HBO’s Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones Asks What Kinds of Stories Ultimately Matter

It borders on cliché that writers tend to metadiscursively tout the importance of storytelling at critical moments. Tyrion’s speech about the importance of a good story in choosing a king in the final episode of Game of Thrones may as well be Benioff and Weiss’ winking plea that the audience trust their judgement. Many are disinclined to do so after a season that was poorly paced and often gave viewers whiplash with the rapid introduction and dissolution of major plots within the course of an episode.

But I will cut to the chase and say that in the end, I loved the finale of Game of Thrones. It took its time and did its best to pull out of the nosedive that many viewers assumed it was in, and—whether or not you feel that Benioff and Weiss earned the trust they solicited in Tyrion’s speech (I myself am very skeptical)—the point they make about the importance of storytelling stands, not just as a pat on the back that privileges writers as the ultimate power-brokers of the human experience, but within the actual narrative: what kind of stories matter and what kind of stories ought to matter in a world like Westeros where power structures are built on the post-hoc justification of conquest? As it turns out, Game of Thrones values, as it always has, stories about the futility of justification.

We get a hint of this moral early in the episode. After coming across the Boticelli-esque tableau of his siblings’ final moments, Tyrion slams a brick on the ground in fury and frustration and grief. It is a motion reminiscent of Orson Lannister, a so-called “simple cousin” with a propensity for smashing beetles. In season four episode eight, Tyrion lays out his childhood obsession with divining Orson’s purpose:

Father droned on about the family legacy and I thought about Orson’s beetles. I read the histories of Targaryen conquests. Did I hear dragon wings? No. I heard ‘khuu, khuu, khuu’ and I still couldn’t figure out why he was doing it. And I had to know, because it was horrible that all these beetles should be dying for no reason.  

The much-memed speech became a meditation within the fanbase on the pointlessness of war, death, and genocide. Tyrion’s words explicitly pair the mindless slaughter of insects with both the Lannister family legacy and Targaryen history. In the bowels of the Red Keep, Tyrion apes cousin Orson over the bodies of the last of his family having, hours previously, betrayed the last of his friends, and finally accepts that there was no higher purpose. For Tyrion, the Game of Thrones ceases to be the only game worth playing and becomes an endless parade of unjustifiable atrocity.

But it is only legible as unjustifiable when simultaneously writ absurdly large and made intensely personal. Tyrion, in seeing a city of half a million people burn and his siblings murdered in the same span of a day, is in a unique position to understand that what the show and characters within it refer to as a “game” is, in realpolitik terms, a needless, costly capitulation to the status quo, or, as Daenerys referred to it: “the wheel.” Martin loves stories filled with cruel ironies, and the cruelest one seems to be that Daenerys did succeed in breaking the wheel only by going so much farther to further its preservation than any previous monarch, so as to make the other lords of Westeros recoil. The lesson that Martin, Benioff, and Weiss seem to be pushing is that only catastrophic system failure makes people see the insufficiency of the system—and as any good Leninist will tell you, those who break the system can’t effectively rule afterwards.

Jon Snow seems content to share Tyrion’s despair at Daenerys’ scorched-earth tactics, finally bucking the prickly Stark commitment to staying the course one has pledged oneself to at all costs by acknowledging “I can’t justify what happened. I won’t try.”  He means that he won’t try and rationalize the razing of King’s Landing as a necessary act of war, but Tyrion goes a step farther–moving beyond simple, trapped despair to provide a justification–though not the exoneration that Jon Snow seems to be hoping for. He tells the elder Targaryen: “She liberated the people of Slaver’s Bay. She liberated the people of King’s Landing. […] Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right.” Tyrion explains what Varys had previously posited: that ideology is an echo chamber and the story you tell about what you did previously limits the story you tell about what you will do.

The core of this story—everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it—is the story that Daenerys has told herself since the moment she emerged from Drogo’s funeral pyre; the story that viewers have bought into; it’s the story that Elizabeth Warren (perhaps unwisely) penned an essay in praise of; the story that led “Khaleesi” to become a more popular baby name than “Brittany,” the story that seemed to be at the core of this television show for eight years and the novels for twenty six. It’s a bad one. It is not bad because it doesn’t make sense or provide adequate justification. It’s bad because it does. It’s bad because it preys so precisely on our deep desire to believe in the infallibility of heroes.

And the finale of Game of Thrones is very, very good at turning the story on its head, pointing a finger back at the viewer for believing that Daenerys’ vision was one she had the power to enact. After seven seasons of making the dragons into beloved icons of badass justice when flying over Daenerys, or supporting her as she commands them, Benioff and Weiss give a chilling, bravura shot of Daenerys and Drogon combined, his wings unfolding behind her, rendering all of our beloved associations suddenly demonic in the chimerical fusion of the two. Her moustache-twirling speech on the ruined steps of the Red Keep is not so different in content from her speech to the Unsullied at the gates of Astapor, or her speech to the freed slaves of Meereen after having funded their rebellion against the Great Masters. All are more chilling for the uncanny—dare I say Gothic?—resonance they take on for being so very close to the images and speeches we spent years cheering.

Even in her final scene, viewers are not free from the heroic power of Daenerys’ story. As she fulfills the prophecy she was shown in the House of the Undying, her long walk to the Iron Throne is scored with a solemn, children’s chorus rendition of the series’ theme song. It is neither in a minor key, nor underscored with new notes that might make us feel sick at the prospect of her ascendancy. Even when she speaks to Jon, the icy stare of Daenerys-the-conqueror melts away as she reflects on her childish fantasies of a throne so large you could not climb it. The scene is framed on her terms—it is filmed to be a tear-jerking moment of fulfillment. The show knows that, just like Jon and Tyrion, we cannot completely square the worthy, idealistic liberator with the megalomaniacal war criminal, even though we understand exactly how the two are one and the same.

Many reviews (especially deeply critical ones) have pointed out that the most powerful moment of empathy and identification in the episode may very well be Drogon’s lamenting cry upon finding his mother’s corpse. When the great beast melts the Iron Throne, they are, in fact, taking revenge on Daenerys’ murderer. Not Jon, who was merely the proximal cause of her death, but the unchecked ambition and lust for power that the titular chair has always represented.

So what do we do, asks the second half of the episode, with a story that has worked hard to problematize the narrative it made paramount? How do we tell stories when we are unable to trust them?

Tyrion argues for the power of inventing a new one: a tale where perseverance and suffering are more important than conquest and strength. It’s a value that Martin has argued for from the beginning. Early in the first novel, when Tyrion helps Bran design a saddle that will let him ride after his spinal injury, he confesses that he has “a tender spot in [his] heart for cripples, bastards and broken things.” On one level, crowning Bran, sparing Jon, and making peace with Grey Worm represents the ultimate apotheosis of that thesis: one pariah chooses another to be king while two bereaved men saddled with pasts shaped by bastardy and slavery agree to let the other live despite the enmity they bear for one another.

But on another level—one that feels equally, if not more important—the coronation of Brandon the Broken is as close as Westeros can come to a complete system overhaul. Perhaps because of Isaac Hempstead Wright’s somewhat muted performance, the (as it turns out, pointless) aura of mystery with which the writers have surrounded Bran, and his static nature over the last three seasons, many were perplexed or outraged by Bran being granted the highest office in the land. It seems clear to me, however, that the choice is one to be ruled by committee. Bran, utterly devoid of ambition and desire, and utterly replete with first-hand knowledge of the history of Westeros, becomes a vague, guiding force—more akin to Asimov’s psychohistory than an actual monarch. Sam’s suggestion of representative democracy is comedically shot down—Westeros just isn’t there yet—but we get a vague analog to the signing of the Magna Carta. The wheel is broken insofar as the hereditary right of kings is abolished. The allure of power, the fantasy of a perfect, heroic, legendary monarch is ended, the Iron Throne is unmade and control of Westeros is no longer a game, but a discussion.

