So I’ve got an idea for a fantasy TV series.
At its core, it’s a tragic love story between a man who believes himself to be the bastard son of an honourable but naive nobleman and the daughter of the mad king who that honourable noblemen overthrew.
He’s pure-hearted but has to balance his inherent desire to do right against the harsh realities of the world in which he lives. She’s idealistic but driven to the point of ruthlessness, and constantly struggles with her hereditary disposition towards insanity, her supernatural affinity for fire, and the legacy of her abusive history which has trained her to believe that she can achieve greatness only if she follows a path of violence and terror.
They come together and each is immediately drawn to the other’s sense of purpose and honour. He tells her about the terrible existential war they must all fight against the very concept of death itself and she in turn tells him of her vision of a freer, more just world without slavery or tyranny. But as they fight alongside one another we see signs that she may be more her father’s daughter than we ever suspected, and when a mysterious seer tells them that he is not the bastard son of a nobleman, as he thought, but instead the true heir to the kingdom she has been raised to believe is hers by right a wedge is driven between them. This, combined with the sudden deaths of her most trusted advisors ultimately, inevitably, and horrifically leads to her embracing the worst and darkest parts of her nature, burning cities and innocents until at last, the nobleman’s bastard is forced—for the good of all the realm—to kill the woman he loves with his own hands, knowing that it will mean his own death or exile.
I’d want this story to unfold over about eight seasons of television to do it justice.
Oh, and I think I’d really want to make sure the two main characters don’t even meet each other for the first six years.
And I know it’s a cheap shot, but genuinely, this right here is the problem with season eight of Game of Thrones. Yes, it feels rushed. But it doesn’t feel rushed because it was told in thirteen episodes instead of twenty, or because they cut out Fake Aegon and made Euron Greyjoy a shallow dudebro instead of a creepy Cthulhu wizard. It doesn’t feel rushed because Dany left Meereen too soon or we didn’t get Lady Stoneheart. It feels rushed because the story we’re getting the conclusion to in this season is the story that—as I understand it (and again I have no inside information here)—George R. R. Martin told the showrunners was the heart of the series all along, which is the doomed love story between two characters who spent 75% of the show on separate continents. It’s like Romeo and Juliet only the entire Capulet family spends most of the play in China and the balcony scene is at the end of act four.
And yes to an extent I’m showing my romance bias (in that I’m billing this complex multi-viewpoint fantasy epic as “essentially a love story”) but what we’ve just seen in the final episode only really makes sense as the emotional culmination of a story that is fundamentally about Jon and Dany in a way that the show has never really been, and which the books might wind up being depending on what happens in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring.
Side note: my personal pet theory is that GRRM has actually finished the manuscript for The Winds of Winter but is sitting on it not because of some weird secret deal with HBO, but because he’s spent ten years trying desperately to think of a title that begins with an indefinite article, because otherwise he knows that having the series go “A Game, A Storm, A Clash, A Feast, A Dance, The Winds, A Dream” will haunt him to his grave.
Umm … I should also stress that this is a joke. GRRM has spoken fairly recently about how much he hates “secretly finished the books” theories.
But seriously, I would not be able to cope with having one book out of seven that began with The instead of A.
Where was I? Oh yes, romance bias.
The narrative, structural and emotional climax of this episode—and therefore basically of the entire goddamned series—is when Jon Snow embraces Daenerys, tells her “you are my queen, now and always”, kisses her and then stabs her in the heart. Leaving aside for a moment the yicky gender politics of Dany’s story getting reduced to how sad it is that Jon had to kill his girlfriend (maybe he and Tyrion can form some kind of club) this would be a fucking amazing scene if it was the culmination of an eight year arc centred on this exact relationship. It feels really hollow as the culmination of an eight year arc that was mostly about completely different people, most of whom are now dead.
As I look back on Game of Thrones the more convinced I become that it was always going to be impossible to end effectively, because—appropriately enough for a show that built its reputation on its depiction of a complex five-way battle for a throne—it was really about five different shows intermittently at war with one another. Incidentally I fully admit that I picked the number “five” here purely to rhyme with the war of the five kings, but I’m pretty sure I can get there. Let’s go:
- It was an adaptation of the books. I mean obviously.
