In 2011, Game of Thrones premiered with the story of a vast continental kingdom wracked with political tension. Westeros was introduced as a collection of once-independent kingdoms, riven by ethnic and religious divisions, governed by a king who had no real desire to rule, and who, we would quickly learn, had no legitimate heirs. Immediately upon Robert Baratheon’s death, the Seven Kingdoms devolved into a war of succession between rivalrous, power-hungry nobles, some of whom took the opportunity to claim kingship for themselves. Now, many years of blood and strife later, our saga comes to a conclusion. Peace and stability have returned to Westeros, with Sansa Stark declaring the North’s independence and her brother Bran taking the throne. Eight seasons after the saga began, we leave a fractious, divided continent overseen by a ruler who, uh, doesn’t want to rule, and, hmm, has no natural heirs. How do you say plus ça change in Dothraki?
Westeros is screwed. I know that the viewer is meant to take away from the final scene of the High Council bickering over ships and brothels a warm feeling of familiarity and affection, but it mostly made me anxious for the future of the now-Six Kingdoms. For starters, Bran, the guy who knows what the future holds, is too busy warging in his room by himself to give anyone advice or heads-up warnings, let alone to rule. The most distinguishing feats of his top adviser in his previous position as Hand of the Queen are (1) getting utterly played by Cersei when she promised to bring her army to fight the White Walkers, and (2) being unable to prevent his queen from committing a major war crime. (Though, more on that in a moment.) That Tyrion’s first order of business as Bran’s Hand was to appoint the corrupt and unqualified Bronn of the Blackwater as Master of Coin is not reassuring.
In fairness to Tyrion, he may not have had a choice. Bronn is now Lord of the Reach, the breadbasket of the former Seven Kingdoms. The Reach and its many farms and fertile fields are absolutely essential to the stability of the realm, and Bronn was unquestionably in a good position to make demands — like appointment as Master of Coin. During a prolonged winter season, Bronn’s leverage over Bran will only increase, especially now that literally half of the continent and all of its arable land has been lost to a newly independent North.
Speaking of which: Do Tyrion and Bran think that the unnamed Prince of Dorne — whose ethnically distinct territory was an independent kingdom only 100 years before the events of the show — didn’t notice how easily and blithely Bran let the North slip out of his control? Do they think Yara Greyjoy, lord of the fiercely independent Iron Islands, just wasn’t paying attention? Bran’s first act as king was a display of personal weakness that also immensely weakened his political position. If he can’t guarantee the armies of the North will rally to his side, he will have trouble keeping his realm’s many territories in line, especially if he’s showing favoritism to the Lord of the Reach. (For now, Bran can probably sleep safe knowing that his familial ties to the Kingdom of the North will ensure an alliance, but if there’s one thing the show has demonstrated, it’s that familial ties in Westeros aren’t worth much.)
It was hard, watching the finale, not to shout But this doesn’t solve anything! The grand compromise struck between Grey Worm and the Westerosi nobles leaves us exactly where we began: with a weak and disinterested king plagued by controlling and competitive nobles ruling over largely independent polities. This is, as the show itself has made very, very clear, a recipe for instability, strife, and violence. If anything, Bran’s position is even worse than Robert’s: He doesn’t have even a nominal heir, his kingdom is vastly smaller and devastated by recent wars, his nobles have seen in living memory how easy it is to assert themselves, and there’s an army of impeccably trained eunuch soldiers who hate his guts hanging out on a small tropical island nearby. What’s going to happen during Bran’s reign? What will happen when he dies? Westeros may have achieved an uneasy peace, but it’s one that rests on close personal ties between leading nobles, not on a clear political system or balanced structure of power, and it will only last until those ties begin to fray. As the historian Brent Sirota pointed out in an excellent Twitter thread on Monday morning, “The real problem of the Seven Kingdoms is feudal anarchy and weak governance. Over-mighty subjects. ‘Breaking the wheel’ requires more government, not less. A stronger crown, not ‘emancipation.’”
And yet, we’re supposed to understand Bran’s accession as a happy ending. The story we’re meant to take from the final season is one of a liberator corrupted by power. Daenerys, once a “good” queen, becomes obsessed with emancipation to the point of cruelty. She kills hundreds of innocents in King’s Landing in pursuit of its liberation, and refuses to show mercy to enemy soldiers. Jon Snow is given no choice but to kill her, to prevent her from burning other cities to the ground in the madness of her crusade. The new political order of Westeros is represented in some vague way as better than the Targaryen absolutism that was its alternative — a Westeros free from the iron rule of the (ahem) Eastern despot invader and her armed hordes.
But we’re not exactly toppling a brutal dictatorship for a social democracy, are we? The vast majority of Westerosi would be unable to tell the difference between a peace administered by Daenerys and one administered by Bran (and, in the North, Sansa). The only people for whom this outcome is unquestionably better than another Targaryen dynasty are Westerosi nobles.
There’s another way to look at the final episode: A conquering queen was assassinated in her throne room by a conspiracy of powerful nobles when it became clear that the queen, once hailed by these nobles as a liberator, would not moderate her absolutist ambitions. Upon her death, her assassin’s brother was made king of the realm, and his sister made queen of a newly independent kingdom. If I told you that the reason given for the assassination was than that the Queen had massacred innocents, would you believe it? Or would you think it was obvious late-medieval propaganda, put out after the fact to justify the reign of the winner of the power struggle?
Do we actually know what happened in King’s Landing? Did Targaryen actually kill innocent citizens? It seemed rather out of character, didn’t it? Weren’t all the shots of bells ringing, and of innocents being slaughtered, delivered to us from the point of view Jon, Arya, and Tyrion — that is, the siblings and advisor of the future King? And doesn’t it seem extremely interesting that the four living Stark children are depicted as being preternaturally wise, supernaturally gifted, and always right about every decision?
What I’m asking is: Was season eight an accurate account of the end of the War of the Five Kings? Or is it merely Stark propaganda? Was Daenerys revealed to be a monster and a war criminal, a cruel despot and absolutist? Or was she still, in her dying moments, the conquering, peace-bringing queen she’d always claimed to be, assassinated in cold blood to secure power for venal, grasping Northern nobles?
Okay, okay, the final season of Game of Thrones isn’t Stark propaganda, even if Daenerys is depicted as bizarrely, surprisingly cruel, and the Starks as strangely, conveniently perfect. But it felt like it, probably because it was being written in the same fashion that propaganda would be: after the fact, in order to justify an already-achieved outcome. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are supposed to have received from George R.R. Martin an outline of the story’s major ending beats. I don’t know what plot points Martin outlined for Benioff and Weiss, but it’s hard not to think that the narrative choices they made were designed to make certain beats “okay” to viewers: Daenerys had to turn evil to justify Jon killing her; Sansa had to be a political genius to justify her position as ruler of the North. Over the last few seasons, the show has increasingly turned to character psychology, rather than questions of power and political economy, to determine narrative outcomes. It makes for a somewhat choppy narrative. But it certainly rationalizes the choice of ruling monarchs and ultimate political order of the show, just as propaganda would be designed to do.
Of course, it’s also possible that Martin will make the same narrative and character choices to reach the same points that Benioff and Weiss did. But that seems unlikely. Whatever else you might say about Martin, he has a clear sense of the power dynamics of the world he built, of the constraints that world places on the choices his characters can make, and of the structural consequences of those choices. I hope New Republic columnist Alex Pareene is right when he suggests that the delay in finishing the series is due to Martin thinking through the political questions of his world carefully and seriously. If Westeros is doomed to another war of succession, at least Martin will know it.