'Game of Thrones' Series Finale Explained by a First-Time Viewer

A writer who has never seen the HBO epic tries to make sense of eight seasons and 71 episodes of television.
Courtesy of HBO

[This story contains spoilers for the series finale of HBO's Game of Thrones, "The Iron Throne."]

If you've never seen HBO's Game of Thrones, you've likely spent the past eight years hearing friends and coworkers obsessing over something called the Iron Throne. Chris Brower is one such GoT innocent. After he recapped Avengers: Endgame as a first-time Marvel viewer, I asked him to do the same for the Thrones finale.

The only characters he could name going into Sunday's finale were "Khalisi" and Jon Snow. The only castmember he was aware of was Peter Dinklage. Chris was going in as cold as possible. The following is his best attempt to recap the events of the finale, based on notes he took Sunday evening. Character misspellings (such as "Sersey") remain in place, as do new names Chris completely invented (see: Arya transforming into "Kate"). — Aaron Couch

The episode opens on a wintry world that looks decimated. Through hazy snow we see half-destroyed walls and the remains of a crumbling castle. Piles of rocks are everywhere. The prevailing colors are black and gray, except for splashes of fire here and there. Likely a battle has taken place, and we’re seeing the aftermath. It is not good.

Peter Dinklage (character name, ??) walks through the rubble. He is bearded and somewhat resembles a sad, disheveled Hugh Laurie. Despite the cold and snow his face is not red, nor does he appear to be in danger of developing frostbite. A sickly man in a zombie-like daze, looking like an acid-tripping attendee at Burning Man, stumbles by. This is a world in chaos.

Dinklage talks to Jon Snow about finding their leader. Like Dinklage, Jon appears sad. His mouth is slightly agape as it will be for the rest of the episode, as if he’s constantly speechless or having trouble breathing through his nose.

Jon comes across a stern man whose name is never clear, one of the only men in the world not in need of a haircut. The stern man sentences some soldiers to die, but Jon intervenes. There’s talk of the queen, and her enemies needing to be defeated. The stern man says he obeys the queen’s commands. It seems apparent Jon might not. It is said that the queen wants to kill all who follow Lannister. When Jon more forcefully confronts the stern man, nearby soldiers quickly brandish their swords, but they soon back off. Jon is eventually calmed down by an older, bearded man resembling Obi-Wan Kenobi or what Nick Offerman will look like in 15 years. The bearded man, whose name is potentially Lord Davos, says they’ll speak with the queen.

Elsewhere, Dinklage walks through the rubble of the war-torn city. He sees a gold hand sticking out of the rocks. Removing some of the rubble reveals a dead man and woman in an embrace reminiscent of that one couple found under volcanic ash in Pompeii. Dinklage is very upset. Tearful. Angry. These people must have significance.

The scene then cuts to a bunch of jaunty horses, whinnying and hopping around. The horses are restless and so are the men on them, making them look like Wild West cowboys. There are also soldiers standing around.

Jon Snow walks through the crowd. He ascends a giant staircase to the top of the kingdom and is only minorly winded, implying he is of excellent cardiovascular health.

A pterodactyl-looking dragon flies over the kingdom. It seems akin to a hawk soaring over a college football stadium to signal, “It’s game time!”

The queen Khalisi appears. Her hair is elaborately braided in a style no doubt time-consuming to undo or wash. Despite the primitive world she seems to also have access to lipstick and a manicurist.

She addresses the kingdom in an unknown language (it’s unclear why she speaks this language to the kingdom but English to everyone else). At her first word, the horse-riding ruffians and soldiers immediately come to attention. Even though the kingdom is huge and she’s maybe 75 feet above her subjects, she only has to raise her voice slightly to be heard, suggesting the kingdom must have excellent acoustics, and she must have very strong vocal cords to not develop extreme hoarseness after an address such as this.

As she speaks, the dragon occasionally cries out. The role of this animal is mostly vague except to occasionally squawk after the queen says things, as if it’s some sort of parrot or hype man accenting a point.

Khalisi talks of the accomplishments of the recent battle. She has the Seven Kingdoms (which is ??). There is also talk about a Plaza of Pride and the people of King’s Landing being freed. Following each utterance, the soldiers tap their spears (poles?) on the ground three times, perhaps their version of clapping or saying, “Here, here.”

She names the stern man the commander and the Master of War.

Dinklage shows up looking angry.

