Warning, spoilers are ahead for episode five of the final season of Game of Thrones.
If you’ve watched Game of Thrones (or read the books), you know full-well how George RR Martin delighted in upsetting the conventions of fantasy fiction. The moment that the sword fell on Ned Stark’s head at the end of the first season, viewers knew they were in for something completely different. Heroes failed. Evil triumphed.
This reality was brought home again in the Red Wedding, when fans (who hadn’t read the books) felt certain they knew the true story arc. Thrones wasn’t Ned Stark’s story; it was the tale of Robb Stark’s righteous vengeance — until it wasn’t. But then when Robb died ignominiously, we still didn’t lose hope. Daenerys Targaryen in the East was the breaker of chains. In the North, Jon Snow inherited his father’s legacy, and when the knives took his life, he overcame death itself. At long last, we knew who would win, and we eagerly awaited their victory.
But no. Even as we perceived the hero in Jon and the liberator in Dany, we also could see the seeds of their failure. As Dany’s power grew, so did her thirst for death and vengeance. She crucified enemies in the East, she fed her dragons with the noblemen of Meereen, she roasted the Tarlys, and she was talked down from darker deeds by her advisers. But by the end, she was alone, wounded at the loss of all those who truly loved her, and enraged at the multiple betrayals by all those who remained close. When Jon pulled away from her, the die was cast.
And what about Jon? At a fateful moment, the hero was a pawn. He was completely helpless as Drogon burned innocent people to ash. He was helpless to stop the bloodlust of his own men. He had empowered Daenerys, and she became a monster. Jon may have another heroic stand before the series ends, but the ruins of King’s Landing stand as a monument to his failure. The best man in Westeros could not stop his queen’s genocide.
There was a moment in the episode that showed clearly that Dany’s descent was predestined — that she was truly her father’s child. As she passed over the city again and again — raining fire from above — Drogon’s breath started cooking off the remaining wildfire stored beneath the city by the Mad King. As his green fire mingled with her red and orange, she truly became his heir. She completed the task he started.
The moment was particularly jolting in part because the last two seasons had been full of what critics derisively call “fan service.” Characters we loved triumphed. Characters we hated died. And in Episode Three of this season, we were given the greatest fan service moment of them all — when all hope seemed lost, Arya Stark killed the Night King. In Episode Five, the fan service ended, decisively. One of the great heroic characters in fiction took the darkest possible turn. It was as if Aragorn became Sauron. We wanted her to defeat her demons. Instead, she indulged them. She became the evil she despised.
We have no idea how the series will end. We don’t know who — if anyone — will sit on the Iron Throne. Jon pulled the soldiers of the North out of King’s Landing, possibly betraying his vengeful queen. Arya is in the city, and we haven’t heard the last of Sansa Stark. But it’s hard to imagine anything like a truly happy ending to one of the greatest shows in television history. In an NR cover story two years ago, I described Game of Thrones as “Calvinism without Christ.” Human depravity is unleashed, and even the good men and women are terribly burdened by the weight of their own terrible flaws. And there is no great good any person can appeal to for redemption and hope.
It’s a bleak vision, to be sure, but it’s also compelling and important. Martin has spoken an important truth. When men and women rely only on themselves for justice and hope, they fail. Tolkien knew this truth, and he delivered his world through a hope that transcended the meager efforts of flawed men. Martin knows this truth as well, but he withholds deliverance — because a world without transcendent truth is a world without justice. Daenerys Targaryen is now the Mad Queen. We should have expected nothing else. The suspense that remains is not whether good will triumph over evil, but whether any decency can be preserved.
As the series comes to an end, Martin’s bleak vision prevails. We no longer hope for redemption, but rather for a measure of peace. There are no happy endings in Westeros.