Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Assorted Thoughts on Game of Thrones s8e6, “The Iron Throne”.
As those of you who have been so engaged and supportive for these episode review posts have probably surmised, sometime in the last few years I essentially adopted George R.R. Martin’s world as my most academic fandom; the narrative universe that I was most willing to study for its myriad nuances and mysteries. I read Martin’s tales in the way that he writes them, as gradually woven and gardened histories of a realm so finely carved that I kept finding threads hiding in the cracks of empty rooms and then following that thread back for centuries, only to find it entangled with a separate thread that led me right back to the time in which I’d find the first. The scenes I passed on the way back or the way forward were not always pleasant to witness, but they nonetheless fit together and informed each other in ways I found deeply satisfying.
In anticipation of the series finale this evening, yesterday afternoon I made an impulse buy of the hardcover copy of Martin’s Fire & Blood (Part I) detailing the reign of the Targaryen kings who conquered and ruled Westeros for three hundred years until rebellion overthrew their dynasty. I’ve been more than clear that much of this final season has frustrated me in the quality of its scripting and the haste in which it has moved from plot point to plot point without stopping to breathe the fullness of its characters and impending tragedy. So I wanted something of Martin’s that I hadn’t yet read to help me cope with the end of this adaptation.
All of that said: I sat in the darkness afterwards impressed, overall, with “The Iron Throne” both as a singular episode of Game of Thrones and as a finale for the series. Tonight I saw several nuanced character scenes again, and heard conversations about power and justice that used to be the keystones of the show as a whole. I feel confident that the story yet to be told in the unpublished, unwritten books will transpire in many different and more compelling ways to arrive at some version of the same point. But I do think that for all of the stumbles and missteps to get here — and they were many — show creators Benioff & Weiss managed to put together an hour-and-a-half of epic storytelling that hewed quite closely to the spirit of Martin’s text, and for that I’m able to close out this series with a sense of gratitude capable of overshadowing more recent disappointments.
– These episodes were filmed and locked long before anybody had a chance to react to them, but “The Iron Throne” does indicate that the creators knew the response to Daenerys’ rapid descent into war crimes would be greeted with furious opposition, and therefore we spend the remainder of her life having a case presented to us to justify her turn after the fact. We watch her revel in the brutality of her victory, recalling the vows of her late husband Khal Drogo to her khalasar and twisting the meaning of “liberation” to her own future ambitions while orating to the freed men of the Unsullied. Tyrion confesses his blindness to Jon Snow in a lengthy retelling of their queen’s actions since the day her dragons were born, observing that the men she crucified and incinerated were all evil men, so their deaths would be deemed justified, but that this perhaps set her on a path of being unable to tell the difference between amoral behavior and behavior that simply acted in opposition to her. Finally, Jon confronts Dany in the ruins of the throne room and looks into her eyes as megalomania and conviction becomes the whole of her being, as she responds to complex questions about mercy and justice with flat, simple answers expressing her authority.
Jon’s assassination of Dany, then, is packaged to us with a type of necessity and inevitability that uses the surface details of her life in Essos as prior evidence while dismissing not only exculpatory circumstances but also the truth of how those details were first given to us by the storytellers. We do not react with horror when Daenerys commands the Unsullied to cast off their chains and slay the Great Masters of Astapor — while sparing the women and children — because the Masters themselves are framed as vicious, ugly abusers and enslavers, and because at that moment Daenerys had claimed a measure of personal agency after having been at a deep disadvantage in her quest to avenge the death of her family. Her return to Westeros has seen her pivot to a much harder and more severe stance and costuming, the series even going so far as to consciously compose a shot of her dragon behind her in a way that makes her appear as some kind of winged demon.
Yet up until the moment she chose to slaughter a surrendering city’s innocent smallfolk, nothing Dany had done was beyond the moral codes of the world she lived in, any more than the violence committed by most of the other characters we were asked to identify with as noblehearted. Lord Eddard enters the story executing a man for desertion despite his attempts to raise an alarm about the White Walkers; Jon Snow will later behead a man for disobeying his orders and hang all of those who murdered him, including a child. There remains a story to be told about how entitlement and power will ultimately corrupt Daenerys Stormborn, and while I believe I saw a well-staged version of that story’s end I accept that I’ll have to wait to read a more carefully told version of the events preceding it.
– Nonetheless, there is so much beauty and tragic opera to be found in the sequence during and after Jon plunges his dagger into Dany’s heart. Daenerys hesitating to sit on the Iron Throne at all, followed by a brief look into the princess she used to be, starry-eyed with fables about the life she’d had stolen from her, is a moment filled with one of Martin’s favorite foundations of tragedy — the recognition of what might have been. After she dies in Jon’s arms, we are also reminded once again of Tyrion’s words that dragons are feeling and intelligent creatures, and witness Drogon’s sadness and rage when the human with whom they were most bonded lies dead before them.
The moment Drogon melts the Iron Throne is significant not only as symbolism, marking the end of House Targaryen once and for all, but also that the beast understood enough from inside the mind of its mother to know that the throne itself is to blame for the endless pain it now feels.
– The coronation of Brandon Stark, First of His Name, King of the Six Kingdoms, is completely in line with Martin’s ethos about what one should demand of a good ruler. Bran, it must be remembered, was briefly named as Lord of Winterfell after Eddard was executed in King’s Landing and Robb was on his doomed campaign against the Lannisters. One of his first lessons after Theon returned with the Ironborn to claim the castle for his own was that his duty as Lord was to consider the welfare of those who looked to him for protection. He was out of his depth, to be certain, but he did understand his responsibilities. Additionally, as Tyrion points out, Bran’s uniquely earned gift of being able to see the entire history of the world at will provides him with the sort of insight afforded to few sovereigns of any kind. A being capable of seeing everything that happened is capable of seeing how many things went wrong, and especially how many things went wrong repeatedly. One expects his rule to be full of moments when Tyrion approaches him with a plan of some kind, only to be told in that aching monotone that exactly such a plan was attempted by Arlan V Durrandon, one of the last of the Storm Kings, and that perhaps it ought to be adjusted to avoid the ruin he faced as a result.
However: I’m upset at the way the name “Bran the Broken” was given to him as a coronation title. First off, such names in Westeros and in our own world are provided by those who experience the tenure of such leaders, after they know for certain what kind of ruler they have been. The obvious parallel being drawn here is to the legendary Bran the Builder, founder of House Stark, but that sobriquet was given to him after he erected Winterfell and the Wall, not upon his assuming the role of the northern King of Winter. And secondly: Bran deserves so much better than to simply be known by history as his disability. He is on task to reunite and reconstruct a kingdom torn to shred by war; like Jahaerys I Targaryen he may be known as a Conciliator or a Peacemaker; or as Bran the Bridge-Builder. He is the first king of Westeros to have unlocked the higher planes of magic represented by the Three-Eyed Raven; he could well be Bran the Storyteller, or Bran the Raven King.
“Bran the Broken” seems to have been chosen by the writers for its alliterative qualities, and it’s absolutely probable that this will be one of the many nicknames he receives among the people he rules, in the same way as King Aegon V Targaryen — the fourth son of a fourth son — was named Aegon the Unlikely. To have it shouted first by the Succession Council in the Dragonpit and then used by the Small Council when he enters a room feels like the show is trying to speak something aloud for its purported cleverness instead of its need to be said, and I wish they’d left it alone entirely.
– The wheel that Daenerys planned to break seems to mean different things to different people, including Daenerys herself, and it’s not clear by the series’ end whether or not any of those wheels have been broken. When she speaks of it to her assembled army, she seems to be speaking of Westeros itself as the wheel, and that she intends to burn all of it to the ground in order to rebuild it properly. When Tyrion speaks of it later he implies that the wheel she intended to break was bloodline succession, which makes next-to-no sense considering her entire campaign and conquest was based upon the notion that the Iron Throne was hers by blood right, and that blood was so powerful a claim that Jon would one day be a threat to her. It’s amusing to watch poor Sam toss out an idea for populist democracy, but the response of the other lords and ladies is unsurprising; nobody is ready for that level of change and Sam himself will never see a Westeros that could be. Instead, we now see a wheel that resembles papal selection, with the noble houses making the determination instead. One can hope that during Bran’s rule he helps establish some further system that will prevent an actual succession crisis, because everything we still know about Westeros tells us that you should not expect this level of unanimity again.
– However, Sansa as Queen in the North is a brilliant end for the long and complicated road she has had to go on, although as far as I’m concerned the best part was her gently telling Edmure Tully to stuff a sock in it — and him understanding that he had to obey her. Overall, I do think it’s a just ending for Westeros to be ruled by two Stark children, with the Six Kingdoms in particular ruled by what should be a fruitful alliance between Starks and Lannisters after the war between them nearly destroyed them all.
– For that matter, I do feel a measured satisfaction in the way Westeros ends up being ruled by a contingent of “cripples, bastards, and broken things” — besides King Brandon I Stark, you have King’s Hand Tyrion Lannister and Grand Maester Samwell Tarly, the unwanted children of cruel, prideful fathers; a surviving former sellsword living on high as Lord Paramount of the Reach and Master of Coin; a former smuggler from Flea Bottom as Master of Ships, and the oft-underestimated Brienne of Tarth serving as the first woman to be Lord Commander of the Kingsguard alongside her former squire Ser Podrick Payne.
– It might seem strange to keep the Watch going at all with the Walkers having been vanquished, but since the Wall was built after their first defeat and they came back anyway, it does seem prudent to keep the Watch going. And the Free Folk have arrived at an uneasy peace with the North for now, but that’s for now, and it seems only natural to expect that one day the wildlings will find themselves following a new King Beyond-the-Wall with designs on conquest further south. But as far as Jon Snow, it does seem clear that he agreed to be exiled to the north only to refuse to remain in the Night’s Watch at all, heading beyond the Wall to join the Free Folk instead.
I do appreciate that the Song ends with neither of the remaining Targaryens getting what they wanted or even quite what they deserved, and that Jon did recall the words of the late Maester Aemon, who existed as his own tragic figure within that dynasty. I imagine a much older Jon Snow revealing his true identity to a younger wildling someday along with a certain wisdom he’ll have gained at last about the traps that come with assumption of nobility.
– Arya’s fate is unsurprising and bittersweet; she’s one of the few surviving characters to have been granted a larger sense of the world and how much more there is to explore within it, and whose skills have made her somewhat unsuited for the peace to come. A thing that goes unspoken but which leaves me with hope is the understanding that Bran will, by nature of his powers, learn everything Arya does over time, in the same way that he will learn what became of the grieving Drogon when they traveled east with Dany’s body in their clutches. Arya may die young, with only a fraction of knowledge gained for her travels; she may also find herself learning that the world is round, making her way to the continent of Ulthos that exists to the east of Asshai and the shadowlands. The uncertainty and sense of adventure remain key to this character, and I’m glad they resisted the urge to tie her back down to one place.
– Grey Worm, on the other hand, ends up further reduced to a weapon after several seasons of trying to rediscover his humanity. He is angry on behalf of Daenerys and then angry on behalf of her memory, left to do nothing but scowl at the rest of these nobles who fail to impress him as his queen once did, and then to head off to Naath to mourn and die. And while all of this seems correct for Grey Worm, I once again lament the richness of the story they could have told, and the story they started to before urgency led them to toss it aside.
– Lastly: Ghost! They gave Ghost back to us! And VFX spent the money to let Jon pet his huge white one-eared doggo! Most is forgiven on this front.