- It was also in a lot of ways a fantasy soap opera. In that it was just about a bunch of characters hooking up, doing slightly random things, and generally having personal drama with no end in sight.
- It was the Henriad or if you prefer I Claudius. That is, a vast and epic story covering huge movements in a continent-spanning empire following a sequence of ups and downs across multiple rulers.
- It was a heroic fantasy about a nobleman’s bastard and a queen-in-exile.
- By the end of the series, it was very much about itself and its own legacy (which is why we get actual characters talking about Gendry rowing and Kit Harrington being short).
Now the thing about these different styles of story is that they have large areas where they are compatible. Mashing up a serious political drama with a soap opera gives you the West Wing, for example, and obviously a heroic fantasy story about kings and queens and kissing and stabbing will always have elements of political drama to it.
The problem, though, is that smooshing up all these disparate narrative styles together introduces tensions. Tensions that are much better resolved in written fiction than in a TV show (although I suspect these tensions are also part of the reason that Martin’s writing has to be so intricate and painstaking). For example, a soap opera really relies on following characters day-to-day, because emotional plots about love and friendship make most sense when they’re unpacked in something close to real time. But stories of dynastic politics and ancient warfare need to take place over a much longer time scale, and it’s very awkward to try to mash the two together. You can see bits of this creeping into the season very early on, like the way that we meet the pregnant Gilly in season 2 and Young Sam is still a babe-in-arms in season 5, despite the fact that Daenerys’ dragons have gone from tiny wyrmlings to city-wrecking monsters, the War of the Five Kings has basically ended, Bran Stark has clearly gone from a ten-year-old into a creepy teen, and the Others have … okay they’ve mostly been standing around looking menacing.
The problems become even more acute come the ending, because you suddenly have to end each of these five distinct stories, and they each demand a different ending reached by a different path. Jon stabbing Dany in the heart is a fitting ending to the heroic fantasy about the nobleman’s bastard and the exiled queen, but we barely saw that story on screen. Bronn getting made Master of Coin for no clear reason is a fine ending for the weird fanservicey show-about-a-show that we saw so much of in seasons seven and eight, but it’s borderline destructive for any sense of historical realism. I can just about see giving him Highgarden because, frankly, he’s kind of right when he points out that all noble families started off with some murdering bastard, but why also put him in charge of the realm’s finances? As a throwaway joke it would be fine, except that the show also needs to provide a fitting ending to the fantasy political drama, and again “transition from hereditary monarchy to elective monarchy and put an unexpected person on the throne” is a perfectly fitting ending for that (and one that has interesting shades of Claudius’ ascension to Emperor at the end of I Claudius) but again it isn’t set up by the foregoing episodes (which were suddenly trying to tell the epic fantasy story almost from a standing start) or paid off by the following scenes (which were trying to tell a meta-story about how much we love the Game of Thrones supporting cast).
Side-note. Very famously, one of GRRM’s inspirations for writing his very detail-oriented, very political fantasy about a believably realised medieval world was getting to the end of Lord of the Rings and finding that Aragorn’s reign is blitzed through with “he ruled wisely”. His comment on this ending is well known to have included the line “what was his tax policy” (I should probably add that this makes more sense in context). And apparently King Bran the Broken’s tax policy is … to put a shiftless self-serving mercenary in charge? I mean it almost works as satire. But only almost.
There is so much that could be said and has been said about the Great Council scene. Like why is Tyrion suddenly calling all the shots despite his being literally in chains? Why is Grey Worm not pushing any kind of agenda here (I mean to be fair, the answer to this might well be “because he was a slave soldier conditioned from birth to blindly follow orders and the person who bought him just died without giving him further instructions” but that assumes you’re following the much darker “Dany the slave owner” interpretation which I don’t think the show supports even given that she goes evil in S8)? Why after eight years of ceaseless war and conflict does everybody just finally agree on a plan proposed by a man many of them hate?
