May 20, 2019

In Defense of the Thrones Finale

Brienne writes the history of them.

The last two episodes of Game of Thrones were a betrayal of everything the series has stood for. They were rushed, major plot lines were either dumped or dispatched with unseemly haste, and characters we have been invested in for years were given the cinematic equivalent of a summary execution, whether they actually died or not. Where was Cersei's comeuppance? Where was the even cursory exploration of Jamie and Brienne's relationship? Where was the reckoning for what Daenerys did at King's Landing? It's as if the show runners took Jon's advice to Arya and used it as the basis for wrapping up entire plot lines and characters: Stick 'em with the pointy end.

My favorite episode of this last season was "The Long Night." It was cinematographically gorgeous—at least on my TV. It was suspenseful; you really felt that anyone could die—Arya, Jon, Brienne. It conveyed the chaos of battle, it offered an aesthetic that was fresh (a good contrast to the aesthetic of the Battle of the Bastards, which was all pale and overexposed with dark contrasts, and equally beautiful), and it contained great set-pieces, like Arya's escape from the White Walkers in the library, a kind of mini horror movie of its own. And it ended right: Theon was allowed to remake himself as a hero, and the White King was taken out when it had seemed, a moment before, to be impossible. Once you see Arya come through the darkness, moments after the smallest of breezes ruffles the scraggly hair of a White Walker and he turns his head, you think, "Of course. Of course it had to be Arya." All of those endless minutes of show time spent watching Arya practice her sword-play and get pummeled by the other assassins, her blindfolded training that felt excessive and excessively boring, to us as much as to her, likely—it turns out it was in service of something important. Something absolutely key.

Battle of the Bastards

The Long Night

When the second to last episode came, "The Bells," you see one of the greatest acting moments in the series' history: Daenerys has reluctantly agreed—or at least seemed to agree—that if the people of King's Landing surrender, she will spare them. That surrender would be indicated by the ringing of the great bells of the city. On the day of battle Daenerys begins her attack. She's on top of her last remaining dragon, feeling the power course through her veins right along with her fury over Missandei's murder, and she begins torching the Red Keep. The troops enter the city, and for a moment they all stop in agonized suspense to see what sound will fill the air and bring them to history's next step. Joyously, it comes: The great bells start ringing, the city has surrendered, a bloodbath has been avoided. The King's Landing soldiers stopped in front of Jon and Greyworm throw down their weapons. It is the best possible outcome, an almost impossible gift: they have ended Cersei's tyranny, and they will be able to take the city as liberators rather than killers.

This is a great joy to everybody save one: This is the look at Daenerys's face as she hears the bells:

Daenerys hears the bells of surrender at King's Landing.

She is sick with disappointment. To her, the bells are the town crier, announcing a robbery—the horrifying theft of her revenge. Her dragon is her One Ring, her nuclear warhead, and at the moment when she is set to employ it, she is interrupted, terribly, by peace. She's promised to let the smallfolk live. She's been begged by Tyrion and Jon, her closest allies, to let them live. She's directed by her avowed mission to let them live. But what can we expect? She has hatred, resentment, anger, and a dragon. The city burns in a sequence that recalls images of 9/11, the biblical apocalypse, Vesuvius. We never see Daenerys's face again in the episode—she has passed from protagonist to force of nature. She is Achilles, whose superhuman strength and the invulnerability it grants removes her from realm of humanity.

Cersei's downfall is brief: There is no time for reflection, for payback, for understanding, even for suffering. Within minutes of realizing her defeat she is gone, with remarkable mercy. She dies in the arms of the one person who loves her. I've often wondered about Ellaria Sand, chained in a prison cell with her daughter's decaying corpse. Presumably she is killed in Daenerys's firestorm, but her fate was many orders more cruel than Cersei's, who is the cruelest character in the series.

The aftermath of Daenerys's "liberation" of King's Landing. 

The final episode, "The Iron Throne," is the aftermath. The dust is everywhere, coating the dead bodies of children charred by Daenerys's holocaust. In more exquisite acting, Emilia Clarke plays her precisely on the edge of madness: While she still balances the poles of charisma and control, there is an unmistakable gleam in her eyes, whose pupils seem dilated, and a repressed joy that she struggles to contain, but only barely. She addresses her troops in a scene reminiscent of the Nazis at Nuremberg, all grays and blacks and military precision, promising to take their "liberation" to all the kingdoms of the earth. Perhaps the greatest sign of her encroaching madness? She fails to see Jon's devastation, thinking that now she can have it all—power, a righteous mission, and love.

