ATM’s GOT Guru deconstructs and adds context to the happenings in Westeros for one final time, in an episode breakdown where the Series Finale of Game of Thrones, “The Iron Throne,” is put under the microscope…
by: Geoffrey Golia (#GOTGuru), Michael Shields, and Krissy Trujillo
MCS: Wow, it’s hard to believe that our watch has ended and this is our last deconstruction. I’d like to start by extending a heartfelt thank you to ATM’s #GOTGuru, Geoffrey Golia, who season after season, made sense of the madness occurring in Westeros. Geoffrey, your Game of Thrones knowledge has persisted as nothing short of astounding, and you have put up with my novice, “unsullied,” brand of questioning and my undying love of the show (which still perseveres!) for years now. Bravo, and thank you! And thank you Krissy Trujillo for giving us an assist on this final deconstruction!
Krissy: You got it!
MCS: So, let’s dig in. “The Iron Throne” was a Tyrion-heavy episode, and that is always a good thing in my estimation (I am absolutely in awe of Peter Dinklage’s acting throughout these eight seasons). It felt as if he was our guide for this final act, ushering viewers towards conclusion. We walked with Tyrion as he witnessed the senseless destruction at the opening of the episode and into the bowels of the Red Keep (“I’m going alone”), then followed him as he explained to Jon the depths of Dany’s unsoundness of mind and hunger for power, and then finally steering those in charge of the rebuilding a broken world towards selecting Bran the Broken to become their king. Do you find it remarkable Tyrion made it this far in the game of thrones, keeping in mind all his missteps, enemies, and his physical limitations? What do you think of his fate and future as the un-wanting hand of the newly crowned king?
“Wouldn’t you kill whoever stood between you and Paradise” — Tyrion Lannister
GG: There are a number of reasons why Peter Dinklage’s name comes first in the credits. He is a tremendous actor. He played a role that seemed almost tailor-made for him, and brought Tyrion to life in a way that really captured the essence of that character, with all of his intelligence, wit, prurient interests, and substance abuse. But it also seems to me that Tyrion, in the show, became the lens by which the audience experienced this saga. (The way the books are structured, Tyrion is certainly a main character, and Martin himself as stated that Tyrion is the character with whom he most identifies, but other characters join him in providing their point of view.)
To some extent, Tyrion represented the hopes and aspirations of a large and vocal subset of the show’s audience — those who believed, or desired, that Daenerys would achieve her ultimate goal, that her conquest would usher in a new world of justice and freedom, and that it would happen in more linear and romantic way (I’m thinking Aragorn and Arwen’s reign after the Fall of Sauron). His growing concern about Daenerys’ soundness of mind mirrored ours, as the show started foreshadowing her descent into paranoia and despotism. That concern turned to feelings of betrayal and culpability when Daenerys made the fateful decision to sack and burn King’s Landing after the Lannister forces surrendered, murdering hundreds of thousands of innocents along with the combatants). While clearly the audience did not (or ought not) share those precise feelings — it is fiction after all — it is striking how visceral the criticism of the show’s ending, and particularly Daenerys’ transition from hero to monster affected fans of the series.
So am I surprised he made it this far? Not at all. In the show, in particular, he is an essential witness and perspective to so many pivotal events, and a catalyst for the end game, whether you liked that end game or not. I won’t list off all of the most important scenes in which he is involved, but from the first episode to the last, from Westeros to Essos and back again, he is our eyes, ears, and — in some funny way — our conscience throughout the series.
MCS: I was surprised to see Jon so torn while in conversation with an imprisoned Tyrion about Dany after she destroyed King’s Landing, but we all know that matters of the heart are deeply complicated, and loyalty is surely one of Jon’s strong suits. What do you think ultimately compelled Jon to take Dany’s life for the greater good, beyond witnessing her lay waste to the innocent population of King’s Landing? Was it the reminder that he might be skirting his duty to his people for the sake of love — via the call back to Maester Aemon’s line “love is the death of duty” — or the mention that his beloved sisters will surely not bend the knee to a war criminal and that their life was at stake as well (odds are the answer is a combination of all the above and more!)?
