Game of Thrones has ended. There will be no more episodes. It would have been impossible for the writers to wrap up every single plot thread in Season 8, especially because this past season had fewer episodes (6 instead of usual 10). The final episode, “The Iron Throne,” did manage to provide a sense of closure for most of the character arcs and had some incredible visual moments. However, in its rush to the end, the final episode lost sight of some of the political commentary and themes that made Game of Thrones so compelling in the first place. The raison d’être for this story is question “what makes for a good king?” The finale barely engaged with that question, which is a missed opportunity.
*** SPOILERS for Season 8 of Game of Thrones BELOW ***
George R.R. Martin is famously ambivalent toward J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He’s talked about Tolkien’s work with admiration, but he at the same time he’s expressed frustration with Tolkien’s depiction of political leadership. As he told Rolling Stone in 2014:
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?
Thus, A Song of Ice and Fire was born. Martin’s whole intellectual project is an exploration of political leadership in a fantasy setting. His books go into extensive – sometimes excruciating – detail about the finer points of governance in Westeros, including tax policy. An HBO adaptation of his story was never going to get into that level of detail, but in order to be successful it would have to seriously engage with the central question of the story: what makes a ruler “good”?
As Zeynep Tufekci argues in Scientific American, Martin’s books – and the earlier seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones – took a sociological approach to storytelling, in which the political institutions, incentives, and norms that surround them play a central role. As he explains:
In sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them. The incentives for characters’ behavior come noticeably from these external forces, too, and even strongly influence their inner life.
This is in contrast to psychological storytelling, which focuses on character drama and individual character arcs. To be sure, A Song of Ice and Fire has plenty of this, but so does nearly every other story. What made Martin’s creation unique was the attention paid to the political context.
Each of the characters competing for the Iron Throne represented different archetypes of political leadership. Ned and Robb Stark, as well as Jon Snow, were noble, but often guileless. The Lannisters, particularly Cersei, were the opposite, driven by pursuit of power as an end itself. The Greyjoys of the Iron Islands obtained the loyalty of their followers through patronage; the ruler who promised the most plunder succeeded. The Tyrells of Highgarden carefully deployed their assets – money and sex – to influence politics from behind the scenes. Stannis Baratheon was fair, but ruthlessly singleminded to the point where his pursuit of power overcame his sense of morality.
Daenerys Targaryen was perhaps the story’s most compelling case study in political leadership. Daenerys relied on quasi-religious charismatic authority. Her subjects in Essos saw her as a god. Daenerys herself seemed to have truly noble goals and did free thousands of slaves. At the same time, the dragons gave her extraordinary military and spiritual power – power that Daenerys did not have to earn through hard work or wisdom. Even in pursuit of noble goals, Daenerys was ruthless towards her enemies. The Starks and Jon Snow executed traitors because they saw it as their duty to uphold the law; Daenerys seemed to enjoy killing her foes.
Throughout most of the HBO show, Daniel Weiss and David Benioff did indeed manage to balance the story’s political themes (sociological) with the more standard character drama (psychological). The epic action, witty dialogue, violence, and sex might have kept viewers’ attention, but the show never truly lost sight of the societal context. It showed us why the political rules of Westeros necessitated certain outcomes, like Robb Stark’s death at the Red Wedding. While the show often surprised viewers, in retrospect more often than not the twists seemed logical, or even unavoidable.
While many fans complained that Daenerys’ arc in Season 8’s felt rushed, it felt like the natural culmination of unbridled charismatic leadership. As io9‘s Beth Elderkin notes, her destructive tendencies were clearly foreshadowed in earlier seasons. Daenerys grew up thinking that the people of King’s Landing secretly longed for a Targaryen restoration. When she reaches King’s Landing in “The Bells” (Season 8, Episode 5), that’s clearly not the case. Her victory over the Lannisters felt hollow. I saw her decision to burn King’s Landing as a search for something more fulfilling. As she’d said earlier in that episode, if the people would not love her, “Let it be fear.”
The first half of “The Iron Throne” worked reasonably well as the culmination of Daenerys’ dramatic fall for grace. She was no longer satisfied with the empty victory of conquering the Red Keep. She immediately urged her followers to join her on a quest to “free” the rest of the world. The episode’s beautiful – if not exactly subtle – imagery emphasizes that Dany has become a tyrant, even if she truly believes her noble words about breaking the wheel. I think the show would have benefitted from at least spending an additional episode or two under this new status quo, but ultimately Jon Snow’s decision to kill his beloved queen rang true. Jon asked what if some people disagree with Dany’s definition of what is “good”; she simply responded that they don’t get to choose. It was a chilling reminder that religious charismatic authority allows no room for dissent.
