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Game of Thrones’ finale betrayed the show’s core themes

Game of Thrones’ political realism fell apart in season eight. Tyrion’s appeal for Bran was the fatal blow.

Daenerys Targaryen in the Game of Thrones finale.
HBO

When Game of Thrones premiered, all the way back in 2011, I was a graduate student studying international relations. Part of what captivated me about the show (and the books it was based on) was its political realism: The nuanced motivations of the Seven Kingdoms’ leading players, the mundane workings of the Small Council, and the long history of Westerosi conflict and how it shaped the protagonists’ worldviews. After I graduated and became a journalist covering global affairs, I started writing about the show professionally — publishing piece after piece after piece on how it related to and illuminated the real-world workings of global politics.

Maybe that’s why Game of Thrones’ final episode, “The Iron Throne,” felt like such a personal slap in the face.

The resolution to the defining conflict of the series — the battle for the Iron Throne and the future of the Westerosi monarchy — is essentially determined by Tyrion Lannister making an impassioned speech. Sansa Stark wins independence for the North without so much as an argument from any of other assembled lords. Jon Snow returns to the Night’s Watch, which no longer has any reason to exist, and then maybe-possibly defects to the wildlings? And Arya Stark, for no real reason, decides to become Christopher Columbus.

In its final season, Game of Thrones dispensed almost entirely with trying to make sense of its characters’ internal motivations — let alone the complex political reality that its psychological realism initially helped create.

People did things because the plot required them to, not because their actions were consistent with their past behavior. Battles were decided purely by narrative convenience. In one episode, Euron pretty easily killed one of Dany’s dragon with a well-aimed ballista, but in the next episode, no one could seem to hit the sole dragon that remained. And the politics of the show, a key part of what made it feel so different and fresh way back in 2011, completely fell apart — to the point where it was impossible to treat the series as having anything like verisimilitude.

Unlike some viewers, I don’t object to some of Game of Thrones’ big concluding plot points per se. Daenerys going mad could have made sense, as could Bran becoming the king. The problem was the execution: The show so prioritized shock value over cogent character development and attention to political detail that the complex reality of Westeros — the element of the series that had previously engaged so many viewers so deeply — crumbled like a King’s Landing tower blasted by dragonfire.

It’s a deeply frustrating end to what was, at its best, one of the deepest and most exciting shows on television.

The way the Game of Thrones was won made no sense

Let’s zoom in on the resolution of the Iron Throne plot, the show’s core concern over eight seasons.

So Tyrion is in jail, apparently for several weeks. He is brought befor an assembly of the Seven Kingdoms’ most powerful lords and ladies — from protagonists like Sansa and Arya to side characters like Yara Greyjoy and whoever the new Prince of Dorne is. Everyone has apparently decided to meet to negotiate Tyrion and Jon’s fate with Grey Worm and the Unsullied, a discussion that could potentially end in yet another brutal battle if they can’t work out a compromise. The fate of the country hangs in the balance.

In the past, a meeting of this importance could have taken up an entire episode of Game of Thrones. The show would have paid close attention to each of its main characters’ objectives and approaches to the discussion, with the side characters’ interests and motivations somewhat outlined as well.

It’s not just the North that wants independence, for example: Both the Iron Islands and Dorne are historically separate from the rest of Westeros and might well be looking to secure their own freedom from the Iron Throne. Gendry, the new lord of the Stormlands, might be looking to shore up his shaky claim on his title (as a bastard elevated by the now-dead Daenerys). These conflicting interests could have theoretically led to a tense and difficult negotiation, one that lasted several days in show time and produced a surprising outcome.

What happens instead? They decide to elect a king out of the blue, seemingly just because Tyrion suggests it. He suggests that Bran Stark, an unknown to most of Westeros’ nobility, should be king. He makes a speech about Bran’s magical powers, which no one really understands, and suggests that Bran’s command of narrative means that he should be entrusted with near-absolute power. In the show’s universe, the speech should have been greeted with as much laughter as Sam’s attempt to invent democracy.

Game of Thrones finale Bran Stark
Him?
HBO

But that’s not what happens. All of the assembled nobles seem to be moved by the power of Tyrion’s words, and everyone except Sansa (who declares that Winterfell will opt out and remain independent) votes to make Bran king — as well as to revolutionize the nature of the Westerosi monarchy by making it elected rather than determined by birth in perpetuity. There is no meaningful debate or discussion whatsoever. How does this affect Dorne, the Iron Isles, the Reach, the Vale, the Westlands? Who cares! Tyrion is good at speechifying.

The whole scene felt as though it had been transplanted from a different show — The West Wing, in particular.

The West Wing is defined by its optimistic account of democracy. At its core, Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama believed that people are rational and open to persuasion, and that the American political system centers on people having good-faith conversations about their beliefs and frequently changing their minds as a result. Speeches persuade; the marketplace of ideas works.

This is not how American politics — or politics anywhere, really — actually works. It’s a naive vision that Game of Thrones has spent years deconstructing, pointing out all of the ways in which self-interest and ideology not only make it difficult for people to compromise, but sometimes lead to war. And yet, the end of this long struggle for supremacy ends in the most saccharine way possible: all the lords agreeing to a new king, without any debate, because Tyrion offered up some pretty words about stories.

The problem isn’t that Bran became king, per se. One could imagine an episode of Game of Thrones in which a deadlocked council, riven by years of division and war, ends up electing a political unknown like Bran as a compromise after a debate that nearly starts another conflict. I could have bought that.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the scene is all about Tyrion — who, as he admitted earlier in the episode, has been spectacularly wrong about everything for seasons now — persuading everyone to do what he says just because he said so. It’s nonsense.

The Bran negotiation captures Game of Thrones’ problem in microcosm

There were parts of the series finale that I liked, to be sure. Jon killing Daenerys felt right for both characters. Drogon’s attempts to revive his mother were touching, as was Jon’s reunion with Ghost. Everyone laughing at Sam felt right, as did Sansa’s demolition of Edmure Tully when he stood up to make his own appeal for the throne (“Uncle, sit down” will probably become the bane of uncles everywhere).

But the episode’s big beats felt entirely unearned or utterly incoherent.

I like the idea of Sansa winning northern independence, and the shot of her coronation was magnificent. But how come everyone just agreed to that with no objection or discussion? Why didn’t anyone else demand independence or other concessions from the crown in exchange for staying in Seven Kingdoms?

Game of Thrones finale Sansa
Awesome but politically dubious.
HBO

If that felt emotionally satisfying but somewhat unrealistic, Arya’s turn toward exploring “west of Westeros” was just plain stupid.

I get that she mentioned wanting to explore in a previous season, but why would she abandon her sister and brother after just being reunited with them? Isn’t she a trained assassin with skills that could help Sansa prop up her new queendom? And why is a show that just turned one of its most beloved characters into a cautionary tale about imperialism ending with another one of its beloved characters apparently inventing 15th-century European colonialism?

And it’s on and on and on like that.

Jon goes back to the Night’s Watch, which has no reason to exist now that the wildlings are at peace with the Seven Kingdoms and the White Walkers have been destroyed. Somehow the Wall, a massive quasi-magical ice construction, has been repaired in months. And in the very last sequence, Jon — who is obsessed with duty and honor — seems to quit the Night’s Watch and go wandering with wildlings? Then we see a green shoot from a plant peeking up through the snow, as if what was supposed to be the longest winter in recent history, in a world where winters last years, is already ending? Is it because the White Walkers are dead? Who knows!

Why is Bronn, who has no experience with finance, the Master of Coin? Why is Brienne’s final solo scene devoted to her functionally writing Jaime Lannister’s Wikipedia page, rendering her arc subservient to a man’s? Who thought that having a book titled A Song of Ice and Fire appear onscreen was in any way coherent and a good idea? What was the deal with the Lord of Light, the Faceless Men, the Children of the Forest, and all of the other mythological elements that Game of Thrones had built up over the course of eight years?

These are all questions that it’s hard to think of good answers to. Perhaps if there had been a few more episodes in the final season, some of them could have felt more satisfying or lived-in. Instead, they felt rushed.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones showrunners, decided to cut the episode count in their final two seasons from the standard 10 to seven and six as part of a compromise with HBO (which wanted more episodes). This required them to race from plot development to plot development to get to the end. It seems they decided that building up character motivation and complexity was a luxury, gambling that people would just be happy seeing some kind of neat ending for everyone.

But that felt wrong to me, a betrayal of what made Game of Thrones great in the first place. And if early fan reactions I’ve seen are to be believed, I’m not alone.