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.
The long-awaited clash revealed that Thrones has robbed its characters of the power to choose.
One can dream that someday we can read George R.R. Martin’s description of the destruction of King’s Landing, as Daenerys Targaryen rains fire from above and her soldiers sack the city, much as it happened in “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. But, unlike the show’s depiction, it will feel earned. Perhaps “The Bells” hewed closely to Martin’s vision, but, rather than being the well-developed emotional hammer this series deserves, Dany’s cataclysmic action was the latest victim of the accelerated pace and uneven plotting. The awesome, visceral destruction felt like an inevitable plot point to drive the story to its conclusion, and thus failed to satisfy. The fiery and ostensibly surprising carnage failed to capitalize on Thrones’ notable lack of squeamishness, as the violence did little to enhance the story and the audience’s reaction to it.
Thrones has often used surprising, graphic, and/or fiery violence to great effect. “Baelor,” “The Rains of Castamere,” “The Mountain and the Viper,” “Hardhome,” “The Winds of Winter,” and “The Spoils of War” all used the shock and spectacle to raise the stakes of the story while creating iconic moments that meant more than the sum of their bloody parts. While Drogon and director Miguel Sapochnik made the most of HBO’s production budget, the death and destruction in “The Bells” failed to live up to the standard. This seems to be the audience consensus, but I believe that the problems which led to the failure of Dany’s scorching heel turn also manifest themselves in one of the more well-received parts of the episode.
Within “The Bells,” many fans found some consolation in the long-awaited Cleganebowl, the gruesome conclusion to Sandor Clegane’s lifelong vendetta against his monstrous older brother, Gregor. It had its moments, and the brutal clash was nicely book-ended by Sandor’s farewell to Arya and by what ended up being an appropriate conclusion to the showdown, with Sandor taking his brother with him over the edge to a fiery demise. For many viewers, this was a satisfying payoff to a favorite prediction, and one that felt earned and developed despite being a show invention.
However, the showdown was, given its circumstances, heavily scripted and contrived, and felt, like Dany’s descent into madness and murder, like an inevitability of the showrunner’s desires to get to certain plot points, rather than a meaningful development of the world of the show. Cleganebowl – again, a total show invention – could have worked if the clash came about naturally, such as when the twin brothers Erryk and Arryk Cargyll found themselves opposed in the halls of Dragonstone, rather than in an apocalyptic Anakin vs. Obi-wan style duel. By forcing the issue in this way, Cleganebowl took violence and made it a tool of the showrunners’ vision, an obligatory dish on the familiar Thrones buffet, rather than a deliberate choice made by a character. The decision to be violent – to use deadly force as a means to an end and as a way of interacting with the world – became impersonal as Sandor was shoehorned into a place where he had to participate.
As Cleganebowl raged and Dany went nuclear, Thrones sundered the characters from their own violent actions, making the choice itself a plot point and the consequences self-contained. In short, the inevitability of this destruction robbed Sandor and Dany of agency and thus drained the violence of its potential significance.
I’ll explain this by continuing to explore Sandor and Cleganebowl because, as I noted, this has not been as scrutinized/criticized as the burning of the city. Sandor has been, throughout the show, one of the characters who teaches others as well as the audience about the world. Varys and Petyr lecture about power, Ned exhibits honor, Tywin emphasizes legacy, and Sandor teaches Sansa, Arya, and the audience hard truths about violence.
“Stannis is a killer. The Lannisters are killers. Your father was a killer,” he says to Sansa, “Your brother is a killer. Your sons will be killers someday. The world is built by killers. So you’d better get used to looking at them.” “Killing is the sweetest thing there is,” he says to her later, “What do you think a knight is for, girl? You think it’s all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing. I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve killed since then.” Though (proudly) not a knight himself, Sandor is one of the best killers in Westeros. Fighting and killing are his meat and mead and fundamental to his identity, but he has the freedom to decide what to do with that violence. When he has finally had enough at the Battle of the Blackwater, he curses King Joffrey and leaves. He captures Arya and hopes to sell her back to her family for ransom, but as these efforts fail he uses his talent for violence to keep her safe on the road. There is even some optimism in his voice when he considers the opportunities available to him as a mercenary in Essos. In the show, when he is pulled out of retirement he decides to fight for some version of good. Throughout, he seems doomed to a life of violence, but he is free to make certain choices along that bloody road.
Not so with Cleganebowl. Yes – of course – Sandor could have just stayed in Winterfell or gone anywhere but King’s Landing, but this was the first time where it felt like he was doing something because he was destined to. He hates his brother and desires revenge, but the notion that he would, after all these years, decide that now he had to get his revenge for a childhood trauma is a fatalistic contrivance. He claims that hate keeps him going, but even if that’s true he had previously channeled that hate into a begrudging guardianship of the Stark sisters. He’s a bitter, traumatized man, but not one bound to carry out a suicidal revenge mission. His character is richer than a simple vendetta, and his arc could have ended without getting his revenge. But it didn’t. Instead, the showrunners decided that this fan service needed to happen. Again, if it had happened some other way, and he had happened to run into Gregor and been obliged to fight him, that could have been fine, but this cinematic clash was all about the showdown instead of its context.
There is a moment in Cleganebowl when Sandor realizes zombie Gregor is impervious to his attacks, and he shouts, in his signature style which has made him an icon, “FUCKING DIE!” In the past, his profanities have played for laughs but are still engendered by his current mission. In this instance, it falls flat as he’s saying it because the writers thought it would be cool. He’s saying it because he’s supposed to say it, in the middle of a showdown he’s supposed to be a part of. The Sandor of past seasons had the power to choose how he was violent, but the grand, gruesome spectacle of Cleganebowl was – again, given the way it played out – forced upon him for our sake.
“I choose violence,” says Cersei late in Season 6 when she dismisses the Sparrows from the Red Keep, Gregor at her side. Two episodes later, she makes the violent choice to blow up the Sept. It was a choice, one that made sense but not one that she had to make. And she faced the consequences. Choice and consequence used to define Game of Thrones, including the choice to use violence. The violent choices made became part of their character, for better and worse. The choice mattered to the character, to the world of the story, and to viewers. As a result, the violence became about more than the bloody spectacle, and made those icky moments watchable.
It’s important that we remain aware of and critical about how we consume violent content. Ours is a violent society, and while I’m not in the “violent video games make children violent” camp, I do believe what we watch and play has real and potentially damaging effects. It matters that we talk about what goes into making a violent film/show/game that is “okay” for us to engage with. Violent content can be artful and useful, and, in Thrones, it used to challenge our notions of cruelty, heroism, and narrative. Not so in “The Bells.” Even at its “best,” it was about the spectacle and fed our collective bloodlust, and, in so doing, repurposed a character who used to have as much to teach us about violence as anyone.
Finally, I just want to say that, as much as I didn’t want Cleganebowl to happen like this (if at all), I’m glad it ended the way it did, and it is an acceptable end to one of my most favorite characters. Sandor is one of the most entertaining, most complex characters in a show full of great ones, and Rory McCann’s performance was similarly excellent in a loaded field. Whether or not he comes back in the books, I’m glad the show decided to reintroduce him.
This weekend will begin with Avengers: Endgame and end with Game of Thrones S8:E3 (unofficially titled The Battle of Winterfell, which could end up being as good as we get from showrunners who can’t name things without George’s help).
It’s going to be an epic weekend like few in past or future entertainment, and it is going to be largely defined by death. Endgame will pick up after half of all life vanished into thin air, and even if that annihilation is undone it’s likely multiple icons of the MCU will perish for real before the end. Thrones prepared the way for this battle – unlike any in film or television history – with last week’s episode of grim battle prep, an all-timer in which the characters reckoned with impending doom. We, like the characters, know that many of them are not going to make it out alive.
This weekend will be a spectacle of violence and of death. We will watch, and watch with anticipation, not in spite of the deathly peril, but because of it. We will see characters we have spent years investing in be destroyed, for good this time. The deaths this weekend will write definitive chapters in the MCU and and in Game of Thrones, but it is possible these new gravestones will signal something about our attitudes towards death and its role in popular culture.
The pairing of Endgame and Thrones is not just about coincidental release dates. They are two of the last pieces of monoculture, dominating the last decade of film and television and sure to influence the 2020s as well. Over the years, they have given us hours of violent content, but while the nature of that violence is very different, the two have steadily bent towards the other until they have reached a somewhat common ground.
