It’s the nature of the end to disappoint.
The end fails because it is isolated moments in life – be it in the life of man or in the life of history – which must take place in the course of a life and thus take on an unjust and exaggerated meaning in the picture of the whole.
We miss the goals because they are given the impossible task of getting the things we strive for, even though we know in our hearts that they are probably illusions: Conclusion and meaning and the certainty that it was all worth it somehow.
We miss the goals because they are artificial: because deep inside we know that nothing really ends, and that’s why even the seemingly decisive conclusion is no more than a random stop in a fairy tale that can last forever.
И… as I wrote when the end of another favorite show was swindled because we don’t want what we really want from them. All stories are riddles in their hearts, and however much we think we want to know the solution, we don’t really do it, because all the pleasures of history are in ignorance. These are the speculations, the miracles, the infinitely seductive potential of intrigue in which we can fully immerse ourselves and participate actively and creatively in the story. The time of ignorance is the time when history really lives in us, I said then, and I still believe in it today. In the last chapter, the author takes it away from us and puts it on paper in such a way that it is somehow smaller than it was when it belonged to us.
The more complex and extensive the story, the greater the chance that we will be disappointed by an intelligent and discreet outcome. The more we enjoy speculating about the questions behind the puzzle, the less likely it is that we will be satisfied with the answers we get in the end. The more sincerely and deeply we love what ends, whether it’s the story, the life or the journey we’ve lived, the less joy we feel at the thought of the end.
In April 2011 I started to be an independent critic, and after just a few weeks I started writing the Game of Thrones. This is only the second television show I’ve written about – a few stories about Doctor Who, who came first, and it’s still the only show I’ve written about all the time, from beginning to end. While writing about the Game of Thrones, I really understood how I wanted to write about television as a whole, and the process of discovery inevitably changed the way I look at television. So far I’ve written more about the throne game than anything else in my life, and these works are (in a rather tricky area) the most popular I’ve ever made. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that playing the throne is now inextricably linked to my personality as a critic and even as a writer.
All this suggests that I needed the Iron Throne – the last episode in the Game of Thrones series – as something that, in retrospect, had very little chance of ever becoming. Yes, I needed him to perform this huge, complex, layered, multi-thematic, often confusing and contradictory story with a dozen main characters. That alone could have been an unrealistic expectation. But I also had to justify and confirm those eight years of my own life that I have observed, written and thought about the throne play: to reward time and effort, to repay the investment made, to tell myself that my work was not only useful and meaningful, but also righteous.
It’s a lot of pressure to put an episode on TV. As for the criticism, it’s a criminal dishonest pressure on everything he intends to investigate.
Right, what did I do? Broken Jon Snow asks Tyrion in the final of the speech from the throne. It’s not fair. And Tyrion doesn’t know what to say. Ask me again in 10 years, he says. In response, she is less than reassuring, but probably sensible. Was it right to invest both the effort and the investment – intellectually and emotionally – in the Throne Game during all this time? Today it doesn’t seem right, but it’s the inner failure of the environment that I’ve chosen, reacting to individual chapters – even or especially the last chapter – is a terrible way to appreciate a work of art.
Ask me again in ten years if the sting of that last episode isn’t so fresh. Ask me when I can see the shape of the whole story from this last point of view. Ask me when I can remember the innumerable pleasures of the journey, more than the boring and cruel disappointments at the destination. Ask me as soon as I can finally relativize the Iron Throne as nothing more and nothing less than what it is: a single slightly disappointing episode on television.
After all, that’s all there is. And – although I will inevitably fail – I will try to remedy this in the course of this work.
What we decided today is reflected in the chronicles of history – Edmure Tully
In other words, even though I don’t think it will be the last thing I write in the Game of Thrones, I want to come here and do what I’ve always done.
As my long-time readers know, I have focused on a common theme in every episode over the past eight years. Back to cripples, assholes and broken things – the first full review I wrote – I was happy to find a thematic connective tissue that connected all the separate thematic lines of the episode. Indeed, at the beginning of the Throne game, there were half a dozen or more plots scattered among the characters who didn’t meet in each episode. At the time, I thought it would be both fun and useful to pick out the common themes and show all the seemingly different segments of an episode, such as the study of law or family or whatever. It has helped to reveal the calm integrity that lies beneath the apparent inequality and, conversely, has made it easier for me to organize my own thoughts into something vaguely connected.
(Sometimes the general theme was so clear that I couldn’t doubt that the writers were thinking about it. Sometimes it was more like a natural end-to-end plot that developed organically, even unconsciously, from the concerns of the general plot. And every now and then, when I think of you, I desperately manipulate something together, with a random episode as an excuse to talk about one of the aspects of the series that I want to talk about anyway. But I’ve always found a way to clean up the mess)).
But in the last two seasons it has been both more difficult and less necessary. By the beginning of the seventh season, all these separate stories started to fall apart, after which they were merged into one story and the theme became one theme. (To be honest, it was a little confusing – and somewhat embarrassing – for me when all the characters started hanging out together. It became harder to separate my thoughts about each episode, and I think those parts got a little clumsier).
So I felt a bit nostalgic – I even felt almost sentimental – because I knew that the Iron Throne had this unifying theme that pervades all its different parts. And that subject is memory.
What we decided today will be included in the annals of history, says the pompous fool Edmure Tully as he begins a terribly short campaign for the royalties. Throughout the episode, the characters know very well – as if they knew their story was coming to an end – how they will be recalled and judged. I had nothing to do with that, but I think in the last few weeks, Tyrion said. About our fucking history. About the mistakes we’ve made. As I said before, John and Tyrion will later discuss how their actions will be evaluated in ten years’ time. Elsewhere, Brienne von Tarts took a pen to record Ser Jaime Lannister’s heroic deeds in the official minutes of the Royal Guard, so that he would be remembered. At the end of the episode, Samwell Tarley Tyrion tells the story of Archimaster Abrose about everything that happened after the death of King Robert, which will be the official protocol of the Throne Game. And, of course, Brandon Stark-Broken is appointed King of the Six Kingdoms and defender of the empire, largely because of his unique and extensive knowledge of history. (He is our memory, the guardian of all our stories, says Tyrion and points to this unlikely candidate for the crown).
It is not surprising that the last episode of this huge multi-generation story is linked to the history that looks back on its own past and looks forward to the legacy it will leave behind. It is also not surprising that this last chapter of the fairy tale does not justify the importance of the plot. (There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story, Tyrion says. Nothing can stop it. (No enemy can defeat them.) It’s a little meth, and more than a little self-destruction, and there’s – as Monty Python would say – no basis for a government system. But I accidentally accepted that feeling, so I don’t mind.
But there’s a difference between stories and stories, and that’s the only difference. As we said at the end of the first season of Fire and Blood, when Grand Master Pycelle Rose gave useless lectures, royal historians rarely really understand that leaders are just people and that the enormous political and social upheavals are the result of their deep personal failures and totally insignificant concerns. As evidenced by the fact that Tyrion Lannister was completely omitted from the official archives of Archimaster Abrose, history tends to focus on the what, while completely ignoring the who and the why.
I mean, the story lacks a human element. This has always been a very important topic in the throne game, and it is nice to see tournament directors David Benioff and D.B. Weiss returning to the throne game at the end. But ironically, after writing and directing this episode, they themselves have forgotten the lesson, because they are now making the same mistakes. The Iron Throne is so busy deciding what is going on that he forgets to focus on who and why. The result is an unsatisfactory and strangely unemotional end to this extraordinary story, because it neglects everything that was important and everything that made her story worthwhile.
It neglects humanity.
The world we need will not be built by people who are faithful to our world. – Daenerys Targaryen
The Iron Throne follows the well-known end-of-series structure of the other series. His 80 minutes of work is divided into just over half, while in fact they are two separate episodes of a single episode. The first is dedicated to wrapping the free ends of the plot: It is slower and darker, and (only in smaller areas) more disappointing. The second is the famous epilogue in which the survivors suddenly and continuously find their (mostly) happy ending. (This is a mock-up of the Battlestar Galactica final, and I don’t mean that as a compliment).