Also, pet peeve alert: Tyrion’s big speech revolves strongly around the importance of stories. And with the possible exception of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, I have always hated professional storytellers using their role as professional storytellers to tell stories about how important it is to tell stories. It always feel like I got somebody in to redecorate my living room, and they responded by coming into my house and painting “interior designers should be better paid” all over the walls.
Because I love a spurious analogy, the whole “get everybody together and suddenly we all unanimously agree to make Bran king” scene reminded me a whole lot of that one bit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There’s a scene where Roger and Bob Hoskins are handcuffed together, and Bob is trying to saw through the chains to get them apart, and then Roger pulls his hand out of the handcuffs so he can help with the sawing. Which prompts the exchange: “wait, you could have done that at any time?” / “Not at any time, only when it was funny.”
That was pretty much how I felt seeing all the Great Lords of Westeros sitting down and resolving their bitter differences with a single five-minute conversation. Like, seriously, guys. You could have done this at any time. These characters don’t know they’re in a series finale. Yes, some truly apocalyptic shit has happened and yes you can make a reasonable case that pretty much everybody here is sort of allied now (the Riverlands and the Vale have strong ties to Sansa, the Crownlands are basically out the picture now King’s Landing has fallen, the Stormlands are run by a blacksmith’s apprentice who is clearly in way over his head, and … also Brienne and Davos are here for no reason?) but come on. If it was this easy to solve your problems you should have solved them years ago. And why is it only the North that asks for independence when Dorne and the Iron Islands have always had a strong tradition of seeking self-rule? Why are the two kingdoms whose primary loyalty is mostly to Sansa specifically (the Vale, the Riverlands) not asking to join Sansa’s kingdom in the North rather than Bran’s in the South? Why is nobody bothered by what seems to add up to a Stark coup?
Also, really petty point: why do they change the name of the Seven Kingdoms to the Six Kingdoms when there weren’t actually Seven Kingdoms in it to begin with? There are actually still eight kingdoms in what’s left of the Seven Kingdoms even without the North (in case you’re counting: The Vale, the Riverlands, the Iron Islands, The Stormlands, the Crownlands, the Rock, the Reach, and Dorne).
Anyway, it is what it is.
I want to address a couple of final points before I (probably) stop talking about this show forever. Firstly, and very quickly I want to address the scene where Brienne updates Jaime’s entry in the White Book. I’ve seen some people argue that this is a problem because it makes her story subservient to his, and I … I don’t actually agree with this. Obviously for a lot of people the show gets no benefit of the doubt on gender issues, especially after its two most prominent female rulers wound up being severally mad and useless (yes there’s Sansa but she was never technically in charge of the North until the show ended) and I completely see where those people are coming from. But I do think it’s doing the scene an injustice to frame it as making Brienne’s story about Jaime’s rather than bringing their stories together in a nuanced and poignant way. Because showing Brienne updating Jaime’s entry in the book actually has two purposes. Most obviously, it shows how she thought and felt about Jaime, and highlights his character growth through the series. But more subtly, it shows that Brienne is now in charge of updating the White Book, which is specifically the duty of the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. So not only is she paying a final tribute to the man she loved, but she is doing it in a way that signals the completion of her own journey in a way that has nothing to do with him. The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, let’s not forget, is the embodiment of chivalric honour in the Seven Kingdoms, and Brienne getting that job is a massive deal.
The other thing I wanted to talk about is Bran. I sort of feel that I did the Dark Dany thing to death over the last two posts (although I will point out that—as other people have highlighted in other takes—that the fact her speaking a foreign language is used to signal how evil she’s gone is kind of problematic, even if it is clearly supposed to echo the Nuremberg rallies rather than people talking foreign on the subway, although now I think of it echoing Hitler for cheap villain points is also … not great). But since King Brandon came kind of out of nowhere, I’ve not really touched on it at all and … well … I do gots some opinions.