Every installment of the MCU is violent, and while some of the films (Civil War, for example) have reckoned with the cost of human life, much of the violence has centered on hordes of CG aliens, nameless footsoldiers of the villains dispatched in grand bloodless fashion. Death was reserved for the unnamed in cartoonish comic book struggles, and our heroes have rarely been in any real danger. However, these films have gradually taken on more weight, the comic book violence has become war violence, and named characters have perished. Mass death is not just a rearview regret – it’s a future guarantee. Character deaths are no longer unlikely – they’re expected. There is no “next movie” guarantee for all the characters, and we know some of them will ride into the valley of death never to return. We know this will be, for some, the end. You can bring the kids, but it’s a far cry from those days when our heroes could punch each other over and over without any real risk to their safety.
Thrones has also changed how it delivers violence. Character deaths were, post Baelor, expected, but often came at an unexpected time. While many conventional battles take place off screen, much of the violence in the early seasons is within the context of medieval-style war, not a MacGuffin-chasing space opera or friendly neighborhood bank heist. Resurrection has played a role in the show, but in reality good-byes felt final, and often left no time for a send-off. However, The Battle of Winterfell involves a combination of departures from past Thrones violence. For one, instead of pitting humanity against itself, it involves the nameless hordes of the dead, which two battles have previously – one was very successful because of its shocking arrival and kinetic force, the other unsuccessful because of its general silliness. Second, there is no surprise to it – we’ve known this is coming, which has only been the case with a few other battles in the show’s history, which were all (and this is the third point) battles within a conventional military engagement. And, fourth, the situation is so perilous now that we are prepared for any character to die. There’s not really any opportunity for a shocker here. We’re prepared.
And so while the one was once defined by The Avengers invasion of nameless Chitauri soldiers and the deathless internecine conflict of Civil War, and the other made its mark with the shocking character deaths at the Red Wedding and the grisly Battle of the Bastards, both have come to the brink of a long-expected conflict against big baddies bent on shaping the world to their will commanding magical powers and hordes of nameless footsoldiers. Both have prepared us to say farewell to important characters, draining the shock value by promising an end. Both conflicts are larger than life and, to some extent, silly. That’s not the right word, but consider that the MCU’s story of the struggle to save half the life in the universe involves battling a purple thicc-boi with a glove full of glowy pebbles and a team of people with stage names. Thrones traded in the intricacies of warring states, assassinations, and trials-by-combat for a battle literally between life and death as humans face off with a guy called the Night King who has never spoken a word and has an army of zombies – including a zombie dragon. Again, silly isn’t the right word, but both conflicts are theatrical and contrived to an extent while being deadly serious and inescapably grim.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating: Endgame might still feel more like a big dumb campy superhero movie than a gritty and somber tale of mortality, and Thrones might still deliver its spectacle in a familiarly visceral fashion that will cut a bloody swathe back into the less grandiose stakes of the final three episodes. There’s no mistaking which one is PG-13 and repeatedly names characters using Blank-Man portmanteaus.
But the similarities remain and, over the last decade, these two diametrically opposed pieces of monoculture have steadily bent towards one another until they have brought us to a place where we are prepared to watch violent conflicts of grand scale which guarantee to take away beloved characters forever.
What does this mean? I don’t know for certain, but there are many things it could mean, and these things are worth considering.
Both conflicts have become good guys versus bad guys featuring the ultimate team-ups. We can read this as a longing for unity, for people to set aside differences to face what really matters. Or this might suggest something about how, in “these divisive times,” we want to eliminate half the population Thanos-style before fixing the world the way we want to. We want to set aside petty squabbles to face existential threats, but do we actually view that threat as people with whom we disagree?
The threats, stakes, and solutions have simplified. Even if the details are confusing and convoluted, it’s as straightforward as “save the world.” Perhaps we’ve grown weary of nuanced discussions, complicated threats, underlying problems, and systemic issues while longing for the days when we allowed ourselves to think things were more black and white.
Maybe this all suggests that popular culture can only ever move towards the center. It seems inevitable, in hindsight, that the MCU would have to insist on being more serious. While Thrones became a phenomenon through subversion not fit for kids or passive viewing, it has moved closer to the form and content of more popular big-budget fare. It’s possible there is a moderation which entices all popular culture, even if this middle ground sometimes ends up pleasing very few people.
We clearly still have a bloodlust in our entertainment, as high body counts in popular films and television is commonplace. But it seems we prefer less blood and gore and for the violence to involve a lot of non-humans. Yeah, okay, last season’s Loot Train was pretty violent and yeah Scarlet Witch threw Proxima Midnight into a flying paper shredder, but I sense that this weekend will be less explicit. Next month we get the third John Wick film, and that popular franchise is a good example of our violent tastes. There is a lot of killing, and a fair amount of blood, but there is something artful and not cruel about it that lets it be aesthetic rather than upsetting.
