Game of Thrones Recap: S8E6 – “The Iron Throne”

After the penultimate episode dropped the bar for plausible writing and character motivations, I was already primed for the finale to be more of the same. Written by men who had an ending in mind without much of an idea of how to get there, “The Iron Throne” is again carried by outstanding performances by the actors who have grown to embody their roles on screen, but hamstrung by the apathy borne through the shortcuts taken to get there. Still, we’re going to get these jokes off and try to make sense of what happened along the way.

King’s Landing

The episode opens with a quiet close up of Tyrion’s disgusted and broken face as he surveys the aftermath of Daenerys’s decision to go full Adele and set fire to the reign. If you didn’t know the finale was going to be Peter Dinklage’s Emmy push, you figured it out soon enough. The charred and still-burning remains of the capital city (with surprisingly walkable debris-clear walkways) daunt the Hand of the Queen as the last Lannister takes on the weight of his failure to convince Dany to be merciful, choosing a solo walk to the Red Keep.

Jon and Davos, after granting Tyrion’s wish of solitude, run into Grey Worm and a platoon of Unsullied soldiers carrying out the Queen’s Justice. The (not-quite) bastard of Winterfell gets on his high horse and objects to further slaughter of defeated Lannister troops but the leader of the Unsullied isn’t trying to hear any of that noise. To his eyes, they are the Queen’s enemies and they’re still breathing, so the job isn’t finished. Being the damned honorable fool he is, Jon tries to grab Grey Worm’s arm to stop him from carrying out his sentencing and the rest of the Unsullied square up to protect their general. The Northmen behind Jon follow suit, quite a bit slower, and we’re stuck in a stand-off until Davos eases tensions and suggests talking to the Queen to gain clarity on that order. Let’s keep it a buck, Jon’s troops would have gotten that WORK from the Unsullied. He knew it, Davos knew it, their mamas knew it, and so Jon lets Grey Worm’s arm go and skips along to see Dany faster than Cersei did avoiding the Cleganebowl.

Making his way into the castle, Tyrion passes the Small Council chambers, Cersei’s painted map of Westeros, and searches the cellars for some sign of hope against all futility that Jaime was successful at escaping with his sister. Digging through the rubble, he comes across a golden hand, and after uncovering his twin siblings’ remarkably well-preserved remains, breaks down in rage and despair. That boy was ACT-ING this episode!

Arya, who was last seen as Death riding a pale horse leaving the city, is for some reason back in the middle of King’s Landing on foot as she spots Jon making his way through Dany’s army celebrating their Queen’s conquest with the Targaryen flag already flying above the city. As Jon slowly summits the steps leading to the burned out Red Keep, we get a flawless rendering of Dany walking out to meet the masses with Drogon’s outstretched wings behind her, the Targaryen every bit the dragon she was born to be. Not ones for subtlety, Benioff and Weiss have the Unsullied and Dothraki (who both seem to have magically repopulated since the Battle of Winterfell) aligned in classic military propaganda formation straight out of the Third Reich, as Daenerys launches into her vision of the new world. Rather than being satisfied with coming home again and reclaiming her ancestral throne, she is now ready to liberate all the people of the world from tyranny wherever she sees fit on every continent, as she finally gives voice to her abstractions of breaking the wheel.

What made last week’s heel turn for Daenerys such an odd choice, was that this was the tyrannical energy the show had been seeding for her all series long. Dany the Conqueror, rather than the Queen, is who she has always been shown to be at the core. Even a character as single-minded as Daario peeped game on that seasons ago. Her needlessly slaughtering citizens of the country she now controlled added nothing to her story when she was already presented as someone who would burn down the old world and anyone standing in the way of her just new one. The fact that the show realized this hadn’t been presented as alarming enough to give Tyrion, Jon, and the others pause until two episodes before the finale — forcing the need to insert implausible character decisions this late into the game — is endemic of the writing so many have been disappointed by.

A Daenerys so convinced of her innate goodness that she sees herself as the only arbiter of justice is terrifying, yet entirely within the scales of an established morality we’ve seen since episode one. Burning your own city to instill fear in those who were only in the capital because they were already afraid of you is maddeningly pointless and logically inconsistent.

