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This Critic’s Notebook contains spoilers about the series finale and thus most of the seasons of Game of Thrones, so if you haven’t finished, come back when you have.
See, it all worked out in the end, right?
OK, probably not for everybody, but despite an over-magnified and predictably overheated fan meltdown on Twitter about the direction of Game of Thrones, 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.
As anyone who has read all the other columns here on The Hollywood Reporter can readily find out, most of the major storylines were closed, though undoubtedly some of the more densely obsessive will still find fault in the ambiguity of at least some characters most of the rest of us have long forgotten about. Before discussing how successfully Benioff and Weiss went about wrapping things up for individual characters, it’s probably more essential to discuss the difficult task they had; along with the wholly predictable nature of partisan viewership and how that might leave some fans displeased — for ages. If that describes you, that’s your prerogative. You can be as unhappy as you’d like since you cared deeply enough to watch it until the end, no small investment of time and dedication, particularly with a story like Game of Thrones where you have a mythological element unrivaled in the backstory of any drama series that have earned the right to be considered among the ranks of the all-time greats.
(I mean, plenty of mediocre or bad series go on for ages and then end in ways that are annoying to their fan base, but those are more common kind of stakes; for all of its faults, and every great series does have faults, Game of Thrones was at least aiming for a higher ambition and in most cases putting itself into the discuss of Hall of Fame status, however you might want to quantify that.)
Since I’ve already addressed how Game of Thrones this final season wouldn’t make all of the fans happy (how could it?), I should also add as a reminder that this is a series with a different level of difficulty, even among the other series that a majority of critics would put on their list of Top 10 Dramas Ever. With a book source that is exceptionally dense and, most importantly, unfinished, Benioff and Weiss and HBO had to first lug an almost impossible amount of story over the long haul and then, somewhere deep into that run, try to figure out where that haul would actually end — settling eventually on eight seasons and 73 episodes, which some will argue (and in some instances correctly) that it wasn’t enough to adequately tell the story.
But there’s the rub. It couldn’t go on forever. It had to end. And in choosing a path to this particular ending the writers can absolutely be faulted for shortcuts in storytelling and character development that fans will be displeased over. And yet, that’s really how it goes. Storytelling is hard; epic storytelling harder. Making a great television series for even one season is pretty damned difficult. If you manage to get to five seasons and still be in the conversation about whether your content is great or not, you’re doing something extremely rare and arguably heroic, at least in the consideration of the arts. So just the fact that Game of Thrones was still being discussed as a series in the upper echelons of dramas — where I have no problem placing it — is an impressive feat that a lot of viewers just can’t fully conceptualize.
So yes, there were problems. I don’t think the Daenerys storyline is nearly as flawed as the most hyper-vocal fans are complaining about, and unequivocally not as flawed as the Jaime Lannister storyline. Much of the most heated debate about storytelling issues in Game of Thrones this season came from the penultimate episode, “The Bells” — but let’s remember that Twitter, where much of that anger came from, thus spawning additional media attention, gets a ridiculously outsized sense of importance relative to the total number of fans, and its echo chamber of constant unhappiness and nitpicking can hardly be trusted. But that’s where Dany’s decision to torch King’s Landing and the her motivations behind it were questioned; it’s the episode where Jaime ended up racing back to Cersei, the siren call of their incestuous love apparently too great to ignore; and it’s where the Red Keep crashed down on their final embrace, killing them, imperfectly.
Again, that episode is a nearly perfect example of dubious storytelling decisions in service of getting to the end of an unwieldy story meeting outraged fans who were, by the end, both too wed to their favorite characters or pet theories about the rightful ending of the series to be won over. It was, in three words, a predictable mess.
You can now spend the next however many years you deem necessary working that out in therapy or on Twitter.
But what must be considered in greater context than anything are all the episodes that got us to that point in the first point (the legacy issue) and now, with the conclusion of the series finale episode, “The Iron Throne,” how deftly it made peace with having to end every storyline forever, and how well it pulled it off.
From here, pretty damned well.
If only because once you get enough distance from whatever dubious decision-making went into “The Bells” and how you felt about that, this was a series finale episode that delivered enough answers to the overall question of who would rule the Seven Kingdoms and sit on the Iron Throne: there are only six kingdoms because the North chose a return to its independent past, Bran the Broken emerged as the king and technically there is no Iron Throne because Drogon melted it down completely and utterly in a rage-filled symbolic gesture just after Jon did what he had to do and stabbed Daenerys in the heart because ultimately she lacked one.
That series of events went down about as well and believably and creatively as it could have. Meaning, Jon could arguably be called the “best” answer, but that would have seemed too convenient to some even if fans actually like convenience — especially when twists or last-minute character decisions tend to piss them off, as does ambiguity. So if you’re not going to put Jon on the throne that he’s the rightful heir to, then you need to have a twist and, well, you can quibble how everybody got gathered to make that twist come true, but Tyrion, modeling the future of the kingdoms on putting Bran, who can’t have children, in charge was certainly defensibly logical; Sansa refusing to have the North ruled, even by her brother, was also believable and keeps a queen on a throne; Arya staying fiercely independent and seeking new adventures “west of Westeros” in the undiscovered lands works absolutely perfectly; and Jon Snow, the hero becoming the fall guy in a dramatic gut punch to the “oh but he deserved to be king” fan base, also stays true to his best self, which is being willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good; and then the final twist on that, where he decides against serving his life at Castle Black on the Night Watch and pushing beyond the remnants of The Wall with the Free Folk, who look like they want him to be their king/leader, is a nice final touch (plus he gives Ghost some love, which fixes the fact he didn’t do it previously in one of the most inarguably bad and unbelievable story touches the writers came up with — I mean, come on!).
So, yeah, it all worked out in the end, really. Was it perfect? No, because it couldn’t be. Was it enough to course-correct some of the more truncated story decisions from this season? Yes, I believe it was. Ultimately will Game of Thrones be hailed by a majority of critics as a series that will easily get into this fictional Hall of Fame?
Echoing one of the best lines of the finale, ask me again in 10 years.