Before the End of Game of Thrones

SPOILERS for all but the last episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

As we enter the closing gambit of Game of Thrones, social media commentary shifts from what might happen to how what’s happening is wrong. It’s natural. The story is sprawling and complex, and those who developed an investment have fitted the details to their own moral and narrative models. Now is the time those models will be validated or violated. And Game of Thrones is a story that thrives on violating expectations.

Depending on our lens, the central question is anything from “who will sit on the Iron Throne?” to “will the strong female characters tear down the corrupt patriarchy?” Those with the latter lens have already expressed their disgust with this season: the hope of the superior woman ruler has been dashed by the show’s penultimate episode. There’s a meta element here. In the conflict for the throne, all the adherents pin so much hope on their contender, and all such adherents have had their hearts broken–their hearts at the very least. Every single claimant has failed to hold onto power. If there’s a thesis statement that forms a through-line of the story, it’s Varys’s riddle about the nature of power.

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?” The answer Varys gives is both profound and simplistic. “Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.” We’ve seen the permutations of this for eight seasons.

In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, Daenerys faced a moment of choice. She could honor the surrender of King’s Landing, as Tyrion pleaded, or she could utterly annihilate her opposition. Her choice broke the hearts of the viewership (and elicited accusations of bad writing and misogyny), but the seeds of her decision were planted in the very first season, when a girl, told from childhood that her family had a right to rule a land of which she had no memory, was given three weapons of mass destruction that steadily grew in power. Daenerys is not at all a bad person. But if she has has a defining trait through most of her story, it is her unwavering certainty that she is the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. This will to power made her spectacularly formidable. It also prioritizes power over compassion, especially when crossing the Narrow Sea leaves her friendless, loveless, and delegitimized. Cersei murders Missandei before her eyes, brutally destroying the symbol of her most worthy accomplishment, the freeing and elevation of slaves. All Daenerys has left to assert her claim, her very identity, is her one remaining nuclear bomb. Using it basically destroys the throne itself. It’s a very Game of Thrones outcome. It’s tragedy in the Classical sense. It’s supposed to hurt. No one is unscathed by power.

The one remaining permutation of power is that of god itself. It’s alluded to after the battle against the Night King, when Davos comments that the Lord of Light supposedly stepped in and then buggered off without a sign. Game of Thrones has not been subtle in noting fate and causal chains; how each character’s past formed the events bringing them to their ultimate destiny or (more often) doom. And of course Bran, who is now the closest thing to God in this world, notes that without Jaime shoving him out the window, he would never have become the Three Eyed Raven, a being capable of tinkering with history. Of writing the narrative. If I’ve correctly gleaned the story Game of Thrones intends to tell, Bran has been spending his time shaping the past so the exact events we are watching can come to pass.

And when we see the ultimate conclusion, we will be left to argue, was it just? Did the good outweigh the bad? Was Bran the Old God a virtuous ruler or a tyrant? Should he have done more to reduce the net suffering in the overall ledger? We won’t have an easy answer. Because, like the characters, we view this story through our own lenses and our own moral frameworks. We see–and judge–the narrative we’ve built in our own minds, which is not necessarily the narrative being spun by God. Or the authors. We’ll say Martin, Weiss, and Benioff were geniuses or hacks, depending on how the story delivers what we want from it. But the truth, much like power, may just be shadows on the wall.

So what the heck. Now, just before the end of things, I’ll indulge in some predictions.

  • ARYA, the rider on the pale horse, will kill DAENERYS, possibly wearing GRAY WORM’S face. Maybe Drogon will eat her. Maybe the two will go off and have adventures.
  • AEGON “JON SNOW” TARGARYEN will have rulership thrust upon him, much as Eddard Stark did, but unlike his adoptive father, he will flee north of the broken Wall, to pal around with Tormund and reunite with Ghost. The one happy ending.
  • TYRION, the dead Queen’s Hand and the only survivor whose will to power was trumped by compassion, even for Cersei, will step in. But to administer, not rule. He’ll draft a new type of governance document, uniting the rulers of seven independent kingdoms.
  • SANSA, Queen in the North, will be the first to sign.
  • BRAN, nodding at what he considers the best possible outcome, transfers his mind into the Winterfell heart tree, leaving his empty, broken, mortal body in the Godswood.