Monday, May 20, 2019

Game of Thrones, Season 8 Episode 6, “The Iron Throne”

“The Iron Throne” should have been a great series finale. It’s rife with callbacks to earlier parts of the series, and provides us with the satisfaction of seeing the Starks -- long the representatives of all that is just and fair in Westeros -- firmly in positions of power, settling the question of who will rule Westeros, and thus correcting the unconventional story turns of Ned’s beheading and the Red Wedding. However, most of what might be satisfying about these resolutions is thoroughly undermined by the path showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took to arrive at them.

Like many parts of this season and some of the previous one, “The Iron Throne” is rushed and nonsensical, full of poorly motivated or flat out inexplicable character behavior. Scenes that should be powerful and emotional are undermined both by shortcuts taken in previous episodes, and by characters that have been contorted to fit the needs of the plot. Sure, there are some grace notes in the margins, but overall, “The Iron Throne,” is an incredibly underwhelming series finale.

These problems are most glaring in the episode's most climactic scene: Jon and Dany’s confrontation in front of the Iron Throne. Jon murders Dany after she insists that she was right to burn King’s Landing and confirms that she intends to “break the wheel” of oppression by subjecting everyone to her own (oppressive) rule. This should have been a great scene, one where we understand both characters’ mindsets and motivations, and why they’re at such an impasse. For Jon, it should have been a tragic moment of character growth, one where he finally does the “right” thing, rather than the honorable or duty-bound thing, even though it means he’s forced to let go of his love (something he couldn’t do in the past when confronted with a similar situation with Ygritte). For Daenerys, it should have been a tragic demise, dying right when she’s on the verge of achieving her series-long goal, which has become corrupted by her entitlement.

However, the entire scene falls flat because Dany’s transformation from heroic Breaker of Chains to villainous Burner of Cities in “The Bells” was so rushed and contrary to so much of her previous behavior that it came across as a character inconsistency rather than a well-motivated development. Indeed, her hasty villainous turn undercuts all of her scenes in “The Iron Throne,” because the finale doubles down on her villainy.* Her victory speech to the Unsullied and Dothraki armies, for instance, is the insane talk of a tyrant rather than that of the empathetic leader we’ve come to know; it even contradicts the speech she made only a few episodes ago in Winterfell about fighting the "last war."

*As if the imagery from “The Bells” hinting at Daenerys’s monstrousness wasn’t obvious enough, “The Iron Throne” is even more on the nose when Daenerys seem to sprout dragon wings as Drogon takes flight behind her. The monster symbolism is even maintained in subsequent closer shots, where the broken archway above her resembles the tips of dragon wings. Talk about gilding the lily, or in this case, the turd blossom.

Rather than be moved by the tragedy of Jon stabbing Dany through the heart, instead I was just irritated over how unearned it felt. I found it hard to appreciate Dany’s shock, Jon and Drogon’s grief, Jon’s character growth, or the nice touch of having it snow in the throne room (Jon’s “ice” figuratively putting out Dany’s “fire”) because all of it is predicated on the haphazard transformation of Dany's character. Jon murders a poorly executed character contortion rather than the fleshed-out character we’ve been watching for eight seasons.

These problems extend to any scene about Daenerys, including Jon and Tyrion’s big scene earlier in the episode. This scene is about one thing: Tyrion trying to convince both Jon and viewers of Dany’s villainous turn. In Jon’s case, Tyrion is trying to convince him that it’s necessary for Jon to betray and murder Dany. In our case, Tyrion becomes a cipher for Benioff and Weiss, who try to convince us of the plausibility of Dany’s turn, speaking directly to us about how we cheered her for killing evil men in the past, which made it easy to mistake her desire to rebuild the world for some sort of innate character morality. Tyrion is successful as far as Jon is concerned, although I found it irritating that Jon even needed Tyrion to convince him, given that Jon witnessed Dany's rampage for himself. On the other hand, I suppose I should give the writers credit for consistently writing Jon as thick and stubborn. At least he hasn’t been contorted to fit the needs of the plot, because it takes a mountain to convince him to betray his oath (and his love). Tyrion needs to point out that Dany will eventually kill Jon (a threat to her claim), and his sisters when they resist her rule. Jon can accept the former, but not the latter.

However, Tyrion fails as a cipher for Benioff and Weiss (Jon's look of disbelief in the accompanying image uncannily resembles my own attitude toward much of this episode). Benioff and Weiss essentially argue that we should accept Dany's razing of King's Landing as well-motivated because Dany truly believes in her right to rule the better world she intends to build, and therefore she would be willing kill anyone who stood in her way. That’s fine insofar as it applies to Dany murdering Cersei, but it still makes no goddamn sense for her to have razed King’s Landing. The people of King’s Landing got out of Dany’s way when they rang the bells, but she still plowed through them anyway. Tyrion and Jon’s scene is yet another one that could be great -- I can easily imagine relishing in the disappointment and remorse Tyrion feels when he tells Jon about how he truly believed in Dany -- but like every other Dany-related scene in "The Iron Throne," it’s potential greatness is sabotaged by the actual circumstances of Dany’s villainy.

Even parts of “The Iron Throne” that don’t directly concern Dany were rushed and bizarre, with characters behaving in head-scratching ways. Perhaps the most egregious example is the summit where all of the remaining Westerosi powers gather to decide what to do in the wake of Daenerys’s murder and Jon’s imprisonment by the Unsullied. For some reason, Benioff and Weiss set the scene in the dragon arena where most of the characters met to negotiate a truce back in the season seven finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.” It’s a poor choice because reusing the same setting makes it quite clear how much weaker this new scene is. Rather than being populated by strong characters with definitive, conflicting goals like Jaime, Cersei, Jon, and (formerly) Dany, instead we’re left with also-rans like Gendry, Yara, Edmure, some nameless guy whose costume indicates that he’s from Dorne, and a now-grown up Robin Arryn. Yes, Sansa, Arya, Tyrion, Grey Worm and other favorites are also here, but rather than be impressed by the concentration of notable characters in one location (which I was with “The Dragon and the Wolf”), instead I was simply underwhelmed by the remaining roster.

Poor choice of setting and relative strength of characters aside, the scene also fairs poorly in comparison with “The Dragon and the Wolf” because the conflict that brings these characters together in "The Iron Throne" is muddled. The scene begins as a negotiation between Jon’s followers and Dany’s followers over Jon and Tyrion’s imprisonment, but this conflict seems to end as soon as everyone decides that they need to choose a new leader for the Seven Kingdoms. Inexplicably, Grey Worm -- who rightly wants Jon to stay imprisoned for killing Dany -- seems to abandon his desire for revenge and agrees to abide by the decision of whomever those gathered elect as their ruler. This is bad enough, but what’s even more inexplicable is who they decide on as their ruler: Bran.

Tyrion gives what is meant to be a rousing speech in support of Bran as a new King, and offers the idea of an elected monarchy instead of a hereditary one to solve the problem of Bran’s infertility. However, despite Tyrion claiming to have thought long and hard about it, the idea still seems to come out of nowhere. He sells an elected monarchy to Grey Worm as a way of truly honoring Daenerys’s legacy (breaking the wheel, as it were), which is fine, but I see no reason for Grey Worm to obey whatever any new monarch might decree about Jon.

More importantly, in no way, shape, or form has Bran demonstrated any qualities that would make for a good ruler. Bran hasn’t shown any talent for inspiring loyalty, uniting people, or resolving conflicts. All he’s been really good at is indexing his encyclopedic knowledge of historical and current events, and making people feel uncomfortable by quoting them back to themselves. Rather than a charismatic leader, Bran is more like your awkward cousin who weirds people out at family gatherings.

