May 13 2019

The Ending of Game of Thrones

<Warning – spoilers galore if you are not up to date>

I always knew, deep down, that Game of Thrones (GOT) would not have a happy ending. Once Ned Stark got his head cut off at the end of the first book/season, I think everyone knew this was a different kind of fantasy story. I read the books first, and as I did it became clear that I was reading a tragedy and a horror story, not heroic fantasy.

I have a few thoughts I would like to share as the last episode of the series is ready to air. The people I watch the show with had a range of reactions to the second-to-last episode, but I think it was completely consistent with the story George R.R. Martin has been telling us all along. He has been deconstructing the medieval fairy tale right in front of our eyes, hitting us over the head with the reality that we already know. It’s interesting how difficult it can be for many to just accept that.

The final delusion was that Martin would bring it all back home. In the end the heroes would defeat evil, a good person would sit on the throne, and a golden age would dawn – it’s the Lord of the Rings ending. But come on – didn’t we all know this story was not LOTR?

First, the Night King, the White Walkers, and their army of the dead was always a side show, even if it was the most captivating. Most of the series has focused on the title action – a game of thrones. I liken the Night King to a natural disaster – it’s looming in the background, some are warning of it, but mostly people ignore it while they focus on their short term politics. In the end we are really not prepared when the disaster finally arrives. The living actually straight-up lose the battle of Winterfell. (Don’t get me started on the terrible battle tactics: opening with a frontal cavalry charge, putting your troops outside your own choke point, and not opening with a sustained artillery bombardment, etc. – but that’s a side point.)

I think the lesson there is that death comes for all of us, and the best we can really do when we confront it is to either say, “not today,” or to face it bravely. Somehow life manages to keep crawling forward.  It’s like the Plague, in the end it’s a distraction from what we are really interested in, our political battles.

Getting back to the eponymous main story, Martin has, through his characters, pretty much told us directly how this world works. It is brutal and heartless. Power is all that matters – power through wealth, ruthless cunning, personal prowess, and force of arms. If you think about every character arc in the story, the more brutal and selfish they are, the more they succeed. The more kind, honorable, and trusting they are, the more the world chews them up and destroys them.

Take almost any character – Tyrion used to be much more cynical, and earned a reputation for being cunning and ruthless when he had to be (as Daenerys recently noted). As he has become more and more concerned with the populace, with being a good person, the more hapless he has become. All this has earned him was a string of failures. Arya succeeded because she became a deadly assassin. Sansa went from a naive girl to a savvy politician.

There are some good people in the world (Davos, Brienne) but they are generally at the mercy of those in power. They have no personal ambitions, really, and try to stay in the background serving others.

You survive in a brutal world by being brutal. The world hardens your heart, or it kills you. The other thing you do to survive is to cling to those around you, your family, your people. Don’t trust outsiders. The point is made many times. The North doesn’t trust southerners. Jamie says all the horrible things he did he did for his family, with no regrets, and he’d do it again. In the end he had a choice between the honorable Brienne and family, and he chose his sister. Even Tyrion chose to save his remaining family in the end. The Starks reestablished their power and defeated their foes by staying loyal to each other. Theon realized in the end the Starks were his real family, and his tragic failure was in betraying that.

So how does one win the game of thrones? I think Martin is trying to say that you don’t. The game itself is broken. At best you can have temporary success, if you are able to climb on top of enough other people, but your success is never stable. In order to maintain power you need to perpetuate the brutality and inherent injustice of the system.

The Targaryens were able to unite and rule Westeros because they had dragons – the ultimate military power in this world (as we just saw again in the latest episode). When the dragons died out, their downfall was inevitable. Daenerys can only reestablish Targaryen rule by bringing back the dragons. The Lannisters were a powerful house because of their gold mines. When they dried up, their days were numbered.

What is interesting is that as viewers of this show, from our 21st century Western vantage point, we know this world is broken. The answer is not to put a relatively benign brutal dictator on the throne. Daenerys said it herself – her goal is not to win a turn of the wheel, but to break the wheel. Unfortunately, she did not do that. She just gave it history’s most brutal turn. She convinced herself that to save future generations, she had to burn this one to the ground.

There are only the faintest glimmers of a real solution in the world. The Brothers without Banners are onto something by disavowing all feudal ties. Sandor Clegane (the Hound) recognizes that all knights and nobles are “[email protected]#nts”, and wants no part of it. We come to respect this initially villainous character because he gives us a rare glimpse of someone who realizes the world is broken. He doesn’t have a solution, however, just personal vengeance and more cynicism.

Varys is genuinely concerned for the people, but his solution is to support the best brutal dictator. Even Jon Snow, perhaps the best of them, condones capital punishment for minors, leads thousands of his soldiers to their death because someone pissed him off, and is OK supporting a queen who immolates those who don’t bend the knee to her. To him honor is being the one to personally swing the sword when you order someone’s death for, say, abandoning their post.

There isn’t a single truly virtuous ruler by modern standards in this story. Just shades of gray.

What Westeros needs is a revolution. They need a philosophy of enlightenment, a Magna Carta, something that truly breaks the wheel of totalitarian rule. They need to replace the rule of men with the rule of law. That is their only hope. This is why the rule of law is so precious – a fitting lesson for this time, and perhaps any time.

The totalitarian rule of people has no happy fairy tale ending. Deep down we all know that. We all saw this coming. Martin told us directly countless times in the telling of this story. But still, we want the fairy tale. We want the good guys to win in the end. But Martin is making a strong point – in this system, one ruled by the game of thrones, there are no good guys. There are relatively more or less brutal people, and the more brutal people tend to succeed over time.

This story was always a tragedy.


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