The first half, of course, concerns communication with Daenerys Targaryen. Among the many, many problems affecting the Iron Throne is the overwhelming shadow of the genocide on Dani last week. The first images of Tyrion, Jonas and Davos as they pierce the pile of smoking ashes that Dani pulled out of King’s Landing are powerful and therefore solemn. But this crime is more, sadder and existentially more monstrous than what Benioff and Weiss can or want to tackle in this last episode. Despite all its flaws, the bell rang as a final verdict on everything the characters and society have experienced in the Game of the Throne, eight years of history that culminates in a moment that defines the mission of cruelty, death and despair. No matter how much I love the bells and how much I resist their dark message, I now wonder if this shouldn’t have been the last episode of the Game of Thrones, because there shouldn’t be despair in bringing this story back. The bells were meant to prevent the throne playing from reaching a kind of happy ending.
How many innocent people did you end up killing Dani? We never hear figures, but Port-Real has a population of about a million people and is overrun by thousands of people from the area who seek refuge outside the city gates. At first glance, almost all these people are dead: Isolated survivors are left behind, but we don’t see masses of refugees, we don’t see any relief efforts, we don’t hear any cries and tears. King’s Landing is as quiet as a graveyard, because that’s it now. The second half of the episode, in which the leaders of the new country discuss the construction of brothels brothels broke, is a completely inappropriate leap of logic and tone that Benioff and Weiss do not justify at all. (Dani’s Holocaust is hardly mentioned in the second half of the Iron Throne). It is impossible to show the genocide of hundreds of thousands of people and jump into a brothel in an hour: without showing that he himself staged the genocide just for the effect. Not without fatally disrupting the realism and emotional integrity of the series, which was once important to have such things.
And one of the ways the Iron Throne shines on what should have been the decisive and desperate moment of the show is to turn Daenerys Targaryen into a cartoon villain.
And I mean this almost literally: Desperately unimaginable staging here at Disney. Danny becomes the culprit of Sleeping Beauty as Benioff and Weiss – no doubt what they thought was a smart shot – put her under the wings of the drogon, seemingly jumping off his shoulders. And she becomes the scar of the Lion King when, surrounded by painfully obvious Nazi photos, she passes on her version of the musical song Be Prepared to her flock of geese. Maybe it was wise when Disney did it, but Disney makes movies for the ghosts of children: A game of thrones you’re not used to.
(By way of comment: I find it strange and regret that Benioff and Weiss decided to lead the last round themselves: It’s not their strength. The only other episodes filmed by the directors are the third season of Punishment Alley and the two swords of the fourth season. None of the episodes was particularly bad, but not particularly challenging: they were talkative, shots largely forgotten. The staging of the Iron Throne – both great visual moments and quiet intimate interactions – seemed at its best, but not inspiring. In the worst case, as in these scenes, the staging shows excessive evidence).
Nothing in the outcome of this story responds to the emotional and thematic refinement that has characterized the development of the story from the beginning. And it doubles everything that bothered Danny last week. Today John, Tyrion and Davos – white men – learned the truth about Dani and are appalled when she tells her black and brown foot soldiers about her plan for world domination. (The irony of the Nazi images in this scene resembles a lead bullet, for it is in fact the white racist’s worst nightmare: this woman screaming in two different foreign languages explains how she and her mindless, ferocious, dark henchmen will subject the white man to their agenda – social justice and war.)
But simplified imagery and problematic symbolism are the least of the problems in solving this plot, which is, after all, the central plot of the throne play. It seems terribly offensive, partly because it’s terribly reductive, partly because Benioff and Weiss cut out all the nuances that made Dani’s story more interesting and complex than her wider rhythms.
This is another unfortunate side effect of the shock campaign that Benioff and Weiss launched with the bells: Actually, that ended the whole debate. There’s no doubt Dani must die. Their action last week was so obviously angry that it was categorically unforgivable. This could also have been avoided: If the destruction of King’s Landing had been too aggressive and ruthlessly destructive – but not so intentional, no doubt malicious – the show could have retained some of the wonderful moral and ethical ambiguities with which we would have liked to have fought for eight seasons. Instead, this show, which sells so well and so beautifully in the grey areas, ends its main plot in the roughest black and white.
This is a last-minute insult to the general thematic refinement of the throne play and an insult to the carefully constructed complexity of all the characters involved, especially Daenerys. Like I said last week, Dani hasn’t been a character since she came to Westeros: When it landed on the dragon stone, it transformed itself from a shady and sympathetic star of its own history into a simplified object from the point of view of other peoples. And that the march of the Daenerys reached its climax in the clocks, because we hardly ever looked at it from our kite and never saw anything from their point of view. Except for one long, silly shot, while she was boiling with anger and bloodlust, we never had the slightest inclination for what she thought or felt.
Think about it. This is the woman who once tried to save the women of the tribe of Lambs from being raped by Halasar Drogo; this is the woman whose rage against the Lords of Meyeryn was unleashed by the crucifixion of her children; this is the woman who once locked up her dragons because one of them had killed a little girl: She deliberately roasted innocent women and children in the streets of King’s Landing. I’m not saying I couldn’t believe she’d do what she did: I think we should at least have seen some emotion on her face, like she did.
And now we need to hear guilt or doubt in their voices, but we can’t hear them. As in many other scenes this season, the final confrontation between John and Dani disappears from view because there are no real people involved, especially not those we have met over the past eight years. It was necessary, says Danny John, just as he accuses them of killing young children. I was trying to make peace with Cersei. She used her innocence as a weapon against me. Dani here is completely soulless, refuses to shed tears for the people she has killed and refuses to apologize for the people she will kill in her mission to break the wheel.
Back to our subject: the despot’s vision of history: The memory is counterproductive and must be erased, destroyed, to wipe the slate clean and reconsider the future. (She says it’s not easy to see something that’s never happened before). In our own history there are many genocidal maniacs with whom we could compare them, but the one who jumped before me is Paul Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader in Cambodia. In fact, when they came to power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge decided that the last two thousand years of human development had been a mistake, and they decided to correct that mistake by reducing Cambodia to the year zero. Over the next four years they destroyed cities, forced people to move to the countryside and tried to transform Cambodia into a pre-industrial agricultural society. To carry out this radical revolution, they decided it was necessary to kill anyone whose mind had been corrupted by education, technology or foreign influences. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed at least two million people, about one fifth of the country’s population: They made the heartless decision to brutally burn the present generation in the hope of making the world a better place for all future generations.
That’s Danny’s mentality. Grace is our strength, she said last week. Our grace for future generations, who will never again be held hostage by a tyrant. And now she pleads with Jon Snow about the need to kill anyone who clings to the memory of the old and imperfect order: We can’t hide behind little favors, she says. The world we need will not be built by people who are faithful to the world we had. Memory is a weakness, and the future is worth all the suffering in the present.
In fact, this is the philosophy we’ve already heard in the Game of Thrones: So Jaime once justified his support for Cersei’s rule. He was a monster, Lady Olenna told him, and he didn’t mind. But once we win, and there’s no one left to oppose us, if the people of the world who built it live in peace, do you really think they’ll turn their hands the way he built it? According to this philosophy, it is acceptable – and perhaps even necessary – to be a monster when the monster reaches a better world. History – this argument will make us forget all the human suffering it took to achieve this.
That’s not exactly the philosophy we heard at Espaus Daenerys. (It did not kill masters and slaves, as for example in Essos on the theory that the next generation will never know what peace with slaves is). And while I can almost believe she can use that theory to justify her actions, we know Dani too well to believe that this soulless monster is who she really is. Unfortunately, we don’t see the Danny we know anywhere.
Couldn’t the scene between John and Danny be more interesting? Would it be much more interesting for her to express her guilt and regret for her actions? What if she’s as surprised and traumatized as everyone else by what she’s doing? When she cried for those children, even when she tried to convince herself and John that her death was necessary? Or, by the way, would it be interesting for John to call her up for the real reasons she burned a citizen of King’s Landing? What if he said you didn’t do it for that? Did you do it because you were angry? What if she admits she did it because the people of Westeros didn’t love her enough? This could lead to the final scene, which is worthy of the figure and its long and complex bow. Emily Clarke and the character Daenerys Targaryen deserve more emotional challenges here, and we deserve to see Dani really wrestle – at least a little – with what she’s become.
