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Why Game of Thrones Ends With a New Beginning

Photo: HBO

The Game of Thrones series finale begins with a series of images that continue the somber mood established in the preceding episode: Tyrion walking solemnly through the streets of King’s Landing (the smallfolk relegated once again to poignant, dead window dressing); Jaime and Cersei curled around one another as if back in the womb, a tiny pocket of humanity surrounded by rubble; a massive, red-and-black Targaryen flag draping the blitzed Red Keep as the Dothraki and Unsullied ululate and stamp their wordless approval of Daenerys’s rousing, chilling speech.

In the second half of “The Iron Throne,” though, the ash clouds clear and the mood brightens. The closing beats of the finale show each Stark child on the stirring precipice of a new adventure: ruling a newly independent kingdom, warging off to find a dragon, sailing off into the New World, or venturing beyond the Wall with the Free Folk. Jon smiles to see his good boy Ghost again; Arya barely conceals a grin as she looks over the wolf-carved prow of her ship. Sansa’s lips part ever so slightly (with wonder?) as she sits on her throne and surveys the bannermen acclaiming her the first-ever queen in the North. Even Bran the Broken displays what, in his limited palette of facial expressions, passes for a smile, as he leaves his Small Council to go in search of Drogon. While Ramin Djawadi’s score shifts into a hopeful refrain of the theme song, we see Jon and a Wildling ensemble, featuring a conspicuous number of gamboling children, march past a solitary, green shoot. Winter is passing, it would seem.

This ending, with its tonal shift from the devastating horrors of war to the beginnings of a bright adventure, leaves a lot of narrative threads hanging, like what sort of nation-building Bran and his council will engage in (RIP, George R.R. Martin’s dream of a ripping yarn about tax policy) or what we’re supposed to understand a “good leader” looks like, after all that. It solidifies the show’s transition, outlined so well in Zeynep Tufekci’s recent essay, from a story about characters that are meaningfully embedded within sociological constructs to one about the psychology of individual, narrative-anchoring heroes.

But by gathering up the pieces of what was unleashed in the penultimate episode and then throwing them up in the air, “The Iron Throne” also typified a narrative pattern established through seven seasons of Game of Thrones finales. This finale, like the ones that came before, isn’t a door that closes; it’s one that opens.

The hinge this door swings on can be found in the pivotal scene, exactly halfway through the episode, where Daenerys and Jon meet in the bombed-out Great Hall. Like the closing scenes with the Starks, it’s a moment that looks to a possible future.

“Build the new world with me,” Daenerys pleads. But the Dragon Queen’s grand sociopolitical vision has always been rather undercooked. Or to spin it more positively — as she does — the fruits of her revolution are so radical, they are somehow beyond imagining. “It’s not easy to see something that’s never been before,” she assures Jon. To his questions, all she can offer is something like Potter Stewart’s famous test for obscenity: It will be a good world because she knows what is good. And Jon knows what “good” is, too, she insists. This knowledge isn’t shaped by their collective years of turmoil and experience, or the lessons of their many failures, but is something more innate, more innocent — Daenerys says she knew it when she was a little girl who couldn’t count to 20, and he knew it when he was a little boy with a bastard’s name. He asks for assurance; she demands childlike faith.

But just as children’s drawings lack perspective, shading and nuance, the picture of Daenerys’s good world remains empty and unspecified. (Like me, you may also find the etymology of utopia — Greek for “no place” — evocative here.) How she plans to square her imperial thirst for authoritarian rule and her stated goals of universal human liberation are unclear to anyone, including, one guesses, herself.

This gap in Daenerys’s vision puts her in good company with the rest of Game of Thrones’ characters. Because in a show full of people obsessed with history — family history, dynastic history, the collective memory of a civilization — no one seems to have spent much time thinking about what the future should look like. Besides the numerous attempts to scry from old, scattered prophecies, or the odd revel of private fantasy — Jon and Ygritte spinning tales in that cave about an alternate outcome for themselves — the characters in GOT are relentlessly focused on the here and now and the threats on the immediate horizon. In the teeth of a years-long civil war, they have focused on the enemies standing right before them: rival armies, homegrown uprisings, hordes of magical undead. Even the annihilating threat of the White Walkers couldn’t rouse a response from the living until enough people literally looked upon the wights with their own eyes. What sort of new world could be built on such thin imaginative foundations?

