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'Game of Thrones' finale recap: 5 thoughts on that satisfying (sort of) ending

Emilia Clarke in the series finale of "Game of Thrones."
Emilia Clarke in the series finale of "Game of Thrones." (HBO)

Well, that was… satisfying intellectually, I guess, sort of. But Sunday’s big series finale of “Game of Thrones,” which saw -- spoiler alert -- all manners of justice meted out, at the tip of a dagger and in an exile, didn’t exactly stick the landing.

Yes, Jon Snow performing the necessary assassination of Daenerys Targaryen in a lover’s embrace was an apt and poetic ending for the woman who wanted to be queen, was willing to be ruthless to get there, but also kept showing she had a heart along the way.

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Yes, it was nice that for the Daenerys succession plan Tyrion was able to persuade the lords and ladies assembled in the assassination’s aftermath to begin trying to choose the best ruler, rather than doing it the old, dumb way, by birthright or troop strength.

And, yes, picking Brandon Stark to be the first king-by-vote-of-the-gentry had a certain logic to it. He’s smart enough. He can fly. And as Tyrion, said, stories are cool and he knows all the best stories.

But while this choice may have satisfied the highborn trying to figure out what to do after the rightful heir to the throne murders his lover, while it may even prove to be good for the realm and all of that, it certainly was not designed to satisfy viewers.

For eight seasons, “Game of Thrones” has been the most talked-about series in television, possibly the most intensely talked about of any over a long period of time. And the conversation only grew more passionate during the final two years as a story that was once carefully told rushed to a conclusion with one slam-bang event after another.

Whether or not you felt Dany’s story arc was untrue to her character -- I didn’t -- her not-strictly-necessary dragon-torching of commoners in seizing the Iron Throne last week meant she probably did have to be sacrificed this week to pay for the brutality.

But Bran Stark, aka the Three-Eyed Raven, aka Guy Making You Think There’s Something Fascinating Out There, Just Beyond Your Field of Vision, is nobody’s idea of a compelling hero to take the reigns of power. For most of the show, he’s been the dude on the periphery of the party, mostly ignored, occasionally chiming in with weird reactions to what’s going on.

He’s a compromise choice in the logic of the series, and he felt like a compromise choice in the moment Sunday night, as we were realizing this is what everything has been leading us to. The Iron Throne is burned by an angry dragon (with an astonishing grasp of symbolism for a reptile, I must say). Jon Snow is exiled, kind of amusingly, back to the Night’s Watch, where he more or less began his story.

Sansa Stark is keeping the north independent, not joining this new brotherhood of lords, but not rejecting it either. She is now Queen in the North, while sister Arya is off to explore “what’s west of Westeros,” which suggests a possible spin-off right there.

Drogon is headed east, and the Unsullied are sailing away, too, leaving Westeros and its problems to Westeros.

But, really, Bran, a technocrat, as king, when Sansa, a proven leader, was sitting right there? Ah, well. “Game of Thrones,” which was so passionate and alive in its best moments through the years, went out not with bang or whimper, but with a dose of chilly bureaucratic, patriarchal logic.

Long live Bran the Broken, the most palatable man for the job, all things considered! It is hardly an exit cry of triumph.

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Having heaved all that off my chest, let’s dig deeper. Here are 5 thoughts recapping “Game of Thrones” Season 8 Episode 6, the Very Last One Ever and the One that Means Now People Have to Pay Attention to Bran at the Party:

1. Daenerys should have touched the throne all those years ago. Way back in Season 2, Dany, strolling through the House of the Undying in search of her captured young dragons, had a vision of the Iron Throne in a ceilingless room, just like it appeared in Sunday’s finale. She approached this pantomime throne, reached for it, but stopped short of touching it.

Sunday, when she finally got to the real thing, she did grab it in precisely the same place she had shied away from back in visionland. And things did not go well from there.

In reaction to all the fan disappointment in the last week over her choosing to torch King’s Landing and the people in it after she knew victory was hers, I’d argue that maybe she ran a little hot in the moment, but it was also a logical choice for a woman who was short on trustworthy allies. She believed she needed fear to be able to rule effectively. She said so explicitly.

And Sunday, when she let Jon get close enough to her to plunge the knife in, she was displaying the other side of her personality, the woman touched by romanticism who genuinely wanted to help oppressed people and who still loved Jon, despite the threat his existence posed to her reign.

If you argued this was too trusting a move for her at this point in her story, I wouldn’t wholly disagree. But love, as Jon and Tyrion had earlier discussed, is “the death of duty.”

Jon, on the other hand, had been persuaded, mostly by Tyrion, that Dany could not be trusted to ignore her Jon problem or to accept Sansa’s unwillingness to bend the knee at Winterfell. Plus, she had killed all those innocent people last week, unnecessarily turning King’s Landing into Kingsford Landing (charcoal reference! Sponsorship opportunity available!).

“You’ll always be a threat to her,” Arya said. “And I know a killer when I see one.”

So Jon plunged the knife in. Dany looked shocked as she died before sitting in her coveted Iron Throne. Jon looked sad, of course, because he is earnest even in high treason.

