Tower of the Hand

Deconstructed: The Iron Throne

A Feast of Conclusions?

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May 21, 2019, 8:00 AM ET
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Valar morghulis. Everything needs to come to an end, and so does the greatest series of all time, the popcultural phenomenon to end all popcultural phenomena. Unlike the preceding episodes, this one isn't exactly subtle or multi-layered about what characters are doing and why they're doing it; nor does it need to be. Everyone is stating their motivations clearly. Every ambiguity left is deliberate. It's always thus with endings. We know that Samwise is happy in the Shire. We don't know whether Frodo will be in Valinor. And so we know that Samwell Tarly has the right job and becomes happy in it. We don't know whether Arya will ever succeed. And that's just how it's meant to be.

But that, of course, says nothing about an episode that has one job, and one job only: to wrap up the greatest fantasy series of all time for good. This is it. The final episode. Nothing will come after this. So, let's assess whether or not the episode — and with it, the show — succeeds. For this analysis, I want to split the episode into three distinct parts that have, helpfully, been heavily edited in via fade-to-black in the episode itself: the first third, in which the plot gets resolved, the second third, in which the final conclusions get set up, and then the last third, in which we get the curtain calls.

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Regarding the plot resolution, Tyrion has to reckon with the fallout from his decision to betray his best friend Varys and stick with a queen who burned a whole city. While he walks the streets slowly, taking in the carnage left in the wake of his bad call, finally finding confirmation that his beloved brother and his hated sister are dead, that he is the only Lannister left in the world, a decision is forming on his face.

He confronts his queen, resigns the Handship and then resigns himself to the fate of fiery execution shortly thereafter. And sure enough, Daenerys obliges. However, Tyrion's story is not yet done. In prison, he gets a visit by Jon, and in a lengthy scene he shows why he is the smartest guy in the room after all, as he dissects all the reasons why Jon needs to stop Daenerys by any means necessary. You only need to look at Jon's face to see he's right.

Daenerys herself is looking at the ashes she produced quite differently. Embracing her Fire and Blood identity fully and staging her victory speech with only her most loyal supporters, still drenched in blood and ash (note the symbolism there), she hearkens back to the vow Khal Drogo made way back in episode six of Season 1, and that she now regards as fulfilled. One half expects her to loose the Dothraki on the whole of Westeros, and in a way, she does, but ultimately, Dany isn't one for half-measures. Having conquered the Seven Kingdoms and achieved her manifest destiny, she embraces the mission creep and declares conquering the whole world her true objective. Grey Worm, very much an Angel of Death at this moment, is named commanding officer of all her armies, including the northmen, with leaves Jon quite unhappy.

Speaking of Jon, he also needs to reckon with what happened. He can't hide behind his "She's my queen" forever, and as Arya and Tyrion both remind him, Dany knows his identity and will perceive him as a threat if he's not a hundred percent behind her — which he clearly isn't. If he needed further doubt, Grey Worm executing Lannister captives on her orders will have planted that. However, it's the session with Tyrion that really seals the deal.

And so, it all comes to a head in the throne room. Where else could it be? Mirroring Dany's vision in the House of the Undying from Season 2, she walks towards the Iron Throne, pure joy on her face. This is it. Her destiny. She can feel it. Then Jon enters, and, giddy, she recounts to him a charming story of how she first heard about the Iron Throne.

Of course, he isn't in the mood for charming stories. In a heart-wrenching scene, he tries to persuade her that the war is over, that she needs to settle, that the burning of King's Landing needs to be a one-time thing. Dany herself, desperation increasingly creeping into her enthusiasm, tries to win him over for her war of liberation. It all boils down to the final exchange: "What if other people have other ideas of what's good?" Jon asks. "They don't get to choose," Dany retorts. It's the unbridgeable divide. And so, when Jon, tearfully, embraces and kisses her one last time, he's accepting this as his destiny ("Love is the death of duty") as much as she accepts hers. He stabs her, and she dies, not understanding.

Drogon, however, understands. Shrieking with rage and grief, he flies into the throne room, tries to wake up Dany like he's an oversized Bambi, identifying Jon as the culprit. Jon stands up to the dragon, accepting his fate. Yet, Drogon transcends this. Like the otherworldly creature he is, he identifies the true source of all the violence, all the hatred, all the greed and misery and burns the titular Iron Throne into hot slag. He then delicately picks up Dany and flies eastwards with her. It's a final goodbye. I'm the last of the dragons...

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This concludes the plot, and it's a good conclusion. The themes are tied well together, the character motivations leading to it feel natural and right. With that, we transition into the next part with a fade-to-black, and one of the most jarring cuts the show has delivered up to date. Seriously, it felt like a segment had been lopped out, because next, all the lords and ladies of Westeros are gathered in the Dragonpit in a callback to the summit in Season 7, and they are there to decide Tyrion's fate. It's weeks later, judging from the reconstruction efforts and the facial hair Tyrion is sprouting. Grey Worm insists on carrying out his queen's last command and execute Tyrion as a traitor and Jon as the murderer, but realpolitik is keeping him from it: Sansa threatens war, and the Unsullied lack their former winged trump card. And so, Grey Worm gives Tyrion's fate over to the Westerosi.

