The series finale was remarkable for its weary, pragmatic tone, as fiery passion fled Westeros on dragon’s wings.
“No-one is very happy, which means it’s a good compromise, I suppose,” Tyrion said wearily. Welcome to the new Westeros, in which few people got what they wanted — including the audience. But then Bran did offer Tyrion — and us — a clue when he said, “I don’t really ‘want’ any more.”
We shouldn’t mistake Bran’s readiness to rule the Six Kingdoms for a hypocritical desire to do so. His disconnection from the world of warm humanity has made him seem aloof, dull, even creepy — and certainly a tiresomely literal deus ex machina with which to end this game of thrones. However, ‘broken’ Bran broke the wheel as Daenerys never could: he banished desire in favour of duty.
A confession: I have often not wanted to write these reviews. And it’s not because the quality of the show’s scripting has gone downhill, or because it has fundamentally betrayed its themes, characters and narrative threads; I do feel this season has paid off earlier ideas in satisfying, occasionally thrilling ways.
No: there’s been something dreary and dutiful about the way I’ve been chained to my desk through the day and night — it’s 4:09am as I write this — trying to articulate intelligent things about each episode. Having to wring the emotional reactions demanded by ‘The Discourse’ from a show I’ve chiefly loved for its rich historicism has felt like wading through mud. And unlike Bronn, Lord of Highgarden and Master of Coin, I’ve been working for free this season.
At first I disliked this finale. Instinctively, I wished the surviving characters would be rewarded with love, and I felt depressed to see them settling for the banal emotional aridity of mere public service. But then desire was this show’s Big Bad — putting your wants first, whoever you may be. It’s quite neat to consider that in the very first episode of Game of Thrones, it was a selfish lover’s impulse that triggered the ascent, eight seasons later, of a king who has conquered love.
It’s a satisfying return to the central theme of Game of Thrones: the game, not the players. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci observed last week, recent seasons have seen audiences — and the showrunners — become distracted by the individualism of psychology. We get attached to our favourite characters. We want to feel we understand what drives them.
But as two horses trot beyond the Wall, bringing the show full circle like the turning astrolabe in the opening credits, we’re reminded that Game of Thrones has always espoused a raven’s-eye view of history … or a dragon’s-eye view. Tufekci calls it a sociological view; but unlike that other much-cited sociological drama The Wire, it’s a pre-modern view. The series ended as it began: by radically de-emphasising the sovereignty of individuals — the Enlightenment project of ‘happiness’ — to show us the social and political clockwork within which they strive and fall over time.
We see The Realm. (RIP Varys.) But the modern term ‘patriotism’ is also an Enlightenment concept: finding self-actualisation in contributing to the workings of structural power. This episode was about the older, pre-modern concept of a vocation: abnegating yourself to a higher power; committing yourself as a vessel for a broader purpose. No wonder so many characters give up romantic and familial attachments: there was something deeply monastic about this episode.
Two key audience avatars — Brienne of Tarth, representing emotionally labile fandom, and Samwell Tarly, representing nerdy pedantry — both ended up producing history as fanfic: stories that reflect what they want to have happened. Both these plotlines were terribly sentimental: Sam (long considered a George RR Martin stand-in) reveals he came up with the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ title, while Brienne glosses Jaime Lannister’s deeds in The Book of Brothers, without beginning her own page.
But the character who cherishes stories most — and who, inexplicably, thinks Bran’s got the best story — is Tyrion. As a lifelong reader and scholar, he’s nearly as crushed as his siblings when he realises he’s not even mentioned in Maester Ebrose’s A Song of Ice and Fire. (Send a review raven to Citadel Goodreads — one star!)
Tyrion’s love of storytelling has been a constant throughout the series. He was forever trying to tell a joke about the time he walked into a brothel with a honeycomb and a jackass, but was interrupted every time. And he loves a pithy axiom, which is why his ears prick up when Jon Snow says gloomily, “Love is the death of duty.”
No, Jon Know-Nothing did not come up with it himself. It’s the line Maester Aemon used back in season one, warning Jon against deserting the Night’s Watch to aid the Starks. In season four, Aemon tells Sam the same thing, reminiscing about his own long-ago love, who remains real to him now. It’s real Name of the Rose stuff.
“Sooner or later, there comes a day in a man’s life when it is not easy,” Aemon had said. “A day when he must choose.” Aemon Targaryen, like Jon, could have ruled the Seven Kingdoms, but refused. And as Daenerys indulges in a Nuremberg rally for her weirdly fungible Dothraki and Unsullied army — seriously, how many of them even are there? — Jon realises that today is Choosing Day.
“Sometimes duty is the death of love,” Tyrion urges… by which he means, “It’s your duty to cause the death of this specific woman you love.” Was Jon Azor Ahai after all?
