By James Hibberd
May 19, 2019 at 11:40 PM EDT
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This is the end. The end of watching the Starks, Targaryens and Lannisters. The end of journeying to Winterfell, King’s Landing and Castle Black. The end of dragons and direwolves; schemes and ravens and trials by combat. This is the end of Game of Thrones. It might not be the end you wanted. But if there’s one thing the remaining characters on Game of Thrones have learned over their eight seasons of epic struggle, it’s that survival depends on dealing with a situation as it really is. So let’s break down what actually happens in the final episode of Game of Thrones.

The 80-minute series closer is titled, of course, “The Iron Throne,” and is directed by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. The writers are not seasoned directors but this episode was gorgeously made and nailed many of the absolutely crucial character moments.

The wintery apocalyptic and immensely suspenseful first half deals with the fallout of Daenerys’ devastating attack on King’s Landing. The look of this section is a bit unlike we’ve ever seen on the show before, which is appropriate as it’s showing us a glimpse of an entirely new dystopian future for Westeros. The second half has a brighter and hopeful palette focusing on deciding the future of Westeros leadership and the fates of the remaining characters. The two halves are like death and rebirth; The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.

I suspect at least two things are going to make some fans upset: Jon Snow killing Daenerys and Bran Stark essentially ending up on the Iron Throne (technically, the Iron Throne is destroyed, but we’ve used the term “Iron Throne” for a decade and not stopping now).

But as for all the rest … Sansa crowned queen in the North, Brienne running the Kingsguard, Bronn as Master of Coin, Samwell Tarly as maester, Tyrion as Hand of the King, Jon reuniting with Ghost (he pets his direwolf, does that make it better?), Grey Worm going to Naath, Podrick becoming a knight, Arya embarking on a trip — that’s all rather nice, isn’t it?

The biggest determining factor of how you feel about the finale might not be something from this episode, but Episode 5, the divisive “The Bells.” If you felt Dany’s “Mad Queen” turn rang false, then you might approach the finale with your arms crossed, a journey to a place that should not exist. If you felt the twist was earned, then everything that happens in this finale flows logically from that. Perhaps even this litmus test is too simple. Because the Game of Thrones finale is really a bunch of different character endings rolled into one. When people ask me: What did you think of the ending? I think: Which one? All the outcomes combined add up to a finale that’s sort of … bittersweet, just as author George R.R. Martin has been saying all these years.

King’s Landing: We pick up after the devastating dragon attack where Daenerys treated King’s Landing like her own personal creme brûlée.

Tyrion goes looking for his brother and sister and uncovers their bodies folded together in the ruins of the cellar. Cersei and Jaime Lannister, the twins, returned to an in utero state, exiting the world as they came into it.

In the streets, Grey Worm is executing prisoners on Daenerys’ orders. The humanity that bloomed in Grey Worm during his time with Missandei was abruptly crushed by her execution, and he has regressed back to Unsullied killing machine mode.

Outside, Daenerys gives a victory speech in Dothraki. The fascistic, dictatorial imagery is clear. Everything about this sequence is rivetingly well done with a very ominous score by Ramin Djawadi. Jon doesn’t understand Dothraki, by the way. But he can tell this is not a post-election unification speech where a new leader says she’s going to put aside past disputes and reach across the aisle and work with the opposition party. It’s first stop Westeros, next stop the world, and everything in it.

Also, it has this incredible shot:

HBO

Since Dany became the Mother of Dragons she’s often expected everybody else to fully submit to her plan. She’s long assumed she has a right to rule not because of her deeds but her birthright (Stannis was the same way after Robert Baratheon died). But Dany’s always gone about her power plays in a less heavy-handed fashion, to say the least.

Tyrion listens to this speech and knows he backed the wrong candidate. He takes off his Hand pin to resign. Dany brands him a traitor and has him imprisoned.

Jon: Jon visits Tyrion, who admits Varys was right all along. Tyrion walks us through Dany’s murderous history like so many of us re-examined after episode 5. Tyrion tells Jon he’s the realm’s only hope to stop her.

“Everywhere she goes evil men die and we cheer her for it and she grows more sure that she is right,” Tyrion says. “She believes her destiny is to build a better world, she believed that. If you believe that, wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and paradise? …You are the shield that guards the realms of men. Who is the greatest threat to the people now?”

Some have pointed out that Tyrion hasn’t had as many powerful moments in the later seasons of the show. But in the finale Tyrion is absolutely crucial — really, the focal point in many respects –and Peter Dinklage’s performance is amazing. Kit Harington is fantastic as well.

