A lot happens in each episode of Game of Thrones. So every week, we’re drilling down on one memorable scene in particular. Full spoilers for the series finale, “The Iron Throne,” coming up.
“What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?” Tyrion Lannister asks the surviving elite of Westeros midway through the Game of Thrones finale. He pauses, having run through the incorrect answers before delivering what he believes to be the right one:
“Stories,” he continues. “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”
Tyrion’s monologue was the most important moment of “The Iron Throne.” Not only did it decide the future of the Seven Kingdoms — which became Six after Sansa insisted on Northern independence — but it allowed GoT showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to once and for all declare what it was their mega-hit series valued above all else: good stories.
It makes sense. Not only had Benioff and Weiss been handed one hell of a ripping yarn by George R.R. Martin, but the series itself had long been defined by its love of storytelling. It’s easy now, particularly when we consider the later seasons, to focus mainly on the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Avatar of Unearned Character Shifts spectacle of it all. But so much of this global phenomenon consisted of two people in a room swapping tales of the good old days, or the bad old days, or how they couldn’t tell one from the other. Some of this was a matter of a monologue being cheaper to film than a massacre. But there was always a sense of the tongue, or the quill, being somehow mightier than the many impressive swords we saw swung over the years. The kingdom was bound as much by memory as might. Weaker fighters like Tyrion and Sam survived and even thrived at the end simply because they knew all the old stories. (Sam winds up with a cabinet position essentially because he’s the first man in generations who bothers using a library card.)
The importance of stories to the show plays out in the finale beyond Tyrion’s choosing the next leader of Westeros based on who has the best story. (More on that in a bit.) Ser Brienne of Tarth, newly promoted to lead the Kingsguard, studies the book about her predecessors and finds that Jaime’s entry is both skimpy and derisive. With some careful wielding of her quill, she turns it into a long, loving tribute to the man she believed to be a hero despite his many detractors. And Bronn (now Master of Coin), is amused to watch Tyrion (again the Hand of the King) discover that he’s been entirely omitted from a history of the events of the series that shares a title with Martin’s books. Depending on who’s telling the story, any man can be a hero, a villain or an utter non-factor.
But was the show that so loved good stories a good story in and of itself?
Let’s start at the end, which some would argue is the single most important element of any story. And on that front, Game of Thrones was definitely lacking. “The Iron Throne” was a step up from some of this final season’s other installments, in that you could always make out what was happening (including seeing the faces of major characters as major things were being done by and/or to them), and in that things mostly worked out well for the more likable remaining characters. (Sansa’s a queen — albeit not the queen! Arya’s an explorer! Bronn got his castle! Ghost finally got that hug from Jon!) Peter Dinklage seemed the most engaged that he has since Tyrion’s imprisonment and trial back in Season Four. But the season as a whole was largely a muddle. That trend continued through this episode, which was filled with odd narrative and stylistic choices:
* Benioff and Weiss, in their first jointly-credited episode as directors (each had his name on one previous installment), fell very much in love with the idea of watching… people… walk… for long… periods… of time. It was as if the finale wanted to compress the travelogue feel of previous seasons into a single 85-minute episode. So many people pacing, leading to an episode that was often badly-paced.
* The first time Dany and Jon share a scene in the finale, she looks at him like he’s something irritating she needs scraped from her shoe. The next time, she’s all giddy and unguarded — physically and emotionally — as she smiles and invites him to enjoy both sex and the burning of innocents. It’s an even more jarring turn than her shift to genocide in last week’s “The Bells,” and exists only to allow him to kill her and set the series’ concluding gambit in motion.
* Prior to this episode, Drogon had seemed capable of only two thoughts: “I’m hungry!” and “I’ll burn whomever my beloved queen tells me to burn!” Yet when he comes upon the Mother of Dragons dead at the hand of the Nephew of the Mother of Dragons, Drogon opts to burn… the Iron Throne. Why? Does he (as my friend Dan Fienberg suggested to me last night) see the dagger sticking out of Dany’s torso and assume the sharp and pointy Throne somehow killed her and deserves vengeance? Or is the dragon capable of deeper thought? Maybe something along the lines of, “That chair represents all the perils of a patrilineal monarchy, the pursuit of which claimed the once-gentle soul of my great queen and mother, and thus I must melt it down to protest its role in her untimely death!” Such a big moment — one that moots every “Who will sit on the Iron Throne?” fan debate ever — demands greater insight into the mind and moods of a magical flying lizard than Game of Thrones ever seemed interested in providing.
