MAY 20, 2019
This week on Dear Television:
Let Aaron Bady and Sarah Mesle sing you a song of love and war, friendship and betrayal, ICE and FIRE. In association with Home Box Office Productions, we bring you a saga like no other. Travel with us to the mysterious, ancient land of Westeros, where nothing is as it seems. THRILL as beloved characters disappear before your eyes! CHILL as your worst nightmares come true! TWEET whenever you see continuity errors! TEXT YOUR FRIENDS when these dudes yet again blow it with their garbage gender politics! Unsullied beware: many of the deepest secrets of the Seven Kingdoms and the dramatic conclusion of this song of ice and fire will be revealed in these essays. As the world turns, we know the bleakness of winter, the promise of spring, the fullness of summer and the harvest of autumn — the game of thrones is complete.
Previous episode: Season Eight, Episode Five, “The Bells”
But Why, Though?
by Aaron Bady
This show long ago backed itself into a corner in terms of how it could end, and, last night, smashed its face in the corner, smiling. Someone had selected Jon kills Daenerys, the dragon melts the Iron Throne, and Bran is the new king on their bingo card: congratulations, you won the prize!
If you strain, there’s an underlying logic to it: even enlightened despots are bad, we’ve decided, and democracy is hilarious, obviously, but since all the real power-brokers are dead, the remaining half-assed aristocracy has decided to shift power a rung down the ladder (with a place-holder semi-king), which gets something like the status quo ante back, though it’s unclear why this outcome would be better or worse than a variety of alternatives. It requires a very generous reading even to deduce that that is what’s happening. But it could have gone a half-dozen ways just as easily, and nothing about how it actually went last night felt more surprising, inevitable, or satisfying than the multitude of scenarios that people had dreamed up. Ideally, a good climax would have taken you by surprise in the moment, but as it sank in, you would have realized how it had been earned by what came before; and after the show was over, you’d have been satisfied by what it all added up to and meant.
The show has pulled that off before: Ned Stark’s death and the Red Wedding (and Cersei’s big victory) are obvious examples of successful climactic moments. The show’s ruthlessness was shocking, but made sense as you thought it through. Those surprises reinforced an essentially tragic tone and message: the Game of Thrones had winners and die-ers, and, since valar morghulis (all must die), even winning just buys you time until you die and someone else can win. Power is treachery, and treacherous; the Game of Thrones is The Wheel, endlessly turning (or the astrolabe from the title sequence) with its heartbeat the accompanying theme music, the show’s true MVP, a song that never ends and never changes.
I hoped the show had another shock like that in its back pocket. The more fool I; Jon killing Daenerys was, to put it bluntly, not it. There was no element of surprise since other major characters were begging him to do it, and neither actor did anything interesting in the scene except look as surprised by what was happening as we were supposed to be. It also wasn’t earned, and didn’t feel like it meant anything: if Daenerys’ tragic flaw was the self-justifying cycle of “killing the bad guys,” why was killing her the solution to her turning bad? Why didn’t Jon Snow seize the throne afterwards (wasn’t everyone’s argument that he would be the best King?) How did he get imprisoned? Did he confess? Grey Worm’s actions make no sense; he had literally been executing soldier nobodies who had surrendered, just because, but the guy who killed his queen he just tosses in jail? And then accepts the jurisdiction of A Random Collection of I Guess These Are The High Lords and Ladies of Westeros Now when they free him? Offscreen? Why does Jon Snow go to the Actually There Isn’t A Night’s Watch Anymore So I Guess We’ll Just Roam North Epically? I mean, Tyrion can just walk out of prison and become the Hand of a king who he also just happened to appoint? Why did Grey Worm accept any of it? Why didn’t all the lords and ladies follow Sansa’s example and declare independence? Why is Bronn in charge of four castles or whatever, just because TYRION promised it to him?
WHY DID ANY OF IT, in short. What are the peasants up to? Which gods ordained all of this?
(The outcome was so beyond baffling that I found myself fixating on little things. When the Iron Throne was melted by dragon-fire, it should have been grand and dramatic and terrible, and instead it was just funny; did the dragon burn the chair-made-of-swords because he saw his mother murdered by a sword and blamed the chair? Can we really blame him for jumping to that conclusion, given what nonsense the rest of the plotting was?)
For me, the best example of the sort of thing that I’d foolishly hoped the show might do, last night, was the season six revelation of Hodor’s name. Not only shocking, earned, and tragic, but narratively productive, opening up a new dimension in the show’s temporal fabric. Through the head-fuck of Bran accidentally changing the past (or, rather, what the past had already always been), the show suggested a lot of new narrative possibilities, most interestingly, that Bran was himself both the Night King and “Bran the Builder,” my personal favorite missed opportunity: while mortals fought their petty wars, the cosmic backdrop could have turned out to be one guy’s transhistorical war with himself, building walls to stop himself from killing himself, and ruining so many lives by accident along the way.
