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“And Now Our Watch is Ended” — Josh Bids Farewell to Game of Thrones

Looking back on eight seasons of Game of Thrones, I am in awe of what creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have been able to accomplish.  They brought the novels of George R. R. Martin’s to glorious life, hooking me deeply into the stories and characters.  It’s been a while since I have been so emotionally invested in a TV show.

In the early seasons, I wondered how long the show could sustain itself.  But the series grew and grew, becoming emotionally richer as it went on, not to mention ever-more visually impressive. The show smashed every expectation I ever had for what a fantasy TV show could deliver on a TV budget.  Game of Thrones gave us a visually stunning movie every single week.  Having not read George R. R. Martin’s novels, the show continually blew me away with its total disregard for storytelling conventions, killing off characters and having the good guys defeated and humiliated and destroyed at every turn.  Again and again and again, this series surprised and shocked me, and I loved it for that.  And I loved the (surviving) characters more and more with each passing episode.  Here in the final season, I was deeply invested in what would happen to these characters, hoping that some of them would find a happy ending.

Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed this final season, even though I think the show has stumbled in some of its storytelling choices.  These final six episodes have each been HUGE, filled with series-altering events, both small-scale interpersonal moments and enormous fantasy sequences of armies and zombies and dragons.  To say I was gripped would be an enormous understatement.  Watching this final season has ben a rollercoaster, and I mean that as an enormous compliment.  What a ride this has been.  Rarely have I been this captivated by a TV show.  The week-long wait between episodes has been torture.

The biggest failing of this final season was that, despite the extra-long episodes, it feels to me like there was far too much story jammed into these six episodes.  My favorite episode was episode #2, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” which was entirely focused on our characters at Winterfell, waiting through the night for the final battle with the Night King’s forces.  I loved that the show took the time to pause and let us enjoy these characters.  That episode was filled with scene after scene of amazing, wonderful character beats that paid off years of storytelling.  It was amazing.  But often in the other five episodes, I felt that events blew by too fast for them to have the impact they should have had.  This was most problematic in terms of Daenery’s turn in last week’s episode, and the Night King’s defeat in episode three.

Let’s start with the latter.  As I wrote in my review, I have several problems with the choices the writers/show-runners made in that episode.  Jon and co.’s strategy was ridiculous, and the extreme darkness of the episode made critical events (such as the dragon-battle in the sky and the fate of Rhaegal) nearly impossible to follow.  But for me the biggest issue was that, after eight years of build-up, having the Night King completely defeated over the course of just one episode felt anti-climactic.  I’d have preferred had we spent more time following his invasion of the North; perhaps following, over the course of a few episodes, various battles that the living kept losing, before finally allowing our heroes to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.  Having it all go down in one single episode, after eight years of build-up, undercut the menace of the Night King and his undead horde.

Then there was Dany’s decision to burn down King’s Landing last week, slaughtering thousands (if not tens of thousands).  There’s been a lot of debate on-line, this past week, as to whether or not the show had properly set up Dany’s becoming a villain.  I stand by what I wrote last week.  The show had laid seeds of Dany’s cruelty and her viciousness.  But what we’d seen before was a far cry from her murdering thousands upon thousands of innocents.  For the show to have successfully sold this turn into total villainy, we needed to have spent more time focusing on Dany, throughout the season and also in that episode specifically.  I’ve seen great episodes of TV that, in a single hour, have brought characters to an emotional crisis.  It can be done.  But we needed to be much more in Dany’s head, understanding what she was thinking and feeling when she committed herself to this brutal act.  But it seems that in this six-episode season, the show just didn’t have the time to do that, and that’s a shame.

So this final season isn’t perfect.  I didn’t expect that it would be!  Bringing a long-running TV show to a satisfying conclusion is a beastly challenge, and few shows have succeeded.  (How many truly great final seasons of a TV show can you name?  How many truly great finales?)  These previous five episodes have frustrated and disappointed me at times, but I don’t share the hatred that I’ve seen online.  (The fan-made petition for HBO to redo the final season is idiocy of the highest order.)  For every moment that has made me angry, there have been moments (such as the knighting of Brienne) that made my heart sing in a way that few TV shows are ever able to achieve.

Which brings me, at last, to the finale.

I’ve been wondering for years as to how dark the ending of this show would be.  This show made a name for itself in its consistent refusal to follow the traditional hero’s journey.  This is a show in which the good guys almost always lost (and lost horribly).  Would that trend continue to the end?  Would this show stay true to the bleakness that we’d seen for so long?  Was this going to be an ending in which the bad guys won and the (surviving) heroes all wound up dead?  Or, here at the end, would we see a softening?  Would the show perhaps bow to some narrative conventions and allow the audience and some of the characters to be given a happy ending?

