***Spoilers for the final episode of Game of Thrones below***
Judging from responses in my social network, Game of Thrones’ series finale Sunday night was a serious disappointment. It reflects a general sense that the showrunners abandoned the sociological and narrative richness of earlier seasons in their rush to bring in the sprawling fantasy epic for a landing in the final two seasons. Too many deus ex machinas, too many unresolved plot points, too many abrupt shifts in tone. It became too focused on the drama of individual characters and, perhaps most damningly, gave viewers too much hope.
I want to argue, however, that final episode contains a politics that’s more subtle than these comments suggest and consistent with the show’s mixture of fantasy and realism as a whole. I want to make this point through an examination of the finale’s scene in the Dragon Pit.
One complaint raised against this scene, for example, was its recourse to the power of stories — a trope Hollywood writers unsurprisingly like, the complaint might go, and that the election of Bran as king felt contrived and forced. At a crucial moment, an assembled group of nobles must decide who the new monarch should be. During their deliberations, Tyrion Lannister gives a monologue on the power of stories to unite people, and submits that crippled Bran Stark has the best claim to the throne because of his remarkable personal story and connection to the stories of everyone in Westeros. Bran Stark, become a character known as the Three-Eyed Raven, has the magical ability to travel into the past and experience historical events, which makes him a physical totem for the abstract idea of narrative itself. “Bran the Broken” is unanimously elected king by the assembled group.
Power’s relationship to stories, however, is a subject entirely familiar to Game of Thrones. Rather than a self-serving move of convenience, this moment confirms the analysis of power Varys offered to Tyrion back in Season 2:
Power resides in opinion according to this view, which means power is not an intrinsic property. Someone has power because others judge him to have power — a feature of power that political theorists at least as far back as Hobbes have noted. For example, Tyrion suggests that it is not up to either his captors or the nobles to decide his fate. Instead, it’s up to the king or queen of the Realm. Of course, Westeros has no monarch at that moment. But why should it be up to a king or queen? The physical representation of the Realm — the Iron Throne — became a puddle of molten slag earlier in the episode, and yet the idea of the Realm remains so fixed that the need for a new king is accepted without question. Giving votes to ordinary people, however, is so absurd to be out of the question. Why? Because opinion will not tolerate it.
Appealing to the idea of the Realm and the need for a new monarch, moreover, clearly resolves the impasse that faces the council. Tyrion’s captors —Unsullied soldiers still loyal to Daenerys as represented by Grey Worm — want justice. The nobles are internally divided over Tyrion and Jon Snow’s fates — the Starks wants Jon released unconditionally, while the Greyjoys cannot forgive his regicide. The Realm as an idea has authority, which makes the decision of its representative authoritative. Delegating the decision to a monarch means each house can judge it has not made unreasonable concessions. As Tyrion later observes in the episode, a decision where no one is particularly happy is a sign of a good compromise.
Tyrion’s next suggestion for how to resolve the impasse is another brilliant moment of strategy. “We don’t have a king!” “You’re the most powerful people in Westeros — choose one!” This takes his audience completely by surprise — a rhetorical strategy Tyrion has employed great success in Season 1 in his trial in the Eyrie and capture by the hill tribes. It is also acceptable to his captors, since Tyrion convinces the Grey Worm that hereditary monarchy is “the wheel your queen wanted to break.” It is rational in light of Tyrion’s admittedly abortive effort in Season 7 to start a dialogue with Daenerys regarding alternative modes of succession. It is also rational from a self-interested perspective as an example of the cunning of trust (the idea that recognizing someone as trustworthy can be a reason for them to trust you).
This gambit pays off because, perhaps for the first time in the show’s entire run no one actually wants the throne. Perhaps Tyrion sensed this reluctance, perhaps not, but regardless the mood in the meeting is one of exhaustion. Our surviving characters have seen enough bloody conflict for the Iron Throne that, at least for the moment, no one has an appetite for rule and its liabilities. Or, in Sansa Stark’s case, they have seen enough evil and incompetence to cut off Edmure Tully’s pompous remarks before matters become too embarrassing.
It’s thus entirely fitting that “Bran the Broken” is the solution to the nobles’ problem of coordinating on a single ruler. Bran provokes no invidious comparisons. He is sufficiently naïve and cryptic that no one suspects him of a political agenda. He represents history but not historical judgment. Moreover, Bran asserts none of these qualities. Power resides where men believe it resides, and we see Tyrion inventing the character of “Bran the Broken” in the act of narrating his story. If anyone knows the power of an epithet, it’s Tyrion, the Imp. Bran’s first act — naming Tyrion his hand — gets Tyrion out of prison one last time. Is this a sentence or freedom? Again, it’s sufficiently ambiguous that no one can complain. Grey Worm can tell himself that Tyrion will spend the rest of his life fixing his mistakes (“A Lannister always pays his debts,” he might tell himself), while Tyrion is sufficiently exhausted with rule that he won’t be whistling “The Rains of Castamere” on his way out of the arena.
People who complain of Tyrion’s consistent incompetence throughout Seasons 7 and 8 thus miss his tremendous performance in the series finale. Bran’s ascension to the monarchy, moreover, is not so much a deus ex machina as entirely befitting the general weariness and exhaustion that the characters seem to feel. Perhaps its only a matter of time before someone kills Bran and usurps the throne — it’s not as though he has a well-organized coalition behind him. He symbolically leaves the Small Council meeting to search for a dragon, which suggests a level of absenteeism. The petty bickering that ensues after he departs will certainly give way to weightier conflicts. Game of Thrones did not end with unwarranted optimism but an intermission before a new round in the game begins. We genuinely don’t know whether our characters and their successors will commit the same mistakes or learn from them.
In one of my favorite moments from Season 2, Varys and Tyrion survey the preparations for Stannis Baratheon’s arrival at King’s Landing:
“If Stannis breaches the gates, the game is over.” I like to think this is the fundamental lesson of politics from Game of Thrones, and of the series finale. Cersei Lannister famously tells Ned Stark that in the game of thrones, you win or you die — there is no middle ground. But what if there was another way? What if the point of the game is not to win, but to keep the game going?
The series finale gives us no assurances, and it shouldn’t. Exhaustion is not necessarily learning. When Jon asks Tyrion whether their regicide was right, Tyrion responds, “Ask me again in ten years.” This befits someone chastened and humbled by experience. We do not know whether our efforts to make the world better will succeed, nor can we say for certain they will fail. Taking this uncertainty seriously leads neither to optimism nor pessimism. Perhaps it leads to the conclusion that actors have no control over history, and the only proper response to this absurdity is to laugh.
One of the criticisms I’ve seen of the final season of Game of Thrones is that the series has become more psychological rather than sociological. It turned from the subject of how macro-level changes shape the opportunities and constraints of individual actors to the internal, psychological processes by which actors make difficult choices. I don’t accept this distinction, since individuals do obviously have agency (Daenerys made a choice to burn Kings Landing to the ground) and a central question if you recognize the importance of social structure is how, if at all, this recognition should affect our decisions. The view of history as a “song of ice and fire” in which our individual actions are not even remembered (recalling again Varys’ comment to Tyrion after the Battle of the Blackwater) invites fatalism. Characters respond differently to this challenge in the final episode. Tyrion’s situation is similar to his despair after his escape from Kings Landing, but he ultimately stays in the game. Sansa does as well, while other characters like Jon and Arya choose to leave it.
It would be a mistake to say the finale took the easy way out or cheated viewers. On the contrary, it gave us plenty to think about and honored some of the most central themes of the series.