Instead, it was all downhill once the show killed off the Night King. Without him, Bran’s plot didn’t make much sense and it seemed clear that the showrunners neither knew what to do with him — since he was functionally omniscient and no one ever asked him any questions — nor would there be much for him to do. So, of course, they made him King, and made his kingship the endpoint of whatever crazy hand has been guiding the plot. Was it the Lord of Light? The old gods? The new? The many-faced God? The show’s entire religious structure seems to have had a hand in saving him to become King, but what Tyrion and the rest of them seem to value about him is that he’s an ego-less cipher. Going a step beyond Douglas Adams, the only person who can be trusted with power is someone who not only doesn’t want it, but who isn’t even a person. And yet, who made Bran king? As ludicrous as Tyrion’s speech is — and as ridiculous as it is that Grey Worm and the lords and ladies accept it — an awful lot of deus ex machina had to happen to make this outcome possible. “Why do you think I came all this way?” is a goddamned good question, Bran, and we’d like some goddamned answers.
We got no answers. If we aren’t satisfied — and I’m not — one reason is that the show wanted to stick the landing and there just wasn’t a landing to stick. It shouldn’t have tried. They wanted to have it both ways, an ending that would be “bittersweet,” the showrunners said, probably imagining something like putting sugar in chocolate or coffee. Instead, it was like pouring lemonade into beer; yes, there was some bitterness, and yes there was some sweet, but there was also just so much that it ultimately tastes horrible.
At its best, this show could have it both ways on a lot of things because there was always more to the story. The weird mix of the Hollywood sensibilities of the showrunners — who loved them some Good Princes and Evil Zombie Hordes — and the (somewhat) more interesting genre-bending agenda of the anti-Tolkienesque author could work because the resolution of that weird emulsion was deferred, still working itself out. There was so much yet to be revealed and explained, and the game kept going on, that the presumed possibility of an ending that would work was in the back of your mind the whole time. And so the show got to live firmly within the genre’s expectations — princes, prophecies, apocalyptic doom, and heroism — while also subverting them with a grounded cynicism about politics. All the contradictions became riddles to be explained, a map filled with empty spaces; red herrings could be not-yet-revealeds and plot holes were wait-and-sees. Any character abuse could seem to be in service of some larger narrative that wasn’t yet completed, and thus, couldn’t yet be judged a failure. As long as the prince that was promised never came, we could keep waiting; the moment he did, and the show reached its conclusion, we could suddenly look at what it had done and judge it, and for the first time, the emptiness of the show was unavoidable. Like a shark, the moment it stopped moving forward, it started to die.
Obviously, the show and the showrunners don’t understand this. They went down a list, giving endings to each story which seemed to them to be plausible and appropriate, which they superficially all are. But the reason they don’t add up to anything larger is that there is nothing larger in the show: democracy is laughable because no one else exists in this show except characters with names. Most of them are now dead, but the few who remain — including long-lost second-stringers like Robin Arryn and Uncle Edmure — showed up at the end to collectively Fortinbras our way back to whatever passes for normalcy in this world. The totalitarian threat is dead — and the democratic one is inconceivable — so we’re back to the same old small council chairs.
And this, in a way, is the real problem: even after the ending, the world has to go on, and when it does, it undoes the finality of everything that happened in the finale. The story continues (even as it ends) because at some point in the future, it won’t anymore: Bran will die without children, and a new political order will be born. But this new way to defer the show’s resolution — picking a non-King for the Iron Throne that doesn’t exist anymore, the solution to hereditary kingship because he’ll be the last of his name — only works to the extent that we’re not going to see it happen. And so we don’t: the show ends, so that it can continue.
Yours, walking somewhere, forever,
A Queen’s Right to Choose
by Sarah Mesle
“The thing about a plot, conventionally speaking, is that it works as a narrative parameter,” I wrote in my first LARB recap of Game of Thrones. “It gives the sense that there is something — anything — that will make the story end.” My sense of the story then, a sense gleaned from both the show and reading the first hundred or so pages of the books, was that I was watching a show with pleasures very separate from any sense of an ending. If the problem of a story is politics writ large — the human will to power, the need and desire for different lives, and better ones — what might be a solution that would make that problem end? I couldn’t think of one. “There’s a horizon in which the story of Westeros might end,” I speculated. “Magic comes from the North, Dragons from the East; winter is coming. But the political and human sagas that intrigue us operate entirely independently of all these end points.”
