The Real Villain of Game of Thrones
The Night King? The Army of the Dead? Cersei Lannister? Danaerys Targaryen? David Benioff and D. B. Weiss?
Below lie spoilers for Game of Thrones S1–8, obviously.
Game of Thrones has come to an end and the internet has gone absolutely ham about it. The sprawling fantasy epic’s last season has been dubbed everything from a severe and utter letdown to a borderline offensive and total waste of one’s time.
There’s even a petition (with over a million and a half signatures at time of writing) to have the entire season rewritten and redirected, ushering in a brand new era of petulant and sanctimonious beserker fans whomst behave as if they’ve ever written more than a handful of hateful tweets.
But there’s a case to be made for Season 7 and 8, including the character arcs and their final conclusions that somehow manage to conspire and resolve in and amidst the rabid expectations of 20 million+ fans worldwide.
Game of Thrones has always been predominantly about power. And power, as we know by now, is just a shadow on a wall.
Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.” “A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” ― Lord Varys
When Game of Thrones first aired in 2011, its initial, much smaller fandom was powerless to its visual charm, complex storytelling, believable characters, political intrigue, unexpected betrayals, and its many, many subthemes of love, hate, fate, faith, family, war, loyalty, honour, slavery, liberation, lineage, redemption, rebirth, magic, vengeance, death itself — we were drinking that shit up like giant‘s milk.
Game of Thrones took our preconceived notions of fantasy epics and television’s traditional dramatic narratives and pushed them unceremoniously out of the highest tower window, crippling them forever. Flashforward to the execution of Ned Stark at the Great Sept of Baelor. In its aftermath, we’d all already fundamentally changed as viewers.
Maybe that’s the problem with a creative property that appeals to so many types of people at once. It inevitably begins to live as much inside the head of its viewers as its creators. In doing so, the power dynamic shifts. While the universe of Game of Thrones once resided solely with its writers, slowly, it made its home inside the minds of an audience already taken hostage by its own outrageous expectations.
Today, it’s become quite clear that the Game of Thrones fandom had hoped the show and its creators would somehow be able to bypass the natural laws of storytelling physics to settle all scores and tie up all loose ends neatly without the narrative feeling rushed, contrived or poorly paced.
We wanted Game of Thrones to set fire to our idea of what television is, and at the same time, we required that everything has a point, a purpose we’d ascribed or some subliminal mechanism tied to an outlandish theory we’d built out of the show’s own rich lore gleaned off YouTube, r/gottheories and Vice articles.
Viewers were never going to be satisfied with the way Game of Thrones ended. The very nature of the show’s narrative doesn’t allow for that kind of holistic satisfaction. There was never going to be any kind of gratification. Game of Thrones has always been this way; to deny it is to deny what hooked each of us in the first place. Unpredictability and shock factor is at the core of Game of Thrones’ appeal.
Ned Stark’s execution, Danaery’s rebirth, The Red Wedding, Jon’s betrayal, Tyrion's trial, Hold The Door, Hardhome — when these big events happened, the story expanded. But fantasy epics this mind-numbingly complex and the worlds they’re built around can only really expand for so long. In Season 7 and 8, when big events happened, the story contracted.
Broader scope and more time spent digging new crevices into its main players’ psyches would’ve only made for far too many loose ends and a less satisfying conclusion — even an outright bad one. Looking back, it seems inevitable that the show would cave in on itself under the weight of its own popularity. Especially so if its ultimate conclusion was to be the declaration of a new King or Queen to rule over the Seven Kingdoms.
But how could they drag a good woman down? the world wails — swathes of angry anti-fans revolting against the fact that this lone Dragon Queen isn’t keeping herself or their fervent fantasies alive, and that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss would even dare do something so complex as oversee a woman coloniser with questionable DNA, a devout belief in her divine destiny, a propensity for crucifixion and death by fire, a long and detailed history of being talked out of vicious acts by her royal advisors, and a savior complex the size of The Wall itself. Did no one consider Danaerys might do the logical thing for her character and go absolutely genocidal on a trash city filled with ungrateful shit-slingers who supported the wrong Queen and once rebelled against Dany’s own dad?
“A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing.”― Aemon Targaryen
In retrospect, if you consider the fates of Mirri Maz Dur, Pyat Pree, Astapor, the Masters, the slave owners of Meereen, Vaes Dothrak, and that Lannister loot train it seems obvious that there was nowhere else to go with Danaerys’ character other than the Mad Monarch archetype her dad had made famous.
Can one be both powerful and merciful?” is the question Game of Thrones asks with Dany’s character development —and perhaps self-referentially — and the conclusion is an unapologetic “No” straight to the heart. Not for Danaerys and not for the showrunners. Danaerys learnt that the hard way and now the viewers have, too.
As far as the finale goes, with regards to believability and verisimilitude, I don’t see how it could’ve resolved any other way — except, maybe, for the fates of Jaime and Cersei Lannister, two characters whose conclusion we all knew would end in some tragic event anyway — be it Cersei dying at Jaime’s hand or both of them being crushed by a King’s Landslide. The Lannister Twins were always going to die together. (Tyrion’s emotional reaction to the bodies was quite possibly the best scene in the entire episode.)
To paraphrase Stephen King, most people aren’t upset about how Game of Thrones ended, they’re upset that it ended at all. In the age of online streaming services, long-form storytelling and perpetual entertainment properties, I guess I can understand why a franchise of this magnitude and depth coming to a rather abrupt end has over 20 million viewers up in arms, but pacing issues aside, it’s really not at all ‘bad’.
As I mentioned in the last thing I wrote, there’s no such thing as good or bad, only certain realities that contrast our expectations. I didn’t expect Bran to take the Iron Throne; it was always going to be Queen Dany in my eyes all the way up until Jon and Dany met up midway through Season 7 and Jon’s Targaryen lineage started to become a glaring issue. But Game of Thrones has become as big as it has because of its penchant for unpredictability, not in spite of it. I mean,
In the end, the sheer unitive power of this show is something that will stand the test of time. There will never be another tv show quite like it in our lifetimes — not least with the same talkability and culture shifting potential.
For a while there, Game of Thrones brought the world of nerds, geeks and regular job-having folk together in a way nothing else could — a sentiment that is echoed almost exactly in Tyrion Lannister’s seemingly meta-argument about human connection and the nature of the show itself:
“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” ― Tyrion Lannister
So yes, the showrunners will remain the true villains of Game of Thrones, as part of its legacy even, but we the Viewers will always know deep inside that it was our own expectations that struck the final killing blow.
And now our watch is ended ⚔️