Boy. That sure was an ending, huh? The fans sure seem to think so:
So the ending wasn’t popular - but was it bad? To quote George R. R. Martin: Yes and no. And yes. And no.
In order to determine whether the ending of Game of Thrones made sense, we have to evaluate it not as a season, but as the end of a decade-long series. This means we need to be looking at the overarching symbolism and meaning of the series, and I think that in that regard (and only that regard) it is actually quite good. Let me explain:
[Warning: this blog post is literally all spoilers. Like the whole thing. You’ve been warned.]
Let’s start with Ice and Fire
The series itself is called A Song of Ice and Fire. Let’s begin there: the dichotomy of hot and cold, North and South, Ice and Fire runs the entire length of the series. The Night King and the army of the undead threaten the Seven Kingdoms from the North, while Daenerys Stormborn, her dragons, and her army of Dothraki threaten it from the deserts and wastelands of Essos.
Ice, cold, and the North are used throughout the series as symbols of death and despair. Conversely Fire, warmth and the South are used as symbols of passion and destructive energy. This extends to the lands of Westeros as well. Dorne, in the south, is a place of passion, lust, and vengeance. While the Northmen of Winterfell and beyond are people of grit, discipline, and honor - ready to withstand the despair of a long winter. “Winter is coming” are the stark words, and rightly so.
The Game of Thrones
Conveniently, Cersei Lannister spells this one out for us very explicitly in this scene from Season 1:
“When you play the Game of Thrones, you win, or you die. There is no middle ground.”
- Cersei Lannister
This is demonstrating the very fatalistic view of the will to power that seems to be common among the lords and ladies of Westeros: if you want power, you either kill your competition, or you are killed by them. Even the throne itself is a symbol for this.
The Iron Throne, the Seven Kingdoms, the Iron Price
Iron is used in the series as a symbol for brutal conquest - imposing one’s will on others by force. The iron throne is forged from the swords of the conquered:
“The breath of the greatest dragon forged the Iron Throne…the swords of the vanquished, a thousand of them, melted together like so many candles…”
- Viserys Targaryen.
In the books, Aegon I even says that the throne was made of swords on purpose: a reminder that one should never sit easy on the throne. Those who have conquered can yet become the conquered. The fact that Westeros is referred to as the Seven Kingdoms is itself a reference to the fact that the nation was forged through conquest.
And the symbolism of Iron is reiterated once more by the Ironborn of the Iron Islands, who believe that one should not own anything except if it has been bought with the Iron Price - taking it from its previous owner by force.
So What Does it All Mean?
Hopefully the extensive use of symbolism in the series is beginning to become clear - this was very deliberate and Martin has explained in interviews that the main plot points of the story, including its ending, were determined back in the 1990s. So we can expect that if we take the series as a whole, a lot of over-arching themes will emerge.
It seems to me, that if we marry the symbolism of the books, with the events of the series, and the symbolism of the ending, the series’ meaning becomes pretty clear. It is about the social transition from a Machiavellian world of brutal power struggles, into an age of reason and law. And furthermore, it is about how individual humans are complicit in, and experience the horrors of, the former.
Robb Stark and Daenerys Targaryen
Robb’s Rebellion and Daenerys’ ascent to power both symbolize one dynamic of cultural and political power struggles: the cult of personality. While Robb wasn’t the utopian idealist Dany was, he still chose a path of meting out justice by force. Handsome, young, and brave - he rallied all of the north behind himself and was crowned King in the North by merit of the enthusiasm of his followers. Yet Martin seems to take a poor view even on those who seek justice through force - showing that even the brave and dangerous Robb could be butchered by the cowardly Walder Frey and his men during the Red Wedding.
Likewise, Daenerys’ rise from simply being the Stormborn, to the Unburnt, the Mother of Dragons, the Breaker of Chains. Dany symbolizes the ends-justify-the-means idealist. People who believe that the utopian future yet to come will do so much to alleviate suffering that if it takes a little suffering to get us there then, well - so be it.
This aspect of her character becomes writ large during the final episode when she explains why she burned King’s Landing - to show that Cersei’s attempt to use Dany’s mercy against her could not thwart her plans to “break the wheel” of oppression and “free all the people of the world.”
