Brow Beat

Critics’ Reactions to the Game of Thrones Finale, Ordered by How Bad They Thought It Was

Gwendoline Christine as Brienne sits wearing armor, leaving through a large bound book.
Everyone’s a critic.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Game of Thrones capped a divisive final season with an equally divisive season finale on Sunday night, and even here at Slate, we can’t find agreement about “The Iron Throne.” Willa Paskin wrote that the episode didn’t fit the show that Game of Thrones has become. Dan Kois was the rare critic to argue that it was actually pretty good. Ruth Graham and I, both Game of Thrones virgins, walked away from the finale with opposite opinions about whether it made us want to go back and watch the episodes that came before.

To break the tie, we looked to reviews and recaps around the web to see what other critics thought of “The Iron Throne,” and to answer the fundamental question at the heart of this debate: Exactly how bad was it?

Not Bad

Dan Kois, Slate:

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 seethe underutilization of Cerseithe 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.

Steve Greene, IndieWire:

A punctuation of sorts to one of TV’s most massive installments, it cut through the myriad expectations and offered up an impressive closing chapter, balancing a litany of character sendoffs with a parting thematic statement on the nature of power.

Tim Goodman, the Hollywood Reporter:

It arguably ended just about as well as one unwieldy, sprawling, complicated epic could end. In doing so, embattled writers and creators of the HBO series, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, at least convincingly and effectively steered a very difficult series to a conclusion that made enough sense, will make enough people happy and was, from this vantage point, more than enough to effectively ‘stick the landing’ as critics often wonder about when pondering these series finales, though it would be impossible to please everyone, a fate that brilliant series through the best ages of television can attest.

Rob Bricken, io9:

In a way, the story was also the “best” ending people could have hoped for, in that it was a lot happier than I expected. Given the show’s penchant for killing off main characters, I—along with a lot of people—assumed there would be a bit of a blood bath to close off the show. But no, things worked out shockingly well for everyone but Daenerys and Jon—and that was exactly what Game of Thrones needed to get right, more than anything else.

Sorta Bad

Brian Lowry, CNN:

In the final analysis, the first half of the last episode—both written and directed by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—was strong, logical and satisfying. Overall, it wasn’t a one-for-the-ages finale, held up against the best examples of them and the abundant hype, but it wasn’t an unworthy one either.

[…]

It’s too bad that the show couldn’t completely stick the landing. But when you fly that high, a few wobbles are perhaps inevitable.

Daniel D’Addario, Variety:

Daenerys’s death, for instance, was depicted powerfully and movingly by both Emilia Clarke and, as her killer Jon, Kit Harington; it also fell strangely early in the proceedings, so much so as to leave perhaps too much time for debates about the origins of democracy to sap momentum. It was preceded, too, by a disquisition by Tyrion as to Daenerys’s entire character arc up to this point and why it makes her quite so dangerous. While Peter Dinklage earned his fourth Emmy by making this Wiki-dump as compelling as it was, her turn to darkness was earned or was not: Reciting a list of facts cannot make up lost time.

Hillary Kelly, Vulture:

Had Game of Thrones given itself more time—an added season, perhaps, or even just a few more episodes—it might have worked its way to a similar place but laid its bread-crumb trail more effectively, so that we could all follow along and the right kind of closure could be achieved. Instead, a show that’s had quite a bit of trouble with time (Varys zipping across the Narrow Sea like he’s headed to a weekend house in Hudson, Jaime riding several thousand miles north in as much time as it takes to say “Azor Ahai”) stuffed so much into the finale but timed it all so bizarrely that our only clue as to how much time was passing was the increasingly sorry states of Jon’s and Tyrion’s beards.

Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stone:

“The Iron Throne” was a step up from some of this final season’s other installments, in that you could always make out what was happening (including seeing the faces of major characters as major things were being done by and/or to them), and in that things mostly worked out well for the more likable remaining characters. […] It was as if the finale wanted to compress the travelogue feel of previous seasons into a single 85-minute episode. So many people pacing, leading to an episode that was often badly-paced.

Jeremy Egner, New York Times:

It all could have worked better if the past two seasons had felt less like headlong rushes toward predetermined outcomes, at the expense of character and story believability. (Whatever that means in a dragon epic.) I might have even accepted King Bran the Broken and his “everything happens for a reason” rhetoric if the show had just … nah, actually, I probably wouldn’t have. But so many of the things that drove fans loudly crazy this season most likely wouldn’t have if they’d been given more room to breathe.

Bad

Alyssa Rosenberg, the Washington Post:

As it turned out, both these protagonists [Jon and Daenerys] and the actors who played them were pretty much who we thought they were. And a much more interesting set of actors, and a much more consequential set of questions, got squeezed into a few ridiculous scenes about setting up the new government of Westeros.

David Sims, the Atlantic:

As a fan of the TV show, I felt battered into submission. This season has been the same story over and over again: a lot of tin-eared writing trying to justify some of the most drastic story developments imaginable, as quickly as possible.

Spencer Kornhaber, the Atlantic:

The finale gave us yet another historic reversal, in that this drama turned into a sitcom. Not a slick HBO sitcom either, but a cheapo network affair, or maybe even a webisode of outtakes from one. Tonally odd, logically strained, and emotionally thin, “The Iron Throne” felt like the first draft of a finale.

Lenika Cruz, the Atlantic:

I can’t be the only one who was let down, and at a loss for a larger takeaway, after seeing a high-stakes contest between two ambitious female rulers devolve after both became unhinged and got themselves killed. After all the intense discussion about gender politics that Thrones has spurred, and after seeing characters such as Sansa, Brienne, Cersei, Daenerys, and Yara reshape the patriarchal structures of Westeros, we’ve ended up with a male ruler (who once said, “I will never be lord of anything”) installed on the charismatic recommendation of another man and served by a small council composed almost entirely of … men.

Judy Berman, Time:

… as a viewer, I shrugged. A happy ending isn’t the same thing as an ending satisfying enough to keep you up at night, thinking about how the show’s elemental questions were resolved (see: Six Feet Under, Mad Men and, just this week, Fleabag). It was all I could do to stay awake through the end credits.

Zack Beauchamp, Vox:

In its final season, Game of Thrones dispensed almost entirely with trying to make sense of its characters’ internal motivations — let alone the complex political reality that its psychological realism initially helped create. … People did things because the plot required them to, not because their actions were consistent with their past behavior. Battles were decided purely by narrative convenience.

Kelly Lawler, USA Today:

In the final episode, “The Iron Throne,” the show was unrecognizable. It was hacky; it was cliched. Every character left standing received a saccharine coda. Closure is one thing, but pandering is entirely another.

Willa Paskin, Slate:

In the weeks before the finale, there has been a kind of ongoing debate about the best way to end a long-running show. Should the writers know in advance where they are going? Or should they make it up as they go along? If they know where they’re going, theoretically, they end up somewhere coherent. If they make it up as they go along, they may get lost, but the characters usually make sense. Lost is often held up as the worst–case scenario for the second approach. The best, I think, is Breaking Bad (though it did also have a loose sense of where it was headed: Scarface). But Game of Thrones now gets to be a cautionary tale about both approaches. Its characters didn’t behave organically, and it also ended up somewhere kind of silly, maybe kind of cheesy, and, depending how seriously you took the show, maybe even somewhere outrageous.

Read more in Slate about Game of Thrones.