"Game of Thrones" finale: The Iron Throne apparently goes to the person with the best story

Spoilers! Remember this is "Game of Thrones" and adjust your expectations for how it should have ended accordingly

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 20, 2019 7:06AM (EDT)

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in the "Game of Thrones" series finale (Helen Sloan/HBO)
Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in the "Game of Thrones" series finale (Helen Sloan/HBO)

Spoiler alert: This article discusses details about the "Game of Thrones" series finale, titled "The Iron Throne." Stop reading if you haven't watched yet, or don't blame us for what you find out.

Ever since a premiere date was announced for the final season of “Game of Thrones,” theories abounded on who would end up on the Iron Throne, and how. Listen in on enough conversations about the series and you’re bound to hear someone’s wild notion about who would end up on the Iron Throne, and why. (A personal favorite posits that Arya would somehow take the throne wearing Jon’s face. )

This and nearly all other fan theories I’ve read or heard are more interesting, thrilling and surprising than the answer D.B. Weiss and David Benioff provide in Sunday’s episode, “The Iron Throne.”

Granted, the outcome and how the final installment got us there is plausible. After all the bloodshed and decimation of the great houses of Westeros, it’s not surprising that the final answer to who ends up on the Iron Throne is, effectively, no one.

For more than a minute it looked like a slam-dunk for Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)  — and Weiss and Benioff slap us in the face with her evilness by framing her walk into view in such a way that when Drogon spreads his wings in the background behind her, they look like they’re attached to her.

Before she can press her royal ham into the chair, Dany’s lover and nephew Jon Snow (Kit Harington) embraces her and, wouldn’t you know it, stabs her in the heart.

But Jon doesn’t get the ultimate honor either.

Instead, with the old order burned away, a new one arises where the leader is selected based on the qualities of leadership, not by right of birth. Something like a Kingsmoot, as George R.R. Martin describes the Iron Islanders’ tradition of selecting a new leader following the death of the previous.

And as this new leadership class in Westeros kicks into session, the crown goes to . . . Bran the Broken (Isaac Hempstead Wright)! Wait — what?

That’s right, Bran. The Three-Eyed Raven. The guy who always looks like he’s somewhere else.  Thus in the series' final moments, the Iron Throne is replaced by a rolling chair.

If you think about it, as Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) does for all of us in this episode, that’s the safest choice for a land that desperately needs to heal from third degree burns. Bran bears wisdom on a cosmic level and contains all of man’s memories. He’s also fine with staying out of the way so others can take care of business.

In naming him as the new king, Weiss and Benioff validate and vindicate Ned Stark’s stubborn insistence on clinging to honor and doing the right thing.  And in Tyrion we have a Lannister who truly pays his family’s debts to the Starks and the realm. He makes the case for Bran in a way that would make Tywin Lannister have a fury stroke.

Thirst for power doesn’t motivate Bran and, like his cousin Jon, kingship isn’t something he’s sought. But he’s also beholden to fate. So when Tyrion asks if he’ll accept the crown, Bran flatly answers, “Why do you think I came all this way?”

The “Game of Thrones” finale marks a noble and satisfying ending for the Starks and everyone rooting for them. The family endured substantial loss and decline for the first half of the series only to reverse its fate and end up among the few great houses standing, and at the top of the ruling class.

King Bran grants Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) wish of the North retaining its independence, and Sansa trades up her ladyship for the Queen in the North’s crown. There must always be a Stark in Winterfell, but now there’s one in Westeros’ main seat of power and another, Arya, pushing out beyond the places where the maps stop.

“The Iron Throne” also is an entirely predictable end to a season marred by rushed narratives and uncharacteristic U-turns in behavior that Benioff and Weiss explain away in their post-episode behind-the-scenes features. There’s really no talking one’s way out of the clumsy scripting that produced some of the most aggravating moments in the eighth season of this series, one that already has a tank full of aggravating moments to choose from.

Yet consider how ponderous this task of ending “Game of Thrones” happens to be. In 2013 — six years ago — Benioff and Weiss reportedly visited Martin to get some clues about how he planned to end the books. According to reports the end would be marked by three “oh shit” moments, including the burning of Shireen and the meaning of Hodor’s name. Those were, indeed, eye-widening twists. The third was probably last week’s ugly business.

For all its flaws, it looked like “The Bells” was setting a few more shocks to occur in the finale. Why else bring Arya back from the coals if not to give her some role to play in the endgame? For the same reason Tyrion somehow escapes execution, and Drogon refrains from roasting Jon — or trying to, anyway — when the dragon realizes the man he never liked watching kiss his mother has killed her.

Weiss and Benioff thought they needed these characters to make it. So they did. The end.

That said, Dany’s high-flying mass murder jamboree received an abysmally inadequate build-up – barely a few moments during three episodes set up what she did. Thus her post-pyromania speech, in which she redefines the indiscriminate killing of unarmed men, women and children as "liberation" feels as contrived as the rest of what follows.

But first, a rewind to the quiet opening frames, a long look at Tyrion walking through the charred remains of King’s Landing, joined by Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham) and Jon as snow tumbles from the sky. Tyrion eventually parts ways with Jon and heads to the tunnels beneath the city, where he confirms what we already know and finds the bodies of his brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and sister Cersei (Lena Headey). Their beautiful faces somehow remain intact despite being clobbered by falling bricks, which makes Tyrion weeping over them all the more tragic. Or it’s supposed to.

Jon and Ser Davos, meanwhile, come across Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) executing Lannister guards in the streets. Jon attempts to stop Grey Worm, but that doesn’t go over well. Grey Worm informs Jon that Dany’s orders are to execute anyone loyal to Cersei Lannister. Jon reluctantly leaves them to it and goes to find his queen.

Meanwhile, the conquering forces gather by the remains of the great staircase, howling as Drogon flies overhead and deposits Dany at the top. Daenerys comes forth and addresses her forces. First, in Dothraki, she thanks the horse lords for doing as they promised by killing the men in their iron suits and tearing down their stone houses, giving her the Seven Kingdoms. In Valyrian and before the assembled troops she praises Grey Worm’s leadership and loyalty, naming him the Queen’s Master of War.

She commends the Unsullied for being liberators. The horseman howl and ululate in triumph while the Unsullied bang their spears on the ground in unison.

But, she says, the war is not over. She speaks of freeing all the people in the Seven Kingdoms by breaking the wheel, naming Dorne, Winterfell, Lannisport and Qarth, from the Summer Isles to the Jade Sea, as her next targets of “liberation.” Amazingly, she does not grow a small short mustache during this speech.

Then Tyrion, horrified at what he’s witnessing, steps forth. “You freed your brother,” she tells him coldly.  “You committed treason.”

He sees her “freed his brother” comment and raises her with: “And you slaughtered a city.” He yanks off his Hand of the Queen pin and tosses it. After it plink-plinks down the stairs, the Unsullied stop pounding their spears in a unified comment we translate to mean “aww shit.”

Dany commands Grey Worm to take Tyrion away, which the Master of War does. Before following behind them, Dany takes a lingering gaze at Jon, who is looking stupid and upset at all this fascism, and says nothing as she walks away.

Arya sneaks up on Jon who is surprised to see her, but not as surprised as we will be later when we realize that there was never any reason for her to stick around this terrible cookout.  But he’s stubbornly loyal to Dany. “She’s everyone’s Queen now,” he says.

“Try telling Sansa,” Arya shoots back.

Anyway, when Jon goes to follow Dany, Arya stops him, reminding him that Dany knows who he really is and by now, he should know who she is. And Arya remarks that she knows a killer when she sees one.

Jon goes to visit Tyrion in his holding cell, where Tyrion pleas with Jon to see through what he could not: that Daenerys is a terrible choice for the realm. But Jon makes excuses for Daenerys. Cersei left her no choice, Jon says, adding that we can’t judge the choices leaders make in battle. Tyrion counters that Jon knows what it’s like to be on a dragon’s back. Would he have done the same as Dany? Jon tries to say he doesn’t know, but of course he does.

And then Tyrion runs down the same list of reasons provided by everyone who explained how Dany’s about-face transformation into a cold murderer was adequately earned in the days following the airing of “The Bells.”

“Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it,” Tyrion says. “And she grows more powerful the more she believes she is good and right.” She believes she’s building a better world for everyone, Tyrion adds, “and if you believed that, if you truly believed it, wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and paradise?”

Tyrion says he knows Jon loves her because he loved her too. He believed in her with all his heart, he says. Love is more powerful than reason.

“Love is the death of duty,” Jon says, and Tyrion, amazed, asks Jon if he just came up with that line. Nope, Maester Aemon Targaryen said that a long time ago.

“Sometimes,” Tyrion throws back at Jon, “duty is the death of love.” Then he reminds Jon of who he is, the shield that guards the realm of men. He asks, who is the greatest danger to the realms of men now?

Nevertheless, Jon insists he must be loyal to the queen and apologizes to Tyrion. Tyrion then asks what Jon thinks will happen to Sansa and Arya. Jon weakly replies they’ll be loyal to the throne, and Tyrion again asks that dumbass why he thinks Sansa told Tyrion the truth.

Tyrion had a choice of what to do, and made the wrong one. He reminds Jon that he now has that choice and only a limited window of opportunity to do anything about it.

Jon leaves Tyrion to find Dany in what remains of the throne room, waking Drogon in the process, who is hidden and resting under a blanket of white. He rises to sniff Jon, then lets him pass.

Before the Iron Throne and under little else but sky, Daenerys drinks in the moment. She walks up to the famous throne and places her hand on it before Jon comes in to be with her. She remembers the stories Viserys told her about the throne’s origins, that it was made from a thousand swords of Aegon Targaryen’s fallen enemies, an inconceivable number to a small girl who could barely count to 20.

Dany is joyful even as Jon pleads with her to consider the smallfolk and be merciful, to which Dany replies, “We can’t hide behind small mercies.” If she wants to build a new world, a place unlike any that has been seen before, they have to do what has never been done before. “Because I know what is good,” she tells him. When Jon asks about all the other people who think they know what is good, Dany replies, “They don’t get to choose.”

Then she embraces Jon and asks him to be with her, so they can break the wheel together. He kisses her. You are my queen, he says, now and always.

Then he stabs her in the heart with his dagger. As she collapses, Jon weeps and holds her. Behind him we hear Drogon stir and cry out, then begin flying around. The dragon lands in the open room and as Jon backs away from his queen, Drogon nuzzles Dany to check if she’s still alive, sniffs the dagger in her chest, then rears back in a rage and howls.

At this point Jon should be dead and roasted. Or, conversely, here is where we could have found out that he, too, is fireproof.  The snarling Drogon turns his head toward Jon, who seems to accept his fate and readies for a fire blast.

Instead Drogon unleashes his flames on the Iron Throne until it is molten metal, because if mama can’t have it, nobody gets it. He then gently scoops dead Daenerys into one of his claws, and flies off with his mother to parts unknown.

Cut to: Tyrion being pulled out of prison, his thick beard indicating the passage of time. Outside the sun on snow-free ground confirms this — it has been weeks. Grey Worm brings him before an assembly at the dragonpit that includes the heirs of what great houses remain: Ser Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies), Sansa and Bran Stark, Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), Gendry Baratheon the Only of his Name (Joe Dempsie), Lord Robin Arryn of the Vale (Lino Facioli), Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) and others.

After a bit of bickering over Tyrion’s fate they declare that only the king can decide what happens to Tyrion and Jon Snow who, amazingly, Grey Worm did not off as soon as he realized dude had killed his khaleesi. Anyway, since there is no king around they take it upon themselves to pick one.

After a pause Edmure stands up and begins to launch into a speech proposing himself, but Sansa cuts him off and tells him to sit his dumb ass down. Uncle Edmure clumsily follows her instructions. Samwell suggests that perhaps since their job is to do what the people want, they should let the people decide. This is met with a hearty helping of LOL.

And then Tyrion offers his suggestion. “What unites people?” he asks “Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story . . . and who has a better story than Bran the Broken.”

It’s a funky choice, but they all decide to dance to it even though, as Sansa reminds Tyrion, Bran can have no sons. Perfect, Tyrion says, because sons of kings are the problem. Bran's won't ever torment future generations which, as Tyrion says to Grey Worm, is the wheel Daenerys wanted to break. Tyrion states that future kings will be chosen on the spot where they stand.