The queen asks, “Will you break the wheel with me?” The wheel is never explained, nor why it needs to be broken.

There is talk of Dinklage freeing his brother and committing treason, though the queen looks warmly toward Dinklage until he rips off a badge and flings it down the large number of steps, which is obviously an aggressive “oh, hell no” kind of action. Dinklage is taken away, now a prisoner.

Next, Jon Snow talks to Kate [editor's note: Arya], a teenage girl with a ponytail. She wants to kill Sersey.

Jon goes to where Dinklage is being held. Supposedly this is a prison, but it appears to be a large room with pottery, almost like an artist’s studio. As well, Dinklage is not in shackles and evidently can have visitors. In fact, this room looks much cozier than the outside world, which is nothing but bleak and tundra-like.

Dinklage is looking at the death penalty for “betraying his friend” (is that the queen?). Dinklage does seem to have a long rap sheet, which includes strangling his lover, shooting his father with a crossbow, and yep, betraying the queen, so yeah, he’s a prime candidate for some sort of severe punishment (beyond being banished to a pottery studio). He also apparently has an evil sister.

Jon and Dinklage discuss whether the war is in fact over. There’s also talk about how Khalisi liberated somewhere called Flavor’s Bay. [Editor's note: Slaver's Bay.]

Their talk seems to be centered around the queen’s unquenchable thirst for power, as she conquers more and more lands. She frees people, but this is supposedly bad. Maybe she’s too aggressive and actually hurting people? The long list of people she’s killed or liberated is hard to keep track of, but the bottom line seems to be that she has a very powerful effect on quite a lot of people. There’s also talk that she saw her dragon being shot out of the sky, whatever that means.

Dinklage says he knows Jon loves her. He, Dinklage, does too, but “not as successfully.” They then trade maxims on love, with Dinklage saying, “Love is more powerful than reason,” and Jon saying, “Love is the death of duty,” which Jon admits is from someone named Mr. Abeman [editor's note: Maester Aemon]. The more they talk, the more it becomes apparent they’re talking about killing Khalisi. They also mention the Iron Throne.

Jon goes to a castle. A dragon pops out of the snow and gets up in his face before curling back into a ball and going to sleep. Is this the same pterodactyl from earlier? The dragon seems to act like a dog who stirs to life at the arrival of a person but then goes back to sleep when it’s revealed the person is not holding yummy treats.

Khalisi is in the castle. She stares longingly at the throne, which resembles a porcupine made of swords. This must be the Iron Throne. It’s not clear whether this throne is actually for sitting, as its design does not reek of comfort or good back support, but it’s obvious this is important, emphasized all the more by the dreamy, Enya-like music being played over the scene. In fact, Khalisi looks so smitten with the throne that her eyes go almost cross-eyed for a bit. She also has what looks to be almost brass knuckles on one hand.

After Jon arrives, they talk pleasantly. They’re friends or perhaps lovers. Khalisi gets nostalgic remembering how when she was a kid she thought the throne was made out of 1,000 swords, which appears she was only off by about 988 or so.

Khalisi says she tried to make peace with Sersey. She says Tirrian [editor's note: Tyrion] Lannister conspired behind her back. Jon starts to cry. Khalisi comforts him and says he had a bastard name as a child, which sounds like a taunt heard in a bar in the 1940s.

She says she wants to rule the world with Jon. “You are my queen, now and always,” Jon says, and then they start making out. Despite hugging and being very close together, Jon is somehow able to stab her in the heart. She slowly dies, and Jon lowers her to the ground. He cries over her body as the dragon again squawks in the background. Is the dragon going to eat Jon? The tension is heightened when the dragon starts breathing fire, but evidently the dragon is not trying to torch Jon or at least has very poor aim. Instead, the Iron Throne melts and oozes away. It’s obvious this is a big moment.

The dragon then lifts up Khalisi’s body and takes it away somewhere. Where? We never see.

The show cuts to Dinklage walking to his execution. It’s finally sunny out and what looks to be a nice day. Dinklage arrives at a circle of sad-looking people in long black robes and coats, sitting on a platform in the shade. Perhaps they’re sullen because it’s hot out and they’re under several layers of heavy clothing. Among the group is one outlier, a hippie-ish looking guy in a colorful, flowing robe. Perhaps he’s the artist or eccentric in the group or the one always going on about “free love” and “expanding your mind” or whatever.

Also in the group is a woman with red hair and braids who seems to be a leader of sorts (do all female leaders have braids in this world?), or at least she’s the most vocal one of this group of mostly sad-sack people.

From Dinklage’s talk, it’s implied that Jon Snow is in prison too. Whether his cell is also full of pottery is not discussed.

The council discusses their predicament of having no king or queen anymore. No one seems particularly eager to be the new leader. The reason for their hesitancy is never clear, unless everyone in the group is exceedingly modest or prefers to shun the spotlight. Finally, one gentleman rises to his feet and makes a sort of stump speech, but the woman with braids orders him to sit and pipe down. A portly, slightly bumbling guy proposes leaving it to everyone in the town to decide, introducing the concept of democracy. The council, who before seemed incapable of feeling joy, throws their heads back in laughter at this absurd idea. One person suggests letting his dog decide.

Dinklage, still moments away from execution, suggests a 20-something guy in a wheelchair be the leader. His qualifications are evidently that he fell from a tower and lived. The woman with the braids interjects that he’s her brother and can’t father children. As the others talk about his leadership potential and inability to father children, the guy, who resembles a young George Harrison, says nothing and acts bored and out of it. It appears that not only can he not father children, but he also perhaps can’t get a good night’s sleep, as he looks increasingly sleepy the rest of the episode. It also might be the suffocating effects of the head-to-toe black fur coat he wears in the hot sun. But maybe it’s not sleepiness at all, as his face also has a sort of cocky smugness to it, like he’s that kid in high school forever reminding teachers and principals that his dad is a lawyer and could “sue your ass.”

His name is revealed to be Bran the Broken, which seems cruel. There’s also talk of Westeros, perhaps a neighboring society.

As the council continues to debate Bran being the new king while he continues to look mostly jaded, it starts to become confusing why Dinklage — a prisoner about to be executed — gets to make leadership recommendations. What kind of society is this that a prisoner on death row gets to lead the king and queen search committee? 

Bran eventually says he doesn’t want to be king, but that he wants Dinklage to be his “hand.” What a “hand” is exactly in this context is not clear. It also seems Bran is now actually the king.

Elsewhere, Jon Snow is in a prison cell. Like Dinklage’s, his is quite roomy with tons of natural light, suggesting that being in prison here is still more comfortable than renting a studio apartment in New York City.

Jon tells Dinklage that he’s unsure if killing the queen was the right thing to do. He looks increasingly troubled. Dinklage tells him to “ask me again in 10 years,” which seems less than helpful when a friend is going through a crisis of conscious about murdering his lover. It’s also during this scene that Dinklage says the phrase “pissed off,” which stands out from the usual non-slangy dialogue in which the characters otherwise speak.

The show cuts to Jon walking out of the cell, having trimmed his beard and once again wearing a large fur coat. Wait, was he not in prison? Does this prison have a “go as you please” policy? Is this a flashback?

Nearby is a body of water crowded with boats, as this is perhaps the boat equivalent of rush hour. It’s obvious this is some kind of mass exodus. Perhaps the residents have finally thought it wise to move away from a snowy, brutal climate where people are constantly getting killed.

Jon then walks through some sort of outdoor market with various merchants. Some guy says, “We sail for the island of Naath.”

Jon says his goodbye to various characters. The woman with braids asks Jon to forgive her (for what?). Jon tells her, “The north is free thanks to you.” Is the north Westeros? Naath? The woman then hugs Jon, a potentially risky move considering the last time we saw Jon hug anyone he found a way to slip a knife in that person. Jon then hugs Kate, the teen girl with a ponytail. It’s clear they have a special connection. Kate says she’s going west (or to Westeros?).

Nearby, Bran continues to look bored and like he’d rather be playing Xbox. Jon says he’s sorry he wasn’t there for Bran (how so?).

Elsewhere, a woman in heavy armor writes in a book using a fancy pen and ink set. She writes about Jaime Lannister. She’s presumably recording the history of their society. Her calligraphy is excellent, though the speed at which she writes and then turns the page seems like it’d cause the ink to smudge and ruin the otherwise beautiful paper, but she doesn’t seem to care. It’s also a little curious why she wears armor while writing, which would likely be rather uncomfortable, particularly while sitting, but again, she is undeterred. She writes, “Died protecting his queen,” and closes the book.

The screen cuts to Dinklage sitting in a chair at the head of a table (so the whole “death penalty” thing is totally over?). He arranges the other chairs in an orderly, obsessive fashion, but then the other council members arrive and jostle the chairs, ruining his spotless work. The bumbling, portly guy (who is perhaps named Andrago?) gives the book titled A Song of Ice and Fire to Dinklage. [Editor's note: Andrago = Sam.]

Bran the Broken arrives, and the group pledges their loyalty to him, despite Bran not really seeming to care about loyalty or much of anything. Each member of the council is then named a master of something. There is also talk among the council about rebuilding their town, particularly a brothel, though the group disagrees on priorities. As well, Dinklage uses the word “jackass,” adding to his reputation as the one foul-mouthed person in the group.

The show then cuts once again to a snowy world. Jon Snow is walking with two men. He enters a fortress. A drunk-looking guy nods at him.

The camera then cuts to various other characters, such as Kate walking on a boat, and the redheaded woman with braids, who no longer has them.

The scene cuts back to Jon walking through a fortress, while a crowd of people watches. In fact, this moment seems in line with what Jon does during most of the episode (when he’s not stabbing someone with whom he just made out): walk through crowds of people, while he looks confused and has his mouth open.

Jon then lovingly pets a white wolf with red eyes that resemble what happens when a person or animal is blinded by camera flash. It’s obvious Jon and the wolf are close friends.

The show cuts to Kate who has a Harry Potter-esque scar on her forehead. She’s on a boat with a wolf on its mast. Is this her boat? Is she in command of it? Though, no one seems to pay her much attention.

The scene then changes to a crown being placed on the redheaded woman’s head—so wait, is she queen now? She is proclaimed to be Queen of the North. Will Bran get any type of crown or did he sleep through the coronation?

The show cuts to Jon walking through a snowy region with a group of people who are all wearing some kind of gray camo. Where they are traveling is unknown (Westeros?). Despite the presence of several young children (also in gray camo), there is no audible utterance of “Are we there yet?” or a request to stop for ice cream.

The screen fades to black.

A few questions I had after the episode...

• It's unclear why Khalisi was considered bad and a threat to Jon, Dinklage, and others. Have Jon and Dinklage turned on her recently? We're told she's bad, but she seems generally nice and well-liked by most people. Who has she killed? Why does Jon kill her? And what does killing her accomplish? Does the group of townspeople (who I call "the council") actually not like her? Will the new King or Queen not carry on a similar mission?

• Who exactly is Kate and what is she doing/trying to accomplish? We see her board a boat, but it's not clear what exactly her goal is.

• Where does Jon go at the end? Who are those people, and what is he hoping to accomplish?

• What is the significance of the Iron Throne? Khalisi appears to have it — it's right in front of her — or does she not actually "have" it yet? Do people sit in this throne? What does it do? Why is it desirable?


My final thoughts...

In general, I enjoyed the episode. It was gripping — at least for the first part — and beautifully shot. Tirrian Lannister is a great character full of many dimensions. He's passionate, humorous, vindictive, friendly and strong. On the other hand, I found the character of Jon Snow very boring. Other than kill Khalisi (which is significant), he didn't seem to do a whole lot and mostly just paced through crowds, looking confused. As I had for years heard the name "Jon Snow" regularly in everyday conversation I expected more from this character. Khalisi was a pretty interesting character. She was charming and passionate, though I wasn't clear on why she was considered bad despite us being "told" she was.

The story mostly held my attention and was pretty gripping, though the last half of the episode got a little dull, as we mostly saw the characters quibbling over the new leader and governmental decisions (perhaps echoing real-life governments that struggle to accomplish things and rarely agree). The murder scene between Jon and Khalisi was very gripping, and I was very moved by it and even gasped in shock when Jon stabbed her; I was not expecting that. I also liked seeing the dragon burn the Iron Throne, even though I had zero idea of the significance of the Iron Throne. Going into the show, I was worried it'd be a lot of fight scenes between humans and dragons, which I generally don't care about, so I was happy to see the show was more focused on the drama between believable human characters. While I'm not sure I feel compelled to watch any more of it, the "realness" of the show appealed to me, when I had previously assumed it would be mostly fantasy/science fiction elements that I generally don't care about. I'm happy I watched it.

Chris Brower is a writer based out of Chicago. His second novel, How to Keep Everyone Happy, was published in March. Chris also recapped Avengers: Endgame for The Hollywood Reporter as a first-time Marvel viewer. Read it here.