Any writer that asks “How should this series end?” has already gotten it wrong. The same is true for any other medium. “How should this movie end?” or “How should this novel end?” These questions miss the point, and there’s a far more important question that needs to be asked instead:
How Should This Story End?
When a movie or TV series has an unsatisfying ending, it’s often because it’s forgotten what the story is about, and has instead provided an ending that deals with something else entirely.
Since Game of Thrones has several complex stories going on at once, I want to first illustrate the principle with a much more straight forward, traditional tale: Ready Player One.
Even if you really enjoyed Ready Player One, you probably noticed something was off with the ending. To figure out why that ending wasn’t working, we need to simply ask “what is this story about?” For the first 120 minutes or so, it’s consistently been about winning the Easter egg hunt and saving the Oasis from being ruined by a bunch of corporate shitheels.
Then, for the final 10 minutes the movie becomes about the need to occasionally unplug from the Oasis and enjoy the real world. But, that isn’t the story we’ve been watching all this time. Over the previous two hours we got to see that relationships formed in the Oasis are every bit as real and meaningful as real world ones, and in fact that’s why it’s so important to preserve the Oasis in the first place. A story about the need to unplug is fine, but that wasn’t this story. A film should end with its story’s ending, not the ending of some other story.
What Is The Game Of Thrones Story About?
Stories are inherently about conflict, whether internal or external. (I’m talking about the story arc here; there’s also thematic elements, but that’s a separate discussion.) A character wants something and some number of obstacles stand between them and their goal. Maybe they get it, maybe not, or some minced version in between. A story comes to its end once we have resolved whatever the central conflict is for the protagonist.
The difficulty with Game of Thrones is the lack of a single protagonist, or even a single story. We have several major characters, each with their own central conflict.
Tyrion’s story is about growing out of being The Imp and finding a life he’s proud of.
Dany’s story is about retaking the Iron Throne from the people who usurped her family.
Jon’s story is about guarding the realms of men from existential threats — kinda (more in a moment).
Sansa’s story is about gaining freedom and security.
Bran’s story is about …becoming the Three Eyed Raven to protect the memory of mankind from destruction?
The Moot Moot
With these stories in mind, we can then analyze how Game of Thrones concluded. After Dany dies and Drogon takes her body away, the show still has another 35 minutes of material, and the central scene left is the Dragon Pit Kingsmoot. To understand how this scene is working, we need to ask to which characters’ story does it belong.
Tyrion? Not really. His story was resolved when he threw down the Hand of the King badge. He’s awaiting his fate, but not an active player in that decision. The fact that he nominated Bran as king isn’t significant to his internal personal journey.
Dany? No. Had her story truly been about liberating people, this would still be part of her conclusion. Despite her failures in the end, did the world become a better place and to what degree is it because of the good she did, or in spite of the damage she caused? But, her story turned out just to be about personal conquest, and that arc died with her.
Jon? No. His story has actually become a bit of a contradictory mess. For seven and a half seasons, it’s been about protecting Westeros from a very specific threat — the White Walkers. Then, it suddenly becomes about protecting Westeros from any threat. But, there will always be threats to the realms of men. Wildlings will come down to raid during the Winter; the Free Cities will launch campaigns of conquest in the war-ravaged Westeros; the Hill Tribes are still owed The Vale of Arryn; etc. His real story ended the moment Arya shanked the Night King. Adding a new central conflict for a main character in the final three episodes doesn’t work.
Sansa? Meh. While protecting the North from southern tyrants does fit into her arc, the kingsmoot scene is not a satisfying resolution. No one in the dragon pit poses the kind of threat to the North that Joffrey, Cersei, or Dany represented. Nor does she do any more than simply ask for independence and get it. Her story effectively came to an end when Jon killed Dany. We get an unsatisfying resolution for her because she played no part in resolving that conflict. Jon thinks about her, but she isn’t active the way Jon and Tyrion are.
