“Game of Thrones” Burns It All to the Ground


The November election cast a shadow over the realm of pop culture; suddenly, every narrative seemed like a comment on Trump’s rise to power and the conditions that enabled it. Of course, not every sitcom episode or rap verse is a reflection of “Trumpism.” But the seventh season of Game of Thrones, which ended in typically spectacular fashion last night, feels like the perfect allegory for the Trump era, the pop-culture artifact that’s benefited the most from the backdrop of Trump’s presidency. That’s not only because they feel equally omnipresent, but because this kind of high-stakes, clash-of-civilization, end-of-days drama seems to be how Trump and his merry band of warmongers see the world, too — a vision that feels increasingly difficult to escape.

The central tension of this season — do you save the world, or save yourself? — is an all-too-familiar reflection of the existential crisis that is President Trump. Should Daenerys Targaryen set aside her pride and agree to help Jon Snow defeat the White Walkers without insisting he “bend the knee”? Should Jon put aside his pride and acquiesce to the woman who holds the true claim to the throne (or so they think)? Should the dragon queen use her firepower to nuke King’s Landing, thus eliminating what is potentially Westeros’s greatest threat — the ever-more nihilistic Cersei Lannister? Would such a move invalidate Dany’s quest for a kinder, more humane world? And yet, as Dany fired back at her adviser, Tyrion Lannister, earlier this season, “Which war was won without deceit and mass murder?”

These moral quandries, which have no easy answers, are at the heart of Game of Thrones’ appeal, at least for me. “Fuck loyalty,” Brienne of Tarth tells Jaime Lannister when Cersei initially refuses to call a truce and send her armies north toward the White Walkers. “This goes beyond houses and honor and oaths.” (Javanka, are you listening?) “When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything,” Jon insists after Tyrion questions his decision to pledge his loyalty to Dany in front of Cersei. (GOP voters, are you listening?!)

For many viewers, though, I suspect all that conversation is only preparation for the next epic battle — or the incestuous hookup that finally came to pass in the finale. This season, and the finale in particular, brought us many long-awaited and improbable reunions: Arya and Sansa Stark; Jaime and Tyrion, and then Cersei and Tyrion; the Mountain and the Hound. Then, there were the encounters between characters we had waited years to see in the same frame, culminating with the gathering of the show’s surviving leaders — now generals, each with a vast army at his or her disposal — at the Dragonpit in King’s Landing, a previously unseen location where once upon a time the Targaryen dragons were held captive until they withered away and died. Thankfully, the scene didn’t turn into a bloodbath; the only creature killed was the wight that Jon’s almost-doomed expedition delivered to Cersei to demonstrate the existential threat facing all of Westeros if they don’t come together to conquer it.

And then there’s Dany and Jon. Beautiful, incestuous Dany and Jon. After two seasons of foot-dragging, season seven gave us not only the meeting of the show’s two most unequivocal (and sexiest) heroes, but also that relationship’s consummation — which we see, graphically, in a scene in the finale that’s intercut with Bran Stark and Samwell Tarly jointly discovering that Jon Snow is really Aegon Targaryen, and thus not only the true heir to the Iron Throne, but Dany’s nephew. That Game of Thrones would submit its fair-haired heroine to this unwitting incest after all she’s been through since the first season — throughout which she was forced to submit to her creepy brother’s advances — is the kind of icky disappointment we’ve come to expect from Game of Thrones. Maybe this show really is run by a horny thirteen-year-old boy who’s descended one circle too deep into Reddit hell.

Then again, maybe the incest scene was an appropriate bit of madness to top off a generally batshit season. If you follow the logistics and geography of Westeros more closely than I do, this season provided plenty of opportunity for incredulous scoffing. (How exactly did Dany manage to make it north of the Wall in the penultimate episode to save Jon and his gang from a fast-encroaching army of wights? How fast do ravens fly, anyway?) After two seasons of hinting at what’s to come, in season seven, it all comes crashing down — including the solid, frozen Wall, which is reduced to rubble by an ice-breathing dragon in the finale’s final minutes, clearing a path for the Night King’s army of White Walkers and setting the stage for the next, and last, season. (The zombie dragon is also pretty ridiculous; why would ice make ice melt? Wouldn’t it just make it…icier?) After two seasons of foot-dragging and filler meant to build anticipation, in season seven, we were finally rewarded for our patience.

And yet, as is so often the case with Game of Thrones, the most engrossing scenes in the finale weren’t the bloodiest (there was surprisingly little blood in this episode; that’s not a complaint) but the quietest: The tense silence among the generals while they wait for Dany to make her flashy entrance via dragon; the encounters between Cersei and Tyrion, and later, Cersei and Jaime — two conversations that hammer home just how isolated Cersei has become, even as she resists the urge to have her insufficiently loyal brothers killed.

The most exciting aspect of the finale, like the season as a whole, was all the strategizing, the conversations between allies and enemies, the negotiating and persuading and bargaining; in short, the politics. “If all we wanted was more of the same,” Tyrion tells the gathered generals, they wouldn’t be standing in the same room, er, pit. “There is no conversation that will erase the last fifty years,” he continues, but he implores his stubborn sister to put aside her grudges and think of the greater good. Meanwhile, in Winterfell, Sansa proves that she’s not so dumb and weak, after all — as she says before she orders Arya to finally kill the conniving Lord Baelish, “I may be a slow learner, but I learn.” It’s a line that echoes another in the season premiere, when Sansa admits, with grudging respect, that she “learned a great deal” from Cersei.

In the end, Game of Thrones gave into a familiar impulse: Burn it, burn it all to the ground. Like the season six finale, in which Cersei uses her stores of wildfire to burn the Sept and everyone in it, Game of Thrones can’t resist the urge to end things on anything less than the highest fever pitch — a note of total destruction that unwittingly demonstrates the limits of its vast imagination. That’s where the show’s relevance to our current real-life predicament really lies: In its inability, or unwillingness, to imagine a future that’s brighter than our past.