Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
First off, congratulations to the lords and ladies of Westeros for laughing that radical leftist Samwell Tarly out of the room when he almost invented democracy. Take it from a dude in the future—yeah, it seems fine for two hundred years or so, and then it gets really terrible. Kinda like being ruled by Targaryens…they both end with a Mad King.
That’s right, my friend, I started off our VERY LAST GAME OF THRONES CORRESPONDENCE with a cheap Trump joke. I guess it’s my way of saying that, deep down, I don’t really know what to say. This is the ultimate bittersweet moment—I know this is not about us, but we’ve spent the last few years reviewing this show together, and it’s been one of the most fun assignments of my writing life, and I would be remiss if I didn’t tip my knight’s helm to you here at the top, decorum be damned! To you, Ser Josh, and to our long watch that just ended.
As for that ending, well…
I’m a little stumped for words. We’ve been on the same page for most of the season in terms of our disappointment, and after finishing the episode and talking some smack about it with my friend tonight, my wife asked a salient question: “What would have made you happy?” I think the honest answer is “at this point, probably nothing.” But as a frank assessment of what I just witnessed, I’d say that the finale was a little cliche, a little predictable, a lot scatterbrained, and, yes, even a little poignant.
Let’s start with a small moment that I completely loved—Brienne writing out the rest of Jaime’s history in the White Book of the Kingsguard. Just like the scene before the Battle of Winterfell when he knighted her, and very much unlike the awkward whirlwind romance that never should have made it to screen, this was a wonderful, moving, and ultimately well-earned depiction of their relationship. Jaime never wanted to admit it, but he very much cared what people thought of him, and he was very much haunted by his one-dimensional image: Kingslayer. The singular, unforgettable scene in the baths of Harrenhal brought this point home, and there could be no greater act of love for Brienne than to write out the rest of his history, which looks pretty damn heroic now that the story is closed. And what a terrific closing line: “Died protecting his queen.” After an imperfect story arc, I’m so glad Jaime and Brienne at least got their perfect ending.
Elsewhere, well…it felt like the first half of this episode was defined by long, deafening silences, and then Jon sic-semper-tyrannus’ed Dany, and the rest was just a kind of nonsensical montage of things that made sense only as long as you viewed them from the periphery, upside down, while wearing a pair of those solar eclipse glasses. Why would Grey Worm, who wanted to kill Tyrion and Jon Snow (and in a realistic world, would surely have done both within minutes of discovering the death of their queen), just meekly accept it when Tyrion—a prisoner!—was like, “I know you want to kill us, but actually you have to wait until the king or queen tell you what to do, and we’re going to decide that right now, and you don’t get a vote”? Why is Arya sailing west? I mean, I’m glad she is, I guess, but why? I understand Bran becoming king, sort of—even though he’s apparently going to spend his entire reign in a morphine dream searching for a lost dragon—but how much has he known, and for how long? Again, the way he seems to know exactly what’s going to happen all times gives me the sense that we’re just witnessing a world entirely without free will, and I’d just like to remind you and everyone else that the appeal of this show, at the start, was how the fate of the major characters was inextricably tied to the choices they made.
(Alternative explanation: He warg’ed into Tyrion’s brain over and over while the imp was captive and kept dropping hints. “Hey, you know who might be a great king? Bran Stark. Imagine that! What a story!”)
I could keep going with these questions—why wasn’t anyone guarding Dany, ever? Did Jon abandon the wall at the end to become the new Mance Rayder? Is Grey Worm going to Naath because he wants to meet someone who’s kinda like Missandei?—but let me try to reflect on the first half of the episode first, because really, what we just saw was two very different pieces of drama linked by a “six weeks later” time jump. The part we saw before the denouement was a long, ashy dream sequence, marked by extended periods of quiet and a single question: How does Daenerys die? There’s a callback to a scene where Maester Aemon tells Jon that “love is the death of duty,” and though his meaning at the time was ambiguous, the choice is now presented to Jon in stark terms (pun only slightly intended): Assassinate Daenerys and choose duty, or rule the world with her and choose love. “You are my queen, now and always,” he says, but while they kiss, his hand is reaching for the knife—Jon Snow always chooses duty.
There was a kind of beauty to this short film, marked as it was by the inconsistencies we’ve become used to, and I have to wonder if the show would have been better off if it concluded with the poetry of Drogon burning the Iron Throne and flying off into the gray dusk with Daenerys. We could have intuited the rest, and it would have been a bold choice in a season full of trite ones.
That didn’t happen, of course—we got all the rest of it, and all the rest of it wasn’t so hot. Tyrion came through unscathed, of course, because Tyrion is never stronger or more dangerous than when he’s a prisoner. Jon, infuriatingly, was sent to the wall despite rescuing humanity twice…as we saw with Dany-before-she-became-the-Mad-Queen, there’s nothing worse for your stock in Westeros than saving the world. And the various puzzle pieces landed where they did, with Bronn and Davos on the small council, the aborted joke about the jackass and the honeycomb (if you want to know the punchline, go here), and Sansa queen in the north. All well and good, I guess, but, at least for me, not very satisfying.
Then again, I’m not sure total satisfaction was possible this time around, Josh. So I’ll send it your way for the penultimate time—what did you think? Was this a fitting ending, or were you, like me, left wanting more?
Endings are hard. Unless you’re Breaking Bad. Or Halt and Catch Fire. Or The Americans. Okay, so a good ending isn’t impossible. But let’s not forget how great this show was. The four best battle episodes that have ever been on television. Characters you cared deeply about until they were killed off, keeping you on your toes whenever another character you cared about was on screen. Political masterminds always two steps ahead of their rivals until they turned utterly stupid. A flawed heroine who freed slaves until that moment in the final season she snapped. Did I mention really great battle scenes?
Game of Thrones ended with a whimper when we were all hoping for a bang, but I really did love this show and yes, loved recapping each week in our letters. There were times when I proclaimed it my favorite show ever, and while this season has knocked it off the, ahem, throne, it’s still finishes in the Top 10. I was sad when the theme song kicked in, signifying that the end was near and there would be no new moments in Westeros (until the many spin-offs).
But Shane, I’d be lying if I said this final season has been the satisfying conclusion I was hoping for. I like neat threads, but most of the dramatic tension left as soon as Jon plunged his knife into Dany’s chest in the first act. The rest left when Brann was named King. And then we had a half hour of dramatized versions of end cards showing you what happened to everybody else. I hate to use the B word for such a historic moment of Event Television, but it was kind of… boring.
Look, I don’t want to be ungrateful. Game of Thrones and the books that inspired it have brought me a great deal of joyful entertainment. And I’m not going to sign a petition for the ending to be changed. But that will not go down as one of the great conclusions of a Peak TV show. I’m happy for Grand Maester Sam and Ser Podrick of the Kingsguard (though, that kind of seems a waste of his best talents) and Arya’s new adventures at sea. I’m glad the show that became famous for sudden shocking deaths of main characters delivered some happy endings.
David Benioff and D.B. Weiss swept us along to a concluding season that felt rushed only to let the final episode breathe. But other than Brienne’s moment with the History of the Kingsguard that you mentioned, can you point to other scenes that will be remembered alongside the countless great ones the series has delivered? And for a final nit pick, why in Westeros did Bran make Bronn the Master of Coin? For making Tyrion promise a castle under the threat of a crossbow bolt?
So let’s forget the questionable choices of Season 8 and celebrate the best moments HBO’s gamble on fantasy delivered. We’re not here to bury Game of Thrones, but to praise it. Shane, remind us all why we care so much about this show, why many folks like me have rewatched it multiple times—and why there’s been nothing quite like it on television.
Great question, and I think I can answer it simply…or, I can at least try. But unlike George R.R. Martin, I promise it won’t take me ten years.
So! Martin wrote a genre-defying fantasy series that read more like a riveting medieval history lit through with hyper-realism, full of dynamic characters who could not escape the vagaries of fate and their own nuances of character. As someone who doesn’t often delve into fantasy, it appealed to me instantly because, like all works whose quality transcends a very specific genre, the story was irresistible whether or not I was drawn to dragons or ice zombies or whatever. It paid close attention to human nature, and human nature dictated the plot. Then, when HBO decided to adapt it for television, they did a remarkably good job for a remarkably long time, and people were drawn not just by the irresistible characters, but by the surprising way the source material subverted the tropes and conventions we’ve come to expect from this kind of television. The show was so good that it became something increasingly rare in the new, fractured TV environment—a community event, a point of universal discussion. Certain moments, like Ned Stark’s death, the Red Wedding, or the epic battles you mentioned, became cultural touchstones that we could all participate in. Clearly, the Internet ran with it, and the show became a behemoth…but it deserved to be a behemoth. It was the rare combination of prestige television mixed with widespread popular appeal…it hit that “something for everyone” sweet spot reliably, and it brought us together.