Bran? Come on. If his story is about being the world’s memory it makes no sense for him to become king. He should be hanging out in the Citadel getting his memories transcribed. Putting him on the throne would be a resolution to Jon’s story, not Bran’s, but only if Jon is made king and abdicates because Bran is better suited to guard the realm. Bran being nominated and elected without Jon present makes this not work as a resolution for either Bran or Jon.
None of this is to say that we need to cut to the final credits the moment the central conflict has been resolved. Such an abrupt ending is jarring, and almost an insult to the audience. The audience wants time to understand and think about the ending. With that in mind, the final scenes need to stay with the story, not break from it.
Star Wars: A New Hope ends with an award ceremony following the destruction of the Death Star. Empire Strikes Back ends with the characters beginning to recover from their losses. Return of the Jedi concludes the trilogy with the characters celebrating their victory, and Luke sharing a silent moment with his mentors and now-redeemed father. We see directly how all these conclusions tie in to the central conflicts we’ve been watching.
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy has a notoriously long and superficially-disjointed ending with everything that happens after the destruction of The Ring. But, it still works because it stays with the story and resolution of the central conflicts. For Aragorn a large part of his story was accepting his destiny to lead and not just be a wandering fighter. As such, the coronation scene is a natural extension of that story. Back in the shire, we focus on Sam’s family and Frodo sailing off with the Elves. These scenes help the audience to understand what the conflicts meant for these characters. We see that Sam has grown and that Frodo bears wounds that will never heal. We see how the characters have changed, and understand the extent of the sacrifice Frodo made when he first volunteered to be the ring bearer.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe manages to break the rule in a way that works through their famous use of the mid-credits or post-credits scenes. Once the credits roll, the film has told us the story is over. Now, when a new scene pops up, the audience can enjoy it as its own extra moment, and not as the film’s conclusion. That simple break makes all the difference.
With Game of Thrones, the moments following the kingsmoot do work as natural extensions of that scene. We get a glimpse of what the kingsmoot means to our characters. The problem with the ending is that the kingsmoot itself is not a natural part of any character’s arc. It exists because the question of who will rule Westeros has been there since the start and the audience demands an answer. But, the scene ultimately fails because that answer is not provided as part of the resolution of any character’s story.
The Scouring Of The Shire
Of course no discussion about the end of Game of Thrones is complete without mentioning the end of the Lord of the Rings novels since GRRM is on the record saying he was inspired in large part by The Scouring of the Shire.
During the scouring chapter, Frodo states that all the evil that has beset the Shire is an extension of the evil of Sauron. Everything that Saruman, the ruffians, and the hobbits who have turned have done is because of the corruption Sauron spread. Additionally, the attitudes the different hobbits express about dealing with their new enemies helps us to further understand the impact the war had on them — Merry and Pippin are confident and ready to fight while Frodo is ready for radical pacifism because he came to see Gollum not as evil, but as someone who was tragically corrupted. Whether you personally enjoyed the scouring chapter or not, we can at least see how mechanically it is designed to be a continuation of the central conflict’s resolution.
About the ending of Lord of the Rings, GRRM commented on the flatness of the fairy-tale like ending for Aragorn saying:
Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
In whatever version of the scouring GRRM gives us in the novels (if that even is his plan), should we expect to find out Bran’s tax policies? How he handles floods and bloody fluxes? And what about all these Dothraki — does he just send them back to Essos to rape and pillage?
Probably not. I don’t think those questions are what he wants to get to in his conclusion, but instead inspired the story from the very start. Robert’s tax policy is fuck off with counting coppers, just borrow the damn money. He’s bogged down with trying to keep feuding houses from going to war with each other. He does pursue systematic genocide of the Targaryens, and if he lived and Dany had Khal Drogo’s child, he would have killed the little Targ baby in its little Dothraki cradle.
Even with the show concluded, we’re still up in the air about how the books will end. But, look for what central conflicts remain for our characters, and how the final chapters either provide a resolution to those conflicts or act as an extension of the resolution to give the reader time to let it sink in.