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Who won the Game of Thrones — and why it matters — explained

The choice is unexpected, but it fits in with the series’ larger themes about power on both page and screen.

The Iron Throne
Well, the chair didn’t win, at least.
HBO
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Major spoilers for Game of Thrones follow. Seriously. Really major spoilers. Don’t read this if you don’t want to know what happens in the series finale.

The game of thrones is over, just as Game of Thrones is over, and even though Drogon melted down the Iron Throne for scrap, the Seven Six Kingdoms continue apace with a new king — Bran Stark, a.k.a. the Three-Eyed Raven.

It’s safe to say this outcome is not what most people were expecting. Throughout Game of Thrones’ run, the top three predictions for how the show would end usually put power in the hands of Daenerys, Jon Snow, or nobody. (In the “nobody” scenario, the Iron Throne was destroyed, and the Seven Kingdoms became a rudimentary democracy or something similar.) But even the more outsider choices tended to favor experts at realpolitik, like Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark.

But Bran? How? Also, what? Also, why?

Well, as someone who cheekily predicted Bran several years ago for the silliest reason possible — though the first time I made this prediction publicly was on Today, Explained just a few days ago, so really, I should have published it anywhere else before then — I think perhaps I can explain the answers to those questions and how Bran’s ascension to the throne speaks to the show’s larger ideas about power.

No, seriously, Bran?

Game of Thrones
Hey, everybody. I guess I’ll be king now!?
HBO

As Game of Thrones ends, Bran is one of the few remaining realistic candidates for the throne. Tyrion’s not going to do it, Arya is off to sea, Sansa seems content to rule the North, Jon is off to start a new Night’s Watch, and Dany is dead. Plus, the last two seasons of the show have mostly decimated the ruling families of the Seven Kingdoms, so you’re pretty much stuck with Bran or Robin Arryn, that pale sickly child from the Vale (who turned up very, very briefly in this final episode but didn’t have much to say).

But “he’s just kind of still alive, I guess?” isn’t really a satisfying answer as to why Bran is now the king on anything other than a plot level. And because we haven’t read George R.R. Martin’s outline for his final two books — which he provided showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss with before they embarked upon making season four — we can’t know if this is Martin’s idea or just Benioff and Weiss’s solution to the problem. (I would guess it’s Martin’s, because Benioff and Weiss would have been more tempted to go with Sansa, I think.)

Still, there are a few compelling reasons to name Bran as king. One is that, despite suffering heavy losses early on in the series, the Stark family proved remarkably resilient when it came to long-term survival. Three of the five Stark siblings are still alive, as is Jon, who possesses Stark blood via his mother, Lyanna. Compare that to the utter destruction of most of the other royal houses in the Seven Kingdoms, and it starts to become clear why Game of Thrones began as the story of the Stark family contrasted with other royal houses of the Seven Kingdoms.

Which brings me to my next point, which is straight from the books. In A Game of Thrones, the first book in Martin’s series, the very first chapter in the main narrative (i.e., the one following a short prologue revealing the existence of the White Walkers — called the Others in the books) is told from Bran’s point of view. That’s why I predicted Bran might end up on the Iron Throne a few years ago: Martin seems to be a fan of circularity, of events doubling back on themselves, and it made sense to me that the last chapter of his books might also focus on Bran, in which case it would make some degree of sense for him to have a position of at least some power.

Finally, Bran as king makes at least some thematic sense. One of Game of Thrones’ obsessions concerns the impossibility of just leadership, because we are all limited by our human passions, intelligence, and blind spots. Well, Bran — who can see everything that has ever happened — kinda-sorta isn’t human anymore. The implication, then, is that a just and wise ruler is someone who is so disconnected from humanity that his dispassion becomes an asset, even if it weirds people out.

(It’s also worth noting that after a full season of people talking about how maybe the right person to sit on the Iron Throne is someone who doesn’t want it, Bran said in the season’s fourth episode that he basically doesn’t want anything anymore. Stark/Snow 2020: They don’t want anything!)

Now, my personal preference was always “Tyrion invents democracy” as a way to wrap up this series, and he sort of did that, proposing that the lords and ladies of the great houses of the Seven Kingdoms choose all future rulers. Still, the very idea of Bran ending up is king is a bit ridiculous. But maybe that’s the point. Everyone chuckles at the very notion of a democracy that allows everybody in the Seven Kingdoms a vote when Sam Tarly proposes it. Maybe the Seven Kingdoms need to struggle along in monarchy for a while longer, and if they do, well, why not have an all-seeing demigod on the throne to flatly intone about tax policies and land usage? Long live the king!


Correction: Robin Arryn appears very briefly in the series finale. Long live Robin Arryn!

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