The final episode of Game of Thrones had an important message about the nature of modern politics. It was almost surely unintended.
The writing of the final episode, of the final season in general, was atrocious. Balerion the Black Dread could fly through the plot holes showrunners David Beinoff and D.B. Weiss created. Armies we thought decimated are suddenly capable of world conquest, dragons once easily killed are suddenly invincible, and the other “kingdoms” comprising the realm are utterly indifferent to what’s happening in the capital. The script was worse than fan fiction.
The explanation is simple—it was rushed. HBO is apparently developing multiple spinoffs but it would have made far more sense to greenlight one more season of the main show so characters and plots could be properly developed.
The character of Daenerys Targaryen was destroyed as thoroughly as was Stannis’s in past seasons—and in much shorter time. She exterminated the population of King’s Landing from the air after the city had already surrendered. It made no sense given her character development thus far. It was the television equivalent to clickbait, shock for shock’s sake, an empty twist.
Still, it was amusing simply for the reaction it provoked. Many journalists are furious that Daenerys Targaryen, the “Breaker of Chains” sustained by foreign non-white armies, was portrayed as a fanatic. Of course, she was a fanatic, who believed she was chosen by destiny. The flaw was in how the show executed her arc, not in where it ended up.
From a conservative perspective, the final episode had a good message. The episode begins with Daenerys promising in a foreign tongue to “liberate” the entire world. King’s Landing smokes in the background, filled with burned corpses of men, women, and children. It’s reminiscent of Dresden.
Notably, she speaks in a foreign language to her two major forces, the Unsullied and the Dothraki — both foreigners. As characters in earlier episodes noted, Cercei, for all her faults, was at least native to Westeros. Daenerys was a foreign invader, using other foreigners to conquer the country. It was the equivalent of using Mongols to conquer England and restore the Stuarts. The “legitimate” ruler might be back on the throne, but the destruction wrought is enormous. Worse, Jon Snow is Aegon Targaryen, the truly legitimate heir to the throne. Daenerys wasn’t really “chosen” at all.
Tyrion ends up in jail after he is arrested for resigning as her main advisor. He converses with Jon Snow, eventually prompting Snow to regicide. Tyrion and Jon’s argument against Daenerys resembles a typical conservative critique of Communism and other messianic left-wing movements. On a smaller scale, it is a critique of antifa, Social Justice Warriors, and others who think ruining lives, using violence, and telling lies are justified in the cause of equality.
Daenerys wants to “break the wheel” of power struggles by conquering all in the name of the oppressed. “If you truly believed that, wouldn’t you kill everyone who stands between you and paradise?” Tyrion asks Jon rhetorically. “Don’t Immanentize The Eschaton,” as conservatives of the 1960s would say.
When Jon confronts Daenerys, she invites him to build the new world with her. He tries to prompt her to humility, but she maintains it is for the ruling couple to decide what is good for the world, not everyone else. It is only after this he stabs her.
Notably, Daenerys seems to have developed the silver hair of her family by the end of the series instead of the blonde hair she once possessed. She’s truly Targaryen. She is “super-white,” essentially Hyperborean, freeing and leading non-whites who can’t do it on their own. No wonder liberal white women with a savior complex identified with her. No wonder they were furious with the ending.
The political settlement that ends the series is even more implausible. “Bran the Broken” possesses magical powers of seeing events in the past, present, and future around the world. He has mostly sat around the past few seasons, occasionally making awkward comments. Nonetheless, the lords of Westeros make him king, based on a speech by Tyrion. Democracy is laughed off, but some form of elective monarchy is created. Bran’s sister Sansa declares the North should be an independent kingdom, and Bran agrees, thus ceding a huge part of his realm as his first act. Why other kingdoms don’t also immediately secede is left unexplained.
Obviously, Westeros is a world of fantasy, where magic, dragons, and giants can be found. Yet as George R. R. Martin repeatedly states, it contains a low amount of magic for a high fantasy series, and the focus is on political realism and cynical maneuvering. Naïve audiences who hadn’t read the books got the message when Ned Stark had his head chopped off. Supernatural beings only work in fiction if they operate in a context where they are comprehensible. Characters must respond in believable ways. The idea that lords with their own agendas and interests would agree to have an odd cripple with no blood connection to the ruling dynasty is absurd.
Yet this is just lazy writing and not important unless you are deeply committed to a television show. If we accept “King Bran,” what’s the real message? It’s that he represents the rule of Narrative, which is to say the rule of media, rather than the rule of tradition, heroism, or even intelligence.
Tyrion justifies the choice of Bran by saying he has the best story. “The boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he’d never walk again, so he learned to fly,” he says. “He crossed beyond the Wall, a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven.” Many online wits observed just about every other character (Jon, Arya, Sansa) had a better story.
Yet Tyrion says more than this. He argues that stories are ultimately what unite people more than armies, gold, or flags. “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,” he says. “Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” (He obviously hasn’t heard of online deplatforming).