The way I see this scene is that, for this moment, Jon Snow is unofficially king — because he’s the only one with the power to get by Drogon and get close enough to stop Daenerys. And Tyrion is his unofficially his Hand. Tyrion has failed at giving advice for years, but this time, when it really counts, he’s able to give both the right advice and sway his liege.

“You have to choose now,” Tyrion tells Jon, who rightly looks almost terrified at the decision before him.

Throne Room: And here we go. Jon approaches the ruins of the throne room and is blocked by Drogon emerging from a pile of snow. (The dragon moments this season have been the best of the series.) At first, we think Dany’s dragon isn’t going to let him pass, but he does.

In the throne room, we see Dany fulfilling her prophetic vision from season 2. The roof is broken open from the attack and snow is falling in (fine, fine, it’s snow, not ash, but there was also a lot of ash!). In her original vision, Daenerys didn’t touch the Iron Throne. This time she does touch it. Finally.

She turns around and she is just… about … to sit down

And Jon enters. The two have a heated conversation. Jon is practically screaming. She’s murdered children. She’s killing prisoners. Jon is looking for a reason to not do what he’s thinking of doing. He’s looking for some degree of mercy in Daenerys, some measure of sanity.

Dany makes the case that the only people that really matter are herself and Jon. Remember who used to say this? Cersei.

“I know what is good and so do you,” she says.

“What about all the other people who think they know what’s good?” he asks.

“They don’t get to choose,” she says.

And that, I think, is what does it.

They kiss. We hear a stab. We don’t know for sure. Dany, for sure, never expected it. All these years, striving for one thing, and she’s so close. And the great love of her life plunges in the knife.

Daenerys Targaryen dies in Jon Snow’s arms. Just like Ygritte.

She’s wide-eyed, shocked and fearful. She looks like a girl who would never harm anyone.

Drogon knows what’s up and enters. We think he’s going to annihilate Jon. Instead, after a moment, the dragon nukes the Iron Throne, the twisted symbol of the realm’s lust for power. It’s also the seat forged by Aegon the Conqueror after he attacked the massive castle of Harrenhal and roasted everybody inside. Given that Dany is dying and Jon Snow is the last Targaryen and will certainly not take the throne, there is no longer any hope this chair will ever be occupied by a Targaryen again.

Once again, Drogon seems to know a bit more than everybody else.

How does, exactly, Drogon know to nuke the throne? Why doesn’t he blast Jon? My theory: No, Jon isn’t fireproof (only some Targaryens were, apparently, and there are various theories why Dany is; and Jon was burned during a fight in season 1). Drogon knows Jon is a Targaryen and doesn’t consider him an enemy. Targaryens have some degree of telepathic communication with dragons, that’s how they fly them, and she’s been fixated and thinking about the Iron Throne for years, and now she’s dead, and partly due to her obsession with it. So Drogon instinctively picked up that this spiky chair is not a good thing.

Drogon sadly nuzzles his mother, and then flies away with her. I suppose Jon could have lied (“Hey that dragon just flew off with Daenerys!”). But if there’s one thing we know about Jon Snow, it’s that lying isn’t his thing.

(EW has an exclusive interview with Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington and writer Bryan Cogman that’s all about Dany’s Mad Queen turn and her death which has a lot more insight and analysis on this event. Read that story for much more on this).

Dragonpit: A time jump has occurred. A few weeks at least, according to Tyrion. We return to the summit spot from season 6. The location is fitting. This arena once housed dragons and the ground is littered with bones from dragon skeletons — they’re basically in a Targaryen graveyard to discusses the ramifications of the death of the Mother of Dragons.

The group debates who should be king. Some fans hoped that nobody would get the Iron Throne and the realm would become a democracy (I was rooting for that outcome as well). But what would that look like in the finale, dramatically speaking? A montage of a months-long election process with Flea Bottom citizens casting votes? Samwell even floats the idea before the lords laugh at him — Westeros is not quite ready for that, it seems. Still, this scene is at least a version of representative democracy as there’s a vote among characters representing various kingdoms and with a promise of that in the future.

“From now on rulers will not be born, they will be chosen,” Tyrion declares. “That is the wheel our queen wanted to break.”

Indeed: Daenerys ended up accomplishing, in a way, her original vision for a more idealized Westeros — but only through her own demise.

Tyrion makes an eloquent case for Bran given the Three-Eyed Raven’s knowledge of the past and that he has no ambition to lead whatsoever. As viewers, our head tilts when Tyrion claims Bran has the best story. Really? Because we’ve been watching for eight seasons, and we think a lot of other characters have better stories.

But Tyrion would advocate for Bran. Remember the book that Tyrion gave Joffrey at his ill-fated wedding? The book was on the wisdom of four legendary previous kings, something he hoped Joffrey would read and learn from. Well, Bran knows all the knowledge of all the kings.

When Bran is asked if he’ll be king he says, “Why do you think I came all this way?” Is the BranBot 9000 actually developing a sense of humor?

Granted, Bran is not an inspirational choice. He would give the dullest speeches (“Hi. I’m the Three-Eyed Raven. I mostly live in the past….”). One gets the impression such crowdwork isn’t really part of leading Westeros anyway. While one might have preferred a fan favorite character on the Iron Throne, such as Sansa, if you’re looking at the story from the perspective of an utterly exhausted Westrosi resident whose life has been a total hellscape over the last decade as various figures battled for the throne, the choice of Bran is probably a relief. It’s like when you’ve had four years of a president who is chaotic and is always finding new ways to distract you and stress everybody out, you might then decide to choose a really stable and boring president after that. Ahem.

There’s also something pretty boldly anti-fan service about picking Bran. Make no mistake: The GoT writers fully realize many don’t like the character. And the question of “Who will end up on the Iron Throne?” has been part of the show’s storyline and marketing for years. So to not only refuse to pick a popular character for the throne, but arguably pick one the show’s least popular and most-mocked characters, it’s an audacious move.

Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Martin’s vision too. Granted, the showrunners could have put whoever they wanted on the throne in the HBO version. But the first chapter in Martin’s debut A Song of Ice and Fire book was from the perspective of Bran. The boy was our entryway into the story of the Starks and Winterfell and his attempted murder is what kicked off the main storyline, so there’s something rather full circle about him ending up on the throne (and the final season has been full of “coming full circle” moments).

There was also this prophecy hint in Martin’s recent Targaryen history book Fire and Blood: “When the Hammer shall fall upon the dragon, a new king shall arise and none shall stand before him.” Fans speculated this meant Gendry (who has wielded a hammer-like weapon). But I can’t help but wonder — and this sounds like a joke and is probably wrong — but I wonder if the “none shall stand before him” hint isn’t referring to the fact that Bran is in a wheelchair. Subjects are supposed to kneel before kings and then can stand with permission. But since Bran is always sitting down, would that change the protocol of how subjects are expected to respond to him? It’s not something addressed in this episode, but I could see it being touched upon in the books.

Sansa refuses to vote for Bran. She holds out to get what she wants and deserves: The North as its own free and independent nation. It’s not entirely clear in the episode if Sansa wanted the Iron Throne or could have gotten it. Strict Iron Throne succession law is that inheritance passes to the male heir, something that is glossed over a bit here. I don’t actually think Sansa really wants the Iron Throne — she’s not a fan of King’s Landing and feels a responsibility and kinship with the Northerners and a duty to Winterfell. But I cannot imagine the reaction if this scene was written so that Sansa did want the Iron Throne and the men explained that she can’t have it because she’s a girl.

The group also has to decide what to do with Jon Snow. One of the big twists of the final season is everybody expected the Kingslayer Jaime to kill Cersei and were disappointed when that didn’t happen. Instead, Jon killed Daenerys. Does this mean Jon Snow is Azor Ahai? The Prince Who Was Promised who would stab his lover in the heart? Sure.

Grey Worm insists Jon must be punished. They decide to send Jon to Castle Black to rejoin the Night’s Watch. “No one is very happy which means it’s a good compromise I suppose,” Tyrion says.

Jon looks haunted. “Was it right what we did? It doesn’t feel right.” And, of course, it shouldn’t.

Bran: Bran is dubbed Bran the Broken. Jon apologizes for not being there when he needed him and Bran tells him he’s exactly where he should be. EW Features Editor Sarah Rodman had a fan theory about Bran that I rather like: Given how much Bran knows… did he know Dany was going to destroy King’s Landing? And did nothing to stop it? Did Bran …. “orchestrate” is the wrong word, but see this potential future for Westeros and allow it to happen in order to become king? The idea of Evil Bran seems to go against the character so I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s a fun idea. That private smile Bran gives as he’s wheeled out of the Small Council meeting takes on a whole new meaning.

Drogon: One dragon survived Game of Thrones. Drogon has wisely decided to fly off to do his own thing.

Bran remarks “maybe I can find him,” a total wink to fans who have been waiting for Bran to warg into a dragon for years, yet never did.   

Small Council: The order of business of the realm continues. We meet a new Small Council which is a total GoT dream team: Tyrion is Hand of the King, Davos as Master of Ships, Brienne is head of the Kingsguard, Samwell Tarly is maester, Bronn is Master of Coin (he knows how to spend it, at least). Who else wants to watch a procedural spinoff series titled Small Council, Big Problems chronicling the workaday business of this new team?