Instead, Danny clearly becomes a James Bond villain who makes cold-blooded monologues about their plans for world domination. Even if you forget the insult to a complex figure that Benioff, Weiss and Clark built for eight seasons, it’s just a terribly dramatic construction, because it means there are no questions or suspicions about what’s going to happen next: Danny has to die.
It’s too bad it happened that way. You can see how all this would have worked if it had been done more thoroughly. (We don’t know what information George R.R. Martin gave the showrunners about the expected end of his story, but I have to assume they got points for all the main points. I think what’s going on here should always have happened, but the question is how and why it happened that Benioff and Weiss threw the ball) For example, Keith Harington and Emily Clarke will never have much chemistry. (Both characters were well played for their individual characters, and unfortunately they were poorly played for the final amalgamation of these characters’ plots). But Benioff and Weiss could have done a lot more to convince us that they’re really, really in love. In hindsight, only a few intermediate scenes really worked. (Their first date, the common cave spell in The Spoils of War, was probably the most successful, I think). But generally speaking, we saw too few real conversations between them and felt too little real passion.
As a result of all this – his transformation into a cartoon villain and our lack of real emotional investment in their relationship – the final confrontation between John and Danny falls flat. It believes that this should not be the last phase in the debate on the use of power and the virtues of leaders, that the throne game has been going on from the beginning: It looks like a simplified and painfully reductive distillation of this conversation. And it’s not like John Shaw has to kill the love of his life: It seems that after a few dates with a girl he barely knows, he breaks up with her and gradually realizes that she is a psychopath.
And it’s a cry of shame, because it must be the culmination of their two action arches. John and Dani were almost certainly the two protagonists of the Game of Thrones, and this would be the moment when everything they had done, individually and together, was built up. In a conversation in which Tyrion contests Dani’s death, Benioff and Weiss return to a formative figure of John, expressed by Uncle Aemon Dani and Uncle John in the first season. Love is the death of duty, Aemon told him. What is honor compared to the love of women? It was Aemon who asked John a question that never ceased to be important in the throne play: WWND, or what would Ned do? If there was ever a day when your father had to choose between honour on one side and those he loves on the other, what would he do? Aemon asked.
He would have done the right thing, John answered, by rejecting the wrong binary form of the question. John’s whole bow was about making difficult decisions, finding a third alternative and daring to do what was right according to his own morals and despite the demands of love, honor and duty. This moment with Dani should be the last and tragic expression of those inner conflicts. Not only is he forced to leave the woman he loves, as he did many years ago when he had to leave Ygritta, go to war with her and watch her die in the end, but he is also forced to renounce his honour by killing his jury member. (Of course, his royal act here reflects what Jaime Lannister did years ago when he killed Danny’s father. John becomes queen by renouncing his official honor, as Jaime did forever). Here John does the right thing by sacrificing his personal love and duty, both out of love for Westeros and a sense of duty.
No matter how imperfect the execution of this story is, it really works on a thematic level. I have long argued that the most important issue running through the whole throne game is the importance of empathy. From the beginning, this series was about characters who have learned to use their compassionate imagination and understand that every person in the world – regardless of gender, clan or class – is also a person, not an object. It is about acknowledging the individual human nature of other people: their freedom to act, their subjectivity, their inalienable right to exist and the intrinsic value of their existence. If, as I said, the Game of Thrones was a school of sympathy, then Jon Snow was their smartest pupil, and Daenerys, as it turned out, was their most disastrous failure. What Dani did in the Bells was the ultimate rejection of compassion: reducing hundreds of thousands of people to insignificant, disposable objects in their search for power.
After all, this confrontation between John and Dani should be the most powerful, most important and most tragic moment in the whole throne play – but it is not. That’s not true, because we don’t believe in their love. That’s not true, because Benioff and Weiss waste all emotional and ethical nuances and make the resolution too clear. This isn’t true, because these characters no longer feel like people, let alone the complex, good and deeply rooted bad people we’ve known for eight years. They themselves have become soulless objects on the chessboard, manipulated by the movements of the obligatory and joyless endgame. In the episode about the importance of memory, it is hard to remember why we loved Daenerys Targaryen. In the last show of empathy, Benioff and Weiss made it impossible to feel anything for one of his two main characters.
Even Drogone has his own stupid, heavy role in this wretched pantomime. Suddenly The Last Dragon shows a surprisingly profound understanding of literary symbolism and political Synekdote, and expresses his sadness and anger, not by blowing up the man who so obviously killed his mother, but by fusing the physical representation of his doomed quest, the Iron Throne itself. (This is the choice of another unfortunate director: if the Drogon had just had a tantrum and wrecked the whole room, it would have been wonderful, but his rage of fire is very concretely concentrated). Like everything else in this scene, it’s less of an emotionally motivated act than Benioff and Weiss tapping into a list of predetermined moments they couldn’t live without.
I’ll say it again: Even if you keep big swabs, it can still work. After all, it’s a good story: A princess in exile who becomes a corrupt queen; a hidden prince who becomes a tragic hero; a fatal love and so on. But the charm of the Throne Game has always been that these fantastic trophy archetypes were played by characters who seemed authentic and whose stories contain more complex and confusing aspects than ever before in fairy tales. But here, right now, what should have been their highlight, Benioff and Weiss reduce everything to fantastic paths that work at the level of fairy tales.
He died to protect his queen. – According to Ser James Lannister’s report in the Book of the Brethren.
If we felt more merciful than I did, we would consider all the drawbacks of this disappointing episode as the last point Benioff and Weiss make about the nature of the memory, the nature of the stories and the nature of the ending: They all inevitably make mistakes and miss out on everything important.
As much as we are against Benioff and Weiss taking Daenerys Targaryen off the stage like a cartoon villain, can’t we also admit that history will remember her like that? When the stories are written, Dani will be the Mad Queen, the Dragon Queen, a monster whose short, blood-soaked rise to power almost brought her to the throne. The books will remember Dani as a terrible footnote in history that ruled for many hours between Queen Sersei Lannister and King Brandon Stark. This will be important, but only if something has happened to the families (now six) kingdoms. She won’t be remembered as a person, as a real person. The frightened little girl who suffered from her older brother will be lost. A young woman sold as a sex slave will be lost. The Khaleesi, who have found not only love, but also voice and power, will be lost. A ruthless leader who wanted to make the world a better and fairer place will be lost. Someone at Essos might remember Dani as the chain breaker: In the books on the history of Westeros, however, she will only be a heartless potential conqueror who has committed the greatest mass atrocity the world has ever seen.
So, if we feel compassionate, we can say it was a real lesson in the Iron Throne case: This is the end, acknowledging that none of us can be a complex and fully conscious human being after all. This last episode can be painfully reductive because the memory itself is reductive. It doesn’t matter if you’re a king or queen in the history books or just an ordinary person with a single paragraph obituary in a local newspaper: The last words written about you will probably reduce you to the essence of your life, and in no way will they cover the essence of your life, or the things you have done and the feelings you have felt and everything that made it all worthwhile.
We all want to be remembered as complex subjects in the history of our lives. But in the end, we all become objects.
In any case, it is a lesson that the Iron Throne continues to teach us, voluntarily or otherwise. Ser Brienne of Tartu, recently appointed Lord Commander of the Royal Guard, opens the Book of Brothers, the official report of each member of the Royal Guard, and completes the report of his late friend Ser Jaime Lannister.
Already in the fourth season, when two swords opened, the unworthy Joffrey Baratheon mocked his uncle/father for the brevity of his recorded performance, which consisted solely of searching for Ser Barristan Selmi, killing King Aerys II and making himself known as the Kingslayer. Someone forgot to write down all your great deeds, made fun of Joffrey. There’s still time, I told Jaime. A few episodes later Brienne read his little page in a book. It is the duty of the Lord Commander to fill in these pages, he said. And there’s room on mine. In a few moments he gave Brienne his Valyrian steel sword, which would baptize her as perjury, and asked her to keep her promise to Catelyn Stark so that she could see her daughters safely. She – so he seemed to say – could be a knight, a hero, a man he himself could never be, a relationship that ended with the official consecration as knight of the Seven Kingdoms.
