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Imagine if Lord of the Rings ended with Aragorn riding out into the abandoned wastes of Mordor, his crown forsaken, his throne left to an uncertain fate. Imagine, growing from out of the ashes of Sauron’s dominion, tender blades of green grass. That’s where David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ Game of Thrones left us: the messianic king-who-wasn’t, Jon Snow, riding out of Westeros in company with the Free Folk to bring life back to death’s frozen domain. The throne, over which so much blood was shed, melted to slag; the queen who never got a chance to take it for her own killed in its shadow; the dragon that set fire to tens of thousands at her command flying away into the falling ash toward no-one-knows-where.
What’s left is a council of misfits, a wise and peaceful king, and a broken kingdom remade a little different, perhaps a little better, than before. No locked-in golden age, no heroic promised one to wear the crown, no satisfaction at seeing people good and bad receive their karmic sentences. Game of Thrones leaves all that to cleaner, lighter fiction.
And just in case it still feels too cozy, we see characters we’ve come to love over the years sneer and laugh at the idea of democracy, still secure at the apex of the feudal system that’s been ripping their country apart since the days of the Long Night 8,000 years ago. The dragon — an avatar of war capable of leveling any city in Westeros — is still out there, too. It’s a world that will surely see misery again before too long.
The series’ ending unleashed a seemingly bottomless geyser of fan discontent ranging from mile-long Twitter threads to an honest-to-God petition for HBO to remake the eighth season from scratch. The complaints, by and large, feel typical to the “Peak TV” era: the uproar you’d expect from the sort of people who’ve interpreted Emilia Clarke’s traumatized, brutal Daenerys Targaryen as a one-dimensional message about girl power; anger that such and such a character “deserved” some specific ending they didn’t receive. Much of it boils down to viewers interpreting their own discomfort over the show’s failures.
But was Game of Thrones ever a show about fostering satisfaction? Was its aim to make people feel good? It’s hard to watch Burn Gorman as Karl Tanner lord over the rape of Craster’s wives, or the City Watch murdering infants in their beds, and say that it was pure escapism.
The end of Thrones is a watershed moment for the way our society engages with art. As Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz put it, Game of Thrones may well be the last show we watch together, a crossover hit positioned at the same kind of fork in the road in our viewing habits as the finale of M*A*S*H was in 1983. From here on out, the future of television is a lawless maze where Netflix originals, Disney, and premium streaming services stalk ailing cable TV through ever-shifting viewing habits. There’s just too much out there, and in too many places, for America to plausibly come together again for appointment viewing anytime soon. So what, now that it’s in the rear view, was the show trying to say? What did it bring to popular culture, and what did our reaction say about us?
Women have been at the heart of most discussions of Game of Thrones since before the credits rolled on the 2011 premiere. How many women are there? How often are they naked? How many terrible experiences can Sansa Stark go through before it’s too many? But one topic has always dominated: power.
The women of Thrones, with the agency and martial prowess that they’ve managed to obtain, built kingdoms, yet the depiction of their power is anything but glamorous. Moments lauded as feminist triumphs — Sansa feeding her rapist to his own starving dogs; Daenerys attacking a Lannister convoy from dragonback and burning it to cinders — give us sickening glimpses into the minds of women who’ve been taught to behave like the men who beat and brutalized them. It’s a powerful condemnation of the systems in which the women of Westeros live, and a warning to those who would applaud women for occupying the same inherently violent and oppressive positions traditionally held by men.
“Everywhere she goes,” says Tyrion Lannister of Daenerys, “evil men die. And we cheer her for it, and she grows more powerful and sure that she is good and right.” He might as well speak for the viewers, and who could blame us? As long as Daenerys was burning and crucifying slave traders a world away from anyone we cared about, the violence she used to cement her power as a monarch was easier to relish as just desserts for people we could write off as unequivocally evil.
The death that launched it all, though, is harder to swallow. Mirri Maz Duur, a midwife raped and enslaved by the khalasar of Daenerys’ then-husband Khal Drogo and later taken under Daenerys’ protection along with the people of her ruined village, is the first person burned alive by the future queen. Her death foretells much of what comes after.
When Daenerys declares Mirri Maz Duur beyond the reach of Drogo’s riders, the midwife has already been raped, and the people she tended to butchered and enslaved. Later, after Mirri reveals her sorcerous powers, and tricks Daenerys into sacrificing her unborn child in a futile attempt to save a dying Khal Drogo, Daenerys tells her, “I saved you,” with clear disbelief. She can’t imagine that the older woman heard her speak of giving birth to a prophesied conqueror or reclaiming her homeland with the Dothraki behind her with anything but excitement at the prospect of her liberator continuing her good works. In Daenerys’ mind, her sparing Mirri’s life entitled her to the remainder of it.
Mirri Maz Duur is the lesson Daenerys refuses again and again to learn. Betrayed by the midwife, Daenerys burns her alive. Later, in Meereen, when Daenerys’ freedman supporter Mossador goes against her orders by killing an imprisoned agent of the slavers, she has him beheaded. The people you conquer don’t have to love you for amending the destruction of their worlds and the violation of their bodies with “and now you’re free!” Their hearts and lives don’t belong to you because you killed the people who used to own them. More than anything, Daenerys’ story is a parable about the poisonous nature of power, about its tendency to pervert even the best of intentions, to render monstrous on a grand scale those who as individuals are driven by kindness and compassion.
If power itself is inherently corrosive, why should we celebrate it when women manage to claim some for themselves? Why do we expect them to be better than the men who came before them? Arya Stark’s transformation from a spirited little girl into an icy killing machine, Daenerys’ following in her husband’s footsteps as a conqueror and warlord —these things are tragedies, not triumphs. The show’s unflinching depictions of the atrocities perpetrated by women advances the idea of the complicated female character ahead of the more wish fulfillment-focused Strong Female Character. By depicting women as complete human beings with all the ugliness that entails, Game of Thrones challenged viewers’ willingness to applaud cruelty when it’s done by someone beautiful, aggrieved, and charismatic.
What doesn’t kill you
Hand in hand with depicting women with power, Game of Thrones pushed deep into exploring trauma, the people it forms, and the societies they form in turn. By following the lives of people who endure rape, disability, child abuse, domestic violence, and other traumatic events and incorporating those events into the continuum of daily life, Game of Thrones did more than flesh out the hostility and pain of medieval existence. The series mainstreamed the idea that such suffering is closer to universal than exceptional, that the things we most fear to see and to name out loud are as much a part of ourselves as anything else.
Exposure and openness are essential components of empathy. When part of human experience is deemed untouchable, it isolates from one another those who’ve been through it. Game of Thrones’ frankness about rape and abuse — often the cause of much controversy among critics and viewers — brought to popular entertainment a new level of honesty about trauma and laid out clearly the link between suffering abuse and behaving abusively. When Sansa feeds Ramsay Bolton to his hunting dogs, it’s difficult not to credit his smug “I’ll always be a part of you” as true. The young woman she was before Joffrey, Littlefinger, and Ramsay got their claws into her would never have been capable of such willful cruelty, much less of enjoying it.
People do what they’re taught to do, with very few exceptions. Cersei’s cruelty toward others and obsession with control can be traced back not just to her drunken batterer and rapist of a husband, King Robert, but to the domineering father who sold her as a teenager into that violent marriage. Arya Stark makes a twisted game of killing her enemies in the same methods they themselves employed in earning her ire — butchering the Frey clan to the last member at a feast, mocking Ser Gregor’s henchman Polliver with his own words in the moments before she skewers him. When her sister Sansa discovers a bag of stolen faces under her bed after their eventual reunion, it’s as much a revelation that Arya herself is gone as it is of the death and despoilment of her victims.
In Theon Greyjoy’s broken, twisted body; in the scars that crisscross Arya’s torso; in Sansa’s smile at the sound of starving dogs tearing into a living man’s body, Game of Thrones brings into the light the ways in which suffering shapes lives and echoes across generations. When Daenerys burns King’s Landing from dragonback, killing tens of thousands, it’s not some out-of-left-field gotcha moment, but the culmination of a lifetime of being treated as property, of being chased and beaten and raped and taught again and again that only fear and strength are worthy of respect. Those experiences didn’t magically transmute Daenerys into a better, kinder person. They only taught her which end of the whip she wanted to be on.
The show is remarkably empathetic as it witnesses suffering, bringing us into the skins of characters both beloved and hateful. Cersei’s nude walk of atonement — during which she is pelted with refuse, spat on, and jeered by a crowd of thousands — is filmed quietly and without prurience. Cersei’s abjection can be read as punishment for her misdeeds, but the intimate camera work and Lena Headey’s vulnerable, emotional performance suggest instead an opportunity to connect and empathize with someone frequently dismissed as monstrous. By showing what it feels like to endure trauma, Game of Thrones removes all easy resolution, forcing us to acknowledge the humanity of the characters.
Here there be dragons
Game of Thrones’ keen sense for humanizing characters and establishing their vulnerabilities extended beyond the purely personal. Over its eight-season run, as the show built inexorably to the kind of fantasy spectacle that has formed the backbone of the genre since Smaug burned Lake-town in Tolkien’s 1937 children’s story The Hobbit, Benioff and Weiss’ series explored a similar fragility and realism toward mythic elements. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in the lives of Daenerys’ three dragons, symbols of epic grandeur introduced as hatchlings and grown to monstrous immensity by the show’s end. The devastation wrought by the dragons during their growth became an increasingly prominent part of the show, especially after the largest of the three, Drogon, burned a young girl to death at the start of season 5.
The sullying of fantasy imagery again complicates the show’s moral framework. The dragons are not strictly awe-inspiring. They cannot be understood as a mere accessory to Daenerys’ personal myth. Rather, they become, over time, an expression of the worst excesses of war and empire, of violence on a scale so grotesque that no single person could ever hope to guide it. Just as Daenerys’ decision to chain her dragons under her citadel is an attempt to find a way to rule through mercy rather than force, to prevent the deaths of any other children, her eventual decision to unleash them is an explicit turning away from that empathy. The dragons literally separate her from the rest of humanity, carrying their mother high above the armies and cities she lays to waste, freeing her from proximity to the grisly consequences of her ambitions.
For all their size and strength and destructive power, the dragons are fragile, too. The sense of majesty and wonder they bring with them can be shot down, ripped apart, and profaned. The show’s most epic spectacles, many of which have the dragons at their heart, are characterized by a paired understanding of the genre’s power to awe and terrify and of its terrible vulnerability, which catalyzes those emotions. The dragons are the beating heart of the show’s mythic iconography. The revelation that they too are just flesh and bone is devastating on an almost primal level, reaching back into our collective childhood to crush something wild and free and beautiful.
In that loss of illusion, though, is an opportunity to understand ourselves and the world a little better, to see the cracks in the stories we tell ourselves, the weakness and pain behind the things we idolize and hate. It’s a chance to appreciate not just our own incredible fragility but the fragility of our dreams. The dragons, like the Night King and his army of the dead, are lenses through which to view the show’s human dramas. They magnify and render impossible to ignore the worst distortions of both the fictional Westerosi society and our own imperialist death cult of a nation, a place where every year we accept children shot dead in the streets as the price of law and order, where war never ends even in the shadow of melting ice caps and rising seas. They are extensions of our cruelty toward each other.
The laws of gods and men
Game of Thrones is not a perfect work of art. From the repetitive “where are my dragons?” antics of season 2 to the hacky 1990s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys kitsch of Dorne, the series had its fair share of missteps. Its dialogue was often exceptional but never consistently great and the White Walkers were frequently inert as a screen presence. And in adapting the crucial “broken man” speech from George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows — a monologue by an implied former outlaw turned septon on the pity that’s due to men destroyed in mind and spirit by war — the show utterly whiffed, delivering a short, dull parable on the futility of pacifism. But for all its stumbles, Benioff and Weiss’ take on Martin’s source material is still a daring and uncompromising achievement.
Nothing in television history has given so much screen time over to victims of sexual assault. Nothing has dug as deeply into the way we worship our leaders and ignore the price the helpless pay for their posturing and self-aggrandizement. Nothing has dared to so consistently force viewers to confront their own distaste for the price of a kind of spectacle that generations of Hollywood blockbusters have trained us all to think of as bloodless and neat. There is a conscious and purposeful ugliness to Game of Thrones that pushes past the bounds of entertainment, that asks us to scale mountains of corpses and wander through the ash-choked ruins of great cities not for the thrill of it but to better comprehend the madness and misery of our own world, to make sense of wars we’ll never see with our own eyes and suffering that goes unmarked in every corner of society.
As a culture, we’re not used to being challenged by our fiction. Disney has found unprecedented success by pushing Easy Listening entertainment to its apex, guaranteeing audiences at least three or four digestible and more or less interchangeable movies each year. Art that does deal in bloodshed tends to treat it flippantly or as something that ups its “cool” factor — think the John Wick movies or Ridley Scott’s soporific Gladiator. Game of Thrones sold itself on violence, but in practice the bloodshed was often anything but fun to watch. I doubt you’d find many people eager to revisit the sight of Princess Shireen burning alive, or of the Mountain cracking Prince Oberyn’s skull like a rotten egg.
In the course of the show’s run, a story about the Hound’s childhood is repeated twice: first by Littlefinger and then, definitively, by the badly burn-scarred knight himself. The story goes that as a boy, Sandor’s older brother, Gregor, caught him playing with one of his toys. Without a word, he seized Sandor and forced his face against a lit brazier, holding him there until his skin ran like melted wax. Sandor’s voice breaks as he tells the story. In that burned man’s voice, seething with old grief and rage, in his constant reliving of the agony around which his whole broken, painful life took shape, Game of Thrones found purpose. Not to press our faces to the fire, but to show us those already burned, and teach us how to hold their suffering.
Gretchen Felker-Martin is a horror writer with Thuban Press, 2dCloud, and others. Follow her on Twitter @scumbelievable.