Warning: This contains spoilers for Episode 6 of Game of Thrones Season 8. Not seen it? Click here to see where you can watch it online.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” Those were the words of Cersei way back in Season 1 of HBO’s fantasy epic, the same Cersei who wound up dead in Season 8’s penultimate episode, buried under a pile of rubble with Jaime. If that felt like too quick a departure, that’s par for the course in a rushed climactic showdown that capped off a hectic, poorly paced closing stretch. Character arcs didn’t feel entirely natural, narrative arcs felt rigidly telegraphed and things got a little too messy. But all of that chaos pays off brilliantly in Thrones’ final ever episode, as the show takes one long breath and slowly, but surely, wraps up its loose ends. Is it the ending fans have dreamed of? No, but it’s the ending that best fits the characters left standing – and gives them the time to try it on for size.
We open with Tyrion standing in the ashes of Kings Landing, after Daenerys rained fire down on the innocent townspeople the Hand of the Queen tried desperately to protect. It’s a near-silent, incredibly sombre sequence that undoes all of the hectic damage of the last episode, letting the scale of Dany’s destruction sink in. Peter Dinklage, who has for so long been the MVP of the series, gets one last showcase for his skills, as he expertly sells the grief of an unwanted brother left without a family, discovering Jaime and Cersei’s bodies among the rubble.
Dany, meanwhile, is standing at the highest point she can find in the capital, addressing her troops with the relish and conviction of a dictator who thinks that they’re the hero of the story – even as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (directing the episode themselves) frame her against the beating wings of her sole remaining dragon, just to hammer home the point. (In case you really don’t get the hint, we also see Grey Worm continuing to slaughter Lannister soldiers in the streets, much to the horror of Jon, Davos and Tyrion.)
Jon looks even more horrified as Tyrion is wheeled away by the Unsullied – but not before Tyrion takes off his Hand of the King badge and tosses it away in defiance of the Queen he no longer respects. Kit Harington, meanwhile, gets all the screentime he could wish for to convey the conflicted, sad Jon’s inner conflicted sadness – and, to his credit, he turns his speech defending Dany to Tyrion into a speech that’s closer to him trying to convince himself that his Queen isn’t a dangerous sociopath. Again, after last episode’s frantic pacing, Benioff and Weiss give the cast the space to make all of this work.
Indeed, there’s only one bit of action, and only one major death, in the whole episode. There are no points for guessing whose death it is: the Mother of Dragons gets stabbed by Jon, mid-embrace, as they stand in the decimated Throne Room. Emilia Clarke, smiling as she nears the Iron Throne, gets a chance to sell her deluded conviction, and there’s a genuine emotional impact to her hushed departure, as she sincerely asks Jon to build a future with her. Even Drogon gets a moving bit of character development, wailing with grief and anger, before melting the actual flipping Iron Throne, and ultimately flying away into the distance to go burn some sheep or something.
Then, the final question is raised: who should rule Westeros after all? This is where Game of Thrones delivers a welcome surprise, as Jon Snow is passed over (his killing of Dany means his own crowning would apparently spark revolt among the Unsullied and Dothraki). Instead, a group of the Lords and Ladies of the Seven Kingdoms (read: everyone left in the cast still alive) gather in Kings Landing to discuss succession. Samwell Tarly, bless him, proposes democracy, which is laughed away by everyone else, but Tyrion proposes someone unexpected: ickle Bran Stark.
Yes, Bran, whom Tyrion dubs Bran the Broken, because he has the best story of all the possible rulers: the young boy who survived falling from a tall tower and has gone on to become a powerful figure with an unrivalled memory and knowledge of the kingdom’s stories and heritage. Jon, of course, has a great story too, after he Came Back From The Dead To Lead The North and Defeat The Evil Dragon Queen, but it’s testament (as always) to how good Game of Thrones’ cast is that you don’t quite have the chance to realise it until you’ve already gone along with what Tyrion’s saying. With Bran unable to have kids, that also means the gang all get to reunite in several decades’ time to pick the next ruler – and, as we see the new Council gather (including Bronn as Master of Coin) to banter and joke, it’s actually surprisingly pleasant to have, well, something pleasant at the end of George RR Martin’s often-bleak fairy tale. (Bonus points, too, go to Tobias Menzies, who is hilariously pathetic once more as the guest starring Edmure Tully – the only person in the whole of Westeros who hasn’t learned anything from the last eight seasons.)
Grey Worm, of course, isn’t pleased, especially when Tyrion is named Hand of the King, but Bran points out that the sole remaining Lannister will atone for his mistakes by spending the rest of his life fixing them, and that note is the right one to strike for a show that has seen its own order become destabilised by some rash, silly errors. Sansa, meanwhile, announces that the North will be its own independent state, which nobody disagrees with – again, not the neatest of resolutions, but certainly the one that’s deserved – and Arya decides to venture off into the unknown for some adventuring, a self-exile that leaves Maisie Williams’ career tantalisingly open for some spin-off antics in 10 years’ time, when HBO need to delve into the Iron Bank again.
And what of Jon? He isn’t sentenced to death for his regicide, but rather banished to The Wall. Again, before you can argue that the Night’s Watch isn’t needed anymore, you get too swept up in Kit Harington looking all forlorn and tormented, as he trudges off into the snow with all the Free People following him. There’s something beautifully apt about Jon Snow remaining the outsider at the end of it all, haunted by his actions, loved by other people (hello to Tormund and Ghost – yes, Ghost!), but still essentially alone on the edge of nowhere. It’s not death, by any means, but it’s the bittersweet note that Game of Thrones needs to strike to balance its happy ending with something befitting a series that has brutally tried to subvert every fantasy trope going. It hasn’t always done it as well as we might like – although there’s no denying the sheer visual spectacle the epic has consistently brought to the small screen, setting the cinematic TV standard for the modern era – but the show sticks the landing satisfyingly enough when it comes. When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. But, it turns out, somewhere in between the two can be OK, after all.