Game of Thrones started out erotic and ended ultraviolent. We met Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in a brothel, his hair Cobra Kai blond, his body attended upon by a thinkpiece of prostitutes. Our first sighting of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) was right during bath time, just before her forced marriage to a musclebound barbarian whose butt would glisten in the firelight. Eight seasons later, the fantasy drama’s series finale united those two in cauterized catastrophe. Tyrion’s hair had long since darkened a prestigious shade of bummer. He walked through the King’s Landing napalmscape, noticing child-sized ash mounds, uncovering not one but two dead siblings from a pile of plot rubble. Meanwhile, Daenerys stood triumphant above a city-sized graveyard, celebrating the triumph of her will, her personal kill count suddenly large enough to make the all-consuming Night King look about as fatal as a single Sand Sister.

The finale belonged to Tyrion and Dany, really. More so Tyrion, unfortunately, and Dany got a bit overshadowed by her dragon. Oh, the show paid fealty to the Stark siblings, handing out happy endings to all Ned’s remainder. Two Starks sat on two thrones in Westeros. Another Stark sailed west to discover America. And their protagonistic brother-cousin rode north with his hippie tribal pals, his smile warming the snowy forest. We all agree, he totally snubbed the Night’s Watch, right? And moved up north to start a wildling family? In hindsight, Jon (Kit Harington) only ever felt happy camping in the snowy wasteland. He earned himself a happy kind of punishment, hunting forever with best pal Tormund (Kristofer Hivju). No wonder Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) looked so unhappy. His Queen got killed, and the culprit got a minimum-security vacation.

(21) Helen Sloan - HBO
Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

Game of Thrones loved the Starks in the end — a bit of a twist, really, since it couldn’t always figure out what to do with them. Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) spent long years hiking north, before returning to Winterfell with his emotion chip removed. Arya (Maisie Williams) sold her cockles — “Oysters, clams, and cockles!!!” — on a semester abroad where she learned a very awesome shape-changing power the final season forgot about. Sansa (Sophie Turner) followed Dany into forced marriage — a miserable wound the series would try healing by promoting her into a Very Important Administrative Role that also pushed her to the narrative sidelines.

Being cruel to be kind here: There was always at least one thing wrong with Game of Thrones. Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) went to Dorne. Brienne (Gwendolyn Christie) spent a season staring patiently at a window. There was that time when Dany’s whole thing was “My dragons!” and I think you had to really love pyramids to ever fully groove on her days in Meereen. Nobody could ever make the Red God happen. Season 7 reunited Arya and Sansa, by then two of the most famous TV characters of the decade… and teased a goofy fake-out about maybe one of them killing the other. In season 8, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the longtime antagonist whose whole Disney Princess Plotting Incest Homicide Coups iconography practically invented this series, got to dispassionately bang a pirate Viking before staring patiently out a window. And then she died in her lover’s arms, reads her plot summary, an oddly clichéd ending for a character who was anything but.

And none of this mattered when the show was really going: when Thrones hit its stride in its relentless third and fourth seasons, or when it threw its whole narrative chessboard out the window next to poor Tommen at the end of season 6. Actually, the imperfections of Thrones deepened the fandom, I think. You could play the game of thrones along at home, rooting for certain characters and families, preferring one ongoing story arc over another. The source material was literary and the drama’s intentions were epic, but its success reflected the instincts of reality TV, a competition culture that inspires engagement toward an endgame: the final Rose Ceremony, the Head of Household competition, whoever will finally sit upon the Iron Throne. (This is why Game of Thrones was especially beloved by people who think art should be enjoyed like sports.) There are annoying people on every season of reality television, human beings whose mere presence on camera can feel like an assault on good taste. But you learn to laugh about it, like most viewers learned to laugh whenever a journey on Game of Thrones took a whole season, like those same viewers learned to laugh again when the continent shrunk in season 7 and everyone started teleporting between cities.

I preferred Game of Thrones in its middle ages, I guess, when it was still cheap enough to require a sense of humor. That was the magical golden era when King’s Landing was filled with colorful personalities, Lannisters and Tyrells, phony Baratheons and randy Dornishmen. All the bitchfaced backstabbery therein crosscut into the more recognizably epic-fantasy antics of Jon and Dany, battling barbarians and monsters in extreme climates. This was some heretofore unimagined nexus point for people who loved Dark Souls and people who loved Gossip Girl, and the contrast had a purpose. You could watch Game of Thrones and conclude two things: The obvious heroes were awesome, and the obvious heroes were idiots. Politics was everything, because real power depended on which Lannister made better allies — or politics was nothing, and all the florid dialogue scenes between smart characters would soon enough fall under blue zombie people and dragons.

Whereas this final season was all about big-huge set pieces, and a lot of the complexity burned away. I don’t think anyone can be happy that this season focused, in the end, on Jon Snow, the least complicated main character on an ensemble full of brutal instincts and grasping ambition. “You’ve always tried to do the right thing,” Tyrion told Jon, in a scene that also featured the line “Love is more powerful than reason,” yeesh. Jon became, briefly, a proxy husk besieged by two bigger personalities. In one corner: his queen, his lover. “Build the new world with me,” she asked him. In the other corner: Jon’s pal Tyrion, whose oratory would be powerful enough to singlehandedly transform Westeros into an elective monarchy.

Jon killed Dany, and then her dragon incinerated the Iron Throne. Both actions look a bit inexplicable to me. Credit Clarke for playing her final scene with an unreadable, unblinking confidence. The finale tried to explain her turn into mass homicide, by which I mean Tyrion literally explained it to Jon. It sure sounded like she was talking about conquering the world, which isn’t really a thing she’s ever expressed an interest in. Was Dany psychotic? Was she acting out a particularly violent strategy for eventual peace? Even her two scenes in the finale felt whiplashed, from imperial kill-the-bastards fascism to lovesick adoration. I appreciate the confusion, though I’m still left feeling like Thrones lost track of Dany in its final phase.

Whereas Drogon’s destruction of the mega-stabby swordchair is very on-the-nose — and very funny, if you accept that a dragon can have serious ideological problems with the monarchic system of governance. It was a big moment, the kind of hashtaggy mini-event Thrones tried to create often in its last few years. That urge could leave some characters in the lurch, though, sacrificing drama at the altar of coolness. The single most maddening sequence in the entire run of Game of Thrones came in the penultimate episode, when two giant man-hulks met on a stairwell for their final eye-gouging punchfight — and Queen Cersei Lannister, First of Her Name, had to quietly skitter past them. Was that scene supposed to be funny? It felt reductive, no matter what, all her great plans dissolving away from a climactic bro-down.

This wasn’t a great finale, and I didn’t think it was terrible. “Middling” sounds right: It left you with a lot to think about, even if most of those thoughts jockeyed between “Bwaahhhh??” and “Huh.” The most intriguing scene came after the epic moments were done, when the remaining lords and ladies of Westeros assembled to figure out what the hell to do with this country of theirs. There was a very funny cameo by Tobias Menzies as Edmure Tully, whose brief moment of gasbaggery also reminded you how funny this show could be about preening egomaniacs who believe in their own self-righteousness, before it became all about badasses doing war stuff.

And yet this sudden return to political realities after all the shaky-cam warfare felt a bit like parliamentary bumper bowling, like no idea could be a bad one by virtue of finalehood. A few years ago, every halfway powerful lord of Westeros used a tiny rumor of succession fraud as an opportunity to declare revolution. In this finale, the Dany-allied Iron Islands and the grinning new Prince of Dorne nodded along while an imprisoned Lannister suggested making the least famous Stark the new King of Westeros. It’s because, Tyrion explained, Brandon the Broken has the best story. Didn’t Arya just become famous for killing the walking personification of death? You’re telling me that tracks lower for the average illiterate Westerosi than some kid who survived a bad fall before swallowing

Worth remembering, I think, when Game of Thrones was at its best. That would be season 4, the phase when every corner of the opening-credits map hit runaway-train momentum. Every new character still felt immediately essential: Hello, Oberyn (Pedro Pascal), you sure seem fun! And there was the whole perfect little show-within-a-show where Arya and the Hound (Rory McCann) wandered from one dead end to another.

George R. R. Martin’s source novels, comprising the yet-unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire series, are brilliant and idiosyncratic. In Martin’s telling, the wars of Westeros flip between up-close perspectives, a shifting POV narrative roughly TV-equivalent to the focal-episode style of Lost or The Leftovers. The series that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss extrapolated from those novels was never so inventive stylistically. It visibly suffered when it ran out of story to adapt — and some of their changes could feel a bit dull, like keeping Theon (Alfie Allen) on screen for two straight seasons of relentless torture.

But credit Benioff and Weiss as producers. They cast child actors who grew into compelling adults, especially Turner and Williams. That decision alone gave Thrones added potency as it went along. If you were born at the right moment, you followed the Harry Potter heroes from prepubescence into British drinking age, and then tagged along with the Thrones kids from their teenage wasteland into twentysomething political prominence. And Benioff and Weiss seemed willing to make a little room for pleasant surprises, like Bella Ramsey’s Lyanna Mormont, a scene-stealer who slayed a giant. Game of Thrones will be remembered for its ornate decade-long narrative — and yet the best flourishes I’ll associate with Benioff and Weiss feel impulsive, even self-immolating. They initially tried to adapt the books’ version of Euron Greyjoy, a looming pantheistic menace. And then they seemed to just throw up their hands and let actor Pilou Asbæk have some fun, making Euron the last person in Westeros who seemed remotely happy to be here.

I love all the source novels, which I guess is one of many possible biases you could have against Game of Thrones. But Benioff and Weiss could be compelling adaptors. They built up the animosity between Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) and Varys (Conleith Hill) in vibrant conversations not really present in the books — though that thread dropped away as both characters started blabbing their way toward avoidable executions. And in Martin’s telling, Robb Stark is a well-meaning zero viewed distantly — but the writers gave Richard Madden a little more to do, romantic material that turned the character’s exit truly despondent.

Left to their own devices, they eventually gave in in to some of the worst instincts of fan fiction, like that time they threw a bunch of characters together for a dull trip beyond the wall to pick up a zombie corpse. I believe strongly that the best instinct of the books and the series was the urge to subvert your narrative expectations — but by the time the show staged #CleganeBowl as a showdown out of a Mortal Kombat movie, it felt like Twitter’s trending topics deserved a co-writing credit.

Am I being too mean? Am I being too nice? It’s hard for me, in the shadow of the series finale, to conjure up much ice or fire for the vast expanse of Game of Thrones. It had its ups, its downs, its transcendent moments, its miserable phases: a lot to take in, or an unusual definition of “okay.” The show was beloved enough to be criticized by everyone for something, and unique enough to create a whole new shared cultural language. It had some very good seasons and then a couple of indifferent seasons leading up to an ending that felt more dutiful than inspired. It became a generational phenomenon, uniting viewers in a shared symbolic perspective of the world. You didn’t have to squint to see the Army of the Dead as a symbol of climate change, though specifically the kind of climate change you could kill with a cool battle scene. And the gradual global rise of Dany and the Stark children fed, I think, into a particularly millennial feeling of ascension, of young people rising up to change the world. Every possibly -ismatic framework has been glued onto Game of Thrones, a whole symbiotic lit-pile of deep readings into the gender politics, the racial stereotyping, the portrait of liberation philosophy edging into fascism, its portrait of religious zealotry. All great fun to read, and I don’t think any TV series about killing a dragon with a giant crossbow can fully sustain this kind of analysis. And then Thrones did itself no favors by deciding that, like, the solution to every complex statecraft problem was to let the Starks handle everything.