Moreover, Tyrion doesn’t know Bran well enough to make this endorsement, nor do any of the others voting for him (aside from Sam). Yes, Tyrion pulled up a chair to Bran after one of the strategy sessions in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” and asked Bran to tell him his story, but that hardly seems like it would be enough to leave such a strong impression on Tyrion. And if this exchange did make Tyrion think Bran would be a good ruler, then we needed to be shown that scene, or at least see Tyrion leave it impressed enough to make this nomination more plausible. Perhaps Tyrion could have even commented about Bran in conversation with other characters in subsequent episodes. However, none of these seeds have been planted, and thus rather than a surprise that makes sense retrospectively, like so many of Game of Thrones's other successful surprises (Ned’s beheading, the bombing of the Sept of Baelor, the Red Wedding, and so on, all of which developed out of character traits or political alliances), instead Tyrion nominating Bran as King seems like a surprise with no motivation whatsoever. Better would have been for Tyrion to nominate Sansa, whom he knows well, and who has proven again and again these past two seasons to be the smartest and most capable leader in Westeros (more on her below).

Making this scene even more irritating, Bran himself seems to undergo an under-written and inexplicable transformation akin to Dany’s when he responds to Tyrion’s proposal by smugly asking, “Why do you think I came all this way?” This reply bothered me for many reasons. For one, it makes it seem like Bran knew what Tyrion was going to propose, but how could he? So far as we know, there’s no historical precedent for it, and last I checked, the Three-Eyed Raven’s powers don’t include telepathy, so the unless Tyrion bounced this idea off of his Unsullied captors (unlikely), Bran never would have had a chance to overhear it.

Another issue here: Bran has never even hinted at a desire to rule, and has in fact repeatedly stated the opposite. The last time he expressed any strong views on who should rule Westeros, he seemed firmly on team Jon, yet his self-satisfied response here makes it seem like he was simply waiting eagerly to be nominated, even though he claims not to want to job. He also seems uncharacteristically smug when he makes a brief final appearance near the episode’s end, telling Tyrion that he’s sure that his table of advisers will improve in their salute of his rule. I suppose we’ve seen him get a rise out of unsettling Jaime and Littlefinger in the past, but his self-satisfaction in “The Iron Throne” makes it seem like he’s been replaced by another character entirely (your bratty cousin, rather than your awkward one).

One final complaint about this summit: Sansa refuses to join everyone else in support of Bran, and decides to make the North an independent kingdom once again. Her resistance to Dany’s rule was understandable (and she ended up being right about Dany, even if the show had to break Dany’s character in the process), but her refusal to be ruled by Bran makes less sense. While she chafed at Jon’s leadership, she was often right to do so, as she was one of the few characters (other than Ygritte) who recognized how thickheaded Jon can be. However, she has no similar reason for doubting Bran, and the reasons she gives for keeping the North independent seem superficial: too many Northerners fell in fighting the undead for them to ever kneel again. Yet they easily accepted both Robb and then Jon as “King in the North,” so why would they have any problem with doing the same for Bran? Moreover, declaring herself Queen in the North would just make all the Northerners swear fealty to her instead (which is exactly what we see them do at the end of the episode).

It would make more sense for Sansa to just want to be a fully independent ruler, since she is tired of being subordinated to men, foolish or otherwise. That might be her real motivation here, thin or selfish as it might be, but glossing over that motivation creates some unwanted ambiguity at best; at worst, it makes Sansa seem like yet another puppet being jerked around by Benioff and Weiss’s strings. Better, once again, would have been to have Tyrion nominate Sansa, because going by his criteria of a good story uniting people, then Sansa's story (or even Arya's) is just as compelling as Bran's, if not more so.

Jon’s ending also introduces some perhaps unintentional (and certainly unwanted) ambiguity. His punishment for queenslaying is to be sent back to the Night’s Watch.* It truly is a punishment, because it forces Jon to live out his life by revisiting a chapter from his past that he thought was long behind him. The weight of this punishment is conveyed to us by Jon sighing with resignation as he approaches Castle Black, which for all intents and purposes is Westeros’s purgatory. Yet this punishment is alleviated by the surprising and inexplicable presence of Tormund, Ghost (whom Jon finally pets), and the other Free Folk waiting for him in Castle Black. It’s nice that Jon’s greeted by his friends, but what the hell are they doing there? They should be well-beyond the wall at this point.

