‘Game of Thrones’ and the Art of the Anticlimax
The fantasy series’ nihilistic refusal of meaning is the bravest TV finale since ‘The Sopranos’
The fantasy series’ nihilistic refusal of meaning is the bravest TV finale since ‘The Sopranos’
I’ve disliked much of HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-19) over the years, from its notorious and at times laughably gratuitous ‘sexposition’ to its racist white-saviour portrayal of the Dothraki and the Unsullied hordes to the reprehensible decision to put Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark through a prolonged rape plot when the actress was just 19 (a storyline not from the books, innovated by middle-aged men who had known Turner since she was a young teenager). While the series creators seemed somewhat capable of learning from their mistakes – giving women much more agency and power as the series progressed, and pulling back from the grossest othering of the show’s various warrior tribes – David Benioff and D.B. Weiss never exactly won my trust as showrunners. I’ve therefore watched the total implosion of Game of Thrones’s reputation this season with detached bemusement, from the perspective of someone who has watched every episode but has never really been a fan. If anything, there has been so much more to enjoy as a fan of Game of Thrones fandom than anything else: the online commentary, conspiracy theories, and Twitter flameouts that have circulated around the series.
I’m writing this for frieze only a week after the airing of the final episode, and it seems hard to imagine that anything remains to be said about the series that hasn’t already been said elsewhere in the frenzy of disappointment and rationalization that has characterized the Thrones audience in the last month. The series will be long-remembered, I suspect, but always as a creative failure, as a project that in neither George R.R. Martin’s original books nor television form was able to sustain itself through to a satisfying conclusion, and allowed itself instead to become cartoonish, ridiculous, silly. I don’t think it’s possible to dislodge this consensus about the final season, and it isn’t wrong, exactly; the single best summary of the experience of Game of Thrones remains the meme that shows an intricately shaded drawing of a horse give way to children’s illegible scrawling as we move across the page, from season one to season eight.
But all the same, this harsh critical judgment does warrant some rethinking, I think: what we saw in the final season was not a creative failure so much as a deliberate and cultivated anticlimax, that was in its own way truer to the revisionist spirit of Game of Thrones than any traditional narrative catharsis would have been.
Consider: the vengeful Arya Stark’s kill list, which she has cultivated over seasons, ultimately goes nowhere, and the magical face-swapping powers she spent years perfecting amount to nothing, not even used once in the final season. Jaime Lannister’s series-long character arc – journeying from incestuous murderer to redeemed hero – similarly ends in a shrug, with the series unable to tell us in the final instance what his true intentions are, much less what we’re supposed to think about them. The long-anticipated ‘Cleganebowl’ fight between brothers Sandor and Gregor Clegane is a futile waste of screen time, finally happening immediately after Sandor himself has argued against its necessity, telling Arya that his devotion to his hatred of his brother has deformed his life and asking her to choose another path for herself. The Night King and his army of White Walkers, built up as an existential threat to humanity that many saw as a metaphor for the political paralysis surrounding climate change, was a nonfactor. Even the central MacGuffin of the entire series, Jon Snow’s hidden status as the true heir to the throne, revealed as the cliffhanger at the end of the seventh season, makes effectively no difference to the larger plot; instead Jon murders ‘dragon queen’ Daenerys Targaryen and is shipped back north to ‘The Wall’ for his crime. The throne is randomly handed to Bran Stark, of all people, instead.
Martin warned us, I suppose, when Rickon Stark (who?) named his direwolf Shaggydog: none of this was ever going to mean anything. In the end, after thousands of pages (and thousands more yet to be written), and hundreds of hours of televised murders, rapes, grisly battles, and clever schemes, Game of Thrones turns out to be one of the longest shaggy dog stories in literary history, ending its decade of palace intrigue and War-of-the-Roses hyperviolence on a still half-finished joke about a dwarf who goes into a brothel with a honeycomb and a donkey.
