Maisie Williams as Arya Stark and Kit Harington as Jon Snow in "Game of Thrones" (Helen Sloan/HBO)

As "Game of Thrones" ends, we have to ask: What do we expect from a series finale?

3 beloved shows ended around the same time. How "Game of Thrones," "The Big Bang Theory" and "Veep" pulled it off


Melanie McFarland
May 21, 2019 10:03PM (UTC)
Spoiler alert: This article contains detailed information about the endings of "Game of Thrones," "The Big Bang Theory" and "Veep." Proceed with caution.

With “The Iron Throne,” the very last episode of “Game of Thrones,” the series closed its gates for good, and about as well as one might have expected. And by this point the audience was well-primed not to expect much.

Evil, such as this world defines it, did not prevail, and perhaps that is enough. The default choice did not win out either, and neither did the easily explainable option. Indeed, the riddle of who would end up on the Iron Throne is answered poetically, if not altogether explicably, which is in keeping with the rest of season eight.

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So why did the final episode feel like such a let down to so many? There are as many ways to answer that as there are fans.

Welcome yet again to the evergreen conundrum of the satisfying series finale— an elusive feat, but not impossible. Well, that’s true for just about any other series except for “Game of Thrones,” a thousand-legged beast of a tale that’s disposed of more characters and storylines than the average viewer can recall.

Expecting a show like that to close down in a way that pleases most people? That is a lot to ask.

But at the very least its creators could have crafted an ending that honors most of what has come before and built a few bridges over some significant plot holes. Instead it stands as a series composed of grand scenes and exceptional directing, whose actors made the most of the material of varying quality.

Meanwhile, two other long-running, critically-acclaimed stories, “Veep” and “The Big Bang Theory,” also aired their series finales to markedly less fanfare than “Game of Thrones.” And while these comedies received some applause they’re due for ending well, celebrations surrounding their respective departures felt muted in comparison to the fury over the failings in Westeros.

Each succeeded in the end by remained true to the essence of what their audiences long connected with, revisiting general themes and acknowledging the characters’ progress over the years.  And some of the most emotional moments came from simple gifts to the audience, like the “Big Bang” surprise, delivered at a perfect moment, that the elevator that’s been out of order for 12 seasons is finally operational.

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What, exactly, do we want out of the very last moments we spend with our favorite shows?

Viewers have vastly different definitions of what a good series finale entails, but for the most part it comes down to expectation.

We desire a stable exit that ties up each subplot as neatly as possible, affirms the central truths serving as the main story’s refrain, and leaves just enough open to interpretation to inspire rumination and debate. It sounds so simple, and is achievable to some extent with any show.

Finales are destinations after journeys varying in length and complexity, and the only people who have the roadmap are the writers. Better seasons of “Game of Thrones” allowed us to forgive obscenely misogynistic optics and strained developments because as D.B. Weiss and David Benioff remind us, using Tyrion Lannister as a mouthpiece, stories unite us. Much as we may have nitpicked over stumbles and high crimes in past seasons, they also yielded the likes of “Hardhome” and “Blackwater,” extraordinary episodes that strengthened the overall story and character arcs.

There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story, save for the disappointment we feel when that good story becomes a victim of expediency, and the narrative we followed so closely diminishes into a fast-tracked cart careening from one goalpost to another without putting much heart or soul into how it gets us there. That, in a sentence, describes the eighth season, save for the wonderful “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.”

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Consider, too, that “Game of Thrones”  is saddled with the additional burden of fan service, and in a story told from various perspectives and reflecting competing agendas, the viewer’s demand for satisfaction can take on a fervor usually reserved for team sport.

Now tossing in a guessing game for good measure, and you have millions of viewers who don't merely want a satisfying ending, but one that proves them right and sends their team out on top. Plotting challenges do not get more herculean than this.

As we saw, adequately winding down a score of character plots, and believably transforming one of the series’ central protagonists into a straight-up antagonist in six episodes, proved impossible. The price of spectacle, apparently, is the sacrifice of profundity.

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Regardless of the weight Weiss and Benioff had to heave across the finish line, they also have known for some time what the answer to the riddle of “The Iron Throne” would be, because George R. R. Martin gave them some direction.

Skipping important vistas and key stops on the way was a choice; the goal, it appears, was to end things as expediently as possible, assume foreshadowing is enough (and for some, it was) and explain their way into making it work.

Hence the furor over the botched handling of Daenerys’ inadequately developed and ill-managed descent into villainy, and the impatience with Jon Snow’s stubbornly professing loyalty despite witnessing his Queen murdering innocents.

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To be fair, “Game of Thrones” is an epic drama with an ensemble that has expanded and contracted over many years, with main players falling under knife and sword, and side players suddenly finding themselves the possible focus of prophecies and grand hopes.

In no way can the challenge of ending such a series compare fairly to the task of winding up “The Big Bang Theory,” a series with an even longer run and many more episodes in its catalogue, but one that operates on simple formulas.

“Game of Thrones” explored the lives, traditions and motivations of characters around a wide and varied world; Leonard, Penny, Sheldon, Amy, Raj, Howard and Bernadette were mostly concerned with the day-to-day events in each others lives. And they rarely ventured too far beyond the Pasadena city limits.

“The Stockholm Syndrome,” the comedy’s final episode, sent the characters on a journey to Sweden to celebrate Sheldon and Amy’s Nobel prize win. Long before they got on the plane, though, the episode celebrated the many ways each character has evolved since the series began, marveling at that evolution without flogging us with it.

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And this finale is both a closing chapter and  designed for seamless integration into a syndicated five-night-a-week strip. Years from now it will air in reruns right next to the series premiere, and few will lament over what was lost in the intervening years. Admittedly it’s a lot easier to do that when a show is mostly about finding humor and heart in the stories of outsiders connecting in a world that doesn’t quite get them. There are no direwolves or dragons to navigate, but “Big Bang” viewers genuinely care about what happens to Raj’s pampered dog Cinnamon.

“Veep,” meanwhile, moved settings to different states and nations throughout its run, but its characters didn’t alter their moral compasses very much. In its final season, actually, the main movers became the worst versions of themselves in ways the audience easily could have seen coming.

On the same night that “Game of Thrones” aired its penultimate episode “The Bells,” due to go down in history as the one where Daenerys roasts a city out of nowhere and for no immediately defensible reason, “Veep” very simply and skillfully showed us what behaving like a narcissistic empress earns a person once the war is done.

Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) spends her swan-song season on the campaign trail, but her final battleground is a protracted national convention where delegate divisions and a thunderstorm of late-breaking surprises in the news cycle threaten her shot at returning to the Oval Office. This is all Selina has wanted since the beginning of the series, a desire that supersedes all else including her limited sense of morality and, as we see in this hilarious and brutal episode, her loyalty to friends and family.

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To secure her nomination, Selina burns down most of her personal capital  to shore up her political strength, systematically and summarily destroying alliances and making strange bedfellows, which is entirely in character.

Throughout a season that has skipped down a hellish campaign trail, “Veep” showrunner David Mandel places her in scenarios but a hair removed from Trump-world, even reforging Amy (Anna Chlumsky) into a crazed clone of Kellyanne Conway.

But Mandel puts the vice president’s former chief of staff and whipping post to work for Selina’s idiot nemesis Jonah Ryan (Timothy Simons) who finds traction by locking down the anti-vaxxer vote and, for the clincher, makes a war on Muslim math central to his platform. And Jonah is so successful that Selina has no choice but to hold her nose and choose him as her running mate  in order to secure the nomination. Which she does, and she does. But not without cost.

The victory lap of “Veep” shows Selina returned to the Oval Office but utterly alone. Her longtime advisers have abandoned her, moved on or been moved out. Her final move prior to giving her nomination speech is to set up her loyal “bag man” Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) to take the fall for financial shenanigans committed when she worked for The Meyer Fund.

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We then leap decades into the future, and at Selina's funeral, what remains of her team gathers in her memory, including two-term president Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) who, apparently, was well-liked.

“Game of Thrones” will be remembered for breaking new ground in television by setting higher bars in the areas of cinematography, special effects, set design and costume. The epic also gave its cast complex and richly developed (to a point) roles that enabled them to play with psychological and emotional shading in ways no other TV series could have done.

For this very reason, its creators choice to rush the finale season’s narrative past important crossings and turns, even running a few character narratives off a cliff, feels like a violation. But at least its actors took weakly written moments and made the absolute highest use of them.

Lastly, let’s appreciate that while writing a satisfying finale has to be among the most impossible endeavors that a TV creator can take on, it’s also a task many producers never get to undertake.

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Among the ones that do, only a few are successful enough for audiences to care about how well they end. Rarer still is the situation Weiss and Benioff find themselves in, which is to end a story based on a series of books that aren’t finished while millions of people around the world watched and judged. It’s hard to envy that.

But we also want our simple pleasures to end well and properly, and when they don’t, Twitter collectively bellows, “Dracarys.”

It may comfort you to know that regardless of how you feel about the series finale of “Game of Thrones,” you’re probably not going to forget it or the show.

That’s the mixed, cursed blessing of a polarizing finale, particularly one that closes a divisive final season: that seething dismay boiling deep in your guts right now will stay with you for years and years. Viewers still debate whether “The Sopranos” ended in genius or as a cop-out, or if “Breaking Bad” was flawless or stumbled. Somewhere along the line the collective audience decided that “Lost” slammed the door in our faces inelegantly, and some people are still miffed on the bridge to nothing that was the opera house dream in “Battlestar Galactica.”

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Whereas a great finale, perhaps even a perfect one, allows us to close the book on a show and consider it done and settled. Unless the series airs in syndicated repeats to constantly remind us of its existence, we file it in our memory’s library to gather dust, possibly never visiting it again. “Six Feet Under” had a gorgeous ending. Have you watched it lately? And  I still have to remind people of how stupendous “The Shield” series finale happens to be.

Given the international saturation of “Game of Thrones,” the notion of it slipping from memory seems impossible in any case. Likewise, “The Big Bang Theory” is sure to be in global circulation for many years to come thanks to syndication. But let's hope we don't forget how well “Veep” left us in all this talk about thrones and endings. We love good stories but are more likely to hold on to bad memories. It would be a shame if all we could recall about this season of television was the failure of one politically-themed series, at the expense of remembering how brilliantly another served out its term.


Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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