In the first shot of the final episode of Game of Thrones, a hero enters a wasteland. In the final shot, it happens again. But for all their similarities, the images that bookend the series finale for the greatest show on earth could not be more different. Written and directed by co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the last ever GoT episode — titled, appropriately enough, “The Iron Throne” — is a quiet, and quietly lovely, affair. It begins in death and ends in life. As the books written by both author George R.R. Martin and his creation Samwell Tarly proclaim, it is a song of ice and fire … and the melody is bittersweet.
The hour-plus starts as it must: with the servants of Daenerys Targaryen taking in the magnitude of the horror they helped wrought. Led by Tyrion Lannister, who observes each burned and broken victim of the Dragon Queen’s onslaught like he lit them on fire personally, the survivors of the sack of King’s Landing slowly make their way to their new ruler’s seat of power.
Jon Snow and Davos Seaworth try, and fail, to persuade Grey Worm not to execute the formerly Lannister-loyal soldiers/prisoners. It’s a gutwrenching scene, not only because of the gruesome fate that awaits the captives once the Northman and the pirate realize they’re powerless to stop the massacre, but also because the Unsullied captain seems to have been broken once again. While enslaved, he was conditioned to become the ultimate killing machine. Freed by Daenerys, he finds himself in the exact same position, only this time of his own volition.
Tyrion reenters the Red Keep, passing through the chamber where he once helped rule as Hand of the King in search of his brother and sister. He finds Jaime and Cersei buried in the debris deep beneath the castle, their grave marked by the Kingslayer’s golden hand. When he breaks down and cries after unearthing them, is it because he’s mourning a man he loved and a woman he wished he did? Or is it because, after murdering his lover (Shae) and betraying his best friend (Varys), he knows he’ll never experience that kind of closeness?
Arya intercepts her brother atop the steps where Daenerys addresses her triumphant troops. In a bravura performance by Emilia Clarke that reveals depths of both self-confidence and fanaticism that make her past victories pale in comparison, the Queen recites the vow her late husband Khal Drogo made about reducing the iron suits and stone houses of Westeros to rubble. The oath has been fulfilled, she says. Now is the time to spread their brutal brand of justice and liberation to the four corners of the globe, until everyone tastes the fiery freedom the Khaleesi offers. It falls to the lone wolf of the Stark family to remind her brother that as the true heir to the Iron Throne, he too will inevitably burn in those flames.
After a lengthy heart-to-heart with the imprisoned Imp, who begs him to stop the Dragon Queen before she becomes the Night King’s mirror image, Jon joins the woman he loves just as she’s about to claim the Iron Throne as her own. She’s abuzz with nostalgia about her childhood dreams and afire with visions of a world she can break and rebuild into something good, no matter how many must die for those visions to come true.
Visibly torn between love and duty — baffled by which is which, perhaps — Jon proclaims Dany his queen, now and always. He kisses her.
Then he kills her.
In the fire that follows, as the last dragon nuzzles its mother — then burns the Iron Throne in grief and rage until it melts and flows like lava — Jon can only wait for the consequences of his actions to consume him. Once again, a commanding performance, this time by Clarke’s leading man Kit Harington, conveys the full power of the moment. Like Dany, he has been transformed into something new by what’s taken place. Unlike her, the ex-King of the North breaks beneath the weight.
But Jon is spared by Drogon, who picks up the queen in one claw and flies off into the east, never to be seen again. His fate is ultimately decided by the same great council of lords and ladies who free Tyrion from captivity and name a new king: Bran Stark, now and forever known as Bran the Broken.
The council scene is a complex one, in which some of our favorite characters literally laugh the notion of democracy right out of the conversation when Sam proposes it. Edmure Tully returns for comic relief, courtesy of a cameo by the great Tobias Menzies. And one of the series’ most unique and underrated performances reaches its zenith as Isaac Hempstead Wright accepts the crown. His omniscience — why else would he have traveled all this way if not to claim the crown? — is as unnerving as it is entertaining.
Throughout the thoughtful and ruminative coda that follows, our heroes get their just desserts.
Grey Worm rejects the offer to become a high lord, sailing instead for his beloved Missandei’s peaceful country of Naath. Brienne becomes Lord Commander of the Kingsuard, with Podrick Payne serving beneath her; it falls to her to write a fitting ending for Jaime Lannister’s story in that sworn brotherhood’s great book. Sam is the new Grand Maester. Davos, the ace smuggler, becomes Master of Ships. Bronn returns as Master of Coin, a position he attempts to leverage primarily to reopen the state capital’s brothels. The Dothraki integrate seamlessly into cosmopolitan King’s Landing life.
Oh, and Tyrion, the guy who nominated Bran in the first place? He’s “sentenced” to become Hand of the King once again. His final line, uttered ruing a slow tracking shot away from the High Council’s table, is a callback to an obscure joke about brothels from Season One — yep, it’s the Seinfeld finale all over again.
Arya Stark sails off into the sunset, seeking the undiscovered lands west of Westeros. You can read this as a suicide mission if you wish, since in George R.R. Martin’s source material, no one who has attempted this journey has ever returned. Or you can interpret it as the ultimate act of hope — a leap of faith that somewhere out there, there’s a new life waiting to be discovered. Either way, it feels like a fitting end to the story of a character born to look death in the face and say “Not today.” (It’s no coincidence that the symbolic pale horse that she rode out of the rubble last episode is nowhere to be found tonight.)
Sansa Stark’s ending is ideal for her as well. The spine of steel she’s displayed over the past two or three seasons does not melt like the Iron Throne, even when her own baby brother is its heir. She refuses to bend the knee and frees the North from southern rule even as all the other kingdoms and lordships submit. But she does so bloodlessly, without resorting to the skullduggery and brutality of her cruel tutors in the ways of power — from Joffrey and Cersei to Littlefinger and Ramsay Bolton to Daenerys herself. Yes, the chants of “The Queen in the North!” echo those offered up to her brothers Robb and Jon. But for the very first time, these are cheers, not war cries.
And Jon? His secret rides North with him, to serve at the Wall and resettle the frozen wilderness beyond. Is returning to the Night’s Watch a poor reward for arguably saving the world not once but twice — first by assembling the forces required to defeat the Night King, then by betraying his Dragon Queen when she announced her intention to replace the conquest of the world by ice with one of fire and blood? Perhaps.
But Jon’s conscience would never allow him to kill a person without proper payback, especially not someone he loved … not even if that someone was a war criminal. Nor in the end would he ever voluntarily rebuild the metaphorical Iron Throne and reign as Aegon Targaryen. The first king of his name conquered and ruled the Seven Kingdoms; the last freed them, and then departed from them.
But his life sentence allows him to reunite with both his buddy Tormund Giantsbane and his familiar direwolf, Ghost. After one last rueful look over his shoulder as the Wall’s gate closes — a look at what might have been — Lord Snow leads the Free Folk back to the lands from which they were driven. His mission now is to restore life and warmth to a place death thought it had conquered.
And as this young and revitalized people march on, a lone green shoot pokes out from beneath the snow. Despite what Jon tells Tyrion, there can be life after death, of a sort — as long as the living choose to go on and do right by what they’ve done wrong.
Bran, Arya, Sansa, Jon: In their final destinies, the heirs of House Stark all defy their house words, “Winter Is Coming.” After showing us a nightmare for eight seasons, Game of Thrones finally dares to dream of spring.
Previously: For Whom the Bells Toll