After a nearly two-year hiatus, Game of Thrones returned last Sunday to tackle its biggest challenge yet: closing shop.
I mean that without irony. Like Avengers: Endgame, the final chapter in that other mega-story winding to a close this April, the eighth season of HBO’s enormously successful fantasy series finds itself poised on a high wire. Below waits the crowd—sweaty, breathless, staring up now for the better part of nine years, and nervously consulting its reams of fan-speculation and thinkpieces. Meanwhile, overhead the show continues its perilous back-and-forth, juggling as it goes seven-seasons worth of character development and plot, feuding families and zombies, all the while waiting for the ideal moment to attempt its dismount.
For what it’s worth, I’m optimistic that Game of Thrones will stick the landing. Or at least mostly stick it. In any case, I think we can safely rule out some sort of Lost-style anti-conclusion, where, surprise, King’s Landing was purgatory all along. That said, even as the show prepares to deliver on some of its oldest promises—for instance, that long-awaited showdown between humankind and the Night King’s revenant army—there is one promise that seems to be on shaky ground. And that’s the one implicit in the series’ title.
Pretty much from its inception, Game of Thrones has been adamant on one point: in the game of thrones, nobody wins. Nobody rules the Seven Kingdoms because they somehow deserve to rule. And if any single character manages to rule, they do so not because of some divine edict or biological birthright, but because of a careful balancing act of cunning, statecraft, and bloody-minded ruthlessness. As Cersei Lannister, one of the series’ most calculating characters, puts it way back in season two, “Power is power.” That by season eight Cersei herself now goes by the title “Cersei of the House Lannister, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms” only goes to show how thoroughly her political philosophy aligns with that of the show.
In short, Game of Thrones is—or at least has been—deeply cynical about the legitimacy of kings. Just look at the show’s arch-MacGuffin, the Iron Throne. Forged from the partially melted swords of a conquered army, the Iron Throne is an argument in itself about the real origins of the so-called divine right of kings.
But now with winter’s arrival, that cynicism seems to be on increasingly thin ice. Although the bristling metal of the Iron Throne calls bullshit on the whole notion of a rightful ruler, Game of Thrones itself has retained a problematic fascination with one of its parent-genre’s favorite tropes: the one true king. A figure from epic fantasy, the one true king is the Aragorns, Arthurs, and Aslans of the literary world—characters (typically male) who make right the broken kingdom and shepherd it into an age of peace. Now, sure, it’s unlikely that Game of Thrones, a show so often about bad people behaving badly, would offer up a character as unequivocally noble as Aragorn or Aslan. Yet at the same time, it’s not for nothing that at the start of this final season, the characters who are best positioned to fulfill the duty of the one true king—to rally the realm and save Westeros from the Night King’s undead menace—are also the ones with the best biological claim to the throne.
I guess what I’m trying to gesture toward is a kind of cognitive dissonance, or potential dissonance. It’ll depend, of course, on how this whole high-wire act shakes out. Still, what would it mean for Game of Thrones if, after expressing such disillusionment with the myth of the rightful ruler, it conjured up exactly that ruler to conclude its story? If, instead of imagining some alternative to the once and future king, it closes out its epic with a wishy-washy “well, not all kings”?
To get down to brass tacks, what would it mean for the internal logic of the show to see Daenerys Targaryen French-fry the Night King with her dragons and then take her seat on the Iron Throne? Or for R + L = J to be the defining moment in the fate of Westeros?
Meet the new boss, same as the old.
For my part, I hope the showrunners have a trick up their sleeves. They often do. I should give them more credit. Still, if Game of Thrones aspires to anything like self-consistency, I really hope that its final shot will be of the Iron Throne smashed to ruins.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.