The one thing that I always loved Game of Thrones, especially the books, is the extent to which it had a clear-eyed and deeply cynical view of power.
The key players in Westeros always knew the source of their strength. The Lannisters were rich and paid their debts. The Starks were loyal and held the north. Even Walder Frey ruthlessly exploited holding a key river crossing.
The “game” then was a ruthless grind as power collided, captured brilliantly by the clockwork and gears in the opening credits.
Quests for power in Game of Thrones ended, at best, with victories that were brutal, pyrrhic, and temporary. Being clever, brave, or honest, would only get you so far. What mattered more was the underlying strength you could summon. Your soldiers, your money, your spies.
This meant it was always going to be difficult to create a satisfying conclusion.
In search of catharsis
I think I was in the minority in how I reacted this season, maybe because I’ve also read the books, but also I don’t envy whatsoever the challenge undertaken by the showrunners Benioff and Weiss and think they did the best that could be expected with a really tricky hand.
We live in a culture conditioned to experience cathartic moments of violence in our storytelling. The hero blows up the Death Star. The heroine kills the bad guy. Then everyone celebrates and everything is just fine (unless there’s a need for sequels).
We like to believe in a neat and tidy world where violence, when undertaken by the good guys, is orderly, righteous, and final.
At its best, Game of Thrones exposes that lie for the fiction that it is. Violence in the real world is never cathartic and final. It’s brutal, messy, and has lasting consequences. There aren’t clear winners.
We started reading/watching Game of Thrones in the first place because it was a different from those conventional stories and more like the real world. The “hero” might get beheaded at any moment. Being clever might keep a character alive, but it can only get you so far.
That’s why I was surprised that everyone was so surprised that Daenerys sacked Kings Landing, which I thought was the best moment of the season and true to the books. In my view, she no longer had a choice. She didn’t have the people’s loyalty, she no longer had the best claim to the throne, and her armies were largely decimated. All she really had was a dragon and the ability to inspire fear. So she played the hand she was dealt.
But by the end of the show, the showrunners were trapped under the weight of a fanbase that wanted a satisfying conclusion to those eight years of brutality. A happy end for their favorite characters. A satisfying bookend to Ned Stark’s beheading and the Red Wedding that made that trauma “worth it.”
Benioff and Weiss were caught between Game of Thrones’ realistic view of power and a society that craves cathartic violence in our storytelling.
One of the more astute analyses of the show I’ve read came from Scientific American, which framed the challenge as the collision of sociological storytelling (showing people acting based on constraints imposed by their incentive structures, much like The Wire), and psychological storytelling (more deeply tied to individuals, much like most every other story).
In the final episode, Game of Thrones very self-consciously opted for a compromise that left few happy, even writing that into the dialogue. Echoing Calvin and Hobbes, Tyrion says “No one is very happy, which means it’s a good compromise.”
Or, as Calvin more precisely fumes, “A good compromise leaves everyone mad.”
What I would have done
Sure, I have my gripes with the show.
I wish there had been more lingering questions around Tyrion’s loyalty and more of a sense that he was playing multiple angles (as many have complained, the cleverest man in Westeros turned into the most foolish). The quest to capture a White Walker to “prove” their existence to Cersei was moronic, forcing an overly compressed final season. And the reflexive stooping to the lowest common denominator with cheap nudity, rape, and violence was insulting.
But I also suspect that if Benioff and Weiss had followed my council they would have ended up with a finale that might have pleased even fewer. I would have ended it with Daenerys atop the throne, Jon Snow exiled to the wall, and the new Westeros House of Lords banding together to amass their armies to try to stop her.
You know, just like how everything started after the death of Robert Baratheon.
What do you think about the finale? What would you have done differently if you were in charge?
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