“Love is the death of duty,” says Jon Snow, quoting the late maester Aemon, another Targaryen who chose servitude over the throne. “Sometimes duty is the death of love,” the imprisoned Tyrion replies. He’s trying to convince the stalwart Northerner to murder the woman he loves, to do as Jaime Lannister did way back at the end of Robert’s Rebellion and put cold steel through a monarch planning to unleash hell on a defenseless world. It works. When Jon hears Daenerys repeat the very words about her own rightness and goodness that Tyrion predicted she’d use to justify an endless war against the world, he takes her in his arms and stabs her in the heart. She dies confused and alone on the ash-caked floor of a room she fought and clawed and bled her entire adult life to reach.
Much of the first half of “The Iron Throne” holds us close to the faces of Tyrion, Daenerys, and Jon as they move through the ruins of King’s Landing and the Red Keep. The sight of dead children lying in the streets, of the Unsullied executing unarmed prisoners, of a man so badly burned his skin hangs from the raw, slick flesh beneath as he totters aimlessly from nowhere toward nothing, is numbing in its immensity. Later Tyrion digs through the rubble under the Red Keep in search of Cersei’s and Jaime’s bodies, sobbing over the ruin of a family he once dreamed of seeing burned alive for his amusement. His duty to his queen brought his boyhood fantasies to cruelly literal life much as over the course of its run Game of Thrones has shown us the dark heart of our own daydreams of power and righteousness.
In one of the series’ most sinuously unforgettable images we see Daenerys walking through an archway to address her Unsullied and her Dothraki while in the courtyard at her back her last surviving dragon spreads his wings and takes to the sky. For an instant it’s like something out of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, Drogon’s leathery wings unfurling from Daenerys’s slender silhouette, the last vestiges of the Targaryen queen’s human vulnerability banished by the specter of her last and worst atrocity. That she stands in a literal rain of ash and declares the burning of King’s Landing and its people a triumph to be repeated the world over finally confirms that war has broken her, that in fighting to reclaim herself from the men who brutalized and traumatized her she has adopted their cruelty as her own. She is the wheel she longs to break.
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The World that Might Have Been
With Daenerys’s death and the grieving Drogon’s destruction of the Iron Throne and subsequent flight, the stage is set for the remaking of the Seven Kingdoms. It happens quietly. The tension between the North and the bereaved and furious Unsullied and Dothraki finds its resolution when Tyrion convinces Westeros’s lords and ladies to accept Bran as their king, abolishing royal succession in the same fell swoop. If the arrival of a benevolent, omniscient sorcerer king feels a little neat, seeing characters we’ve come to love and trust laugh in Samwell Tarly’s face for proposing the idea of democracy is enough to keep it grounded. There’s no fairytale of perfect equality to follow all that blood and misery, only small mercies and memories of what was lost. The sweetest of these is Brienne’s completion of her friend and lover Jaime’s entry in the book chronicling the lives of the Kingsguard’s lord commanders. As his successor, her last words on this man she changed so much in some ways and not at all in others are, “he died defending his queen.”
When Jon, held prisoner by the Unsullied, asks Tyrion if killing their own queen was the right thing to do, Tyrion tells him “Ask me again in ten years.” With the North seceding from the realm under Sansa’s rule, the Dothraki settling into King’s Landing, Drogon loose in the wild, and the Unsullied sailing to Missandei’s homeland of Naath the world of Game of Thrones remains as wild and uncertain as ever. Certainty about one’s own goodness and the righteousness of one’s actions is a luxury only fanatics can afford, a lesson Daenerys never learned in her short, painful life. Living as Jon and Tyrion must with the burden of uncertainty is a different kind of pain, one that can’t be remedied by further violence. As Tyrion — pressed into unwilling service as Bran’s Hand of the King — learns when he arranges the Small Council chamber to his liking only to see it instantly reorganized by his fellow council members, everything from the most terrible battle to the meanest errand is equally unknowable.
The Road Goes Ever On and On
Life goes on in the now-Six Kingdoms, and in the North where Sansa is crowned queen by acclamation. Her gown, its trailing sleeves patterned with weirwood leaves, its bodice wrapped in silver filigree, is something entirely her own, not the courtly King’s Landing fashions she emulated as a girl or the hard-edged look she adopted while under Littlefinger’s predatory tutelage. It’s a moment as graceful and full of promise as the brutally polite “Uncle? Please sit,” she delivers during the pompous Edmure’s attempt to get himself crowned king is hilarious. Ned Stark’s eldest living child gives her kingdom its independence after fighting to the last drop of blood for her own as his youngest, Arya, sails West into the great unknown to see what waits beyond the point where all maps end.
Which leaves us with Jon. The last living heir to the Targaryen throne, the man who saved the Free Folk, who freed the North from Ramsay Bolton, who brought Westeros together in a war against death itself and saw it through the other side. He is sent once again to take the black and join the Night’s Watch as punishment for killing his queen. In its final moments the show takes us north of the Wall one last time in a series of shots which mirror the doomed Night’s Watch expedition from the long-ago series premiere. That lonely party of three men met death in the shadows under the pines, but Jon Snow and the Free Folk vanish into the same darkness surrounded by families returning home, by an end to duty and to vows, and by fearless children playing in the snow. Winter has come and gone. Spring is here at last.