Endings Are Not Stoppings: On Game of Thrones, And How We Conclude Our Stories

“Dear Penthouse Letters…”

Ahem. So. Endings are fucking hard.

They just are. It’s hard enough with one book, much less seven or eight books (or seasons of television, or movies, or what-have-you). The more epic the tale, the tougher it is to conclude that journey, because you’re not just concluding a “plotline,” you’re trying to tie dozens of threads — character, primarily — off in pleasing and appropriate knots. Some are tied together, others more grand than others, some get no knots or bows at all and are snipped cruelly with a pair of scissors. The larger the story, the more threads you have to deal with, and the goal is to have woven them into some kind of tapestry — not just a bundle of loose, untied threads that dangle in a waterfall of unfinished narrative. And Game of Thrones was a very large story, indeed. To its credit, it was both epic and intimate, beautiful and harrowing, twisty and entangling. I say with no small appreciation that the existence of this show is genuinely astonishing, and it is due credit to George R.R. Martin and the showrunners that it not only got to happen, but happened in a way that made it one of the biggest, most satisfying, and routinely most upsetting television show of the last decade, if not of all damn time. Big show. Big audience. Lotta meaty, chewy stuff.

It is therefore worth noting that no matter what Game of Thrones did last night, its ending would’ve been disappointing to someone. There is no way to satisfactorily end such an epic undertaking — especially such a morally and emotionally complicated undertaking — in a way that values every viewer and every fan. Everyone had their favorite characters, their pet theories, the questions they hoped would be answered. Who will be king, why did the White Walkers arrange things in a mysterious spiral, why did Bran just Warg off from the Battle of Winterfell in a bunch of fucking crows I mean was he trying to poop on something or just get some sweet sweet berries or what.

I’d like to say I’m still processing the episode, but really, I’m not. I was mostly bored by it — it contained a great deal of pontificating and mumbling and walking around, and not to a whole lot of effect. It had a few good moments, and one or two truly beautiful moments, and for me, as is my way, I like to unpack what I didn’t like in a sort of grander, storytelling way. Like, what does this mean for other storytellers and writers? Are there lessons to be learned? The answer to that is, only if you want, of course. Because as is my constant refrain: this shit ain’t math. What one person finds boring and unsatisfying, another will find invigorating and perfect in all that it concludes. So I do this for me more than I do it for you. You, of course, will come along for the ride as I try to figure it out, and maybe you’ll find something in here, too — to agree with, to think about, to stir your agita so badly that it causes you to make ten angry YouTube videos.

Once again, though, let’s do some spoiler space.

This time, a photo of an egg which also looks like the poster to the 40-Year-Old Virgin.

SPOILERS NOW INCOMING.

Awooga, awooga.

There were, of course, things I liked about this episode, and it’s wisest to begin with those. Dany emerging with the dragon’s wings framed behind her is perhaps one of the most gorgeous pieces of cinematography in the whole show. Jon Snow being a continued lump, good. Sansa as the Queen of the North is obvious. Jon got to pet the dog and live a life of quiet contemplation with his lover, Tormund. I am pro- all of these things. Yay these things. Huzzah and hooray.

But my overall feelings toward the episode were… well, as with the prior episode, I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed. I felt a kind of quizzical discomfort throughout, this slowly growing feeling that the time put into the show was not returning to me in any kind of narrative satisfaction. It was a treacly episode, like pudding sliding down a wall. And then the pudding reached the floor and then the episode was over and it was like, oh. Oh. Okay. That happened. That was a thing that occurred that I was passive witness to. All right. My wife was sitting next to me — she watched the first couple seasons until the brutality became too much, but she has sat with me on most of these last season episodes — and she was, “I only peripherally pay attention to this show, but even I’m somehow unsatisfied by this.” It lacked energy, for one (Bran’s mopey mystical delivery is perhaps a very good metaphor for how this episode felt), but for me it was more than that, one that I realized late last night, as various storms raged through our area, waking my ass up again and again —

The show didn’t feel like it ended.

The show felt like it stopped.

It’s like a premature death — one day your uncle is there, the next he’s gone, and there’s no saying goodbye, no real concluding paragraph to the end of his life. His obituary is just, “and then he got pancaked by a bus, the family is accepting charitable donations to Uncle Gordon’s favorite Possum Sanctuary, we respect your privacy in this difficult time.”