Tyrion, who’s as fed up as many of the viewers, confronts his Queen while confessing his latest treason of freeing his brother, and flings off his Hand of the Queen badge in front of the gathered host. Somehow he wasn’t executed on the spot for this (or all his other failures) and is brought to a makeshift prison since the Black Cells are closed for excavation at the moment. He shares a knowing look with Jon as he’s being led away, who turns to probe Dany marching back to her castle, leaving him alone on the platform until Arya ninjas her way up there. She tries to warn Jon that he’s in danger, but you already know he knows nothing.

A picture of inner turmoil, Jon visits Tyrion in his cell, seemingly looking for any way of talking himself into continuing to stand behind Dany after her war crimes. Tyrion however, realizing he played himself after betraying his best friend for inciting treason just last week, pulls a 180 and does everything but get down on one knee to beg Jon to put aside the Ranger and become who he was born to be. The former Hand tries to explain (as a proxy for the writers) how Daenerys’s murder frenzy was foreshadowed all along and compares burning slave masters with non-combatant civilians, showing my man has still lost the thread as he hasn’t been right since he shot his father with a crossbow.

I appreciate the attempt at demonstrating a pattern of violence, and the fact that Daenerys kept killing the right evil people did obscure a creeping tyranny of her own, but these two things are not analogous. It’s the same reason we can tell the difference between Tyrion using wildfire in the Battle of the Blackwater, and Cersei using it to blow up the Sept of Baelor. Tyrion also elides the fact that he was by her side, advising Daenerys through many of these decisions by admitting he loves her, so it’s not his fault, nor would it be Jon’s for that same reason. After all his other pleas fail, Tyrion echoes Varys trying to convince Ned Stark to confess in season one, and invokes the safety of Sansa and Arya, as it’s all too clear the lengths Daenerys will go to consolidate and maintain her power. He even flips Maester Aemon’s warnings that love is the death of duty into, “sometimes duty is the death of love.”

Still swearing by his Queen, Jon proceeds to the throne room, but not before being sniffed out by Drogon — the three-time defending Hide-and-Seek champion — who managed to bury himself completely in the falling ash. Meanwhile Daenerys, fulfilling her vision from the House of the Undying finally lays her eyes on the prize, and summits the steps to the Iron Throne. She reaches out to claim her victory, but just as in her dream she turns away before getting to sit, becoming distracted by Jon entering the room.

Secure in herself having attained her dream, she greets Jon warmly forgetting she’s disgusted with his betrayal. She begins telling him her origin story, which he interrupts to talk out his angst. As the stupidest man alive, Jon implores her to find some justification for her actions and searches for any shred of the woman he thought she was. Dany unwittingly talks herself out of salvation, describing the world she and Jon will build together as they decide what “good” is, and he realizes she’s too far gone with her convictions. Promising she’ll always be his Queen he finally kisses her like he did by the lake in Naboo, but as he slips the tongue Jon also slips his knife into Daenerys. Just like a man he had to get up in them guts one last time. Cradling Dany’s limp corpse the same way he did Ygritte after she was shot in Castle Black, Jon is a broken man crushed by the weight of his sense of duty to the realm with the genuine love he shared for his now murdered aunt.

The most surprising part of this moment was how boring the whole thing was. Despite genuine performances (Emilia Clarke deserves all her things), and a beautiful score backing it, the whole affair came off as entirely perfunctory. Sure it was the ending most expected, but I never thought I would feel the gaping nothingness watching it all go down. For all the investment I had in both of the characters’ arcs, it was Drogon’s pained screeches of fury that moved me the most as he felt his psychic bond with his mother severed. Watching my young dragon son try to nudge Daenerys back to life like she was Mufasa somehow managed to be far more evocative than the supposed shock of being stabbed to death by her love. Jon didn’t even get Lightbringer for all his troubles.