“She’s everyone’s queen now.” – Jon
“Try telling Sansa that.” – Arya
GG: Loyalty and duty are two different things. And if we want to get into the clever adage game, we could argue that complete loyalty can blind us to our duty to a greater good and higher purpose. Because, at the end of the day, as Varys reminded us, the goal is not the performance of loyalty to a flawed, fallible, perhaps even immoral person — it’s about duty to the realm, which is an idea and an ideal, a responsibility to the common people of Westeros, and a commitment to an “arc of history that bends towards justice”.
If you think about it, Jon (and I’m dropping the Aegon thing because, to me, he kills that part of him when he kills Daenerys), like Ned Stark, his image of manhood, also emphasized duty over loyalty, both during Robert’s Rebellion and in the chaotic aftermath of King Robert’s death, which is the turning point for the whole series. If Ned, and later Jon, simply emphasized loyalty, much of the recent history of Westeros would be different — no rebellion against “The Mad King,” no Baratheon ascendency, no Lannister usurpation, and so on.
Jon, to a large extent, has always demonstrated a duty and commitment to the Realm. The Night’s Watch was the only real military force whose sole mission was to “defend the realms of men.” Even after his death, resurrection, dramatic resignation as Lord Commander, and election to King in the North, he still see his mission — even after bending the knee to Daenerys — as defending the realm from the supernatural of the Night’s King and his army. He effectively convinces her that this is the more important fight, and successfully marshalls her forces in defense of the living people of Westeros.
This isn’t to say that knowing what’s best for the realm is always an easy call, so while duty might come more naturally to Jon, being confronted with such a terrible choice (i.e. murdering the woman he loves) put him in an impossible position. (I mean, Jon has no problem killing — he’s a virtual killing machine in some battles — but this time, as the saying goes, “it’s personal.”) Clearly, the writers of this episode were trying to convince us that Jon’s murder of Daenerys was his last and ultimate sacrifice for the realm. He did not just sacrifice the woman he loves, he also sacrificed any future he would have “in the realm.” But to the showrunners, this totally conforms with Jon’s personal characteristics: his sense of duty and his complete abdication of any pretenses to the throne.
What we’re left with, at least in my view, is kind of a sad and anti-climactic ending for Jon. In the minds of the writers, Jon’s sacrifice made Daenerys dream possible — it was as close to a Nissa Nissa moment we’ve had, which I discuss in more detail on this week’s podcast. (I’ll suspend for the time being, my frustration that Daenerys was unable to fulfill this dream on her own, which was 100% a decision the writer’s did not have to make, but chose to, ostensibly because this is the ending George R.R. Martin himself had envisioned.) The wheel is now broken, replaced by…the Electoral College of Westeros, and the person who made it possible, is either liberated from his responsibilities, or exiled to a frozen hellscape. I suppose the writers wanted to leave it up to us how we see it, but in the absence of any clear understanding of Jon’s feelings about his fate, Kit Harrington’s famous squinty-eyed brooding leaves us with an uneasy feeling. At least, that’s how it left me.
MCS: Let’s pivot some and speak about Bran the Broken. I surely understand that his selection to be ruler of the Six Kingdoms is a head scratcher to many, and there is no way I saw this coming at all…but Tyrion’s pitch for Bran was pretty damn convincing. I love the idea that in a society decidedly not ready for Democracy (good on Maester Samwell for coming to the table with the idea!), that they were looking to forge a new path ahead towards a place that nepotism didn’t reign supreme. As Sophie Turner (who finds the petitions and outrage about the season, as I do, “disrespectful to the crew, and the writers, and the filmmakers who have worked tirelessly over ten years, and for eleven months shooting the last season”) stated in response to the idea of Bran becoming king, “the best way for us to move into the future is to look at our past and try to not make those mistakes that we did in the past.” Turner went on to say that she is positive Bran would be a fair king. What do you think about Bran the Broken’s ascension to the throne, and do you think he has the chops for the gig?
“From now on rulers will not be born, they will be chosen” – Tyrion
GG: Elected monarchies are not as rare as they seem — for centuries, the Holy Roman Empire “elected” their Emperor, the most famous of which is probably Charles V, a contemporary of Henry VIII of England. But they are also, in practice, not anymore just or democratic than a Constitutional Monarchy (United Kingdom) or an Absolute Monarchy (France prior to the Revolution). And even democratically elected governments can routinely violate human rights, of both citizens and foreigners. So while the decision of who should be king is an important one, if breaking the wheel means creating a new age of human flourishing, then Bran the Broker needs to be thinking how to enshrine people’s rights into some kind of document (like Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights) and how to create institutions that support and protect those rights (Parliament or a multi-tiered system of courts).
