What Does That Divisive ‘Game of Thrones’ Finale Mean for Its Legacy?

Playboy examines the polarizing final episode and how it measures up against other TV swan songs

If you go on your honeymoon, and everything is amazing, except on the last day you get food poisoning, was your trip a success? OK, so TV shows are not quite the same as a marriage, but the question still applies. If you love a show but hate the finale, was it a good show? More than any other episode in a series, the finale carries perhaps the show’s largest burden. Whether that’s fair or not, the point stands that it’s the last time you will live with those characters, be in that location and watch the situations unfold—barring a spinoff, prequel or movie. In the long run, though, how much should we let one episode dictate the value of an entire series? (Game of Thrones finale spoilers ahead.)

Game of Thrones aired an extremely controversial finale on Sunday night, with fans landing on all ends of the gratification spectrum. For the devotees who loved it, it’s no question that a strong series finale will help this show live on in their minds as one of the greatest series of all time. For the fans who did not like the episode, however, will this finale taint the series as a whole? Plus, there are the fans—like myself—who were somewhere toward the middle of that spectrum.

While there were many choices I would have preferred to see the creators make—Sansa on the Iron Throne, Jon riding Drogon away, Arya going … somewhere on a map—there were also aspects that I loved. These include Jon killing Dany, Tyrion ripping off his pin and the throne getting liquified. As someone who has loved this series from day one but has mixed feelings on the finale, how will people like me feel in a decade from now?

Let’s look at some past finales to see how those shows have held up. Take The Sopranos. This is a show that had a fan base so intense that when the iconic finale cut to black, we were sure something was wrong with our TVs. At first, the more vocal fans, including myself, complained about the lack of clarity in this finale. Some people even thought that this one episode, and more specifically this one final moment in the episode, ruined the entire show. Since then, many fans have actually embraced the finale’s uncertainty, declaring it genius. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I definitely see it in a different light today than I did when it aired in 2007.

While I still lose sleep sometimes over if Tony is dead or alive, I look back at the series as one of the greatest in existence. I’m certainly not alone, with The Sopranos consistently making almost every major all-time top-10 list. So it seems as if the series has managed to shake the cut-to-black monkey off its back and uphold a strong reputation. It’s even getting a prequel film, which I could not be more excited about. Ultimately, I still remember my favorite scenes from the show, like Christopher dying, Adriana dying and Big Pussy dying. (Quick question: Is it OK that all my favorite memories are the ones where people are dying? Time to call my therapist …) Those moments stick with me a lot more than the final second of the show, which is why it is still one of the all-time greats.

Changing tunes, I think about Seinfeld. Widely known as one of the best sitcoms ever, Seinfeld’s finale was not well-received among most fans, and you guessed it, I was one of them. While yes, as with any show, there are plenty of people who did enjoy it, the majority of the audience found its courtroom blasts-from-the-past to be ridiculous. Even though right now Game of Thrones feels like the biggest show that ever was, remember that the Seinfeld finale was so highly anticipated that over 76 million people watched it. (Compare that to last night’s 19.3 million GoT viewers.) TV Land even paid tribute to the comedy by not programming any shows opposite it; instead, the cable channel went dark with an image that said, “We’re TV fans so … we’re watching the last episode of Seinfeld.”

Today, when we think of Seinfeld, we think about the Soup Nazi, Festivus and yada yada—not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are 180 episodes of Seinfeld, so it would be silly to dislike the other 178 episodes, all because you didn’t like the two-part finale. It’s a small blemish on an otherwise hilarious and wonderful show. That being said, a sitcom is slightly easier to forgive than a fantasy drama series, as the episodes don’t really build on each other in the same way. With Seinfeld, no one was asking themselves, Who is going to sit on the Iron Throne?!

If Game of Thrones had a more universally loved finale, would time treat it better? Probably.

Which makes me look at Lost. A show that’s similar to Game of Thrones, it had us asking big questions from the jump. While Lost is often referenced as having the best TV pilot of all time, the finale was extraordinarily divisive. Also similar to Game of Thrones, it wasn’t just the final episode that fans questioned, but rather the final season(s). I remember a time where you had to announce to a room full of strangers that you hadn’t seen the most recent episode yet so no one would spoil it. For a show that was once “must-watch” entertainment, Lost does not seem to place as highly on critics’ lists as many people might have originally thought it would during its earlier seasons.

While Lost still is a top-five show for me, even I must admit some of the choices were rough, and that they diminish the show. I often wonder if I am too easy when rating Lost because of the impressiveness of the first season and miscellaneous key episodes throughout. Undeniably, Lost left us with many unanswered questions: What was up with the Smoke Monster? Where did Walt’s powers come from? And, of course, 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42? This aspect actually differentiates it from Game of Thrones, however, as when it comes to GoT, people don’t have as many questions after the finale—they just don’t necessarily like the answers they were given.

There are many more polarizing final episodes that have affected shows’ legacies. Dexter’s finale certainly didn’t do the memory of the show any favors. Sons of Anarchy left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths. How I Met Your Mother watchers are still not over that last episode. All three of those aforementioned shows, though, are still pretty big power players in my book for their full-series runs. That being said, if I am recommending HIMYMto a friend, I always preface it with, “The finale is rough, though, so lower your expectations.” I’d rather know a show doesn’t have a great payoff, so I can enjoy the ride and temper my frustration at the end.

How does this all bode for the future of Game of Thrones? Truthfully, fairly positively. Ultimately, the show will probably be remembered fondly by most, some of whom will have to add a slight asterisk when ranking it or recommending it to others. If the show had a more universally loved finale, would time treat it better? Probably. We can look at Breaking Bad as our test subject for that one. But plenty of well-remembered, respected, adored shows have divisive series finales. It is not the be-all, end-all—it is just … the end.

No matter your opinion on the final season or its final episode, this show was a massive undertaking, and all of the time and effort should be acknowledged. This part pertains to both Game of Thrones and any other series: No creators try to make something that is disliked by anyone. So a big thank you to the creators, actors, directors, writers and crew. They were able to make the most talked-about show of our time, which is no small feat. May this show be remembered well, and may we look back at those photos of our honeymoon and smile at the pictures of us at Niagara Falls, instead of tasting that bad shrimp in our mouths.

Only time will really tell, but until then, all we know for sure is a Lannister always pays his debts; the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword; hold the door; I drink, and I know things; winter is coming; you know nothing, Jon Snow; a girl has no name; dracarys; and, most importantly, when you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.