Television

Game of Thrones’ Ending Betrayed the Show’s Lofty Ambitions

Technocracy comes to Westeros.

Bran wears all black near the harbor of King's Landing.
King Bran.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Game of Thrones ended on what was meant to be a happy-enough note Sunday night, with Tyrion Lannister convincing a council of Westeros’ ruling interests to install Bran Stark on the throne—presumably a different chair than the one Drogon dissolved into a pile of molten spaghetti atop the remains of the Red Keep. (Good luck peeling that metal muck off the floor.) Bran’s anointment was undoubtedly intended as political progress. It was proposed by Tyrion, whose love of history—not to mention a difficult childhood under an iron-fisted father—ostensibly gave him rare insight into leadership and strategy. Given the awful game of chance that primogeniture inevitably becomes, the supposed wisdom of a small crowd might well have its advantages over the hazards of genetics. Bran also has going for him—at least according to Tyrion—an inability to reproduce, and thus no drive to expend resources establishing a Stark dynasty in King’s Landing. Tyrion was the first to admit that Bran’s crowning wouldn’t make anyone “very happy.” But that’s an understatement: Audiences are right to feel disappointed by this absolute letdown of a denouement, which felt shoehorned in and ultimately betrayed the show’s thematic ambitions.

Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have known since 2013, the year Season 3 aired, who would end up ruling the Seven Six Kingdoms. But it sure doesn’t feel like it. Bran has gone on quests and gained the powers of greensight and warging, but he feels less like a character now than he did when he was a none-too-hardy boy who loved to climb trees. His sojourns north tended to stall episodes during the show’s middle seasons, with the emotionally affecting moments of his scenes—like Hodor’s origin story, or the discovery of Jon Snow’s true parentage—carried by other characters. Particularly in Season 8, Bran is so defined by absence—of empathy, of connection, of humanity—that he’s arguably most embraced by the fandom as a source of memes mocking his uselessness. (It doesn’t help that Isaac Hempstead Wright, the actor who plays Bran, doesn’t do very much with the little he’s given.) It would’ve been fascinating to learn how Bran makes sense of his life’s course and what he thinks of human struggles great and small now that his omniscience has divorced him from the rest of humankind. It also would have helped viewers to know what exactly his powers were. Instead he stares and waits, until it’s time for a bloodless, know-it-all smirk.

It’s frustrating enough that we don’t really know how Bran feels about being king, other than “meh, I guess.” (He previously turned down being the warden of the North because he was too busy being the Three-Eyed Raven, but being king will give him plenty of time to time travel or whatever the hell that entails?) But the show’s assertion that Bran’s otherworldly asceticism makes him the best possible ruler becomes downright infuriating when we consider its implications. Recall that one of Bran’s very first scenes found him accompanying his father, Ned, to an execution, at which the Stark patriarch taught his sons about the responsibility of power: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” The following 70-odd hours have been driven in part by the question of what makes for a good and just ruler—a thematic concern that helped drive Jon’s dagger into Dany and found Sansa shooting down the self-nomination of her failson Uncle Edmure.

No wonder Bran makes for such a uniquely unsatisfying answer: The past few monarchs—Dany, Cersei, and Joffrey among them—deserved to be dethroned because they cared more about personal or family glory than about their people. Bran may not care how he’ll go down in the history books, but he also seems supremely indifferent to both specific individuals and the masses at large. He didn’t bother to mourn the people who gave their lives to save his (Theon, Hodor, Osha, Jojen). And he presumably knew that the Battle of Winterfell and Dany’s rampage through King’s Landing were coming and said nothing. Bran may be counted on to not be actively bad, but his que será, será passivity—exhibited by his rapid departure from the small council once he ascends—hardly makes him a worthy ruler. (Dany was disqualified for killing most of King’s Landing. But is failing to warn anyone that she’ll massacre thousands any better?) As for the suggestion that what Westeros needs is a coolly “objective,” “rational” man in charge, with no life experience and no emotional entanglements in any direction, looking at the rest of humanity like so many ants? Woof. And considering what we know about the clannish nature of Westerosi society, why would the rank and file rally behind a king whose family members are now technically foreigners?

Then there’s the utter absurdity of demanding a similar kind of monkish sacrifice from Westeros’ successive rulers. (How would future Brans govern Westeros just as dispassionately—voluntary medieval lobotomy?) Game of Thrones’ most stout-hearted characters sit on the king-appointment council now, but it’s easy enough to imagine that, within a generation, they’ll revert to the status quo where the power-hungry rule. The possibilities are rife that the council members who chose Bran will never be seen in King’s Landing again, to be replaced by lords and ladies who’d engage in violent conflicts to create puppet regimes. So much for an evolution.

Defenders of Game of Thrones’ series finale, including Slate’s Dan Kois, would argue that Bran’s kingship proves it doesn’t matter who’s on the throne—it’s the bureaucrats under him who do all the work anyway. But there’s a reason why the series didn’t end with King Edmure. We know governance is complicated, and the show’s depiction of those complications is one of the reasons why it initially felt so refreshingly relatable, especially for a medieval fantasy drama. But the finale’s argument that an abdication of responsibility is the best we can hope for in a leader—and the accompanying belief that competent, well-intentioned technocrats are the ones who can truly improve society—feels lazy and false. It’s not much of a happy ending to go from placing our faith in kings and queens to trusting the judgment of unseen and unaccountable committee meetings.