The finale of Game of Thrones aired Sunday night, and the dialogue around it will almost assuredly be divisive. I very much enjoyed the finale, but it’s understandable if pacing and shortened plots over the last two seasons have muddied the water too much for you to look past it. I do think understanding what kind of story Game of Thrones was helps better understand the ending though.
It’s always helpful to know what genre a story is before you dive into it. The type of genre it is will give you certain expectations, right? You expect a comedy to go a certain way with a certain type of ending. The same for action or superhero movies. If somebody asked you, “What genre is Game of Thrones?” how would you answer? Most people might say fantasy. They’d be right in saying that as there are dragons, undead, and dark magic. Some people might say that it’s a drama. They’d be right as well; Game of Thrones has some of the best drama on television. Truthfully, Game of Thrones has multiple genres co-existing within its framework. One genre in particular has come up numerous times throughout the series, and on the finale of Game of Thrones, we saw it again.
A tragedy, by definition, is a “branch of drama that treats in a serious and dignified style the sorrow or terrible events encountered or caused by a heroic individual.” Game of Thrones, from the very first season, has exposed us to this. At one point, they even told us.
Tragedies We’ve Seen Already
The Starks are introduced to the audience as the “good guys.” We’re supposed to be rooting for them. With Jon Snow going to the wall and Robb Stark remaining in Winterfell for most of the first season, Ned Stark was our main protagonist. Ned, along with Robert, gave us our first dose of the tragic hero.
Robert, before he was a drunk King, was a charismatic, handsome, and inspiring lord. He rebelled against Aerys because the woman he was promised to wed was “kidnapped” by Prince Rhaegar (which we know now to not be the case). Along the way, he became King but lost the woman he loved. Cersei was never Lyanna, so Robert treated her poorly, and in turn became a lousy King. This love triangle (plus Cersei?) is the main tragedy of the story, and its repercussions led to various others. In the end, Cersei had Robert killed. Ultimately, it’s a dark and sad tragedy for Bobby Baratheon.
Ned, meanwhile, loses a brother, father, and sister in the war. He’s wedded to the woman his dead brother was originally promised to (has to be at least a little bit awkward) and has to deal with the weight of promising his sister something that carries the weight of the entire Seven Kingdoms. Fast forward to the events of Season One. After episode nine, “Baelor,” Game of Thrones told us that it wasn’t a “typical” fantasy story, or a “typical” drama. It told us that it was also a tragedy.
Those aren’t the only examples in the story. Robb Stark was a young lord whose family was wronged. The North chose him to become the King in the North and avenge his wrongfully killed father and save his sisters. Sounds like the makings of any solid fantasy. Robb’s supposed to be the hero, right? According to “The Rains of Castamere” from Season Three, he is not. Instead, he’s the tragic hero whose choice of love over duty cost him and his family almost everything.
Stannis Baratheon is another example. The Red Woman uses magic to convince Stannis that he is the mythical hero who is destined to defeat the Night King. This eventually leads to Stannis thinking that he is literally responsible for the fate of the world. Stannis eventually burns his daughter alive because he thinks that it has to happen to save everyone, and it turned out that the Red Woman was wrong and it never even mattered. That’s about as dark as a tragedy can get right there.
The Tragedy of Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow
Both of their tragedies are different and tied to the same “original sin” so to speak of the series (Rhaegar and Lyanna).
A lot of what Dany knows about the world and history comes from her brother. From the books we know that Viserys told her that the “Usurper” Robert Baratheon had stolen the throne. He promised that one day they would return to take it back and that the people would march in the streets waving their flag when they did. She knew nothing of Aerys the Mad King or how he was terrible to the people. Later in the show, Dany shows she has a sense of honor, compassion, and justice, but her idea of justice is warped.
In Season Four, she crucifies 163 masters in punishment for them crucifying 163 slaves. The only problem is that the 163 masters she chose were random, meaning some who were guilty walked free and vice versa. For most of the series, Daenerys has said she would take back what was hers with fire and blood. She’s executed many people throughout the show truthfully, but it’s just always been convenient for us as an audience. Despite that, she’s always been able to stay on the right side of the line that separates herself from her father. Until she arrives at King Landing.
