Why 'Game of Thrones' denied us a fairytale ending
In elementary schools, they teach the first rule of storytelling: “show, don’t tell.” If you’re a 10-year old child, and you’re writing a story about a prisoner named Jon, you’re old enough to depict the fate of Jon being negotiated in real time by his friends and foes. You’ll get a failing grade if, instead, you summarize your narrative by having a complex off-stage trial explained to Jon in two minutes by his friend. (Let’s call him Tyrion.) Show us events – don’t just tell us they happened.
"Game of Thrones" showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss broke this most basic of storytelling rule over and over again in Sunday's finale. It was as if, having decided where each character would end up, they charted the path of least resistance from each narrative point to the next. The quickest route from A to B.
For plot purposes, Jon had to kill Daenerys: so, one conversation with an imprisoned Tyrion later and the next thing we knew Jon was in the King’s Landing throne room drawing his dagger. (An empty throne room to which Daenerys had conveniently retired without the tight bodyguard surrounding her earlier.) Westeros needed a new king by the end of the episode, so one blink and a council of leading nobles had gathered in the Dragonpit. (No word on how they all got there, or what authority any of them have left over the political constituencies of their war-ravaged homelands. Who invites Edmure Tully to Great Councils nowadays? Has anyone in the Stormlands even heard of Gendry Baratheon’s claim to be their ruler?) Then the turgid exposition between Tyrion and Jon. Eight years of storytelling reduced to plot narration as executive summary.
There’ll be many feminist and progressive arguments written about why "Game of Thrones’" finale sticks in the craw. I’m sure I’ll agree with many of them – having written previously on those issues. (Greyworm as a generic "angry black man?" Brienne burnishing the legacy of the man who shagged, dumped and demeaned her? Not cool.)
But the social politics aren't really the problem. With the careful, slow-burn character development that marked the earlier seasons of Game of Thrones, Benioff and Wise could have made us accept any outcome. As Nick Cohen writes in London’s The Observer, the writers can explain the clues laid to their plot as intelligently as they like, but the outcome of a literary narrative “is not right or wrong but true or false, and if a story feels false to a large enough section of the audience, the artistic project collapses.”
Bran might be the “correct” king to rule Westeros, but does anyone believe in him as a character?
Perhaps Benioff and Weiss do know better than the rest of us how their adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s novels should end. Given the ripped-from-Star-Wars-debate between Jon and a black-tunicked Daenerys -- “join me, and we shall rule the Westeros Galaxy together!” -- I suspect they believe they’ve written a great defense of liberalism against populist dictators. Certainly our times demand such a liberal defense. But ultimately, writers can’t unilaterally tell us the logical outcome of their narratives, or the political conclusions we should have drawn. They can only show us, scene by subtle scene, so that we get there for ourselves. That is where Benioff and Weiss lost their touch.
Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature.
In a largely botched final season, "Game of Thrones" showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss may have salvaged their legacy by doing one thing right -- pushing one message that an American audience desperately needs to hear. That message? Don’t ever trust politicians who promise “humanitarian intervention.”
To recap: in this season we saw the transformation of Daenerys Targaryen, once the show’s slave-freeing, tyrant-defying hero, into a power-hungry monster -- most vividly, in the penultimate episode, when her dragon burns an entire city of innocent people alive, well after her enemy’s forces have already surrendered.
"Game of Thrones" has long offered a welcome critique of war, but the series finale took it one step further. Early in the episode, Daenerys addresses her army amid the carnage of the now-exterminated city, promising that the war is not over -- not until she has “liberated” all of the world.
For fighting horrific, unjustified and criminal wars in the name of so-called humanitarian intervention is as American as apple pie. But despite the long history of innocents dying purportedly in the name of expanding American freedom, our country continues to fall for politicians who promise justice while killing civilians with drones that would make a dragon blush.
And so "Game of Thrones" concludes its run with a message that we as a nation shouldn’t have to hear again, but desperately need to: never trust those who promise freedom through war.
When a politician promotes an attack by claiming to be a liberator -- a “breaker of chains,” if you will -- it serves as moral cover for the terrible atrocities to follow. We can't save people by bombing them.
Soon after her call to arms, Daenerys is killed by her own lover, Jon Snow, who recognizes that war fought in the name of freedom can be some of the most horrific of all. Americans would do well to understand that, too -- now more than ever.
Aaron Freedman is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @freedaaron.
There are, more or less, three ways to become a ruler:
- You kill all the other rulers.
- You’re the child of the previous ruler.
- People choose you to be their ruler.
Arguably, 5,000 years of recorded history has been spent examining the pros and cons of each system. “Game of Thrones” gets through them all in eight seasons.
Robert Baratheon won the Iron Throne in the traditional, war-mongering way. Joffrey Baratheon and Tomen Baratheon were born to it. Cersei Lannister murdered her way to power. Daenerys Targaryen was born to it, but was denied, then she was chosen but denied ultimate popular support, so she burned the populace.