Yes, the idea of a direct democracy was soundly rejected. Additionally, the notion of electing a king, in the context of Westeros, is not new; the Iron Islanders practiced electing kings for thousands of years through the Kingsmoot. Also, issues with the Targaryen succession had been settled by councils and committees on occasion. So, all in all, yes, a move in some kind of better direction, but my sense is, Westeros is a still a feudal system with unelected Lords making decisions…and, in fact, the social order we are left with is that of overmighty lords who exert way more authority over their regions and over the realm as a whole. These lords are not necessarily more interested in human rights and social justice than an unelected king would be. In fact, lordship is both a judicial and economic system, which lacks the kind of institutional prestige of “The King.” Thus, lords, in order to retain wealth, position, and influence, have to maintain power and dominance over their people and the natural resources of their regions. A king can often play the people against the lords, and while this is more about power politics than anything, these competing interests can actually ensure some level of checks and balances.
I think Bran is in a good position to lead, despite my more negative political analysis above. He has Tyrion, who has a reputation for competent administration. He has Samwell Tarly who apparently passed his Maester exams in record time. More to the point, he has his tremendous psychic powers which can provide him both protection against political enemies and access to historical information that can help him lead and, as Sophie Turner eluded to, not repeat the mistakes of previous generations of Westerosi leaders.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also get on the record that, objectively, Bran’s story is not necessarily more compelling, or more preparatory for leadership, than some of the other stories present at that meeting. Obviously, there are those of Bran’s sisters, the details of which I don’t have to get into; and while Arya clearly has not interest in the throne, Sansa had demonstrated a real mastery of leadership, along with a harrowing story. And then there’s Jon’s story, which is only nullified by his abdication through words and deeds. So while Tyrion was trying to buttress his argument regarding Bran’s desirability as a ruler, it sort of strained credulity.
MCS: Before we go any further, and since I did just mention Sophie Turner, can we get a collective “HELL YEAH!!” that Sansa told Edmure to sit the F down, and that she now reigns independently as the Queen of the North!?!
“Uncle, please sit” — Sansa
Krissy: My sweet, sweet baby Sansa. QUEEEEN IN THE NOOOOOORTH. First off, CALLED IT. Second off, just like her mother, she has grown into her a very wise woman and I am so proud of her. The red-headed Stark women have always been the voice of reason, even when people didn’t want to hear it. Cat told Rob not to get married, and it cost them their lives. Sansa told Jon Dany was a crazy bitch, and it cost thousands of people their lives. I think the two of them in this capacity often get backlash because people don’t like that behavior. Remember, people were annoyed with Sansa telling Tyrion the truth after swearing to Jon, but she did what she knew was necessary for the people and for the real — like a true boss. I always knew she was destined for greatness. I think her character from Season’s 1-8 was truly one of the most thorough character developments that were seen through to the end. While I am disappointed she isn’t sitting on the chair in the melted throne’s place, I do love that they made her Queen. All I’ve ever cared about were the Stark women, and they both had solid endings. Yes, there definitely could have been more with Arya’s ability to take a face, but I like the idea that she’s off to go discover the new world (sans syphilis). And please, let us all forever remember that in her final lines on the show, Sansa told her mediocre straight white male uncle to shut the fuck up and then reminded everyone that her brother was impotent. Legend.
GG: As always, Krissy cut right to the bone.
