“This isn’t about living in harmony. It’s just about living.”
— Jon Snow to Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones
I don’t much care right now who wins Game of Thrones.
It’s not that I plan to miss a minute of the final six episodes, or that I’m not curious about who’ll be left standing when HBO’s war of attrition ends on May 19, in a finale destined to be picked apart like Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) working over Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen).
I simply no longer believe this game has winners. I learned that from Game of Thrones, which has been making that point for seven harrowing seasons.
An engineering marvel of a show, based on books by George R.R. Martin that I’d once have considered unfilmable, the drama, which returns for its eighth and final season on Sunday, has attracted a huge worldwide audience.
And, like the network’s earlier blockbuster, The Sopranos, it has meant different things to different people. The world is divided in many ways, with one being whether or not we watched the mob drama to see people get whacked (and another, perhaps, being how critical we consider the question of whether Tony Soprano is dead or alive).
Game of Thrones, a fantasy inspired by England’s 15th-century Wars of the Roses, has shown us, to be fair, a lot of deaths, some of them accomplished with the actual whack of a sword or ax. (One 23-minute YouTube compilation video puts the number of dead — so far — at 174,373.)
More important, though, it has shown us another kind of divided world, one that looks increasingly familiar.
Going back to the beginning feels a little different than it did in 2011, when Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) telling her son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), “Someday you’ll sit on the throne and the truth will be what you make it,” didn’t feel as though it should have come with a trigger warning.
People vying for power while largely ignoring an existential threat tied to climate change? Check.
Discussions of the threat posed by people living on one side of a wall to those on the other side? Check.
A philosophy that “everyone who isn’t us is an enemy”? Check.
None of this suggests Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are prophets. They have been writing all along about the way the world works, and has always worked, about the pendulum that swings between loving our neighbors and demanding to be protected from them.
The show has dressed it up with naked women and fearsome CGI dragons, and more than one mass murder, all of which has contributed to making it a phenomenon, the kind that many people who love talking about television with other people fear will never come again.
I’m optimistic about that, at least. Yes, the audience is more fragmented than ever. Even the outsize success of Game of Thrones leaves many viewers out of the conversation. (Using Xfinity’s Watchathon to catch up? The free ride for its customers without HBO includes the season premiere.) But in raising the bar on what it is possible to do on television, it has helped ensure that someone will again get to make a show this big, one that appeals to viewers on multiple levels.
I trust we’ll find a way to watch it.
Giving all the people what they want has meant, though, sometimes catering to the ones who pay to see the very scenes of naked women as props that led one critic to coin the term “sexposition” during the show’s first season.
It has encouraged the depiction of a stunning level of violence and sexual abuse.
It may also be responsible for making the show — which is, after all, a fantasy, not a history — indefensibly white.
And, of course, it has turned this final season into a sporting event, complete with oddsmakers, online handicappers, and a flood of marketing tie-ins, from Game of Thrones-themed Oreo cookies to a special edition of Mountain Dew cans decorated with thermodynamic ink for a promotion titled, “The Can Has No Name.”
We’ve already had Bud Light’s Super Bowl ad. If HBO ran commercials, there undoubtedly would be Dothraki swigging beer between scenes on Sunday night. Maybe on Clydesdales.
It’s OK to enjoy the circus, but not to buy into the idea that there’s a potential queen or king of Westeros whose ascendance would make the lives of the ordinary people of the Seven Kingdoms markedly better in any sustainable way.
We live in a time when some people raised in democracies are attracted to autocrats, whom they regard as uniquely able to get things done.
But from its first season, the show has made at best a so-so argument for authoritarian rule, even the relatively benign form practiced by heiress-in-exile Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who, like her forebears, needs fire-breathing dragons to win power, and whose efforts to do good sometimes backfire.
Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) believes “she will make the world a better place,” even as he acknowledges that it’s his job to “check her worst impulses rather than feeding them.”
Cersei, the Iron Throne’s current occupant, doesn’t care about such things. "Hang the world,” she tells her brother as she chooses tribalism over mutual cooperation.
Her late husband, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), may have saved Westeros from a mad king, but he had no more interest in the hard work of governing than her monstrous son Joffrey did.
Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen, the still-in-the-dark character played by Kit Harington? Putting aside the fact that he used to be dead (and was resurrected with suspiciously few ill effects), he possesses a praiseworthy sense of honor, not unlike the one that cost the man who raised him, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), his head.
I like his focus on eliminating the Army of the Dead — first things first! — but assuming the Night King doesn’t wipe King’s Landing off the map, would Jon’s claim to the Iron Throne mean anything to the denizens of Flea Bottom? Like the young Robert, he’s fit to fight. But is he fit to rule? And if he is, would those who came after him be worthy, too?
As the Plantagenets and Tudors could attest, winning a crown is one thing, keeping it quite another.
Kings and queens make great storybook characters, and in an age when their power in many monarchies has been reduced to the level of the old Targaryens’ dog-size dragons, great gossip. But thousands of years of all-powerful, often capricious hereditary rulers taught humans to keep their heads down in hopes of keeping them and maybe living to see better days. It may well be good to be king, but for the rest of us, absolute monarchy is not a great system.
Plus, it’s hard, after so many grisly deaths, not to feel a mite fatalistic about Westeros’ future. As Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) once said, “The dark is coming for all of us. Why cry about it?”
Yet through it all, Game of Thrones keeps us guessing, and pulling for characters we’ve come to love to make it through to a not-too-bitter end.
"When the snow falls and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives,” Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) said last season, quoting Ned.
We can only hope he was right.