There's a problem, though. He can only be judged by the king or queen, and currently, there is none. And Grey Worm's facial expression makes clear that no one better mention Jon. With that, Tyrion kind of ignores the man who wants to kill him and starts a debate that they should pick a new one to decide matters. Grey Worm buys into it, and a short discussion starts. Edmure tries to offer himself and is shut down by Sansa ("Uncle, sit."), and Sam proposes democracy as an alternative, only to be laughed out of the room.

This segment doesn't really work for a lot of reasons. The first one is the jarring edit. I had no problem with the show cutting Arya's and Sansa's reaction to Jon's revelation in episode four, because we knew the characters well enough to infer how they'd react and got a lot of it in the aftermath to puzzle back in. But here? What the heck happened in those weeks? How did Jon sell his murder? What throws me off is not so much that there are so many questions, but rather the change in tone.

A fade-to-black alone doesn't really justify going into lightheartedness, with Tyrion for some reason inventing a new Westerosi constitution on the fly while in chains and everyone having a good laugh at Edmure and Sam. I have no problem with the individual beats. Sam arguing for a more inclusive government, sure. Edmure trying for more power ("As one of the senior lords"), Tyrion squaring that circle by proposing the Great Council and Bran Stark, and everyone backing the idea — sure, all of it works, all of it makes sense. It's the combination and the peculiar editing choices that throw me off and leave that segment feel somewhat empty.

However, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter all that much. It's just something that needs to get out of the way before we can delve into the final third and go into the conclusions there.

Dany's out of the picture, so let's start off Grey Worm first. Disgusted with the game of thrones and its Westerosi players, he fulfills his promise to Missandei and sets sail for Naath, ignoring the offer to become Lord of Highgarden. He and his men will, from now on, protect the most peaceful people on Planetos — and who knows, maybe Grey Worm will find peace, too, someday.

The other culprit is Jon. He is sentenced to the Night's Watch, and if not heartbroken, he'd appreciate the irony. Once and Future Lord Commander, and all that. It's not like Jon would miss King's Landing, but he'd miss many people. He'll never really see them again, and so, the goodbye has a finality to it, even if he and Tyrion try to convince each other that it's otherwise. In the north, Tormund already awaits him, as he said he would two episodes ago. Even Ghost is there. The parting shot of the show gives us Jon escorting — or even joining — the wildlings in self-imposed exile in the untamed, but infinitely more safe wilds of the north. A single green shoot is signaling the new beginning, breaking through the crust of snow. It's a fitting end, and Jon's facial expression sells the bittersweet ambiguity of it.

The other Starks get happier endings.

Arya finally leaves behind her dalliance with death and sets sail on her own ship (I imagine it's called the "Snowdancer" for obvious reasons) to explore what's west of Westeros. Will she succeed? Will she explore new worlds? It's a fitting new place that she carves for herself in a world that has no need of her, a more world-savvy and outgoing Frodo.

Sansa, having finally achieved the independence of the north by peaceful means, will now have to prove that this independence is actually worth something. Crowned Queen in the North (a fanboy dream come true), this is what she worked towards for at least two seasons now. It's good to see it come to fruition, and I wish her the very best.

Bran, of course, is now king for as long as he lives. His job is to serve as mankind's conscience and memory, and to keep an eye out for the big picture. Accordingly, his first task is to search for Drogon. He has no interest in ruling, and in the logic of the show, that's good. In this case, that may be true, because Tyrion.

Speaking of whom, Tyrion gets sentenced to be Bran's Hand. It's poetic justice in a way. As Bran frames it, he will have to rebuild Westeros. That's much better than just killing him, and in my headcanon, this is the argument that swayed Grey Worm and mellowed him enough to accept compromise and sail for Naath. We see Tyrion awkwardly trying out a less confrontational, conciliatory approach with his new small council. It's a shaky start, but one that lends itself to hope.

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Brienne becomes Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, breaking through Westeros' highest remaining glass ceiling and completing the story of Jaime Lannister. "He died protecting his queen" is a rather fitting end, and I like that Brienne is the one to write it and to provide a voice of reason in council. Barristan Selmy could have learned a thing or two there.

Davos and Bronn provide good sparring partners in the small council for many years to come, sure, but Bronn's inclusion here still feels like a sore thumb. But it's not a dealbreaker by any means.

Yara and Gendry will remain loyal lords to the Iron Throne, as will Edmure Tully, Robin Arryn, and the Prince of Dorne. They were only props here anyway, and their story concluded already.

And with that, Game of Thrones ends. The legacy of the show will be debated for some time to come, but this is not the place for sweeping generalizations. I shed some tears, shared some smiles, felt some stabs and had bittersweet feelings. In this, the episode did what it set out to do.

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