Game of Thrones Has No One to Blame but Itself

Peter Dinklage’s character in handcuffs.
Peter Dinklage in the finale of Game of Thrones. Macall B. Polay/HBO

Game of Thrones, which ended Sunday night, turned out to be the type of show that torches a large city and melts the Iron Throne but keeps intact the chairs of the small council. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The series that smashed some fantasy tropes—and over the years tortured viewers with the believable horror of evil schemers repeatedly beating the good guys—ended up on a note that’s meant to be surprisingly hopeful. By halfway through the finale, Daenerys’ brief tyrannical rule is broken. She dies, stabbed mid-embrace by Jon Snow in a simulacrum of the prophesied death many imagined Cersei Lannister would receive at her brother-lover Jaime’s hands. An unhappy Drogon turns the Iron Throne into a puddle, Jon and Tyrion Lannister are prisoners of the Unsullied, and the shredded remnants of the Seven Kingdoms gather to negotiate with an angry Grey Worm. This last bit proves to be unexpectedly easy: Grey Worm ends up taking orders from the very prisoner he told to shut up. Democracy is proposed and laughed at, and an oligarchy is settled upon. The verdict is King Bran, and the show concludes much as it started: with Tyrion arranging chairs and observing where people sit as they prepare to compete for the king’s favor. For all that the show favored spectacles of destruction, particularly in its last three seasons—and for all that we’re meant to believe that King Bran represents a change—the show destroyed its symbols but not much else.

For most of its run, Game of Thrones seemed to be operating on two levels. One reveled in human baseness and workaday chicanery, but the other was both magical and metaphorical—it included prophecy and the House of Black and White and resurrection, the Red Woman and shadow-babies and the Night King. As ur-villains go, especially ones representing cosmic threats to a merely human order, the last ended up being pretty disappointing. He wasn’t divine or ecological. He wasn’t even the climatological “winter” of “winter is coming,” and all the themes we projected upon him, the spirographic mirror he seemed to be holding up to humankind’s banal politicking, went nowhere. Bran should have been more interesting, since he resided at the point of intersection between these two axes: He belonged to a noble family, was the victim of ugly court intrigue, and had pre-ordained beef with the Night King that had evidently been building for thousands of years. That the long-awaited meeting of these adversaries resulted in nothing—not a single word exchanged—was excused by some die-hard fans. Bran had said, in a different scene, that the Night King’s animosity toward him stemmed from a desire to destroy memory. That wasn’t too satisfying, especially since Bran’s powers clearly transcended passive data storage, but OK. Maybe, rather, Bran’s magical function would become clear once the show’s other seers were gone? Maybe, some folks thought, he’d tell Tyrion what Daenerys would do? Or spy on Cersei with one of his ravens and figure out her strategy? Or warg into a dragon and kill Daenerys? Or do something useful?

Instead of otherworldly impact, we’re supposed to think Bran will be a good king here on land. If, indeed, love is the death of duty and that those who want to rule are unfit to, then Bran the Blank has success in the bag. The trouble, as is so often the case with this show, is that the Starks who claim to have become monkish “no ones” by sacrificing earthly desire in pursuit of a higher aim seem to somehow end up both acquiring superpowers and retaining their humanity. (Jon Snow is pretty much the same dude in Life No. 2 as he was in No. 1; Arya drank from the Many-Faced God fountain and lived—despite not having truly given up her sense of self.) Bran has told us many times that he is no longer “Bran,” and yet responds to his regal nomination by saying, “Why do you think I came all this way?” A generous interpretation would be that Bran is narrating destiny more than confessing that he wants the crown, but … haven’t we just been taught that rulers who believe they’re destined to rule become monstrous? For viewers who are still thinking through philosophical questions like what makes a good leader, this seems like a bad omen. Bran does eventually say he doesn’t want it—but while also pretending that giving Tyrion a cushy Cabinet job (which Tyrion clearly enjoys) is a punishment. For his part, Tyrion’s main qualification for being hand of the king is that he’s finally learned that he shouldn’t give advice. By the show’s logic, this means … he is the best person to give it.

