Television

Game of Thrones’ Finale Tried to Sell a Messiah in Secular Terms

It anointed Bran a chosen one while pretending religion had nothing to do with it.

Bran Stark.
Bran the Broken.
HBO

At the end of Game of Thrones, the question of who would rule wasn’t determined by who had the most powerful army or the strongest claim to the throne. It came down to whom Tyrion could persuade the assembled authorities of Westeros to put their collective strength behind. We were told early on that in the pursuit of power, there were only two options: You win, or you die. The series finale, “The Iron Throne,” introduced a third possibility: You sell.

Tyrion’s speech to the remaining heads of the Seven Kingdoms—including those, like Dorne and the Vale, that comfortably sat out the battles against both the Night King and Cersei Lannister—was part closing argument, part Don Draper pitch, and it also served, by dint of being the longest uninterrupted passage in the finale’s last act, as a summing up for the entire series. Game of Thrones presented itself as, among other things, a study in the nature of political power, how nations are governed and alliances made, and how human frailty and desire ultimately undo them all. Kings and queens had taken the throne by force and through treachery, ruled through fear and led by example, but Tyrion proposed a new paradigm: What if the new ruler was just someone everyone agreed to follow? (Well, not everyone: Samwell Tarly proposed an abrupt transition from hereditary monarchy to direct democracy and was all but laughed off the stage. Baby steps.)

But how to get all the oligarchs on the same page? Violence didn’t work, and neither did Jon Snow’s kingly charisma. What’s left? Take it away, Tyrion:

What unites people. Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful 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: wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs, our defeats, our past. Who better to lead us into the future?

Tyrion means it as a rhetorical question, but I wasn’t the only Game of Thrones viewer with a host of potential answers. What about Bran’s sister, Sansa, who weathered an ordeal every bit as dark as Bran’s and emerged as a just and conscientious ruler with an apparently uncommon gift for considering her subjects as human beings? What about Arya, who like Bran risked death to acquire mystical knowledge and whose ability to steal the faces of her enemies could be a power as decisive as any dragon’s? (She also killed the Night King, saving humanity from eternal winter and probable extinction, but she doesn’t seem inclined to brag about it.) What about Jon Snow? What’s a better story than “the secret offspring of a Targaryen and a Stark, who sacrificed the love of his life in order to protect the realm”?

There is an element of Bran’s story that elevates him above his siblings, but it’s one that’s present in Game of Thrones’ denouement only by implication: faith. Religion plays a major role in George R.R. Martin’s books—or rather, religions, which in Westeros range from the quasi-Christian Faith of the Seven to the animistic worship of the Old Gods. These aren’t just theoretical systems of belief: They get results, from Arya’s face-swapping powers to Melisandre’s ability to conjure murderous shadow monsters and bring people back from the dead. The series remains agnostic about whether, say, the Lord of Light actually exists, but it’s clear that there is more to this world than reason or science can explain—and Bran is living proof.

Bran wasn’t the only Stark with a mystical connection: In Season 1, his brother Rickon shared his vision of their dead father before the news had traveled north, and in the books it’s implied that a connection to the ancient ways runs in the Starks’ blood. But none of them is the Three-Eyed Raven, a near-omniscient being from whom none of Westeros’ secrets are hidden.
He can not only see the past but change it, albeit in limited ways, and while his visions of the future haven’t been of much practical use—thanks for the heads up about the massacre at King’s Landing, Brandon!—there’s no telling how his powers might develop now that he’s not spending his time schlepping around Westeros and dodging white walkers.

In Tyrion’s summary, Bran’s story is inspiring and unifying because he “learned to fly,” as if he’s an athlete coming back from a potential career-ending injury. But Bran didn’t become the Three-Eyed Raven through hard work and perseverance. He was called, summoned beyond the Wall by the previous Three-Eyed Raven, who Bran found in a cave beneath a weirwood tree, his ancient body fused to its roots. That Three-Eyed Raven was killed by the Night King, but Bran took up not only the mantle but his identity, forfeiting his former humanity in the process. It’s not entirely clear what he is, or believes he is, now, but in his own words, he’s “not that person anymore.” He is, if not more than human, at least other than, something between a man and a god.

It’s this part of Bran’s story that makes him exceptional, not the way he bounced back from tragedy and soldiered determinedly on. He’s a literal chosen one, part Dalai Lama, part Doctor Manhattan. If you accept that idea, then what mattered in the Battle of Winterfell wasn’t that tens of thousands died or even that the tide of undead was stopped from washing across Westeros. What mattered was that Arya stayed the Night King’s hand just before he killed Bran. The show traded one form of preordained monarchy—Jon Stark deserves the throne because of who his parents were—for another.

But the true audience for Tyrion’s speech isn’t the dignitaries seated around him. It’s the millions seated at home. And as a story aimed at a global viewership and produced in a country that at least nominally believes in the separation of church and state, Game of Thrones can’t end by endorsing the idea that what makes Bran fit to be king is that God, or the gods, will it to be so. And so it put forth its finest rhetorician to sell determinism in the guise of choice. Tyrion’s pitch replaces the will of God with the imperatives of the three-act structure: Bran becomes king because, in essence, he sounds like the kind of person who ought to be king. It’s an ending only a writer could love.