Dany. Sansa. Bran. Why did the show that used to be so interested in emotion come, in the end, to mistrust it?
This article contains spoilers for the series finale of Game of Thrones.
It went, roughly, like this: The queen who had presented herself as a reformer and savior revealed herself to be, in the final countdown, the opposite. Airborne and seated on her dragon, Daenerys looked down at the populace of King’s Landing, at all those people caught in the crosshairs of others’ political struggles. She heard the bells, their clangs making clear that the city had surrendered. She gave a snarl of rage, and then, acting either on a cruel whim or on a cruel martial assessment—Daenerys’s thought process in that moment was one of many mysteries this season that Game of Thrones’ writers kept gallingly vague—she opened fire. The queen wielded her weapon, and the people below her burned.
That was “The Bells,” the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones. Sunday’s series finale, “The Iron Throne,” begins with some of the few survivors of Daenerys’s decision—Arya, Jon, Davos—surveying its aftermath. They see rubble. Ash. A mother and child, their bodies frozen in a charred embrace. Fast-forward to slightly later in the episode, however, and there is a decidedly new feeling in town. The most iconic structures of King’s Landing have been rebuilt by the labor of hands unknown. A new king has been installed to rule the now–Six Kingdoms, via an ad-hoc collective that’s a little bit Great Counciland a little bit Prom Committee. That king’s advisers, in their first meeting, are rearranging furniture and making jokes. The whole thing has the feel of a sitcom, my colleague Spencer Kornhaber noted, and there is, in particular, a strangely Seinfeldian quality to this latest plot twist—a show about knowing nothing and being nothing ending as a show that is about, simply, nothing. What’s the deal with plumbing?
Which is another way of saying that what happened in “The Bells” was a profound outrage, and what followed in “The Iron Throne” was, in many ways … the opposite. Especially as things speed along to their conclusion, the episode’s events suggest that while, yes, horrifying things occurred in the very recent past, we must not dwell on them. Anger is ugly and undignified and not the proper emotion upon which to close out a long and popular piece of pop culture.
Game of Thrones was compelling in the first place because, in addition to its intriguing geopolitics—Guns, Germs, and Valyrian Steel—it also thought relatively deeply about questions that have preoccupied writers of constitutions and shapers of political systems for centuries: what happens when fallible humans, with their thirst for power and their capacity for pettiness, are asked to govern over other people. As the series went on, though, it became more mistrustful of emotion—and of rage above all. Dany is angry, and that, the implication goes, helps to explain her descent into tyranny. Cersei is angry, and that leads her to a series of political miscalculations. Jon, meanwhile, who has a nearly bottomless capacity for sadness but seems constitutionally incapable of rage? The show has long treated his easy equanimity, even more than his royal bloodline, as the reason that he might be worthy of the throne.
The Seinfeldian turn of Game of Thrones reflects that discomfort with anger. The lols of that first small council meeting are in one way about fan service, certainly—“any more,” Davos corrects Bronn, when the latter makes a reference to “no more coin,” calling back to his much-loved grammar burnfrom Season 7—but the yuks also perform a more broadly ritualistic function. They are meant, as Game of Thrones’ story comes to its conclusion, to cleanse that story of its sins. They are meant to suggest that the horrors of the past are of the past. And that we, the viewers, should move on just as these characters seem to have done. Gallows humor, with a Campbellian spin.
That insistence is there in the characters who make jokes; it is equally present in the character who seems at this point incapable of humor. Bran is the new king: Bran, who ostensibly saw what would happen and did nothing to stop it. Bran, who swept in at the end, assuring all involved that the tragedy they had just survived was a matter of destiny. “You were exactly where you were supposed to be,” he tells a guilt-ridden Jon in the monotone we are meant to assume is evidence of transcendent wisdom. The unavoidable implication, of course, is that all the other yous were exactly where they were supposed to be, as well. The innocent people of King’s Landing—the mother, her daughter, the many other mothers and daughters and fathers and sons whose lives were relegated to the show’s margins—were not in the wrong place at the wrong time when Dany arrived with Drogon. Fate had a different plan for them. They were the sacrifice, Bran is implying, that was made to the show’s cruel and fickle gods.
