It is a fascinating exercise to consume this show according to the twenty-first-century rules of binge-watching. As the hours pass and the on-screen death count rises, the sustained passivity of the viewer turns him or her into an undead figure. One does not have the proper time to digest each “important” death on-screen, to process it and move on, because the next episode rolls in not a week later but after a few seconds. As a result, the viewer is under a constant chthonic attack.
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When Game of Thrones ended last year, fans were not happy. It should be noted, however, that it is an incredibly difficult feat to end a show of this caliber successfully. In fact, it has been twenty-two years since the Seinfeld finale and people still talk about its “botched” finale. This example of long-simmering public ire does not bode well for the Game of Thrones finale. In the last episode, Jon Snow (aka Aegon Targaryen) asks Tyrion if they had made the right decision about killing Daenerys. His question is in line with the character’s concern with ethics and his general naiveté about life. Ygritte was right, of course – he knows nothing. Yet his question also doubles as a reflexive moment about the show itself, about the “death” of the show, which is perhaps appropriate given that its most recurrent theme is death. Tyrion offers a circumspect reply: “Ask me again in ten years.” While only one year has passed since the series ended, given our current quarantined reality, it certainly feels like ten years. So, I decided to rewatch Game of Thrones from beginning to end, hoping first to see if the gobble-it-all-up-in-one-bite format would make me appreciate it more or less; second, to find an answer to Jon’s extradiegetic question; and third, to reflect on its dominant theme of death.
The show’s fascination with death naturally mirrors our real-life preoccupation with it, the age-old struggle to understand, deal with, and accept our own mortality. Part of the success of the show may come from its varied dealings with death then: there are innumerable violent and memorable deaths; there are romantic-type unavoidable deaths (Cersei and Jaime); there are avoided deaths (Jon comes back from the dead; Arya has an unlimited supply of “not today” get-out-of-jail-free cards); there are metaphorical deaths (Tyrion, while a survivor, “dies” when he kills Shae; Bran turns un-human); there are walking dead, and finally there is Death itself, split across two different manifestations, Jaqen H’ghar and the Night King. Valar morghulis. Sort of.
It is a fascinating exercise to consume this show according to the twenty-first-century rules of binge-watching. As the hours pass and the on-screen death count rises, the sustained passivity of the viewer turns him or her into an undead figure. One does not have the proper time to digest each “important” death on-screen, to process it and move on, because the next episode rolls in not a week later but after a few seconds. As a result, the viewer is under a constant chthonic attack. This exercise in viewing turns more morbid, perhaps, when we take into consideration the Covid-19 pandemic. The ire of the general public toward the series’ finale seems ever more trivial now, but the criticism has not gone away. A full year since the broadcast of the finale, the social media lamentations have come back in full swing. Priorities! More seriously, the sports and pop culture website The Ringer began uploading daily articles about Game of Thrones during the commemorative week, including a very detailed ranking of its best characters’ 101 deaths. Daenerys comes in at #4, by the way, upstaged by three Lannisters, Tywin, Cersei, and Jaime. This might offer some indication that Jon did not make the right decision.
At some level, the ire may come from simply grieving the ending of one of the greatest shows on television (a grief compounded by another major series, The Big Bang Theory, as well as the best sitcom on TV, Veep, also bowing out last spring). Consequently, we aimed to fill the void with denial and anger. We might have also reacted in such a childish manner because one of our favorite venues of escapism was taken away from us. In the era of Trump, never has the gap between a fantasy show and our real world been any smaller, and, I surmise, never have we needed more to feel happy, which we can apparently only do through destructive identification with an imaginary world. However, Covid-19 is currently taking that away from us, too, pushing us into what could be a very long state of depression. Prior to this, there was bargaining, too, marked by the petition that went around the internet seeking to remake the last season of the show. This is a show that has permeated all corners of our society, to the point that Aaron Rodgers, quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, could voice his displeasure with the season finale and have it become news.1 There are also more serious sources, such as the Pod Save America commentators who took a break from politics to discuss their reaction to the show. To their credit, after mostly bashing it, they did end on very positive notes. Pulitzer-winning journalist Wesley Morris posted an anticipatory column before the season finale, explaining how he had finally caved and binge-watched the entire show. In the same column, Morris also discussed how he had experienced Breaking Bad: “I smoked it. Or rather: It smoked me.” Even though Morris explained his experiencing of the two shows were vastly different, I cannot think of a more apt way to express the effect of Game of Thrones on our society – it smoked us – but I will add that it also turned us into ash. Rewatching it just keeps the trauma of death and loss alive.
