Cruel Catharsis in Game of Thrones Finale “The Iron Throne”
*This is a recap of the finale of Game of Thrones, spoiling said finale if you haven’t seen it.*
Jon Snow, Queenslayer. Bran Stark (now somewhat rudely dubbed Bran the Broken), Ruler of the Six Kingdoms. Bronn of High Garden, Master of Coin (!?). The series finale of Game of Thrones bestowed old friends with new titles, altered lives, and the suddenly unavoidable (and largely predictable) downfall of Daenerys Targaryen. “The Iron Throne” even offered a touch of catharsis for some of the folks we’ve come to care about, yet why did it all feel so sad? Perhaps it’s partly to do with the fact that nothing much changed in Westeros, even if the “right” people are now in charge. But mostly, the sadness is to do with the fall of Daenerys Targaryen. No amount of foreshadowing could make her turn to psychopathy and her palpable comfort with murdering innocents feel right. No amount of “it runs in the family!” bread crumbs could numb the queasy feeling that she was a character done wrong. Daenerys was misunderstood for a long time by the many people she met during her long, painful journey to King’s Landing. In the end, Dany’s true belief in her role as savior of the Seven Kingdoms turned her into more of a cult leader—the Unsullied and Dothraki viewed her as something closer to a goddess. The rest of Westeros saw her as something else entirely—a budding tyrant who, as Tyrion notes at one point in the episode, had killed more people in a single day than all the most abhorred historical figures in Westerosi history—combined.
At the start of the episode, once Tyrion had dug up Jaime and Cersei from the rubble of the Red Keep and Jon and Davos were unable to stop Grey Worm from executing a half dozen unarmed and kneeling Lannister army soldiers, it was Dany time. Despite the horror of last week’s penultimate episode “The Bells” and the lingering unease with Dany’s record scratch turn into a child barbecuing Mad Queen, there was, perhaps insanely, certainly foolishly, some hope that this finale would somehow redeem that choice or at least give Dany a chance to show some inner conflict with what she’d done. Maybe a little chagrin. Some sense that she might have gained the world but had lost her soul along the way. A simple “my bad.” It was not to be.
Jon walks through a bunch of horse butts as he passes Dothraki soldiers, then through the many lines of Unsullied, on his long, sad approach to his new queen. In one of the episode’s great shots, Dany rises before him, before us, revealing a pair of massive dragon wings. That’s Drogon, cleverly positioned directly behind her, giving us a moment to savor the Dragon Queen in all her beautiful, terrible glory. She sure didn’t look remorseful, but she did look righteous.
In fact, Dany was practically levitating with purpose after turning King’s Landing to rubble and ash. We’ve seen her in full Messiah Mode before, but never quite like this. Standing before her victorious army, delivering the kind of boastful, blood-soaked sermon we’ve seen in the work of master propagandist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, Daenerys Targaryen was, for the briefest of moments, the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms and the most powerful person in the world.
It was undeniably thrilling. Emilia Clarke somehow brought her very best to a season that did the very worst to her character. She absolutely radiated ruthless conviction and almost touching belief in her cause during the speech, which she delivered in High Valryian. This gorgeously shot and performed set piece was the only time that my watch party, made up of longtime GoT watchers used to confidently shouting their opinions at the screen, was truly silent. While the Mad Queen betrayed not a whiff of remorse for what she’d done, Emilia Clarke’s performance was so captivating that we were all ready to put the whole “she just set babies on fire” thing behind us.
This wasn’t just a victory speech, it was a promise of perpetual war. It seems that torching King’s Landing was but the beginning of Dany’s grand plan of total global domination, couched under her most durable rubric, “breaking the wheel.” She would free the people everywhere, including, ominously, Winterfell. Okay then. She named Grey Worm the commander of all her forces. Then Tyrion decided now would be the time to tell the Queen she’d gone mad. He took off his dangerous looking Hand pin and tossed it down the steps. Dany quickly had him arrested. Yet Tyrion’s public performance of renouncing the queen was done so for an audience of one—Jon Snow.
Jon visits Tyrion in one of Game of Thrones favorite scene templates—the nominally free man talking to the chatty, soon-to-be-executed prisoner. This dynamic harkens back to the show’s first season when Varys visited Ned Stark in the dungeons of King’s Landing and urged him to confess to treason in order to spare his life, setting into a motion a series of increasingly insane events that brought us here. Tyrion himself has been imprisoned left and right during GoT‘s 8-season run, visited by Oberyn Martell, his brother Jaime, and now Jon. To say nothing of the time he was captured by Jorah Mormont and forced to watch him contract greyscale from close range.
Their conversation boils down to this—Tyrion wants Jon to kill Dany. He tries every method he knows; self-deprecation, self-disgust, and a plea to Jon’s sense of right and wrong. While it’s always hard to tell what’s sinking in and what he’s outright rejecting because, well, he’s Jon, the true heir to the throne did feel compelled to take a seat and tear up. He trotted out several variations of the “but she’s my queen” defense, but his heart didn’t seem into it. Once you see the woman you love turn children into briquettes, it’s probably hard to muster that much of a defense in her honor.
Which brings us to the only moment in the entire finale that really and truly mattered. After Jon passed through security (Drogon, covered in snow, looking adorable), he and Dany were finally alone together in the smashed throne room of King’s Landing. Dany was approaching the Iron Throne with all the caution and slow roast circumspection we were made to believe she no longer contained. The Iron Throne! The thing she’s wanted forever! Right there! Then she spotted Jon brooding in the shadows.
Dany tried lightening the mood by delighting Jon with a story of being bad at math as a kid, but he was in full grump mode. He wanted to talk about Grey Worm executing defenseless soldiers, and about the dead women and children burned up in the streets, but Dany was unmoved. Next, he tried to petition for Tyrion’s release, but that, too, was cooly rebuffed. The kind of progress Dany’s going for her cannot abide “small mercies.” She tells Jon that it’s hard to imagine a world that hasn’t ever been, but clearly, she can do it and she’d love him to try. If you didn’t already know that she’d burned an entire city to the ground and what sure seemed like every living soul in it, you’d think she was merely a Westerosi Walt Disney. “Let’s make the world a better place, Jon, you and me!”
When Jon finally caved, and embraced her, and kissed her with the most passion we’ve seen him muster since a certain flame-haired Wilding inspired his ardor north of the wall, it was actually quite exciting. Jon going over to the dark side would have been a fairly bold move and would have set up a Jon/Dany v Stark Sisters showdown. Everyone in my apartment was cheering at this point, somewhat confusingly, but the excitement of this blood-soaked partnership was short-lived. The stab-while-kissing move is a trusty one in both film and TV, but as with everything in Game of Thrones, this one truly did feel big. Dany didn’t even get any last words, just a look of absolute shock and betrayal as she lay there bleeding to death in her lover/nephew’s arms.
And the episode had really only begun! Yet everything that happened next—the quickie counsel meeting to decide who would rule, Brienne inventing Wikipedia, the tearful goodbyes—paled in comparison to this moment. Jon killed Dany. Not the most shocking of twists (in fact, half the Internet and a full 80% of the people in my apartment had more or less called some version of this), but to actually see it happen was sobering. And sad. Perhaps it’s inevitable that things feel rushed after 8 seasons of build up, but can’t we all agree that Daenerys Targaryen deserved better than this?
A hearty debate about human/dragon relationships broke out in my apartment after Drogon failed to set Jon on fire. I claimed it was because Jon’s half Targaryen and then a series of very stupid justifications I can barely recall fell out of my mouth. “Jon’s like his stepdad!” I remember bellowing at one point, drunk on grief. It doesn’t matter why Drogon spared Jon, because the moment Dany died, Drogon no longer mattered, for some reason. He torched the Iron Throne, instead (fulfilling Dany’s vision), and scooped up her lifeless body and flew off (to bury her?), leaving Game of Thrones more or less precisely where he found it as a mere egg in season one—ruled and ruined by tiny people.
So yes, there was still a lot of show left. Yet it lacked the emotional heft of Jon dispatching Dany. There was a hasty meeting called with all the important people gathering in the Dragonpit to decide what to do now that Dany was dead. (Did Jon walk right out of the throne room and tell the first Unsullied he saw that he killed Dany, despite the fact her body had been removed from the crime scene by CSI: Drogon? It seems likely, but, we’ll never know, it happened off-screen). Jon was a prisoner of the Unsullied now (wouldn’t they have killed him immediately upon learning he’d murdered their queen? Wouldn’t Grey Worm have run him through with his spear?) They were all there to choose a new leader. Edmure Tully, Sansa’s uncle whose name I had to Google, rose to make a stump speech on his own behalf. Sansa told him to sit down in the episode’s one moment of pure joy. Samwell Tarly rose and invented democracy, and was laughed at.
Then Tyrion, despite also being a prisoner of the Unsullied and also being told not to speak, gave a long speech. The world is run not by gold or armies or even dragons (this is doubtful), but by stories (more doubtful). The important thing is Tyrion was voting for Bran the Broken. Think about the story Bran has, Tyrion said! The kid who fell out of the tower and lived. The cripple who journeyed beyond the wall and lived. The young man who can’t walk but he can fly! (Because he can warg.) The party foul who holds all their stories, their entire past, and who, most importantly of all, can’t sire children. This is how Dany’s wheel gets broken; making sure the lunatic rich children of powerful people don’t get to run the world simply because they were born. This part actually makes a lot of sense.
Bran was into it. “Why do you think I came all this way?” he said with a tremendous amount of sass. Then he demanded that Tyrion be his hand, despite the fact that Grey Worm is standing right there and is definitely still intent on killing him. But you can’t argue with Bran because he presumably already knows what you’ll say.
Other seemingly important things that happened despite Dany’s death still tolling like those damn bells from last episode: Sansa managed to carve the north out of Bran’s newfound authority and became the queen of this independent nation. Jon’s life was, miraculously, spared. He was sent back to serve the Night’s Watch, despite there being no one and nothing to watch, a huge hole in the wall, and total peace with their former human enemies, the wildings. Arya decided to head west of Westeros, to where the map ends, to discover a better version of America, Arymerica, where Gendry visits from time to time, until Arya tires of him and sends him back to his castle. Bronn now controls the Six Kingdom’s purse strings and is intent on rebuilding all the brothels immediately. Samwell donned the truly shapeless and mortifying robes of a Maester. Brienne and Davos have important roles, too.
The last shot of the series was Jon Snow, now with his new family of wildings, riding off into the snowy trees beyond the wall. It was meant to feel cathartic. Perhaps for you, it did. The finale, like the series, certainly elicited a lot of emotions, many of them mixed. Part of the sadness also had to do with the series ending. You can argue all day about Game of Thrones with your friends and family, and that’s what I’ll miss most of all.