That’s not easy. In fact, it’s a little bit impossible, and you’re absolutely right that on a day like today, we should spend at least some of our time recognizing this juggernaut of a television spectacle, and tipping our caps in memory of all the good times.
Sure, it got bad these last two (maybe three?) seasons. We were routinely disappointed, and that universality was fractured—the people who never asked very much of the show still enjoyed it, while people like us who knew how good it could be grew a little disgruntled with the drop-off in quality. There’s a lot of blame we could throw around. On one hand, it would have been nice if Benioff and Weiss could have stuck the landing, and were just better writers in general. On the other, that was no easy task, as demonstrated by the fact that GRRM clearly cannot stick the landing either—we’re coming up on eight years since the last book came out. In fact, the HBO creators had every reason to expect more source material from Martin, and his inability to deliver in a timely manner put them in a very tough spot. There’s room for a little sympathy there. And maybe, to at least glimpse in the mirror briefly, the weight of expectation was a little heavy on their shoulders, and maybe to some extent this unsatisfying conclusion is the result of that cultural pressure.
What we know for sure is that this show might be the last of its kind. It was an unlikely dragon egg that hatched long after these kinds of TV shows were supposed to reach universal wavelengths, and while its existence may spawn a prequel or two, nothing about its long run of success—and nothing about the way TV has continued to change even in the last decade—makes it any more likely that we’ll see another show reach these heights. I think I used the word “singular” in the first email, but I’ll use it again now, because whatever our justifiable qualms with the ending, this was a singular experience.
Josh, this is usually the point in our emails where I ask you to look forward to the future, and make a prediction or two. The fact that we have no more Game of Thrones makes that tougher, but not impossible. So tell me—when we look back on this show in ten years, what will we see? What’s the legacy? And on a more fundamental level, what do you expect from the prequels? Can they rise to the dizzying heights of this show’s early seasons, or, like the progression of dragons during the Targaryen reign of Westeros, will it just be diminishing returns—weaker and smaller versions of the real thing? And what about US, Josh? What will we possibly do with ourselves on Sunday night now??? I’m on an existential ledge here, and I need you to talk me down!
For the last time in our Game of Thrones email reviews…Ser Joshua of House Jackson, I throw it back to you.
And now my watch has ended.
Ser Shane of House Ryan,
I think that’s a perfect summation. I remember back to when HBO aired the first episode and critics were questioning whether the show could ever find an audience beyond the fantasy niche. In every medium there are walls put up between prestige art and so-called “genre” art. And every so often something comes along and reminds us that gripping story-telling and deep character development can co-exist in unexpected environments.
As to its legacy, it’s certainly paved the way for the adaptation of more great fantasy series. As a voracious reader of the genre, I’m looking forward with anticipation and not a little trepidation to a number of upcoming series riding on the coattails of Game of Thrones: HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Game of Thrones prequels; Amazon’s serialized versions of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle-earth, Robert E. Howard’s Conan series (with a pilot directed by Miguel Sapochnik), and Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (which I’ve already watched and quite enjoyed); Netflix’s The Witcher from Andrzej Sapkowski; plus eventual adaptations of N.K. Jemison’s The Broken Earth series, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and the one I think we’re both looking most forward to—Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle.
But its legacy goes beyond that. This was a cultural phenomenon because of its epic scale and small moments. We remember the battles, yes, but we also remember the quiet conversations between compelling characters: Littlefinger and Varys, Olenna and Tywin, Tyrion and Danaerys. The scheming driven by selfish ambition or family loyalty or, in rare cases, justice that sent the story in unexpected twists and turns that affected everyone from the farmers of Westeros to the slaves of Meereen. It gave us romances for the ages and so many shocking turns to discuss around the water cooler. It leaves behind iconic characters like Arya Stark and Jon Snow. It made dragons cool again.
I know I’ll rewatch every episode again, even this final season. I can’t say that about many shows. So let’s raise a glass of Dornish red and drink to George R.R. Martin and to Benioff & Weiss and their writing teams and to Miguel Sapochnik and the other directors who brought the impossible to life and to Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Diana Rigg, Jason Momoa and the rest of the deepest ensemble cast I can remember.
Now we need to find another TV show to marvel at together via letters. Or a book, when Winds of Winter finally comes out. I’ve had too much fun with our back-and-forth to stop now. So thanks, Shane, and thanks to everyone reading this recap.
So please don’t die, George R.R. Martin. And thank you most of all.