Like Mad Queen Dany, I do think that King Bran is probably a GRRM inclusion, but there is probably nothing that highlights how different the approaches to the specifically fantastical elements of the story are between the books and the show than its framing of the Three Eyed Raven (in the book the Three Eyed Crow or possibly just The Last Greenseer—there’s no indication that the three-eyed-bird thing is actually a formal title in the book) ascending to the throne of Westeros.
In the TV show, Bran becoming king is almost a meta-level ending. Bran is history. Bran is stories. Bran—with his ability to see anything, to spool forwards and backwards throughout the history of Westeros—is in a very literal sense the viewer. He is all of us.
In the book, Bran is tied to an ancient prehuman supernatural force that has an unknown agenda and might have been dicking with everything in Westeros since before the show began.
I wrote in my review of episode three that, when viewed in a certain light, Bran’s actions were fucking cold. He knew from the outset that the only way to win was to bait out the Night King. He used himself as bait, sure, but he also used the entire assembled army as a misdirect. I mentioned in my original post that they could theoretically have got the same result by sticking Bran in the Godswood, putting Arya in the tree and sending everybody else south to save lives, but that presumes that the Night King wouldn’t have spotted that for a trap, which he might well have done. But this again turns Bran into a Machiavellian sociopath. He willingly sacrificed thousands of people’s lives just so that the Night King wouldn’t suspect that he was being lured into an Arya-shaped trap.
And it gets worse. It’s Bran who confirms to Sam that Jon is the son of Rhaegar and Lyanna and who insists that Jon has to be told right before the battle and right after Sam finds out Dany burned his father and brother. Like in retrospect it looks a lot like Bran was deliberately trying to turn people against Daenerys right from Episode Two.
And it gets even worse. Because remember that Bran had a montage of past and future events in the weirwood tree in S6, and that montage specifically includes a shot of Drogon’s shadow flying over King’s Landing. So there is a good chance that he knew that Dany would burn down King’s Landing. The charitable interpretation of this is that he knew that Dany would destroy King’s Landing if she became queen, and was trying to prevent it by making a last-ditch effort to support Jon. The full balls to the wall evil interpretation of this is that he knew Dany would go evil if she began to suspect people were plotting against her, and deliberately chose to stoke her paranoia at the worst possible moment, sparking a chain of events that would lead to the destruction of King’s Landing, the death of Daenerys, Jon Snow’s disqualification from the succession and the Three Eyed Corvid’s being crowned king of the Seven (well really Six, well really Eight) Kingdoms.
After Tyrion’s impassioned if a little self-indulgent speech about how important stories are, he asks Bran if he would be willing to be king.
Bran’s reply: “Why do you think I came all this way?”
All this way from Winterfell to King’s Landing? Or all this way from a ten year old boy falling from a window to the omniscient wizard-king of the Seven Kingdoms?
There are a fair few people pointing this out already. But if you want to go full tinfoil hat, this goes super deep.
Oh, and I should probably add that I’m going to go off on some really obscure lore stuff here, and I’ve picked up a lot of that from a lovely YouTube channel called In Deep Geek in which a guy with a really soothing voice talks about these kinds of obscure bits of Thrones lore (he’s also very neutral, which I like—a lot of reaction videos are quite angry about this season, and IDG’s recaps tend to be very specifically factual and tied to the deeper worldbuilding stuff).
Anyway Bran is called to the North by his visions of a three-eyed-raven. In the TV show this is … just kind of Max von Sydow, but in the books it’s specifically a man named Brynden Rivers, called Lord Bloodraven, the bastard son of Aegon IV Targaryen (seriously these Targaryens get everywhere) and a terrifyingly efficient spymaster. He was a one-eyed sorcerer, a warg and eventually the Last Greenseer—basically like Littlefinger and Varys rolled into one, except he could also do actual magic. He has been manipulating events in the Seven Kingdoms for decades, he was heavily involved in suppressing the Blackfyre Rebellion, he’s a creepy manipulative magic spy who lives in a tree. He also might have driven Euron Greyjoy mad and turned him into a creepy cthulhu wizard pirate (in the books he’s very specifically called Euron Crow’s Eye and his sigil is a single red eye, and bloodraven has one eye, which is red and … like I say this gets tinfoily).
