Warning! If you don’t want to read any spoilers from last night’s series finale of Game of Thrones, stop reading. Right now.
There is a lot to unpack about the Thrones finale, and I fully understand many of the criticisms I read on Twitter and elsewhere. Yes, the show was compressed. Yes, there were moments that were false or silly (in the world of Westeros, would anyone seriously propose a democracy?), but ultimately the season was true to the ethos of the series, and the series was one of the most magnificent achievements in television history.
There are two things that stand out to me about this last season. First, in spite of the compression, it nailed the key moments. There was the initial sight of Dany’s intact, magnificent army marching into Winterfell, a moment that demonstrated not only her astonishing power, but also the hardening of her heart. Remember when her dismay at the North’s hostile reception turned into grim satisfaction at their fear of her dragons? Then there were the last few minutes of the Battle of Winterfell — from the moment we heard the first, mournful notes of the piano, the show communicated the sheer, overwhelming hopelessness of the moment better than virtually any against-all-odds moment I’ve ever seen in fantasy fiction. And while some fans carped last night when Drogon burned the Iron Throne, I thought it was a powerful recognition of the thing that truly killed Daenerys Targaryen. To borrow Tolkien’s imagery, she had claimed the One Ring, and it ruled over her.
But the thing that truly stood out to me — and indeed, stands out across the entire sweep of the series — is the power of a single father, Ned Stark. It was his fate in the first season (and first book) that signaled that there was something different about Game of Thrones. If you’d read fantasy fiction at all, you would have thought that Thrones was Ned Stark’s story. He was the righteous man who would triumph. Instead, he was the righteous man who lost his head. Then we spent the next seven seasons trying to discover the true hero. We thought it was Robb Stark. He was betrayed. We thought it was Dany. She turned. We thought it was Jon Snow, and he was certainly a hero, but was he the hero?
No, it was still Ned Stark. The closing images of the show focus on three of his children, and each was indelibly and unalterably shaped by the example of the man who raised them. Arya ended the show free of the burdens of Westeros, sailing into the unknown. But it was her father who set her free in the first season — liberating her from the burdens of becoming a classic lady of Westeros and setting her on the path that would kill the Night King. Sansa was the Stark who learned from her father’s mistakes. She retained his fundamental decency and learned his lessons, but she tempered his straightforward sense of honor (his ultimately foolish nobility) with a shrewdness and survival instinct gained through time spent with Littlefinger and through the awful teacher of dreadful experience.
And Jon Snow? He maintained the fundamental essence of his adoptive father. He was the living manifestation of the man who put death before dishonor. Duty was all. He died to save the Wildlings. He relinquished his throne to save the North. And he sacrificed his birthright to save the world from a mad queen. If George RR Martin was a Christian writer, the Internet would be full of think-pieces berating him for making the Christ imagery too explicit.
In the middle of the finale — when Tryion nominated Bran to lead the Seven (soon-to-be six) Kingdoms — he spoke eloquently of the power of story. And the story of Bran the Broken was compelling. It did have the capacity to unite a war-weary and exhausted people, at least until the next fight. One suspects that the lords of the realm would have been more reluctant to unite around Bran had he not been his father’s son.
But the truth of Tyrion’s speech echoed beyond the world of the show. One of the great virtues of fantasy fiction is that it can tell so many true stories through the vehicle of its own myth. Tolkien, for example, connected readers not just with human brokenness but also with the power of the transcendent. Read the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings together, and you see that even the efforts of the best of men (and elves) are inadequate to overcome evil. There are, however, those who watch over the world of men, and prophecy has power because the prophets understand that the creatures do not have the last word over the fate of creation.
Thrones doesn’t connect to eternity in the same way. The gods are indifferent, nonexistent, or potentially even malicious. But it nonetheless told a different, more secular, but still true story — of the power of a loving (but flawed) father to shape the lives of his children. Last night, the Starks “won” the game of thrones, and an architect of their victory — and a source of their virtue — was the man who died, but whose legacy endured.