So it’s actually a cute little scene that is at least a much-needed conclusion to Jaime’s long curtsy and his complicated relationship with Breena. I know there has been a lot of criticism of Brienne’s attitude this season, and part of it has been earned. Last week I described to myself how she cried when Jaime left her in Last of the Starks, as part of this season’s unfortunate cartoon about the humiliation of the show’s female characters. With hindsight, however, I tend to see his grief (perhaps generously) not so much as the abrupt end of his strange and sudden romanticism, but rather as the tragic end of Jaime’s almost unbelievable bow. After all, his relationship was never meant to have him as a lover: Exactly on the fact that she wanted him to get better, a man and a hero, she thought he had the potential. She knew he would die on his return to King’s Landing, but more than she knew his return to Cersei was a relapse, a return to himself: For them it was as if they were watching a recovering alcoholic unlock a bottle. (You don’t look like your sister, she begged him.) You’re better than them. You’re a good person and you can’t save her. You don’t have to die with her.)
That’s why I feel better leaving Ser Brienne the Tart. She began her story in the Game of the Throne, when she was appointed King Renly’s Royal Guard, and ended up as Knight of the Seven Kingdoms and Lord Commander of the real Royal Guard with a seat in the Small Council that rules that kingdom. No girl in Westeros will ever learn – as Arya said – from her fathers that the only way to live is to marry a Lord and bear his children. Now those little girls can say I think I want to be a knight. This is – in this unjust society, where history just seems to repeat itself – a real and well-deserved progress.
And I feel better to close Jaime Lannister’s case by recording his actions in the Book of Brothers and testifying in the chronicles of history that he was important, that he really played a part. He wasn’t just a regicide: He was a knight, and sometimes almost a hero.
At the same time, it is another example of how history leaves behind everything that is important, and another reminder that Benioff and Weiss have too often neglected the importance of history. Every word Brienne wrote is true: Jaime was captured in the forest of whispers, he won victories at Riverrun and Highgarden, he swore to be human and to die to protect his queen. But these are just facts: They won’t tell future generations who Jaime Lannister really was. You don’t know how he pushed a 10-year-old boy out the window. You won’t know how perverted and strangely attractive he loved his sister. You have no idea how complacent and selfish he was sometimes, how brave and noble, how ridiculous and boring he was sometimes. You don’t know how hard he tried to overcome his own weakness and deep malice, and how he almost succeeded – partly under the influence of his friend, a surrogate sister, and a short lover, Brienne or Pies.
Like Daenerys Targaryen, Jaime Lannister deserved better than in the last season of the speech from the throne. (There is no doubt – and as I said last week – that Cersei deserves better. But Cersei was not such an interesting character despite the fantastic performance of Lena Heady. Her strength weakened and strengthened throughout the series, but Cersei never changed. In fact, it is partly her fault: the cruelty with which she remained innocent)). Nicholas Koster-Waldau has always been one of the most underestimated actors in the series, and there is hardly any other actor who has not been given a character with such fascinating and disappointing contradictions. The flight back to death in the arms of Cersei would have been an interesting and justified conclusion of their two stories, but Benioff and Weiss spared neither time nor effort to focus on this goal. The way she turned around didn’t seem tragically deserved: It was simply despicable, as if the directors of the show didn’t know what else to give, or didn’t have time for the screen to do it honestly.
Here’s my personal, unproven theory. Even if we ignore the prophecy in the books that she would be killed by one of the brothers, the logical conclusion of Jaime’s story could be that he would kill Cersei and strangle her to prevent her from committing an even more heinous atrocity. For me it would be the perfect completion of their twisted love story, and the perfect completion of Jaime’s redeeming bow, bringing him back into the circle of Aerys II’s murder. But that would almost be a photocopy of the John/Dani final. I suspect Benioff and Weiss have admitted that the murder of the two men by the monstrous queens who loved them would have been both outrageous and repetitive, so they kept the plot for the main characters and turned Cersei and Jaime).
But it is another path that inevitably disappoints. Either the characters become perfectly symmetrical and comply with the completeness of their bow (which may seem too convenient and easily false), or not (which seems more realistic but much less satisfying). And in this final season of the Game of Thrones, we have had a mix of both types of finishes, with undoubtedly a mixed result.
He is our memory, the keeper of our stories. – Tyrion Lannister
If there is one moment in this episode, and in the Iron Throne in general, when all the wrong conclusions are drawn, both in this episode and in this unsatisfactory conclusion of the throne game, it is the election of Brandon Stark as the new king of Westeros. Who better to lead us into the future? asks Tyrion, and we respond to his suggestion as any sensible person should: All the others. No, seriously, literally everyone. How about some hot pie? He’s a very nice guy and he can bring delicious pastries to the small council meetings. Can I raise my hand for a warm cake?
I’ve long maintained that the title game was a kind of diversionary tactic in the Thrones game: The question of who will rule at the end was never the most important, but in fact it symbolized petty and destructive quarrels that distracted the characters from the real concerns of the series and almost condemned humanity. And from this point of view, I am almost amazed at the way the throne goes to the most boring protagonist of the series, who comes out of his most ill-considered plot. Who cares who becomes king? So little we’ll leave it to Bran.
Let’s be generous and forget the surprising lack of logic in the way all this develops. (Why the grey worm and the immaculate – not to mention the fact that the Dothraki accepted this meeting in the first place, not to mention the fact that they wanted to submit to the authority of the one chosen by the meeting. Why didn’t the gray worm kill Jon Snow when he heard of Dani’s death, and why didn’t he execute Tyrion immediately afterwards? Then why listen to Tyrion? Why would all the lords of Westeros agree that this strange cripple, who nobody really knows – who not only has no pretensions, but also has no experience in military or political leadership – could be a better king 😉
But like everything else this past season, this development – both in terms of plot and story – could have made sense if it had gone better. Before I explain why I hate this development so much, I’d like to grind my teeth and give a few arguments why Brandon Stark is the perfect choice for a line on paper.
After all, he’s the last son of one of the last big houses, so I can almost believe the Lords of Westeros would find him an acceptable choice. And in theory, we should already find an acceptable choice for him. After all, the Starks have always been our heroes, and this whole thing started with Brandon Stark: We saw the pilot episode mainly through his eyes, and it was his assassination attempt that started the whole story. If we’re just looking at the big monsters, Tyrion’s right: Bran has a good story. To us spectators, his accession to the throne must seem like the end of a great arc and even be symmetrical and action-oriented.
(Of course not, but I understand what it should have been like when George R.R. Martin made that decision).
And on paper, Tyrion’s argument for Bran makes sense, both logically and thematically. He’s our memory, the keeper of our stories, Tyrion said. Wars, weddings, births, massacres, famine. Our victories, our defeats, our past. In our discussion about last season’s premiere at Winterfell, I talked about how big the problem was that not all the characters knew everything that we, as spectators, knew about everything that had happened, what everyone had been through and how everything had changed. Theoretically, Brandon Stark– a three-eyed raven– an exception. He knows everything. He knows exactly what all the characters in this story have been through: not just the facts that will be remembered in the history books, but everything. He knows all the silent victories, the embarrassing secrets, the fleeting joys and the transient worries. If we think there are important lessons in this story – and I do – then Brandon Stark is the only person in this story who sees the whole story and remembers all the lessons. The new king has the whole history of Westeros and the wisdom of the throne game in mind, so in theory he should make better decisions in the future than in the past.
And finally, I want to say that Brandon Stark is a choice worthy of the king, precisely because he has had so little to do in the last eight seasons. He hasn’t done much, but that means he hasn’t done anything wrong. He has made no enemies, and he is one of the only candidates for the throne whose hands are perfectly clean.
(It’s another unfortunate side effect of Dani’s brief reign of terror that all members of his team should be disqualified from power immediately. Even Jon Snow, the legitimate king, who – in every other way possible – would be a perfect and obvious man to lead, deserves to be disregarded: not because he killed Dani, but because he unconsciously helped her kill hundreds of thousands of people. Poor bastard,not very intelligent)))))).
(The only clearer candidate for the throne than Brandon is Sansa Stark, and I’m annoyed that no one puts her name on the table. She didn’t really need to become the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms: all it took was someone offering to lead Sansa and Sansa saying her place was in the North. That’s all it took. Instead, Benioff and Weiss continue this season with the ridiculous devaluation of their female characters, with no one in the Dragon Pit even thinking Sansa is a potential leader. The insignificance annoys me, and – although I might project – I think we see a hint in this piece that she also annoys Sophie Turner).
