Game of Thrones’ Ending Didn’t Fit the Show It Had Become

Should writers know the end in advance or make it up as they go? Game of Thrones ended up a cautionary tale about both approaches.

Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow embrace in the throne room.
The calm before the thrones. Helen Sloan/HBO

Game of Thrones being the cultural behemoth that it is and me being a moderately diligent TV critic, I pre-wrote thousands of words in advance of the series’ finale, in the hopes that I would be able to speedily write about “The Iron Throne.” But I couldn’t use any of them. Though I am about to drag “The Iron Throne” as the LOL-iest of finales, it did surprise the hell out of me. Game of Thrones has long lived by the surprise, and it ended with a surprise, proving, in the process, what anyone who has ever used a 25-cent candy machine already knows: Some surprises are trifling.

The last-ever episode of Game of Thrones can be neatly divided into two parts. The first 40 minutes picked up where the penultimate episode, “The Bells,” left off: with the continued fascist-isizing of Daenerys Targaryen. Lest you have any doubt incinerating thousands of innocent people made her super evil, the finale had her standing in front of a red and black flag, barking at her neatly arranged troops in a foreign tongue, speechifying about waging perpetual war in order to bring “freedom” to the entire world, in a sequence that visually quotes Leni Riefenstahl.

Viewers who were outraged last week by the poor character development that led Dany to go from acting for the greater good of humanity to incinerating that same humanity in a single episode would not find much explanation here. By the time Dany was finally permitted to smize and try and make the case for her actions it was already too late: Her lover, nephew, and rival Jon Snow stabbed her as the two embraced. Dany, long positioned as the best hope for an enlightened monarchy, was now emphatically no hope at all, being, at this point, a dead quasi-Nazi. As her metaphorically minded dragon, Drogon, liquefied the spiky armchair that was the Iron Throne with grief-fire, Game of Thrones seemed to be right in its thematic wheelhouse: There is a thin line between heroes and villains, power corrupts, and happy endings and love stories are the stuff of fantasy.

As Dany’s corpse was being lofted into the sky, there were still 40 minutes left in the episode. Watching, I felt that the delightful tickle of the unknown: What would come next? There was so much time! It’s like the TV equivalent of fresh, unmarked snow. But the snow turned out to be very thin, just a couple of centimeters, and then some mud. The episode jumped an undisclosed period of time forward to a strange, dramatically limp, thematically toothless, silly-fun-stupid coda. It began in that most potent of high-drama settings, the committee meeting, in which credibility-less Tyrion successfully convinced a bunch of men, some of whom we’ve never seen before, that Bran Stark, an all-seeing being with the facial expressiveness of a bowl of fiber-rich cereal, really ought to become Bran the Broken, King of the Seven Kingdoms (or maybe six, in a pinch). Even people predicting Bran would become king were probably not predicting it would come about thanks to a tribal council with significantly less political sophistication than any episode of Survivor. It was surprising, but surprise wears off, and then there’s not much left.

This was a kind of happy ending: Peace has come, progress has been made, the four Starks have all survived. One sits on the throne, one has protected the North’s sovereignty without bloodshed, one’s about to go “discover” whatever is west of Westeros, one doesn’t get executed for murdering a queen—and meanwhile, there’s Samwell Tarly pushing the Overton window toward democracy. Game of Thrones soft-pedaled its cynical worldview to deliver an unexpectedly gentle ending that was its own, unconscious, example of cynicism. After creating a situation in which the most satisfying ending to the show would be a queen on the throne (one Sansa Stark, if it needs to be said), it still found a dark horse dude to take it instead. Bad fans, good fans, Jon Snow fans, Sansa fans, whatever outcome you were hoping for, you probably weren’t expecting this one, the happy ending equivalent of a sort-of-clean dishrag.

The gathering was, like so much about Game of Thrones, politically apropos. The show chronicled the bloody implosion of a seemingly stable system, utterly destabilized by the brutal and petty self-interests of tribalism. Our exceedingly blunt president cloaked himself in its symbols, and that was before the final season did a dragontastic reinterpretation of the election of 2016, in which history finally seems to be bending toward an enlightened female leader, only to have everything go so completely pear-shaped, a would-be fascist sits on the throne instead. And then it ended with about a dozen men having a backroom chat about … electability.

This conversation, like so many of them, was hamstrung by the participants’ imaginations. Everyone who makes TV will tell you that the actors that you have, the writing that you do, the way people respond, all of them change how shows are made. Game of Thrones, the show, went far afield from the books, not only in terms of plot, but in terms of perspective. (Viewers looking for a happy ending for Dany were, I think, picking up on what the show was putting out; not just her rise from powerlessness, but the whole White Walker plot, in which the team gets together to fight off the forces of darkness and achieves superheroics.) David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Thrones’ showrunners, have been working off George R.R. Martin’s outline for years, but it doesn’t seem like it exactly fit the show anymore: It didn’t fit its strongest actors, it didn’t fit its focus, it didn’t fit the storytelling it had done. We got a happy ending, but also a kind of rigidity—a group of men not even considering Sansa Stark as a potentially electable candidate, because the script has always said she wasn’t.

As with so much about this season, and Game of Thrones more generally, what was off about the finale had a lot to do with pacing. If Dany and Jon’s conflict had been given more time, and the follow-up less, the whole thing might have felt less lightweight. Still, Bran was always going to be a kind of goofy choice. A cerebral and interior character, he may be more interesting in the books, but he’s been a monotone space case for the last few seasons of the show. Tyrion makes an argument for Bran by saying that “story is everything, and no one has a better story than Bran.” But Bran absolutely does not have the best story, and we know because we have been watching it. As with Dany’s evil turn, it strikes me that people with a map have never done less to light the way. This ending has been ordained, for seasons, and yet the show did not do the character or storytelling work to make Bran’s ascension have the feeling that all finales aspire to: “I wasn’t expecting that, but it’s exactly right.”

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.

Benioff and Weiss organized their entire series around an ending that they didn’t write to. But then, they’re the same guys who think it’s cozy and amusing to have the last significant lines of dialogue in their epic series be collegial banter about rebuilding King Landing’s red light district. Game of Thrones may be over, but you can be sure that under the rule of Bran the Broken, somewhere, someone, is still cracking jokes about whores.