But the point that might be most unique to this particular cultural event of a weekend concerns what I brought up first: the deaths of beloved characters. What does this unique moment, in which we expectantly await farewells, say about our connection to characters, stories, and, indeed, death in the popular imagination? I’m not sure you can ask any of those questions and expect a short or simple answer, but let’s kick them around a bit. At first glance, it might appear we’ve come to certain point of maturity, where we’ve accepted that stories do come to an end, and that part of that involves saying goodbye to characters, and sometimes that goodbye is on account of death. Thrones’ threat of death has become culturally tolerable, and the safety of superhero movies has become outdated. So many of the world’s great stories, from the Iliad to Hamlet to The Silmarillion, are marked by death, and maybe now our most popular stories have embraced that and we’ve embraced them for it.
But maybe not. Maybe the particular way in which death arrives this weekend indicates that we are only ready to face death when we can do it on our own terms. And maybe we’re tricking ourselves into believing that this is what it’s like to tell mature stories of mortality.
I know some people are going to be a wreck when one or more of the iconic Avengers dies. They’ve been watching Tony Stark and Steve Rogers for years, and seeing them perish will be tough. But they’re ready for it. They’re already expecting the worst. They’ll be ready for the grief. And you can be sure that those deaths will be for something – they’ll make sense within a narrative, they’ll happen in a heroic manner, and there will be time for a final word. It will be about as easy as that sort of thing can be.
It will be tough to see the deaths of supporting characters like Jorah, and truly upsetting to see the demise of a main character like Arya, but nothing next week will compare to the moment Joffrey turned and said “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head!” or the moment the Mountain took his hands and did that to Oberyn. We’re ready this time. And, again, any of these deaths will mean something, as our heroes will die in defense of human life itself.
These will be emotional, cathartic viewing experiences, and ones that will give us a view of death from a safe distance. And, afterwards, we will talk with one another about death and dying and our reaction to it all, forgetting that we knew this was all going to happen, that we were prepared. We’ll have fooled ourselves into thinking we really reckoned with death.
This fits right into the rest of our culture and our attitudes to permanent cancellation. Our entertainment is dominated by preexisting intellectual properties which are self-sustaining content machines. There will be more Marvel movies. There will be Thrones spin-offs. We can always re-boot a franchise, or find a way to undo the canon. We can resurrect characters. We can keep characters around even after their actor dies. We can just go back and make prequels if we miss anyone that much. Yes this all describes Star Wars.
We resent things being taken away from us. Fans start petitions to save shows or bring them back, and they flip out when seemingly unwarranted deaths occur, sometimes demanding a way back for the character.
And while we recoil from the sting of death and the pain of goodbyes in our popular entertainment, we remain stricken with fear by our own mortality and our own impermanence. As much as ever, we remain obsessed with finding ways to prolong our lives, and sudden, unexpected loss of life confounds us every time. As the planet faces existential threats, many people live terrified by the prospect of irreversible environmental collapse, while many others insist that any dangers will just work themselves out. Religious, racial/ethnic, and other minorities live in fear of erasure and annihilation, while majorities rage against what they see as an erosion of their traditional way of life. Millennials, pushed to be exceptional, burn themselves out trying to make a name for themselves, to be remembered, to leave their unique mark on the world. The old, as always, face the prospect of death while watching the world pass them by. Our own reality is in keeping with what Varys told Tyrion in the first episode of this season: “Respect is how the young keep us at a distance, so we don’t remind them of an unpleasant truth…. Nothing lasts.”
And perhaps I need say nothing more of what this weekend means. We will see death at a safe distance, one that does not make us actually confront the unpleasant truth that nothing lasts. We will tell ourselves it is an unprecedented few days of character loss, but much less will truly end than we believe.
This forms a nice symmetry with the NFL Draft (also this weekend), which is all about eternally springing optimism and a savage insistence on youth and newness. So who should the Cardinals take at number one? Lol jk this just ain’t that kind of blog no more so you’ll need to move along if you’re looking for that kind of content.
Well, anyway, we’ll see if this blog holds up on the other side of the weekend. Have fun – this really is a rare moment in culture. I wish you good fortune in the wars to come. Valar Morghulis.
Forth now, and fear no darkness. But Fear the Deer.
There’s much to consider in bringing this story to a close. I consider some of those things, and offer the nuts and bolts of my own fan theory.
