By Eugene R. Schlesinger
Warning: This post includes spoilers for the entirety of Game of Thrones
After nearly a decade of anticipation (23 years for readers of the books), HBO’s phenomenal high fantasy series, Game of Thrones, has reached its conclusion, to the satisfaction of some and the dismay of others. Based on A Song of Ice and Fire George R.R. Martin’s as yet unfinished series of books, the show captured the collective consciousness of a significant portion of the population, becoming consistently the most pirated television show and the reason a good many people have subscribed to HBO.
Many have taken to Twitter to inform the rest of us that they’ve never seen an episode of the show, but its presence has been ubiquitous, and each Sunday has seen social media ablaze with something akin to deadly wildfire (or for any remaining Targaryen loyalists, Dracarys [dragon fire]), as GOT fandom held court to dissect, and, increasingly, criticize the successive episodes of the show’s eighth and final season.
Such criticism is nothing new. As The Simpsons’ character Comic Book Guy has demonstrated, if there is anything that science fiction and fantasy fans love more than the science fiction and fantasy genres, it’s complaining about them. In this instance, the ire seemed to go beyond the typical nerd trope of “the best way to show your love for something is to hate it,” going so far as a petition to have season eight remade with different writers. Fandom had spun out elaborate theories for how the show could or should end, and its consistent judgment was that the showrunners’ decisions had been found wanting.
With what, exactly, have the fans been dissatisfied? Opinions varied, of course, but most of them turned upon the matter of character arcs. Among season eight’s major twists was Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) descent into tyranny, razing the city she had come to liberate, and killing thousands of innocents as she did so. For most of us, Daenerys was a beacon of hope. Exiled from her homeland, and ostensibly heir to the Iron Throne, she underwent and then triumphed over numerous hardships, emerging stronger each time. Mother of Dragons and Breaker of Chains, she rose to power by inspiring not just fear but love and loyalty.
The burning of King’s Landing revealed that, all along, she has been an elaborate misdirect, designed to win first our sympathy, then our admiration and loyalty, only to become a villain. In retrospect, the signs of brutality were there, but always in circumstances when they could be justified, right up until the end. Yet while her fall was foreshadowed, it struck many as too abrupt, as unearned, as too inconsistent with her character.
Perhaps more infuriating to some was the fate of Jaime and Cersei Lannister, the incestuous twins, who have been at the center of so much attention. While Cersei only grew in cruelty, Jaime, it seemed, was on an arc of redemption. Derided as an oath-breaker and king-slayer, for killing “the Mad King” in the years before the series began, Jaime showed an increasing sense of honor. His king-slaying actually saved the people of King’s Landing. His friendship, and eventual brief romantic entanglement with Brienne of Tarth, served to reveal some of his nobler tendencies and aspirations, culminating in his decision to break ranks with Cersei, in order to keep his word that he would fight with the living against the encroaching army of the dead.
Yet for all this growth, Jaime reverted to old patterns, returning to Cersei (and breaking Brienne’s heart), and perishing with her in the fall of King’s Landing. After long-delayed anticipation that Cersei would receive her just deserts, she and Jaime died anonymously and anti-climactically, crushed by falling rubble. So much for growth or satisfying comeuppance.
This is not to say that no character arcs found satisfying conclusions. Prime examples: Sansa Stark’s rise as Queen of the North, Theon Greyjoy’s redemption after his betrayal of the Starks years earlier, and Ser Jorah Mormont’s giving his life to defend the queen he loved. But in general, the consensus was that the writing fell flat both in character development and the resolution of plot threads.
What did it matter that Jon Snow was not actually Ned Stark’s bastard son, but actually Aegon Targaryen, the true heir to the Iron Throne? Was the Night King and his army of the dead really no more than a red herring? What was Bran doing when he warged out of his body during the Battle of Winterfell? What was the point of Cersei’s pregnancy or the character Euron Greyjoy?
For all this, I suspect our dissatisfaction stems from a failure to grapple with the sort of story this was meant to be. From its outset, A Song of Ice and Fire has sought to subvert our typical expectations. The first book/season follows the honorable Ned Stark, only to have him executed at the hands of his enemies, and when it seemed that his son, Robb, would rise and take his father’s place, he also perished, along with any hopes that main characters would be guaranteed survival. Similarly, in the first book/season, Daenerys is the subject of numerous prophecies. The child with whom she is pregnant will be the “Stallion who Mounts the World,” destined for greatness and conquest. By a capricious turn of events, Daenerys loses the baby and fertility.
In other words, the series has never made any promises to deliver satisfying character arcs or to resolve plot threads. In this way, it is highly realistic. Life does not operate that way. Every character is the central character of her own show, but death comes to us all, and often not at the end of a particularly well-developed arc. Aspects of life that seemed to hold promise and significance wind up going nowhere. Our lives are shot through with contingency, and the series has sought to reflect this. In part, this is what has made it such a compelling series. Our frustration that it maintained this course, rather than giving everyone satisfying conclusions and having all the diverse plot threads converge, gestures toward something profound.
In his famous Five Ways, Thomas Aquinas seeks to demonstrate (not necessarily prove) the existence of God from our experience of the world. The five ways all more or less boil down to some form of Thomas saying, “Everything we observe is like x, but God is beyond all that.” God is not among the immanent causes of the universe, which are themselves all caused. Nor is he even, in a simple way, the first cause. The Cause of all things causes them all in an entirely different manner. Two of these five ways are especially pertinent as we consider Game of Thrones and our sense that something more than pure contingency was needed.
The third way is an argument from necessity. The universe is shot through with contingency. Strictly speaking, everything is contingent. God, however, is necessary, the only necessary reality. Our intuition that there must be something more than contingency finds its resolution in the infinite being of God. Similarly, the fifth way is an argument from directedness. The universe appears to be directed toward some end, which Aquinas identifies as God. Our apprehension that everything that rises must converge, our dissatisfaction when significant components of life wind up going nowhere, is an echo of Thomas’s recognition that all things find their end in God.
This brings us back to Game of Thrones. Martin has created a vision of a medieval world in which the Incarnation never occurred, and in which, accordingly, sanctifying grace does not operate. The deities of Game of Thrones are either non-existent, non-interventionist, or evil. By crafting a world without God, Martin has crafted a world where all we are left with really is contingency, and where there is no guiding purpose. Seen in this light, the dissatisfying conclusion of Game of Thrones may well be the triumph of its artistic vision.