Every story is a political construction, and war stories are certainly no exception. It makes sense then, in Game of Thrones, that after the biggest battle ends, there would be a second, quieter battle over how the battle would be remembered and who its heroes would be. As Tyrion said in Sunday’s episode—in one of several moments in “The Last of the Starks” when he seems to be delivering metacommentary straight from showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—“We may have defeated them, but we still have us to contend with.”
If politics decides winners, then the winner of last week’s climactic confrontation was Jon Snow. Yes, Tormund proposed a toast to the dragon queen, but it was also Tormund who later made clear that Jon was the real star, joshing with and embracing Jon in a closed circle of masculine bonhomie. As ol’ Aegon Targaryen was being feted for his heroics, I found myself raising a tall Americano to him in general agreement: He’s a great guy! It only occurred to me later that I was a little fuzzy on what Jon had actually achieved in the most recent fight, where we had last seen him trapped by a wounded zombie dragon.
But maybe that’s the point: We’re seeing how the way things get packaged conflicts with what we actually saw happen. According to the former, Jon is a winner. Per the latter, he didn’t really have a plan and wasn’t much help. But the story is going to get told a certain way regardless, and “The Last of the Starks” was a fascinating lesson in how Westerosi official histories come about.
No character could see much of what happened on that battlefield. That’s what those impossibly dark scenes were supposed to communicate. The stories that filtered out about the battle are partly spin, and Daenerys understands, better than most, how legends start and circulate. (That’s why she tries to keep Jon quiet about his parentage.) She has always understood power as theater and theater as power. She grasps, too, that no one in Winterfell is spinning events in her favor. No one seems to know, for instance, that Dany saved Jon from the resurrected dead—almost losing her dragon in the process. Jon might have shared that as he was being roundly celebrated, but he didn’t. The result is that even the stuff people did see is getting weirdly repackaged: Jon was mostly ineffective in the final battle but still receives the bulk of huzzahs.
This is what Varys means when he says, “People are drawn to him.” Popularity attracts fans more than achievements ever can and brings a spin machine with it: Anything the electable person does becomes further proof of his electability.
That’s what Varys and Tyrion’s conversations underline: Within the show’s universe, even according to two characters who philosophically disagree, Jon is the better prospect. And it’s his lack of ambition, specifically, that shows his fitness. “Have you considered the best ruler might be one who doesn’t want to rule?” Varys asks. Tyrion has, and so have we all, because this is a commonplace notion that can be found in everything from Shakespeare to the works of Douglas Adams. But what we’ve long wondered is whether Game of Thrones’ creators also consider Jon’s reluctance to lead to be a virtue in a world that punished Ned Stark for exactly that. We now have confirmation that yes, they do. Finally getting a point of view on this stuff is fantastically useful.
Plus, it’s fun! If Tyrion and Varys are spin doctors for whatever Benioff and Weiss want you to think this show is about in its waning days, they at least make charming mouthpieces. It’s almost as if they hope to temper audience frustration by pretending to share it. Tyrion says, “Maybe Cersei will win and kill us all”—a character offering a fan theory about his own demise and the show’s outcome! Varys points out that the universe (which has been criticized for becoming oddly small) is bigger than its named characters and in fact includes “millions of people, many of whom will die if the wrong person sits on that throne. We don’t know their names, but they’re just as real as you and I.” (A fictional character saying this is wonderful; he might as well turn and wink at HBO viewers.)
But in terms of plot mechanics, the show joins Tormund as Jon’s hype man. It finally used most of its significant speakers to come out and say what has long been implied: Jon would be a better ruler than Dany. Sansa says it. Arya implies it. Varys basically discusses the 25th Amendment with Tyrion, who, despite doubling down on his support of her, fears Daenerys and clearly believes some concern is warranted. Everyone agrees on the basics, though: The lords would support Jon over Dany because he has a penis, the North would support Jon over Dany because he’s a Stark, and the people (who Varys equates with “the realm”) would support Jon over Dany because he’s “tempered and measured,” a “war hero,” and more humane.
