Of Dragons, Ravens, and Wolves: Thoughts on the Game of Thrones Finale



I'm seeing so much disappointment online over the Game of Thrones ending that I want to weigh in a bit more on the series finale than I already have on social media. So here goes:

On the Matter of Prophecy:

I'm seeing quite a bit of grumbling about partially-fulfilled prophecies (Melisandre's prophecies about the promised prince and Arya Stark in particular). While I realize readers and viewers who have seen the prophecy trope in other works of fiction might have the expectation that prophecies are like gum balls (stick a quarter in the divination machine, and out comes a treat), that's not how divination works in life. At their best, prophecies are image-rich proclamations containing enough truth that both the prophet and the listeners believe something unexplainable by science has been said. In fact, folkloric research into divination indicates that meaning is usually applied retroactively in cases of prophecy, such that the prophet and listeners match the proclamation to the event after it has occurred. 

What's more interesting than the prophecies themselves in GoT is that they motivate people to abandon their common sense and their humanity to manifest what they believe the prophecy has promised. So in the end, it makes sense that characters who blindly followed their interpretations of prophecy would be disappointed, since even if these prophecies were sent by the Lord of Light, deeply flawed human beings both received and acted upon them.

As a person who has made heavy use of divination over the years, who has studied divination folklorically, and who is a fan of the series, I found this use of prophecy both nuanced and compelling. In fact, it matched my own observations about the way divination works. 

Daenerys Targaryen:

Several feminist interpretations of Dany's character arc make the observation that the series brings women to the brink of great power only to portray them as both insane and incapable of holding that power, thus reifying a common misogynistic trope. I don't see her arc this way, and I think Tyrion Lannister's prison speech in the final episode reveals more about us as readers, viewers, and Dany fans than it does her

Dany had been burning people alive from the moment she had the power to do so, but we cheered her on because we believed the people she burned were evil in some way and probably deserved it. We followed her logic that she was a liberator and therefore a good person, and once we believed she was a good person, we saw her behaviour through that lens right up until the moment when we couldn't anymore. But by then, how many people had she murdered? And of these people, how many did she know well enough to be certain they deserved death? And of these people, how many did she have the right to murder?

I've watched several people convinced of their own goodness do great evil in the world, and the evil they do is made far worse when other people support and reinforce a belief in that goodness. When groups collectively assert their own goodness, I've learned to watch the space around them for the detritus of mangled lives they leave behind in the name of self-proclaimed righteousness. So I was actually somewhat chagrined that I had been taken in by Dany, and I think perhaps that was the narrative's intention all along. We need to be careful with the power we invest in others (as the series itself expresses in the oft-repeated riddle of the soldier), and we need to be careful that we never believe so strongly in our own goodness that it leads us to be unmerciful. 

In the end, I thought Daenerys Targaryen's character arc was fascinating. She's one of the first capable conquerors I've seen in fiction who is also a woman, and she suffers the fate of conquerors, which itself might be read as a feminist narrative. It might also be useful to remember that insisting upon better representation in literature and television doesn't mean all our feminist characters get to be heroes. It means they get to be individuals with appropriately developed self-agency. However, I do concede here that the endgame was rushed. It takes time to make a sociological point of this magnitude, and I don't think it was adequately made in the time allotted to it. 

Bran Stark:

Bran's character arc was not fully realized in the story, which is why his ascension to ruler of the six kingdoms appears forced. Of all characters in the series, Bran is most closely tied to the old gods, the weirwood trees, the children of the forest, and the white walkers. None of these backstory elements is adequately explored, and we never come to fully understand the implications of becoming a Three-Eyed Raven. The story explains this lack with the abrupt conclusion of Bran's training and his flight from the Night King, but for Bran to become both the focus of the Night King's attention and ruler of the six kingdoms, we needed to care that he held the memory of the people, which means we needed the same full character arc given to Sansa, Arya, and Jon. Granted, that would have been a challenge, since it would have been much harder to dramatize the northern mythology of the series, and Bran was the embodiment of that mythology. But it absolutely needed to be done. That said, and because I think I see what the writers intended with the overall story arc, I agree that Bran was the best of all rulership choices. 

Jaime Lannister:

C'mon guys. We all knew he was going back to Cersei. He said as much throughout the series. It's possible to make good choices and bad choices at the same time, and Jaime did exactly that. 

I don't have much to say about the other points of contention fans have addressed. However, I will say that the end of the television series felt like the end of a good novel series to me, and finishing it felt like putting a good book down for the last time. Was it perfect? No, but even the best of novels are flawed creations, and how fortunate we are to have those flawed labours of love in the world.