Television

Game of Thrones’ Finale Was Actually Pretty Good

Don’t be disappointed by an episode that played to the series’ true strengths.

Game of Thrones’ strengths were always surprise, spectacle, and … Peter Dinklage. The finale gave us all three.
HBO

The internet is unanimous: The Game of Thrones finale sucked. Predictable, boring and dumb, unsatisfying, the worst finale ever. Slate shares this opinion as an official matter: “I hated it all so very much,” a despairing Rachelle Hampton wrote in Slate’s recap conversation. When I posted, Sunday night, on Slate’s internal message board that I liked the episode and thought it was a good finale, I was told this was a take too far: “Don’t Slate us, Dan,” one co-worker warned. But in fact I liked the episode, and I thought it was a good finale! Certainly I found it nothing like the disappointing, semi-enraging ripoff so many others seem to view it as. Here’s why.

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Game of Thrones was never going to find the perfect, incredible ending. Not only because the task facing David Benioff and D.B. Weiss was difficult, in part because of their own mistakes and in part because they were forced by fate and finance to wrap up an epic show in 13 episodes and couldn’t even decide for themselves how it would end. Game of Thrones was never going to find the perfect, incredible ending because Game of Thrones was never a perfect, incredible show. Have the past few seasons taught us nothing? Game of Thrones has always been, at its best, a solid fantasy epic, accidentally relevant to its times, sometimes great and sometimes silly, with three strengths unmatched by any other popular TV show:

1. Game of Thrones looked grander than anything else on TV.

2. The show was canny about undercutting genre clichés, especially with big surprises.

3. Blessed with good actors, the show created a wide array of characters viewers really cared about.

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For this finale, Benioff and Weiss were in a position that was somewhat difficult but must also have been a little of a relief. Their ending had been written for them. They didn’t have any choice about that. They didn’t do a great job of getting us to that ending this season—the battle we couldn’t see, the underutilization of Cersei, the Starbucks cup—but here in this final episode, needing only to execute George R.R. Martin’s ending, they clearly made a choice: to lean into the things their show does better than most other shows. It was the right choice! And it resulted in a finale that played to a pretty good series’ strengths and will, I think, be remembered mostly fondly as the years go by.

First of all, Benioff and Weiss (who directed, as well as wrote the episode) went all in on cinematic grandeur. Cinematic grandeur doesn’t always mean big battle scenes. (Sometimes big battle scenes fail at cinematic grandeur, for example when you can’t see them.) Daenerys’ rally, with her armies massed below and her dragon’s wings stretching behind her like Maleficent, delivered cinematic grandeur. But so did the many, many close-ups of Tyrion’s craggy, scarred face in various degrees of anguish. Dany’s operatic death and the melting of the throne were vividly realized, and so, on a quieter note, was a waking Drogon lifting himself from underneath a pile of ash. These scenes all looked great, and I don’t think I’m wrong to say that spectacle and beauty were among the things that people watched this show for, and something the show has often but not always delivered. In the finale, Game of Thrones delivered.

The finale also gave us one final shock. Just because that surprise—Jon killing Dany—was one of the many possible surprises we’d all discussed ad nauseum for the past year-plus doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty solid plot twist, one that definitely cuts against the grain of high fantasy the way the show (and the books) endeavored to do all along. If you had told me two seasons ago that Game of Thrones would end with noble Jon Snow lying to, then knifing the chosen queen Daenerys Targaryen in the throne room, I would’ve thought, Wow, that’s kinda dark. I like it.

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And, perhaps most importantly, the finale took the characters we cared about the most and gave them real endings. It’s no accident that the show’s final montage portrayed the remaining Stark kids, each with his or her own new destiny. Arya re-embracing humanity and becoming an adventurer; Jon trudging into grim Castle Black; Sansa treated, at long last, like a queen. The Starks’ paths were satisfying and made me glad I’d followed them around all these years. Even Bran’s! Bran was probably the character most poorly served by this final season, considering what the show was going to ask us to think of him by the end. Yet I find that I like the idea of Bran on the throne, suggesting as it does at least a slightly new direction for Westeros.

It seems fitting that none of us know exactly how it is that Bran ended up king, or what kind of king he’ll be. (Isaac Hempstead Wright, the actor who plays him, sure doesn’t.) But hasn’t the show always made clear that the person sitting on the throne is less important than the people who are moving behind the scenes—whether to scheme and usurp or to actually try to do the hard work of ruling? Those were the people who brought down Robert Baratheon. Those were the people whose love of Daenerys, and disillusionment with her, struck hardest.

And that’s why it was so satisfying to me that the character who owned this finale was not a king or queen but one of those people, the show’s most richly drawn character, who’s been a schemer and a usurper but also a planner and a voice of reason: Tyrion. Who can gripe too much about a finale given over to Peter Dinklage to illustrate everything that Tyrion Lannister can do? We get to see Tyrion trying, one last desperate time, to move pieces around the board. We see Tyrion own up to his errors and mistakes, acknowledging the flaws we’ve all seen in him the past few seasons. (Recognizing his own shortcomings and failures, learning from them: Is that … wisdom?) And in the end we get to see Tyrion, nervous as a kid on the first day of school, straightening the chairs before the small council meeting. There he makes jokes, tries to ensure that the kingdom has enough food, asks how they will build new ships.

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Bran bails from that meeting early; the episode’s focus is on the men and the woman who sit around that table, who by no accident at all are minor characters we’ve grown to like quite a bit. This is why, in the end, Davos and Brienne and Sam didn’t die at the Battle of Winterfell. They survived to give us, the viewers, one more gift of the characters we like shooting the shit around a table. I found that choice endearing, and also perfectly fitting. We have no idea whether Bran will rule with wisdom or spend his entire kingship warging. The argument of the show is that it doesn’t matter. The maesters and the masters of whisperers and the sworn knights and the advisers are the ones, in Game of Thrones’ worldview, who actually make the history. (As Tyrion learns, they’re also the ones who are often written out of it.) That we’d grown to trust, in different ways, the characters around that table who weren’t kings was the surest sign, to me, that we’re meant to understand this ending as a happy one, and that we’re meant to have at least a little bit of hope that things might get better in Westeros, at least for a while.

Game of Thrones’ status as a pop phenomenon could make it feel exhausting, but when the show delivered what it was best at, it earned that popularity. The Red Wedding earned it, but so did Arya and the Hound’s dark buddy comedy, the arched eyebrows of Margaery Tyrell, the ice dragon blasting down the Wall. In “The Iron Throne,” Game of Thrones was, once again, sometimes great and sometimes silly. (Sam inventing democracy and getting laughed out of the room? I loved it.) It was the perfect pretty good ending for an imperfect, pretty good show.

Read more in Slate about Game of Thrones.