* Why on earth (or whatever GRRM’s version of it is called) is Tyrion Lannister allowed to choose the new king? As he points out, he’s hated by everyone, and Grey Worm in particular. Yet for whatever reason — other than him being played by the show’s biggest, Emmy-winning star — he’s allowed to go on talking and talking and deciding the future of everyone and everything in the place.
Most important, though, is the issue of Tyrion’s choice itself. Not only does he argue for stories as the proper metric for determining the leader, but asks, “Who has a better story than Bran the Broken?” If you look around that horseshoe of characters, Bran certainly doesn’t have the worst story. (That would be perpetual prisoner Uncle Edmure, who’s rightly and amusingly told by Sansa to sit down and shut up.) He did, as Tyrion elaborates, go through a significant transformation from crippled boy to Three-Eyed Raven. That’s not bad at all. But if you look to one side of him, you see Sansa Stark, who went from shallow and spoiled little girl to terrified hostage, then to fugitive, then to victim, then to a wise and respected leader who had absorbed the best qualities of the many powerful men and women she’d grown up around. And if you look to his other side, you see Arya Stark, who began as an overlooked littler girl who became, at different times, a boy, a prisoner, the Hound’s apprentice, a blind beggar and a Faceless Man. Oh, yeah, and SHE ALSO SAVED THE ENTIRE WORLD.
To be fair, Tyrion goes on to note that Bran also has the most stories, since he is the repository of the world’s knowledge. But what he’s trying to argue until then is not about most, but about best. And in the grand scheme of the series, Bran doesn’t much qualify. He was so extraneous at times that he was able to be left out of an entire season without being particularly missed. Even his role in the war with the Night King — a war that proved to be as besides the point of the endgame as Jon’s oft-analyzed parentage — amounted to being using as bait, while Arya actually stopped the guy. Bran went on this long journey of both geography and power, but he was a character to whom things simply happened, where many of the others at that parlay were characters who made active choices based on what happened to them.
Arya never seemed like the type who’d want the job. But we spent all season being told the same about Jon, even as Varys and others insisted he’d be great at it. And Bran’s own lack of interest in the gig was held up as yet another reason to give it to him. But it’s such an odd, underwhelming choice — whether made by the showrunners or told to them by Martin — in the story of Game of Thrones itself. End the show with one of the Stark sisters — whether the one who wanted the job or the one who didn’t — and it’s satisfying, both as culmination of a character arc we’ve been watching for a decade and as summation of the ways that Martin tried to upend narrative convention. Heck, end it with Sam in the new chair — either as king or in his attempt to invent a democratic government — and it feels more earned based on how far he’s come and how much time we’ve invested in him. Giving the crown to Bran is like giving the Super Bowl MVP to the long snapper.
But does stumbling at the conclusion invalidate Game of Thrones‘ overall storytelling prowess? Endings are hard, as the last two decades of television have reminded us time and again. Dexter became a lumberjack. How I Met Your Mother killed the Mother. Many viewers are still furious about what happened to Tony Soprano, what the angels were on Battlestar Galactica and/or most of what happened in the final season of Lost. Even finales that provide ample closure and stay largely true to the story to that point can prove divisive. (I’m nodding in your general direction, Breaking Bad.) The destination feels important, but isn’t the true Game of Thrones all the friends we met — and sometimes mourned — along the way?
If we’re focusing on the journey rather than the disappointing places it led us, the question of how well GoT told its story becomes more complicated. It was a series capable of grand, unforgettable moments: Cersei bombs the Sept! Jaime knights Brienne! Ned’s got no head, baby! Its narrative sprawl was remarkable — and Benioff and Weiss’ ability to make it all feel like it fit together was arguably their greatest accomplishment — with only a few isolated narrative corners (Dorne, the Brotherhood Without Banners, certain stops in Dany’s journeys through Essos) that were largely populated with boring people. There were colorful characters nearly everywhere you turned, and many of the most compelling ones got to stick around until the final season. (Though shed tears for the gems we lost along the way like Joffrey, Tywin and the Queen of Thorns, while Jon Snow had all the personality of a block of wood.) It’s not hard to understand how the show became a global phenomenon. It had epic scope. It had increasingly impressive technical scale as the years went by. It had no shortage of fascinating figures to cheer for or root against. And every time a particular subplot seemed to be moving in circles, Dany would order her dragons to burn things, or the Lannisters would say hello to the Starks by violent proxy, and all would again be thrilling with this fantasy world.
Yet even before Benioff and Weiss grew hasty and sloppy in their storytelling over the last two seasons, their work often seemed less than the sum of its many amazing parts. That abundance of riches could be a double-edged Valyrian steel sword, with the series frequently too busy moving from one intriguing subplot or character pairing to the next to give any of them the full dramatic weight they deserved. (The best episodes, like “Blackwater,” “The Winds of Winter” or “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” tended to concentrate a lot of notable players into the same setting.) Sometimes, the show’s technical genius was married perfectly to a character point, like the way the White Walkers’ assault in “Hardhome” played out in a brutally efficient mini-arc for Karsi the wildling mom. At others, the stunning visuals could feel numbing and/or hollow, like Dany’s shift to monstrosity in “The Bells.”
But there was also the inescapable sense that Game of Thrones‘ depth never matched its breadth. It didn’t only offer superficial pleasures, but it often felt like the actors were providing more complexity than what was on the page. I once had a debate with a noted TV producer who didn’t like Mad Men and asked me to articulate what it was about and what it really had to say about those subjects. I argued that Mad Men had a lot to say about a lot of things (masculinity and feminism, to name just two), but that pointed question — “What is it about?” — occurred to me often over these eight GoT seasons. It was about power, and about the moral complexities of wielding power. (How, for instance, a cruel oligarch like Tywin Lannister could be a more effective de facto ruler of Westeros than an honorable and kind man like Ned Stark.) And it was, at times, about the ways marginalized people — whether women like Sansa or the “cripples, bastards and broken things” about which Tyrion liked to wax poetic — deserved more credit, and a better seat at the table, than society wanted to give them. But it was only about those themes and a few others to the extent that they didn’t interfere in the What Happens Next? of it all. Before the show began, a friend who had read Martin’s novels suggested they tried to do for fantasy what The Wire had done for police dramas. However much of that thematic texture may have been present in the books, it rarely turned up on HBO on Sunday nights.
Now, there’s no sin in focusing first and foremost on a relentless and thrilling narrative. Thrones operated on a level of ambition that never seemed remotely possible for television, and it usually did so smashingly. But when that’s the goal above everything else, that puts exponentially more weight on What’s Happening Next to be great. When we get to watch Brienne tease out Jaime’s better nature, or watch Sansa learn how to outmaneuver Littlefinger, it can be incredibly satisfying. When instead we’re spending the better part of a season watching Ramsay Snow mutilate and emotionally torture Theon Greyjoy, or when Dany’s turn into villainy feels rushed because Benioff and Weiss wanted to do shorter seasons at the end, it hurts more because there’s not as much below the surface. That goes doubly so for the series finale: the plot holes loom terribly large because the plot is nearly all we have at this stage of things.
There’s more to anyone’s story — whether it’s Bran’s, Sansa’s, Tyrion’s or Hot Pie’s — than what happens to them. There’s how they respond in the moment, how it shapes them in the future and what it means in the larger context of the world in which they travel. And there are so many different levels to telling the story of a television fantasy epic. On some of those levels, Game of Thrones was a jaw-dropping success that’s forever raised the bar for what can be done in this medium. On others, it fell maddeningly short.
There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. How good a story you ultimately find Game of Thrones depends on what you value in your stories. But as entertaining as the show could be, Bran probably has a better claim to whatever replaces the Iron Throne than GoT has to any spot on a TV drama Mt. Rushmore.
Previously: Arya, Dazed and Confused