This post begins with a broader philosophical consideration of what would make for a satisfying conclusion. If you just want to read my proposal/prediction, skip to that heading.
Like many seemingly ordinary humans, my thoughts have been dwelling much in Westeros for a few months now, putting my mental powers towards mapping out possible conclusions for the story of Game of Thrones. Musing, fussing, plotting, hoping – it’s a fun and exciting act of fandom, even as it is stressful, too, because the weight of our last piece of monoculture, one of the great stories of our time, rests on these six episodes. It’s thrilling to see the final act, but it also matters – really matters – that the finale is satisfying, which is of course true for any story, but finishing Thrones is particularly tricky because of its simultaneous complexity and subversiveness (and because it’s in hands other than the original loremaster’s).
So, as we review plot permutations, we have to grapple with the most basic question: What are we actually measuring when we decide if the conclusion is satisfying? To what extent does each element of the text and its context factor into our individual and collective matrices?
The fates of the characters matter, but this is not as simple as who wins/loses lives/dies.
The outcomes of various wars matter, but one war might need to be more important or climactic than the others, and the resolution could be anything but tidy.
There are prophecies, fan theories, and fan service to be reckoned with, but prophecies can be tricky, confirmed theories can be a letdown, and fan service can feel cheap.
Conversations between two people in a room have to provide some of the best moments, but there’s still got to be time for some thrilling battle sequences.
Each episode and the season overall needs to be well-written and well-paced, but there’s also a ton of story that needs telling.
The ending of the show should be true to the spirit of the books as best as it can given the circumstances. That is going to be some combination of the “correct” events and the overarching themes. Where it cannot be true to the books, it has to at least remain true to its own spirit and mythos.
And, on top of everything, the show needs to do the thing that made it a phenomenon: be shocking and subversive.
Meeting all of these demands might be impossible, and so we need to ask how we prioritize these demands and what balance would be acceptable. But, given that the fanbase for this show is massive but also varied in levels of commitment and involvement in the fandom, it is at the very least impossible to come up with an ending that is satisfactory to everyone. If the showrunners try to please everyone, it is likely the result will fail to please anyone. There’s the disturbing notion that a satisfactory ending isn’t possible, but we mustn’t think like that. There have to be effective ways to manage the complexity of this assignment, but that complexity has made theorizing what might happen this season fun and somewhat frustrating – frustrating not because it is tough to predict what will happen, but because it’s tough to know what to base those predictions on. When we don’t even know if the characters will care about the throne on which the game is based by the midway point of the season, then we’ve kinda lost the original true north.
Below, I describe an outline for the show’s conclusion which would be satisfying for me based on service to the above considerations and things I value about the show. It’s a prediction of sorts, even though I would be quite surprised if this is the way things play out, and it is based on events that few people are anticipating. That’s not to say this couldn’t happen, and while I think it holds up to scrutiny, there are valid counterpoints to be leveled against it. Anticipating some of these counterpoints will form part of my description and justification of this theory.
My Interpretation of the Comet
In the words of the icon Lyanna Mormont: I think we’ve had enough small talk.
Overview: I think the show should end with Cersei Lannister on the Iron Throne. In order for this to happen, Daenerys would have to die, and I think she will, most likely in some battle involving the Night King and his forces. Stricken with grief and wanting to avoid more loss of life, Jon will not pursue the throne. Instead, he will declare the North independent, swearing to Cersei that if she invades he will use Rhaegal and Drogon to incinerate her army and then the Red Keep itself. Cersei will see the wisdom in backing off and will turn her attention to managing claims for independence made by other kingdoms. She will give birth to a son, and while Jaime is the father she will claim that it is a legitimate heir by her husband, Euron Greyjoy. She will have Euron killed soon after the wedding. With the defeat of the Night King and the arrival of winter, most of the realm will settle in to hearth and home, hoping the young Lannister boy who comes of age in Spring will be a worthy ruler.
