“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
This chilling line, spoken with gleeful malice by Ramsay Bolton in season 3 of Game of Thrones, always felt like the closest thing the HBO show had to a thesis statement. From the very beginning, Game of Thrones has made it abundantly clear that it was not in the business of pleasing its fans. Heroes like Ned and Robb Stark suffered brutal, shocking deaths that highlighted the cruel and chaotic nature of the world of Westeros. Oberyn, a man seeking vengeance for the death and rape of his sister, was instead killed by the very man who murdered his sister. A young girl was burnt alive by her own father seeking to further his claim to the throne.
Even George R.R. Martin made no efforts to hide the story’s unabashed acknowledgment of darkness, as he famously alluded to Game of Thrones ending as “bittersweet.” So naturally, heading into the final season, we all braced for the worst. Would the White Walkers end up on the throne? Would Arya’s bloodlust overcome her, sending her on a John Wick-esque killing spree of all the leaders of Westeros, including her siblings? The possibilities seemed endless, which is why it was such a surprise to see that season 8, episode 6, ‘The Iron Throne’ ended on such an uplifting and optimistic note.
Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones, season 8, episode 6, “The Iron Throne.”
Of course, this is Game of Thrones, so obviously, its version of a happy ending is quite different than what you might expect from a rom-com or buddy comedy. Over the course of the final season, several beloved characters died, including Jaime, Cersei, Jorah, Lyanna, and, of course, Dany, who was stabbed by her lover-turned-nephew Jon Snow just as she finally reached the Iron Throne. And beyond characters that we knew, countless soldiers and innocent civilians were slaughtered during Dany’s takeover of King’s Landing. Death was always an essential part of the show’s DNA, so it should come as no surprise that it remained a core component in the final season.
However, once Drogon symbolically roasted the throne and headed off with Dany’s corpse, the show suddenly took a tonal shift that could almost be described as cheerful? Bran is chosen as the King of Six Kingdoms and absolves Tyrion’s treason charges by casually making him his Hand. As a result, Bronn, Brienne, Sam, and Davos are all appointed to the high council, despite some of their questionable qualifications. Whether or not these moments were earned is up for debate but what’s not up for debate is the fact that this is about the happiest ending Westeros could have hoped for.
Moving forward, the Six Kingdoms won’t be ruled by a drunken marauder like Robert Baratheon or a cruel psychopath like Joffrey Lannister; instead, they will get Bran, an emotionless, altruistic being who barely identifies as human but makes up for it by having the ability to see the present and the future. He’s basically a superhero who has no personal desires, making him the ideal ruler to an almost absurd degree. And on his high council sit a ragtag crew of the most beloved characters in the show, who joyfully trade barbs and witticisms as their King heads off to figure out if he can warg into a dragon.
And beyond the kingdom as a whole, the show protected the Starks with a sense of mercy that even Ned would have found excessive. In the early seasons, no family suffered more than the Starks, as each member of the family gets about as close to a happy ending as you could expect for them. Obviously, Bran is King but Sansa gets to remain Queen in the North, as Bran agrees to grant Winterfell independence. Jon might not be sitting on the throne but that’s never what he wanted. And thanks to Greyworm’s laughably bad negotiating skills, Jon’s “punishment” is abdicating his responsibility to join the free folk up north. Meanwhile, Arya ditches Westeros to explore the great unknown, for some reason.
For longtime Game of Thrones fans, the last half of “The Iron Throne” may have felt like a jarring shift of pace because we suddenly went from gritty realism to a conclusion that felt very much in line with Tolkien’s Return of the King, right down to the heartfelt goodbye at the docks. None of this is to say that a happy ending was impossible for Game of Thrones; it’s just the show needed to earn the pivot of hopefulness that feels out of step with so much of what we came to fundamentally understand about the Westeros. Was the answer really just let the Three-Eyed-Raven be king? If so, why hadn’t anyone thought of that before? Seems almost too obvious.
Perhaps in Martin’s books, the story will be told in a way that makes the bitter aspect of this bittersweet ending more clear but for now, it’s a finale that almost feels like it was pulled from a less nuanced fantasy series, where kings are impossibly noble and good men and women get to live the long and happy lives they deserve. We can’t help but wonder with such a happy ending, were creators David Benioff and Daniel Weiss the ones not paying attention?