This has always been what Game of Thrones is. Last night’s episode has torn the internet asunder, but I feel like it was only fulfilling the premise of the entire series; if anything last night’s episode is proof that the show has strayed too far from George RR Martin’s cynical worldview in the past season or two, lulling us into a fantasy football version of ‘who will take the throne?’ But the story has always been suspicious of anyone who wants the throne, and has always shown that those who vie for it, even for the best of reasons, are eventually monsters.
What you have to keep in mind is that A Song Of Ice And Fire, the book series from which Game of Thrones is adapted, is George RR Martin’s answer to Lord of the Rings. Martin is a huge fan of Tolkien, but he started this series as a critique of the Manichaean good vs evil concepts that LOTR baked into pretty much all high fantasy afterwards. More than that, he took issue with the idea of ‘Happily ever after.’ Don’t just believe me on this, here is Martin himself, talking to Rolling Stone:
“Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”
ASoIaF/GoT (I’ll just call it GoT from here on out) is about what happens after Happily Ever After. You have to remember that the whole series is the aftermath of Robert’s Rebellion, which is the prototypical fantasy story – the people of an oppressed kingdom rise up against a mad king and put a ‘better man’ on the throne. You could do a whole series on Robert’s Rebellion, which is full of heroic moments and brave knights and last minute betrayals and heroes saving the innocent (while also murdering babies), and end it on a note that is triumphant and positive.
But Martin knows that life doesn’t just stop at The End, and he wanted to see what happened next. GoT is that story. And it always has been, from the beginning – Martin always wanted to look behind the heroic facade and find the people and their flaws and their ugliness. The story has always been fairly cynical, even if that cynicism is informed by the entirety of human history.
Watching people throw around their hopes that their fave would ascend to the throne the past few years has really made me realize that this messaging has been completely lost. I think some of that comes from the social media nature of the fandom around this show – it’s a lot of stanning and ships and memes and gifs, all of which soften the edges of the ugliness of the show.
But the real problem has been that the show hit the same skids that Martin did with his book series; if you read the first three books they’re absolute bangers, but once you get to books four and five it’s a meandering mess as Martin hits this middle period in his story. Basically the Red Wedding presents this point where he’s hit all the shocks and reverses that he possibly can, and he needs to figure out how to build his remaining pieces to the endgame. He has a very hard time with this.
The show sped through a lot of this stuff, but it still faltered – remember the Sand Snakes? But I think the big problem for the show, and the problem that has led us to the world of anger we have today (I saw someone tweet about how David Benioff is tied to the financial crisis of the 2010s), was the way it approached the resolution of the Night King storyline.
See, Daenerys was on an arc of losing her shit for quite some time. Her entire march through Slaver’s Bay was about her consistently walking up to the line of tyranny and almost crossing it. By the standards of the day, that is – after all, she crucified hundreds when she took Mereen. And lest you think that this was a ‘righteous’ thing to do, as the Masters of Mereen had crucified children as a warning to Dany, the show goes out of its way to have a man tell Dany that his father, who was crucified, had actually fought against the killing of the children.
Every obstacle she met had been overcome with brute force and, almost always, fire. She burned everything – this is despite being warned by Ser Barristan that her father loved watching people burned alive. And when he was killed by the Harpies what did she do? Burned alive some random Master to send a message to the others.
The argument, of course, is that she burned only those who deserved it. When she killed all the khals it was because they threatened to gang rape her – clearly they’re bad dudes. But the problem with this thinking is that the definition of who is bad and how becomes fuzzy the longer you follow this path. This is why justice isn’t the same as vengeance, because vengeance has a way of obscuring our vision.
If Dany had come to Westeros and then this had happened, with a couple of episodes to lay down the betrayals she experienced, I think it would have felt more natural. But all of season seven and most of season eight have been about the Night King, and that really muddied the waters. The detour was necessary, but I think we lost the forest of Dany’s arc for the trees of the Night King.
See, the Night King was the big statement on Tolkien-esque villainy. From that same Rolling Stone interview:
The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that. World War I is much more typical of the wars of history than World War II – the kind of war you look back afterward and say, “What the hell were we fighting for? Why did all these millions of people have to die? Was it really worth it to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that we wiped out an entire generation, and tore up half the continent? Was the War of 1812 worth fighting? The Spanish-American War? What the hell were these people fighting for?”
The Night King is the dark lord with his evil minions, but he’s not the endgame. He’s the distraction from the reality; rather than all the peoples of Westeros coming together to fight the common threat, the humans remain divided and conflicted, and once they deal with the supernatural threat they still have to deal with one another.
In fact I think the Night King story was anticlimactic on purpose. None of the heroes got their big death moments in that battle because that isn’t the kind of story being told. The characters who died were third stringers, and their deaths were meaningless. Nothing would have changed if Jorah had sat the battle out – it was all going to come down to the action in the Godswood no matter what. This is a riff on Aragorn at the gates of Mordor, buying time for Frodo, but rather than a heroic gesture in GRRM’s world it’s a pointless one.
But the Night King injected exactly the kind of Tolkien-esque good versus evil stuff into the story that the story is refuting, even if the point was to eventually refute it. The time spent on this put Dany’s arc on ice, so to speak. I don’t think it was abandoned – the purpose of the past season and a half has been to make Dany resentful of Jon Snow, in my opinion, in the way that he effortlessly gets the love and loyalty that she so desperately craves – but it got slowed down. And so, now that the Night King is defeated and Dany is picking up where she left off it all feels wrong.
Could it have been done better? Yes, but I also think the writers were in a bind here. They didn’t want Dany’s decision in The Bells to be foregone. They had laid the groundwork since the beginning for her to go this way, but they didn’t want her final choice to be telegraphed two episodes in advance. Just as the Red Wedding was painfully inevitable you didn’t want it to be seen coming a mile away, they wanted you to be rooting for Dany to overcome her true heritage – the madness of an inbred royal family – and do the right thing.
But more than that, I think the last two episodes have fully charted the path for this choice, building on her character constants throughout the series. Losing Rhaegal and Missandei in rapid succession truly destabilized her in a profound way, and that was only compounded by discovering she doesn’t have the true claim to the throne. Her destiny, everything she has done until now, has been based on believing she is the true heir to the Iron Throne, and in bumbles Jon Snow with the stronger claim.
This woman, who has risen from terrible abuse to incredible power, is in a strange land. It’s technically her homeland, but she has no memories of ever being there. She feels betrayed by the people of this land on a fundamental level because of what they did to her family, but she still wants to be loved by them. Her whole journey has been about seeking ever-increasing adoration, positioning herself as the Mother of the cities she conquers. Her greatest victory comes not from force but from the slaves rising up for her, and it’s her great White Savior moment. This, she believes is what she deserves and what she cannot ever again get. When she comes to Westeros to get her claim she finds it’s shaky, she finds that the love she wants may be impossible to find from these people (that scene of the Unsullied marching into Winterfell is about racism, but is also about how the people of the North don’t like anybody who isn’t of the North, including Dany).
And when she comes to Westeros things go really badly again and again. She loses one of her dragon children, who goes evil. She loses her trusted knight, with whom she has had this endless love/hate relationship (she’s so emotionally abusive to Jorah it’s crazy, and it’s all about forcing him to prove his love for her again and again). She loses her love, who is now a threat to her (even though he insists he isn’t, she knows otherwise). Then she loses her second dragon child and her best friend, whose last word is counsel to burn it all down.
With all of that – the teetering foundation upon which her personality is built followed by the brutal one-two-three punch of dragon death, friend death and counselor betrayal (betrayal is Dany’s number one trigger, by the way, and always has. She burned a woman alive in season one for this), led Dany to that moment atop the walls of King’s Landing. The people did notrise up for her, and that was a betrayal. Then, when they surrendered, her thirst for vengeance wasn’t sated. She was still furious. She hates this fucking land. She hates this city, which was built by her ancestors but is not her home. All of the struggle and loss for this? A city of ingrates who don’t understand she is there to break the wheel and free them from tyranny? She’ll show them all.
I don’t think it’s a descent into madness, I think it’s a snap. She snaps. The pressures and the pain are too much, and in this moment she goes too far. Her natural instincts to just burn whatever obstacles lay before her, and to understand that her destiny and her desire to break the wheel make her right – always, always, always any atrocity is acceptable because of who she is and what her mission is, the ends always justify the means for her – overwhelm her. In this moment she loses her soul when she discovers victory isn’t enough. She needs to make those who defied her suffer as well. She’s simply putting into action the wise counsel she got from Lady Olenna Tyrell in season seven:
“He’s a very clever man, your Hand. I’ve known many clever men and I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them. The lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.”
And so Dany was a dragon, giving in to her heritage and to George RR Martin’s dark vision of power. It was always going to end this way. And I suspect that an eventual rewatch, with the year and a half season gap gone, and the weekly wait eliminated, and an understanding that the Night King was never intended to be the Big Bad, will show that all the gears were in fact moving all along, and that it was we who got distracted.