Finally Bran Stark was chosen, not directly by the people but by an “electoral college” of sorts. I guess “Bran Stark Knows What You Did Last Summer,” makes a pretty good bumper sticker.
Putting aside our preferences for individual people, is there any system that we actually like? Is there any system that we feel will consistently produce the “right” rulers?
Of course not. They’re all terribly flawed. “Game of Thrones 2” is probably about a con-man who gets rich “redeveloping” King’s Landing and grifts his way into succeeding Bran the Broken despite losing the popular King’s Moot.
No matter the system, those who “deserve” to rule rarely end up ruling. No matter our preferred form of government, we’re always within random chance of Euron Greyjoy being in charge.
The writers of “Game of Thrones” were no better at coming up with a sustainable way to pick leaders than Plato or Machiavelli or Thomas Jefferson.
There is no foolproof solution to this problem. No system consistently promotes the best people to leadership. Usually we’re led just as “Game of Thrones” tells us we are, by whoever happens to survive long enough.
Elie Mystal is the executive editor of Above the Law and a contributor at the Nation.
On some level, anybody who expected a typical fantasy ending for “Game of Thrones” was both misguided -- and not paying close attention for seven and 5/6th seasons. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, not to mention original creator George R.R. Martin, repeatedly asserted that the show is a series focused on subverting expectations -- not fulfilling hopes.
And hope for a fairytale finale was erased as soon as the episode began: The iconic, almost excessively-on-the-nose fascist imagery in the scene where Daenerys Targaryen addressed her victorious troops and announced her intent to “liberate” the world with fire and iron and mass murder made it clear that the Mad Queen theories were always correct -- and that she was doomed to die, likely at the hands of a Stark. (The Lucifer-like superposition of Drogon’s wings behind Dany’s ethereal form on her arrival was a nice visual touch, I’ll admit.)
Her actual killing by Jon Snow, her onetime lover and the rightful heir, was nearly anticlimactic as a result -- in part since it wasn’t the “climax” of the episode.
That’s because the remainder of the episode was spent exploring a rarely-seen in epic fantasy reality that must occur in the aftermath of a king-slaying -- that is to say, deciding who has the best, or least dangerous, claim to the crown (not to “the throne,” since the Iron Throne had already been dragon-flamed into a puddle of hot magma).
That the hastily assembled council would pick Bran Stark (with his sister Sansa demanding an independent queendom for herself) is not what any of us wanted, but more or less what we deserved, for daring to dream of a “Jonaerys” pair ruling with grace and wisdom over a peaceful realm.
And even those of us who hoped for a Westerosi Republic to emerge from the ashes had our hopes squelched, when Samwell Tarly’s proposal for, um, elections was stingily dismissed.
In the end, we are reminded that reality is not a fable, that no one truly lives happily ever after and that the end of a tale is just the beginning of many others. And while a million fans are stewing in rage, a silver lining does exist for some: A couple dozen bottom-dwelling Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination are feverishly pulling together “Just Call Me Bran” memes as we speak.
Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications and the co-host of the podcast "They Call Us Bruce." He co-wrote Jackie Chan's best-selling autobiography, "I Am Jackie Chan," and is the editor of three graphic novels: "Secret Identities," "Shattered" and the forthcoming "New Frontiers."
For a show that spent eight seasons concerned with the ways that power corrupts, the ending of “Game of Thrones” removed its major players from the seat of Westeros’s government and took some steps toward distributing authority across more people. The tension between love of family and serving the greater good, a preoccupation of the show since its first episode, influenced the story to the end. Almost all of the ruling Houses have been destroyed, and the Stark siblings have gone their separate ways.
The show didn’t exactly “break the wheel,” and many will find the ending unsatisfying (Bran? Really??), but parts of it struck the bittersweet tone George R. R. Martin claimed to be aiming for.
Fans will spend the next few days processing their feelings over who lived and died, and what systems will govern Westeros going forward. But these processing sessions will peter out over the next week or so until talk of the show settles into a quiet hum, almost imperceptible to all but the show’s most devoted followers.
We’re saying goodbye to some of our favorite characters and theories, just as audiences of any epic narrative would. But “Game of Thrones” stands as a unique form of 21st century media – in an era of streaming and DVR, it fostered a watercooler community. Fans must now mourn not only the end of the show, but also the end of the Monday morning therapy sessions, the vigorous debates regarding the narrative’s many prophesies, and the passionate analysis of the show’s connections to real-world politics. For the past six Sundays, watch parties across the world have brought communities of friends and strangers together; next Sunday, we all must find something else to fill out time (thank god for “Killing Eve”).
The conclusion of long-running stories parallels the end of a romantic relationship; both emotional journeys involve a sense of loss, a need to revisit the most painful and sublime moments, and a commitment to keeping alive the memory of what you shared. Fans will re-watch the series and introduce newcomers to the show’s compelling combination of magic and harsh political realities. And HBO seems poised to help alleviate withdrawal by proceeding with spin-offs.
But for now, our watch has ended.