The Unsullied and the Dothraki
The two armies that march alongside Daenerys symbolize the fanatic supporters of idealists.
The Unsullied are slaves, downtrodden, mutilated and even killed for pleasure and profit by the slavers of Astapor. They are the hopeless subjects of a cruel system - and eternally grateful to Daenerys for freeing them of their bonds.
The Dothraki were never slaves - nor even subjects to a crown. They don’t need a Breaker of Chains - they follow Daenerys because they delight in destroying the unworthy. They “sail across the poison water to kill the men in iron suits and knock down their stone houses.” They follow Daenerys not out of a sense of justice or gratitude, but to participate in the destruction of those they deem unworthy. They’re just in it for the blood sport.
Robert, Joffrey, and Tommen Baratheon
The three unfit rulers. These characters each embody reasons why putting absolute monarchical power in the hands of anyone is a recipe for disaster.
Robert is a brawler, more than a king. Fond of wine and wenches, he reminisces to Ned Stark about their glory days as killers and conquerors - too fat to don his own armor - even as his kingdom languishes further into debt. His character symbolizes the fact that the ability to seize power doesn’t indicate the ability to wield it.
Joffrey is a petulant brat. He inherited his power and wields it only to satisfy his own sadistic desires. Despire Cersei, Tywin, and Tyrion’s attempts to keep him in check, he grows older, bolder, and more cruel as he ages. His eventual death is one of the series’ most welcome ones - let us be grateful that we don’t live under a monarchy where we would be subject to kings like him.
Tommen is a weak child. Too young to really wield power, he is controlled and used as a pawn first by his mother, later by his wife, and eventually by the High Sparrow. He has no real will or ability to use the power given to him, even when the fate of his wife is on the line. He eventually commits suicide after witnessing the consequences of his own inaction: doing nothing as his wife and mother are tortured and tried by the fanatical followers of the High Sparrow, indirectly leading to the deaths of Margaery and the High Sparrow - the two people he most admired.
Jamie Lannister and Theon Greyjoy
Looking back, I can’t actually remember if these two characters ever met one another - but the parallels between them are clear.
Jamie Lannister, the Kingslayer, is one of the most dangerous swordsmen in the Seven Kingdoms. Fighting battles for glory by day, and nurturing a forbidden tryst with his cruel sister by night, he embodies a fatalistic “you only live once” approach to life. His plans for glory as one of the realm’s deadliest swordsmen are cut short when his sword hand is cut off by a band of Bolton bannermen.
Theon Greyjoy spent his childhood as a ward/political prisoner of the Starks, and looks forward to an adulthood as the heir to house Greyjoy. Upon being freed from his wardship, he makes an aggressive attack on Winterfell in order to prove himself a true Ironborn, but is eventually captured and tortured by Ramsey Bolton. His castration at the hands of Ramsey end his hopes to become heir to the Iron Throne.
Both men spend much of the series broken and despairing - having had their identity and futures taken from them by the petty cruelty of minor characters - bastards and footmen of lesser lords. The two characters spend the rest of the series searching for a new identity for themselves. Theon disappoints us all along the way - refusing to flee when Asha mounts a rescue attempt, and jumping ship rather than fighting for her when Euron takes her captive. Conversely, Jamie seems to be kindling a sense of morality and honor in his relationship with Brienne.
Yet in the final hour, both men march North to Winterfell to subvert our expectations. Theon dies fighting to protect Bran - the boy he had once pretended to murder. And Jamie beds Brienne - a good woman who truly loved him, before deciding that he doesn’t have the will to choose honor over love and marches south to die at the side of the cruel Queen Cersei.
Their arcs symbolize the fact that it is never too late to change for the better - or worse. Each day is a new day, and one to reinvent ourselves, for good or ill, regardless of our past.
The Children of the Forest, Night King, and Army of the Dead
The Children of the Forest are symbolic of innocence. They inhabited Westeros before the First Men arrived, representing an untouched continent. Yet eventually they found themselves beset by the cruelty of men - symbolic of a loss of innocence. In order to survive the cruelty of the world of men, they created the Night King himself by plunging a shard of darkness(dragonglass) into the heart of a man.