In general, however, let’s face it, there are actually good reasons to call Brandon Stark king.
And by admitting it, I also want to admit that I absolutely hate it.
I will largely resist the temptation to boast about the little attention I have paid to the throne play, the story of Bran, and all the mystical gibberish that goes with it. It has always seemed to me that the mystical and prophetic aspects of this story were completely at odds with all the other aspects of this story that had to do with the consequences of individual choices. And I feel fully justified in this plan: All the prophecies, all the quasi-spiritual explosions, all the semi-magical mythologies have turned out to be useless in the grand scheme of this story and have barely borne fruit. (I’m sure it all meant more to George R. Martin, and it might be better if his last books were written). But I believe Benioff and Weiss were against this conspiracy from the start, which is partly evidenced by the fact that they more or less completely gave up in the end).
But that’s the problem with Bran’s election to king: He was always a character from another imaginative series, not from the throne game. From the beginning, the game of the throne has dealt with the question of how each policy is personal and how even the noblest or meanest of men conceals fascinating complications and contradictions. The show immersed itself in the dirty and complex details of human emotions and showed that this is what really motivates and shapes the story. As part of this argument, the programme has repeatedly stressed the importance of empathy and understanding: We are constantly learning that all hope of salvation lies in the recognition of the complex human nature of others.
Could there be a greater rejection of the important lessons of the game on the throne than putting Brandon Stark on the throne? It was a show that showed that fame lies in the richness of mankind, and that Brandon Stark is not a man. Bran was never a difficult character, and – at least since he became a three-eyed raven in the sixth season – he wasn’t a character at all. He didn’t even… like he always said, Brandon Stark. They died in that cave, Mira Reid told him, for the spoils of war, and Bran agreed. I’m different now, he told Jaime a few episodes ago, and shortly after that he told Tyrion I didn’t want to go any further.
Maybe this should be Bran’s highest qualification for royalty: not only does he don’t want to be king, he doesn’t want anything. If one of the lessons of the throne game is that all politics is personal and that small human desires and grievances have enormous and far-reaching consequences, should we believe that the best person to rule is someone who has no human emotions? Someone who doesn’t want, who doesn’t love, who doesn’t hate?
But I don’t believe it. Everything that made the throne play remarkable – emotional complexity, empathy, humanity – is that quality that Bran the Broken completely lacks. He has no emotions, he has no human weaknesses and he has proven time and again that he has no empathy. (Remember how he ruthlessly fired Mira?) Remember how he told Sansa in cold blood and tactless that he had seen her raped?) The choice of the Kings or Bran is the equivalent of a science-fiction show that ends with the taking of responsibility by the computer. (And I think we all know how this scenario unfolds in every science fiction story).
I believe I have come in for serious criticism. – Tyrion
However, I think we should comfort ourselves with the fact that Bran the Broken is not really the leader of Westeros. Like Ned Stark in the very first installment of the Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister is reluctant to tackle the most thankless work of the King’s Hand. The first meeting of the new small council makes it clear that King Brandon will not be a more practical leader than Robert or Joffrey. (Go on, says the king and roll his magic raven eyes – and certainly roll – to find the Drogon). The inhuman sound seems to be a sinister figurehead, while the delightful human Tyrion Lannister rules over the sixth kingdom.
Honestly, that’s another good reason to choose Bran. Even though he’s written badly in recent seasons – I mean, seriously, the last time he made the right decision – Tyrion is probably the most qualified person among the survivors of the game, and he could never be elected king himself. (As he bitterly admits before the lords gathered in the dragon pit, almost all factions hate him for some reason). The whole episode actually belongs to Tyrion, as if he’s manipulating himself to seize power. (And how funny would it be if we knew it was him?) After all, he’s the one who convinced the reluctant John Snow to kill Danny. He’s the one who invented the electoral college and somehow sold Brandon Stark as a royal candidate. And it is he who ultimately rules the world, while Bran, with his broken body and empty gaze, is probably measuring himself against the trunk of a tree.
It is one of the many recurring lessons of the Throne Game that history is really shaped by people who have been forgotten in the history books. It reminds us very literally of the fact that Tyrion discovers that Archmaester Embrose’s enormous folio, A Song of Ice and Fire, has completely abandoned him. (And this is not the first time Tyrion has been insulted in this way: after he saved the city of King’s Landing at the Battle of Blackwater, he saw that his father Tywin had taken all the credit. Many people know that this city suffered some kind of defeat without you, his friend Varys reassured him. The king won’t honor you, the stories won’t mention you, but we won’t forget you)).
And perhaps of all the remaining characters, Tyrion presents the Throne Game at its best at the time when the Throne Game was at its best. Tyrion has always been one of the most complete characters in this story and perhaps the greatest achievement of the series, exploring how one person is political and vice versa. He has been at the centre of so many political and social upheavals and has worked for a variety of reasons, both noble and reprehensible, but everywhere he has been guided by deep human concerns: Love and hate, the need for friendship, the desire for respect, the desire to occupy a generally accepted place in the world. Because he was one of the cripples, assholes and broken things, he was nowhere to be found. In this way he felt at ease everywhere and fortunately he crossed the class, gender and nationality boundaries (and dug up alliances). On both sides of the strait he became friends with nobles and whores, hill tribes and night watchmen, villains and knights, slaves and queens.
Jon Snow may have been the most successful champion in history, bringing together all the warring clans in the world, but Tyrion Lannister has proven that you can get along with anyone as long as you can share a good bottle of wine and exchange a few bad jokes. Unlike Jon Snow, Tyrion made terrible mistakes and did immoral things by obeying his basic instincts. Unlike Arya and Sansa, he lived a rich and fulfilling life and found love and sex, humour and friendship in the cracks of all this political drama. After all, he is the ideal man to balance the cold, ethereal presence of the Broken Bran: Stop the madness in the afterlife, but Tyrion is fantastic, complicated. Spare me Bran’s omniscience: I take the rule that every day I nervously place chairs around the small council table).
So, the more I think about it, the more I like this ending for Tyrion. And – although he claims he doesn’t want honour – I suppose that no matter how lucky he is to have an end, we can hope for it, for he has never been as lucky as the hand of the King/Queen. It’s me and I like it, he once said to Shae when she begged him to leave politics behind. I love him more than anything I’ve ever done.
And – although, as we’ve said, they represent a serious and undeserved change from the point where the episode begins – the scenes in the small council chamber look more like the throne game than anything else on the Iron Throne. Westeros seems to be in good hands with the transition team that Tyrion put together. Especially in comparison with the first known small council, which consisted of Littlefinger, Varys, Pycelle and Renly, the government of the six kingdoms was endowed with surprisingly reliable people. Three of them – Ser Brienne, Ser Davos Seaworth and Grand Maester Samwell Tarley – are among the most trustworthy people in the throne game, and it’s a little comforting to imagine that they rule the world after long and incredible journeys. (Fourth, Ser Bronn of Blackwater, not very decent, but I suspect you want your mintmaster to be a bit of a crook).
Nobody’s very happy. That’s a good compromise, I think. – Tyrion
As we approach the end of this very long Lent, and thus the end of my very long journey to the throne, I feel a little warmer towards the Iron Throne than in the beginning, and strangely – and not surprisingly – more sentimental than an analyst or a critic.
Nobody’s too happy, Tyrion says, with the deal Jon Snow is sending back to the wall. That means it’s a good compromise, I guess. I don’t think anyone is very happy with the Iron Throne, which probably means a good compromise in the finals.
Don’t get me wrong, I thought the whole final between Benioff and Weiss was a disaster. The most important events took place in episodes during the season. (It is easy to imagine, for example, a war against the King of the Night that lasted a whole season, and the same can be said of Dani’s war against Cersei. The War of the Five Kings lasted more than two full seasons, and we saw only one real battle). So the twists and turns of the character that could have been convincingly developed in a few episodes went perfectly in a few minutes. (As I said last week, imagine Dani turning to the dark side – and his allies realize that he must be stopped – rather gradually). One day, the Game of Thrones could build a whole season around a period of reconstruction that probably won’t start at the end of the Iron Throne, and I would like to see that season.
But that’s the problem. Part of the magic of the throne play has always been that it constantly expands. We were constantly faced with new characters, new developments, new people and new places, and we loved it because it’s part of the charm of creating peace. And we have always discovered new aspects of people and places we already knew: Writers have constantly focused on the light of different faces of multifaceted personalities, digging and exposing different layers of emotional depth. They challenged us with characters we thought we knew, that we talked and did, and that we experienced things we thought we didn’t know. For a long time, everything has changed and grown, and our understanding of the world and people has become both more familiar and more amazing. And it was great.
But it can’t last forever. No story can do that. Finally, peace building must come to an end. Eventually, the characters have to stop converting into new versions of themselves and settle into the forms they will take in the final act. Finally, an ever-expanding universe must also begin to shrink, and the centrifugal narrative forces must change direction and become centripetal. Finally, perhaps the level of difficulty should be limited and tend towards simplicity, otherwise the end point will never be reached.
(We can speculate on the exact moment at which the Throne Play reached the point at which its external narrative impulse was directed inward. Personally, I’d like to make that clear at the start of the seventh season, although I think we’ve seen signs of change since the fifth season. This coincided – understandably – with the moment that Benioff and Weiss realized they had to bring this huge ship into port without the detailed maps of George R. R. Martin to guide them).
I do not apologize for Benioff and Weiss, nor would I apologize to them for making many of their decisions unsatisfactory. But I say that I understand that most of my problems with this final – and with these last two seasons – is that I want what they couldn’t or wouldn’t give me: more. More time for events. More exploration of the choice of characters. More discourse and complexity, and nuance and explanation. I don’t have many objections to what happened in the end, only to the speed and awkwardness with which it happened. I didn’t really want anything else: I just wanted more.
And I’ve always wanted more. For some reason, I always want more. No matter how many times I’ve been disappointed in the last two seasons, I’ve always wanted more. As lucky as I am that this show doesn’t try to last too long and inevitably becomes an even lighter shade, I wish for more. As incredibly relieved as I am that the throne game is finally over, and as happy as I am to be able to channel the considerable energy I have put into it in new directions, God help me, I wish for even more.
That’s the essence of a good story: We always want more. And this is not the nature of all endings, but a kind of end. I think there are two kinds of endings: There are some that are all carefully tied together (in a marriage knot, a funeral wreath or in another crucial way). And then there is the end, that leaves questions unanswered and opens up possibilities, so we have to imagine a story – or we have to imagine a story that lasts until the shell is closed.
I honestly expected the throne game to bring us the first end. I was expecting something definite. I was expecting something darker and more deadly. I expected a finale that would be truly definitive: a finale that would give the final verdict on most of our characters (who I expected to die), and a finale that would have the last word on the meaning and final message of the series.
Strangely enough, at first sight the Iron Throne is seen as an unsatisfactory example of such an end. Everything was too neat, too pathetic, too deliberate and simplistic. But the next time I saw him, I realized it wasn’t really the end. It’s a different kind: one that leaves everything open and unsolved. It is a finale that does not reward our desire for perfection, but plays with our desire for more.
What will be arranged at the end of the throne game? The Night King is dead, but the Night King simply represents death, and death can never be defeated. As we have seen throughout the series – and as Danny reminded us last week – mankind has always posed a greater threat to itself than any supernatural force could ever be, and mankind has not changed at all.
Danny didn’t break the steering wheel. The wheel can’t be broken, it just rotates in circles: That’s just it. Yes, a generation of leaders has come together to save the world and learned important lessons. It is quite possible that the lives of the people of the Six Kingdoms, the North and even Essos will be better for a while, and that is probably the best possible result we can really hope for. Last week, I said that I dared to hope that this story could end during the Game of Thrones, at least with a rough chance of creating a fairer world, and that’s exactly what we’re getting here.
But do we doubt for a moment that the intrigues, rivalries and resentment will stop? That hatred and injustice, oppression and war will stop? That people are no longer killed, raped, burned, enslaved and thrown out of seven-storey windows? Just by studying the throne game – let alone the real world – we know too much about people to believe that such an idyllic or utopian society could exist. If we think it’s a happy ending, we haven’t paid attention, because it never ends. The wheel keeps spinning.
And a surprising number of characters are also advancing. With all due respect, Bran. I mean, be honest: Weren’t we all a little disappointed – like after the Long Night – that so many of the main characters are still alive? This series has taught us to anticipate the worst, especially in big episodes, and at this point we really want to see the emotional impact that happens when your favorite character dies. (Moreover, death is a very orderly and pleasant way to end a person’s story and give us the reassuring feeling that we can see the whole story and weigh up its final value).
I don’t think so. In the last episode we lost Jaime and Cersei, and here we lose Dani, but most of the protagonists surprisingly came out of the throne game alive. Who would have predicted – after the Baylor and Castamer rains – that the Stark House would become one of the strongest and most populous houses still in existence? Somehow, four of the eight original family members we met in the winter returned alive to the Winterfell farm after eight seasons of legal proceedings.
I don’t have room here to give them the full treatment they deserve now, but I find it strange that I agree with where we leave them all. Without adding one of their stories to a false resolution, they all seem to have more or less become the people they were meant to be.
Arya Stark begins a new adventure. Essos is in the east and Westeros is in the west, she told Lady Crane in season 6 of Nobody. But what’s going on in Westeros? It’s the end of all cards. Maybe at the end of the world. I’d like to see that.
At the beginning of the second season, when Yara Greyjoy first appeared, I commented on the anagrammatic similarity between her name (as opposed to the books) and Arya. Yara Greyjoy is what Arya Stark wants to be: a woman, but a woman who can be herself and as threatening as any man. I don’t think the two women ever really met before they were in the dragon pit together in this episode – when Arya threatens to cut Yara Gorge – but it’s hard not to think of the Queen of the Iron Island when Arya confidently walks on the deck of her new ship.
Arya hasn’t stopped moving since we met her in the first season. Their journey took them from Winterfell to King’s Landing, from Harrenhal to Airy via the Gemini and all points in between. He crossed the Narrow Sea to Braavos and back to Westeros. She’s been in a lot of places. She met so many different people, travelled and learned so much from them. She was a completely different person: She was everybody, and she was nobody.
But she was never happy. She never felt safe. She never found the house. She ran away to prevent suicide, and she had plans to kill other people, but she never had a reason to live. We saw the last episode when, almost without thinking, she crashed into the ruined Red Camp, determined to kill Cersei. She didn’t care about his death: Why would she do that? Her life has been nothing but misery and vengefulness for as long as she can remember now. The dog – one of his most important companions and teachers – had to point out the obvious to him: Dying sucks, and living like a mean, vengeful bastard, like a dog, is also almost sucking. After learning from so many teachers throughout the throne room, Arya finally decided to go back to one of his first lessons and not tell the God of Death today.
As with many important characters this season, Arya’s sudden abandonment of her never-ending quest for revenge wasn’t necessarily undeserved, but it seemed to happen too quickly. The speed with which Benioff and Weiss have driven all season is too much work, but there are breadcrumbs if you’re looking for them. We must remember what it meant when she refused to kill Lady Crane, left the home of blacks and whites and took her name back. We need to think about what it meant for her to finally return to her sister and brothers. It is worth remembering that the night before the Long Night she decided that she would like to try at least once to get some joy, affection and pleasure into her life. We have to think about what it would mean to her to become a Winterfell heroine – even if she rejects what you call a hero – and her skills as an assassin are literally aimed at saving all of humanity. And we should probably think about how, after she had left the Dog hanging in the bells and fought for her survival in the streets of Port Réal, she took the time to try to save others as well. If you stay here, you will die, Arya told the assembled survivors, paraphrasing what Sandor Clegane had told her before. I think we have to realize that Arya has long since lost the desire for suffering and revenge, and bravely think that there could be something better.
Aria still doesn’t have a home, and she probably never will. She may have travelled for so long and become so independent that she will never be domesticated again, like Nymeria. After a journey through the known world and finding all the places and people that disappoint her, she now goes to an unknown world to see if there is something or someone for her. And Arya probably still doesn’t know who she really is, whether she’s good or bad, or what her place in the world is. She was so much: a scared little girl, a monster, a hero. All these personalities and much more will be in her when she sails to No Place, where she will be back at the beginning, at least in No One. It has a pure beginning, a pure leaf and a new world to explore.
