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The Essential Question for Game of Thrones’ Endgame

Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO

The image I’ll remember most from this week’s episode of Game of Thrones is the sight of Brienne, our beloved warrior woman, tall and regal in her widow-like weeds, weeping over Jaime’s departure. It’s been a controversial moment among fans, but to me it was beautiful, raw, and primal. Yes, one of the powerful things about Brienne’s story line has been watching how she flouts the patriarchal structures of Westeros ― and pop culture in general ― that would demand she find a more traditional romantic or chivalric role to play in this tale. But she has always been shown to be a woman of deep, passionate feeling, and she and Jaime have had many seasons to develop respect, trust, and a shared sense of physical vulnerability. I don’t believe that romance between the two was inevitable or even necessary ― their relationship didn’t require a “consummation” ― but neither did it seem out of character. And I can believe that after the exhaustion of the battle, and the flush of being knighted and then brought into this entirely new dimension of experience, she might give her emotions space to unfurl under the deep, quiet cover of night ― one of the few shots of the Winterfell courtyard where no one is shown peeping from a parapet, ready to turn a seemingly private interaction into a performance.

It may also help that I didn’t read the thrust of that scene as Brienne pleading with Jaime to stay out of simple lovesickness. Instead, I felt her drawing on a Catelyn Stark–esque depth of power to will someone she loved away from a dark family past and toward a brighter future. “You’re not like your sister, you’re better than she is,” she says, holding his face in her lovely knightly hands. “You’re a good man and you can’t save her. You don’t need to die with her. Stay here. Stay with me.”

Brienne is offering Jaime a vision of a life that might finally cement his long redemption arc: a romance between two grown-ups, and a clean separation from the tangle of his birth family. But Jaime can’t take that path, of course. Whether he’s off to kill Cersei or defend her, he cannot resist returning to his sister’s side.

The gravitational pull of family has been an ongoing theme in Game of Thrones. It’s a force our characters are constantly trying to live up to, overcome, return to, or escape from, but it’s always there, with its founding myths and old grudges. Throughout “The Last of the Starks,” characters feel the inexorable pull toward home and the families who shaped them. In the wake of the Battle of Winterfell, Tormund heads back to the Free North. Sam, Gilly, Lil’ Sam, and Lil’ Maybe-Jon leave, presumably to Horn Hill, where he will take up the lordship he’s inherited following his father and brother’s death. When Sansa sets a direwolf pin on his corpse, Theon becomes, in death, a symbolic member of the Starks, who were always his “original” family in the emotional, narrative logic of the show.

The episode’s titular last Starks, the Pevensie-ish quartet of Jon, Sansa, Bran, and Arya, are the clearest example of how the episode turned its characters homeward, toward the childhood family. The camera frames the four of them like a superhero poster, first in the map room and then again in the godswood, where Arya draws a line around them all. “We’re family, the four of us. The last of the Starks.” The dramatic irony is high as Arya says to Jon, “You’re my brother. Not my half-brother or my bastard brother. My brother.” Still, when Sansa asks how she can swear not to repeat something she hasn’t yet heard and Jon says, “because we’re family,” there’s no sense that his secret changes the fundamental nature of those foundational bonds. And though that oath doesn’t manage to secure Sansa’s silence, her decision to eventually share the information with Tyrion is framed as springing from a desire to keep the man she still sees as her brother safe. “The men in my family don’t do well in the capital,” she says to Tyrion in a grave understatement.

As “The Last of the Starks” sets up a forthcoming confrontation between Jon and Daenerys, it makes clear that Jon’s family is both a source of support for him as well as a wedge between the two lovers. “I want it to be the way it was between us,” Daenerys says to him. But the roots of their romance are only a few episodes old ― his connection to the Starks stretches back to his birth (and nearly a decade for us viewers at home).

In addition to popular, penis-based acclaim ― and people thinking he’s not so huffy, thirsty for the throne, or potentially latently insane ― Jon’s fitness for the throne seems bolstered by the fact that he has a powerful family behind him. Daenerys’s claim to the throne is rooted in her lineage, as well, but Jon has more than just a famous name: He has illustrious living siblings in the Hero of Winterfell, the Lady of Winterfell, and the Three-Eyed Raven. At the same time the Starks are closing ranks around one another, Daenerys is becoming increasingly isolated. Jorah is gone; her “child” Rhaegal is gone; Missandei is gone. (As an aside, I won’t go so far as to say that Missandei was Dany’s “best friend,” as some have framed it. Fridging one of the only two black characters was bad enough; I don’t need to help the show make that choice more emotionally resonant by retconning a deeper relationship than the two women actually had.)

Jon and Daenerys’s love for one another could theoretically provide a resolution to this tangled knot, whether through a strategic, harmonizing marital alliance or by forcing Jon to support the queen to whom he’s pledged his loyalty and love. But Game of Thrones has never seemed to place much stock in romance as a path forward.

