(The phrase “Spoiler Alert” has permeated the media so frequently in the last few weeks that it’s probably unnecessary to repeat it. But I’m providing that alert anyway to anyone who hasn’t yet seen the final season of Game of Thrones, and who doesn’t want the ending spoiled.)
As futile – and maybe dangerous – as it may be to enter into the raging battle over the conclusion of Game of Thrones, I’ve become combat weary over the barrage of criticism hurled at the creators of one of the greatest television series ever made. So I feel compelled to weigh in.
The power of great stories is that they remind us who we are, and reveal to us what it means to be human. They can show us parts of ourselves we’ve forgotten, or denied, or never experienced first hand.
In most of the stories I love most, these revelations inspire us, and show us our potential for courage and love and fulfillment. They say, “You, too, can be a hero! Like the hero of the story that enthralls and entertains you, you can transform, stand up for the truth of who you are, do what is right, and connect with the rest of humanity.”
But some great stories choose instead to hold a mirror to the darker sides of our humanity. They remind us of the potential we all carry to be blinded by our wounds and our pain and our anger and our desires.
This, to me, is what Game of Thrones has always done. For the entire series, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, in adapting and then departing from George R. R. Martin’s epic novels, have brilliantly explored the ways that an unchecked desire for power and control and revenge can fracture our relationships and destroy our humanity.
I confess that I, like so many others, was distraught at the end of this season’s Episode 5, “The Bells.” How could Dany – the beautiful, sympathetic, courageous, and sometimes wise character I had loved and rooted for and admired for eight amazing seasons – turn into this vengeful, genocidal instrument of wanton slaughter and mass destruction?
This wasn’t what I wanted at all! I wanted Daenarys, the powerless, abused and enslaved girl who was introduced in the very first episode, to complete her arc and become the strong, loving, forgiving and just leader she was meant to be. I expected her to keep her promise to liberate the people of Kings Landing from their tyrannical queen, not to level their city and burn them alive.
So when Episode 5 ended, I called my brother Jim – a much more devoted and knowledgeable fan than I am – to commiserate. He understood my pain and disappointment, but he pointed out that Wiess and Benioff had been leading us to this moment from that very first episode. Beneath whatever love or compassion or humanity Daenarys might have shown, she was always a Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons and the Breaker of Chains. And in the end, Dany was unable to let go of this identity.
As she gathered her army of warriors and slaves, crucified their oppressors, burned her enemies alive and executed those who wouldn’t bend the knee to her, Khaleesi repeatedly justified her actions by claiming she had to remain the fearsome queen who would rule the Seven Kingdoms and lead her followers to victory and freedom.
So in “The Iron Throne,” the series’ much-maligned final episode, Dany’s story becomes a tragedy. Her inability to let go of her identity as the heir to the Iron Throne leads to her destruction.
Overwhelmed by her sense of abandonment and betrayal, both by her enemies and by everyone she has trusted or loved, she feels threatened and angry and afraid. As she says to Jon, “I don’t have love here. I only have fear.” And so the dragon awakens.
Because she now feels only fear, she protects herself and her identity by ruling with fear. Her essence – the potential she has to be the just and moral leader we want her to be – has succumbed to the threat of losing her destiny.
And like every tragic hero, she’s unable to overcome her fear and do what is right, or loving or fulfilling. In that horrible moment atop Drogon, when she unleashes all her destructive rage, her protective identity wins the battle for her soul. She’s condemned to the loss of her essence – and in this case, her life.
After Daenarys and her armies obliterate all of Kings Landing – the helpless and innocent along with her enemies – she stands before her followers as their queen. When she vows to lead them on a march to liberate “all the people of the world,” Tyrion and Jon see with certainty the leader she has become.
This is where the impact of Game of Thrones’ theme – its lesson to us all – is most powerful.
How often in our history have we whooped and hollered and pounded our spears in the ground, cheering for some leader who has played on our fears and promised us a life of power and glory and safety and superiority?
How many times have we followed these chosen ones on crusades of hatred and destruction, all in the name of bringing freedom and resurrection to our flag, or our God, or to all of mankind?
Again and again, under the spell of these White Walkers, we become wights ourselves, marching aimlessly and mindlessly toward the destruction of all that is good, always in danger of turning the world into the Dark Night.
This is why Tyrion’s climactic speech to the surviving leaders of the Seven Kingdoms is so powerful, and the outcome of the series so right. He pleads for a new order, where instead of might or genealogy or raw ambition, leaders are chosen based on history and reason and the needs of the people they serve.
Tyrion has always been my favorite character, serving as our eyes and ears as he makes his way through the pain and the folly, and sometimes the love and majesty, of this fantastic world we have entered.
Out of his hard won wisdom, he nominates Bran to be their king because Bran is humanity’s memory. Instead of leading the Seven Kingdoms to some promised land of power and perfection, he will help them remember their triumphs and their losses, and in Tyrion’s words, “…the mistakes we made.”
The wise imp knows that only by facing, and learning from, our fears, our weaknesses and our humanity, can we make the world a better place. Our attachments to the false identities we present to the world to suppress our fears – these are the chains that must be broken.
At the end of the series, the Iron Throne and all that it represents is destroyed, and at least the possibility of a less harsh, more just world is born….
Westeros will be ruled by a king with no heirs, and no ambition….
Sansa, who has gone from a naïve girl, to a horribly victimized woman, is now a free and independent leader of her own kingdom….
Yara will be the first woman ever to rule the Iron Islands….
Brienne, though grieving the love she found and then lost, is now a knight….
Arya, whose mission has long been to kill all who wronged her and her family, is now off to see what lies beyond the world she’s always known.
And then there is Jon Snow, the leader who never wanted a throne, who has been banished to Castle Black. He, too, is a tragic figure for whom duty was indeed the end of love.
Had Jon found the courage to simply love Dany, and stand by her, and keep the secret she begged him to, regardless of family honor and the laws of the land, perhaps she might have found her own courage and become the leader we wanted her to be.
But because he remained in his identity too long, and realized the consequences of his actions too late, his only option was to find the courage to kill his queen. And now he is exiled back to the Wall.
Along with his direwolf Ghost (also an unwanted member of his litter who was born when his own mother died), and in the same location where Game of Thrones began 70 episodes earlier, we last see Jon joining the freefolk as they head into the North to find a new home, and a new future.
If Dany’s death and Jon’s loss make Game of Thrones a tragedy, then like the best tragedies it doesn’t just give us a lesson for avoiding our own downfall. It also leaves us with a sense of hope. If we can remember and learn from our mistakes, and somehow find the courage to embrace our humanity and live our truth, then the world can be a better place.
I understand the pain that so many feel because the saga did not end with the happier, or more romantic, or more uplifting resolution they might have hoped for or expected. But even in the face of all that disappointment and anger, my question is this….
Game of Thrones gave us an unequaled television experience that captivated and enlightened millions of viewers around the world. With an epic story, and a multitude of rich, complex characters, it stirred deep emotions, and generated conversations and analyses and arguments that brought together all of us who loved it. So instead of now berating its creators, shouldn’t we simply be saying, “Thank You?”
– Maester Hauge
P.S. By the way, now that you’ve read all my thoughts and opinions about Game of Thrones, your comments and criticism are truly welcome….
And thanks, Jim, for all your insights and understanding of our favorite show.