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Daenerys, Jon in the finale.
Under Benioff and Weiss’s guidance, Game of Thrones ended with intelligence, consideration and wit
What makes a satisfying ending? Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that the events of a tragedy ought to “come about unexpectedly, but at the same time consequentially” — that things should feel to the audience surprising but inevitable. “This will produce greater astonishment than if they come about spontaneously or by chance,” he cautioned, “for even chance events are found more astonishing when they seemed to have happened for a purpose.”
In Aristotle’s view, what we really want is a resolution we never saw coming but that, when it comes, couldn’t have been otherwise. The murderer is vanquished when the statue of the man he killed falls and crushes him: “Such things,” Aristotle writes, “are not thought to occur randomly.” We feel the end’s better as a result.
Taken as a whole, the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones followed this principle, concluding in ways both unexpected and consequential. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners, have been widely criticized their carelessness in comparison to George R.R. Martin, as the two seasons they’ve overseen without the original author’s blueprint have lacked a sense of rigour and depth. But while the pair do take more liberties than Martin ever did with geography — characters seem capable in their hands of leapfrogging from one corner of the globe to another at a moment’s notice when the plot demands — their overall feeling for story has been anything but slapdash. Under Benioff and Weiss’s guidance, Game of Thrones ended with intelligence, consideration and wit.
The aspiring young revolutionary, travelling the world in a bid to overthrow tyrants and install herself as much-needed liberator, became too enamoured of her power and was destroyed by her lover and nephew, the throne’s rightful heir, after she demonstrated her preference for strength over mercy. The heir in question, a bastard who raised an army to defend the living in the war against the dead, stabbed the woman he loved in the heart to save the people from the threat of an unjust ruler, and was rewarded with a life sentence as a nobody in the very spot where mutineers once backstabbed him. The crippled boy with no desire to rule, whose attempted murder set this entire saga in motion, wound up reluctant, perhaps benevolent king; and the rueful imp, who once successfully defended the capital with wildfire and then helped the mad queen burn it to cinders, wound up the king’s hand all over again.
Game of Thrones set us up to fear Dany’s defeat at King’s Landing after the fall of the Night King. It tricked us into worrying about the wrong thing: As the troops gathered before the gates of the city, dragon circling the skies above a fleet of turrets and ships, we were anxious to see the good guys come through. Then — at once — the battle was won. The good guys slaughtered everyone, and suddenly didn’t seem so good. It’s not as simple as the hero of the story making a “heel turn,” to use the parlance of pro wrestling. The character didn’t change; our understanding of her did. We were forced to confront what it was that we were cheering for after all. We were made to question what we wanted — if it was to see the liberator violently overthrow the dying capital, we had to witness the grim reality of that violence.
This is an ending of poetic justice and ironic consequence. Those who craved power most found themselves corrupted and destroyed by it; those who mistrusted power, who were made sick by its force, were made to accept it when it was thrust upon them. Tragically, and of course true to the vision of the show from the beginning, the forces of good could never quite conquer the forces of evil; instead we learned that things are more complicated, and that conquering can be a ghastly business, no matter what side you’re rooting for.
Was it possible to see this coming from the start? That our presumptive saviour would be yet another warmongering despot? That even after our heroes survived winter they’d still have to contend with a harrowing fall? Looking back, it seems obvious the last snowfall was always going to be flakes of ash from dragon fire. The end wasn’t merely surprising and consequential; it was also inevitable.
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