I’ve surprised myself somewhat in how much, watching this final season, I’ve been rooting for a happy ending.  Yes, I fell in love with this show when they killed off Ned Stark, but after watching so much horror over the course of eight seasons, I wanted the characters I loved to achieve some measure of happiness at the end.  It’s a mark of how much I love this show and how deeply I’ve connected with these characters that I was rooting for some of them to, finally, get a win here at the end.

For the most part, I was pleased by where things wound up in the finale.  There were some wrenching emotional moments, but I’m glad the show didn’t go as dark as I’d feared it would.

With so many plot lines and so many characters to resolve, I was worried the finale would feel rushed, but I’m pleased that it didn’t.  They took the time to allow most of the character beats to land.  I enjoyed the melancholy, somber tone.  (The tone of the episode sort of reflected how I feel, here at the end of a show that I enjoyed so much!)  There weren’t really any big surprises, which was a bit disappointing.  Things unfolded pretty much as I expected.  Part of me wishes for a few more thrills here at the end, though on the other hand I’m glad they took the time to allow the repercussions of the events of the previous episode to play out, as opposed to trying to cram in lots more shocking twists that they wouldn’t have had time to properly explore.

Though I have problems with what they did with Daenerys in last week’s episode, I was impressed by how strongly the show leaned into her as the villain in the opening thirty minutes of the finale.  After watching her murder thousands, you might ask: how could they do anything else?  But there’s many ways they could have tried to walk things back.  I’m glad they didn’t do that.  I still don’t like this ending for Dany, but wow, it was effectively chilling watching her go all Darth Vader, standing atop the ruins of King’s Landing with her dragon and her armies of Unsullied and Dothraki, exhorting them to fight with her in a never-ending war across the world.

One of Game of Thrones’ best storytelling moves is how the show would often make us wait years for one of our heroes to triumph and/or one of the villains to lose, and then, when that long-awaited moment finally arrives, have it be not the triumphant event that we’d been hoping for, but rather something sour and bitter.  Again and again the show demonstrated to us that war is ugly, and that death is ugly.  The show seldom allowed us to have a “hell yeah” moment of joy when a hero triumphed or a villain went down.  We always saw the dark side of that, the side not usually seen in fantasy/adventure stories.  We got that in spades in the opening of this episode.  Finally, Daenerys has won; she’s gotten everything she’s always wanted, everything we’ve spent eight seasons wanting for her.  And now that she has it, it felt horrible.  As I’ve stated, I don’t like this story-telling choice for Dany, but wow, the show played out that choice with chilling effectiveness.  Emilia Clarke has never been better than she was in this scene.  We see the fanaticism in her eyes and it is truly scary.

When Cersei and Jamie died underneath the Red Keep last week, I wondered whether Tyrion or anyone would ever actually learn what happened to then.  So I was pleased that this episode allowed Tyrion to see, almost immediately, what had happened to his brother and sister.  Peter Dinklage was incredible, as always, playing Tyrion’s grief at seeing Jamie and Cersei dead. My heart broke for him.  I loved that scene, and I loved that Tyrion then stood up to Dany, publicly, renouncing his role as Hand of the King.

I wish Jon Snow had been as strong.  I guess I can say that Jon acts in character in this episode, because he’s often been a bit of a dunderhead throughout the series.  But, seriously, after last week’s episode I thought Jon was outraged at Dany’s actions.  Just to be sure, the opening of this episode gave him plenty of other reasons: seeing Greyworm murdering the Lannister prisoners (I loved that stand-off scene, and I hated Jon for backing down and allowing those men to be executed) and hearing Dany rile up her armies to a never-ending war.  But, no?  Both to Arya and then to Tyrion, Jon seems to back away from his moral obligation, and restates his loyalty to his queen.  I was surprised and let down.  The scene between Jon and Tyrion in Tyrion’s cell was magnificent.  Again, Peter Dinklage was amazing, and I love seeing how much Tyrion has grown over the course of the series.  I love the wisdom he has found in realizing that he knows nothing.  That Jon seemed not to listen was so aggravating.  And then, weirdly, in the scene that follows in which Jon confronts Dany in the smashed throne room, it seems that Jon DID listen to Tyrion.  So, why did they end that Tyrion-Jon scene with Jon saying to Tyrion that he wouldn’t stand against his queen?  Was that just to surprise the audience with Jon’s actions later?  The scenes felt weirdly incongruous to me.  (It also felt like there was something weird happening with the order/sequence of Jon’s scenes.  When he sees Greyworm execute the prisoners, it seems like he’s on his way straight to confront Dany.  But when next we see Jon, it’s when Dany comes out to speak to her armies atop the high steps, and Greyworm was right beside her.  I remember thinking, how did Greyworm get there before Jon?  Then Jon says nothing, and I was surprised that he’d decided not to mention the dead Lannister prisoners.  Were we supposed to imagine that they’d had a discussion about that and we just hadn’t seen it?  Then, AFTER the scene with Tyrion in his cell, when Jon sees Dany in the throne room, Jon suddenly confronts Dany in anger about the execution of the prisoners.  It felt to me like that scene should have come earlier.  These scenes didn’t flow together the way they should.)