The Night King, then, represents a sort of nihilism. Beset with the horrors of death and mortality, the Night King embraces death and makes it his ally. As he travels, he brings icy chills and despair in his wake, and those he kills do not simply die - they rise to fight alongside him as he grows ever more powerful.
The Night King is an exploration of the idea of despair turned to bitterness. Of humanity not only acknowledging our own mortality, but becoming embittered by it and choosing to cheer for it, to bring it to others and to welcome our own eventual oblivion.
Arya Stark, and Sandor/Gregor Clegane
For a more human example of the bitterness mentioned above, one need look no further than Sandor Clegane - aka the Hound. He is a grizzled veteran, crass and cruel. When we meet him early in the story he seems to treat killing as a mere pastime in his service to the Lannisters.
His cruelty eventually lands him on the kill list of Arya Stark - a character whose arc takes her along a a very circuitous exploration of death. It begins with her training with Syrio Forel, who teaches her what to say to the God of Death: “Not today.” Later, as she becomes more bitter and begins saying her list of names to kill like a bedtime prayer each night, she crosses paths with Jaquen Hagar whose life she saves, and he returns the favor by killing some of the men on her list for her.
Jaquen (if one may call him that) gives her one of the Faceless Men’s iron coins (note the symbolic metal) and teaches her the words that will take her to Bravos: “Valar Morghulis” - all men must die. Upon arriving in Bravos, she gains entry to the house of the Many-Faced God (the god of death) and serves with the Faceless Men there first as a janitor, then as an embalmer, later as a spy, and finally as an assassin-in-training.
During her training, she is taught to become nameless - referred to only as “a girl.” This is a symbolic death of the self, and Arya’s walk down this path parallels the death of innocence that the Children of the Forest once experienced - turning to death in response to the world’s cruelty.
Eventually, Arya is sent to assassinate an actress - and told not to question the task. “Does death come only for the wicked and leave the decent behind? […] A servant (of death) does not ask questions.” Here we once again see characters fatalistically embracing the inevitability of death. Yet Arya eventually passes her first test in overcoming bitterness - by deciding only to avenge herself against the wicked, and not become an unfeeling killer of wicked and decent alike as the Faceless Men do.
Eventually, her path leads her to King’s Landing, where she passes her final test. The Hound’s character is one of bitterness, driven by a lifelong desire for revenge against his brother, Gregor. His face is scarred from having been pushed into a fire by his brother as a child (remember fire is a symbol of passion - in this case for vengeance) and he seeks to kill his brother. In their final scene together, the Hound stops Arya in her tracks by very pointedly asking her: “look at me! You wanna be like me?” She recognizes that, as much as she looked up to Sandor as a warrior and father-figure, his desire for revenge had brought him nothing but misery and pain. So she abandons her quest to kill Cersei, and instead turns to trying to help the survivors of King’s Landing.
Ravens and the Three-Eyed Raven
Ravens are messengers in the Seven Kingdoms - used to pass information from one part of the land to another. In this sense the symbolize they spread of truths, both good and ill. “Dark wings bring dark words.”
Thus, the Three-Eyed Raven symbolizes a character who can see all of the truth about everything. So once Bran becomes the Three-Eyed Raven he learns the truth of everything, including Jon’s birth.
Tyrion’s character symbolizes self-aggrandizing intelligence and rationality. With them, “a small man can cast a large shadow.” He constantly outwits and outsmarts those around him, cracking jokes and drinking wine all the while. He is also a good man - seeking what is best for the common people in a mostly-selfless manner.
Yet he is also rather prideful, and this gets him into trouble on many occasions. Often when he is outsmarted, it’s because he underestimated his opponent. He also overestimates his ability to keep Daenerys’ brutality in line during her ascent to power.
With Tyrion’s character, Martin seems to be making a jab at the idea of philosopher kings - the concept that sufficiently wise and learned men could become perfect rulers. Despite his wits, Tyrion is frequently unable to best the scheming courtiers, nor to win the love of the common people.