The last season does leave us with several unanswered questions: Why was Arya’s faceless assassin storyline completely dropped after her successful revenge-butchering of the Freys? What was the purpose of the symbols left behind by the White Walkers? What about the white horse? What are Bran’s actual powers, other than not being able to have children? Was the purpose of Jon’s second life really just to kill his aunt-lover? Do the Unsullied regenerate? In the Storm Troopers scene2 following the conquest and destruction of King’s Landing, they seem to be back to their original numbers and perhaps even multiplied beyond the original 8,000. Did the long winter really last only six weeks? Sure, that’s a lot of questions, but they are insignificant cracks in the armor of the overall series. Fiction is not supposed to give us all the answers. It’s not NPR, it’s HBO.
The finale itself contains several memorable moments: the apparently laugh-out-loud idea that the people should decide who their leader is (also known as democracy, in yet another sharp reminder of the fact that we live in an oligarchy); Sansa’s perfectly executed, perfectly timed diss of Uncle Edmure; Brienne’s heart-wrenching tribute to the memory of Jaime; Drogon’s melting of the Iron Throne, which proves that he understands metaphors (well, metonymies); and another scattering of the Starks. However, unlike the end of the first season, this is a scattering meant to satisfy the audience. None of us lashed out to this extent about Ned Stark losing his head at the end of the first season. If anything, his death indicated that no one was safe, and that possibility drew us to the show in even larger numbers. Ned’s death really jump-starts the narrative of the series, which technically ends with Arya killing the Night King. What follows this epic moment might feel lazy and formulaic, with the Starks spreading into three geographical directions: Arya will conquer the West, Bran controls the South, Sansa liberates the North, and Jon goes back to the deep North, perhaps in a nostalgic search to reclaim Ygritte’s memory. Yet we will always have the “Long Night” episode – oh, you couldn’t see it, it was too dark? I couldn’t breathe. A monumental accomplishment in television (55 nights of shooting!) topped by the cathartic Arya moment, which took her to the apex of her character arc in spectacular fashion. It was always going to be difficult, perhaps impossible to top this moment, and topping itself is what the series has done better than any other show on television.
If there is an earlier episodic companion to the “Long Night,” a moment that needed to be topped, it is the “Battle of the Bastards” episode. A similarly gruesome battle, very difficult to pull off cinematically, and it ends with another cathartic death – Sansa letting the hounds eat Ramsey’s face off. Outside the gates to the stables, Sansa initially wants to move away as soon as the first dog bites into Ramsey. However, she changes her mind and looks on instead. This is another apt approximation of the experience of watching this show: can’t look away, even when it is terrible. We watched Ned Stark’s head roll, the Red Wedding, Hodor and the door, Jon face the Night King (kind of) beyond the Wall, the Viper’s eye-popping moment, Joffrey’s meme-worthy death, Cersei’s shame-ring-bell walk and her subsequent bombing of the sept in “The Winds of Winter.” Perhaps HBO literally ran out of money after shooting the “Long Night” episode, or perhaps they started losing money a season back, when distances seemed to matter no more. Yet there is no question that the creators delivered a wow moment – Arya ending the war – that overshadowed all other wow moments. If you hate how it ended, just watch it again and stop here. But you would be missing out on the finale of Tyrion’s journey.
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) looms large over the last season, as he has oftentimes throughout the series. His character, like the show, goes through peaks and valleys, sometimes relegated to the narrative margins, sometimes seemingly the main character. Overall, his arc is one of the most compelling in the series. The back end of the series puts Tyrion’s reputation as a brilliant mind at risk. In the Season 8 premiere, Sansa (Sophie Turner) tells him directly, “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” She is not wrong that Tyrion makes a series of bad calls. He used to drink and know things, but then he drinks less, stops having sex, and suddenly knows less than Jon, who, it’s worth repeating, still knows nothing. His drinking and sexual prowess had been reasons to gloat throughout the series: “Drinking and lust. No man can match me in these things. I am the god of tits and wine” and “It’s not easy being drunk all the time. If it were easy, everyone would do it.” Could love be the downfall for a series of bad judgments, bad advice, and even turning in one of his closest friends, Lord Varys? As suggested above, he “dies” when he kills Shae; he is no longer himself. Perhaps more materially, his downfall happens due to the lack of sex. Conversely, in a famous Seinfeld episode, “The Abstinence,” George Constanza transforms into a genius, because his mind is no longer occupied with thoughts about sex. Abstinence seems to have the opposite effect on Tyrion. Yet it is Tyrion who carries the series over the line, his face contorting in incredible ways to generate meaning. Lena Headey (Cersei) is the only one who has the acting chops to match Peter Dinklage, but in the last couple of seasons she was too often used as a mere glamorous prop: sip wine, look outside the window, imperceptibly squint, end of scene.
Tyrion is a lover at heart, and not only in the physical sense. He deeply loves his brother, who is the only character to reciprocate unconditionally. He loves his home, Casterly Rock, which he demands from his father as his “lawful heir.” Naturally, the tyrannical Tywin Lannister responds harshly: “You are an ill-made, spiteful little creature full of envy, lust, and low cunning. Men’s laws give you the right to bear my name and display my colors since I cannot prove that you are not mine. . . . But neither gods nor men shall ever compel me to let you turn Casterly Rock into your whorehouse.” This is one of the moments that pierces through Tyrion’s armor, as he fails to heed his own advice, given to Jon (Kit Harington) during their first encounter: “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” It is worth noting that Jon, the character we perhaps most assume to be the leading man, becomes really a tool in Tyrion’s able hands. Jon is on the receiving end of advice from Tyrion, and eventually becomes convinced that he must murder Daenerys. And this was a bridge too far for many fans and viewers of the show. However, in retrospect, Jon and Dany never made sense as a couple; not just because they are related (this is a fictional story, right?), but because they both lived extremely intense first loves (Ygritte and Khal Drogo, respectively). Speaking of which, doesn’t Daenerys give up on Khal Drogo rather fast? Sure, he’s a vegetable, but it takes her about half an episode to put him out of, well, her own misery, because she has no idea what or how he feels. And Jon does the same to her. Is he “right”? Narratively speaking, yes; logically speaking, probably no, since neither Jon nor Tyrion could really be trusted to make the right decision at this point.
Back to Tyrion. His last scene with brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is emotional and perfectly played. We may have cared the most about the fate of the Starks, but the Imp’s underdog status has always made Tyrion easy to root for. Finding Jaime and Cersei’s dead bodies underneath a pile of bricks doubles up on the emotional string. Then his speech in support of a new king basically gives him the last word. People have missed the point about the line “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story” by focusing on who else might have had a better story than Bran (everyone, apparently, minus Edmure). This is an incredible line from the creators (David Benioff and D. B. Weiss), another tongue-in-cheek remark about their own show, naturally, but also a reminder about the power of stories and fiction. Doesn’t the power of religion come from compelling stories? Doesn’t this show, in spite of its shortcomings, prove that stories hold power? It is also fitting that this is, besides death, a story about power. Daenerys remarks on the Iron Throne’s swords, that they are supposed to be a thousand blades belonging to Aegon’s enemies, “What do a thousand swords look like in the mind of a little girl who can’t count to twenty?” As Littlefinger explains to Varys, the thousand blades legend is “a story we agreed to tell each other over and over ’til we forget that it’s a lie.” And that is one of the many reasons why I wanted to watch it again during these wretched times, when I have to keep telling myself that it will all be all right. To forget, ever so briefly, about everything. The show may be dead – I may be undead while watching it on a loop – and yet it can still make us feel something. I guess what I’m trying to say is, what is dead may never die.
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Images are screenshots from YouTube trailers and clips.
- Speaking of sports and the show’s ubiquity: As I type this, I’m wearing a special pair of Adidas sneakers, the Night’s Watch edition. I’m not wearing them for inspiration. It just makes me feel like I’m outside when I can’t really be. [↩]
- Were the creators already thinking of their new Star Wars gig? [↩]