"Game of Thrones soft-pedaled its cynical worldview to deliver an unexpectedly gentle ending that was its own, unconscious, example of cynicism," says Willa Paskin. "After creating a situation in which the most satisfying ending to the show would be a queen on the throne (one Sansa Stark, if it needs to be said), it still found a dark horse dude to take it instead. Bad fans, good fans, Jon Snow fans, Sansa fans, whatever outcome you were hoping for, you probably weren’t expecting this one, the happy ending equivalent of a sort-of-clean dishrag....David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Thrones’ showrunners, have been working off George R. R. Martin’s outline for years, but it doesn’t seem like it exactly fit the show anymore: It didn’t fit its strongest actors, it didn’t fit its focus, it didn’t fit the storytelling it had done. We got a happy ending, but also a kind of rigidity—a group of men not even considering Sansa Stark as a potentially electable candidate, because the script has always said she wasn’t."
The series finale was cynical and idealistic, satisfying and disjointed: "Conclusion is risky, but in the case of Game of Thrones, it was also tantalizing," says Alison Herman. "Mere days before Sunday’s final episode, it was still reasonable to wonder exactly what this story about power, legacy, justice, and governance was attempting to say about any of these things. With Daenerys Targaryen a confirmed, if not convincing, despot, would Thrones double down on the futility of building a better world? Or would it veer in the opposite direction, contradicting many of its early lessons on the limits of idealism by echoing the late Varys’s endorsement of Jon? Until the very last moment, Thrones toyed with both extremes: the unrelenting cynicism it always flirted with, and the conventional heroism it once eschewed. In the end, the show landed somewhere in the middle. The most definitive takeaway from 'The Iron Throne,' written and directed by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, is that Thrones was the Starks’ saga all along. The direwolf sigil now flies all over the world, from Bran the Broken’s seat in King’s Landing to Sansa’s independent queendom in the North to Jon’s happy self-exile beyond the Wall to Arya’s travels in the West. The series ends with a montage of the siblings embarking on their respective journeys, their unimaginable pain mercifully transmuted into well-deserved new beginnings. Game of Thrones built a following on its epic scope, yet it exited the most intimate and pathos-friendly of family dramas, like This Is Us with genocide and CGI."
The finale couldn't have satisfied everyone: "The Game of Thrones finale may have achieved a strange feat: Aiming for fan service while being constrained, by its very nature, to the reality that it would end up pleasing only very few," says Daniel D'Addario. "The episode was larded with character touches designed for devotees — from a title, at long last, for fan favorite Bronn, to the consolation prize of Sansa, whose arc throughout the series has been perhaps the most profound, getting to rule over her ancestral home of Winterfell. And yet it was tied to an ending that, coming as it did from an unfinished series of novels whose conclusion the series has been tied to since its earliest going, could barely have been made satisfying, and certainly not in the time the show had given itself for its final season."
"The Iron Throne" was anticlimactic in a bad way: "It dutifully trudges through Game of Thrones’ remaining plot points, arriving at an ending that is just fine, until you start to think about it for a couple of minutes," says Todd VanDerWerff. "(Here’s just one question worth asking: Why is Grey Worm suddenly so okay with letting the man who betrayed his queen set up a new governmental system for a country he cares nothing about? Is he a freshman poli-sci major who’s, like, 'Well, if America could just start over...'?) I can always respect an attempt to take a big swing — as the show did in its penultimate episode, 'The Bells' — even if I don’t like the result. But just dutifully trying to conclude the story as perfunctorily as possible is somehow even worse than a big swing that misses. 'The Iron Throne' is just kinda there, and for all its issues, Game of Thrones was never just kinda there."
This felt like Game of Thrones at its best: "In order to derail Daenerys’ journey, Game Of Thrones had to become a different kind of TV show, with a quickened pace and a focus on sound and fury signifying the story coming to an end," says Myles McNutt. "But as much as Game Of Thrones became known for sound and fury, I would contend that was never its best mode even when it was its most impressive, and 'The Iron Throne' understands that as it plays out. It delivers a clear climax to the story it was telling, but an intimate one, which comes far sooner than you’d expect. And after it ends the story it’s been telling, it asserts that the story will keep going, contorting itself to create a new set of journeys, informed by those that came before. I said going into this finale that my test for a final season of a television series is whether it enriches what came before, but this finale succeeds—more or less, at least—by doing the opposite, putting most of its energy into constructing a vision of the future rather than relitigating the past. And the result is a finale that by its conclusion felt more like Game Of Thrones at its best than the season that preceded it, albeit in the process reinforcing how much the show struggled with how to integrate its final act into its larger story arc."
What an odd, underwhelming choice for king: "He was so extraneous at times that he was able to be left out of an entire season without being particularly missed," Alan Sepinwall says of Bran Stark. "Even his role in the war with the Night King — a war that proved to be as besides the point of the endgame as Jon’s oft-analyzed parentage — amounted to being using as bait, while Arya actually stopped the guy. Bran went on this long journey of both geography and power, but he was a character to whom things simply happened, where many of the others at that parlay were characters who made active choices based on what happened to them. Arya never seemed like the type who’d want the job. But we spent all season being told the same about Jon, even as Varys and others insisted he’d be great at it. And Bran’s own lack of interest in the gig was held up as yet another reason to give it to him. But it’s such an odd, underwhelming choice — whether made by the showrunners or told to them by Martin — in the story of Game of Thrones itself."
Tyrion was the real winner of the series finale: "Tyrion didn’t earn his power through violence or strategizing or long-term wedding murder planning, the way other characters on Game of Thrones so often have," says Jen Chaney. "When Bran asked him to be the Hand, he didn’t even want the job in the same way that Bran didn’t want to assume his. Tyrion got what he got because he was very good at doing the thing that he argued was most vital to maintaining a functioning society: telling stories."
The dragonpit scene was a mess: "In this disastrously plotted fancy folks’ convention," says Hillary Kelly, "Game of Thrones topples all its own credibility as a drama that truly understands the insidiousness and long-con nature of politics, by bringing together a group of people with wildly at-odds desires and weaknesses and then, after a nice little speech celebrating the glories of ye olde stories, has them unanimously elect a demigod with severe interpersonal-skill deficits and literally not a goddamn thing to offer as a ruler."
Bran makes the most sense, but his storyline was undercooked: "For a show that has disregarded or downplayed so many elements of the fantasy genre since surpassing Martin’s books, the turn to the character most connected to those very fantasy elements at the end underwhelms," says Zach Kram. "If Bran were to become king, why cut him from a full season of the show? Why reduce his personality? Why cut short the yin to his magical yang, the Night King, and ignore a possibility at his personality, too? Why resolve the White Walker plot so suddenly? Why give Bran so little to do during that fight?"
Daenerys’ turn from hero to villain should have been a triumph of plot development: "If the showrunners wanted to argue that power corrupts everyone, carefully tracing Daenerys’ descent from Breaker of Chains to Mad Queen killed by her lover could have been a smart, honest, compelling storytelling choice. Instead, the creators of the show decided to evolve Daenerys’ increasing paranoia over the course of just a few episodes, let her snap in a second and punish her for that misstep by having Jon murder her a mere episode later. The shift was so abrupt that even actor Emilia Clarke admitted to struggling with it, saying in a recent interview that she still 'stands by' Daenerys."
It was a season-redeeming ending: “Game of Thrones was often about believing in the impossible," says Steve Greene. "Accepting that heroes could return from the dead, that fire-breathing beasts could patrol the sky, that the fairy tale rhythms of old could be used for less-storybook ends. With its final stroke, Game of Thrones added something to that list. It delivered an ending that fit. Its final episode, 'The Iron Throne,' saw a conclusion that didn’t so much serve as a corrective for the narrative shortcomings of its preceding installments as much as it reframed the last few dozen hours spent in Westeros. A punctuation of sorts to one of TV’s most massive installments, it cut through the myriad expectations and offered up an impressive closing chapter, balancing a litany of character sendoffs with a parting thematic statement on the nature of power."
Game of Thrones' final season wasn't the disaster some make it out to be: 'It’s fascinating to see a show wrap up in a manner wherein many of the flaws so clearly occur offscreen rather than on; the plague of season eight hasn’t been lackluster episodes, for the most part (though 'The Last Of The Starks' was a definite low point)," says Alex McLevy. "It’s been what takes place between episodes, even between scenes: a dearth of cogently defined pacing and structure that’s been cast aside in the race to the finish. What would’ve felt methodical and precise in early seasons has slowly transitioned to rushed and messy. But the problem wasn’t, for example, Euron Greyjoy getting the drop on Dany and her fleet in a manner that suggested no one had bothered to do a simple reconnoiter. It was the way in which the breakneck pace implied it hadn’t even been considered."
Isaac Hempstead-Wright thought he was given a joke script: “Not everyone will be happy,” the Bran Stark actor says of the series finale. “It’s so difficult to finish a series as popular as this without pissing some people off. I don’t think anybody will think it’s predictable and that’s as much as you can hope for. People are going to be angry. There’s going to be a lot of broken hearts. It’s ‘bittersweet,’ exactly as George R.R. Martin intended. It’s a fitting conclusion to this epic saga.”
Kit Harington expected the final two episodes to be divisive and feared they would be accused of being sexist: “One of my worries with this is we have Cersei and Dany, two leading women, who fall,” he tells EW. “The justification is: Just because they’re women, why should they be the goodies? They’re the most interesting characters in the show. And that’s what Thrones has always done. You can’t just say the strong women are going to end up the good people. Dany is not a good person. It’s going to open up discussion but there’s nothing done in this show that isn’t truthful to the characters. And when have you ever seen a woman play a dictator?”