* I’m just going to ignore the implausibility of Grey Worm agreeing to this form of punishment. Grey Worm might be the character done the greatest disservice by this finale, since a lot of his behavior is entirely inconsistent with his devotion to Dany. At least he gets to set sail for the Isle of Naath, honoring Missandei’s memory by visiting her home.

Confounding as the Free Folk's presence is, Jon’s fate isn't made ambiguous until the very last moments of the series, which ends with Jon, dressed in Night’s Watchmen black, escorting Tormund and the rest north beyond the wall. When the gate closes behind him, Jon looks back at the gate, then looks around at the Free Folk, and continues to walk alongside them, into the woods. It certainly seems as though Jon is abandoning his dutiful punishment and deciding to live with Tormund and the other Free Folk (which is what he told Tormund he wished he could do two episodes ago), but he could also simply be seeing them off to wherever they’re going before turning back. It’s unclear, and a moment of weakness in the direction and in Kit Harrington’s performance. Perhaps a slight smile on Jon’s face, or cutting back to a confused Night’s Watchman manning the gate, or Jon discarding his Night’s Watch cloak would have dispelled the ambiguity. There’s potential here, but like much of the rest of these past two episodes, it’s muddied by mediocre execution.

Another nice moment in this finale that’s partly undone by choices made in “The Bells” is Brienne filling out Jaime’s entry in The Book of Brothers, which details the heroic deeds of the Kingsguard. We previously saw this book in season four, when Joffrey chided Jaime for having such a brief entry, which stopped at his slaying of the Mad King and acquiring the  Kingslayer moniker. In filling out Jaime’s entry with his many heroic deeds in the time since, Brienne, who has been made Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, honors and eulogizes Jaime by showing that he had indeed changed into becoming a better man than he was at the start of the series. Almost none of the things she lists are ones that Jaime would have done, or been able to do, in his youthful arrogance. It’s a lovely tribute, and a moving rebuttal to Jaime’s final words to Brienne about being a hateful man. Yet its impact is undermined because Jaime died reaffirming to Cersei the myopic self-centeredness they shared in their youth. Rather than writing the truth of a good man, Brienne’s account of Jaime’s deeds becomes a papering over of his apparently unshakable flaws.

As disappointing as large parts of this finale are, it isn’t all bad. There are some grace notes in the margins. Sam becoming the Grand Maester of the Red Keep is a nice touch, as is Bronn becoming the Master of Coin, and Davos the Master of Ships. The banter between these three, Brienne, and Tyrion was thoroughly enjoyable, and a good version of “happily ever after” for Tyrion, who gets what he really wanted, which is for his (surviving) friends to get along with each other. I also enjoyed Tyrion’s discovery of Jaime and Cersei’s bodies, where we get to see him mourn his siblings. Even if one of them hated him, it’s still hard for him to be alone in the world, and he could be crying just as much for what’s become of their family, and for all of the destruction of the battle, driven home to him through the discovery of their corpses. I also liked the crosscut graphic matches between Sansa, Jon, and Arya near the end of the episode, even if I found Jon’s fate unintentionally ambiguous, and even if Arya’s fate seemed more like the writers shrugging their shoulders at what to do with her rather than something that fit her arc on the series. I suppose Arya is too much an adventurer for her to be happy settling in at either Bran or Sansa’s courts.

The cover to the first edition
paperback I read back
in 1997 or 1998.
Finally, while this ending to Game of Thrones might have been underwhelming, at least it was an ending. I’ve been reading George R. R. Martin’s series since the first book was published in 1996, and thus after twenty years, I’m happy to have any kind of ending to this story, even if it’s one that has been a letdown in a lot of respects. Of course, I’ll be even happier if Martin can finish his series at some point, and does better justice to these characters than did Benioff and Weiss.

