In the end, Game of Thrones was an epic story safely told. The finale was a satisying enough for fans who were invested in the Starks and wanted something like happy endings for them, but it was a capstone that ran contrary to the original pop culture promise of this show as one that surprised viewers with its subversion of one of the most central of fantasy tropes: The Hero Must Survive To Save the Day.
Of course, The Hero did survive to save the day. We may have lost Ned Stark way back in the Season 1 finale, but Game of Thrones had many-a-spare hero lying around. Jon Snow, as the successor to the man who raised him in all the ways that mattered, was the second chance at righting the kingdom that Ned Stark never got. Unfortunately, what “righting the kingdom” looks like in Game of Thrones was about as traditional as stories can get—and that was a bit of a disappointment, even if it wasn’t particularly surprising, given how traditional this show has been thus far.
Game of Thrones ends with Bran on the Not Iron Throne, and Tyrion as his Hand, leading a group of some of our favorite characters as Westeros’ top advisors. It’s a cozy ending, one that pretends to “break the wheel,” as Dany aspired (very ineffectively) to do, but does nothing of the sort. The oligarchy, a form of government in which all power resides with a few people or in a dominant class or group within the society, remains alive and well in the Six Kingdoms (plus Winterfell).
Game of Thrones presents this new political arrangement as something bold, subversive, and hopeful, when, really, it is very similar to what the kingdom had before, just with characters we’ve been told are better in some way. While Westeros may not have an absolute monarchy in the sense that Bran will pass power onto his son or daughter, it is implied that, when Bran dies, the ruling class will decide again who is best fit to rule. And, if the series finale is anything to go by, it will be an unsettingly short conversation.
We leave Westeros with one teenaged boy/greenseer in charge of an entire kingdom, elected in no small part by his family and other members of his upper class social circle. Tyrion notes that Bran won’t have a power-hungry son to cause trouble, but what about the children of the rest of this council of power? Who’s to say one of the other council members won’t have a son or daughter who wants more than the already immense privilege they will be born into?
Should Bran prove a less-than-ideal decision-maker and ruler in the next, I don’t know, four or five decades, there are no checks and balances in place, besides the usual options (i.e. death by kiss-assassination). Bran’s hasty appointment, championed mainly by Tyrion who has proven poor at picking leaders, prioritizes knowledge over empathy (because Bran as The Three-Eyed Raven has shown very little empathy, even to the people he once loved), men over women (there was a perfectly good Sansa sitting right there), and the Starks above all else.
The show’s final montage suggests that the world is in safer hands because it is in the hands of the Stark family, the noblest of houses—but that “solution” still represents one family holding an incredible amount of power. As kind, good, and well-meaning as the Starks have often been, they are one family with similar values, initial life experiences, and interests. They should not hold so much of the power in the Region Formerly Known as the Seven Kingdoms.
This is, inevitably, when someone will jump in to say something about historical accuracy and how it is unrealistic that democracy or something even more radical would come at this point in “history.” I could, as the counter-argument often follows, point out the zombies, dragons, and miraculous resurrections of it all. Instead, I will assert my critical belief that every story ever told is about the time in which it is being told as much, if not more than, the real or imagined time it is set in. (I will also remind readers that Westeros is not, in fact, a real place.) This show can do whatever it wants. It doesn’t have to follow the status quo, which tells us men should rule and that power should reside in the hands of the rich, powerful, incestuous few, rather than in the hands of the people.
We are living in a country and world in which the power, which is largely-defined by wealth, is in the hands of an ever-increasing few. Game of Thrones has never been a show that cares about anyone who doesn’t already have some access to power. The show’s “underdogs,” the Starks, are one of the Seven Kingdoms’ ruling families.
This show only cares about the common folk when they are victims, as seen in the Battle of King’s Landing, which used the lives of innocent peasants as a way to back up the “heroism” of characters like Tyrion or Jon Snow who, let us all be reminded, were instrumental in making that massacre possible.
When it is time to bring Tyrion or Jon Snow to justice, they are not on trial for the respective roles they played in the King’s Landing massacre, but for betraying and killing their queen. Game of Thrones only counts crimes committed against named characters of relative to immense privilege. Tyrion and Jon Snow are both demonstrated to be a poor judge of character and misuse their power and are rewarded with more power.
In this final season, there has been much discussion about how this show has underwhelmed when it comes to plot and character. For my money, Season 8’s biggest weakness comes in its failure to properly explore its main theme: power. It’s narratively problematic that, in this finale, the character that was most articulate in their critiques of institutional monarchy and the corrupting influence of power was a dragon.
In the end, what does Game of Thrones have to say about power?: It’s OK for only a few people to wield it as long as they are predominantly male, predominantly white, and they are on the “right” side of a well-told story. In other words: Nothing new.
Listen to our Game of Thrones season 8 discussion on our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast: