Game of Thrones has come to its end. Now that the whole scope of the thing is laid out before us, there is a kind of terrible majesty to it.
I wish we could’ve gotten more from Daenerys Targaryen this season, some deeper glimpse into her own pain and contradictions. The criticisms are true, to an extent: A television show of rich construction and deliberate pacing transformed into something more rushed and roughly sketched. But the memory of the earlier seasons’ storytelling is still there — lending depth and power to the finale. As Tyrion noted last night, Daenerys left quite a pile of bodies behind her over all the seasons, each one justifiable as rough justice in isolation. But line them all up and you see what’s coming. It makes sense that Daenerys was unreachable and implacable in the end. After burning a whole city, you either convince yourself you did the right and necessary thing or you go mad.
“Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it,” Tyrion observed. “And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right. She believes her destiny is to build a better world for everyone. If you believed it, if you truly believed it, wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and paradise?” That many of the show’s fans feel angered and betrayed by Daenerys’ collapse into villainy is itself a testament to how thin and blurry the line is. We’ve been cheering her too. The White Walkers were often compared to climate change, but they could really be equated to white nationalism or any other rising threat that, in its very existential danger, conveniently allows us to set aside the question of how we will live among one another once the threat has passed. The central point of Game of Thrones has always been that how you win power is as important as whether you win it — because how you win it presages how you will wield it. Usually, the people most likely to triumph in the game are the ones who take the actions that threaten some future monstrosity.
Last night’s series finale, “The Iron Throne,” was an awkward mishmash of an episode — one third cohesive storytelling and two thirds unstructured wrap up of the series’ various threads. But my word, what a first third! Game of Thrones was at the pinnacle of its visual powers last night. Daenerys emerging from the ruins, framed by Drogon’s wings; then the dragon emerging from the snow, to asses Jon and finally grant him passage to Daenerys’ inner sanctum. The dragons have always embodied might and terror and awe, bereft of any moral direction. Thus it was poetically appropriate that Drogon did not interfere with the business between his rival Targaryen masters; and that in his grief over the death of his mother, the dragon burned down the very throne towards which all his destructive potential had been wielded.
For a show of such grand scope, it was a remarkably intimate climax. The grey, haunted, snow-dusted ruins of King’s Landing and the Red Keep stood as testament to the desolation of everything that Daenerys was supposed to be — no “people” to liberate now but the bloodthirsty hosts of her armies, riding the coattails of her will to power. And then Jon and Tyrion’s long, slow walks up the ramparts, to face down the monster they both did so much to create, and had put so much faith in.
But that was as it should be. The spymaster Varys was not wrong to put the good of the realm first. But his perspective — as well as that of Littlefinger, Varys’ evil, nihilistic mirror-image — was always too god-like to be sustainable. Men and women must live down here in the mess and ruins and midst of things. And no one’s been in thick of it like Jon and Tyrion.
Jon always embodied the possibility that Ned Stark’s devotion to duty and honor might get a second and luckier iteration. But ultimately Jon’s arc was not, as I and many others assumed, to be tempered by cynicism or cunning like Sansa. Instead, he had to wade into the moral no man’s land of doing a right thing that “doesn’t feel right.” When Jon protests to Daenerys that he doesn’t know what is good, she’s right to insist that he does. But the fact that Jon will not credit himself with that knowledge, that he lives in doubt, is what separates him from the Mother of Dragons. In the end, Jon became the Queenslayer to Jaime Lannister’s Kingslayer, another man who betrayed and murdered his lord for the good of the people, and who was perversely condemned rather than praised for it. Which means Jaime, in turn, was a member of the Night’s Watch in his own fashion. “You are the shield that guards the realms of men,” as Tyrion reminded Jon. Death is a blunt and grand cost to pay for providing that protection. But sometimes the price is more subtle and intimate, such as living with the mercurial nature of your own choices, and exiled by the very people you protected.
Tyrion, on the other hand, started out a long way removed from Ned Stark, and became more like him as the show went on. Tyrion began as knowing and cynical and crafty, then ultimately evolved to believe in something greater than himself — only to have it turn on him, in the end. I’ve pointed out repeatedly that Tyrion’s failures mirror those of our own society’s smartest and most powerful people. But if Tyrion is Westeros’ most “modern” character, then he’s also the one most like me. And honestly, my sympathy for him in these final episodes has been almost too much to bear. Even as Tyrion’s supposed brilliance has been humbled again and again, his humanity and vulnerability and capacity to love has surged forward. For such a modern creature, Tyrion is now more tied than ever before: To his family, for instance. Dinklage’s performance of Tyrion’s grief over Cersei and Jaime’s death was magnificent as always. But tied to the rhythms of the land and of Westeros as well.
Tyrion’s final speech about how it’s stories that unite people was heavy-handed. (Not to mention the appearance of an actual “A Song of Ice and Fire” tome.) But at this point I think the show has earned a few indulgences. And the speech certainly wasn’t wrong. Stories give weight and form and structure to the ethereal obligations we feel towards our neighbors and fellow citizens, even if we so often fail to honor them.
That it was ultimately Bran whom Tyrion suggested as the new ruler of the realm was a surprise, but a fitting one. Bran is one of the few remaining characters who did not seem to have any ultimate purpose — a loose end yet to be tied. But we’ve also seen Bran begin the process of reclaiming his humanity (remember his final thanks to Theon) after his transformation into the Three-Eyed Raven. And by naming him “Bran the Broken,” Tyrion was trying to build some of his own dearly-bought humility into the stories that will undergird the new order. It is not strength that will save and unite us, but weakness. In tallying up his own long string of failures when Bran names him Hand of the King, Tyrion finally comes to truly not want the power. Which is why he is finally and truly the right person for the job, as Varys would’ve noted.
In U.S. politics these days it’s become fashionable in some circles to sneer at concerns with “process” — insisting that winning and wielding power is all anyone cares about. That last observation is true, of course, but it simply reinforces why process is so important. It’s the only way to adjudicate between all the people who know what is good, and yet don’t agree on what is good. It’s how we strike a balance between Varys’ abstracted willingness to endlessly churn through rulers until the “right” one is found, versus Tyrion’s grounded insistence that at some point you must pick some specific person you are tied to, and roll the dice. What Westeros has always needed, ultimately, was process. “From now on rulers will not be born, they will be chosen” Tyrion declares in the dragon pit. “On this spot, by the lords and ladies of Westeros.”
It’s not democracy, and the moment when Samwell proposes actual democracy, and all the nobles laugh at him, was almost too painfully on the nose. This is a mutant fantasy version of human civilization 1,000 years before monarchies were finally wiped away. But Westeros does have more of a governance process now than it did before — it gestures in democracy’s direction. The wheel was not broken; but it was chipped away a bit, its weight somewhat lessened. Something new has taken root and has the chance to grow, albeit at terrible cost.
Just because the final two-thirds of “The Iron Throne” were a mishmash doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. Sansa finally took her much deserved place as the ruler of Winterfell, to the soldiers crying “the Queen in the North!” The propulsive forward momentum that has defined Arya’s character from the beginning was given new direction as well, but now into the west, to discover rather than to kill and destroy. Bran takes his improbable place as ruler of the (now) Six Kingdoms, with Brienne, Samwell, Davos, and Bronn of all people to advise him from the Small Council. Tyrion and Jon return to where they began, in ways that are appropriate, if also a very George R.R. Martin-esque denial of standard narrative closure.
I thought for sure Tyrion would either have to kill Daenerys himself or be executed by her. But Game of Thrones had a quieter and more merciful fate in mind. Tyrion returns to the uncertain grind of governance, while Jon returns to his place as protector at the Wall, and then on to rejoin Tormund and the Wildlings in lives wandering the true north. That the Wall remains at all suggests some new terror may yet emerge to threaten the realms of men. Sansa has insisted the North remain an independent kingdom, splitting the continent and laying the possibility for some future conflict.
It’s an uncomfortable jumble of jagged pieces that don’t quite fit, jammed together in an awkward whole that keeps defiantly carrying on. Life continues, imperfectly, and the cycle always begins anew. But that is life, after all.