The dragon in a rage turns towards his cousin, and Jon who it feels like has been looking for a way to die ever since he was resurrected, stands there ready to receive justice. Drogon, First of his name, rightful heir to the Iron Throne and King of the Seven Kingdoms, decides instead to turn his fury on the chair whose corrupting force drove his mother to this end and melts the damn thing. We knew dragons were highly intelligent, but who knew they had such a grasp for symbolism? Taking a final look at Jon, Drogon picks up Daenerys with his claw and flies off into the night as we fade to black.

The scene reopens with Tyrion being awoken in his cell after an unspecified time skip marked only by the shagginess of his beard. Grey Worm leads him out to the Dragon Pit where the lords and ladies of Westeros’ Great Houses have assembled. Sam speaks for the Tarlys despite being disinherited as a member of the Night’s Watch, we have the unnamed Prince of Dorne mentioned two episodes ago, Queen of the Iron Isles Yara Greyjoy, Lord of Storm’s End Gendry Baratheon, a couple of random white men no one even bothers to introduce, and they even dug up Edmure Tully and a Neville Longbottoming Robin Arryn. But the stars of the show are clearly the Starks (Arya, Bran, and Sansa) here to get their brother out of prison. Oh yeah, Jon apparently was arrested off-screen despite there being no body of Daenerys, no dagger to find, and no witnesses to what happened, so you know his dumb ass confessed unprompted. And some people really wanted this dry snitching idiot as King.

As always in these Love & Hip Hop reunion shows, things get off to a contentious start. Yara, whose reign in the Iron Islands was granted by Daenerys, is all for executing Jon for regicide. Arya reminds her to check her tone, and that if she talks about killing Jon again she’ll help her join the rest of the Greyjoys in the afterlife with the quickness. Davos offers to pay off the Unsullied with the Reach (presumably Highgarden) but Grey Worm angrily rejects the bribe in favor of justice. As there is no King or Queen to decide that justice however, Tyrion proposes the assembled crowd decide on a new ruler. There is a perfectly hilarious moment as Edmure Tully really has the unmitigated gall to put himself up for the throne before Sansa — with all the kindness and shade she can muster — tells her uncle to sit his five dollar ass down before she makes change. For a moment, I thought he might have had the good sense to nominate someone else (namely Sansa), but he really tried it. The cackle I let out when I realized he was serious might be my favorite thing this season. Edmure couldn’t even sit down after being shamed into silence without accidentally banging his sword on the pillar of the tent. A clown to the last.

Sam tries to propose the concept of democracy and gets laughed out of the room to the general bemusement of the convened crowd. Tyrion, once again talking himself out of trouble is asked who he thinks should be crowned, and those who thought Jon’s parentage would come into play (at all) in the finale were as bitterly disappointed as #SansaHive when the Lord Lannister put forth Bran Stark. Citing the importance of stories, he decides that Bran has the most electability and as the Three-Eyed Raven knows all the stories. How he decided Bran had the best story when Sansa, Brienne, Arya, or even Davos are sitting right there, no one knows. It remains unclear how much anyone outside of Winterfell is even aware or believes about Bran’s abilities so I’m still not sure how the rest of the nobility went along with it, but after a whole season maintaining he doesn’t want anything anymore, Bran accepts the nomination as King with a sardonic “Why do you think I came all this way?”

Forget the horrible title of “Bran the Broken” as given by Tyrion, he’s Bran the Scammer. This fool really sat there in his chair and finessed his way to the top. Chaos is a ladder indeed! The last time we saw this man in charge he was giving away the two farm hands that Theon burned in place of him and Rickon, and losing his castle to a motley crew of Ironborn. But for some reason, everyone else seems to listen to the twice deposed Hand and Bran carries the day. After a unanimous vote, Sansa demures and asserts the North’s independence from the crown, which King Brandon Stark accepts. Apparently no one told any of the other houses that was an option before the voting. That noise you hear in the background is the internal scream of Dorne and the Iron Islands’ regret. Bran then immediately makes Tyrion his Hand, much to Grey Worm’s objection, his punishment for his crimes being to fix the many wrongs he’s made…by doing the same job he already had and screwed up in the first place. Apparently this made sense to everyone but Grey Worm. To keep the peace, Jon, rather than being freed or executed is sent to the Night’s Watch, which their former Lord Commander can’t believe still exists.

