In an uneven finale, Game of Thrones made a surprising case for the power of stories.
Game of Thrones is a story and a story about stories. The ending of the story was imperfectly told, but that truism made it through. While the last season has done much to obfuscate tone, messages, and themes, the finale promoted and endorsed the power and importance of stories as they operate in the world of the show as well as in our own consumption of them. It was an imperfect finale, rife with the same sorts of shortcomings in the writing that have plagued the last two seasons, but if nothing else (and there wasn’t nothing else), the final episode was clear that stories matter.
In the third episode of the show, we are introduced to Old Nan, a servant woman in Winterfell, who is best known for her stories. Bran says he hates her old stories, but – unfazed – Nan claps back that she “knows a story about a boy who hated stories,” and then tells him about the terrifying Long Night, once again captivating the boy’s mind, and terrifying this boy with the prospect of seeing pale spiders big as hounds in later episodes (thank the old gods and the new we never faced that). In the books, Nan’s stories are referred to many times, primarily in Bran’s point-of-view chapters.
Seventy episodes later, and Tyrion makes his case for Bran’s kingship on the basis of the power of stories:
“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. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken? The boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly. He crossed beyond the Wall, a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven. He is our memory, the keeper of all our stories…. Who better to lead us into the future?”
Bran as King is a surprising and hastily put together turn in the plot, but Tyrion’s speech builds off of his fireside storytime with Bran in the season’s second episode and builds off of what Sam said of Bran’s importance to the Night King in that same episode: “If we forget where we’ve been, what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. We’re just animals…. If I wanted to erase the world of men, I’d start with you.”
What the Three-Eyed Raven does and whether or not that actually makes Bran the best choice to be king are two of the many, many questionable aspects of the ending of the show, but this characterization of Bran does build upon an important theme that has been there throughout the series – the power of stories.
“Do you know what the realm is?” Petyr Baelish asks Varys in one of their iconic conversations. “It’s the thousand blades of Aegon’s enemies. A story we agree to tell each other over and over until we forget that it’s a lie.”
“But what do we have left once we abandon the lie?” replies Varys. “Chaos. A gaping pit waiting to swallow us all.”
In the second season, Varys tells Tyrion that “power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.” This line is referred to twice in season eight.
The ability to tell the right story in the right way is established as fundamental to power, but storytelling is also a dynamic, world-shaping activity in the books and, to a lesser extent, in the show. Nobles and smallfolk alike are constantly telling stories, sharing news and rumors as well as tales from prior days. Sometimes an accurate version makes it across the realm, but they generally end up twisted or embellished. These stories are part of the breathtaking achievement of Martin’s worldbuilding, and they are also crucial to driving the realm’s politics. The show did well to capture this element for so long, which made it so perplexing when characters seemed to stop hearing rumors or asking questions in the final two seasons (with a notable exception of Hot Pie, who has heard tell of Jon Snow and the Battle of the Bastards, leading to Arya heading North). The absence of this aspect of the show as of late helps underscore how important it was for so long.
The storytelling that led to King Bran the Broken may have been shoddy, but there is no denying the show has long endorsed Tyrion’s lofty appraisal of stories. Whether or not Bran’s coronation makes sense, Game of Thrones has made very clear that stories shape the world and are more than capable of king-making.
The importance of stories continued to develop through the episode, albeit in a more meta and interpretive form. We see Brienne, now Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, fill in Jaime’s pages in the Book of Brothers. Perhaps no character in the show is as shaped by the stories people tell about them as Jaime, but now Ser Brienne, who knows him better than anyone, is able to record the definitive account of his deeds as a member of the Kingsguard. In the Small Council meeting, Sam presents Tyrion with A Song of Ice and Fire, Maester Ebrose’s telling of the events following the death of King Robert Baratheon, hot off the inkwell. The creaking sound you can hear is not the binding of the massive tome, but the imperiled Fourth Wall. It’s a somewhat clumsy nod to the source material and another ode to stories, but perhaps the most compelling bit of this moment is when Sam tells Tyrion that Ebrose has not mentioned Tyrion once in the entire history. It’s a reminder that history and memories are kept alive through their telling, and that telling is flawed and biased and can leave out crucial characters.