And Drogon moved in, really, really mad. He sniffed at Dany — dead — and then immediately torched the Iron Throne, which, as noted, is very smart for a being that probably has not had a lot of high-level literary theory. And then he grabbed Dany’s body and flew off with it to the east.

Here’s the thing about the Dany story, though. The Mother of Dragons may be physically gone, but she did in an important sense win in the end. If you take her at her word that she wanted power in order to “break the wheel” of injustice, the throne melting away (and Jon’s subsequent exile) symbolized the end of Targaryen rule and paved the way for a leadership that seems to have more than a token interest in doing right by the common people — the ones who remain unburnt, anyway.

2. The episode was divided into two halves, the first sad and poignant, the second often pat and only satisfying in the biggest-picture view. For the first forty-plus minutes of the episode’s 80, there was beautiful tension as we wondered what would happen after people had witnessed their now queen go off like that.

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Jon Snow, ever the do-gooder, tried to halt Grey Worm from carrying out orders to execute troops who had defended Cersei. It made his subsequent decision to kill Dany more potent because he’s usually been about ideals first, cold-eyed pragmatism be damned.

Tyrion went into the Red Keep alone, walked to the basement, moved a few stones around -- and immediately found brother Jaime and sister Cersei, dead of building failure. On the one hand, Tyrion is an astonishingly good tracker; maybe he should be the one headed off to join the Night’s Watch. On the other hand, this did confirm a question left open last week, about whether the star-crossed and bloodline-sharing lovers had really died or maybe were going to be shown rowing away on the vessel Tyrion had promised them. No boat for you, Lannister twins!

Tyrion got himself taken prisoner by Dany after her fiery speech to the troops about needing to make more war in order to keep doing good, battles that would stretch from, ominously, Winterfell to Dorne. (The people of TVland would support the Dornish conquest, your majesty.) Throwing away his medallion symbolizing he was Hand to Daenerys in front of all her pumped-up men was more stupid than brave; it was also a nice opportunity for a historical artifact collector in the crowd below.

But Dany was just as stupid in letting the talkmaester Tyrion receive visitors in his cell, such as Jon, so that Tyrion could persuade him Dany was eventually just going to murder him and probably Sansa, too. If only Dany had a good Hand of the Queen to advise her on how best to handle treasonous prisoners.

After Jon plunged the knife in, the second half of the episode came. Where the first half was about paying for sins and using love as a weapon and finding out dragons are smarter than they look, the second was about wrapping this darn thing up, with pretty bows tied almost everywhere.

A logical thing after Jon killed Dany would have been for her fiercely loyal men, the Unsullied and the Dothraki, to riot, to grab Jon and to parade his headless body through the streets. That didn’t happen, for reasons the show didn’t remotely try to explain.

Instead, we learned that Jon was merely taken to prison, and Grey Worm will apparently be satisfied that the killer of his queen has to go into exile back to the Night’s Watch. I don’t know Grey Worm well, but consider me skeptical.

And, really, now that GW is headed to his beloved Missandei’s Isle of Naath, what’s to stop the Starks from un-exiling Jon? Maybe Jon himself. He got to meet up with his direwolf Ghost again, satisfying all the viewers who were bothered by their lack of a goodbye to each other earlier. Who’s a good boy? Ghost is a good boy! And so is Jon, nuzzle nuzzle.

And from the look of that final scene, Jon and Tormund leading a whole lot of healthy looking Free Folk back into the northern forests, strict celibacy might not be his northern destiny.

Bran gets to be the king, which, of course, he already knew was going to happen all along anyway. Do not play poker with King Bran. From the looks of his first council meeting, though, he seems about as interested in monarching as King Robert was, but for different reasons. Bran wheels up to the council table, tells the guys and gal to handle kingdom stuff, then wheels away, saying something about maybe chasing down Drogon. For Robert, it was wild boars.

The council was Bronn, now controlling Highgarden, and Davos and Samwell and Brienne, with Tyrion running the show as Hand to the Queen and, a new title, Arranger of the Furniture. They bickered amongst themselves as the camera pulled slowly away, which was the most conventional storytelling move of all. Blech.

Contrary to speculation, Samwell, by the way, did not write “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the in-series story of what happened after King Robert died (and the story of “Game of Thrones” and the story and title of George RR Martin’s source material books). Samwell merely suggested the title to the fellow who did write the story, which Samwell brings to the first council meeting. That’s a very quick publishing turnaround in an era where the only available font was the one the calligrapher chose — as he wrote by hand.

Arya didn’t get to kill Cersei or Dany, and she didn’t ride very far away on last week’s visionary white horse, either. Indeed, she’s moved on from killing and is off to explore the lands to the west, which probably means that centuries in the future, they’ll be named Aryaland or Starkana or some such. It’s a better, truer outcome than having her say something like, “I’m pregnant.”

Sansa became Queen in the North, an easy choice now that Lyanna Mormont is dead. She’ll do a fine job, but you have to wonder if she wanted the bigger gig.

3. The meeting to select the new monarch sidled up to a notion of a government selected by the people. In my preview article for this new season, I wrote (inspired, of course, by a scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”) “maybe the good people who remain will get together and decide the traditional system of hereditary feudal rule is inherently unfair to the peasant classes… and now is the time to give agrarian socialism a true chance.”

Well, lo and behold, there was Samwell Tarly suggesting at the inaugural Westeros House of Lords meeting that perhaps the right thing to do was to let the people decide who should rule them: “Maybe the decision about what’s best for everyone should be left to, well, everyone.”

The following pregnant pause and raucous laughter were well played by “Game of Thrones.” “I’ll ask my horse,” said one of the men, to more laughter.

But, really, the subsequent, more gentry-friendly suggestion Tyrion made -- of picking Bran because he knows a lot and can’t have kids who’ll want to be rulers themselves and we plutocrats should just go on picking monarchs by trying to be smart about it -- seemed like a halting first step on the path to representative democracy.

I’m willing to buy this radical idea winning the day in a land that has witnessed so much trauma in recent years, from a Mad King turning on his own people to King Robert’s Henry VIII lifestyle and neglect of his duties, to Cersei’s tumultuous rule, to the return of dragons and a Targaryen riding one of them.

If any country was going to suddenly consider the possibility of doing things a different way, it was this shattered, battered one. But for true representative democracy, that’ll probably have to wait to arise in a few hundred years, over in Aryaland.

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4. Here’s my biggest beef: Why not Sansa? Yes, the choice of Bran is not particularly thrilling for the reasons outlined above and then some. For all his occasional dreamy potency -- he told us who Jon really was; he lured the Night King to his death -- he’s mostly been kind of a drip of a character since he became the Three-Eyed Raven.

Tyrion’s argument for Bran, specifically, to take the throne was much less compelling than his general notion of trying to select a good ruler.

The only other person the lords and ladies seemed to consider was Tyrion himself, who respectfully, even self-abasingly declined.

While all this was going on, Sansa Stark was sitting right there! Sansa, who’s impressed everyone who’s met her in her growth from ingenue to steely-eyed actual ruler of actual people. Sansa, who would seem to top Bran in all relevant categories except, perhaps, sterility. She can hear you!

The fact that she wasn’t given consideration, by the committee or by the show’s writers, only makes sense as a matter of sexism. The writers would probably suggest they are reflecting the sexism of the times, that those people in that era were always going to try to find a dude, perhaps especially so after Cersei and Dany proved, um, problematic.

I’ll accept that to a degree. But I do think the show owed it to its audience, and to the character of Sansa, to at least explain why she wasn’t in the running. To not do so seems a throbbing and, yes, sexist oversight on a series that put so many women in or near power through the years.

5. In the end, the real “Game of Thrones” takeaway is the friends we made along the way. Versions of that line, fake summarizing all kinds of aspects of life, have become cliche. But it’s true(ish) in this case.

“GoT” started bold, announcing itself as a series that was going to be about real consequences for important characters when it killed off its first season lead, the northern patriarch Ned Stark. The Stark bloodbath at the “Red Wedding,” plus events like the poisoning of bratty King Joffrey (still the best casting of all the series’ actors), further underscored this philosophy.

As it set its hook in the American public, it moved away from the frequent brothel scenes (and the ubiquitous “N” rating) in order to concentrate on its complex story and evolving characters.

And it took viewers on a journey. We got to think, a lot, about what drives a person to seek and retain power, what can derail them from that path. We met memorable eunuchs and backroom connivers and treacherous family members. We saw bastards battle and one of them find out he wasn’t a bastard after all.

Mostly we followed the story of the Stark family. Maybe Ned went away too soon, Catelyn too soon after that. The remaining children, though, were our primary windows into this fantastical world, one containing dragons and zombie kings but not, in the human specifics, all that different from our own. The Starks’ eyes were our eyes.

Certainly the pace of storytelling picked up, often to a fault, as the showrunners raced to wrap things up in Seasons 7 and 8. Individual episodes satisfied with all their shockers and climaxes and battles and such. But collectively it has felt like a party host turning up the living room lights, changing the music to something without a beat, nudging us along toward the door.

And Sunday’s episode forcing Bran into the seat of power felt like another one of those let’s-wrap-it-up maneuvers.

But as the final scenes showed us the remaining Starks on their paths, it wasn’t hard to set aside temporary disappointment and think about the bigger picture of what this show has achieved.

It carried a story about monarchs and counselors, breasts and dragons, magical realism and political realism, along for eight seasons without fading into redundancy or tedium. As the era of binge watching moved in, it made us all relish watching TV the old-fashioned way, one episode per week, 13 or so episodes per season, sometimes with an ungodly long wait between seasons.

And it got us talking, through all of this, about what the characters in the story we were all following did do and maybe should have done instead, why the cinematography had to be so black or the women so naked early on, what it really meant to wield power. It created a common language, no small feat at this moment in history.

When “Game of Thrones” ended like it began, with characters going into the woods north of the Wall, it forced us to think back on the long journey from abject fear, in that first episode, to a happy homecoming in the last. Their world, at least, has improved over the past decade.

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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