WARNING: Spoilers abound. Proceed at own risk.
I was first exposed to Game of Thrones (the show, not the books which I had already encountered earlier) sometime between 2013 and 2015.
It quickly redefined my expectations of how characters fare in medieval fantasy settings.
There’s no denying that the show had remained faithful to George R. R. Martin’s habit of throwing a curve ball when it came to who survived. Characters who seemed important were just as likely to be raped, maimed, or killed as the nameless extras around them.
The same thing was true for characters we would normally have placed under the protection of inviolable innocence, such as children, the elderly, and the disabled.
And I – we all, really – had learned to be okay with that.
This is exactly what’s puzzling in light of the backlash that Season 8 has been pelted with.
I’m not here to argue that the final season wasn’t rushed. I absolutely agree; they should not have tried to compress everything into 6 episodes. I’d even argue that Season 7 deserved more too, being the first half of Season 8.
What I’m trying to suggest is that regardless of how the show arrived at its conclusion, it was a satisfying and wholly appropriate one given everything that’s happened from the beginning.
And the reasons for this are two lessons that become glaringly obvious in the end, especially after the final three episodes.
REITERATED WARNING: Spoilers abound. Proceed at own risk.
The first lesson has a lot to do with the way two characters’ fates were handled: Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister.
When we are first shown the beginning of Dany’s full-fledged descent into ruthless paranoia, she chooses to be feared instead of loved. Behind her extreme decision is an unshakeable belief that she is justified for whatever she does next.
Where does this conviction come from? We hear her repeat the root of it at least once in each of the last three episodes: that it is her destiny to break the world’s shackles. We see the results of her learning the potential twist in the prophecy of The Prince That Was Promised.
Dany not only began to ardently believe that the prophecy really was about her, but she took it and molded it into something else. Where the original prophecy was about ending the “coming darkness” or the Long Night, she turned it into a self-prophecy aligned with what the Priests of R’hllor preached about her as the world’s liberator.
In her fervor to follow through with this supposed destiny, Dany made questionable choices regarding her leadership and conduct of the war against Cersei, including the slaughter of countless civilians during The Battle of King’s Landing. This alienated her from some of her supporters, most notably Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow, both of whom conspired to (successfully) assassinate her.
Dany missed the opportunity to truly unite all who were behind her, by accepting the reality of Jon as the stronger claimant to the Iron Throne. Given that they were already in love, she failed to see that their union would still result in her being queen. She could not compromise and desired the highest power in the land for herself, believing that she was the only one worthy to wield it by virtue of a prophecy.
This is also relevant to how the final episodes supposedly depicted themes undermining revolution and women in power. There would not have been any effect on Dany’s sovereignty and her professed mission of freeing the world had she accepted that she could co-rule with Jon, who was altogether supportive of everything she wanted to accomplish. Instead, her choices and actions led to her standing in the way of her own purpose.
On the other side of the war for the Iron Throne, Cersei Lannister went through much of what we expected her to do. She was cruel, unforgiving, and willing to manipulate anyone in order to hold on to her rule as queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
However, she met her end soon enough during Dany and Drogon’s rampage at King’s Landing. She died buried in rubble in the bowels of the Red Keep, while in her brother and lover Jaime’s embrace.
For fans who followed both the books and the show, this ran counter to the prophecy of the valonqar (“little brother” in High Valyrian) which stated that Cersei would die by being strangled by her younger male sibling. Fan theories presented strong cases for both Tyrion and Jaime being this little brother, with Tyrion being the youngest of the three siblings and Jaime being born a second after his twin sister.
And while we may argue that the prophecy of the valonqar was fulfilled figuratively (Jaime’s undying love for Cersei leading her to trust his judgment, smothering her chance to escape the castle and ultimately survive), no other interpretation of the prophecy accounts for how she died.
This brings us to the first lesson that proves Season 8 transpired and ended the way it should have: avoid taking too much stock in prophecy.