And then Jon kills Dany.  It felt pretty inevitable after the events of last week’s episode.  I was surprised that Jon was able to best Dany so easily, especially since Arya warned him just a few minutes earlier than Dany was aware that he was a threat to her.  It makes Dany look surprisingly weak/foolish that she allowed herself to be killed so easily by Jon.  It also makes him look like a heel for betraying her when she clearly still trusted him so fully.  It’s not necessarily a weakness of the episode that I am so conflicted about how I feel about this event.  The episode is designed to make the audience feel conflicted about it.  So I can respect it as a well-made moment even as I, again, assert that I don’t love the path the writers set for Dany in these final episodes.  (If they were honoring George R. R. Martin’s original plan, I think their execution of that plan left something to be desired.)

The time jump after Jon killed Dany also didn’t feel like it flowed as well as it should have.  I was left with lots of questions, most importantly: why would the Unsullied have taken Jon prisoner?  Wouldn’t Greyworm have immediately killed Jon after discovering that he had murdered Daenerys??

I loved the scene at the Dragonpit.  It was awesome to see so many of the surviving characters gathered all together.  (Though I don’t understand why Jon wasn’t at that scene.  If they brought one prisoner — Tyrion — why not the other?  Jon has been a major character since the first episode, and particularly in this last season.  Having him completely absent from this critical scene in which the fate of the seven kingdoms was finally decided felt very weird.)

After eight years of wondering who would wind up on the Iron Throne at the end, the answer was… Bran?  That felt a bit anticlimactic to me (shades of Maggie killing Mister Burns), but I do like the surprising nature of the choice.  My main disappointment is that none of the great, powerful female characters (such as Dany or Sansa) wound up on top at the end.

I’ve been saying for years that I thought that, ultimately, no one would end up on the Iron Throne.  I thought the seven kingdoms would break up.  I was mostly wrong, though also partly right in that the Iron Throne was destroyed (I loved seeing Drogon melt it with his dragonfire) and that Sansa pulled the North out of the Seven Kingdoms.  I loved seeing Sansa name Queen of the North at the end, though curiously I wasn’t in agreement with Sansa when she made that decision.  With the leaders of the Seven Kingdoms all finally in agreement, and with a good person — her brother Bran — named king, it felt weird that she wouldn’t stand with him.  Hadn’t she learned that the characters were stronger together than apart?  It felt like Sansa was slipping back into Northern tribalism, and that didn’t feel like a good thing to me.

When Tyrion threw away his Hand sigil in front of Daenerys, I thought maybe the show was about to kill off this unkillable character.  (Unkillable because he was such a loved and popular character.)  That didn’t happen.  I was relieved (though, wow, that would have been a brave choice had they gone there!)  I loved seeing Tyrion made Hand again for Bran the Broken.  And I absolutely loved seeing the members of Tyrion’s Small Council.  I’ve said before that I was deeply invested in Bronn’s surviving the series, and I am delighted that he did.  (Though I do wish the show had mined more drama in this final season out of his being caught between Cersei and Jamie and Tyrion.  Bronn wriggled out of that dilemma far too quickly to satisfy me, and I was surprised that this great soldier wasn’t actually involved in any of the fighting this season.)  I was confused when Jon hugged Sam goodbye when he left Winterfell a few episodes ago; was that really the last we’d see as Sam?  Thankfully no.  I was delighted to see Sam as the new Maester of King’s Landing.  I love that we learned that it was Sam who helped write “A Song of Ice and Fire.”  (I love that Tyrion wasn’t mentioned!)  Davos, Brienne, even Pod — I smiled to see them all still alive at the end.  The idea that this band of mostly good-hearted kooks would be working together to run the now-Six Kingdoms made me smile.

The idea that Jon would wind up back in the Night’s Watch has symmetry with where Jon started in the series premiere, though I was confused as to why the Night’s Watch would still be necessary, with the Night King destroyed.  (I guess for the past thousand years, since no one believed in the Night King, that wasn’t actually seen as the Night’s Watch’s purpose.)  It also felt a little out of left field.  Greyworm wouldn’t know anything about the Night’s Watch, so why would that punishment for Jon mean anything to him?   Who even came up with that idea?  It doesn’t quite make story-sense to me.  (Also, while we the audience know and like Greyworm, why would any of the Lords assembled in the Dragon Pit have given two hoots what this common person thought?)

Speaking of Greyworm, I was a bit bummed that these final two episodes cast him as almost as much a bloodthirsty villain as Daenerys.  We know he’s acting out of grief for Missandei.  I wish the show had given us one more scene of Greyworm in the finale that showed him wrestling with that grief and with his actions, and perhaps beginning the journey back to redemption and towards some sort of life beyond just being a soldier, something like what he and Missandei had begun to dream of together before she was killed.  (I do like that Greyworm set sail at the end of Missandei’s home country of Naath.  But I really wanted one actual redemptive dialogue scene for him.)

Then there’s Arya.  As with Jon’s ending, Arya’s final fate makes sense on paper and gives us a nice sense of symmetry with where she began (reminding us of her question from so many years ago: “what’s west of Westeros?”), even as I don’t quite 100% buy it for the character.  Why wouldn’t Arya stay with the family from whom she had been separated for so long, and with whom she had only just be reunited?  I knew Arya wasn’t going to become a Lady running a household, but if Jon was going to head up the Night’s Watch, why wouldn’t she go with him, or find some other way to use her hard-won skills to help protect Bran and his new kingdom?  Her sailing off into the sunset seemed a bit too out of left field for me.

Getting back to Jon — just as I was happy that the goodbye at Winterfell a few episodes ago wasn’t the last we’d seen of Sam, I was so happy that Tormund was there at Castle Black waiting for Jon.  Though I wish we’d seen a shot of Tormund’s smiling!  I’d expected him to give Jon a huge bear-hug!  Instead, he and Jon were so serious at the end.  Why so serious?  And what exactly are we to make of that last shot, in which the two men led the Wildlings back north of the wall?  I like the idea that Jon and Tormund will perhaps be able to build a lasting peace between their peoples… but I’m wondering if there was supposed to be extra significance to that last shot that I am missing?  Why were Tormund and his people all just waiting around for Jon to get there before returning to their homes north of the Wall?

Other thoughts:

* I loved seeing Gendry at the assembly of Lords in the Dragon Pit.  I wish he’d gotten one last scene, saying goodbye to Arya, though.

* I loved seeing Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies) again!

* Important mysteries of the show: where did that super-enormous Targaryen banner (that we saw hanging from the ruins of the Red Keep) come from?  And where did Dany’s snazzy new all-in-black outfit come from?  (Did she grab it from Cersei’s closet?)

* More important, serious question: how did Dany suddenly have so many Unsullied and Dothraki soldiers when she gathered them for her Nazi/stormtrooper rally?  I thought most of them were slaughtered by the Night King’s zombies at the Battle of Winterfell?  (I lay my criticism more at the problematic staging of that episode than I do at this one.)

* Is King’s Landing still the seat of government of Bron’s new kingdom?  It sure looked that way, which surprised me seeing how throughly Dany and Drogon seemed to have demolished it.

* I was intrigued that Drogon didn’t burn Jon to a crisp after he killed Dany.  That the dragon instead destroyed the Iron Throne shows us that, perhaps, Drogon was smarter than any of the show’s other characters.  I love that we don’t see Drogon again after he flies off with Dany’s body.  The dragons are now gone from this world.  (Both the actual dragons, and the Targaryens, since Jon is not allowed to have children in the Night’s Watch, and Jon is enough of a rule-follower to obey that.)

* Tyrion’s speech about the importance of good stories felt a little like the writers patting themselves on the back, but I enjoyed it both for its meta commentary on the show itself and also for the reference back to J.R.R. Tolkien (see: Sam’s comments about all good stories at the end of The Two Towers).

* I loved the scene of Brienne honoring Jamie by writing his good deeds into the chronicle of knights.

* Like many, I was totally weirded out that Jon sent his direwolf off to live in the North with Tormund without giving his faithful companion a hug or even a pet goodbye.  So I was pleased that, just like we got to see more of Sam and Tormund again here in the finale, we also got to see Ghost, and this time, Jon showed him the affection he was due.

So that’s it!  Wow.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve arrived at the end.  I’ve relished watching this series.  I am sorry it’s over!  This last season was a bumpier than I’d hoped.  And I can’t say that this finale blew me away, though I did enjoy much of it and I respect it as a supremely well-made episode of television.  Was it one of the best episodes of the series?  No.  But it was sad and funny and mostly satisfying in the way that I had hoped it would be.  I am appreciative of the extraordinary accomplishment that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and the hundreds upon hundreds of men and women who worked on this show have achieved.  It’s been a thrill.

Valar morghulis.

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