Why This Makes Sense Big Picture: This is the right tone, isn’t it? There can’t be a happy ending, but one of the most “likely” scenarios is that the Night King is defeated and Jon and Dany marry and rule together, and that counts as a happy ending no matter how many characters die along the way, right? If either of the long-lost Targaryens reclaim their family’s throne, that is just a little too perfect. The throne isn’t going to become obsolete, because at some point the Night King will be defeated, and then someone is going to try to take power, and then more power, and then all the power, and after Jon and Dany I don’t see a likely candidate to do that besides Cersei. The Wheel doesn’t get broken in this world, and sometimes the baddies get to win. Seeing Cersei on the throne in the end would be upsetting, but it’s not the end of the world. Winter has come, and there’s not a lot that she can really do to make life miserable for anyone, or at least more miserable than winter already makes everything. This winter is going to be very, very long, and by the time it is over Cersei will be an old woman and her son will be close to ruling age. He is the Dream of Spring, the hope the realm has to build a better world after the somber song of ice and fire. And, of course, as much as it would be a bummer for Cersei to win, let’s remember that our heroes beat the Night King, which counts for quite a lot.
Why This Makes Sense for the Targaryens (and Chosen One prophecies): As I mentioned above, it’s a little too perfect if Dany and/or Jon ends up ruling. While Jon might be willing to pass on kingship, Dany is going for the throne as long as she’s alive, and if she goes for it she’s probably going to win given her military advantages. So Dany needs to die, either at the hands of the Night King’s forces or at the hands of her allies after she goes full Mad Queen (which is still on the board). Dany, as she is happy to tell you, has really been through it on her way towards the throne, but for her to then finally make it, to break the wheel and rule and do exactly what she has said she will do, just seems too simple. If Dany is out of the picture, I can’t see Jon deciding to pursue the throne, especially if it would require an invasion south. It’s more likely he would leave the North to Sansa and take the dragons somewhere spacious in the hopes they might produce more eggs. Who knows? He might even take them to Dragonstone, which would be an ideal place to keep an eye on Cersei and reestablish House Targaryen.
If the story doesn’t end with a Targaryen on the throne, it doesn’t mean that the various prophecies (Azor Ahai/Last Hero/PWWP) are all for naught. The show and the books have made sure to keep things in perspective and emphasize the threat of the Night King, and if the union of ice and fire results in the defeat of the White Walkers and the salvation of the realm, that’s a fulfillment of a chosen one prophecy even if neither chosen one ends up ruling.
Maybe Jon should die too, seeing as his character arc is headed that way, but there has to be a Targaryen left as long as dragons survive. The return of the dragons changed the world, and that change has to be cultivated. Some combination of Jon, Bran, Sam, and Tyrion could discover great things about dragons, Valyria, and the higher mysteries.
Why This Makes Sense for the Lannisters (and Maggy the Frog’s prophecy): This ending seems to run afoul of our expectations for Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion. Cersei has been marked for death for quite some time, and it seems a forgone conclusion that she will not live through this season, let alone rule at the end of it. The valonqar prophecy indicates, for many, that she will be killed by a little brother, and most seem to think (and hope) that this will be Jaime. There’s good reason to think this will happen, and there are a number of recent developments that increase the chances. It might be fitting if the fulfillment of this part of the prophecy goes this way, but I would be sad to see it because I don’t understand why it would be satisfying or cathartic to see Jaime murder Cersei (and an unborn baby he believes to be his), no matter the extent of Cersei’s villainy or their estrangement. Cersei has meant the world to him, and has been one of his only sources of happiness (not to mention he’s clearly desired to be a father to his biological children), so no matter what killing her would be a traumatic experience for him, and I can’t see my guy go through that. It’s true that Jaime as valonqar would be a fitting way for a misinterpreted prophecy to unwind, given that Cersei has reaped much ill that she has sown in response to Maggy’s prophecy, but, on the other hand, it would also be a fairly tidy way for the entire prophecy to be fulfilled, and in a story about choices and consequences, I’d rather not see one prophecy be so accurate. So, please: no Jaime as valonqar.
This also makes sense for Tyrion, and I think he might even have a vital role to play in securing Cersei’s reign. His conversation with Dany about the long term rule of Westeros and his concerns for an heir if Dany is indeed barren reveals he has an eye on the future and how to preserve whatever good Dany achieves. If Cersei has a son, a son who might receive council from wise advisers (himself, even, if he plays his hand correctly), that boy might represent the best chance at a stable monarchy, especially if the boy would go on to marry a lady from the right house. I also think it’s clear, no matter what he says, that the Lannister legacy still matters to Tyrion, especially after his private audience with Cersei in the season 7 finale (and I still think it’s interesting we didn’t get to see the end of that conversation). After everything, Tyrion would still be tempted to maintain a Lannister monarchy – after all, he is the most like Tywin of the three children.