Daenerys's Triump of the Will.

But Jon is aghast. The most devastating scene of the episode, for me, was when Jon—King of the North, lover of the Dragon Queen, paragon of virtue, the chosen one raised from the dead, object of devotion throughout the lands—is unable to stop the execution of five random, unimportant soldiers by Greyworm. He strides up to Greyworm to put a stop to it, and Greyworm's soldiers draw their spears. This is what it has come to: They will kill Jon Snow, the Great Savior, the Noble Hero, if he tries to stop them. He is utterly, utterly emptied of power, of import, of consequence.

Jon tries to convince Greywork not to execute soldiers who surrendered.

We know what happens from there: Jon realizes that Daenerys will bring her killing spree to every city of the world. She must die, and he is the only one with a hope of getting close enough to her to do it. Love is the death of duty; and duty is the death of love, as we've learned. Drogon lands before Jon and Daenerys's dead body and looks about in a kind of moral reckoning. He incinerates the Iron Throne, takes Daenerys's body gently in his talons, and departs. Then we skip to the near future. Tyrion holds an administrative meeting to get the sewers rebuilt, Sansa is Queen of the North in a Winterfell empty of her family, Arya sails in a ship to places unknown, and Jon, the Great Hero, is banished to the land of the Wildlings north of the Wall, where he leads a ragtag group into the woods to start over.

There is one word to describe all this: anticlimactic. The world of Westeros ends not with a bang but a whimper. The disappointment on the part of fans has been massive. The showrunners blew it, spectacularly. There are have been great moments in Game of Thrones, one those of us who have watched will remember forever: the death of Joffrey; the prattle of Tyrion and Bronn; Robb Snow choking out his last word, "Mother"; Jamie jumping into the bear pit to save Brienne; Daenerys killing the ambassadors after the Battle of Meereen, Jon galloping with all his heart to save Rickon before Ramsay Bolton shoots him with an arrow, Yara and Daenerys meeting for the first time and committing to a different world. There was not a single moment to rival any of them in the series finale.

I miss terribly the unfolding that never was, especially for my favorite characters: Yara, Jamie, Brienne, of course Jon. But as I considered switching (mentally) the actual ending out with a more, well, Game-of-Thrones type ending, the more sympathetic I grew to the actual ending, and the more I began to suspect that there was a method to Weiss and Benioff's madness.

The destruction of the Iron Throne was symbolic of the destruction of the whole idea of hereditary dynastic rule. But as Tyrion attests in the last episode, nothing is more powerful than storytelling. The storytelling of Game of Thrones has been epic, and the epic is the storytelling mode of dynasties and nationhood, of mythology and grandeur. Daenerys was grandeur. Cersei was grandeur. The great families were grandeur. The Nazis were grandeur. Grandeur in human institutions (as opposed to in nature and even individuals) is most often an elaborate covering for crime. Leaders who like grand plans, military parades, adulation, fantasies of conquest are the most tyrannical. The idea that we can impose one Great Power who will organize the world into submission and peace has never, ever worked. The epic has its values and its pleasures. But its real-world effect is disastrous.

Game of Thrones threw out its own mythology, its own greatness. Weiss and Benioff (and I suppose George R. R. Martin) splintered their world, set fire to the great arcs, and made the ending of their incredible series . . .  small. And smallness is the value that Cersei and Daenerys and Walder Grey never understood. Alexander the Great wasn't great; he was cruel. When Frodo holds onto the ring, when Trump says "If we have nukes, why can't we use them?", when Jesus is offered rule of the world during his forty days in the desert, we see the insidious siren-call of greatness, of "bigness."

Jon and the Wildlings go north to their new home.

Jon never became the apotheosis of the Great Hero. He became a settler. With a small community of people in the middle of nowhere. Here is how I see his future: He and the Wildlings go north. With his friend-of-the-heart Tormund, he organizes a settlement and becomes a leader. They build houses, they hunt, they figure out how to live without the threat of the White Walkers or the South. He will meet a woman he loves. He will be a father. He will be good and he will be beloved. When he dies, his memory will last in the hearts of those who knew him, but it will not last forever. No ballads will be written of him, at least not there in the town where he has spent, now, the greatest part of his life. Eventually the community will grow large enough to start another settlement. Maybe it will be called Jon's Landing, in his honor. In a hundred years, no one will remember why.

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