It’s not an arch of salvation. Just like that damn bow. In fact, it’s not an ark that hasn’t even been filled in. Arya Stark is always on the move and always looking, and she must never stop.
But for the first time since we met her, she leaves with a smile on her face.
And one day I’ll be queen! Little Sansa Stark rushes home to her mother in a pilot episode of Game of Thrones. Please, please, please, please, please! It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted!
Sansa Stark was, when we met her, the typical fairy tale: beautiful, sweet, princess, a little scared. She was destined to marry the handsome crown prince, to become his queen and the mother of his children. As for the strictly regulated gender roles of Westeros as we first recognized them, Sansa had an inner road to a better life a woman could hope for: She was and wanted to be a female ideal.
And perhaps the triumph of Sansa’s story is that she never stopped being like this, even though she was quickly and gradually disappointed in the life she was promised. From the first encounter with Cersei (who embodied what she would become) to the first encounter with Joffrey (by whom she would define herself), the fairy tale continued to make way for a reality that was harder and darker than she could have imagined. For the first six seasons of the Game of Thrones, Sansa continued to live in fantastic versions of the terrifying returns, saying goodbye to one prince after another who turns out to be a monster. (I called a knight, but you’re a bear!) See the lyrics to the old Westeros Bear and Girl’s Fair song. Pretty knights kept saving Sansa Stark, and each of them turned out to be a disguised bear until she was finally forced to save herself.)
But even when Sansa was somehow forced to relive a woman’s life in Westeros, she never ceased to be a female ideal. Where women like Arya, Yara, the Snakes of Sand and Brienne of Tartu rebelled against the expectations of men and accepted men’s manners and weapons, Sansa never did. (I’m surprised Arya gave her the dagger in the Long Night, and Sansa has to remind us that she never used a weapon. How is it possible to survive the eight seasons of the Throne Game without using a weapon?) Sansa never rejected a woman’s life. Instead, she learned: first to survive, then to succeed and finally to grow.
And she paid a high price for it. Just like the women of Westeros, she was beaten, beaten and raped so often. She’s been cheated and used. She was forced to be constantly surrounded by men – Joffrey, Tyrion, Littlefinger, Ramsey, Theon and even John – and to draw indirect strength from their presence. Despite the uncomfortable dialogue at the beginning of the season, which made her realize that she was grateful for the experience, the price paid by Sansa Stark was too high. But she’s gotten stronger. She’s gotten smarter. She learned from men, but never tried to beat them in their own game. Under the guidance of the women she studied with among others Cersei, Shai, Marguerie, Olenna and her own mother she became better and better a woman.
You’ve got guts. Brienne once told Catelyn Stark. Maybe no fighting spirit, but I don’t know – female spirit. That’s what Celyn’s daughter has: feminine courage.
In King’s Landing, King Brandon discovers that the small council lacks several members, including the master whisperer. When I tried to find out if there was anyone else in the throne game who could take the place of such brilliant and manipulative politicians as Littlefinger and Varis-Sansa Stark, the only qualified candidate came to mind.
But of course, Sansa Stark is not available to serve the pleasure of these people. She already has a job.
Besides, it’s the only thing she ever wanted.
What about Jon Snow, born Prince Aegon Targaryen, the sixth in his name, protector of the Kingdom and righteous of the Seven Kingdoms? The clear hero of the throne play, who himself is the embodiment of the ice and fire of the song? A leader who united the kingdom against the forces of darkness and sacrificed everything, including his great love and one day his life for the benefit of all mankind? The only person in this huge, heavy story who has always tried to do the right thing and never acted selfish or cruel? You know what, Jon Snow? Our hero?
Well, John sure screwed up. If the game from the throne and taught us something – from the beginning – is that to be a hero – is a game with a small percentage, and no good deed ever goes unpunished. (We didn’t even have to wait for Ned’s death in the first season to find out. Remember the man who survived the White Walkers in the first scene of the show and ran back to Westeros to warn people about what he’d seen? Yeah, he got his head chopped off for his trouble.)
So, yeah, John gets the Royals, no pun intended. Stripped of his titles, stripped of his two crowns and his good reputation, the boy returns to the beginning with one of the most unusual upward agility arches in the whole throne game: He’s just a nameless pariah sent to the ends of the earth with all the other cripples, assholes and broken things.
And to be honest? It’s the best thing that could have happened to him. If he doesn’t know it yet, it probably won’t take him long to realize that this is his reward for his services. It’s his happy ending.
I remember a sentence from Kill the Mockingbird in which Miss Maudie – in reference to Atticus Finch – says that people were born into this world to do work that is unpleasant for us. Unfortunately Jon Snow is one of those people, and his whole story is one tedious job after another that he didn’t want to do. He didn’t want to be Major Mormont’s administrator and be ready to lead. He didn’t want to command the Black Castle when the Wildlings attacked. He didn’t want to be Lord Commander of the Night Watch. He didn’t want to be king in the north. He never intended to kill Quarin Halfhand or Mance Raider or execute Alliser Thorne. He did not want to be slaughtered by his own people to save thousands of savages, and then he did not want to come back. He wouldn’t take Winterfell from the Boltons. He certainly didn’t want to go to war with the first woman he loved, or kill the only other woman he loved, or watch them die in his arms.
Jon Snow’s whole life was one shitty detail after another, a shoulder load that no one else could or wanted to wear. And he accepted it every time because he is a capable man and cares more about the happiness of others than his own happiness. But he didn’t like it. We all love what we do right, Danny joked last season. I’m not saying it, John, and he said it seriously because he never told the truth. He’s doing a good job with an unpleasant one, but he didn’t like it.
And though he would have hated it, and though he repeatedly told everyone who listened to him that he didn’t want it, he would probably have taken on the burden of being king of the seven kingdoms. I’ll never understand why the Grey Worm and the Immaculate Worm have anything to say about what happened to John – don’t stay away from Naat, but he should be grateful, because the compromise that didn’t make anyone happy is probably the only chance John has to be happy.
He was happy north of the Wall. He’ll be happier up there, John said about the ghost a few episodes ago. Like you said, Tormund, and John confessed he wanted to go with them. The only real happiness he knew was with Ygritt. Remember the cave? She asked him when she was going to die. We should have stayed in that cave.) And it’s not just that he loved her, even if he did. It was the fact that life in the wilderness was free of everything that made John Snow’s life in Westeros so difficult: Governments, laws, houses, strict class structures, absurd loyalty, ridiculous rules of duty and honor, unnecessary conflicts between what one had to do, what one wanted to do and what was right. For eight seasons Jon Snow tried to pave the way between all these conflicting responsibilities and he hated every minute of it.
He was an observer on the wall, a shield guarding people’s rich. But now his shift is finally over. He is absent without excuse, joins the Free Men and goes to a place where no one has to choose between love and duty.
That’s death, isn’t it? Forget it. Falling into oblivion. – Samwell Tarley (Knight of the Seven Kingdoms)
As I said at the beginning, the ends in nature are disappointing. They’re either too happy or too depressed. Either they give us too many diplomas (and leave us walking around in circles), or they leave too many details and unanswered questions. Either they go exactly where we expected them to go (in which case we find them boring), or they go where we didn’t expect them to go (in which case we think they’re wrong). If we like this story, we don’t want it to end too soon (it’s still great!), but we don’t want it to last even a minute (Oh shit, that was great!).
There are a million ways to ruin the ending and I tried to be honest about it for a long, long time after I thought Benioff and Weiss had ruined the ending.
But I also said that this fast is a matter of memory, and frankly, in writing this very long fast, I could remember everything I liked about the throne game all the time. And I try not to be smart when I say I believe memory is the key to dealing with the end of something.
I’ve always said I write to better understand what I’m writing about. The process of forcing myself to struggle with a work of art – let’s face it, ridiculous length – is a way to go beyond my first impressions and dig deeper into the meaning of the work and my own reactions to it. (I have always agreed with a sentiment generally attributed to Flannery O’Connor: I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say).
And it works. I hated the Iron Throne when I first saw it. I totally hated him. I found it undeserved, reconstructive, unsatisfactory. Like the last episode of the series, it was the first episode in which I agreed with all the dissatisfied viewers who said that Benioff and Weiss had written a nuanced fiction based on Martin’s excellent work. If I had written a review the night of the incident – how could that have happened – that would have been my judgment.