This all assumes that Cersei is pregnant, that the pregnancy will go to term, and that Jaime is the father. I’ll just say that I think the first two are almost a certainty, otherwise the showrunners are out of touch with the world Martin created. Royal pregnancies are a big deal, so to just throw a fake one in there would be frivolous and there’s not enough time to plot out a miscarriage. They’ve made the choice to make Cersei pregnant, and that has to really, really matter in some way. This is, I think, the best way for it to matter.
I really, really hope Tyrion is not a Targaryen.
What About Euron and the Golden Company?: Like it or not, Euron and the Golden Company are here, and they have to have some part to play, and, given their proximity to Cersei, I have to reckon with that. Euron is going to play Cersei false at some point, even if he is able to earn her marriage. I think it makes sense for Cersei to go ahead with this marriage so her son can be seen as legitimate (even if she told Jaime they would tell everyone Jaime is the father), but she’s not going to let him hang around long after that. It seems likely Euron tries to pull a fast one with the Golden Company, but at some point the Mountain, Jaime, or Theon (he’s got to have some role to play, right?) is going to put an end to him. As for the Golden Company, their involvement is strange, given that now they’re here they have to earn their screentime. I foresee an epic clash between the GC and the Dothraki, given that the Dothraki are probably limited in what they can do where the snows have already fallen and would be better served fending off an invasion south of the Neck. I’m not sure when this would happen, and I don’t know that Cersei would be comfortable sending them out and leaving King’s Landing undefended, but an army like this won’t enter into the show just to be well-paid security guards. Long-term, they might operate as the Crown’s sell-swords to manage the realm post-Walkers.
Potential Show Problems: The show has always had to make decisions based on what works for TV, but even more so after moving beyond the books. It’s likely that the events of this season will be heavily influenced by what the showrunners think will please the audience. With that in mind, it’s unlikely that Cersei – the only big baddie left with any personality, is going to survive and win. Too many people have been looking forward to her demise. By the same token, too many people want to see Dany and/or Jon on the throne, and so to deny that might also be widely unpopular. There’s also a slight problem with pacing, because if the Night King is taken care of by episode 3 or 4 (and I think that’s a possibility) but Dany has fallen, that’s a long denouement that ends with an unchanged monarchy. If Dany falls after the humans have turned their attention on Cersei, then it would be a tough sell to have Jon not seek revenge on Cersei.
Potential Book Problems: I think this theory holds up well compared with the trajectory of the books, but there’s that pesky dragon-sized omission in the show named Young Griff aka Aegon Targaryen aka Fake Aegon Targaryen. It seems that Young Griff and Jon Connington are going to have a significant role to play in the books, big enough that, even if they do not appear in the show, the effect they have on the world will translate in some form (especially given the appearance of the GC and the transfer of greyscale to Jorah). I’m fascinated to find out what happens with Young Griff (you can do it George!), but for now I’m confounded as to how his impact will translate into the world of the show. If the books ended with three Targaryens coming for the throne and Cersei still winning, that would be kind of a stunner, and so it seems like the books are not trending towards Cersei winning. But, then again, Young Griff may indeed be a pretender, and Connington’s greyscale might infect their entire army, and all of that will come to nothing.
Arya, though: Okay, so there’s also the fact that some Starks might not be so happy to see Cersei rule, and it so happens that one of those Starks has sworn to murder Cersei, and that certain Stark is also one of the most dangerous assassins in the world and seems to care a lot more about personal matters over politics. So…yeah. If Arya has anything to say about it, Cersei is not going to make it to the end. Can’t say I have a particularly good counter for this, unless Arya doesn’t make it out of the Battle of Winterfell, but I’m almost certain she survives. So…look no theory is perfect.
Conclusion: Let’s see how this theory measure up to the various criteria I mentioned in the intro:
The fates of the characters matter, but this is not as simple as who wins/loses lives/dies. I explained why this makes sense for the main parties involved, and while it would be a bummer for Dany to die, for Cersei to live, and for Jon to be even more sad, it’s fitting.
The outcomes of various wars matter, but one war might need to be more important or climactic than the others, and the resolution could be anything but tidy. I don’t think there is room for two wars this season. The big armed conflict should be versus the Night King, and then maybe there’s one battle involving the GC before attention turns to sorting things out after the apocalypse has been avoided. This would also strike a decent balance of emphasizing the importance of the war against the Night King with the continuing importance of the throne.
There are prophecies, fan theories, and fan service to be reckoned with, but prophecies can be tricky, confirmed theories can be a letdown, and fan service can feel cheap. I’ve reckoned with the prophecies and some major fan theories. This ending would certainly not be cheap fan service.
