This article contains major Game of Thrones Season 8 spoilers.
Game of Thrones, one of the defining pieces of this decade’s pop culture landscape, is over. Its watch has ended. And as you’ve likely heard, there is outrage stewing from Winterfell to Dorne, and Lannisport to Qarth, in response. Yet it’s the loudest online. Despite being largely well-received its entire run, most critical reviews dropped from overwhelmingly positive to mostly negative during the final two episodes of the series, and more than 1.2 million fans have signed petitions demanding the final season be remade, minus the creators of the series who got it on TV in the first place.
This is an interesting situation and arguably one of the series’ own making. Whatever one thinks of the Game of Thrones ending, it is hard to argue that the final season was in such a rush to get there, moments that should’ve felt stunning felt at least somewhat frustrating. The most visible of this, of course, is Daenerys Targaryen going full Mad Queen on the innocent civilians of King’s Landing, burning hundreds of thousands of people to ash just two episodes after fighting to save the world. While I would argue the show did set-up that heel turn (and yes, I mean character development, not “foreshadowing”), the rush to get to that moment left one unsatisfying bridge episode to do far too much heavy-lifting. That same episode just as incredulously had Jaime Lannister succumb to his vices only minutes after seemingly getting his and Brienne’s happily ever after. Whiplash is a definite consequence of the season.
Yet a larger issue for many fans is not just how it ended, but the very way that ending looked. It is impossible to satisfy all 60 or so million viewers of a series as complicated and enigmatic as Game of Thrones with any sort of definitive ending, but much of the backlash, including those absurd online petitions that Sophie Turner has rightly called “disrespectful,” is rooted in the fact that it did not give many the ending they thought they were owed. While that varies from viewer to viewer, generally it appears few wanted Daenerys Targaryen to become a war criminal or Bran Stark to become king instead of Dany, Jon Snow, Sansa, or even some form of democracy supplanting all of the above.
In truth though, I doubt one ending could satisfy even a majority, as I’ve seen some argue that the series finale “played it safe” while others bemoaning that Daenerys would never do that or that what is the point if Jon Snow, with his secreted parentage, does not become king? To all of which, I cannot help but thinking about what a certain Ramsay Snow once said: “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
There are issues that I have with the final season, but the fact the series did not end the way I hoped/expected is not one of them. And the very concept of a “remake” of season 8 is doubly absurd because beyond the incredulity of fans thinking creators owe them an ending to their specifications, they seem to be ignoring that the ending will more or less always look like this unless the new imaginary showrunners throw George R.R. Martin’s narrative into the ashbin.
Yes, now that it’s been laid out, this is clearly Martin’s intended ending going back to A Game of Thrones’ publication in 1996. It’s been known for years that Martin outlined the ending of all the major characters’ arcs for showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss back in the series’ early days, and they’ve been working their way to it ever since. Admittedly, they did not know how Martin got there in the final seasons (as Martin himself is still ever so methodically writing it), and I would agree with the fan consensus they reached that endpoint in ways Martin never would, including Euron Greyjoy’s invisible fleet having inexplicable dragon killing capabilities, but if the actual ending itself is the disappointment, what is the point in wasting energy on an impossible redo? Martin has confirmed on his own blog that this is more or less the ending, even as he teased his version will be much more fleshed out.
“How will it all end? I hear people asking,” Martin writes. “The same as the show? Different? Well… yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes. I am working in a very different medium than David and Dan, never forget. They had six hours for this final season. I expect these last two books of mine will fill 3000 manuscript pages between them before I’m done.”
So while it is perfectly fine to hate this ending, this desire for a different outcome seems futile, and almost willfully ignoring that even with season 8’s problems that this ending has been teased from the start. In the series, and even more so on the page, Daenerys has been depicted as having a messiah-complex and a bloodthirsty impulse that is always in need of being tempered. The first major character we’re introduced to in the book A Game of Thrones is Bran Stark, and the last time we saw Daenerys Targaryen in the most recent novel, A Dance with Dragons, she told herself after things fell apart in Meereen, “Never forget your words, ‘Fire and Blood.’” The seeds are also there on the show in scenes not in the books, such as when Daenerys feeds a man who she admits might be innocent to her dragons in season 5, saying, “I’ll let my dragons decide.”
I personally like the finale in spite of season 8’s flaws because it is so very much a part of the thematic tapestry of the early seasons fans are right to note are superior. In the first five seasons, Daenerys was more ambiguous and seemed like a clear threat to the Starks and Westerosi before season 7 eased you into thinking she’ll “not be Queen of the Ashes.” Also in those earlier seasons, there was a queasy moral ambiguity to much of what we have been watching.