Samwell presents a book, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” which is a fitting nod to author George R.R. Martin’s name for his saga of novels. The book is a history of, well, this show (somehow leaving out Tyrion).

We’re teased with an ending to Tyrion’s oft-started, never-finished brothel and honeycomb joke that we’ll never get.

For Tyrion, this is the third time he’s been appointed the Hand. We hope he’s learned his lessons. We’re told he must make up for all his tragic makes over a lifetime of service. We’re confident he will do so.

A Lannister, after all, always pays his debts…

Brienne: Brienne, touchingly knighted by Jaime Lannister in episode 2 this season, has been elevated to a position she never dreamed was possible, and is perfect for her.

In the Red Keep, Brienne writes in the White Book, the 300-year history of accomplishments by members of the Kingsguard.

Brienne fills pages with the deeds of Jaime Lannister, who all his life was defined by his murder of the king he swore to protect. Her chronicle then concludes: “Died protecting his queen.”

There is a scene in this room in season 4 where Joffrey ruthlessly mocks Jaime Lannister for how little was written in the book about his accomplishments. You can see the silent pain on Jaime’s face. I recently rewatched the whole series knowing what was coming in this finale and that scene now has so much more resonance.

Arya: The Starks say goodbye at the docks. The last time we’ll see them all together. One of the bitterest of the bittersweet elements of the finale is that the Starks all go their separate ways. They are four lone wolves, once again.

Arya asks, “What’s west of Westeros?” She wants to go explore. Love the shot of her optimistically looking toward her future on the ship.

She’s a young girl who will travel the unknown world all by herself.

And we know Arya will be just fine.   

Grey Worm: The Unsullied commander took a grim turn in the finale stretch. But now with nothing left to fight for, the captain decides to journey to Missandei’s home country of Naath and see the fabled beaches there for himself. He’s honoring the dream he and Missandei had together, only he has to do this without her.

One of them, at least, became truly free.   

Sansa: We get a cool shot of a crown going on Sansa’s red hair in Winterfell.

Queen in the North! Queen in the North!

Long may she reign. As Jon said: “Ned Stark’s daughter will speak for them, she’s the best they could ask for.” I suspect this will be many fan’s favorite moment of the finale. We’ve seen so many characters crowned and then commit fatal missteps. But Sansa has learned everything she needs to know to rule.

Her mother would be very proud.

Castle Black: Jon arrives at The Wall. He pets Ghost! Direwolf schnuggies at last.

Jon going to The Wall brings him full circle. Granted, the man is never supposed to be with a woman again but, frankly, that’s probably for the best. Now that The Wall is in shambles, the Wildings are free to come and go as they please, and the Night King is defeated, I’m not sure what they’re all going to do with their time.

In the end, Jon walks off with Wildlings. Permanently? Presumably, to live the life he glimpsed with Ygirtte, the one that the Mance Rayder and Tormund Giantsbane have been preaching all this time. How much this is punishment, exactly, seems to be a subject of debate. How much punishment he deserves is another. Knowing Jon Snow, he’ll probably punish himself plenty.

Perhaps we can all agree on one thing: The final moment of Game of Thrones is perfect — a reversal of the opening of the pilot, where members of the Night’s Watch walk out and the gate slowly closes instead of opens.

Westeros is in good hands.

EW has an exclusive interview with Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington and others that’s all about the killing of Daenerys Targaryen and the Mad Queen turn. Clarke is candid, hilarious, insightful and heartbreaking. It’s my favorite season 8 interview and you can read it in full here.

Also, we have Sophie Turner answering a burning question: How does she feel about Sansa Stark not getting the Iron Throne?  

Bran Stark speaks: Isaac Hempstead-Wright discusses the finale: “I’m king motherf–kers!”

Also, delayed from last week and largely covering episode 5:  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau explains Jaime Lannister’s fateful Game of Thrones decisions

On our series finale podcast, Darren Franich and I discuss “The Iron Throne.”

We also have more to come tonight, Monday and beyond.

Trivia question for a chance to win an assortment of Iron Throne gifts (T-shirt, hat, socks) from the HBO Store: What dragon melted down the swords to forge the Iron Throne in the first place? Tweet the answer #sweepstakes and #EWGOTFINALE to @EW.

I want to thank every person who has ever read any one of my Game of Thrones recaps from 2011 until today. It’s been an honor to attempt to chronicle this worldwide phenomenon and I appreciate those who stuck with us over the years and left comments and shared these recaps with their friends. And now … yes … my watch has ended.

HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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