Spoilers ahead for the series finale episode.
Valar Morghulis. All men must die, and all shows must end, even those that had become global blockbusters and money spinners.
And so it was with Game of Thrones, which concluded its eight-season run on Sunday (Monday in India) with heartbreaking goodbyes as well as gentle farewells and memories of the songs of ice and fire that had dominated the television landscape since 2011.
The series finale, written and directed by show-runners David Benioff and DB Weiss, was aptly titled The Iron Throne, one of several ways in which the HBO pop culture behemoth circled back to its beginnings while coming to an end.
The final moments were a time for reconnaissance, retribution and rebuilding. After Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her dragons decimated the Westeros capital in the penultimate episode, The Bells, the finale began by surveying the damage. Along with hundreds of nameless King’s Landing residents, buried in the debris was the dream of a better world, with Daenerys at the helm.
But the Mother of Dragons was wasting no time on regret. Let’s similarly liberate all Seven Kingdoms, she cried out to her army. Before all of Westeros could be razed to the ground, the breaker of chains had to be stopped. Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) had to put his wits to good use for what could possibly be the last time. You must stop her, he urged Jon Snow (Kit Harington), and the stage was set for a heartbreaking decision, one that would seal Jon Snow’s fate along with that of the woman he loved.
Daenerys’s rapid regression from dynamic ruler to despot in recent episodes seemed ill-conceived and poorly executed, and the finale spent some time trying to contextualise the decline. Despite the daunting task of tying up several loose ends in an 80-minute swan song, the episode spared some time for exposition courtesy Tyrion, this episode’s stand-in for the voice of the show-runners. She’ll kill everything that comes in the way of her idea of paradise, he told Jon Snow.
“I’m no ordinary woman, my dreams come true,” Daenerys had proclaimed in season two, and she was proven right, somewhat. The finale of Game of Thrones served up its most high-profile death (Daenerys) as well as its most momentous one – that of the Iron Throne. The woman who sought to break the wheel unintentionally spurred Westeros to a new dawn, a world without the Iron Throne and all the dirty politics that came with it.
A new king was chosen – Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), to no one or everyone’s surprise – and a new order ushered in, one that traded hereditary monarchy for a semi-democratic selection process. Let a council of Westeros’s lords and ladies vote on a new ruler each time, Tyrion decreed, and the show finally gave its most compelling player a fitting end. Tyrion had been increasingly lost in recent seasons, but the dwarf lived up to his stature by emerging as the hand that will shape the new Westeros.
Other major characters too got satisfactory conclusions after a season full of disappointing character turns. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) finally got a fit platform for her ample leadership skills, taking charge as Queen in the North after securing her kingdom’s independence (it helped that her brother was at the helm).
Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), ever the lone warrior, set off on her nth journey into the unknown, to discover an unmapped land – what’s west of Westeros? Game of Thrones may not have answered that question, but some day, one of the numerous spin-offs might.
Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) unceremoniously abandoned Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) to die in the arms of Cersei (Lena Headey) in the previous episode, but the ever-loyal and newly knighted “big woman” redeemed him once again. And Bran’s selection as king pointed to a new vision for Westeros, one which is led by “cripples, bastards and broken things”, and where the knowledge of past horrors could bring in a better future. Even the direwolf Ghost, whose hasty abandonment in episode four had angered fans, was reunited with Jon Snow.
Other key players and characters who had dropped out of sight returned for a final bow. Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) signed the attendance roster briefly to register her protest against the killing of her ruler of choice. Robin Arryn (Lino Facioli) came to make a few nods and vote Bran into power. The new prince of Dorne, whose passing mention a few episodes ago had spurred speculation of a surprise plot twist, also had a blink-and-miss appearance.
In the ashes of King’s Landing, there were glimmers of what Game of Thrones used to be before it traded meticulous world building and subtlety for magical resolutions and jaw-dropping spectacles. Weiss and Benioff had the unenviable task of seeing someone else’s vision through to conclusion – they ran past George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels by season six – and without the backing of the source material, Game of Thrones lost much of what made it such a genre-defying and award-winning television event.
The show’s eighth season came under fire for its haphazard plotting and inconsistent pacing, becoming the subject of a petition urging a rewrite with one million signatories. The last episode worked in part to undo the damage. After two high-octane battle episodes and lots of fire and blood, the series finale appeared comfortable in the quieter moments, leaving room for conversation and unhurried scenes.
At some points, the showrunners seemed to be talking directly to the audience through their characters. “Was it right, what I did?” Jon Snow asked Tyrion after killing Daenerys. “What we did. Ask me again in 10 years,” Tryion said. A decade on, viewers may not remember the many disappointments of the show’s final season, or the coffee cup that snuck into Westeros in episode four. Game of Thrones, instead, will secure its place in history as the show that gave the world Ramin Djawadi’s sublime theme song and music one that changed the way television was consumed. The show may be over, but the fiery debates, meaningful deconstruction, and endless, if sometimes futile analysis that it gave rise to will go on for some time yet.