Around the circle all say aye, save for Sansa, who turns to Bran and professes her love, but reminds her that tens of thousands of Northmen fell in the Great War and are not in the mood to bend the knee. Sansa declares that the North will remain free, and Bran, with a silent nod, agrees.

The lords and ladies stand and hail Bran the broken, rulers of the Six Kingdoms, protector of the realm and good neighbor to an independent North. Bran immediately chooses Tyrion as his Hand, who really doesn’t want it. But in “Game of Thrones” apparently not wanting huge responsibilities makes you the perfect person to take on huge responsibilities. Grey Worm isn’t happy about this. As a compromise and to save Tyrion's and Jon’s lives, Bran explains Tyrion’s punishment is to spend the rest of his life undoing all of the mistakes he made. As for Jon, Bran sentences him to life as part of the Night’s Watch, which apparently is still a thing.

From here on out is the epilogue march: We see Jon, released and flanked by men in black, walking his way to a ship, with Grey Worm skewering him with a mean long glare until a fellow Unsullied breaks his evil eye. They get on a ship and sail for Naath, Missandei’s home.

Jon stops and says goodbye to Sansa and tells Arya to come visit him at Castle Black, but she says that won’t happen because she’s not returning to the North. So where is she going? “What’s West of Westeros?” she asks. No one knows. That’s where all the maps stop. That’s where she’s headed.

Elsewhere Ser Brienne opens the book that holds the records of all the Kingsguard’s members and finds Jaime’s short and depressing entry that ends with him serving Joffrey and being known as the Kingslayer. Brienne lovingly fills in the blanks with Jaime’s stories of gallantry in the field: wins, losses and all.

And then she settles and starts an entry about herself, recording her exploits as the first female knight who led a battalion against the Night’s Kings forces, embarked upon a series of exploits to find Catelyn Stark's lost children, redeemed the soul of a very lost man, and — just kidding! Of course she doesn’t write anything about herself. She closes the book and ends the scene that’s all about the man she loved. Because this is "Game of Thrones," not "Feminist Fantasy Fiefdom."

Cut to the Small Council chamber, where Tyrion straightens the chairs and takes his spot at the head of the table. Then what exists of the rest of the Council enters, with Ser Bronn of the Blackwater and now Lord of Highgarden (Jerome Flynn) — the Master of Coin, which surely will go well — sliding in beside Tyrion, much to his dismay, and Ser Davos, Master of Ships sitting down along with Brienne, Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. Sam enters wearing a  maester’s robe and chain, and presents Tyrion a book titled — what else? — “A Song of Ice and Fire.” He says the tome chronicles the histories of the wars following the death of Robert Baratheon.

Tyrion asks if he receives a kind rendering in the book, and Sam delivers the cruelest insult possible, letting Tyrion know that he’s not in the book at all. Bran rolls in and points out the Small Council is missing a Master of Whisperers, a Master of War and a Master of Laws. He then asks if anyone knows what’s happened to Drogon.  Sam reports he was last seen flying East. Bran says maybe he’ll find him and with Ser Podrick (Daniel Portman) assisting him, takes his leave.

Bronn argues with Ser Davos about whether it is more important to restore the royal armada or get the brothels rebuilt and running. By the gods, this group is messy.

In the drama’s very last moments we see each Stark midstride in their walk of power: Jon has returned to the wall, now populated by Wildings led by Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), all of whom are happy to see him. He sees Ghost and actually pets him this time.

Sansa, in her queen’s robes, walks through lines of bowing men and women and is crowned. Her people call her by a name she once dreamed to possess but has rightly earned: queen. The Queen in the North.

Arya is on a ship sailing to parts unknown, in command and smiling.

Our last shot is of Jon and Tormund on horseback, and Ghost on foot, leading the freefolk north of the Wall. After all that fuss, it turns out that his true lineage as a Targaryen matters not a whit: He remains Jon Snow until the last. Jon stops for a moment to look back at the gate on the Wall as it closes behind him. Then he notices the freefolk are still walking — he doesn’t want to lead, and they have no need of a leader.

Together as a pack they venture into those same woods where our time with this series began.

And now our watch is ended.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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