A good ending, as noted, ties up a lot of threads — character threads, ideally, but of course plot threads too — but an ending is also usually something that surprises us, and it does so in a way that while we are surprised, we aren’t shocked. In other words, it’s like a surprise party on or around our birthday — we didn’t know it was coming, but it’s also not completely bizarre. That’s how surprise parties work. It’s not a surprise birthday party four months after our birthday, because what the fuck is this, Dave, my birthday was four months ago, Dave, you tremendous piece-of-shit, maybe if you didn’t get high all the time on the couch we could pay attention to other people. Fucking Dave.

A bad ending fails to negotiate with or render those threads and surprises in a satisfying way. And I’d argue that’s what happened here, at least for me — and again, the way I look at this is mostly through the lens of characters, because let us repeat the motto: Characters Are Why We Care.

*rainbow star shoots across the sky*

Dany: She shows up, gives a kind of Fantasy Hitler speech in another language that somehow even Jon Snow and Tyrion understand, then smiles to Jon and is like, wow we’re gonna make the Kingdoms so cool, and he stabs her and she’s dead. And that’s it. That’s it for one of our main main characters. The curtain doesn’t close on her so much as it tries to close on her body, and comically keeps opening and closing on her cooling corpse as a dragon melts the Iron Throne in a heavy METAPHOR ALERT. (Turns out, Drogon is Old Valyrian for “on-the-nose.”) Most of Dany’s character beats in this episode are put in mouths of other characters. Men decide her fate in the margins of the show. She has no awareness, no reckoning. She’s there. And then she’s not. I do understand that this show sometimes gives us send-offs that are lacking in pomp and glory, but this felt like they were euthanizing her. It was her time, those gathered in hospice say as they casually up her morphine intake. It felt weak and particularly curious for a queen who had just last week been hella paranoid about Jon Snow — now she wants to hug it out and convince him it’s all cool, while they’re all alone, and he’s kitted out with sword, knife, and armor. Again: she’s there, and then she’s not. Dany just sorta stops(Though only after the show retroactively villainizes her — there’s a lot of late-stage, “Well, even though we and the show treated her like a conquering hero, don’t we all really recognize now she was a batshit genocidal maniac? Good talk. Go stab her.”)

Arya: The show found its purpose for her in the Battle of Winterfell, and since then, has had no purpose for her. She doesn’t try to do anything in this episode. On the attendance sheet, she is merely marked ‘present,’ and then is gone. I like where she’s going (and if there’s not an ARYA GOES ON A MURDER VACATION spin-off I will eat my fucking television), but the show really has no idea what it wants from her anymore. She barely tries to convince Jon of anything. She’s somehow still in the city after… leaving the city. At the Electoral College meeting she’s content to just sit there, mostly. The show had a plot purpose for her and now that the purpose is over, it doesn’t know what to do with her on the chessboard, so it moves the Arya piece to the edges with an awkward shrug.

Brienne: Another character whose purpose has been met and is now mostly just there. She got her knighthood, she got her Lannister Love and subsequent heartbreak, and now she’s mostly just hanging around. She gets to tell Jaime’s story, of course, but not her own, because hashtag feminism. Her story, again, just… stops. It has no shape. It just gently runs into a wall and then has a nap.

Bran: Who the fuck is Bran. I mean, I know he’s the Three-Eyed Raven and is a theoretically half-immortal seer, but we haven’t had much sense of who he is — and now he’s king *nervous laughter* ha ha what the fuck. I guess? I guess. I dunno. No fault of the actor but Bran is one of those characters who clearly had a confused role in the show — you can tell, because at the Battle of Winterfell he’s mostly just there, like a painting on a wall or a bowl of scrambled eggs. He jumps to some crows for no good reason. He has some connection to the Night King which doesn’t matter and won’t be revealed. He’s just a Magical Wheelchair Boy who… is again, the king? Really? Him? Her? Egg? *extreme Thor voice* Is he though? Wh… why? His story doesn’t just stop — it arguably just begins. I do like the evolution of the power concentrating into the hands of nobles, and I like that in a roundabout sense, Dany did get what she wanted in that she broke the wheel — but she broke it so that Westeros gets Bran? Bran. Bran?! … Bran. Bran, like the thing that helps you poop. BRAN.

Sansa: Bran, though? Really? I know we’ve moved onto Sansa but that just makes me even madder that it’s Bran? Listen, Sansa gets probably the best ending here, in that she’s baller enough to be like, THE NORTH REMAINS FREE, YOU FUCKHEADS, and then she Nopes the hell out of the sheer wreckage of King’s Landing to rule her ICE KINGDOM. Just the same, in that line up of people sitting there, she shoulda been the Queen of Westeros. When Tyrion was like, “Stories matter and who has the best story?” and then it’s like, Arya is a faceless murder princess who killed the Night King, and Sansa has endured countless abuses and challenges to emerge as the smartest, coolest, most strategic player in all of the land, and then Tyrion is like, “It’s Bran! His claim to fame is that he fell out a window!” Hey, what? What the fuck, Tyrion? Sansa. It’s Sansa! It’s fucking Sansa, you dingle.

Tyrion: The smartest character, besides Sansa, is now the stupidest. He seems to recognize it. He gives Jon a kind of motivating speech, I guess, which theoretically urges Jon to kill Dany because Jon is just a lump of cold poop you can mold into whatever shape you want. I guess he ends where he should: as the power behind the throne. But he’s kinda been that at multiple stages, too — and here, we see a similar problem in him as we do with Sansa. There’s very little state change between them. Sansa is the unofficial queen of the north and is now of the official queen of the north. Tyrion is long a power behind powerful people, and he remains the power behind powerful people. He was the hand, he is the hand. There’s little interruption in that narrative line — again, little differentiation in shape. Stories capture contrasts and pivots — they are, when operating well, about challenging a status quo, not just in a world, but more importantly, for the stories of our characters. And there is no shift in the status quo for him. Or for a lot of these characters.

Jon Snow: I liked his ending. I think he’s a dong. And I like that the show seems to realize that, too. Good, go back to the north, you no-nothing, know-nothing hunk. Stabbing Dany was probably the most effectual thing he’s done in several seasons. Go pet your dog, dipshit.

And that’s that.

We conclude on a cool Regional Council meeting where they all joke about how they’re going to rule, not once acknowledging that the entire city is basically dead, you fucking pigs, and then the Starks get their time, mostly alone, not really together, with minimal emotional pay-off between the characters. The sisters don’t get a moment, really, not together. Bran is cryptic. Jon is haggard. Credits roll.

It just feels like this show didn’t really know how to have a shape to most of this — the Night King just stops. He’s there, then he’s dead, and there’s no more problem. Cersei and Jaime are there, and then they are killed by a thin layer of bricks. Dany gets got. Arya goes away. Sansa and Tyrion continue. Bran and Jon are the the only ones who seem to have some shape to their endings — a state shift, a break in their status quos. Jon’s as a reiterative return, Bran’s as something new. Whether they’re earned, I don’t know. But so much of what went on didn’t really matter. The White Walkers, the spiral, Jon’s heritage, various prophecies, Gendry, Cersei’s pregnancy, and on and on. They all seemed to be plotty things meant to motivate characters, but when their usefulness in that regard had faded, those plotty things were simply put back in the toybox. Once again contributing to the feeling that this was a show that did not end so much as it simply stopped.

A great disappointment for me is that the show has long been interested in the minutiae — and now it’s forgotten it. Were I writing the end to this season, and really, the end to the show, I believe I would’ve given each of our principal characters an entire episode for them to grapple with the enormity of what the fuck just happened. Give us their emotions. Give us time between them where they find peace, or horror, or truth, or comforting lies. Allow us time to see how Dany would rule (meaning, not well). Show us how Sansa rules. Show us Sansa and Arya being sisters again. Give us something. Anything. Some shape to the narrative. Some time to grieve. Some time to end.

But that’s what we storytellers do — we try to figure out how we’d make it our story. And this one isn’t mine. It was what it was, and I can only reckon with it in the ways I know how.

As with all things, Your Mileage May Vary. And it should vary! And it’s entirely awesome if you found this satisfying — that is of course why stories are interesting, not because of universal appeal but because we all bring different eyes and different hearts to them. We each see a different story, and so if you dug it, I high-five you. It didn’t work for me, though again, I recognize that the show has long been one I’ve grappled with in many ways. At the end of it all though, it remains a stunning achievement, worthy of its place in television history.

I just wish it ended on, for me, a more satisfying note.

* * *

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