Again and again, the show has shown romance failing to break past clannish concerns, from the sincere love between Robb and Talisa Stark (finished when both are murdered over a broken oath between House Stark and the Freys), to the budding affection between Myrcella Baratheon and Trystan Martell (concluded when Myrcella is kidnapped and then murdered over the feud between their parents), to the layered relationship between Shae and Tyrion (finished for good when he finds her in his father’s bed and … murders her.) And a romance that thwarted established family alliances ― the one between Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark ― is, of course, the original inciting trauma of the entire show. Not knowing that Lyanna went with Rhaegar willingingly, her betrothed Robert Baratheon overthrew a dynasty. “Think of the past 20 years. The war, the murder, the misery,” Tyrion laments to Varys. “All of it because Robert Baratheon loved someone who didn’t love him back.”

In “The Last of the Starks,” many romantic hopes are dashed ― Missandei and Grey Worm will never see the shores of Naath now ― but it specifically shows romance, and the new family structures they might provide, being set or pushed aside for the families of our characters’ birth.

Brienne and Jaime’s newfound expressions of feeling for one another can’t keep him from returning to the Lannister roost, despite the warm, quiet sense of peace we see in those quick flashes of Brienne’s chambers. There’s a brief but pointed reference to Tyrion’s first wife during the drinking game he plays with Brienne, Podrick, and Jaime ― a callback to season one, when Tyrion recalls how his father had his young wife Tysha gang-raped out of rage that his son, as little regarded as he was, would marry a commoner. And though sweet, besotted Gendry has now been given something like a family ― a family name ― through a wave of Daenerys’s royal hand, he cannot tempt Arya toward a husband. Her gentle rejection is even more poignant when we remember that in season three, when Gendry told her he was staying with the Brotherhood Without Banners because “they’re brothers … [and] I’ve never had a family,” she declared, like a forthright child, “I can be your family.” Gendry’s retort ― “You wouldn’t be my family, you’d be my lady” ― wistfully echoes her response to his plea this week, that she become the Lady of Storm’s End: “I’m no lady.” It seems entirely in character that Arya would not only reject the bonds of matrimony, but in the same hour repledge her bonds to her birth family, just as she did when she left the tutelage of the Faceless Men and declared that she wasn’t “no one,” but was in fact someone very specific: Arya Stark of Winterfell.

As Nate Jones wrote in his dissection of the mad queen Daenerys theory, trying to predict exactly where the story will go in its final moments is a bit of a mug’s game. But if the show is really setting us up to have family trump love, it may go some way to explain why Jon’s romance with Daenerys has always fallen a bit flat — more insisted upon than demonstrated, especially when compared to the strong connections between the Stark children (or his romance with the wildling Ygritte). Whether or not the show follows through with the trend it has established, it’s stacking the emotional deck for us to root for the Starks siblings versus Dany — or, if Jon does choose Daenerys over his siblings, for us to feel the pain of that betrayal more acutely.

This long-running tension between family and love adds a new gloss to the incestuous nature of Jon and Dany’s pairing. More than merely a squicky sideshow or a way of heightening the sense that we’re watching a historical fantasy, the incest sends the central clash into hyperdrive ― if Jon makes moves against Daenerys, he’d be betraying his love and his family. However, “The Last of the Starks,” and all the 70-ish hours that came before it, have set us up to understand that the Starks are Jon’s true family, in a way the Targaryens can never be. I’m more inclined to believe that, for this pair, the incest revelation is a bit of plot sabotage to make sure that the political angst can’t be easily solved through a marital alliance.

For the other pair of lovers who’ll play starring roles in the endgame, however, incest is absolutely fundamental to their relationship. For Jaime and Cersei, the threads of love and family are so deeply entangled, they are functionally one and the same. “Jaime and I are more than brother and sister,” Cersei tells Ned Stark in season one, when he confronts her about the siblings’ secret. “We shared a womb, came into this world together, we belong together.” Not just siblings, but twins who looked so much alike as children that their father couldn’t tell them apart, the two share an intense identification with one another as well a keen sense of the differences that cleave them apart. “I could never understand why they treated us differently,” Cersei says, when remembering how much they once resembled each other. “He was heir to Casterly Rock, and I was sold to some stranger like a horse to be ridden whenever he desired.”  In mythic resonance with a long lineage of literary twins, Cersei and Jaime shimmer between being mirror images at one moment and opposites at another.

When Jaime bids farewell to Brienne with a little line that yokes himself to Cersei ― “She’s hateful. And so am I.” ― we don’t know whether he plans to defend his sister or murder her. But either choice would lead to the ultimate reconciliation between family and love, either by saving both or sacrificing both. And either way, it seems destined that they’ll be entwined at the end of their story, just as they were at the beginning.

The Essential Question for Game of Thrones’ Endgame