MCS: I’d like to talk bigger picture for a moment, and get into what some of the themes or ideas, now in hindsight of the series and in particular this eighth and final season, the showrunners and George R.R. Martin brought to the forefront. I found it entirely poetic when Drogon melted the Iron Throne, as that object and what it represents, and Dany’s quest towards it, was the reason for her death, not Jon Snow doing what he had to do. My co-host on the Welcome To The Party Pal podcast (“the mind-bending film and television podcast you didn’t know you needed!”), filmmaker Brian Sachson, texted me moments after the episodes conclusion that Dany’s character arc was an impressive commentary on the seductiveness of power and I couldn’t agree more. I also couldn’t help but ponder the old adage that it is lonely at the top as Dany stood by herself with the Iron Throne (makes me think back to Walter White’s death, passing away amid the equipment that birthed his one true love, his baby blue…). There is something else to be said about the certainty of those in power who believe that they alone know what is right for the masses, much like Thanos did in Marvel’s Infinity Stones Saga…much hurt can come out of that self-assurance and that arrogance.
“I know what is good and so do you,” — Daenerys, The Mother of Dragons
What’s the takeaway here on Dany’s demise and the under-discussed significance of her turn, where she isn’t the victim of bad writing per say, but of a lust for something that has been the undoing of countless figures throughout history: power?
Krissy: Many readers know I’ve never been a fan of Dany and her many titles. She wouldn’t have gotten that far if she didn’t have her dragons, yada, yada, yada. Her entire claim to the throne was based on birthright and revenge, which should have set off red flags for everyone from Day 1. However, I definitely respect that the Mad Queen Disease was rushed this season. Now that being said, Tyrion makes a good point when he’s speaking to Jon in the finale and says all the people she killed, no one batted an eye because we all agreed they were evil. But what happens when we don’t agree? Which is exactly what we saw happen. I think hearing that put it all in perspective, for me, at least. Also, bless Drogon and his deep understanding of symbolism, but lack of literal whodunnit awareness.
GG: I don’t think that Dany’s “turn” was necessarily a direct critique of “power” as a corrupting influence. Of course the show, as a whole, addressed issues of power, domination, self-determination, the morality of war, and so on, and gave us examples of those who wield power justly and those who don’t. Clearly, there were more examples of the latter.
It’s my view that the writer’s crafted Dany’s turn as a conflagration of factors ranging from the power-loneliness paradigm Brian spoke of, the hereditary nature of Targaryen madness, and the unbelievable trauma that Dany experienced in her life that only accelerated in the previous episodes. Of course it was rushed, which was a choice they made. But it is not wholly out of character for her. In other words, to me, it wasn’t the decision to make her “turn” but the speed in which they did it. Yes, I would have preferred another ending, but part of being an adult is accepting things we can’t change. So that’s my process moving forward…
MCS: Hands down, one of my favorite connections that occurred in the twisted world of Game of Thrones was the bonding moments between Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister. Although it ended in devastating fashion (this is GOT remember…), the times they confided in one another, and shared their true versions of themselves down to their very core, were REAL AF. I fear I may be alone here, and I was almost hesitant to bring it up, but I found it absolutely beautiful that Brienne paid tribute to her lost friend and lover by adding his accomplishments into the White Book, the 300-year history of accomplishments by members of the Kingsguard — harkening back to Season 4 where that sweetheart of a king, Joffrey, viscously mocked Jaime for how little is written about him. As a viewer, I feel that the writers and Brienne were giving us the opportunity to walk away from this story with still a little hard-earned love for Jaime (and TONS for Brienne!!!). In this complicated world, and Westeros surely, people can be both good and bad, and Jaime was the most delineating character of this idea of them all. I am curious how you feel about Brienne’s reverant act?
Krissy: I’d love for someone to explain to me why Ser Brienne didn’t put in Jamie’s bio that he knighted the first woman knight and also why she didn’t start a new chapter for HERSELF. Also, why is she not with Sansa in the north has her Queen’s Guard. She made an OATH!
MCS: Fair! Where is Brienne’s chapter?!
GG: As I discussed last week, I think Jaime’s reunion with Cersei, and the way the whole thing “went down” was one of the weaker moments of the last two episodes. But at least I was able to coin the phrase, “Tarthian sexual awakening,” so there’s that.
MCS: Let’s have a little fun to close this thing down! As Bronn attempts to divert government funds to bolster King’s Landing’s sex trade, Arya sets off to backpack across uncharted Westeros, Jon heads once again beyond the wall (with the “Petgate” scandal finally behind him), and Sansa takes her place as the Queen of The North!!! — what do you think the future holds for the characters that made it through this most deadly of seasons? (and feel free to hypothesize about my favorite character Davos’s future…I can’t tell you how happy I am he lives another to day — the self-deprecating voting joke tho!)