If these readings seem slightly conspiratorial, that’s because the show’s reliance on plot twists has long encouraged suspicion of what we see on screen. It hid the fact that Sansa and Arya were plotting against Littlefinger, in order to stoke the fear they were turning on each other. It “hinted” at Daenerys’ madness by showing her doing awful but somewhat justified things—and evidently expected viewers to recognize her awfulness despite the warm reception she got in Essos, and without drawing similar conclusions for other beloved murderers, like Arya.

And so now, when the show applies simplistic idealism to the problem of who should rule, it’s hard not to turn the show’s own cynicism against it. Tyrion’s case for Bran hinges mostly on his “brokenness.” Yet Bran, not unlike Daenerys, is a character with rare and worrying powers: He can see the past and some of the future, take possession of people and animals, and spy on literally anyone. He doesn’t need a master of whispers. Like Daenerys, Bran’s physical appearance makes him extremely easy to underestimate—as indeed Tyrion (who has experienced this himself) seems prepared to do. At least Bran is innocent, you might argue, but this too is wrong: One of the greatest tragedies on this show was Hodor’s death staving off the undead—and now we know Bran sacrificed Hodor so that he could survive to become king! Bran not only warged into the gentle giant, he also traveled in time to ruin Hodor’s life years earlier. Did Bran know then that he would become king? And what does this say about his not wanting it?

None of this matters, though. I don’t think the series had any intention of planting those seeds of doubt. Game of Thrones used to invite readers into its philosophical conundrums, but it grew stingy over the years and maybe a tad tyrannical: The finale is telling you what the right answers are, whether you believe them or not. According to the show, King Bran is a decent, even proto-democratic outcome—and a way for the Seven Kingdoms to rise up out of the ashes. If we’re in a generous mood, and feeling warmly toward that heartbreaking Drogon scene or Jon’s reunion with Ghost, we can politely agree that it is.

I started to note the developing gap between what Game of Thrones said it was showing us and what viewers themselves saw on screen around Season 4. It started with Jaime and Cersei’s scene by Joffrey’s body, which fans saw as a rape and which the episode’s director insisted was “consensual by the end.” This mismatch between what viewers saw and what showrunners and directors said they were showing us only got worse as the show went on. By the end, as Phil Maciak argues at the Los Angeles Review of Books, those “inside the episode” featurettes became odd little power displays wherein Benioff and Weiss contradicted what they’ve told us in their own show (like Daenerys “forgetting” about the Iron Fleet despite being reminded of it in a previous scene). And because they get the last word, set in what Maciak calls a “documentary frame,” we are supposed to believe their words over our own responses.

There’s a lot of power in deciding what the story is. It’s fitting, then, that the only lasting lesson Game of Thrones offered, in the end, was about storytelling itself—and that the moral viewers derive is at odds with the lesson the show intended. When you use spectacle and sentiment as Band-Aids for story and character development, complicated histories get distorted. The art of persuasion gives way to autocratic assertion, and indeed, we see a number of would-be historians in the finale. Tyrion offers an unconvincing speech in praise of stories that’s clearly an in-universe defense of the show. Sam offers a book called A Song of Ice and Fire so incomplete that it hilariously leaves Tyrion out altogether. Bran is apparently still operating as humanity’s “memory”—whatever that really entails—while reigning as king. The finale’s most useful lesson about how history is built, and what it excludes, might be Brienne’s struggle to complete Jaime’s entry in the Book of Brothers. I enjoyed that long moment when Brienne paused to think about how to narrate Jaime’s final regression in part because her struggle was ours, too. She nails it in five words: “He died protecting his Queen.” Yes, this leaves out a great deal (Brienne is a historian willing to write herself out of it). But she has an excuse: She’s writing something more like a medieval chronicle than a history, and chronological lists of events don’t have to connect one to the other. Causality doesn’t have to be explained. No theory of politics need be attempted. Character hardly needs plumbing. Annals and chronicles have typically been seen as less analytical than “histories,” which more explicitly (and narratively) attempted to connect causes to effects. That’s an oversimplification, but it might be a helpful one. I think most of us mistook Game of Thrones for a “history,” especially in its early days. It seemed to have serious analytical drive and inspired a vast interpretive framework aimed at parsing its experiments with genre, fiction, and political thinking. It might be better, now that all is said and done, to understand the show as a chronicle. As a story, Game of Thrones was a mess. But as a catalog of things that happened in a certain order—first one incident, and then another, and then another—it was, if not satisfying, spectacular.