From the start Game of Thrones has always coasted on a reputation for its subversion of the tropes of heroic fantasy, and in particular its grim revision of J.R.R. Tolkien’s comparatively cozy Lord of the Rings (1954-55). But within that subversion there always seemed to be the promise of final restoration: Jon Snow, perhaps the most fundamentally decent and morally uncomplicated character in the books, really was the proper heir, the ‘Prince That Was Promised’ who would set right all things that had gone wrong. Indeed, so much of the fan theories that dominated Game of Thrones’s reception were about how the prophecies would all turn out to be true in the end: the pseudo-theological cosmic order that governs the fantasy genre would be restored in the end, and Westeros would finally ‘make sense.’ Villain Cersei would be finally killed by the valonqar, little brother, as prophesied, whether that person turned out to be Tyrion, Jaime, Arya, or some other clever twist; the dragon would have three heads, whatever that meant. Whatever the ‘Lord of Light’ was and whatever that whole plotline was supposed to be about, it would all mean something. And whatever Bran was doing in the past, whether it was time travel or something else, we’d understand, retrospectively, how all the pieces fit together perfectly, how everything happened exactly the way it was meant to happen, and all for the best.
‘It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something: that there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.’ Well, about that…
What people seem to have wanted from Game of Thrones was an anti-Tolkien thrill ride that nonetheless came to a safe rest with Evil Defeated and a Good King on the Throne and second breakfast on the table in Bag End. But Benioff and Weiss, despite their many creative flaws, stayed true to the original dark mood of the show, and absolutely refused that sort of numbing closure. Instead of a happy ending in which evil is defeated, and all the violence and misery of the series is shown to have been worth it, the series ends in a horrific massacre, enacted by one of our ostensible heroes after the villains – not ice-wights or orcish demons but human soldiers and terrified civilians – have already surrendered. Daenerys – elevated by a liberal commentariat to the status of a feminist icon, despite her worrying tendency to ruthlessly burn her enemies alive – finally rains hellfire indiscriminately down on the entirety of King’s Landing, a city of a million people, in an extended sequence metaphorizing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of American air power; on the ground, her soldiers rape, murder, and pillage in the ruins. Jon Snow, our supposed paragon, screams ‘no!’ and ‘stop!’, participating in the massacre even as he denounces it; afterwards he’s still not sure whether he supports Daenerys as queen, and only finally chooses when he realizes her wars will never stop, and his home-fief of Winterfell is next.
In the end there was no moral order to any of this, no extratextual logic of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ to make some war crimes holy and others devilish; instead, we saw how believing in the nonsense of nations and leaders and destinies and heroes compromises us, deranges us – turning people into fools who will not only support murder and torture and mutilation and death-from-the-skies and every other conceivable atrocity in the name of the lie they have bent the knee too, but who will become furious with you when you show incontrovertible proof that the Great Men and Women they’ve being cheering for were monsters all along.
There weren’t many options left to Benioff and Weiss as they studied how to end the series, and I’d never say they did a good job – but their nihilistic refusal of meaning at the end of the fantasy may have been the bravest series ending since The Sopranos (1999-2007) simply cut to black. Indeed, it may be braver: unlike The Sopranos we are forced to linger on the fantasy for an entire episode even after it’s been ruined, forced to wallow in the return to normalcy of corrupt courtiers and disinterested monarchs that makes a mockery of the dreams of democratization or religious restoration that fans had decided would mark the proper ending. If there was any higher moral purpose governing any of these events, it seems to have only been that of the immortal Eldritch Abomination inhabiting the body that was once Bran’s: as remorseless and inhuman in its own way as the Night King, and now apparently ruling Westeros forever, or at least until the inevitable sequel series. ‘Ask me again in ten years,’ Tyrion tells Jon Snow when he asks if they did the right thing, essentially vowing that Game of Thrones will someday return to TV (and neatly shaving 15 years off Twin Peaks’s famous 25 in the bargain). Assuming we find some way to stab climate change in the face with a magic dagger, I suppose we’ll all be there, eyes rolling into the back of our skulls, waiting again for some miracle that can justify this long nightmare. This time, surely, the Prince That Was Promised will arrive right on time.
Main image: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones, 2011-2019, film still. Courtesy: HBO