Here’s what I didn’t calculate, what I didn’t see as an instrument of narrative closure to the show’s problem: what I didn’t see was women.
I’ve had a hard time figuring out a way to write about this hour+ of television, which also marks the end of an era personally. My abilities as a writer won’t change now that Game of Thrones is over. But it’s unlikely that a story will come along anytime soon that will make my life look like a well-conceived training plan. A childhood spent reading trade fantasy series, an adulthood making sense of very long and character-laden nineteenth-century sentimental novels, and a lifetime with very long hair — whether the strands are narrative or material, braiding them together is what I’ve learned how to do. The advent of a major cultural event rewarding precisely this strange Venn diagram of a skill set felt like the world giving me a story to tell about my own life: decisions that previously seemed questionable suddenly made sense. That the narrative event of Game of Thrones, riven with flaws though it was, straddled a ten-year period when many of the other institutions that supported critical writing — universities, publications — crumbled like the Red Keep has made Game of Thrones that much more precious an infrastructure to me. This morning when a friend said to me “it was the last episode!” I burst into tears.
But it was the fact of the last episode that moved me, not the episode itself. And this is why I am finding it hard to write about. As an episode, it was really just sort of a disappointment, a big “meh” for me and Elizabeth Warren both. Disappointments are the least enjoyable thing to write about, especially in a show like this, which has gripped us because of its commitment to big stakes and big feelings.
What brings people together, Tyrion asks? Stories. He’s not wrong, and I don’t really mind that Game of Thrones’s staged its final political meeting as though the Lords of Westeros were on some sort of writers’ room storyboarding retreat, or even the way that they turned the final episode of this show we’ve all loved into a kind of advertisement for the HBO brand, although it’s admittedly annoying (and sort of Marxist Bro of them) to try to convince me that what I was watching the whole time was a network — a company — rather than a story.
What’s interesting about this story is that it ends so differently than how it began. I like sitcoms, and would totally be interested in watching a fantasy version of one, but, even so, it was strange and disconcerting to see the final scene of Game of Thrones dialogue leave the future of this wild place I’ve loved in the hands of a goofy band of office-buddy misfits, a sort of workplace comedy, with Bronn of Blackwater now appearing as basically Norm in the Westerosi remake of Cheers. (Brienne is maybe best compared to Rosa or Amy in Brooklyn 99? It’s strange to see a knight in a comic role outside of Monty Python, but, as “The Iron Throne” made heartbreakingly clear to us, it was also hard for Brienne to write her own story as a knight and a woman. Brienne’s knighthood, in Westeros, is a closed book.)
Anyway, my point is not that comedies are bad or uninteresting, but rather that their generally hopeful outlooks are a) a strange departure from where we’ve been and b) a fitting genre for the forward-moving social outlook that gives the show its conclusion. I think the “meh” quality of the episode comes not from poor execution in any particular moment, but rather from the sense of dramatically lowered stakes.
For eight seasons we’ve watched the Song of Ice and Fire, the mammoth battle for control of the seven kingdoms, spool out in epic form, leading (we thought) to a transcendent battle between powerful queens. But then they never even confront each other. This is the thing I’ve been circling around as I’ve been trying to figure out how this episode could feature such an unlikely series of outcomes and such a dramatic setting and still be such a let-down.
But then I thought: mostly it’s dull because we’ve seen this story so many times before, and not necessarily (although sometimes) in all those nineteenth century novels. Finding the awful sort of dull is just the state of 2019 politics, everyday.
It is probably not the case that when they were at their storyboarding retreat, the writers of Game of Thrones imagined their finale airing the same week as the most radical curtailing of American women’s political personhood in a generation. Still, it was noticeably the case that “The Iron Throne” frames its story fully in the language of choice. The word comes up all over: “They chose to fight for her,” rationalizes Grey Worm as he slices the throats of the defeated Lannister warriors. “I chose my fate,” says imprisoned Tyrion, before admonishing Jon, “You have a choice.” “They don’t get to choose,” says Daenerys Targaryan, about her political opponents, but she is wrong, that is exactly what they get to do, because in fact Jon has made his choice, and his choice is to take away hers.
Here I want to point to the subtle mix of things happening in what we might consider the episode’s gender politics. They are complex! What really interests me is how clearly the writers, or, like, whoever, really thought they are doing something like “fighting the patriarchy.” And they do to some extent. When Sansa overtly calls attention to the potential king Bran’s inability to “father” a child, that’s exactly what’s going on. Further, to have Bran and Tyrion become the most powerful men in the country offers a radical reconfiguration of what a man might be. Tyrion’s speech claiming that “Bran the Broken” has the best story in Westeros is perplexing partly because it’s only in the word “Broken” that Tyrion alludes at all to what would make Bran’s story the best one: that he would be a political leader openly in a wheelchair. That is a story — it hasn’t happened in our country yet, that’s for sure, and watching Bran be rolled into the counsel room gave me the dramatic thrill (unusual in this episode) of watching something truly new take place.