But that’s not my judgment anymore. I have the feeling – just 15,000 words later – that I strangely enough accept the Iron Throne as the last in the Game of Thrones series. Writing it helped me to remember the long, complex and contradictory journeys of these heroes and this world, and all these experiences have not been lost and will have no meaning at the end of the journey. Indeed, I believe that the memories of these experiences are full of flesh and reinforce this purpose. Yeah, Benioff and Weiss have been in a hurry to take samples: They dropped a few stitches in the logic and avoided major emotional shocks. But I think they did it in part because they thought they could do it: because we, the audience, as active, committed and creative participants in the story, had all the information we needed to fill in the gaps after eight seasons.
Among the heroes who died in this story, it’s up to us to remember who they really were, because this last season there wasn’t always enough time and space to remember them. The whole episode of Daenerys Targaryen, a complex and deeply human bow, is not well portrayed in this episode, but we remember who Dani was because Benioff and Weiss showed us meticulously for eight years. We were with her every step of the way, and we find that the journey in her life has been much more interesting and educational than the last moments she can put into words. The same can be said of Jaime, Cersei, Sandor Clegane, Theon and Jorah and Missanday, all characters whose stories are over. It is our task to remember all that is left of this last season, all the glorious and dirty mankind that has been forgotten in the history books.
Think of the loved ones you’ve lost. Have they come to a meaningful end? Probably not: Very few of us are so lucky. Whether slow or sudden, most of us die unfairly, miserably, without much dignity and for fundamentally stupid reasons. But none of us wants to believe that these goals will encompass our lives, determine their value, or make a definitive judgment about their meaning. They’re just moments, no more than the moments that come at the end. To put things in perspective, we have to remember all these experiences).
And for the heroes who did not die, we must imagine that their story continues. The Iron Throne could be the final of the Game of Thrones season, not the final of the series. Next season we will see Tyrion and the Small Council trying to rebuild Westeros, and we will see how the peoples of the six kingdoms will react to this new world order. We could discover that Bran the Broken is a terrible king who has to become king before he can be brought to power. We can see how Sansa Stark faces the challenges of becoming the first queen of the North and strengthening her independent and wounded nation. Maybe we see Jon Snow with his new family of wild animals, maybe we discover how we can find love again and become happy, and inevitably take on more leadership responsibility than he ever really wanted. And maybe we see Arya Stark coming to a place we haven’t even looked, maybe she’ll become a hero, maybe she’ll become a monster, maybe she’ll figure out how to become ourselves. The construction of the world will start all over again, the story will expand, the characters will grow and change, the wheel will spin.
There are two types of termination, and this is the second: It is a place of peace, no more than in history, which in our imagination can last forever.
One of the big discussions on this subject – related to television – came from the maker David Milch after the sudden and premature cancellation of his indispensable series Deadwood. In a segment titled Meaning the End, on the latest Boxing Network DVD, Milch responded powerfully to his feelings. (I quoted a little last week, but I think it’s worth quoting more)
The idea of the end of the thing as the attribution of an end value…to a certain experience is one of the agreed lies we use to organize our lives…Everyone tries to allegorize experiences in such a way that we think we are inclined to pursue a certain end goal. But it’s a lie, really. That’s the lie we agreed on. The truth is, all we have is day and time. And even more so, as an artist in this environment you have to assume that every episode, in whatever form, is the end of things and that the audience has an idea of it. And then the miracle is that life goes on. Well, one day the miracles will stop. The biggest lie is the idea that we are entitled to a meaningful and coherent conclusion, to something that never ends. And that’s the lie I tell myself so I don’t set myself on fire… I have no regrets…
The Throne Game was an unlikely miracle. It was a show that should never have worked, but somehow it became an enormously critical and commercial success. It was a show I had originally talked about as a stupid series of sword and witchcraft, and I didn’t want to write about it at all. It was something that could just be a children’s series with dragons, demons and too many bare breasts, but it seemed rich in deeply human themes and sophisticated stories and wise and wonderful observations of human existence. It is a show that has maintained its vision and integrity without much interference from its network. It is a show that was not suddenly cancelled or interrupted, but that had to tell his whole story, on his own terms, retaining all his talent and most of his qualities and choosing the day and time of his end.
It is a miracle that lasted more than eight years and 73 extraordinary episodes on television. And last week the miracle stopped, like all miracles in the end. Valar Morgulis, after all.
But that’s okay. Nothing is more powerful than a good story, and I enjoyed every moment of it while it lasted. And at the end of the story, I realized I don’t regret anything.
Additional reflections and preferred elements
- In my review of The Long Night, I suggested that the Game of Thrones was somehow a victim of my own success: As the show became an unstoppable juggler of pop culture, budgets grew and the limits of what Benioff and Weiss could do on screen disappeared. The show became more cinematic and focused more on a big show than on the little human drama that took place in the beginning. (As I said before, almost the entire War of the Five Kings was out of camera for the first three seasons, which meant that the writers had to deal with things through dialogue rather than explosions.) I’m sure a lot of fans enjoy this big budget show, and I admit myself that the series offered exciting action and breathtaking visuals. But I lacked the proximity of the backstage to talk about the wars without seeing them. And this problem has continued over the past season, which has been shortened. The episodes were longer, but Benioff and Weiss didn’t use the extra minutes in each episode for a dialogue that sells motivation and gives the characters’ stories the place they deserve: They used them for performing arts and to do incredible product demonstrations. (The opening of the Iron Throne is a good example: the scene in which Tyrion walks incredibly slowly through the ashes-covered ruins of King’s Landing was visually powerful and even emotionally resonant. But I would trade a few minutes of that series for a more nuanced conversation between John and Dani))).
- I love how the scenes between John and Tyrion in this episode remind us of the scenes between Ned and Varis in the first season. And what about the life of your daughter, my lord, Varys Ned asked Baylor. Is that a precious thing to you? So Tyrion’s farewell shot at John – convincing him to do the right thing – provokes a reaction. What about your sisters? See how they bend their knees?) Apparently John’s time in prison also makes Ned deliberately depressed in his cell after the end of the first season. (If he had chased the grey worm, John would probably have followed Ned’s fate, but that would probably have been too symmetrical)
- Evidence that the destruction of King’s Landing has always been an endgame: Her vision at the end of Valar Morgulis, at the end of the second season, when she entered the ruined throne room and realized that it was covered with what we only saw, namely snow. Here she finally touches the ashes-covered knob of a throne, which she didn’t want to touch at the time. She’s never on that thing.
- Benioff and Weiss insert here a small reference to two episodes they have directed in the past. Brienne completes Jaime’s entry in the Brotherhood Book, like I said before. And the way Tyrion places the chairs around the Little Council Table reminds me of one of my favourite plays from a stupid comedy that was never made in the series The Step of Punishment.
- With all the rumours that HBO is preparing a throne playing universe, it is quite possible that my assumptions about how this story might proceed have an approximate commercial justification. I don’t expect to see any of these characters anymore, I think this cast is over, but HBO has deliberately left this company and the world as a playground for future creators largely untouched. (I am satisfied with this, both theoretically and pessimistically, and I am not interested in these hypothetical future projects).
- And that’s it! Playing with thrones was a love work for me, and I was happy to make it available free of charge. (Valar Dohaeris, after all.) But if you have enjoyed my analysis of the Game of Thrones over the past eight years and would like to support this and future work, I encourage you to take my collected works in the form of an e-book by Amazon. (The first book, which covers the seasons one to three, is already available and contains three full essays, which are not available on the website. The next two books, which also contain new material, will be available soon, so keep an eye on this room. And if anyone wants the books in a different electronic form than the Kindle, feel free to send me an email so I can set you up))).
- And if you generally feel grateful and generous, you can also make a donation to support Unaffiliated Critic. It means a lot to me (for example, knowing that my work is appreciated and that I can buy food).
- Now I feel strangely excited to write about other TV series and movies, but I would like to sincerely thank everyone who has joined me in this long odyssey through the Game of Thrones. You have dealt with my increasingly endless fasting, you have been patient with my frequent delays, and you have been attentive in your comments, criticisms, and encouragement. It was a real and unconditional pleasure, and I sincerely hope you come back and read what I’m writing now.