Overall, the books and the series have enriched one another. When the series began, I was excited to see the characters I knew so well come to life through the mostly excellent performances of the actors, some of which, like Peter Dinklage, actually improved my reading of the characters on the page. Only one book -- A Dance with Dragons -- was published during the show’s run, but I read Tyrion with Dinklage’s performance in mind, and the book was richer for it.

Ultimately, there will be some strange symmetry to my experience of this story. I began watching Game of Thrones with a comparative mindset, interested to see how Benioff and Weiss adapted the books, applauding their improvements (Shae) and bemoaning their missteps (Jaime in Dorne). If/when Martin finishes writing the series, now I’ll read the remaining books with a comparative mindset, excited to see if Martin zigs where Benioff and Weiss zagged. Even if Martin’s destination is the same, I’ll be curious to see if Martin can provide a more satisfying resolution that better motivates the final plot developments than what the television writers were able to produce. I remain hopeful that he’ll pull it off effectively.

Other thoughts:

- Another complaint: Arya ended “The Bells” riding out of King’s Landing on a horse that miraculously survived the burning, but Arya appears on foot at the start of “The Iron Throne.” Where did her horse go? It’s a minor continuity error, but it’s also a synecdoche for the larger problems of these past few episodes, which similarly sacrificed plausibility and continuity of character for dramatic “payoffs.”

- Somewhere between deciding to burn King’s Landing and giving her speech to her armies, Dany must have found time to fix her makeup.

- Looks like I was right in hypothesizing that Drogon would melt down the Iron Throne, although I was wrong about Jon and Dany forging a new one from its remains.

UPDATE: some critics have made some good jokes about why Drogon would burn the Iron Throne rather than the guy responsible for killing his mom (like that he must have thought the knife sticking out of her chest was from the throne, or that his one complex thought on the series was to understand the throne as a toxic symbol of patriarchal rule), but it was my understanding that he afforded Jon the same special privilege he afforded Daenerys, either because he is a Targaryen, or because he was Dany's lover. He may or may not understand why Dany is dead, but he certainly seems to understand the love Dany had for Jon, which was not dissimilar from the love she had for him, Rhaegal, and Viserion.

- What the hell does Bran need with a Master of Whisperers? The Three-Eyed Raven needs no such spymaster. If anything, Bran should have ended the series as the Master of Whisperers. Although I suppose the academic in me wants Bran to be ensconced in the Citadel, correcting and amending historical tomes.

- I enjoyed the comedy of Edmure's pitch to become king of Westeros, especially his bumping his sword against his chair, but the absurdity of him as king is undermined by the actual king everyone elects moments later, which is just as absurd as Edmure thinking he's fit to be king.

- Ever since his resurrection, Jon has tied his hair back in a ponytail. I thought that it was a stylistic choice representative of death having changed him. However, after Tyrion tells Jon of his sentence, Jon lets his hair down again. Perhaps it’s meant to signal a return to his less responsibility-laden days in the Night’s Watch (although he was hardly free of responsibility then).

- One of the finale’s nice touches: Archmaester Ebrose finally finished his book on the war of the five kings, and at Sam’s suggestion, he’s titled it “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Even better: Tyrion is visibly shaken not be mentioned in it. His absence is a joke at both Tryion and Ebrose’s expenses. It’s a joke about Tyrion because despite all of his heroics and his influence on the movers and shakers of Westeros, his deeds can still be attributed to the leaders he served. It’s also a joke about Ebrose, who remains as obtuse as ever, unable to see the pivotal role Tyrion has played in the series.

- Why are the Night’s Watchmen even manning Castle Black at this point, when there’s a huge fucking hole in the eastern part of the Wall? It’s yet one more thing to add to the list of stuff that doesn’t make any goddamn sense in this episode.

- Finally, I’ll end with one of my favorite recent memes about Game of Thrones, which speaks to what’s happened with the series over the course of the past two seasons, and which alludes to my thoughts on the differences between the television series and the books:

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