Much earlier in the series, Varys posed Tyrion the question of what power really was. Varys said “power resides where men believe it resides.” Tyrion now goes further—power lies in the ability to shape belief.
If any one person has this power, it is Bran. “He is our memory, the keeper of all our stories,” says Tyrion. “The wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs, our defeats, our past. Who better to lead us into the future?” This is an echo of Orwell—“Who controls the past controls the future.”
Indeed, Bran shows he doesn’t just know about events, he can shape them. Earlier in the series he said he could never be Lord of Winterfell, because he was now the Three-Eyed Raven. He wasn’t really Bran anymore.
Now however, he accepts the crown. “Why do you think I came all this way?” he says. Though he claims he doesn’t want to be king (indeed, earlier in the series he says he doesn’t really “want” anything anymore), he overrules Grey Worm’s objection to making Tyrion Hand of the King. “I’m king,” he says in justification. Bran also shows more emotion and personality after becoming king, though not much. There’s not really “one” person ruling the realm through the power of story (of narrative). However, there’s clearly something with an agenda of its own.
Bran can control information, secrets, history, narrative, and even identity. He proved that earlier in the series when he revealed that Jon Snow was not a bastard, but the true heir to the Iron Throne. That revelation set in motion Daenerys’s collapse.
Bran is not Machiavelli’s Lion, defined by bravery and power. (Queen Cercei, the Lannister “Lion” from the family of 1980s movie villain lookalikes we’ve been conditioned to hate, is literally crushed.) Yet Bran’s not really the Fox either, defined by cunning and trickery. He cuts through Littlefinger’s schemes by telling him “chaos is a ladder,” reciting a line Littlefinger said in a private conversation. Littlefinger is visibly shocked. Intrigue is impossible if some magical being can hear anything he wants.
With control of narrative and information neither strength nor intelligence are really needed. It is also the death of politics and personality. It’s probably no coincidence Bran reminds me of Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress.
The lords of Westeros laugh off democracy, comparing the commoners to dogs and horses. Yet reframing power in terms of narrative control, instead of lineage, tradition, or military strength, critiques democracy in a different way. Bran is the Westerosi equivalent of Big Tech. If you control the story, you also control the choice, thus rendering “democracy” meaningless. This is the world we live in today, where traits like heroism, intelligence, or integrity are secondary to control over the Narrative. Do we have any more power over our current political or economic system than dogs or horses?
Such a system also makes real change impossible. It “breaks the wheel” in a different way. Instead of powerful personalities jockeying for power, a collective personality rules. No one could possibly be inspired by Bran. The final scenes of people calling him “Your Grace” look absurd. However, Bran can find out everything about everyone if he just knows where to look. It’s probably best to obey him.
The Dune series also confronts this idea and, intriguingly, ends on a different note. A “God-Emperor” with prescient powers understands that by knowing everything and being able to predict everything, he dooms the race to stagnation. His perfect reign is a tomb for humanity. He therefore implements a plan to eventually destroy his own power and scatter the race throughout the galaxy. He makes sure people will not be united by one story or one history.
Of course, there’s one exception in the former seven kingdoms. Sansa Stark becomes “Queen in the North.” The North, because of its horrific losses in the various civil wars of Westeros and against the Night King, feels totally apart from the rest of the realm. To some extent, it always has. Most people have a different religion than the rest of the realm. Bran’s narrative can’t incorporate them. They have their own more compelling story. They also have a strong leader, because the politically astute Sansa is unwilling to be controlled.
Yet even her victory is a step away from the idea of heroic leadership. Ned Stark, Robb Stark, and Jon Snow all operated by the stern northern code that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. Sansa obviously can not perform that role.
She’s not really in control the same way her father, brother, or cousin were. She can have men fight for her, but she can’t lead them the same way Robb Stark did. Though her ending appearance echoes Elizabeth I, unlike Elizabeth Sansa will have to marry and have an heir, otherwise there are no more Starks. The separation of sovereignty from an individual person has begun even in the North. It is a bit behind the other kingdoms but is on the same road to collective leadership.
An autocracy is freer than a mass-media democracy in one crucial aspect. To create change, you just replace the guy at the top. However, when what controls you is an entire System, you can’t identify who or what is sovereign. Left, right, and center, everyone today suspects the elected leadership isn’t really in charge. Everyone also disagrees on who or what is.
Daenerys tried to unite the world, but only through division can people be free. Yet Westeros is moving towards a different kind of slavery. Daenerys’s tyranny would at least have a sense of grandeur. But in the final episode of Game of Thrones, the dragon Drogon destroys the Iron Throne, the symbol of power and clearly identifiable sovereignty. He flies away with Daenerys, representing the flight of mystery, magic, and legend from the world.
Jon Snow, the true heir, goes into exile to father no children and end the mystical Targaryen family. Arya seeks adventure on the fringes of the world, because there is no more to be had in Westeros. The last small council meeting consists of dirty jokes, bickering over accounting, and talking about water supplies. “The age of economists,” as Burke might have said, has come. The glory of Westeros is extinguished forever. There are no more stories to tell—at least not any worth hearing.