Beginning our final goodbyes, we get Jon finally back to his glorious windswept curly hair blowing in freedom as he prepares to head north. He gets stared down by Grey Worm for the last time, who is sailing with the rest of the Unsullied to Naath so that he can honor his word to Missandei to free her people and protect the home she loved so much. The Dothraki are also boarding up, presumably to sail back to Essos as well, but for whatever reason pay no mind to the man who murdered their Khaleesi. On the dock of the bay, the remaining Stark children, after years of being split up by war, finally choose their own fates. Sansa is returning home to rule the North in the Stark name, Bran of course will remain in the capital as King, but the girl who threw away her life as no one to reclaim herself as Arya Stark of Winterfell, decides to make good on a season six promise (made when she thought she had no more family) to sail to the end of the map and find what’s west of Westeros. It’s another moment at odds with the character who had gone through hell to get back to her loved ones, but perhaps more understandable in light of her decision to live for more than just vengeance.

After another uncertain time jump, we find Brienne of Tarth as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard flipping through the Book of Brothers (the White Book) to see Jaime Lannister’s accomplishments, which she fills in with her own hand. Resisting the petty urges in me to turn it into a Burn Book, the most honorable knight in Seven Six Kingdoms restores a bit of dignity to the Kingslayer’s name with Oathkeeper (and possibly Widow’s Wail) hanging on the wall of White Sword Tower. They really could have given it back to the Starks as a sign of goodwill since they were forged from Ice, but I suppose technically it is with the last trueborn son of Ned Stark after they were used to defend his daughters.

Back in the small council room, Tyrion methodically rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic as we meet King Bran’s court. The new Hand is joined by Bronn, Lord of Highgarden and Lord Paramount of the Reach, as Master of Coin (because a scammer never dies); Ser Davos as the Master of Ships; and Sam Tarly as Grand Maester (despite not having earned any actual links on his chain) because white dudes always fail up. Sam presents Tyrion with the newest work from the Citadel, “A Song of Ice and Fire” detailing the entire series as they lean into the Tolkien. Bran came through dripping in his Kingly raven-themed fit pushed by none other than Ser Podrick, who got himself into the Kingsguard as well. Asking about Drogon’s whereabouts, the best information the council has was that he was flying east (possibly towards Volantis or Valyria) and Bran intones he might have better luck finding the dragon before abruptly being wheeled out of the meeting. Picking up where the series began, we have the small council ruling the country while the King does whatever he feels like, bored with the monotony of ruling.

Speaking of full circle, the series ends mirroring its opening shot from the cold open, with riders leaving Castle Black and setting out beyond the Wall. With the threat of the White Walkers apparently over and the wildlings reaching a peace with the Night’s Watch, the journey is much less perilous. Jon, back in his familiar black as King Crow, and the Stark children now have chosen the people they want to be, as scenes of each of them stepping into their destiny are intercut with their muted victories. Sansa receives the coronation she’s long deserved as Queen in the North, Arya sets sail to Valinor, and Jon — reunited with Ghost and Tormund — sets out with the rest of the Free Folk seemingly forever, choosing to live his life in the real North.

Turn out the lights, the party’s over! In a vacuum, I don’t hate most of the resolutions nearly as much as I thought I would (especially if we end up getting the Arya spinoff that we deserve). But that’s just it, the episode felt exactly like what it was, a mad dash to get to bullet point notes for character journeys. If it weren’t for the previous episodes lowering my expectations, I’d be more disappointed with so many character arcs ending in flat circles, erasing years of growth, but there was no way for them to land planes that had already crashed. In the end, almost none of the plot points that were so interesting had any payoff in the final story and could have been wholly excised, from Jon being Aegon Targaryen, to Arya learning how to be a Faceless Assassin, Daenerys’s fertility or Cersei’s pregnancy, but what’s done is done. Like Dexter, we got four incredible seasons of television, and a few great episodes after that, but now my watch has ended.

It’s been a privilege hopping on these recaps with you all, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the finale for good or ill.