Game of Thrones Recap: The Endings We Choose to Believe

Game of Thrones Recap: The Endings We Choose to Believe

At least it ended with Sansa Stark on a throne.Helen Sloan/HBO
Game of Thrones has always been a story about stories, a fantasy that wanted to change how we thought about fantasy while spinning a fantasy of its own. It's over now, though its audience will probably never agree on how it "really" ended, or if it ended at all; like so many myths that fractured into multiple truths through multiple tellings, it will always be replete with alternative interpretations and theories, debates about what it meant and revisionist histories that imagine it through the lens of whatever people want to see. In that sense, it has truly come to embody stories—and histories—in all their slippery glory and their power to remake the past and shape the future.

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It was often hard to know what to make of the series as its characters, politics, and themes grew dull, sacrificed on the altar of plot to bring us to this precise moment. Absent any intention beyond moving the pieces into place for the grand finale, Game of Thrones became a glittering charm bracelet of beautifully directed symbols strung together solely by the thin connective tissue of gravitas: the score soaring in front of a burned city, the dark wings of a dragon opening behind a tyrant, a hero locked in chains.

Arya's magical rando white horse is perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon—a dramatic image imbued with all the trappings of meaning, but absolutely no resonance or coherence with anything that came before or after it. The horse was death; the horse was life; the horse was the friends we made along the way. The horse was a prophecy, a bit of narrative gossip with the gloss of the sacred, something that promised intention and meaning but ultimately delivered something so vague it could have meant anything. The horse was a Rorschach test, like so much of the series in the final analysis: We find whatever significance in it not because it was earned or offered or intended, but because that's what we want to see.As the finale opens, the victorious forces gathering in front of the Red Keep are every bit the invading nightmare Robert Baratheon had feared so many years ago: the ululating Dothraki hordes rearing up on their horses, the Unsullied standing in their perfect martial lines, an enormous black dragon soaring above the smoking ruins of King's Landing. And Daenerys Targaryen stands over it all, the queen of fire and bones, declaring war on the world in the name of a revolution where her absolute rule is the only true freedom. Daenerys was always a better conquerer than ruler, both a self-styled liberator and a hammer forever in search of a nail to pound down. Now, finally, we learn what breaking the wheel really meant to her: not destroying tyranny but destroying her enemies, and claiming their lofty edifices of power for her own.
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She tosses Tyrion in jail for the treason of releasing his brother, the latest stupid choice in his seemingly unstoppable run of stupid choices. Now that he's about to end up on the business end of a dragonfire guillotine, Tyrion laments enabling her and makes a very bad argument about Dany's use of force, which essentially begins, "First she came for the slavers of Astapor and I said nothing…" Ah yes, it's too bad she didn't just sit back and decide to see if the slaves could free themselves by winning against their masters in the marketplace of ideas! It's a facile analysis of force that conveniently erases all power structures from the equation, that imagines there is no moral difference between Dany rising up to kill slave masters and murdering thousands of innocent children.While it's hard to resist the pithy moral absolutism and easy applause line of "violence is always wrong," it's also worth noting that despite its superficial patina of fairness, this argument invariably benefits the powerful; not only do they get to pretend that there's no difference between punching up and punching down, they get to robe themselves in self-righteousness and claim the moral high ground while they do it. Who's the real Nazi—the Nazi or the person who punches a Nazi, hmmm?Despite his regressive political analysis, Tyrion convinces Jon to stab Daenerys for the good of the Seven Kingdoms, which he does. This is the second oath and woman Jon Snow has betrayed, and both times it was both the smartest and most difficult choice he could have made. He's never been more noble than in the moments when he casts off the shackles of his Starkness and sacrifices his rigid moral ideals for the greater good—though of course Daenerys would say the exact same thing about her new "burn the people to save the people" philosophy.

She dies in his arms and it's an epic tragedy, all the more so because it never had the room to feel like one. It might sound better, someday, as a myth retold around a campfire, or a song sung in a great hall about a dragon queen and a bastard who was always and never king, how they fell in love and betrayed each other and themselves, how they destroyed and saved the world. It's a good story, really—but, as with any story, it all comes down to the telling.

While Game of Thrones ultimately rejects the might-makes-right philosophy of Dany, the conclusion it offers is far less radical than you might expect from a show that relied so heavily on subverting expectations: that the best and perhaps only way to advance the cause of justice is not to break the wheel but to slightly rearrange the spokes.
Despite the many prophecies that have been abandoned on Game of Thrones, Dany’s final moments unexpectedly breathe life into an old one. Years ago in the House of the Undying, Dany had a vision: She walked into the ruins of the Red Keep, snow fluttering through its shattered ceiling, and stood in front of the Iron Throne. She reached out to grab the hilt of one of its melted swords, and then walked into the next room where her dead husband and child were waiting for her, and embraced them. "Maybe I'm dead and I just don't know it yet," she said. Moments before Jon stabs her, Dany walks into the same throne room beneath the falling ash of King's Landing, and places her hand on the Iron Throne in a nearly identical shot. I'd like to believe that this means there's something better and kinder waiting for her beyond her corrupted ambition and tragic death. I choose to believe that version of the story, at least.After Dany’s assassination, Detective Drogon flies over to solve the mystery of how she died, and either figures it out and gives Jon a pass for being half-Targaryen, or decides that the Iron Throne stabbed her to death and executes it on the spot. Destroying the Iron Throne is a powerful bit of symbolism, one that not only suggests dragons have a remarkably strong grasp of abstract representation but also that Westeros is about to undergo a profound political transformation, rather than just swapping the crown between slightly better or worse autocrats.Alas, it's all sound and fury, signifying nothing—or at least very little. After Grey Worm suddenly develops a deep respect for the political machinery of Westeros that he just pledged to crush and calls a council of its leaders, the newly appointed Archmaester Samwell pipes up with a genuinely transformative idea—participatory democracy!—and gets laughed out of the conversation. As you might expect from a group of powerful people intent on protecting their own power, they settle on a far more marginal reform: an elective monarchy where absolute power resides in the hands of a ruler chosen by the most powerful.After some urging by Tyrion, they choose Bran as the new king because "there's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story … and who has a better story than Bran the Broken." Well, Arya transformed from a young daughter of a great house into a Faceless assassin who killed the Night King and saved the world, and Jon is not only a bastard revealed as trueborn heir to the throne and former commander of the Night's Watch but also a man who literally came back from the dead to lead the armies of men against the undead in the Great War. It's a pretty big stretch, then, to say that Bran meditating beyond the Wall for most of the series and turning into medieval Professor X wins the cool story competition, but what Tyrion means is not that Bran has the "best" story but that he has the most viable and electable story—the one that will test well not only with their base but the public at large.

It's an end to the story, and not an entirely unsatisfying one, depending on what you wanted to get out of it. If you wanted stirring moments of drama without any deeper meaning behind them—or are willing to do backflips to create that meaning—then Game of Thrones provides everything you need for closure.

Everyone—including the infamously inflexible Grey Worm—is pliant and quick to agree with this plan, almost as though they're aware that the story ends in 20 minutes and it's time to get everyone in position. That's explicitly true of Bran, who has known for a long time that he was the big winner of the Game of Thrones, but had to keep his mouth shut until the episode aired. Sansa quickly slides in with a "just FYI" announcement that the North is seceding from the union and that she's its new queen, and no one objects because now there's only 10 minutes until the show is over, and we're gonna need most of that for a dramatic epilogue montage.And so Bran takes if not the Iron Throne then whatever he is going to call his new but not that different supreme power chair, and starts throwing around sinecures to his allies like so much confetti. Bronn, who’s never shown any particular aptitude for finance beyond wanting lots money, becomes Master of Coin, and Tyrion is named Hand of the King again—again!—despite his consistently disastrous political decisionmaking. Although Bran openly admits that Tyrion has a long history of being bad at this specific job, he insists that's exactly why he deserves it. I'd like to pretend this is another Game of Thrones plot contrivance, but it's actually a pretty realistic representation of how powerful but incompetent men find ways to fail up, so I can't ding it for accuracy.Daenerys was right about one thing: It isn't easy to imagine a world that's never been before, and almost impossible to create it when you have no incentive to do so. But isn't that why we tell stories too? To help us imagine something more? Game of Thrones has always aspired to be a story about stories, one that set out to tell a darker and more "realistic" version of the knights and damsels tales than we were used to hearing. We were told early and often that this was a harsh and unforgiving world where justice could not be won through naive idealism. While it ultimately rejects the might-makes-right philosophy of Dany and various other tyrants, the conclusion it offers is far less radical than you might expect from a show that relied so heavily on subverting expectations: that the best and perhaps only way to advance the cause of justice is not to break the wheel of power but to slightly rearrange the spokes.Despite being an ancient, psychic warg who can control animals and see through time, it's worth noting that Bran is still a remarkably traditional leadership choice. Not only is he a noble son from a noble house who plans to maintain the authoritarian power system, he is institutional history personified, a George R. R. Martin analogue who not only possesses all the knowledge and stories of the past but can authoritatively claim that he can see the correct future. That he looks into that future and emerges with little interest in or confidence about the idea of transforming his kingdom into a more just or equitable political system might be the darkest, grimmest twist in Game of Thrones yet. And so everything returns to a familiar sort of normal in King's Landing, with Tyrion calling his Small Council meeting and the soporific grind of the wheel lulling us into a sense of contentment like white noise.Still, it's an end to the story, and not an entirely unsatisfying one, depending on what you wanted to get out of it. If you wanted stirring moments of drama without any deeper meaning behind them—or are willing to do backflips to create that meaning—then Game of Thrones provides everything you need for closure. Like Brienne writing Jaime into the White Book, or the petty-ass maesters of the Citadel writing Tyrion out of the Song of Ice and Fire, we can decide to tell or retell this story to ourselves however we want. We can say it "really" ended long ago, or that it never ended, or that it never will. We can start over from the beginning and end it anywhere we want and call it true to us, and it can be.

Perhaps the best thing you can say about a relationship, when it ends, is that you'd do it all over again; that, whatever heartbreak or disappointment it may have caused, what it gave you was worth more. The beauty of a story is that your relationship with it is never really over, if you don't want it to be; the beginning is always waiting for you on the first page, as fresh-faced as the day you fell in love with it, all the moments that you cherished waiting to be relived, however you want to relive them.

"Stories wait," Old Nan once told Bran, "and when you come back to them, there they are."
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