Game of Thrones S8 E6
What is the shape of a story? HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” like the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series it is based on, is interested in stories, their form, mechanisms, and ability to affect human life.
In “The Iron Throne,” the final episode in “Game of Thrones,” the plot takes a back seat to ruminations on the nature of story. Books chronicling the histories of characters are written on screen not once but twice.
More overtly, Tyrion Lannister as played by Peter Dinklage posits that stories constitute a kind of ultimate ruling force. In a reflection of a standout scene earlier in the show, wherein Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish ponder the nature of power, Tyrion explains that stories have some sort of ability to unite people in a transcendent, maybe divine manner. The character is as much speaking to other characters as he is to the audience: “Game of Thrones” has united people worldwide under the thrall of its fantastic spectacle and grim meditations on the nature of politics and history.
In a sense, however, the show also seems to be apologizing for much of the duration of “The Iron Throne.” Some lines of dialog seem to be making oblique references to the series’ inability to placate the desires of its fans. “I thought I was wise, but I wasn’t,” Tyrion says as if speaking for the producers admitting they’ve rushed the story to its conclusion, before letting Jon Snow pet his beloved direwolf Ghost one last time, just because fans want it.
Spoilers ahead, but indeed, so much happens in “The Iron Throne” that it could be an entire season of television unto itself. Beloved characters die, are imprisoned, are liberated, cast down and returned to positions of power —the wheel, the story’s symbolic representation of cyclical regime change, is broken, maybe.
Hell, the primary conflict introduced in “The Bells,” is resolved in the first half hour with Daenerys Targaryen’s death, offset by terse scenes free of dialog and music paired with gorgeous cinematography.
But none of these diversions answer the question: what is a story’s shape? What is the art “Game of Thrones” has traced for nearly ten years. The answer is hinted at, and then overtly stated in the show’s multiple spinning pivot shots, ring-shaped jewels and dialog: the shape of a story is a circle.
In typical Hollywood fashion, by the end characters wind up back where they have been before. Sansa returns to Winterfell, Arya returns to adventuring, Tyrion returns to his seat as Hand of the King, and Jon Snow returns to the north, leading an expedition north of the wall in an uplifting mirror to the very first shot of the series, this time with a notably “Pirates of the Caribbean”-ish tinge to the series’ main theme playing. This upbeat final note feels unsettling for a series that made its mark by upending conventions. Why fall back on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s journey in a series that often shunned heroism in favor of history’s chaotic ladder and cluttered library?
We revert to these tropes for a few reasons as viewers. First, because we’ve been conditioned to accept this form of a story by mythology, by novels, by Disney and “Star Wars.” Second, because there’s something satisfying about this shape. It reassures. It fills the preternatural stomach in our minds that longs for a cohesive narrative, even if that part of us can’t stay full forever.
There’s a price to be paid for fullness of the mind: entertainment is not so beneficial as enlightenment. That is the great promise on which challenging art builds its case as the vanguard of our culture, and GoT has, at least at times, strived to be art, even if it doesn’t succeed.
On that front, “The Iron Throne” offers one parting moment of clarity. For a few minutes, it seems like the iron throne, having been melted down by dragon fire, might be replaced with ballot boxes as Samwell Tarley nearly invents democracy. His idea is shot down by rich and entitled noblemen in seconds, in favor of a crude oligarchy — here the show’s parallels to contemporary American politics become so overt that they nearly reach out of the television screen and flagellate themselves in your face. So maybe the shape of this story is more of a Mobius strip than a circle. Or maybe the wheel, though unbroken, at least has a dent in it —that’s something right?
But in honesty these criticisms seem unfair. This series, its story, has captured the hearts and minds of millions for eight years while expanding the possibilities of television as a medium, at least on a budgetary scale, and despite its incoherent and at times overbearing misogyny, it’s at least told a good yarn for almost a decade even though we can all see it fraying at the end, and its done so while its source material has stalled out. Few storytellers play any game so well for so long.