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Before the End of Game of Thrones

May 13, 2019

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.
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5 Comments
  1. Brad Wadle permalink

    There is quite the study of the nature of leadership, both in the books and the HBO series — but especially in the books. There are examples of good leaders (Ned, Tyrion, Old Bear Mormont, even — for a little while — Robb Stark), and, of course, plenty of examples of bad leaders (Joffrey, Cersei, all three of the Brothers Baratheon, and on and on). But perhaps we should take our cues from Jon and Dany, both of whom had extended lessons in how to be leaders. Admittedly, these sections of the books dragged — oh, look, another chapter where Jon or Dany is dealing with HR problems! And, because these bits dragged, they were understandably cut from the HBO version. But, as we reach the end of the show, I’m beginning to think that all of the seemingly endless chapters on Jon/Dany Learning to Rule were critical to the story GRRM was trying to tell…and cutting them from the show is what has season 8 feeling a bit disjointed and rushed. One key difference between Jon and Dany has been noted already: Dany knew from day one that she was destined to rule, while Jon knew from day one that as a bastard, he would never rule — and it was a life he never wanted, not even at the Wall, where being bastard didn’t actually matter. However, I think there’s another important difference worth noting. In their training to become rulers, Jon and Dany both make mistakes, and they both disagree with their advisers. But Dany’s mistakes tend to be vengeful — time and time again, her advisers pull her back to counsel mercy. (And when she listens to their advice, bad things keep happening!) Jon’s mistakes tend to be on the other side — he can be overly merciful, and overly trusting. His advisers are the ones always pressing him to attack or take vengeance, but he is consistently pulling them back…and, rather famously, this dynamic leads to a knife through his heart. (Fortunately, Melisandre has a thing or two to say about that.) Both Jon and Dany are marked by destiny — she’s the Mother of Dragons and is the Unburned, and he literally came back from the dead. But the throne is a chair, not a loveseat, and so we really all should have been prepared from the beginning for Jon and Dany — our two leaders of destiny — to eventually square off. And, if we had been paying attention during all those chapters on How To Be A Ruler, we would have known which side GRRM was on.

    • Brad, that’s a great analysis. But I don’t think you should count out Tyrion just yet, especially with the way (in the latest book, A Dance With Dragons) a relation noted that she sees Lord Tywin in Tyrion most of all, for his political intelligence. Tyrion has also trained: as a scion of house Lannister, as Joffrey’s Hand, and as Daenerys’s Hand. The difference between Jaegon (Aejon?) and Tyrion is that while Jaegon, has this attractive lack of will-to-power, Tyrion is ambitious. He genuinely loves politics. It’s where he feels like his greatest strengths get to flourish. He also doesn’t feel entitled to power; he has to maneuver to get it, and use all his tools to keep it. But like Aejon, he’s merciful, sometimes to a fault. I suspect Martin would go beyond the Platonic reluctant ruler paradigm and say that the best ruler is someone who wants it, keeps working to be good at it, and is tempered by a sense of kindness. There are no perfect rulers, but ambition, acumen, and a moral compass seem to be the dimensions on which he has been showing various would-be monarchs. Tyrion has all three.

      • Brad Wadle permalink

        That’s a good point. Personally, I do believe that Tyrion would be the best ruler of the three — and by a pretty wide margin. Both Jon and Dany have the potential to be good rulers, but they need someone like Tyrion at their side to help them — in Dany’s case, to restrain her worst impulses, and in Jon’s case, because he’s just not terribly smart.
        From the standpoint of “what’s best for Westeros,” I very much like your idea of Jon refusing the throne, and Tyrion and Sansa becoming allies to pick the pieces of the Seven Kingdoms and forge a new world (Sansa’s arc is one of my favorites in the show, and I think she has developed into a strong ruler in her own right — and we’ve seen multiple examples already that she is more competent than Jon). And, if that is the ending we’re headed for, then Dany will have succeeded in breaking the Wheel, after all.

  2. Hm. Aejon Tark, or Jaegon Stargaryen?

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