I was brought back into fantasy reading by A Song of Ice and Fire and have spent almost twenty years with the books. They remain some of my all-time favorite works and were inspirational to my own writing with Lucifer's Star and Wraith Knight drawing heavily from the storytelling beats. I learned a great deal about creating morally ambiguous protagonists, subverting expectations, and having more downbeat endings. It introduced me to grimdark storytelling and while A Song of Ice and Fire is much imitated, it is rarely equaled. If you want some suggestions then I think you should check out Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Rob J. Hayes, and M.L. Spencer.
So what did I think of the finale? What did I think of the entirety of the eight seasons which led up to this moment? I, a person who owns Westeros mugs, t-shirts, comic books, and slippers? Am I disappointed? Ecstatic? Overwhelmed? Sad? All of the above? Well, the answer is going to be discussed here and if you don't want spoilers for the finale then now is the time to bow out. There's good, bad, and ugly here.
What is my opinion of the finale for the saga of House Stark and Targaryen? Well, I am troubled by my belief that it was ultimately very conventional. The series that made so much of its reputation on subverting expectations and breaking the rules ended up in a place that felt safe. Even its biggest twist fell flat and only seemed to exist to put the universe in a place which is comfortably familiar and largely unchanged.
Bran is the King of Westeros and he is going to serve as the enlightened wizard-monarch for the next few decades before the Lords elect a new one after his death. Elected monarchies are traditionally not really a path to democracy and as we saw with Ancient Rome and the Holy Roman Empire, are really an enormous shitshow that usually ends endorsing the child of the previous monarch, puppet rulers, or the strongest generals. Still, Bran is all-seeing and all-powerful so he shouldn't have too much trouble keeping Westeros in line. Sansa is Queen in the North, Jon has gone to the North, Arya has gone sailing, and the surviving characters all have happily ever afters.
Now you could argue that Sansa and Brienne's endings are perfect for disregarding this. Sansa and Brienne are both the victims of rape as well as attempted rape (which is the same thing as far as I'm concerned). They've since risen to power as the rulers of the North and the Kingsguard but I'm honestly of the mind that they don't really resonate as victories the way they should either for audiences or the characters themselves. Sansa's arc for season 8 has been an isolationist xenophobia free North. Her goal since arriving in the North has been to Brexit it from the Seven Kingdoms. There's no actual reason for this, particularly with her brother as monarch. Nationalism is a bizarre thing to be obsessed with when you haven't been "free" for centuries and you were ruled by the exact same people you were ruled by for thousands of years.
I'm not going to spend much time talking about Daenerys here as it's been heavily covered that many people felt her turn to the Dark Side was poor storytelling. I'm one of them and I feel for much of the same reason that everyone else here does. A survivor of rape, a woman who rose from nothing, a dire-hard anti-slaver, and a person who led a an alliance of brown people to save the white people is a poor choice to become the sudden villain of the piece. I wasn't fond of the death of Missandei either as it was just stuffing her in the fridge to make sure Daeners went nuts. All to facillitate Jon Snow's manpain as he gave up on society to join the Free Folk.
One of the best moments of Season 8 was when Arya, who Sansa had built bridges with, flat-out points out that they'd all be dead if not for Daenerys. Sansa could argue the North could stand on its own except it was Stannis' armies that prevented the Wildlings from invading, the Wildlings who helped them defeat Ramsey, the Tullys who helped them fight Joffrey, and the Knights of the Vale who made her Queen. Oh and Daenerys' army preventing the zombie apocalypse.
Sansa breaks an oath before a weirwood tree to drive Daenerys mad with paranoia (because they were plotting against her) and rules a kingdom of pure-blooded First Men because she can't stand the people who spilled blood for her. The fact she's half-Southerner herself doesn't make it better and I like to think the North will suffer serious economic as well as food insecurity because of their desire to bar all outsiders.
Brienne of Tarth is the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, a duty for which she is resoundingly well-qualified for. However, she is serving as the protector of the status quo. She will serve as the Secret Service for King Bran and it's questionable how much honor there was ever in that position given it was passed to the Mountain among other monsters. The fact she chooses to honor Jaime dying with his Queen isn't bittersweet so much as bitter. After all, he chose to be with a woman who had the Mountain's zombie revenant torture a nun to death (possibly sexually).
Game of Thrones ends up frustratingly centrist in the same way I felt the Dark Knight Trilogy ended, where the world's changes come with a "wait, don't!" The Iron Throne is destroyed but it is, otherwise, business as usual. The promised possibilities of change are halted and things move along the Overton Window ever so slightly. It is a book series that was praised for showing the misogyny and horrors of a frequently romanticized past that ends with a traditionalist ending. One might almost say it has a romantic view of the Dark Ages. They weren't THAT bad despite all the suffering we've endured.
You can tell the writers have struggled with writing new plotlines whenever they move off of George R.R. Martin's colorful scripts. There's a lot of sympathy for the feudal lords in the series but a distaste for the other institutions of the past. Also, a kind of generic loathing for the Smallfolk that comes out infrequently but enough to let you know it's there. In the end, the commoners of Westeros have no impact on the Game of Thrones but are a prize to be one. The one time anyone fights for them in organized religion, rather than focus on the fact they are appalled at the brutality, they are made of caricatured anti-homosexuals. As someone who has protested for LGBT rights himself (with his church), it felt like a way to treat it as an easy baddie for Cersei to sympathetically defeat.
Olenna, the Sand Snakes, and Yara are effectively forgotten as the series attempts to paper over the characters who didn't fit a traditional fantasy mold. The entirety of House Tyrell is annihilated for replacement by Bronn, the Dornish with their progressive equality views are removed from the story completely, and Yara (a queer queen in her own right) is written out early.
If Bran is king of six kingdoms, does this mean that he's going back on Daenerys deal with the Iron Islands? This despite the fact that he is honoring the deal to make Gendry Lord of Storm's end? It doesn't matter because it was a cast that closed dramatically around the Starks and Targaryens with the latter house proving irrelevant. The Northern isolationists are the true sons of Westeros it seems.
That's not to say everything was bad. Jon Snow leaving the Wall and Westeros behind in order to live among the Free Folk is probably the best thing that could have happened to him. I also feel like it was always Tyrion's destiny to be Hand of the King. No one will ever remember him (as demonstrated by his being written out of the history books) but that doesn't mean he won't be the best thing to happen to the kingdom since Aegon. I also feel like Arya adventuring until she dies at whatever monster she faces last is probably her happiest possible ending. The fact all the lords laughed at the idea of democracy was also a good moment.
Am I disappointed? A little. I confess to having a fiery revolutionary spirit despite being a fat First World Presbyterian but the revolution died quickly in Game of Thrones. It was something that discomforted its creators. Given the Targaryens were depicted with so much love and adulation (despite their immense flaws) perhaps it was always discomforting to George R.R. Martin as well. We may never know. Still, I'm glad Game of Thrones existed--it was a wild ride.