In the end, as had so often been the case throughout the run of “Game of Thrones,” the best line of the series finale belonged to Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister.
(And yes, what follows is a discussion of the finale that aired Sunday night, so if you haven’t yet watched, make your way somewhere west of Westeros now.)
“No one’s very happy,” Tyrion told an imprisoned Jon Snow shortly after the episode’s climax, “which means it’s a good compromise, I suppose.”
The line could just as well be applied to the much-anticipated final season of “Game of Thrones,” which after nearly two years between seasons hurried to a finish, quickly shuttering or skipping key storylines and presenting character turns that strained without consistent support. But how good a compromise the ending managed to be will be subject to debate.
To settle the show’s key question, it was Brandon Stark in the end who claimed the Iron Throne — err, ended up ruling most of Westeros, that is. (A furious Drogon melted the show’s signature piece of furniture beforehand, somehow resisting the urge to burn down King’s Landing all over again.)
The result was good news for Vegas oddsmakers, where Bran had emerged as the presumptive favorite for the throne going into the night’s episode (as some prognosticators predicted) but there was an unsatisfying tidiness to his quasi-election. The transfer of power didn’t feel wrong, exactly, but it seemed an expedient compromise overshadowed by the dramatic heavy lifting earlier in the episode.
This, of course, was the question of how the show would resolve its Daenerys problem. Daenerys’ turn this season from an ambitious but empathetic liberator to a thoughtlessly cruel tyrant was the biggest breaking point for many longtime fans. The transition was completed last week as she rode her dragon into King’s Landing, laying waste to innumerable innocent lives in a moment that was described by the showrunners as a spur-of-the-moment decision made when faced with the city where her family was betrayed.
Would the finale find her reckoning with her crimes, or perhaps lead her to explain why she felt such cruelty was required?
Instead it was neither as her fanaticism was made complete. With King’s Landing still smoking, a black-clad Daenerys addressed her troops with a promise that “liberation” had only just begun. For the Breaker of Chains, freedom now seemed to mean freeing her enemies from their lives, and — as if in an effort to head off the criticism that launching global war was an odd look for someone who had promised to “break the wheel” of oppression, she repeated the metaphor again and again as Drogon, the world’s most powerful and scaly hype-man, punctuated her words with a few dragon screams.
These plans did not sit well with Tyrion, who turned in his hand-pin and was imprisoned for treason — after he’d checked and discovered his siblings Jaime and Cersei were indeed dead in each other’s arms below King’s Landing. Jon, however, remained devoted, at first. “She’s everyone’s queen now,” Jon practically shrugged to Arya after Daenerys’ tyrant-like address, but his sister advised caution. “I know a killer when I see one,” the former assassin said, with the ruins of King’s Landing in the distance. Oh, do you think?
Next came the imprisoned Tyrion, who pleaded with Jon to reconsider his loyalty, recounting Daenerys’ violent deeds up to that point and how they’d all excused them because they targeted evil men. Still, the man whose defining characteristic was his knack for “knowing nothing” seemed unmoved, and Tyrion seemed resigned to his fate. “Now Varys’ ashes can tell my ashes, ‘See? I told you,’” he said, referencing the betrayal that led to his friend’s execution last week.
As Jon approached the nearly leveled throne room, a lot was in play. Drogon was curled up like a Labrador outside the door before rising to grant Jon passage, and inside Daenerys was marveling at an Iron Throne in a ruined room. She rejected Jon’s call for forgiveness as he — along with everyone else — searched for any remainder of the compassionate queen he had agreed to follow. She made one last pitch for them to be reunited and he kissed her, promising she would always be his queen.
And then Jon Snow stabbed his aunt in the chest. There would be no face-swapped assassination by Arya — just Daenerys bleeding out on the floor and Jon with a lot of explaining to do.
First on the scene was Drogon, who was angry, but maybe not that angry, since he decided against burning Jon to cinder — Jon is Aegon Targaryen, after all, which goes a long way among dragons, evidently — and melted down the Iron Throne instead before flying away with Daenerys between his claws.
From there, the show quickly downshifted into a mix of baffling and fan-servicing epilogues. After a time jump, an amply bearded Tyrion is led from jail to a sort of Westerosi U.N. where Sam, Davos, Brienne, Gendry, Yara and all the Stark kids meet to decide what to do next. Somehow, after some comic relief from the reliably dim Edmure Tully (who was shushed by Sansa) and Sam, who somehow invents democracy before being laughed down by the rest, a still-shackled Tyrion is allowed by his jailer Grey Worm and the assembled to propose a new king: Brandon Stark.
His case? There’s “nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,” and Bran’s time-jumping function as humanity’s memory makes him a great storyteller. So Tyrion nominates Bran the Broken to lead. You remember Bran: The one stunned into a distant, near-catatonia by his elevation to Three-Eyed Raven; the Stark who basically denied his humanity and for the past season and a half seemed at best a detached observer to such earthly concerns as monarchy. Does Bran even want the job?
“Why do you think I came all this way?” Oh.
On the bright side, being able to see through time will end a lot of backroom whispers in the rebuilt King’s Landing, and vague statements about everything working out as it was supposed to are bound to help with approval ratings.
From there the episode all but drifted into montage. Jon was sentenced to the Night’s Watch, which seemed puzzling since there’s still a dragon-sized hole in the wall and, last we checked, a lack of ice zombies and unruly Wildlings to guard against. Still, the views are nice, and he was reunited with Tormund and, most importantly, Ghost, with a rub of the ears that at least satisfied all those who complained about how Jon left his direwolf a few episodes back.
Tyrion was appointed Hand of the King, Brienne leads the Kingsguard (allowing her to write Jaime’s heroic history in another tidy bit of business), and Sansa is granted Queen of the North status after asking for, and receiving, independence. Arya meanwhile gets on a ship bound for “west of Westeros,” and Bronn, having perhaps threatened Tyrion with his crossbow offscreen at some point, minds the money of Westeros from a lordly perch at Highgarden. Well played, Bronn.
Grey Worm, not offered a vote on Bran, took the Unsullied toward Missandei’s home of Naath, which seemed like a decent alternative to killing Jon on sight. Then there was the suddenly leaderless Dothraki horde, who opened a petting zoo just outside King’s Landing — just kidding, their whereabouts are no more clear than that of the giant dragon who flew away toward warmer temperatures.
Clearly, not every loose end could be tidied up, but these straggling threads are among the smallest of the problems that plagued the final season of “Game of Thrones.” Faced with the highest expectations and the need to conclude a story based on as-yet unwritten novels whose ending and crucial connective tissue have yet to be revealed, compromises were inevitable.
No one is very happy, and whatever closing kick consistent with seven prior seasons of tangled intrigue that viewers had in mind, the biggest closing twist on “Game of Thrones” may have been the way the show let us down.
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.