Add to that the fact that the show makes it fairly clear that Bran isn’t entirely Bran—he’s this sort of weird ancient gestalt consciousness, possibly made up of all the previous three-eyed ravens, one of whom is definitely a manipulative bastard. And many of whom might actually be Children of the Forest—beings that not only aren’t entirely human but which actually fought a war against humanity and indeed by show-canon created the White Walkers as a weapon against the First Men.
Basically there’s a pretty good set of evidence that not only is Bran Stark not Bran Stark, but there’s also pretty good evidence that the Bran-Stark-Entity is a fundamentally bad person, and possibly one implicitly hostile to humanity. Whatever you think of the politics of it, there’s a pretty strong case to be made that Tyrion just talked all the surviving lords of Westeros into crowning a quasi-human gestalt consciousness with profound ties to the very beings that created the White Walkers.
And you know what. It gets squirrelier.
Every single thing that happens in A Game of Thrones ultimately stems from Robert’s Rebellion, which ultimately stems from the “abduction” of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen. This took place because they’d formed some kind of connection at the Tourney at Harrenhall. The tourney at Harrenhall took place during something called the year of the false spring, which is when the harsh winter that erratically plagues Westeros went into abeyance for a year—just long enough for a large tournament to be orchestrated ostensibly by a man named Lord Whent but probably actually by Rhaegar Targaryen—before Winter came back in earnest. There’s a reasonable fan theory that some kind of supernatural force with the power to see the future and control the seasons was dicking with the weather specifically so that this tournament could come about, so that Rhaegar could meet Lyanna, so that they could run off together, so the war could happen so… something.
Throw on top of that the fairly well respected fan theory that Lyanna Stark originally came to Rhaegar’s attention because she disguised herself as a man and entered the tournament as “the Knight of the Laughing Tree” in order to avenge one of her father’s bannermen, who had been badly beaten by some squires, and that the bannerman in question was Howland Reed, whose son is Jojen Reed who accompanies Bran on his journey beyond the wall, and whose family it is strongly hinted has hereditary greensight (having greensight, confusingly, being a slightly distinct set of powers from being a greenseer) and may therefore also have been manipulated into position by Bloodraven, or by some other ancient power of the Old Gods and the North. And I should probably break that sentence up, but … well … I think we’re squarely in long run-on sentence territory here.
Anyway, all this means it is possible that every single thing that happened in A Game of Thrones, going back well before the start of the first book or first episode, was actually part of an elaborate supernatural scheme designed to undo the centuries-ancient injustices perpetrated against the Children of the Forest by manipulating the Seven Kingdoms into a chaotic civil war followed by an apocalyptic battle between actual ice and fire, all of which was prodded through Bran’s visions (sent by some source we never truly learn the nature of) into an outcome that devastated the human kingdoms of Westeros and led inexorably to his appointment as king. A king, it seems reasonable to assume, who will rule in accordance with the mysterious visions that he is being sent by an ancient and mystical prehuman force.
Tl;dr—the whole eight-season arc, and all of its backstory, might be part of a millennia ancient battle fought by the primordial spirits of the land itself against the invading tide of humanity.
Which … well first of all that might be totally wrong. And as a reading it’s only lightly supported by show canon (while also not, if I’m honest, being especially supported by book canon, and occasionally involving cherrypicking from the two) but I think it does highlight something interesting and important about fantasy fiction, and especially about how fantasy fiction translates to television.
The Dark Bran theory, along with all the various theories about Azor Ahai, the Faceless Men, the Doom of Valyria, the Lord of Light, Maggy the Frog, Wargs, direwolves, the secret origins of dragons and their ties to the blood of old Valyria, brindled men and eyeless wyrms rely on an attitude to fantasy fiction which it’s very easy to forget is extremely uncommon outside of habitual genre readers.