Conversations between two people in a room have to provide some of the best moments, but there’s still got to be time for some thrilling battle sequences. Yeah there will be a big battle at Winterfell, but I think what happens after that as our characters struggle to shape the new world could be even more compelling.
Each episode and the season overall needs to be well-written and well-paced, but there’s also a ton of story that needs telling. I think this theory would allow time to tie up loose ends because it won’t take on too much – if this season tries to cover a battle against the Night King and a full scale invasion south, then I don’t see how it can account for all the story that’s left to tell.
The ending of the show should be true to the spirit of the books as best as it can given the circumstances. That is going to be some combination of the “correct” events and the overarching themes. Where it cannot be true to the books, it has to at least remain true to its own spirit and mythos. I’ll combine this one with the next one…
And, on top of everything, the show needs to do the thing that made it a phenomenon: be shocking and subversive. Dany’s death would be shocking, and could be one of the defining moments of the series along with whatever happens in the Winterfell crypts (I cannot wait for this) and whatever we finally learn about Bran and the Night King. For all the death in this story, Arya, Sansa, Bran, Jon, Tyrion, and Dany are all still here. One of them has to go, right? Well, okay, maybe not necessarily, but it is a little odd that Ned remains the most important POV character to die (and stay dead).
But this conclusion is not just about the shock value; it’s about subverting our fantasy tropes and storytelling expectations. Some versions of this tale end with Jon reclaiming his birthright, born again as the Prince Who Was Promised, the good king the realm needs. Others end with Dany returning from exile and doing the same, bringing magic back into the world and smashing the oppressive cycles of Westerosi government. Some versions end with both of those things happening. That’s a great story – really, it is – but besides being a little too convenient, it fails to see the big picture. Jon would be a great king, but Westeros has had great kings before, and eventually those great kings give way to bad kings. Dany might break the wheel and change the way the land is ruled, but things like that have happened, too. No matter what, people with power will fight for more power and will abuse those without it. The rule of either one of these heroes is not a lasting salvation. Life will go on, and lords, ladies, and smallfolk alike will have to hope that whoever sits the throne will be good, even if they are born of a monster.
Think about what Dany has said about her quest to rule: “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel,” and “I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms, and I will.” Or, consider what Jon says to Dany about her prospects: “The people who follow you know that you made something impossible happen. Maybe that helps them believe that you can make other impossible things happen. Build a different world from the shit one they’ve always known. “
Does any of that sound like the moral of the story? Does that strike the right tone? I prefer the words of Davos and Beric to Jon:
Jon: I did what I thought was right, and I got murdered for it. And now I’m back. Why?
Davos: I don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know. What does it matter? You go on. You fight as long as you can. You clean up as much of the shit as you can.
Jon: I don’t know how to do that. I thought I did, but, I failed.
Davos: That’s good. Now go fail again.
Beric: Death is the enemy. The first enemy, and the last.
Jon: But we all die.
Beric: The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him.
Defeating the Night King is a worthy accomplishment for two chosen ones like Jon and Dany. It’s an act of heroism that will preserve life itself in Westeros, and thus it is an exploit that will outlive them. Whatever they would do as rulers would eventually fade into history books while other, lesser rulers undid their works. But that’s the way it goes – and that’s okay. Not only is it okay, it’s part of the magic of the story. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is violent and cruel, but the beauty in the story can be found in characters doing what they think is good and right because that’s all they can do, not because they think a resurrected warrior or a dragon-riding revolutionary will save the day.
I still believe what I wrote long ago, that this is, in some ways, still Ned Stark’s story. We are where we are because Ned brought home his dying sister’s son, claiming it as his own bastard. He didn’t do it because he believed Jon was the Prince Who Was Promised, or that the boy would grow up to become a ruler who would change the world. He did it because he loved his sister, and because if he didn’t the boy would die, and he did it knowing it would be a mark on his spotless honor. As it turns out, that boy would go on to do extraordinary things, but he couldn’t have known that. He was just doing what he thought was right.
“What is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?” asks Stannis, regarding Gendry. To which Davos replies, “Everything.”
This story ends with A Dream of Spring, but it is only that – a dream. That dream exists amid feasts for crows and storms of swords and clashes of kings, and yes, even dances of dragons, and while the realm can hope for something better, the song of ice and fire remains – and will remain – a tune in harmony with the winds of winter as the game of thrones goes on.