GG: Well, first, where are the Dothraki? Daenerys gives her Nuremberg speech to what looks like a khalasar of many thousands, whipping them up in a frenzy at the prospect of endless war. When she’s murdered, wouldn’t you expect this great host to just lose it? Yet, not only does that not happen, but they sort of just disappear. We see Grey Worm announce that he’s taking the Unsullied to Naath, ostensibly to…murder all the inhabitants? We have all this evidence that Grey Worm has turned into a broken man, a villain too traumatized maintain any type of respect or empathy for others. (And what stopped him from murdering Jon for regicide? Daenerys was all he had left to believe in; I don’t understand how he doesn’t kill Jon extrajudicially.) But the Dothraki don’t even get a chance to state clearly, looking directly into the camera, what they’re next move would be.
It’s hard to give an adequate Stand By Me ending, as I don’t feel as invested in their future adventures as I did in this story…and partly because of the direction of the plot. To some extent, maybe, I’m more interested in the social, economic, and political dynamics that will emerge in this new Westerosi order. What does Sansa’s rule look like? Will it be marked by food shortages, high taxation, and residual trauma? She’ll have to raise revenues necessary to rebuild the North, including Winterfell. How will she feed her people? And will she marry again, and maintain her line of succession, or will she “marry her realm” like Elizabeth I for the purpose of stability and personal mistrust.
Will Arya, as Krissy eluded to, be a Columbus figure, bringing slavery and disease to another continent? Is this something that should be celebrated? Or is she just another trader, going from port to port, buying and selling, bringing information? The history of the Houses of Westeros, including House Stark, includes reckless maritime explorers, many of whom are never heard from again. Perhaps that will be her fate?
Jon is exiled, once again, to the Night’s Watch. But as many have pointed out, even if there are still some sworn brothers up at the Wall, what purpose would the Night’s Watch have in a post-White Walkers world? Tyrion states, there must always be a place for bastards and criminals, or something along those lines, but without a sense of duty and purpose, the Night’s Watch and its rules of celibacy and disconnection for family is superfluous. But it’s clear this is more of a wink-wink-nudge-nudge as Jon either found no Night’s Watch to re-join, or wasn’t going to re-join in the first place; we see him going North of the Wall, with the door to Westeros literally closing behind him. So is he setting out for bawdy and ribald adventures with Tormund, his trusty direwolf by his side? It sure doesn’t feel like that in the episode. Jon just seems sad and defeated. And maybe he remains that way.
Bran has much the same problems as Sansa. How can he raise revenue to build, feed his people, and keep his Lords happy, when his kingdom is coming out of a devastating period of civil war? What happened to the debt owed to the Iron Bank of Braavos? That is a huge issue that hangs over much of the plot in the books and, to some extent, in the show. I do think his supernatural powers, though, will help him anticipate enemy threats and tap into the Weirwood Wikipedia to help him rule in a way that mitigates historical mistakes.
And given Bran’s idiosyncrasies, how will his Small Council respond? Obviously, Bran is a “big picture guy,” so he’s going to leave up to Tyrion, Hand/COO of the kingdom, to sweat the small stuff. Samwell will probably be helpful in this effort, as he is very much an advocate for evidence-based thinking and reading books. Who else is on the Kingsguard with Brienne and Podrick Payne? And who wins the debate between Bronn and Davos? My sense is Bronn, but at the end of the day, both prerogatives are important for the social and political culture of King’s Landing. I hope Davos eventually gets to go home to Rainwood, the seat he was given by Stannis the Mannis, who — by the way — is still alive in the books. I said above that Tyrion became the conscience of the show when he committed himself to Dany’s radical mission of the “breaking the wheel.” I would add that Davos has been a strong conscience for the books and, in some ways, the show as well. Davos has a better connection to the experience of common people, and is not afraid — or, at least, if he is afraid, still able — to speak truth to power. I’m glad he got to live.
So, now, as my watch ends, I leave you with one final plea: read the damn books. After all, maybe George will modify the endings since, you know, we’ve been waiting on the next book since July 2011. Either way, they’re rich and detailed and well-paced. You won’t be disappointed.