There’s a line in one of the NYT articles about the Game of Thrones finale which made me realise how disparate attitudes to this kind of thing are amongst fans. It ran as follows:
This was a Shakespearean saga about power, blood and loyalty, we once told our skeptical, fantasy-averse friends. Not some show about dragons and wizards.
And then in its final episode, a dragon committed the story’s most potent symbolic act and a wizard was put in charge.
Which … is a bit dismissive, but it is reflective of the feelings of a surprising number of people. And the thing is I’ve always kind of known that there are large segments of the public for whom fantasy elements are a turnoff, but I’ve never quite realised how stark the difference is between the turn-off crowd and the turn-on crowd until I started looking at critical responses to A Game of Thrones. Because for every person who’s embarrassed that a wizard wound up being king of Westeros, there’s somebody who’s narked that they didn’t go into more detail about how exactly the weirwood network worked. For everybody who’s upset that the Iron Throne was destroyed by a giant fire-breathing lizard, there’s somebody who’s upset that the show didn’t sufficiently engage with the question of how that fire-breathing lizard was connected to the Targaryens or explore the question of whether dragons might be the result of Valyrian blood magic combining humans, wyverns and the firewyrms that tunnel beneath the fourteen flames.
Because my writing and my reading both hop around between genres, I think I might be more aware than many of how much of an acquired skill reading in a genre is. Some time last year I finally got around to reading Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (I know, I know, what have I been doing with my time?) and it genuinely took me a while to gearshift back into fantasy mode and remind myself that if I wanted to have any hope of understanding what was going on I had to really pay attention to how Allomancy works. And that was a shift I could make fairly easily, because I am a giant fucking nerd and Sanderson’s mathematically elegant system of magical metals (each pushing or pulling on either the internal or external manifestation of some fundamental principle, and forming pairs containing one pure metal and one alloy) is exactly the kind of thing I enjoy thinking about. But taking a step back it’s also fairly easy for me to realise quite how many people there must be for whom the idea of what-a-particular-sort-of-person-can-do-by-swallowing-a-particular-bit-of-metal being a fundamental aspect of your enjoyment of a story is wholly bizarre and alien.
I said in one of my early GoTS8 posts that Benioff and Weiss were seen in some quarters as being almost ashamed of their show’s fantasy elements, and that NYT article gave me a little glimpse into why they might be acting like that. A Song of Ice and Fire is from a particular school of fantasy that invites you not just to experience the story but to live in it, to speculate about what R’hllor really wants, to wonder what the precise limitations on the powers of the Faceless Men are, to think in detail about prophecies that are scattered across dozens of chapters across multiple books and to scour histories and visions for hints of secret truths and revelations.
I am not even joking when I say that there are fan theories about Cersei’s eventual fate in the books that hinge on the question of whether a particular term in High Valyrian is grammatically gendered or not.
To your average TV viewer (and I very much don’t mean that as a pejorative term, as I say all genre reading is acquired), this is a completely bizarre way of consuming a story. So of course the TV show never dove deep into Bran’s greenseer powers or the possibility that his ascension to the throne could be the culmination of a secret plot by the Children of the Forest. And of course they had defeating the White Walkers boil down to “kill the leader and they all die” because for most people doing lengthy research into the one weakness of an otherwise unstoppable enemy and relating it to the mytho-history of its creation and the motivations of the transmortal mystical force that drives it is … like … the opposite of compelling television.
Looking back, I’ll repeat what I’ve said several time throughout these posts (although perhaps not often enough). The Game of Thrones TV show is a remarkable achievement. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it could never be perfect. In fact perhaps in its later seasons it could never even be good because it reached the point where it really was trying to do something literally impossible—trying to wrap up a dozen different stories at once, all of them subtly different in tone and style and even to some extent genre, all requiring different types of ending and all while trying to appeal to an audience half of whom really want to know more about dragon-lore and the internal politics of the Citadel and the other half of whom really want a traditionally paced story with character beats and an emotional payoff and are just a little bit embarrassed to be watching a show with dragons in it.
It didn’t always succeed, but you can make a reasonable case that even when it failed, it failed magnificently.
And now its watch is ended.