The High Sparrow
The spiritual heart of the series, the High Sparrow and his fanatics fill the role of a religious political organization. While they preach kindness and humility that the rulers of King’s Landing lack, we see how quickly power can be misused in their hands as well during their persecution of Ser Loras and Margaery Tyrell.
Reminiscent of the Catholic Church during the middle ages, the Faith Militant symbolize the union of church and state. When zealots wield political power, and politicians cut deals with priests in back rooms. The High Sparrow comes across as a genuinely humble and faithful individual. Yet we see that even in his earnest hands, power can become brutal, and justice can be swayed by political caprice.
A vital character on both a narrative and a symbolic level, Jon is a man of great ability and honor, yet with no ambition. He willingly forsakes his right to a wife and lands to join the Night’s Watch. And every time he is offered a position of power - Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, King in the North, and even King of the Seven Kingdoms, he shrugs it off.
His primary motivation seems to simply be to do good - to protect the weak. This leads him to appeal to Daenerys for help stopping the Night King, and later to join her on her quest to break chains and free the Seven Kingdoms from the clutches of Queen Cersei.
So What About the Ending?
In the end we see a lot of these threads of symbolism come together. Daenerys exposes the dark side of the idealist leader - the grisly means that are justified by her selfless ends. We also see in Grey Worm one of the many dangers of this mindset, as he butchers the Lannister prisoners - sometimes people find that they rather enjoy the killing that is meant to lead to the utopia.
So Jon, with some encouragement from Tyrion, kills Daenerys. Upon discovering her dead body, Drogon melts the Iron Throne - if Daenerys can’t have it, then no one will (remember that the throne was also forged by dragon fire.) The end of the throne symbolizes that the Game of Thrones has come to an end. There is no one left with a large army and grand ambitions willing to kill for power.
In the end, Tyrion, who symbolizes intelligence, finally realizes his own inability to think and scheme his way to a good outcome and realizes that a laying down of arms is in order. He suggests that the lords and ladies of Westeros select a king in order to hand down justice.
Sam suggests democracy at this point, but is scoffed at - the writers don’t want us to think they’ve gone soft, and an idea like democracy takes some warming up to. But what we see next as the lords elect Bran to be their king, is the birth of the Republic - a government where power is limited by agreed-upon rules. Sansa also points out that Bran cannot father children - this is important since it means that the idea of inheriting political power is being put to rest.
But let’s remember what Bran represents: the world’s memory. History. In essence, by electing Bran to be their king, ushering in the Republic, and doing away with absolute monarchy inherited by birth or conquest, the lords of Westeros are choosing to place their memory of the horrors of the past ahead of their own ambitions. They could strive for power, yes. But over the last 8 seasons both we the viewers and the inhabitants of Westeros have seen where the Game of Thrones leads - to death and destruction and sorrow.
Crucially, when Sansa announces that Winterfell will not bend the knee to the new government, no one objects. Throughout the series, we have seen everyone from Cersei Lannister to Daenerys threaten the North with war if they didn’t submit - but the spirit of conquest is gone and the people of the North are able to peacefully leave and look to their own affairs.
Yeah But I Didn’t Like It
Yeah. Season 8 was definitely the weakest season in my opinion. While all of this great narrative structure was there, it just didn’t feel like things were being given time to breathe. Crucially, events in the final episodes seemed to be driven mostly by a desire to wrap things up in this particular way, rather than by the characters and their motivations - a critical flaw since the rest of the series was so deeply character driven.
But in the defense of the writers - this series has been on air for a decade now. With such a massive and talented cast, continuing to contract everyone season after season is challenging. Furthermore, many of the show’s stars have been catapulted to celebrity status by the show, and are no doubt looking to sink their teeth into new roles and ventures.
A show that is as popular and well-funded as this one is was always going to be on a time limit - if an actor of a critical character was hired away to act in another movie or show, they’d have to be replaced, and we all know how weird that would be. Furthermore, the series’ primary writers are about to begin work on an upcoming Star Wars movie, and let’s face it: the series would probably have had an even worse ending if it suddenly got new writers in the final seasons.
So it was a bit rushed, but hey - we still have 3,000 pages of the books to look forward to, which will give Martin all the time in the world to tell this story right.