‘Game of Thrones’ Ends a Historic Run With a Disappointing Curtain Call

Eight seasons of historic television on the grandest scale imaginable finally comes to an end with more of a whisper than a roar. Maybe it was just too much and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” eventually crushed under the weight of its own magnificence. This final season of one of the defining shows of the peak TV era has been a rushed affair, with showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss cramming resolutions, love triangles, vengeance and cataclysmic war into a mere six episodes. Now comes the series finale, giving us one last twist and a few calculated endings.

King’s Landing has been reduced to ashes after Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) set it alight with all of its inhabitants with her remaining dragon, Drogon. Her arch nemesis Queen Cersei (Lena Heady) is dead, as well as Cersei’s incestuous lover Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Left shaken by the slaughter, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) has realized he was mistaken in supporting Daenerys in her supposed quest to liberate the world. Also left stunned is Daenerys’s lover and ruler of the North, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who stubbornly insists on remaining loyal to her as queen of the Seven Kingdoms. But Tyrion has fallen out of favor with Daenerys for having freed his brother Jamie in an attempt to save the now ruined city. He quits as her advisor and finds himself imprisoned, deciding to try and convince Jon to stop the increasingly insane monarch. Also against the “Mother of Dragons” are Jon’s sisters, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). Trapped between his feelings for Daenerys and his repulsion at what has taken place, Jon must make an ultimate choice that will determine whether the world will burn or not.

The great question hovering over this finale is how Benioff and Weiss planned to cap off the biggest show in the world. After a strong premiere, season eight has been plagued by the feeling of what was once an eloquent, patient series being turned into a full action romp. Even the cinematography came under fire for the episode “The Last Night,” when our heroes battled the swarming White Walkers with lighting so dark it felt like it was actually shot in the Middle Ages. The Walkers and their master the Night King, built up for years as the ultimate threat to Westeros, were snuffed out in one episode with Arya simply digging a knife into the pale King, shattering him into CGI particles. The second to last episode, “The Bells,” became all spectacle and little substance, with Daenerys suddenly turning into a dragon-riding lunatic and incinerating King’s Landing, while the diabolical Cersei was given a weak send-off with little in terms of personal reckoning or drama. There are many buried themes here about the corruption of power, misguided idealism and fanaticism, but little of it has been properly allowed to develop. Like many a last season, Benioff and Weiss have been putting this one together with the obvious tone of “let’s wrap this up.”

Fair warning that major spoilers are ahead, read no further if you have not watched the episode. The finale works slightly better than its immediate predecessors, even if once again the storytelling gets clunky in its speedy delivery. But much of it is simply a case of “it could have been worse.” More than half of it is dedicated to simply resolving where all these major characters land after wandering, fighting, loving and hating for nearly eight years. There is an odd anti-climactic spirit, as massive battles lead to quick endings. Heartbroken that his queen is a tyrant, Jon goes to see her just as she prepares to sit on that coveted Iron Throne. This after giving a massive, Napoleon-like speech about her intentions to “liberate” every corner of the world until everyone is free, under her boot that is. After angrily condemning her actions they embrace before Jon plunges a blade into Daenerys. No last words, no true reckoning with the carnage unleashed in the last episode. Drogon proceeds to melt down the throne in a rage with a blast of fiery dragon breath before flying off into the clouds with Daenerys’s body clenched in a claw. This is still the first act mind you. The dead queen’s remaining troops, the Unsullied, are understandably upset and arrest Jon. The dragon revolution is essentially dead.

It is here when the finale enters a kind of autopilot zone where it becomes all about tying up loose threads. Left without a ruler, Tyrion proposes the remaining houses of Westeros simply vote themselves for the next reigning monarch of the kingdoms. This prompts the episode’s one brilliant moment where Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) suggests they let the people vote, which inspires cackles. Tyrion proposes Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), last male heir of Winterfell, also known as Bran the Broken for his wheelchair-bound state. And so it is and Bran is voted in as new king of the Six Kingdoms (Stansa insists the North remain independent). In a sense Bran has won the “game of thrones.” Although Sansa does become Queen in the North at Winterfell while Arya is off to explore uncharted lands beyond Westeros. Lest our brothel-loving, book-devouring wit Tyrion be left empty-handed, Bran re-names him Hand of the King. But what about the angry Unsullied? To avoid war Jon is sent back to the cold frontier of the Wall, which makes one wonder why nobody simply revealed he is actually a Targaryen and therefore could have been taken out of jail and placed on the throne. Ah, but he didn’t want to be king, so the ethical man is left again in the wilderness, leading the “free folk” out of the wall and into the cold horizon by the end credits. Before this he has a rather hasty, yet somewhat moving farewell scene with Sansa, Arya and Bran (who is reduced to always speaking in catch phrases).

After seasons of dread, intensity and literary power, the finale to “Game of Thrones” is rather cheery. There’s even a comedic moment where Tyrion prepares for his first meeting as Hand and tries to keep the chairs all in nice order. Samwell brings him a copy of a new history of the recent wars named “A Song of Ice and Fire,” just like the actual George R.R. Martin books. Get it? However some moments do retain some of the show’s original aura, like a scene where Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) opens a book chronicling the Lannister lineage and fills in the pages for Jamie with his exploits. Yet we miss the show’s earlier, brutal wisdom about how the good don’t always triumph, and darkness always threatens to overtake joy.

If the final round for this epic did not live up to the hype, we are still left with all of the memorable images and moments from seven other seasons of a show that will certainly endure. It will be quite a while before we see a television series that could be said to equal cinematic ventures like “Lord of the Rings.” “Game of Thrones” at its best had the force of great literature and the beauty of a medieval tapestry. It was fantasy but also a profound gallery of characters, passions and politics. Actors like Peter Dinklage with his hard-drinking, brilliant Tyrion were made by this show. The final curtain call may have been rushed, but it was still a glorious journey worth taking.

Game of Thrones” series finale airs May 19 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.