Awakening the Dragon
After going through everything she went through for seven seasons, she arrives to find out that it is nothing at all how it was described to her. The people fear the Targaryen name; if it wasn’t for Jon, few lords would support her. When she arrives to finally finish it, the citizens of the capital are running away in fear to Cersei, a literal mad queen. This, along with the loss of some of those whom she was closest with, sets her off and she burns everything, fulfilling the threat her father made before Jaime killed him; “let him be King of the ashes.”
Jon’s is a bit different. In order to understand his character and his arc, you first must understand Maester Aemon. Aemon was once a Targaryen whose choice to take the black let his younger brother inherit the throne (sound familiar?). In the early seasons, Aemon tells Jon two quotes from the books that we know stick with him throughout the series. The first one he echoes back to Tyrion while they talk in his cell, “Love is the death of duty.” The other is “Kill the boy and let the man be born.” Keep this in mind now as he gets caught in a war against the wildlings and the woman he loves.
This all starts at the end of Season Two. Nights Watchmen Qhorin Half-Hand orders Jon to kill him, so that the wildlings will perceive Jon as a turncloak. This is the first time he’s put in the position of choosing between duty and love. The love for his brothers of the Nights Watch versus his duty of protecting the greater good. From here on out, the balancing of love and duty is a consistent theme of Jon’s arc.
He goes on to then watch Ygritte die in that war. Afterward, Jon is betrayed and murdered by the men with whom he fought against her. He gets brought back to life only to fall in love again, and is now forced into a choice between love and duty like Robb before him.
Duty vs Love
“Sometimes duty can be the death of love,” Tyrion tells Jon. This leaves Jon with a choice, and as Jon departs Tyrion’s cell, he reinforces the fact that the decision is in Jon’s hands. This is the tragedy for Jon Snow. He’s found love again, only for duty to come calling in the worst possible way. When he finally confronts Daenerys, she tells him that everyone else “doesn’t get to decide” what’s good and what isn’t. It’s a realization for Jon that he does. With that, he makes his choice.
For both characters, the tragedy has already happened. Jon Snow is practically a walking tragedy at this point like Ned was. Dany’s tragic arc has come full circle with the decision to burn the city. I’m sure many people were rooting for Dany not to die. If she had lived and ruled, though, Daenerys would be queen over a people who will now never love her because of the carnage. The seven kingdoms would be almost guaranteed to rebel. Therefore not breaking the wheel as she said, but instead simply turning it again. Jon, on the other hand, already lives with the guilt of Ygritte. Now he has to live with his role in the massacre of King’s Landing. As well as his decision to kill Daenerys, therefore forgoing his claim to the throne and basically sentencing himself to exile in the process.
Game of Thrones isn’t just a fantasy story, and it isn’t just a drama. It’s always been a tragedy, at least for Dany and Jon. We knew by the end of Season One that this wasn’t your typical story. The ending of the series wouldn’t have been any different. With all of that being said, I thought it was an incredibly executed finish to one of the greatest shows of all time. It was tragic, but there was a lot of the typical “fantasy ending” you would anticipate as well.
Bran is a clear choice for King. As the three-eyed raven who can see past and present, he will be aware of almost any devious plot against the kingdoms. That knowledge of past mistakes will undoubtedly help the future. Brienne gaining the highest honor of Knight as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard was a fine touch as well. Particularly the scene of her filling in the pages of Jaime’s exploits. Tyrion, Sansa, Arya, Bronn, Davos, and some our other favorites had endings that relieved some of the hurt left behind from Dany and Jon’s conclusions.
In the end, Game of Thrones left us with many emotions. Is that not the goal of any good story, though? The tragedies, the drama, the fantasy all brought with it a wave of different feelings, both good and bad. No matter your thoughts on the final season, I think we can all be thankful for that.