For its first 40 minutes, the Game of Thrones series finale is a gripping horror story. It’s snowing in King’s Landing—or are those ashes?—when Jon and Tyrion learn that the genocidal cruelty Daenerys visited upon Cersei’s innocent civilians is just the beginning: The Dragon Queen plans to bring fire and blood to every corner of the world as part of her insane plan to “break the wheel” of tyranny. Those who defy her will meet the same fates as the Dothraki khals, the nobles of Mereen, and everyone else who got in her way.
A central theme of Game of Thrones has been that people must do terrible things to obtain political power. Melisandre warned Stannis in the season two finale that he would have to betray everything he stood for—including his family—to gain the throne, and sure enough, he eventually burned his daughter at the stake. Cersei committed an act of domestic terrorism, killing allies and family members as well as enemies. The list of people who engaged in unspeakably evil acts in order to consolidate power, or hold onto it, goes on and on: Roose Bolton, Tywin Lannister, Petyr Baelish, Ellaria Sand, Qyburn, Olenna Tyrell, and countless others.
To varying degrees, these many players in the “game” of thrones operated in keeping with their belief that monstrous actions were necessary. As Olenna Tyrell once said, “whatever I imagined necessary for House Tyrell, I did.” It’s a familiar philosophy: The ends justify the means.
But in the finale, Daenerys did something truly unique, and unprecedented for the show: She admitted, in front of Jon and Tyrion and all her armies, that there is no end. Ever. Her crusade for justice requires perpetual revolution. For the ostensible good of the oppressed masses, Daenerys needs to burn the entire world.
Both Jon and Tyrion rebuke this madness, and it’s hard not to recognize a kind of libertarian principle in their condemnation. On Reason‘s pre-finale podcast episode, I referenced C.S. Lewis’s famous quote about tyrants, and it’s fitting here to reproduce the entire thing:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.
Cersei and those who came before her were mere robber barons: Daenerys is the omnipotent moral busy body, and “make a Hell of earth” is her exact plan. (The deaths of Jaime and Cersei, which were far too rushed for such important characters, at least matter more in this episode, since Tyrion’s discovery of their corpses motivates him to act.)
Except Daeny fails. In her moment of triumph, Jon stabs her, and the Queen of Ashes comes to ruin. Praise be to the Seven, the Old Gods, the Drowned God, the Lord of Light, etc. etc.
Unfortunately, everything that happens after Daeny’s demise is a serious letdown. Indeed, it would have been preferable to end with the shot of Drogon carrying her corpse to some distant land. (Honestly, it may have been most preferable to cancel the show after the sixth season finale—Cersei’s sept explosion and coronation, Jon proclaimed king in the north, Daeny sailing for Westeros—and left the rest to the viewers’ imagination while we wait for George R.R. Martin’s last two books.)
Briefly, it seemed like the various lords and ladies of Westeros would deal with Daeny’s fall by launching a War of the Six (or however many) Kings. With Grey Worm occupying the capital, the north firmly under Sansa’s control, and several kingdoms—Dorne, the Vale, the Iron Islands—back in play, this would have made the most sense. Instead, everybody decides to let Tyrion name Bran as king, which is as random as it is disappointing. The writers’ conscious decision to keep us out of Bran’s head for the last two seasons works against them here: We no longer know this character particularly well, and have little reason to be invested in his sudden ascendancy. (The fact that he’s surrounded by a number of characters who would make cooler monarchs, from a pure fan-service perspective—Sansa and Arya, also Gendry, Brienne, and why not Ser Davos?—doesn’t help.)
This ending also cheats Jon, who has to go north to join the Night’s Watch, which makes the least sense of all. Why is there still a Night’s Watch? The Night King is dead, the Wildlings are friends of the realm, and the Wall has a giant hole in it. (The very idea that anyone wants to live far north of Wall, now that there are tons of unoccupied lands in the warmer south, is difficult to swallow.) Sansa and Arya get perfectly fine endings, while Tyrion makes out better than he deserves, frankly.
It will be interesting to see how—and “if”—Martin wraps up the book series. Many of the story arcs that were present in this last season would have worked on paper, but needed more setup and explanation. For now, we will have to content ourselves with “The Iron Throne,” a series finale in which everything ends up sort of better, for reasons that don’t quite add up.
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