You could read that another way—that Bran couldn’t have intervened, or that his lack of intervention perhaps saved more innocent lives, in the end—but the show never fully bothers to explain Bran’s powers or their limitations. Bran is Chekhov’s warg, basically, which makes his arc one more thing that Game of Thrones has left insufficiently explained during its run, but which also speaks to a kind of moral laziness. Game of Thrones, in elevating Bran—and in treating his elevation as a happy ending—is making essentially the same argument that Daenerys did, when she insisted to Jon that her dragonian draconianism was justified in the grand scheme of things: Some people in Westeros, nameless and faceless to us if not to those who knew them, had to perish so that a better world might come into existence. They died, so that the Six Kingdoms might live.
We are not meant to do much questioning about the moral calculus of any of this. The show moves on to become a Seinfeldian buddy comedy in part to telegraph that. It makes Bran the effective winner of its “game”—and treats his new reign as a kind of victory—to telegraph that. You might still be horrified about the charred bodies and the nameless victims—but, the show suggests, do not fret. Things are better now. Things will keep being better. We know that because characters who survived the Battle of Winterfell and the genocide of King’s Landing are now making jokes about brothels.
Anger is the emotion of oppression. It is the emotion of those who chafe against injustice. It is the emotion of the many, many people, in Westeros and beyond, who cannot afford to treat the game of thrones as merely a game. Game of Thrones has had, in the final estimation, a terrible relationship with its (extremely few) characters of color, and a deeply fraught relationship with its women, and here is one more way that its failures are plain: The show puts those characters in situations in which rage is the only reasonable response and then doesn’t know what to do with their anger. It takes Sansa’s rage and then stifles it by deciding that she must be grateful to have been raped and abused. It takes Brienne’s rage and assumes she’ll put it to use as an editor of Jaime’s Wikipedia page. It takes Grey Worm’s rage and uses it as a plot device to return Jon to Castle Black. It takes the Dothrakis’ rage, and … forgets about it entirely. Game of Thrones likes to talk about stopped wheels, and broken wheels, but in the end it mistrusts the human emotion that has been, in our own universe as well as the known world, most directly responsible for doing the breaking. It sees anger from the perspective of the entrenched and the powerful: as an inconvenience. As a threat. As a justification for paternalism. If chaos is a ladder, it is a profound privilege to be able to situate oneself above the fray.
Which brings us back, circularities being what they are, to Bran. You could read his instatement as evidence that he has been evil the whole time, plotting it all; you could read it, too, as evidence that his particular role in the massacre of King’s Landing—his complacency, his complicity, his apparent decision to let destiny takes its course—will go not merely unpunished, but in fact rewarded. You could read it as a failure of imagination, since Bran, though “elected” by a committee, is also just what the rulers of Westeros have long been: white and male and in possession of the correct chromosomes. (In the end, no wheels were harmed in the making of this show.) What the Bran-as-ruler development mostly is, though, is Game of Thrones’ final rebuke of anger: Bran’s apparent inability to feel emotion—anger, joy, empathy, anything at all, it would seem—is treated, ultimately, as a gift to the citizens of Westeros. To be angry is to be compromised, suggests the show that has so often failed the angry and the marginalized; wisdom is what happens when, surveying the horrors all around you, you are capable of looking away.
This is a profound misreading—not only of the complexity of the human psyche, but also of the whole of human history. It is also a misreading of the show’s particular moment. Game of Thrones is airing into a political environment that is renegotiating the role that anger—and emotions more broadly—play in political life. The day before “The Iron Throne” premiered in the United States, Joe Biden, who is the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in part because of his cheerful insistence that the wheel is fine as it is, gave a speech. “Some say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity,” Biden said. “That they are angry—and the angrier you are, the better. That’s what they are saying you have to do to win the Democratic nomination. Well, I don’t believe it. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation. That’s what we’ve always been about. Unity.” Togetherness is a nice thought. Unity is a lovely idea. It’s very easy for Joe Biden—just as it appears to have been easy for Dan Weiss and David Benioff—to dismiss anger as self-indulgent and inconvenient and dangerous. It’s easy for others to do the same. Outrage is tempting to belittle—until, that is, the sky breaks open and the fire rains down and the anger becomes inevitable.