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Television Game of Thrones series finale review: A self-indulgent send-off that tries, and fails, to convince audiences of its own brilliance

In a scene from the final episode of Game of Thrones, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) speaks with Tyrion in the aftermath of the attack on Kings Landing.

HBO via AP

“There is nothing more powerful in the world than a good story.”

These are the words of Tyrion Lannister toward the end of Game of Thrones’ series finale. Meaning that they are the words of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Meaning that the pair’s 80-minute send-off to Westeros on Sunday night was not just an accidental explosion of indulgent self-defensiveness, but a conscious and true effort in expounding its own genius to an audience that has every right to now feel corrupted and betrayed.

For (most) of its previous seven seasons, Game of Thrones was a creation that appealed equally to the head and the gut. Its blend of ultra-detailed mythology, emotionally complex characters, classic themes, expensive set-pieces, frequent nudity, and buckets of gore swirled together to create the smart person’s trash, and the trashy person’s jewel. In 1996, novelist George R.R. Martin created a fantasy for those who supposedly hate fantasy, but in 2011, Benioff, Weiss and whoever cuts those massive cheques at HBO turned that creation into an uber-fantasy. Here was something so overwhelmingly compelling in its material and slick in its execution(s) that the announcement of its end has forced the culture to question whether or not culture itself will ever be so easily united under one single act of creativity.

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And then GoT’s eighth season unfurled, and the first word I could ever muster every Sunday night was: ugh. As in, ugh, how did Benioff and Weiss (and, we can only assume, Martin) find and then magnify every flaw in what has otherwise been a fantastic production? As in, ugh, how are we to accept that characters who we knew to be layered suddenly turn into parodies of themselves?? As in, ugh, how did HBO hear Benioff and Weiss’s plan for the final stretch and not decide, hmm, maybe you guys need a half-dozen more episodes to actually accomplish that without it seeming stupidly rushed??? As in, ugh, can no one on GoT figure out how to properly light a damn battle scene????

This image released by HBO shows from left to right, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) in a scene from the final episode of Game of Thrones.

HBO via AP

At least Benioff and Weiss seem all-too-aware that these questions might be asked as audiences were exposed to this last stretch. After all, “The Iron Throne,” the sixth and final episode of the series’ eighth and final season, is consumed with responding to any and all of the potential criticisms of the material that came before it, especially last week’s horrendous “The Bells.” And their answer, by the way? Well, it is just as Tyrion puts it above: We’re great storytellers, so shut up.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s start with talking about what went right in “The Iron Throne.” First, there was that fairly cool, if obvious, shot of Dany walking in front of Drogon’s wings. Then there was the interesting decision to abandon any score for the episode’s first 10 minutes, to underline the hollowed-out nothingness that has become King’s Landing. And then … okay, that’s all I’ve got, because right now, all I can think about was everything that went wrong. This might take a while.

Or not, because if Benioff and Weiss decided to abandon so much of their own thought and consideration into this season’s narrative, character, themes and aesthetics, then why should I devote any of my own to their supremely thin effort at defending their own creative powers in this, their final (and, as they would surely say, finest) hour? So, here’s more of a rapid-fire rant of all the many things that sank GoT’s finale:

  • Dany swaps her wardrobe for something Sith-esque, because if you’re going to have a beloved character suddenly turn into a genocidal monster, it’s best to have her start wearing black immediately.
  • Drogon must really hate chairs. Oh, and Tyrion really loves rearranging chairs. This episode was very obsessed with chairs. (Wait: Does Drogon think the chair killed his mother? Or is he just heavily into obvious metaphors? Maybe this is something that will be clarified in the inevitable GoT spinoff, Warg This Way with Bran the Broken.)
  • Bran? Really, Bran?? I’ll come back to this in a moment.
  • It’s wonderful how the various lords and ladies of Westeros can seemingly teleport into King’s Landing at the drop of a hat to decide the fate of their kingdom. Also wonderful is the chin-scratching/Googling that everyone must have been doing during this scene to remember who Tobias Menzies used to play on this show (answer: Edmure Tully).
  • “Bran the Broken”? Okay, really, I’ll come back to this again.
  • How much of Benioff and Weiss’s script was just "Character X walks away portentously”?
  • I wish we could all pull a Brienne and go into the history books to write a better ending.
  • When Samwell hands Tyrion a copy of A Song of Ice and Fire, I swear we were all one Sigur Rós cover of All Along the Watchtower away from GoT pulling a Battlestar Galactica. (If that sentence makes no sense, I’m sorry. And if it does: I’m even more sorry.)
  • I just know that there is a half-decent Donald Trump joke to be made about Jon’s fate at the Wall, but there is no way I’m going to attempt such a thing at this late hour.
  • It was nice that Jon got to see his direwolf Ghost again, and I’m all for any Tormund appearance, but are we to believe that the man was brought back from the dead by the Lord of Light … just to kill a woman he himself helped put in power? That is not just me quibbling with the “logic” of magic, either. It is a simple question of the strength of Benioff and Weiss’s (and, again, Martin’s) narrative foresight.
  • Okay, back to the Bran thing: Tyrion essentially puts GoT’s favourite creepy weirdo on the throne because “he has the best story.” It is a pretty good story, no doubt. But has no one on this show been paying attention to Arya’s arc? You know, the one in which she started off as a little kid who watched her father die and ended up becoming a face-changing assassin who defeats the greatest evil in this world’s history? Bran can fly, but Arya can slay.
  • I guess we’re never going to know why the Night King was so obsessed with arranging his victims’ corpses in that circular pattern, hmm? Okay, no problem! I was just wondering if that was a deliberate storytelling decision or another one of those “it-simply-looked-cool” ideas.

I could go on, but it’s late and you likely have 17 other GoT-related tabs open on your browsers (because not only does “The Iron Throne” mark the end of HBO’s cash cow, it spells the end of such guaranteed traffic drivers as this very review; publishers around the world are drowning their sorrows in Dornish wine this very moment). And besides, what more could be said of an episode that name-checks its own storytelling brilliance? Well, perhaps on this note Tyrion puts it best again – and, again, highlights in bright yellow the smarmy satisfaction that has characterized so much of Benioff and Weiss’s work this season: “It’s a good compromise,” the once-and-future hand of the Seven Kingdoms says, “if no one is happy.”

Fair enough, my friend. Fair enough.

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