Drogon burning the Iron Throne was a nice – if on-the-nose – bit of symbolism about the nature of political power in Westeros. Pursuit of power inevitably corrupts. The world is better off without that particular symbol of power to tempt others.
As for the rest of “The Iron Throne”… I want to tread carefully here. Fans often claim that a particular narrative direction “betrays” the show or a particular character simply because they disagree with the creative decisions made or because it went against their expectations. That’s not my claim here. Rather, as noted above, questions about political leadership were and are central to the intellectual project that is Game of Thrones. The desire to rule Westeros drove nearly all of the conflict in the show. The characters’ strategies reflected different modes of political leadership. To provide a satisfactory conclusion to the story, the finale needed to not just wrap up plot threads and character arcs; it needed to engage with the theme of political leadership. What makes for a “good ruler” and why? How do the institutions, incentives, and norms align to allow for a “good ruler” to come to power in such a hostile setting?
Unfortunately, the second half of the finale treats the ultimate question of political leadership as an afterthought. Grey Worm arrests Tyrion for treason and brings him to a council meeting in the Dragonpit. After the rest of the council laughs off Sam’s suggestion to introduce a democracy, Tyrion gives an impassioned speech to make Bran the new king of Westeros. And then, with nary a debate, the other council members agree. Except for Sansa who demands independence for the North – again, with no objections from the council.*
Bran the Broken becoming king was a surprise, but unlike the best Game of Thrones twists it’s not one that seems logical or even interesting in retrospect. Instead, it comes out of nowhere. It’s not that making Bran king makes no sense, but there was no setup and the council’s decision seemed to go against the political incentives and norms of Westeros as established during the show. Bran has never demonstrated any talent for leadership. Bran briefly served as Master of Winterfell during Season 2, but he seemed to mostly defer to Maester Luwin’s counsel. We don’t know how Bran would be as king because we have barely seen him play the part of a ruler.
More importantly, none of the other characters in the show had observed him as a ruler. Have Tyrion and Bran even had any interaction aside from their brief conversation in “The Last of the Starks” (Season 8, Episode 4)? Even then, Tyrion only suggests that Ned Stark’s last trueborn son should be heir to the North, and Bran responds that he won’t ever be a lord and that he mostly lives in memories of the past. There’s nothing in the exchange that should convince Tyrion to nominate Bran for king. Indeed, there were several warning signs signs. After all, Bran isn’t just a case of nolo episcopari like Jon; Bran is actively disinterested and disengaged from the affairs of normal human beings. Of the characters on the council, I believe only Sansa, Arya, and Sam had any interaction with Bran, and most of that was before he’d become the Three-Eyed Raven. Yet, they support his nomination as king without objection or question. Because the script told them to, I guess.
Sarcasm aside, Tyrion’s speech does raise two valid points on Bran’s behalf, but the episode barely bothers to explore them. First, Bran cannot have children, and so will not be tempted to use power on behalf of his offspring or heirs. This is not trivial; many dictators are motivated to stay in power in order to provide for their families. Cersei was the most obvious – but far from the only – example of a Westerosi ruler who wielded power corruptly in order to benefit her children. Taking family out of the equation reduces the temptations to abuse power. Indeed, during the height of the Roman Empire, Emperor Nerva set a precedent of adopting a capable subordinate as heir rather than handing power over to a firstborn son. This led to nearly a century of relative peace and prosperity.
Tyrion also implicitly calls for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in which future kings are elected by the lords of Westeros rather than born. This makes sense in theory and is close to how I saw the show ending (how do you say Magna Carta in Dothraki?). But again there’s absolutely no discussion or debate about this. This is a political revolution upending centuries of tradition. Does nobody wonder how they can trust that this new system will endure? Wouldn’t the lords want some sort of credible commitment or guarantee that future councils could elect a new ruler? Indeed, the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty came to an end when Marcus Aurelius had a son, Commodus, who took a Joffrey-like approach to governance. The Game of Thrones finale did not have to answer all of these questions, but the fact that they weren’t even raised seems mind-boggling. After all, these people’s lives depends upon who becomes king.*
* Matt Yglesias at Vox posits that the lords of Westeros elected Bran king precisely because he’d be weak and unable to constrain their power. Sansa’s insistence of declaring independence for the North seems like it would cut against this interpretation.
Second, Tyrion argued that Bran’s story as a cripple who “learned to fly” and now possesses all of human knowledge would be an inspiring story. I do quite like Tyrion’s point about the importance of stories. It’s a very meta commentary about the importance of stories like Game of Thrones. It also hearkens back to Varys’ riddle in Martin’s A Clash of Kings (depicted in “What is Dead May Never Die“, Season 2, Episode 3):
In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?
