Nearly two years ago, in anticipation of season 7 of Game of Thrones, I wrote a piece about what I view as the philosophy of the books and show.
At the time, I was excited to see how the show would tidily wrap up all of its weaving plot threads in two unnecessarily truncated seasons. Oh, how naive I was.
Still, it wouldn’t be ethical of me to espouse philosophical theories about a fictional universe and not actually revisit them at the story’s conclusion. Let’s see how my predictions panned out in the wake of the series finale!
Beware! Here be spoilers…
A quick note: I’m not really interested in talking about the failings of the finale, since that piece has already been written 10 million times.
Instead, I just want to examine the philosophy of this story in the wake of its TV conclusion.
My initial point in that piece was that George R.R. Martin’s story was not nihilistic–devoid of meaning or logic–but in fact a treatise on the cyclical nature of human history:
I think it’s too reductive to say that Martin’s story is just a nihilistic view of the world. Westeros, and the other regions of this world, are too steeped in their own histories to be utterly pointless.
I think this still holds true. The season 8 finale ultimately came down to Dany succumbing to her family’s legacy of Fire and Blood, and Jon killing her to stop her tyrannical vision from coming true. Simiarly, the council of lords who selected Bran as their king recognized that family dynasties should no longer determine who rules Westeros. (Let’s leave aside that Stark children control both the newly independent North and the Six Kingdoms.)
The Heroes’ Journey
Ultimately, Jon and Dany were positioned as dual heroes–right up until Dany’s foreshadowed (but still poorly written) fall into madness.
But I think Martin wants the reader/viewer to understand that the Hero’s Journey does not always turn out the way we want. Or even if it does, the story doesn’t end there.
Jon probably should have had the opportunity the abdicate his claim to the throne, rather than that decision being made for him. That is a narrative choice the show-writers made, for whatever reason. However, I think his banishment to the Far North is still telling of his Hero’s Journey.
He was the hero Westeros needed to save them from a bloody civil war, a catastrophic Long Night, and a would-be conqueror. But, despite his parentage, he was not the hero that Westeros needed to rule them after the dust settled.
Again, we can nit-pick the narrative details of the show, like how no one mentioned Jon’s parentage at the council, but his story was always going to end up this way. Jon was ever the dutiful soldier turned reluctant leader. There was no way he would have chosen to rule the Six/Seven Kingdoms unless he knew it was the only way to protect the people.
The Major Houses
Many major houses were utterly eliminated by the series’ end.
But several, surprisingly, managed to cling to slivers of power (or at least their lives) long enough to come out on top.
- Sansa Stark rules the North, while Bran Stark rules the Six Kingdoms
- Yara Greyjoy represents the Iron Islands
- Gendry Baratheon represents the Sotrmlands
- Edmure Tully represents the Riverlands
- Robin Arryn represents the Vale
- And Tyrion Lannister (I guess?) represents the Westerlands
Notably, Ser Bronn of the Blackwater now sits in Highgarden, the highest lord of the Reach, after the Tyrells were all killed in Cersei’s war. And of course, an unnamed prince sits in Dorne, presumably not of the Martells.
See where this is going?
Despite all of the war, all of the inter-family rivalries, and of the tragic or uplifting personal journeys of the major characters, the Six Kingdoms look rather similar to how they did before Robert Baratheon died.
It’s true, the North is independent, but they would absolutely need to maintain close ties to the Six Kingdoms in order to have a robust economy, not to mention preventing another freaking war.
Otherwise, the seats of power sit pretty much where they have for centuries: with the ranking families of each region.
History imitates itself.
So, unlike my prediction two years ago, not that many lower houses rose to prominence. Baelish was wrong. Chaos is not a ladder.
The succession plan after Bran the Broken will obviously determine a lot about how people rise to power in this slightly-adjusted Westerosi order, but what we’re left with is a caste of oligarchs pulling levers and pushing buttons behind closed doors, running the proverbial machines of the kingdom while the lowborn folk go about their day-to-day lives, unaware or uncaring.
To go back to my original post, this may seem like a nihilistic worldview. All of this war and conflict for what? Basically the same system?
Will Dany be able to “break the wheel” as she vows? I doubt it. She will invade Westeros, and Jon Snow, the new King in the North, will kneel before her. Her armies will bathe the old houses in fire and blood, and she will raise her new liege lords to power. The rivalries will still exist, just in new forms.
And I believe that’s the entire point. New houses will rise to power under the auspices of a new dynasty (whatever form that takes), but the Game will stay the same.
There will still be rivalries, inter-family marriage alliances, civil wars, invasions, dastardly monarchs, and mass executions.
So, I maintain that this is not nihilism; it’s a lesson on the importance of history, a call to learn from the mistakes of the past.
The series finale fades out as Tyrion, Bronn, Brienne, Davos, and Sam–characters whom viewers and readers alike love–discuss the details of running the Realm. I think this is intended to make us feel just a little bit better about the people in charge than when the stry began.
Yes, they will face their challenges, but given everything they’ve been through–together and individually–given their history, we have to hope that they will truly serve the Realm, as Varys always said.