effective, and experienced leader? That leader, Sansa, calmly observes that Bran can’t have children. (Not even corvids?) “Good!” Tyrion says. “That is the wheel our queen wanted to break.” Too soon, Tyrion, too soon. The queen is dead, boys. After Bran, “rulers will be chosen on this spot, by the lords and ladies of Westeros,” he says, inventing the electoral college. Tyrion tells Bran he knows he doesn’t want the job—but will he take it?
“Why do you think I came all this way?” Bran says, a bit smug. I’m exhausted by all this time-travelling greensight—but, on the other hand, the Bran Administration will bring a whole new meaning to the expression “What did he know and when did he know it?”
Sansa—nothing but respect for my President—decides that the north will remain an independent realm. And everybody’s on board with the Bran Plan. “All Hail Bran the Broken!” they yell. (Er—try asking Bran what his nickname should be?) Bran the Broken wants Tyrion to be his hand. Rats, Tyrion is thinking. And I already flung my hand insignia somewhere in a fit of pique! King Bran’s second decision—shouldn’t they be calling him Three-Eyed Raven the Weird? Hasn’t he said he’s not even Bran anymore? Is he even human??—is to send Jon Snow north, back to the Night’s Watch. It’s a good compromise between death and freedom, Tyrion points out; there, Jon can’t own land or procreate. Rather harsh, IMO: he’s something of a fox, his only two girlfriends have been a zesty pain in the neck and his problematic aunt, and before he even lost his virginity he invented cunnilingus. Let the man enjoy himself!
“Was it right, what I did?” Jon says, bearded and woeful. Yes, Jon. Now go see Tormund Giantsbane and stop scowling.
At this point in the show, there are twenty minutes left and I’m breathing easier: most of the lunatics are dead, the Drogon plot has flapped away, and Jon’s on a dock, having a “Wizard of Oz” trio of goodbyes with the Stark sibs. Arya tells Jon that she plans to travel—but not to see him. “What’s west of Westeros?” she asks. America, pal! Please come here—and bring Gendry, so he can forge things, including your continued romance. Arya wants to go “where all the maps stop.” I think I’ll miss you most of all, Scarecrow.
Inside a non-destroyed room somewhere, a final love scene between Jaime and Brienne of Tarth: with great care and respect (rowr!), Brienne calligraphies his final noble life deeds into the Book of Brothers, using phrases like “impossible odds” and “alone” and “without loss of life.” As we’d seen before, Jaime’s page was short and disreputable, which pained him—a low point was when Joffrey mocked him for it. Brienne, ever loyal, writes his final line: “Died protecting his Queen.” She looks up at the ceiling like, Men! I hear you, sister. Relatedly, if they were to redo all of Season 8, as some fans have hilariously proposed, I’d love for more women to write it, and to add fun.
At the first official staff meeting of the Broken Administration, Sam brings in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the history of the wars following the death of Robert Baratheon, and Tyrion flips right to the part about himself—or tries to. “I—don’t believe you’re mentioned,” Sam says: the cruellest fate of all. Tyrion is incredulous, and another writer has been born. Bran gets wheeled in as Ruler of the Six (!) Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, and he’s curious about Drogon. Any news, fellas? Er—not really. “Maybe I can find him,” he says, putting on his Three-Eyed Raven the Weird hat. In other state business, Bronn is now Master of Coin, Ser Davos is Master of Ships, and they’ve got lots of bickering to do. (I’d love to watch these two legislate. Spinoff!) “Are you Master of Grammar, now, too?” Bronn asks at one point, getting in on the episode’s hot writing action. Their new, more utopian society will include sewer construction and a possible slowdown on brothels.
As we gear up for the Fadeout of Ice and Fire, the Starks are far-flung and doing their thing: Jon put-upon in the North, but comforted by the presence of Tormund and Ghost, who’s willing to nuzzle and forgive; Arya unfurling a map and collapsing a spyglass, before setting off on her new, less violent, slightly out-of-nowhere but intriguing path in life; Sansa ruling at Winterfell, proud and alone, save for her fireplace and her sword-wielding loyalists. (During her competent and well-deserved reign, she should find love, in my opinion, possibly in the form of Daario Naharis, the sanest and most feminist-attractive man in the realm. Spinoff 2!) As Arya sets sail on a wonderfully Euronless sea, echoing her (enjoyably memed) white-horse moment of last week, Needle by her side, I wonder: Why do all these complex and noble souls have to end up alone, some wandering off to distant realms? Is that what the writers would have us admire? In the end of the series, we are left with symmetry and what feels like near-solitude: Tormund and Jon lead a clump of Wildlings somewhere cold, a more peaceful mirror of the very first, chilly scene of the series. Bran has ended up King, in the castle where his would-be assassins Cersei and Jaime ended up dead. The Stark parents are long gone, but their surviving children are triumphant. Circles and circles and circles, and many ways they could have spun. A good story, in the end, leaves you wanting more.