Here’s where I have to get annoyed. One whole new world aside, the showrunners have spent this season making Jon’s love for Daenerys seem nothing but dutiful. The Lannister twins’ impulsive behaviour is understandable because they were always hot for each other. Even their corpses are pitiable because they lived and died together.
But Jon and Dany have never had an erotic spark that would make a genuine tragedy of his queenslaying. Watching them kiss is like watching a child mash two action figures together. (However, the offscreen stupidity in which Jon passively allowed himself to be caught and imprisoned is absolutely authentic.)
So Jon’s blackly funny fate is to take the black… again. Sweet birthday babey! Part of me bridled to see his Targaryen heritage — the dynastic claim that people died to protect — extinguished so casually. But Jon never seemed to want it — he’s got the real North in him. Joining the Night’s Watch now seems to mean ‘living with the Free Folk’ — which Jon loves! He’s with his buddies, Tormund and Ghost! Little stems of grass push hopefully through the snow! All hail the King-Beyond-the-Wall!
Which brings me to Drogon Baggins. Who would have picked Dany’s dragon as the one who would destroy the Iron Throne, that seat of all evil, before carrying off his dead mother to parts unknown?
But then Game of Thrones has been so pissweak on the ontology of the dragons. One of the wonderful things about George RR Martin’s books was the way fantasy magic operated as a synecdoche for the magical thinking that has actually shaped real-life politics: fantasies of heroism; efforts to anticipate the future; royal pretenders; delusions of divine right.
But the show struggled to communicate magic. The mystical Stark direwolves were infrequently sighted Very Big Dogs; R’hllor was there, and then he wasn’t; Arya never opened her bag of faces once this season; and Bran became a plot delivery device: the Westerosi Wayback Machine. Similarly, Game of Thrones treated Drogon like a flamethrowing fighter jet.
Many people mock Avatar, but at least James Cameron came up with a consistent in-world explanation for the bond between species. I was never certain whether Drogon needed a “Dracarys!” for every breath of flame, and whether Dany ‘steered’ him during flight or set him free, trusting him to know and carry out her will. He seemed an extension of Dany’s ambition and a tool to smite her enemies; and when he acted independently, it was treated as a problem to be solved.
But at last we glimpsed Drogon’s own mind. Maybe he destroyed the throne out of rage and grief. Or maybe he thought Daenerys died in a freak throne-sitting accident and was like, “Fuck this chair!” Maybe the throne symbolised his bondage to Daenerys, and he’s now emancipating himself. In any case, his departure from Westeros is love’s poignant evacuation, leaving the final Targaryen legacy behind in molten metal and stained snow. Fire and blood.
Now, it’s back to bureaucracy, and it seems only appropriate that the post-Targaryen era is plotted out in the ruins of the old Dragonpit. Perhaps Tyrion is clever after all, because he manages to turn his treason trial into a moratorium on a new political system. And in a huge, long-deserved win for Sansa, nobody at the meeting seemed to have a problem with the North seceding.
Sam, however, is roundly mocked when he’s foolish enough to propose democracy. This is an oligarchy: a system in which the elite houses of Westeros share power among themselves. Given this, it’s odd that Jon didn’t get pardoned, considering the deciding voters included Jon’s best friend, his three siblings, their blood relatives, key advisors and sworn defenders.
Having left Lord Yohn Royce to rep the Vale during the Long Night, Robin ‘Bitty’ Arryn has now glowed up to his childhood catchphrase: “I want to see him fly!” (He and Tormund are wonderful advertisements for breastfeeding.) When it came to the still-anonymous new Prince of Dorne, I found myself echoing Oberyn Martell’s angry shout, “Say his name!” But I was delighted to see that years of Lannister imprisonment have only improved Edmure Tully’s idiocy, like a fine Dornish red.
Why does the choice of King Bran placate Grey Worm? Well, perhaps Sansa shrewdly realised that the Unsullied would approve of someone who isn’t led by the pillar and stones?
Grey Worm’s journey east to Naath, in the Summer Sea, offers a lovely foil to the episode’s shift from love to duty. Grey Worm knew nothing but duty — valar dohaeris — until Missandei awoke love in him. His horrible fate seemed sealed when Daenerys named him her Master of War… but now he’s found a way to express love through duty, honouring Missandei by leading the Unsullied to become peacekeepers. (“My people are not peaceful. We will protect you.”)
Meanwhile Arya heads west, on a voyage of discovery she’s been planning since season six. (I was thinking about her white horse last week, and I remembered that the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West — adapted to television as Monkey — features the White Dragon Horse, a cursed dragon prince who’s deputised to act as the monk Tripitaka’s steed.)
Both Grey Worm’s and Arya’s journeys are symbolically rich. In Celtic folklore, the Summer Country is a paradisiacal otherworld, often thought to be located on an island. And in many cultures, west is the direction travelled by the souls of the dead, following the setting sun. Night falls on Westeros, but tomorrow always comes. There’s a certain peace in letting the tides of history carry you under a dutiful moon.