That’s the verdict. Some might take issue with it. They might note, for instance, that Jon’s war heroism deserves an asterisk: His survival in fight after fight (screaming at a dragon, foolishly racing into the field to rescue Rickon) has been less about merit or ability than by often miraculous interventions that result in his being spared or resurrected. He’s being credited with prowess when he hasn’t been the architect of his own survival. And the best proof that there’s a sneaky double standard here is that, during the reveling after dinner in Winterfell, as the chums gather around Jon, what he is most lauded for is riding a dragon. Daenerys, stricken and awkward at the party, having lost her loyal guardian and most of her men, becomes the latest victim of a form of “hepeating,” the phenomenon in which men repeat women’s points at meetings to acclaim. The direction of this moment in the episode is smart. It makes the unfairness of this visible: “I saw him riding that thing,” Tormund happily roars. “That’s why we all agreed to follow him. That’s the kind of man he is!” The camera cuts straight to Daenerys, who not only rode “that thing” but hatched and raised it and strafed thousands of wights and took on the Night King. Tormund praises Jon for being little but strong, for befriending his enemies, for a display of immortality. These are all qualities Daenerys shares, but the story isn’t drifting that way. “What kind of person climbs on a fucking dragon? A madman or a king!” Tormund turns briefly to Dany here, but his focus—and everyone’s—is Jon.
Specialness is conferred, not earned. Jon and Dany are the two characters on this show who are clearly chosen or special. In Jon’s case, others tell his story for him. Dany has had to tell her own. The uncharitable result is that her achievements are construed as passive and magical, while his are coded as merit-based.
Dany can’t win. I say that as someone who doesn’t even particularly want her to and fully acknowledges her past cruelty. (I’d vote for Brienne, not that anyone’s asking.) But Dany has had to build her case because no one was going to recognize her humility. That’s not how it works (and the fact that no one knows she saved Jon on the battlefield is proof of that, if any were needed). She had to choreograph the spectacle of her own power because she’s a woman and no one would do it for her. Jon’s (sometimes literal!) unconsciousness codes him as innocent and honest by comparison: He’s appealing because he never intended to elevate himself. He’s been mostly reactivity and desperation. The fact that Daenerys deliberately produced the effects she did—and used them to persuade and inspire people to follow her—is cited now as proof of a hunger for power that’s disqualifying. Other people can believe in you, but you shouldn’t believe in yourself.
Nor will Dany’s stagecraft save her this time, not in the grip of writers who are not on her side (and say, for example, that she just “forgot” about the Iron Fleet to which she’d already lost thousands of men). This episode taught Daenerys something important about how Westerosi audiences will receive not just her support but her story. Missandei suggests that the people of King’s Landing will be grateful for what Daenerys has done to save them. Daenerys understands perfectly well that this is not true, and not just because Cersei won’t let them. Unlike the Dothraki and the Unsullied in Essos, this new audience isn’t inclined to be grateful to her. Northerners may be slow to trust, but even after she took heavy losses to help them in the most important fight in millennia, they’re still not with her. They’re instead turning Jon into the hero they need him to be. Why would the folks of King’s Landing, who never even saw the threat, be grateful?
Still, the show hasn’t turned completely on Daenerys. Yes, she’s impulsive and incompetent and deeply flawed, but we’ve been told she’ll be OK if she listens to advisers. She has. She’s still taking Tyrion’s astonishingly poor counsel—which her every instinct has told her to reject, and which has yet to be proven right. The result has been disastrous. The one big favor the show has done Daenerys is demonstrate that she has every reason in the world to be angry.
But I don’t see any way for the show to get behind her as queen. We’re at that fragile point in the story when Game of Thrones has decided it has no choice, given all the show’s logical inconsistencies and its pronounced problems on race and gender, but to be overt about who it thinks the better and worse leaders are, and why. In their capacity as stand-ins for the showrunners in the philosophical discussions they think they’re staging, Varys and Tyrion make clear that Jon and Dany ruling together is no solution (sorry, you light-incest shippers!). She’s too strong for him, they say, so now we are supposed to take that as gospel. (His “weakness” is not visible as a concern.) Maybe Benioff and Weiss feel like they’ve been backed into a corner and are resorting to excuse-making, in which case I sympathize, a little. After all, the cheapest escape is a white everyman whose mistakes, failures, and excellent intentions inspire everyone else to push him up to the very top.