But even while manhood is being scrambled, even while Sansa tells her uncle so excellently to sit down, even while Sansa is robed for her coronation (a beautiful reworking of the times we’ve seen her prepared for marriage), womanhood is carrying a strange weight here in the shift from the dire world of high stakes drama to the hopefulness of this episode’s end. It’s not just that rather than dying in combat with each other, Daenerys and Cersei both die in the arms of the lovers who have also betrayed them, although certainly in that decision we see the show pulling them away from their ambitions and their power. It’s more that with the deaths of these women, ambition and wildness seem to go out of Westeros altogether.
“Rulers will not be born, they will be chosen,” says Tyrion, of the Westerosi political future. “Choose one.” It’s a nice thought. There’s nothing in the eight seasons of Game of Thrones that leads us in any way to think it’s a tenable one.
But what the show offers us in place of any rational account of a changed social order is the deaths of Cersei and Daenerys. In retrospect, it seems that this whole time, as the show was lifting these women up, moving towards what seemed like a vision of a world where powerful women were possible, what it was in fact doing was making them, through their suffering, into increasingly capable vessels for the human passions that made this show’s narrative problem — the problem of politics — impossible to solve. This is one way to read the episode’s (and maybe the series’) most beautiful shot: when Drogon’s wings extend from Daenerys’s back, and she herself becomes, in her gorgeous charismatic braided beauty, the destructive power of her dragon.
Many beloved popular stories of the last several years have been revisionist fairytales — think the movie Malificent, or the musical Wicked — that take a much-maligned evil queen and offer her a chance for cultural and personal redemption by revealing the backstory that made her who she is. In a sense, Game of Thrones here works the opposite angle: it uses its long attention to the development of an abused young girl to explain why her suffering would manifest into a destructive euphoria — here I’m imagining Dany’s burning of King’s Landing as the fiery narrative equivalent of Elsa’s “Let It Go” — that couldn’t be redeemed, and instead had to be stabbed. Stabbed though the heart, with all its womanly passions, for Drogon to carry inexplicably away.
Everything this show knew about deep and complex human drives — drives to sex, to pleasure, to power — are grafted onto these women, so that in their deaths something new can take shape. So even as, in the future of Westeros, interesting men are becoming rulers, and interesting women have seats at the table, these acts of gender reimagining are taking place on the backs of the most conventional gender norm of all, one particularly wrenching to see played out this week: the norm that makes women the emblems for the furious, unmanageable parts of the human psyche that are incompatible with democratic reason. With choice.
I don’t have to tell you that I was thinking about the braids. It was marvelous how Sansa looked like a Viking.
For me, the most interesting thing about braids is always that their beauty speaks to how women know and teach and touch each other. They don’t always do this in benevolent ways. But they do it all the same. They make beauty out of women’s interconnectedness (the same interconnectedness that the world often wants to make into untrustworthiness.)
In the final scenes of Game of Thrones, Arya for the first time has her hair in a bun; Sansa’s for the first time (I think) is completely loose. They both are amazing and I love these women and their hair is believable within the scope of the story. In this, Arya and Sansa’s hair is completely different than the season-long perplexity of Cersei and Daenerys. While stylistically they went in opposite directions — Cersei’s cropped locks calling attention to her suffering, and Daenerys’s flowing ones strangely transcending hers — neither woman could have kept their hair by themselves. Who was doing it for them?
This week, the New Yorker ran a profile called “Daenerys Tells All!” which gives us an answer. In it, Emilia Clarke describes hot days on location, “in this enormous wig over a bald cap glued on to my head,” worried that she would have yet another brain hemorrhage. Clarke explains:
In moments of extreme stress, my fear of dying was dialed up to a million. There were many moments where I would just take one of my hair or makeup girls aside and just go, “I think I’m dying, and I’m not. Can you just hold my hand? Could you just look at me and tell me that I’m all right?” And they would look at me like I was mad and try and help me breathe through it.
I will miss Game of Thrones in ways I can’t quite predict. But it makes it a little easier to let it go knowing that the relationships of women’s care I would be most interested in watching were never really its central story. These stories — the stories where women’s fears about their lives and deaths were listened to, where their fears about their madness brought help not punishment — were always waiting in the dressing room, on the fringes, off-stage.
Sit down, uncle,
Previous episode: Season Eight, Episode Five, “The Bells”