Lindsey Mantoan is an assistant professor of theatre at Linfield College. She is the co-editor with Sara Brady of "Vying for the Iron Throne: Essays on Power, Gender, Death, and Performance in HBO's Game of Thrones" and the author of "War as Performance: Conflict in Iraq and Political Theatricality."
The “Game” is over. And I was right -- sort of.
You may remember that a couple weeks back, a few of us at CNN.com were asked to handicap what amounted to a “Race for the Iron Throne” and the right to rule over the seven kingdoms of Westeros.
Except, as of Sunday night, there are now six kingdoms to rule by a single king -- yes, king -- and there’s no longer an Iron Throne to race for.
All will be explained, but let’s end the suspense.
Bran Stark is king. Yup. The same hapless kid who at the very start of all this mess looked in on an illicit act between Cersei Lannister and her brother Jaime, who pushed Bran out of a tower in the belief that the little busybody would be silenced forever -- the first of what would be a grand cavalcade of mistakes in judgment on this show by somebody whose last name was Lannister.
I called Bran the “darkest of dark horses” when compared with such candidates as, well, Cersei, who had connived, murdered and betrayed her way to the Iron Throne. Or Daenerys Targaryen, the mother of dragons, who in last week’s episode went from being the breaker of chains to ravager of innocents. Or Jon Snow, once the noble outlier and presumptive “bastard” son of the martyred Ned Stark, ruler of the North, who it turned out had the most rightful claim to the throne by birth. Or one of Ned’s daughters -- either Anya, slayer of the Night King and family ninja, or Sansa, who forged by brutal travail and tragically bad relationships, became a formidable successor to her dead dad.
Jon didn’t want to be king, and I figured Bran…how did I put it? Ah: “Bran’s comfortable enough in an alternate world. Why would he want to rule this one?”
Well I was wrong, even though I was right. Apparently, Bran’s okay with it -- and so, it seems, is everybody else in Westeros, even though there’s no longer an Iron Throne to sit on because Drogon, the last of Dany’s three dragons, melted it to a puddle of molten lava after Jon, in a move even more shocking than Bran’s ascension, assassinated his aunt and lover Daenerys.
Dragon’s logic being something like: if she can’t sit there, nobody can, so buh-bye, and don’t call me unless I call you.
In the meantime, Bran, being the consensus choice of all seven kingdoms – six, actually, with Sansa insisting that her northern realm retain its independence from Westeros – appears to have been one of the few ideas of Tyrion Lannister’s that’s working out.
It could be tentative. Even he admits he’s made more errors than a major league infield with stone hands and multiple hangovers. But Bran contends: Tyrion made the mess; he should be condemned to clean it up. Just the sort of thing a wise ruler would say.
You know what? I’ll just claim this from here on: I called it. Bran wins. The story ends, if not happily ever after, at least somewhat wiser, sadder -- and, let’s just say it, better than expected.
As Tyrion himself put it, few things are ultimately more powerful than a good story.
Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @GeneSeymour.
Rachel Barnes of Lost Creek, WV writes:
Many people especially feminists have complained about the show using rape as a way to make the female characters stronger. As a feminist and domestic violence survivor myself, I have grown stronger and more at ease watching their storylines with my own past.
The show has shown me that being hurt doesn't end a person. I will miss that, but having watched the show, it shows me scars make us strong.
Jack Connolly of Coal Township, PA writes:
"A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge."--Tyrion Lannister.
To George R.R. Martin and Peter Dinklage: Every English teacher in America thanks you for that memorable line.
Tyrion, easily the most intelligent character on television today, has made reading cool. I even have a poster with that line and Peter's face tacked up in my classroom. Thank you for helping me do my job.
Jon Snow of Killeen, TX writes:
I have mixed feelings about the end of GOT. My name is Jon Snow and I have grown tired of people saying, "You Know Nothing, Jon Snow" when they meet me for the first time.
On the other hand, I have developed a few lasting friendships because of the name connection.
Jaaziel Pickel of Harrison, AR writes:
I still remember the advertisements for the first season. I am a extreme fan of Tolkien and Sean Bean so I talked my boyfriend into letting me watch it as his house as a date night since I did not have HBO and he did.
We were both single parents at the time with four kids between us so having something we could watch and just chill became our Sunday night date.
I ended up buying the books because I am one to rather read. 9 years later we are still together and will be celebrating 8 years of marriage in October. We look forward to the new seasons, and always make it our time, sending the kids to bed early.
We went through a separation during season 6 and both of us watched 2 or 3 episodes without each other, only realizing we couldn't continue. I'm proud to say we were able to come back together and get caught back up.
It has been a great show from day one. I enjoy watching them over and over, and now for this final season we have opened up our living room to some friends for "watch parties." Due to scheduling conflicts between my husband's job and my own, we now have to avoid our other GoT fan friends on Facebook because we don't get to do our watching until Wednesdays.
This is a show I am awaiting to find out who will sit on the Throne at last -- if anyone -- and I will be sad to see it end.