Television

Game of Thrones Was an Epic Tale of Incremental Change

Eight years, a billion dollars, and several dragons to go from one kind of monarchy to another.

Meet the new bosses.
Meet the new bosses.
Helen Sloan/HBO

The oddest aspect of the long-awaited, much derided, but actually pretty good finale of Game of Thrones is that it tries to sell an aristocratic coup as a glorious revolution. Convincing Grey Worm, leader of the Unsullied and a former slave, that ending hereditary monarchy will break “the wheel” of Westeros may be Tyrion’s greatest rhetorical gambit. It takes real chutzpah to tell a heavily armed man who wants to murder you that you’ve actually figured out how to fulfill the mandate of his beloved queen, whose assassination you planned. But convincing the show’s audience to see this as a happy ending is an even bigger task. (Grey Worm, at least, appears to know that this is a pack of lies and takes his scowl, his army, and his record of war crimes to the Isle of Naath.)

The history of Westeros is one of weak governing institutions buttressed by the overwhelming military force of dragons. When those dragons vanish from the world, the Targaryen dynasty’s days on the throne are numbered. But their successor Robert Baratheon, a valiant warrior and incompetent king, has no interest in building institutions that could further strengthen society and lend him legitimacy, and so years of bloody civil war persist. When those wars finally end, a new order must be cobbled together, but that new order cannot be allowed to threaten the status of its powerful stakeholders too much. Solving this problem is Tyrion’s greatest stroke of genius.

In its finale, Game of Thrones gives us the aristocratic view of the ungovernable continent. The new government must use myth-making to bolster its legitimacy, and it must rebuild existing, familiar institutions. Too much change accomplished too rapidly, at the cost of those the new government needs buy-in from the most, would inevitably lead to further instability and violence. So we get a Small Council that must have its Master of Whispers even though the king is an omniscient demigod, and the continued existence of the Night’s Watch, which no longer protects the realms of men but exists only as a make-work alternative to the death penalty. The only institution truly destroyed over the course of Game of Thrones is the faith of the Seven, which is also the only institution that tried in any way to improve the lot of the common people. The Sept of Baelor lies in ruins, there is no church hierarchy to sit on any of the councils, and the new king is the Three-Eyed Raven, a greenseer belonging to a time before the establishment of Westerosi culture, religion, and society.

Maintaining the stability of Westeros means feudalism—as much the wheel of Westeros as slavery was of Astapoor—must not only be preserved, but strengthened. The assembled lords and ladies who anoint Bran the Broken laugh at the idea of commoners having a say in their destinies as being akin to asking your dog what it wants for breakfast. The reform they dream up instead is an elective monarchy. As readers of Macbeth can tell you, elective monarchy poses other challenges in the area of long-term stability at the top, but it does give the major feudal lords more of a stake in preserving the current hierarchy. It also functions as a mechanism for bestowing legitimacy on the new monarch. Absent divine right or hereditary claims, it may be the only one they have left. But they also do not dream up any checks on the king’s power. Only the threat of assassination keeps a ruler from becoming a tyrant in Westeros going forward.

In the beginning, both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice And Fire are about feudal politics and dynastic intrigue, about the interplay between large institutions, traditions, and individual choices. Martin probably inherited some of this triangulation from Shakespeare, who in turn probably inherited it from Plutarch, whose Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans brilliantly situates each of its subjects in a wider social context. As the novels progressed, Martin could never quite cast off this triangle. Instead, he kept inventing new societies, more complex institutions, more arcane traditions, and denser layers of intrigue, stalling out in the process. The show, on the other hand, came to focus more on individual characters and their psychology. This was a smart choice; the weaker a society is, the more the character and psychology of its leaders matter. But it would have been fascinating to have more than a few minutes to see how the resurrection of old traditions and institutions affects the people we’ve come to know and love.

It would also have been useful to dramatize the effects of the series’ events on the people we haven’t seen much of at all: the peasants of Westeros. In A Song of Ice and Fire—the real-world books, not the Tyrionless in-series tome—there’s always been a productive tension between the story’s pacifist and anti-aristocratic politics and its setting in a civil war among the nobility. Even though the common folk of Westeros aren’t the focus in the novels, George R.R. Martin keeps finding ways to shift our focus to them. The second book gives us a disguised Arya so we can see the people of Westeros at the beginning of war, and the fourth finds Brienne walking through the country for hundreds of pages so we can see what has happened to the peasantry as the war progresses (hint: nothing good). Meanwhile, the Night’s Watch as an institution transcends class—everyone from a garden-variety murderer to a Targaryen is part of it—which is one reason why Jon Snow winds up caring about the basic humanity of the wildlings, even if he pays for that care with his life.

The television adaptation doesn’t have room for much of this. Shakespeare, who faced similar challenges in his history plays, often wrote what the critic Tony Tanner calls “window scenes”: seeming throwaways where we see the struggles at the top of the great chain of being affecting the ways the commoners talk, think, and behave. At first it seemed possible that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss would take this route when they invented Ros the wonder-prostitute. Sadly, rather than function as a way into seeing the exploitation of the poor, Ros became a vehicle for sexposition, the show’s most loathed storytelling technique.

We’ve been left to imagine for some time what the peasants of Westeros might be thinking about everything that’s happened. The answer is probably, well, not much. Even Varys and Tyrion acknowledge it in this season’s fourth episode. If you were a farmer in the Reach, there’s not that much difference between the early years of King Joffrey’s reign and the status quo under King Bran. Back then Tyrion, as hand of an absentee king, was the de facto ruler of Westeros and checked only by his relatives, who loathed him. Now Tyrion is hand of an absentee king and the de facto ruler of Westeros, checked instead by a group of dear friends.

True, we’ve exchanged the Tyrells for Bronn, but given how many layers of society separate the average Westerosi Joe from him, the effects are likely minimal. There’s a thematically rich opposition here. The powerful have acted in their own self-interest and used propaganda to do it, yet the alternative was unceasing carnage right as the continent tips into a yearslong winter. But it’s not clear the show knows it has ended in such a complex place. Instead, Bronn’s obvious unfitness for the job of Master of the Coin is rendered as The Office–esque cringe comedy, and we see the Small Council solving the growing starvation crisis with a wave of its hand in about two minutes. The wheel may be unbroken, but for Game of Thrones, if your noblesse is obliging enough, it works.