Note: I am not flinching from Game of Thrones spoilers in this post. The spoilers range from the start of the series to the end, and cover both books and television.
I finished the book A Game of Thrones between calls while working in an insurance company’s call center. It was 1999. When Eddard was betrayed, I logged out of the phone without talking to my boss and shot, wild-eyed, to my feet. I had to walk. I had to move. I had to punch the air and curse and marvel. I could have lost my job over it, but I didn’t give that any thought. I stood up and walked out until I calmed down enough to come back to work.
That was the second and final time I have ever been so moved by a book. (The first was near the climax of Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Power That Preserves, during Lord Mhoram’s final scene. That time I had been alone in my room at home, enrapt at 3:30 in the morning, and had leapt to my feet shouting. We lived in an apartment building, but I’m sure the downstairs neighbors shared my enthusiasm.)
The death of GoT‘s main protagonist wasn’t a typical twist ending sucker punch. It didn’t just leave me laughing and shaking my head, going, Wow, never saw that coming.
It was dizzying.
It yanked the rug out from beneath me and landed me flat on my back. It knocked the wind out of me. And it rocketed the stakes skyward. No one was safe in this story—not in the first book, nor in any of the books to follow.
That was a lesson I never forgot. It formed a new lens through which every book I read afterward had to pass. It informed my own writing. And obviously I always kept it at the forefront when reading GoT‘s sequels, which I devoured. But despite how certain I was that I had learned the lesson, Martin caught me by surprise again and again—when Joffrey died, when Robb died, when Daenerys ordered the Unsullied to kill their former masters. Sometimes these hits left me in ruins. Sometimes they left me elated. Every time, though, they deepened my love for the series and my appreciation for the quality of Martin’s work.
When HBO launched the series, my wife and I (and sometimes, when we were lucky, a very good friend or two) watched each new episode the day it aired, without fail. When the series finally, finally, overtook the books and started playing out the story beyond book 5, I was enrapt all over again. I was one of the original fans who had been waiting over a decade for the next chapter of this story. And it did not disappoint.
If you follow Game of Thrones, especially if you feel like the last two seasons have been terrible verging on worthless, what I’m about to say is going to be controversial and may even piss you off. I’m going to say it anyway, because I feel like I owe it to this beautiful, flawed, epic work of art that has been living rent-free in my mind for two decades.
Game of Thrones stayed true to itself to the end.
It finished how it started. It kept the punches coming. The main beats, the broad strokes of the story itself, and, yes, the characterization, were all strong through the finish.
Was it perfect? Of course not. I can acknowledge the warts. There were far too many death fake-outs of late. Tyrion falling off the ship and getting (apparently) knocked out by a falling mast, only to appear later on shore as if nothing happened. Euron miraculously being the sole survivor of his torched fleet, showing up just in time for a fairly pointless duel to the death with Jaime. The sheer volume of main characters who survived the Long Night. And yeah, the big mozza ball, Arya slipping unnoticed through a literal army of the Others to deliver the Night King’s death blow out of nowhere. I recognize these issues. I know they were there. They bugged me. They didn’t destroy the series, or do more than drag it down from an A+++ to an A+ at worst.
But the anti-GoT voices got loudest when Daenerys chose to raze King’s Landing. Screams of “bad writing” and “bad characterization” and “too rushed” echoed all over the internet last week. I don’t think any of that stuff was really true, though. I think Dany’s choice was in character and well foreshadowed.
The kneejerk contempt for it, I think, is because watching it hurt like hell.
Dany’s decision was no less shocking or painful than Eddard’s death. I saw a lot of parallels in it: Dany was a primary protagonist, one everybody loved. She was the underdog. We were sure she was going to win out in the end. But that was exactly our mistake: we forgot the lesson of Eddard’s death. GoT pulled one last throat punch on us, we walked right into it, and it was particularly brutal because the character didn’t just die. She didn’t just betray Tyrion or Jon or even herself.
She betrayed us.
In 5th grade I made a friend—let’s call him Bob. Bob and I hung out after school and all day every summer. We played the same video games. We got into tabletop gaming and D&D together. We played Magic the Gathering over the phone. After high school we got our first real, salaried jobs at the same company. He was my best friend. I loved the guy.
Over the years, though, I watched him turn on people. Snipe them behind their backs, shut them out, decide he was too good for them. In retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised when he did the same thing to me, shortly before I got married. But I was. Even though I knew that’s the kind of person he was, even though he had done it a million times.
Losing Dany felt a lot like losing Bob. It was like getting my heart ripped out. And it was a brilliant writing decision—a long-game payoff that started in the first book of the series. I feel pretty sure that in ten years, people will be talking about the end of Game of Thrones with the same reverence and awe they now talk about its beginning.
What about the ending itself? What about Bran becoming King, the North seceding peacefully (!) under Sansa’s rule, and Jon slinking away into the north?
I loved it. All of it. Every little piece.
An epic as sprawling and intricate as Game of Thrones has to be among the most difficult works of art to create. The sheer volume of characters and plot threads would overwhelm anyone but an absolute master of their craft. Was it too much for Weiss and Benioff to handle? Yeah, probably.
I’m writing a 6-book epic fantasy series with maybe, generously, one-third to one-half the characters and plot threads of Game of Thrones. I need to keep a thirty-page notes document that I refer back to constantly, and I am always referencing the books I’ve written before to keep everything on track. It is immensely difficult.
Losing the source material 2/3 of the way through the project, as W&B did, would be like someone burning my notes document and taking away all my reference text. I imagine it felt as though they’d lost half the engines on a jet mid-flight. They brought that jet to a safe landing. A bit wobbly, sure, but considering the jet was missing half its engines I think all the passengers should be grateful just to be alive, let alone landing without so much as a bump on the head.
I’ve read people complaining that the wrong person ended up on the throne, maligning Bran because he didn’t do more to affect the outcome and making him out to be some kind of malicious mastermind. I’ve read complaints that Dany was robbed, of course, or that Tyrion was robbed or Jon was robbed—or even that Sansa was robbed, which is patently ridiculous since she got precisely what she wanted without shedding a drop of blood to get it, which is a flawless victory in this setting.
The point is that there was no ending which would have made everyone happy. If Dany or Jon had won, it would have been too predictable. If Tyrion had won, it wouldn’t have done enough to uplift women. If democracy had won, it would have been too unbelievable. If Sansa had won, it would have been out of character.
Accepting for the moment that Bran did the best he could with what he had (this is a whole ‘nother claim I could write another 2,000 words defending), seeing him end up as king was surprising, gratifying, and a welcome happy ending.
Best of all, though, I am 100% confident that the ending we saw was the ending (in broad strokes) GRRM envisioned.
I finally got to finish the series I started in that call center cubicle twenty years ago, and it was worth every second.