The show’s loremaster, Bryan Cogman, described the final season as “emotional haunting [and] bittersweet.” That sentiment seems to be one borne out by the final beats of every character arc. There are no clean endings, though there are the suggestions of happy ones. Sam becomes Grand Maester, but still has no ability to alter anything but the title of Archmaester Ebrose’s history of the Baratheon-Lannister-Targaryen-Stark interregnum. Bronn gets everything he has ever wanted, perhaps to the dismay of viewers who wanted to see Highgarden in safe hands. Davos gets to be Master of Ships and finally serve a king worthy of his loyalty, though not one he loves as dearly as he did Stannis and Jon. Grey Worm finally gets to protect the people of Naath, but it is a tragic purpose without Missandei by his side. Brienne becomes, not just a knight, but the knight as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. She is perhaps the most interesting example, as she is given the chance at historical revisionism that Samwell was denied in the form of the White Book. She does get to tell the story people want about the honorable Ser Jaime Lannister, but it cannot change the fact that the man she loved is dead. Tyrion gets to be the real power in Westeros but only in atonement for his many mistakes, bereft of the friends, the family, and the lover he betrayed. The episode is surprisingly gentle—but it is not happy.

At the very end, Benioff and Weiss (and, perhaps, Martin, if elements of this ending match his books) take on the father of fantasy stories himself: J.R.R. Tolkien. Many of the final scenes of Game of Thrones seem like homages to Tolkien’s Return of the King (and, specifically, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of it). Arya’s sudden decision to sail West off the edge of the map is so close to the departure from the Grey Havens that it elicited a chuckle at my finale party. But where Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf sail off because magic has died in Middle-earth, Arya sails off in spite of magic surviving in Westeros. After all, though she may have no place in the new kinder, gentler kingdoms, six of them are led by a sorcerer king, the wildlings are commanded by a man who came back from the dead, and a dragon in mourning is still out there in the world, flying free.

Jon is overdetermined as a Tolkienesque, fantasy savior: he is a child of both Stark and Targaryen, both Ice and Fire; he rose from the dead to combat injustice and extinction, he helped defend Westeros from the army of the dead, and slew his beloved pretender to the throne when her rule turned to fire and blood. But, unlike a fantasy savior, Jon does not get to be king (thank the Old Gods and the New). He goes into (affable) exile, leading the Free Folk to a new home and inheriting the legacy of Mance Rayder, whom he fought and killed, and forsaking the legacy that his adopted, biological, and chosen fathers—Ned, Rhaegar, and Jeor Mormont—laid out for him.

And in place of the savior King in Jon or the savior Queen in Daenerys, we get hope for the future in Sansa. The series has (seemingly deliberately) held off on calling her Queen in the North until her final moment in the series. Where Lord of the Rings has Aragorn end the line of Stewards so that the line of Kings can return, Game of Thrones ends the line of kings so that a Queen who has proven, above all else, a good steward of her kingdom can reign.

I have seen numerous arguments that the series waited to the end to play its most misogynistic card and reduce Daenerys to the sexist trope of the “emotional female ruler.” It is true that those who counted on Daenerys to be the female future that would put an end to Westeros’ patriarchal rape culture were disappointed. The show is far from fair to women in general, and the background noise of sexposition, and dubious preoccupation with hysterical women who become abominably cruel when they experience loss is certainly undeniable.

But to that argument, I would retort that Sansa Stark has had the most remarkable arc of the series. She begins the narrative as a pawn of patriarchy, obsessed with stories where women are rescued by men and determined—like Margaery Tyrell and, to an extent, Cersei—to become queen only by marrying a handsome prince. She wants a perfect fairytale where she is passive, pretty, and powerless. By the end of the show, without undermining or eschewing the femininity she has always embraced, she learns enough to become the single most competent leader in the Seven Kingdoms: a resourceful survivor who outsmarts her captors, earns the loyalty of her retainers, and puts the needs of her people first. Her coronation dress is lined not with direwolf motifs but with weirwood leaves, signaling that one does not have to be a vicious beast to be a good ruler.

If fantasy is meant to show us how the stories of our childhood and the myths of our past might be reassembled to tell us something prescient about the present moment, then Game of Thrones, contrary to its explicit messaging by Tyrion, is not about a good story making for a good ruler—after all, Daenerys had the best story on the series; the one that seemed to track the rise of a fantasy heroine with hubristic highs, tragic depths and peripatetic reversals. Rather, it is about how patriarchal power can’t be toppled by a female patriarch. Daenerys ultimately embodied the very system of patronizing, patriarchal oppression she desired to dismantle; Sansa, on the other hand, quietly forged a new path for herself, a new understanding of gentle power. At the beginning of the series, Robert Baratheon was proof that good soldiers make for bad kings. In Sansa Stark, Westeros gets a better Queen than it deserves, and we get a better ending than we could have hoped for.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on itunes or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

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