Familiar scenes, situations, and aesthetics in the post-Dragonpit part of the episode evoke cycles, looking ahead while calling back. There’s a Small Council meeting, a crowning of a Northern monarch, a new voyage for Arya, and a journey North for Jon, clad in black with Ghost by his side. Westeros has changed, but much has stayed the same, just as the show has changed, even if the final scenes refer back to what has come before. A single green chute grows out of the snow, surely alluding to A Dream of Spring and reminding us of cyclical seasons. The world goes on. The story goes on.
As Jon goes beyond the Wall, he looks back through the closing gate, and it is almost as if he is looking back at us, giving us the power over the story. We have talked and talked about this story, and as he heads out into the wilderness, we will continue to talk about this story, arguing about plot points, devising fan theories, rewriting scenes and characters, putting together endings, imagining origins, rewatching, rereading, and hoping for the next book. There will be prequels and spin-offs, surely, and we will talk about those, too, but this once in a generation story will go on and on because it’s a story we like hearing and one we like telling. And it’s not just stories about Westeros and the world of A Song of Ice and Fire – Jon’s look back at us encourages us to go on telling all stories. Post Thrones, it’s our turn to go on telling great stories the way we want to tell them, sharing them with people who we hope will listen and be filled with wonder, so much so that they might tell someone else about it. Game of Thrones is not the first story to change our lives, and it won’t be the last.
I don’t know how much of this David Benioff and D.B. Weiss intended. It’s possible they made this case largely on accident, or they might have really meant to compose a love letter to stories. It’s also possible that this is a final defense for their handling of the story. It could be their way of saying Look, this is really hard to do. Don’t be so sure you could do better. We’re trying. You’re welcome and fuck off. Or it could be an acknowledgement of their shortcomings and an endorsement of all the fan theories that are, well, better than what they gave us. They’re admitting that they, like Ebrose, have a Tyrion-shaped omission in the narrative, and they’re happy to know that other people who care about the story have put together thoughtful additions and alterations to the tale. Again, I don’t know what their intentions were, but the prominent placement of stories in the finale invites us to consider who the story belongs to and how it will exist in our minds. It also makes these idiots signing a petition to remake the final two seasons look that much more like hive-minded fanboys (and I say this as someone who will, to some extent, see the story (but not the show) as ending at the end of Season 6 until George (hopefully) finishes the books).
The fact that the spirit of Old Nan, your favorite storyteller’s favorite storyteller, prevailed in the finale is an encouraging thing for me. As a student of Foucauldian discourse analysis, I’m fascinated by the considerations of how narrative, discourse, and knowledge determine social and political power. The ideas that would have intrigued any number of chain-smoking French philosophers and over-caffeinated English grad students drove the political intrigue of earlier seasons, and it is gratifying to see them given such prominence in the final chapter. Tyrion’s Dragonpit speech – despite the ridiculous elements of that scene – is worth thinking more about because of what it suggests about the relationship between storytelling and power, and because it validates previous treatments of the subject in the show. But I’m also encouraged and pleased by the echoes of Old Nan as a reader and as a writer, as someone who loves and values history and literature. I love stories, from well-told accounts of the weird things that happen in our daily lives to long tales of romance in 19th Century Russian aristocracy. And I truly believe that storytelling is not mere diversion or escapism, but a virtuous act that improves the self and our communities. Consuming works of art is fun and fulfilling, and to see that idea so clearly preserved in the finale of Game of Thrones does my story-loving heart good.
The last two seasons of Thrones were, in most respects, excellent, when considering the cinematography, score, audio and visual effects, acting, production, and, well, just about everything besides the writing. It was great TV, even if it was often not great storytelling. This makes it all the more satisfying that, after all of the powerful characters were sorted out and written to their ultimate ends, a wizened storyteller’s ethos remains as powerful as anyone else’s.
All hail Old Nan, first of her name. Teller of songs and stories, knitter of tales and fables, and protector of the mythical realm. Long may she reign.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria