What the end of ‘Game of Thrones’ means | Daily News
Shadows on the wall

What the end of ‘Game of Thrones’ means

No doubt for many readers, the combination of dragons, battling knights, zombies and giants will sound like a pretty unpalatable concoction. As Clive James writes in Play All: “Like anybody both adult and sane, I had no intention of watching [it]”. But it’s hard to dispute that Game of Thrones, at its peak, was a work of considerable sophistication.

The plot sprawls across eight seasons, but its two central questions are simple: who will take final control of the country of Westeros and how will humans defend themselves against a mysterious army of the dead? When the story began in Season One, Westeros was enjoying a spell of fragile stability under King Robert, following his rebellion against the Targaryen dynasty. But Robert’s scheming wife Cersei Lannister had a secret: the King’s children were not his own – they were the product of incest with her twin brother Jaime.

When Ned Stark – Robert’s Hand of the King – came across the truth of the children’s parentage, it set off a great chain of events that saw Robert murdered, Ned executed and the country thrown into chaos. The North rebelled against the throne, Robert’s brothers each decided that they had a stronger claim to power than did his bastard children – and across the sea, in the neighbouring continent of Essos, a young woman in exile, Daenerys Targaryen, the daughter of the deposed king, began her long journey to restore her family’s line.

Game of Thrones is, when the slightly tiresome dragons and magic are stripped away, an exploration of human nature under extreme stress. The characters are recognizable – their dispositions and personalities rooted in realism. Yet, for the most part, they inhabit a world of simplified values – the pursuit of dominance, the importance of family and the shame of losing one’s honour – and one in which violent death is a real possibility. Game of Thrones presents a vivid imagining of how complexity emerges from simplicity, as barely restrained appetites for control and prestige bloom into myriad motivations and baroque schemes. Repeatedly, the show encourages us to consider what makes power powerful – and what makes it legitimate? In Season Two, the spymaster Varys posed the question:

Three great men sit in a room: a king, a priest, and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other two. Who lives, who dies? … Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.

The whole show is, in a sense, a dramatization of that question – and of what it means to strive and flourish in this brutal and unpredictable world. Westerosi codes of behaviour may be markedly removed from our own, but they are admirably self-consistent. Family is the basic unit of security and must be protected; oaths are sacred. Characters undergo much moral angst and wrangling, and come to often violent conclusions, yet they follow in compelling ways from foundational principles. Within this moral edifice, killing is not wrong in itself, but the dishonouring of one’s house is. Torture is a minor infraction, but breaking an oath stains a reputation for a lifetime. Jon Snow struggles in earnest to decide whether to break his vow in order to avenge his father; Jaime Lannister saves hundreds of thousands by killing the king he vowed to protect, and his reward is scorn and disgust.

The dual elements of power and morality subtly intersect. In Game of Thrones, power is not a mere matter of force and violence. Puissance finds expression in sublimated forms – it is there in the ability to dictate a world view and to prescribe the contours of the transcendent. Religions blossom in this world. Some are state-sanctioned, such as the Faith of the Seven, tied intimately to the workings of official authority (“the faith and the crown are the two pillars that hold up this world”, Cersei claims). The extremist version of this religion appears in Season Five – the puritanical Sparrows, led by one of the show’s most sinister characters, the meek and softly spoken High Sparrow. But across the realm cults metastasize and compete for followers: the Lord of Light, the Old Gods, the Braavosi Many-Faced God, the Great Stallion of the Dothraki tribes. In their competition to impose truths and goods, we see a misted reflection of the hard, bloody struggle at the core of the narrative.

Two years ago my colleague Robert Potts finished his review of the penultimate season with a prediction: the final series would be “quite a spectacle”. He’s been proved right. This season offered the most dazzling visuals – a thousand fiery swords blazing through the misty night; a gorgeous CGI dragon curled under a heap of snowy ash; an entire city in flames. What a shame, therefore, about the plot, dialogue and pacing. Almost everyone will know by now that the final episodes were not its best. The complex characters of earlier seasons lost their complexity – the sparkling dialogue lost its sparkle. The intricate scheming disappeared, the ideas withered. The most tedious characters – Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen – took on outsized roles, while the most interesting faded into the background.

When the new season begins, only two competitors for the Iron Throne remain: Cersei, the Queen, with a great fleet of ships and a powerful army of mercenaries, and Daenerys, who spent many seasons wandering through Essos, liberating slaves, and gathering supporters, including Jon Snow, (Ned Stark’s bastard – and briefly King in the North), Varys and Tyrion Lannister (the brother of Jaime and Cersei). They have united behind her saintly mission to rule Westeros without war or tyranny: “to break the wheel”. Her strength is underpinned by two dragons – her “children” – who have the power to destroy ships, castles or cities.

- Times Literary Supplement


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