This final season wanted to tell two stories: a final showdown with the Army of the Dead, and then a final showdown between two queens. Agree to disagree, maybe, on the variable excitement of fighting zombies in near-total darkness. I couldn’t muster much emotion for the Battle of Winterfell, and its mere existence felt like the last gasp of Hardcore Gritty fantasy, a muddy brand of poorly lit “realism” that looks a bit lame and played-out in the ecstatic age of Thor: Ragnarok.

As for those queens… well, Cersei didn’t have anything to do this season, which strikes me as the one complete failure of imagination. The final two episodes of Game of Thrones gave plenty of real estate to, like, Tyrion’s love for his brother Jaime, or Tyrion’s fraternal bond with Jon. Anyone approaching Game of Thrones from a gender-studies perspective would have a field day with this finale. The last words Tyrion said to Jon were about pissing of the edge of the world, a “callback” that sounded like an invitation to cross some streams. And the last properly heard spoken conversation ever in Game of Thrones was a joke about a brothel! The broseph mentality shined through in this last season, all the more obvious after a couple years that strove hard to build the female characters into major roles. Tyrion could cry majestically over his fallen brother, but Dany would react to Missandei’s death with a cuckoo makeup job. This last season couldn’t get Arya and Cersei into the same room — but it had time for Euron and Jaime to fight over Cersei, or for Tyrion to bond with Jon over how much they both loved the ker-azy gal they had to kill.

I wonder if Benioff and Weiss wrote themselves into a corner. Season 6 of Thrones ended with a killer one-two punch, the thrilling Battle of the Bastards that ended Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) and the even-more-thrilling finale which exploded the High Sparrow (Jonathan Pryce) and a whole Tyrell generation. At the time, this felt like a statement of purpose, a decisive step forward from the source material. It was also a bit of schadenfreude: Ramsay and the High Sparrow had spent their time on the show physically or emotionally torturing key characters, and it was a kick to see them receive comeuppance via canine or explosion.

In hindsight, I’m not sure Thrones really had that many moves left. As Queen, Cersei’s big story line was pregnancy, a sacred last-ditch subplot for any long-running series out of ideas for female characters. Jon and Dany fell in love, but there was a basic lack of chemistry there. Everyone had to get a zombie corpse to convince Cersei to help, and then Cersei just didn’t help, because why on earth would she? It all just started to feel small, really, like Westeros was precisely as large as the Starks and their pals. Jaime hooked up with Brienne, which was just a bad idea — another reductive twist, suggesting that “emotionally complicated professional respect” was too complicated for the show to maintain. Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) got killed, and that drove Daenerys to some kind of madness, and yet it was hard to remember the last time the two characters even spoke to each other. Missandei got lost in the shuffle, like a lot of the non-royal characters. There were more buildings to explode, I guess.

And then Thrones could just get a little repetitive. At the end of season 4, Arya set out for unknown shores, devastation behind her in the ruined Westeros, new adventures illuminating her horizon ahead. It was an optimistic vision of hard-won grace — not even triumph, Arya Stark would never properly experience that, but something like hope. Season 8 ended on a similar note. Arya was setting out west this time, fulfilling an ambition to explore off the map. Her sorta-brother Jon was on a similar journey, going north to begin a new kind of watch with the newly chill wildlings. But then Sansa took up residence on a new throne in Winterfell, while Bran launched a somewhat absentee reign as the King of Westeros.

Certain logical questions come to mind: Why is there still a Night’s Watch? Why are the wildlings going back to live in punishing glacier country? Did they really rebuild the Red Keep that quickly?

But I’m struck by the fact that — even right here at the end — Game of Thrones let you have it both ways. The Starks left Westeros, the Starks stayed in Westeros. Choose your own adventure.

Final season grade: C

Complete series grade: B

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Game of Thrones

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

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