TV finales and Game of Thrones’ end: The Iron Throne review

The idea of a finale is antithetical to the very construct of a TV show. Unlike some other forms of storytelling, TV shows are designed to be able to rumble on week after week, year after year, for as long as the network needs them to go on for.

Historically, they were made to be formulaic and familiar, so that any time you tuned in you could be assured of returning to a familiar world with familiar faces. Hence, TV drama for a long time was defined by police procedurals, while comedy was the home of sitcoms. Both forms utilise episode structures which are self-contained and where by the end of each instalment, no matter what has transpired in the meantime, everything has returned to normal. Meanwhile, production and editing techniques preference clarity at all times under the assumption that many viewers were either missing chunks of the transmission or watching it out of the corner of their eye.

The rise of serialised TV dramas in concert with changing technology and viewership habits are well-documented, but many of these hangovers from the past exist. It’s probably why few TV dramas ever try to pull off great narrative shifts or defining twists in their closing moments.

The original incarnation of Twin Peaks ground to a ignominious halt half a season after Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed and most people had stopped watching; The X-Files kind of wrapped up its main storyline half way through season six, but left enough threads unresolved for it to keep pumping out episodes long after David Duchovny had walked away; while the granddaddy of the ‘Peak TV’ drama phenomenon, The Sopranos, acknowledged this conundrum by declining to provide a definitive ending at all and simply cut to black halfway through a scene.

As box sets, premium cable stations and internet streaming services led to serialised dramas becoming the predominate form of the medium, the ending has become more important. But the results have remained mixed.

‘The Iron Throne’ needed to land the emotional gut-punch that last week’s spectacle set up. And it hit.

In more recent years, the finale for Lost has become shorthand for letting down viewers (though I would argue it’s woefully misunderstood – no, they weren’t dead the whole time), the ending of True Blood panned as a missed-stake (sorry), and the denouement of Dexter considered a laughable disaster (spoiler alert: he ends up as a lumberjack – really).

Even the shows with some of the most critically acclaimed final chapters, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, The Americans and The Leftovers among them, also have their detractors. Even the most dedicated fans of each of the aforementioned shows will probably be heard at one point saying they actually preferred the earlier seasons over the endings.

Perhaps, the lesson is that you can never hope to please all of a TV audience. Unlike a movie where you experience it in a foreign setting in one sitting, the years spent watching a TV show in intimate surroundings condition us to desire familiarity and comfort over finality and chaos.

In closing the final chapter of a TV show, it is as important to round off the narrative arc of the characters and tie up plot lines, as it is to say goodbye to the familiar faces that have become part of people’s lives. Shows such as M.A.S.H., Magnum P.I. and Frasier took this very literally, with closing segments that featured direct and obvious farewell messages.

It’s interesting to draw parallels between Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame. While Thrones has enraged armies of internet trolls with its final moments, Avengers delighted many diehards with its far more conservative approach to character climaxes, pushing the big reset button and undoing most of the damage inflicted by Infinity Wars, while giving the chance to say farewell to a few stalwarts. Just like a TV series, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is built to rumble on endlessly.

Game of Thrones has tried a little bit of everything. These final episodes have been as divisive as any in living memory, but this final episode made up some rapid ground to explain some of its characters actions, while providing some definitive answers to unresolved questions and seeing some beloved heroes riding off into the sunset (or at least frozen icy wastelands).

There’s been countless digital column inches spent analysing the prior week’s occurrence (including by myself), but perhaps the common thread between them is that while the show may have provided an endgame that is narratively interesting, it hadn’t always fulfilled the emotional desires of viewers.

There are some parts of the episode that felt a little hammy, cheesy or out of place, but they were largely side affairs.

‘The Iron Throne’ needed to land the emotional gut-punch that last week’s spectacle set up. And it hit. Dany’s reveal as a ruthless conqueror capable of barbaric acts to overcome her enemies remains a daring and brilliant feat of storytelling, if tenuously held together at times by the brilliance of Emilia Clarke’s performance.

Many viewers will no doubt still be left with feelings of betrayal, but I think it works on both an intellectual and emotional level. We’re used to seeing happy endings, where the ‘good’ guys always win and every action they take is  morally right and ethically justified. We tell the stories of heroes and victories, but iron out all the flaws and cut out the parts we don’t like.

Tyrion and Jon’s discussion of how their love and admiration for Dany blinded them to her faults and excesses should resonate. Placing powerful people on pedestals has led to some awful abuses with many otherwise well-meaning people going out of their way to protect them. With more rumblings of war in our own world, we should reflect on the dire consequences of armed conflict and question how those in power ultimately determine who is good and evil.

There are some parts of the episode that felt a little hammy, cheesy or out of place, but they were largely side affairs. The other noble lord’s acceptance of Sansa’s declaration of the North’s independence without any query is simply preposterous; Bronn’s elevation to Master of Coin is bizarre beyond words; while Bran’s election to the crown was amusing more than anything else.

Apparently the Dothraki and Unsullied have magical spawning abilities, since despite their innumerable deaths over the years they only ever seem to multiple in numbers. But much like the rest of season eight, it works best when you try not to think of the details or specifics too hard and simply go with the flow.

The show hasn’t been able to recapture its finest moments of the first four seasons for quite a while, but season eight has largely been a triumph.

This may not be the story or ending that people wanted or expected from Game of Thrones, but ultimately it provides an engaging and prescient conclusion. The show hasn’t been able to recapture its finest moments of the first four seasons for quite a while, but season eight has largely been a triumph. This assessment may have be a result of lowered expectations – I thought seasons seven in parts was beyond awful and entered this last season with a horrible sense of trepidation.

Whether it was the best show of its time is certainly debatable, but Game of Thrones was always about more than being ‘good’. It took chances few others would dare and pulled off spectacles any multi-million-dollar movie would be proud of. It has earned its place as one of the cultural touchstones of the ‘Peak TV’ era. It’s unlikely that any show will ever quite stir the same public fervour, devotion or debate with its appointment event-style viewing.

At the end, it’s not just about how the story concludes that is important, but the time spent watching, dissecting and arguing together over all of the years that has made Game of Thronessuch a memorable experience for so many people.

People will certainly be discussing this ending for years to come. Hopefully, George RR Martin may finally deliver his version of the tale and the arguments will start up all over again. The show may have taken its final bow from our screens, but in some ways we never quite say goodbye.

So, after six seasons of writing episode reviews for Game of Thrones, my watch has ended.

Thank you to everyone who came along on the journey. The kind words and evident passion of readers is what kept me coming back each year to type out these reviews through some long dark nights.   

Valar dohaeris.

2 responses to “TV finales and Game of Thrones’ end: The Iron Throne review

  1. What got me about many negative online comments is how entitled these people seem to be. It’s as if the only definitive plot ending is the one they thought of. My only criticism is that the last season has been rushed. It would have worked better as a part A and part B over, say 10 episodes. Nevertheless, the contracts were set and the staff & crew were ready to move on. Dracarys!

  2. Thanks for the review. Glad I had already seen the last episode when this popped up in my Facebook feed, the photo is a bit of a spoiler.

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