In the Rolling Stone interview, Martin claims this riddle is one of the central questions of his book. Varys’ answer is that ultimately, “Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.”
Tyrion’s speech in the finale seems to suggest that stories are an important part of how and why people believe what they do about power. This is insightful and undoubtedly true, except that Tyrion seems to be conflating two different types of stories. Stories can be useful to confer legitimacy on political institutions in the eyes of the people. For example, there is no supernatural force upholding the rule of law in the United States. Implementing the law requires thousands of individuals to make thousands of decisions consistent with the law. Yet, we tell a story about the power of the constitution because it helps to create a set of norms and institutional settings that are conducive to good governance.
That’s different from a sympathetic backstory for a political ruler, which was Tyrion’s argument for Bran. It is true that a candidate with a compelling backstory might win more sympathy and support from the people, but that doesn’t imply he or she would be a “good” ruler. Indeed, the Starks seemed to serve as a constant reminder that being “likable” is not enough in politics.
Tyrion also cites Bran’s awesome knowledge as the Three-Eyed Raven. This is where somebody on the show should have demanded that the coronation slow down. Does Westeros really want a ruler who knows the future? Frank Herbert’s Dune novels – which Martin almost certainly read – actually depict a future in which a galactic emperor has powers similar to Bran’s, and it doesn’t end well for humanity. (note: I’m currently working on a paper about how and why Paul Atreides’ absolute knowledge of the future inevitably led to despotism.) In effect, that level of foreknowledge robs citizens of any agency. Any attempts to reason with or persuade Bran are doomed to fail if he has already seen how events unfold. This could lead to governance decisions that might have a fatalist logic, but would be morally indefensible, such as refusing to even try to help people dying in a famine.
I’ve seen some fans claim that Bran himself is merely a figurehead and so the reasons he was selected and his governing experience are moot. It’s an interesting theory, but I don’t see any evidence for that in the show itself. Did the members of the council understand that they were electing a figurehead? How do they feel about the Hand of the King – Tyrion – being the de facto ruler? If the Hand of the King can have children and isn’t dispassionate like Bran, and he’s the true ruler, doesn’t that defeat the point of choosing Bran in the first place? We’ve seen what happens when an ambitious person like Tywin Lannister becomes Hand.
Also, appointing Bronn Master of Coin doesn’t speak well for the future of good governance in Westeros.
Ultimately, I have no reason to doubt that the major plot beats of the show’s final episode largely followed George R.R. Martin’s outline. He had talked to Weiss and Benioff and the decision to make Bran the ultimately ruler of Westeros almost certainly came directly from Martin. Bran the Broken could have worked as a resolution to the political conflict. The problem is the show doesn’t do enough to justify his becoming king or explain what it means for the central question of political leadership. I could have understood what Jon or Daenerys or even Tyrion ultimately becoming king said about the nature of political power in Westeros, but I just don’t know enough about Bran to make any such determination with confidence. The way all the other characters accepted him without discussion – without even knowing him – beggars belief.
Now, the show was ending, for whatever reason, and Weiss and Benioff couldn’t have wrapped up every plot thread. Despite fan complaints to the contrary, I think they were wise to not to dwell so much on details of the setting, like how certain characters got from one point on the map to another so quickly. It made more sense to show the long journeys during earlier seasons when Westeros was new to viewers and the show had that luxury. As the story hurtled towards its conclusion, it made sense to pick up the pace. Viewers had seen the landscape and we didn’t need to follow Daenerys’ every footstep as her army marched from Dragonstone to King’s Landing.
However, not taking the time in the final few seasons to adequately set up and pay off the sociological aspects of the story does seem like a betrayal of the premise of the show. One gets the sense that Weiss and Benioff knew that Bran was meant to be king, but didn’t quite know why.
It’s a shame that the show didn’t follow through on its promise to treat political institutions and norms seriously. It’s obvious even to those who enjoyed the past two seasons that the show needed more time to tell its story properly. However, I don’t want to end on a sour note because HBO’s Game of Thrones is still a monumental achievement, one that I (mostly) enjoyed. The show created some of the most epic and memorable moments ever aired on TV. Despite the botched landing, there’s still enough in the show to write a book or two on the story’s treatment of political power.
Besides, we’ll always have Martin’s books, which I’m sure will flesh out the political situation and provide additional context leading to the coronation of Bran the Broken.
* While everyone else seems to be getting what they want, why doesn’t Yara demand independence for the Iron Islands?