Predictions are fallible, like all other types of guesswork. They are liable to be incorrect or incomplete, and taking action based solely on them also carries the risk of things not happening the way we expected them to. It takes someone truly clairvoyant – like Bran Stark as the Three-Eyed Raven – to successfully and comprehensively predict what will happen. And even then we could argue that Maggy the Frog, who used magic to make the valonqar prophecy, was wrong if we were to believe it was simply an unmentioned part of the show’s backstory.
And yes, I do believe the showrunners intended this lesson to apply to fans’ theories and predictions as well.
We’ve all had our hunches about a great many things that eventually happened in Game of Thrones’ elaborate story. Towards the end of the show, however, a number of us began to get ahead of ourselves and assumed that we knew better than the people actually working on it. And when things didn’t turn out the way we predicted, we lashed out at how they ruined everything.
Had we reflected on this lesson, we likely would’ve been less aghast at the way things happened and more open to why they happened that way.
Speaking of the contrast between what we wanted to happen and what actually did, the second lesson is all about the fate that befell so many characters after eight years of witnessing their story unfold.
Dany, a driving force for much of the show’s timeline, fell to an assassin’s blade. The culprit, Jon, was once more exiled to the Wall to join the Night’s Watch. Jaime and Cersei died trying to flee the Red Keep. Brave men like Theon Greyjoy, Jorah Mormont, Beric Dondarrion, and Edd were slain while fulfilling their oaths and duties. Sandor Clegane chose to take his brother with him when death seemed inevitable. Missandei was a prisoner executed after a failed parley. Varys was also executed, for his unwavering loyalty to a just society. The Dothraki and Unsullied, having lost their beloved queen, sailed back to Essos with nothing but bitterness and disillusionment.
Even those who were arguably better off at the end had their own shadows to carry for the rest of their lives. Tyrion failed to save his twin siblings, despite all his efforts. Samwell Tarly lost all his friends but one, whom he would probably never see again. Brienne of Tarth lost the one man who fulfilled her most intimate desires, the same man she as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard had to write of in the Book of the Brothers.
A large part of what made the conclusion of the war unpalatable to some was how it didn’t seem at all fitting. We thought a lot of the characters who met miserable fates deserved better. And the winners didn’t seem at all that victorious.
But if we really think about it, the second lesson becomes clear: in the wake of war, there is no true winner.
There will only be those who lost little, those who lost much, and those who lost everything.
In a setting where war was presented as a common way of resolving conflict, this should’ve come as no surprise. It was the perfect message to close the show with. It resonated with everything that took place from the moment we first saw three Crows patrolling the woods beyond the Wall, up to when Jon plunged the dagger into Dany’s breast.
And it stood in peculiar contrast-cum-complement with the fates of everyone who survived. Yes, they made it through everything the world threw at them and ended up in happier stations in life. But it was not through ignorance of the horrors that came. It was not by clinging to their innocence and the sheltered status quo. It was not by rejecting the terrible realities they experienced along the way.
They survived because they acknowledged the horrors, and respected them as the adversaries of all who fought for good. They survived because they were ready to suffer and die like the rest, so long as it was in pursuit of the dawn after the darkness.
Surviving in such a manner does not erase the mental and emotional scars, which was why everyone alive at the end of the series still seemed somehow more subdued or stoic than when it began. But they were stronger for it, as opposed to more vulnerable.
Hope for the future, then, became not only a cherished product of their arduous struggle. It also became a reminder that anything worth fighting for must be fought for. It cannot be given in a beautifully-wrought chest or delivered on a gilded carriage. Not in the world that they lived in.
Come to think of it, this may just have been Jon’s final thought as he watched the gates of Castle Black lowering behind him one last time. He looked back as if to affirm that he knew what he would be casting away on his journey to bring hope beyond the Wall.
He was painfully aware that he had lost the love of his life, his short-lived privilege, and his chance to be with his family. By contrast, he knew nothing (pun intended) of what lay ahead.
And yet, he rode forward.