A generous reading might take Daenerys’s lack of detailed plans for the world she wants to rebuild as the show’s denunciation of her conqueror ethos, an exposure of the lie at the heart of her imperial project. But her silence is generally characteristic of Game of Thrones in its latter days, which hasn’t had much interest in imagining the aftermath of its explosions. What happened after Cersei destroyed the Great Sept of Baelor, wiping out legions of lords and an entire religious movement? The story doesn’t say because it had to get on with the plot. After seasons of buildup, the White Walkers evaporated like so many snowflakes — leaving many viewers with a hollow sense of loss, or being duped, for having expected more. Even Daenerys herself has a scant epilogue — once Drogon flies away, only Grey Worm seems left to spare a thought for her. The council of surviving nobles, and the show itself, paper over the emotional scarring that’s sure to be left among the kingdom’s traumatized people in the wake of Daenerys’s terrible choice.

It’s as if, faced with the anxiety of ending this bloody tale, the show responds by simply putting inky pen to paper to begin fresh ones. The final, intercut shots of the three Stark children — Arya walking the ship deck among the sailors, Sansa processing down the aisle of the Winterfell throne room, Jon cutting a path through the masses of Free Folks — have a ceremonial feel, as if the story is passing the baton to each of them.

The rousing conclusion of “The Iron Throne” takes the revolutionary promise of Daenerys’s evocative phrase, “a new world,” and places that spirit in the stories and faces of the three Starks. Which is why Bran, the Stark who stayed behind, is left out of this montage. He’s the one sibling who can’t face the future eagerly, warily, or any which way at all. The omniscience that lets Bran see backward and forward in time may make him the ideal lord of the Six Kingdoms, according to Tyrion’s strained rationalization, but it renders him inert and therefore a poor vehicle for a viewer’s sense of wonder and intrigue.

Because here, the show tries to have its utopian cake and eat it, too, denouncing Daenerys’s path to the promised land while still reaping the thrills of an open horizon, an uncharted sea. But its stirring sweep elides the fact that little seems to have changed in the world Sansa, Arya, and Jon are leaving behind. In place of monarchy we have something like an oligarchic republic, but there’s still a king and a Small Council, and while King’s Landing may have new sewers and fancy brothels, Tyrion’s civic project seems more likely to be a reconstruction than a reimagining. We don’t even need new heroes — our avatars into the yet-to-be-written sequels of A Song of Ice and Fire are still the Stark children. Revolution, remember, can also mean a complete circuit that brings us back to the beginning; a “regress rather than progress,” as Melvin Lasky wrote in his book Utopia and Revolution.

Personally, I struggled with my reaction to these final scenes. I found myself moved by them, excited by them, but I also felt a bit sheepish for getting carried away as I watched them. Their abruptness rankled. And I empathize with my many fellow viewers who felt cheated by all the gaps in these final seasons, and who mourn the loss of a story that once had a keen social imagination, in which codes of honor and social mores and history stood in for the divine, making us feel wonder at the smallness and fragility of our little lives.

But the more I sat with it, the more it felt like a gift. As the GOT-industrial complex turns its attention backward, to an endless series of prequels, these visions of the Starks looking forward feel like invitations to do what the show and its characters did not, or could not — imagine new futures, ones we might write ourselves. After all, one theme “The Iron Throne” does carry through from the earliest episodes is that stories are meant to be doubted and second-guessed. Tyrion may offer the simplistic notion to the assembled lords and ladies that stories are “what unites people,” as if writing the world’s lamest freshman sociology paper, but the finale doesn’t ask us to accept that stories cannot also be tools of division, justifying propaganda, or privately healing fictions. Just before Daenerys dies, she recalls her brother’s spectacular depiction of the Iron Throne as being made of a thousand swords of Aegon’s enemies — a callback to the time Littlefinger offered that very origin story as an example of the collective lie nations are built on. The history book Sam Tarly brings to the Small Council leaves out Tyrion Lannister, which is played off for a laugh, but we know that any narrative of the War of the Five Kings that omits Tyrion would be a hopelessly suspect chronicle. The tender moment when Brienne, the new Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, finishes Jaime’s entry in The Book of Brothers may have felt quietly satisfying, but we know that that dispassionate list of facts and events and its dry conclusion — “Died protecting his queen” — leaves out an ocean of color and feeling.

“Last night was an ending, but also a beginning,” wrote George R. R. Martin the day after the finale aired. He was gesturing toward the storytelling futures of the showrunners and writers, the cast, and himself as a producer and novelist. But there’s no reason we can’t pick up the pen, too.

Why Game of Thrones Ends With a New Beginning