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The Game of Thrones finale had a chance to break the wheel. It upheld the status quo.

The long-awaited series finale, “The Iron Throne,” proves Game of Thrones was never interested in breaking cycles of power.

Daenerys in the “Game of Thrones” finale.
Daenerys’s glory was sweet but short-lived.
HBO
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

As the dust settles over Westeros after Game of Thrones’ series finale, the eight-season battle for the Iron Throne has come to an end, and the person seated on the famously prickly chair — at least symbolically, since Drogon melted the actual throne — both is and isn’t a surprise. On the one hand, the new ruler of Westeros is arguably someone whom many fans least expected. But on the other, given Game of Thrones’ often contentious politics, what happened in “The Iron Throne” was completely predictable.

Game of Thrones has always pursued a narrative agenda built around violent spectacle, quite often at the expense of its gender politics, its racial politics, and its largely untenable world-building. Ultimately, the Iron Throne itself got shafted in this exchange, because the show’s final solution to its years of shortchanging all those other elements amounted to, “Eh, just let whoever’s left after all the bloodshed be in charge.” If Game of Thrones was ever interested in broadening the possibilities for Westerosi political leadership beyond simply continuing the monarchy and the status quo — well, that interest clearly faded at some point.

The show has chosen a ruler and a ruling strategy, and it’s not a great look

Headed into the finale, most predictions, including from Vox’s staff, centered on the possibility of Jon Snow killing Daenerys — which did indeed happen in the finale — and taking the throne as the last legitimate Targaryen ruler. Even scenarios that foresaw others on the throne, like Sansa, Tyrion, or a Sansa-Tyrion alliance, posited that it would essentially be Jon’s to give away to someone else.

But hardly anyone suggested that Jon would have no say in who ultimately won the throne, or that the popular choice to be the new ruler would not be Sansa, who’s been ruling capably in the North, or Tyrion — who gave a rousing speech nominating the ultimate chosen leader: Bran Stark, a.k.a. the Three-Eyed Raven, a.k.a. the semi-human library database of Westeros.

To their credit, Bran and his new Hand Tyrion did establish a ruling small council full of trusted advisers, some seasoned and some not so seasoned. Given that Bran has never been one to trust others’ advice over the catalog of information in his head, however, it’s not clear if the council will serve any effective purpose. Not to mention that Bran has basically become the Westerosi equivalent of an internet addict who spends all his time surfing Wikipedia and playing video games. He barely seems interested in real people these days, much less in the human race beyond the abstract, and in fact spent his first official council meeting leaving Tyrion to rule while he went warging in search of a dragon, so I’m sure that will work out well!

But even more notable is that nearly all of the small council members are, uh, men. The sole exception, so far, is Ser Brienne, whose feats have entirely been achieved among her male peers within the field of battle, and whose strength has been framed in purely masculine terms. She has this in common with the only two remaining female contenders for the new small council, Arya Stark and Yara Greyjoy. Each of them has succeeded as a fighter alongside the men around them; each of them has, to some degree, overtly rejected displays of femininity. The implications are clear: Women who explicitly embrace traditional femininity will not be making decisions for the future of the six kingdoms of Westeros.

The gender gap is probably partly because there were always more men than women on Game of Thrones, and in its final chaotic season, the show actually managed to kill most of its major remaining female characters. So on one level, it’s hardly surprising that Bran’s council is mostly men.

On another level, however, it’s ... more than a little disappointing. Game of Thrones was initially built on a premise of subverting established high fantasy tropes, and surely one of the most innate fantasy tropes of all involves the idea that only men are fit to rule. After a final season that saw two powerful queens reduced, respectively, to going mad and dying whimpering in a cave collapse, the show’s choice to place the future stability of Westeros on a bunch of male shoulders feels deeply regressive and thoughtless.

The show’s suggestion that male rulers are better at unifying the realm doesn’t make a lot of sense in retrospect

Let’s not forget that of all potential rulers, Sansa Stark is the only one who’s consistently been thinking of the good of the people, while undertaking long-term strategies to help her region make it through the long winter. (She arguably showed off the only long-term strategy of the episode, by declaring the North an independent kingdom, over which she will continue to rule.) Bran had his moment earlier in the season when he dropped out of his head long enough to tell everyone, kinda, how to conquer the Night King. But in terms of experience, survival skills, and actual proven leadership ability, Sansa is by far the most capable ruler Westeros has at this point. It’s great that she still gets to rule the North, but if you look at Game of Thrones from a modern sociopolitical perspective, this seems a lot like a gender-based consolation prize.

If the show had presented this outcome and the makeup of Bran’s council as a problem, it could have laid the groundwork for an interesting future for Westeros, or at least an interesting round of debate about how Westeros could have evolved away from or expanded the current leadership. Instead, the show presented Bran’s leadership and the makeup of his council as unequivocally positive developments for the realm. Varys’s earlier statement that having a man on the throne would help unify the seven kingdoms — now the six kingdoms, given Winterfell’s independence — seems to have been taken as a given.

It’s odd that the show wouldn’t do more to push back against the idea that a woman wouldn’t be fully accepted by her male counterparts as ruler. After all, Cersei Lannister spent all of season seven ruling more or less successfully over King’s Landing, following her admittedly atrocious act of domestic terrorism at the Sept of Baelor. And this final season also saw a woman get knighted by a room full of her delighted male peers in blatant defiance of old traditions.

Instead of thoroughly challenging those traditions, however, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss seem to have simply thrown up their hands and shrugged, “Medieval politics favored men over women, so what can you do?”

The women of Game of Thrones deserved better — and so did fans who wanted to see them break the wheel

But this ending hardly justifies the blatant sexism and often misogynistic treatment of women over Game of Thrones’ long and often controversial run. The women of Westeros have been portrayed as fully active and engaged in directing their own survival and the survival of their houses, often while also making serious plays for the throne. It’s arguably been the women, far more than most of Game of Thrones’ male characters, whose choices have driven the show’s narrative. (And often, it’s been the failure of the men to listen to the women around them that has led to the most glaring plot wrinkles. Thinking of you, Catelyn Stark!)

But in its last two seasons, Game of Thrones killed off nearly all of its most active and powerful women: Olenna Tyrell, Ellaria Sand, Lyanna Mormont, Melisandre, Cersei Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen. As hard as it’s been to say goodbye to all these fascinating characters, losing them would have been less bitter had their storylines not furthered a regressive narrative. After all these women fought for — for survival, for conquest, for power, to save humanity, and/or for a better world — they all died so that Game of Thrones could ultimately establish a council of mostly white dudes sitting in rulership over Westeros.

Moreover, this episode is far from signaling a broken cycle of governments arising out of established power bases rather than, say, the democratic will of the people. (In fact, Sam brings up this suggestion only to be roundly laughed at by the other lords.) Instead, this ending sees one of the most powerful houses in the realm being placed on the throne in the form of Bran Stark. I’m not saying that Tyrion should have led Game of Thrones’ ensemble in a rousing chorus from 1776 and then had everyone sign the Magna Carta or something, but if ever there was a moment for the people of Westeros to rethink how they establish governments, this should have been it.

Instead, it’s back to a single male ruler and a predominantly male council, and despite Bran’s emphasis that future rulers will now be chosen by the noble houses of Westeros rather than monarchical lines of succession, there’s no sign that things have changed in a way that would challenge the established power networks of the government.

That’s quite a letdown for a series that had the potential to do so much more.

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