The most Martin-esque quality of the final season is that the show did wrap up the White Walkers narrative early and then still offered a tragic ending to many of its characters. Martin is a noted fan of the Scouring of the Shire in J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary The Lord of the Rings. A sequence that is infamously not adapted in Peter Jackson’s cinematic trilogy, it is a bit of an extended epilogue in which after the One Ring is destroyed, Frodo and his friends return to a Shire in turmoil and civil war that ends in death and heartache. It’s a narrative detour after the main threat is destroyed, but in “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the human threat that emerges after a crisis becomes the bigger problem. The Scouring is, for this story, thematically richer than the traditional fantasy tropes of Evil Rings and Ice Zombies.
Everyone banded together to defeat the White Walkers. That is the traditional ending of a fantasy narrative, but then the survivors turn on each other. The heavily foreshadowed fall of Daenerys Targaryen’s soul—which I did not want and predicted against—occurs after the Great War, or “War to End All Wars,” has ended. The United States and Soviet Union were allies against the mutual threat of Nazi Germany, but the Cold War still spiraled out of control within a few years following World War II, a war that also followed “the War to End All Wars.” Your ally today can become your enemy tomorrow, and well-intentioned leaders can become dictators. In spite of sloppy writing in “The Last of the Starks,” the rest of the season still rings true for the whole series.
Martin’s favorite quote is one by William Faulkner: “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” That doesn’t come about from fighting for the Dawn against magical monsters, but in Daenerys struggling against her own bloodthirsty impulses after everything that has kept them in check has been chipped away, or Jon Snow struggling between loving Daenerys and fearing her reign with a dagger in his hand.
“A Song of Ice and Fire” is itself inspired by a Robert Frost poem that states, “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.” In Game of Thrones, we saw what that threat looked like from the Night King to the Dragon Queen. From fantasy iconography to the bitter truth that those we admire are only human and can fall, especially when they have absolute power and a sense of entitled divine right.
It is an unhappy ending, but one I would argue is far more satisfying for this narrative than the most popular theories among fans I’ve seen for years: those often involving some combination of Jon Snow, Daenerys, and a newborn baby who defies the rules set in the first season (where it was emphatically revealed Dany could not have children), would ascend the Iron Throne. The happiest version would be they rule together, the second happiest is one would mourn the other who died valiantly in battle, and raise their child. It is a variation on Aragorn and Arwen’s archetypal romance in Lord of the Rings and the million other versions on the mournful spouse that followed (the worst offender being Queen Padme dismissively dying barefoot and pregnant after delivering Anakin Skywalker’s babies in Star Wars: Episode III).
I did not predict Bran Stark ruling, but that does not make it a bad twist. As we’ve explored, he visibly pulled the strings since at least season 7 to facilitate Daenerys’ downfall and mayhaps his own ascension. The once and future king also being a disabled kid everyone dismissed and not the male hero who makes the same mistakes as his father (who lost his head in this series) is also satisfying for a series built around having “a soft spot for cripples, bastards, and broken things.” As has been established since the beginning of Game of Thrones, the cliché of “he doesn’t want it means he should have it” rarely translates to actual, solid political acumen. And Jon Snow has been a terrible politician, just like the man who raised him.
Still, it is not a truly unhappy ending. Long-established arcs that were a little bit subtler than Daenerys’ misdirection of “breaking the wheel” had worthwhile endings. Sansa Stark’s journey from young naïve girl and pawn of the patriarchy to wise and cunning young woman and independent queen is a major one, as is Arya Stark chasing the setting sun into the sea and not living the expected life of “a lady in a castle.” Even Jon Snow’s ending, one which few if any predicted before season 8’s start, is not truly a sad one. He is finally with people who would love him and call him king without the politics and expectation that accompany that, and the snow is melting beneath his feet.
Aye, both of Martin’s alternating titles for the final book, “A Dream of Spring” and “A Time for Wolves,” seem to be paid off in a spring that melts the wall and turns the tundra beyond it into a paradise—something Bran has dreamt about by looking into a pre-Night King past where it was exactly that. And from the Wall to the Reach, it is a time for the Starks’ direwolf sigil to rule.
You do not have to like this ending. You can hate it for season 8’s mad dash to get to it in six episodes or for the fact you simply refuse to accept Daenerys Targaryen would ever burn a city (even as she constantly promised to) or the idea that Bran Stark played us all and got the throne. You can even refuse to accept that a medieval society wouldn’t jump to a proto-American republic in a week. Just because it is Martin’s intent to end it otherwise does not mean you have to be happy with it or believe Benioff and Weiss did these ideas justice. The loaded concept of “death of the author” suggests you can evaluate this story however you want. Go write fan fiction if it is so unsatisfying.
But to demand a remake or think you are owed some alternative, more personally gratifying conclusion than what was a fairly happy ending for all the living Starks is treading dangerously close to ignoring Ramsay Snow’s warning. And look at what happened to the Greyjoy lad who did just that.
Listen to our Game of Thrones season 8 discussion on the Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: