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Why ‘Game of Thrones’ ended the way it did, Part IV

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In the previous part of this article, we discussed the relationship between passion and violence as manifested through Daenerys Targaryen, and explored the ways in which she embodied humanity’s strongest impulses for violence. 

In light of this, it should be clear why the battle against the White Walkers could not have been the show’s final conflict — the White Walkers were never the true cause of humanity’s problems — humanity was. The true conflict of “Game of Thrones” is not the living against the dead, but the human heart in conflict with itself, and this is the conflict that needs to play out in the story’s final moments. 

But on some level, it seems that the Children of the Forest and the White Walkers were right — humans seem innately prone to violence, because the very things that make us human, the very things that separate us from the dead, are the things that drive us to it. If we were to stop here, it would seem that humanity doesn’t deserve to live, and that the White Walkers should’ve ravaged the world. So the question then becomes, “Can humanity change, and if so, how?”

If cyclical violence is propelled by passion, then it follows that one of the ways to combat cyclical violence would be the denial of passion — acting against one’s impulses rather than with them. The character that best exemplifies this principle is Jon Snow. Throughout his story, Jon is constantly forced to choose between love and duty: he can either give in to the things his passions and impulses urge him to do or do what seems to be the right thing. After Ned Stark’s beheading, Jon is forced to choose between running away to join his brother Robb in battle or staying and upholding his commitment to the Night’s Watch, and he chooses the latter. After he journeys north and befriends the Wildlings, he’s forced to choose between staying with his love, Ygritte, or returning back to the Night’s Watch to stop the wildlings from murdering more villagers north of the wall, and decides to do the latter. When he has to choose between maintaining his pride as King in the north and pledging allegiance to Daenerys to get her to help in the battle against the dead, he chooses the latter. And of course, in his final defining moment he’s forced to choose between staying with the woman he loves and allowing her to install tyranny over Westeros or killing her to save it, and he chooses the latter. This goes back to one of the core ideas from not only Jon’s story but from “Game of Thrones” as a whole: “Love is the death of duty.” Given all the atrocities committed in the name of love throughout the story, as described earlier in this article, it makes sense that halting a cycle of atrocities would only be possible through the denial of love, acting in spite of it rather than because of it. This was a lesson imparted to Jon by Maester Aemon Targaryen in season five, a man who once technically had a birthright to rule over Westeros, but instead gave that up and chose to go north and join the Night’s Watch. This lesson is repeated in the final episode when Tyrion attempts to convince Jon to kill Daenerys to prevent her from burning any more innocents. 

A defining characteristic of Jon that makes him equipped to deny his own passions in order to do the right thing is that he, unlike Daenerys, does not buy into the cult of personality surrounding him, and as a result is never delusionally confident in his own judgements. If you examine Jon’s story, he has just as much reason to believe in his own divinity as Daenerys does — not only is he the true Targaryen heir to the Iron Throne, someone with the love and respect of an entire region, and someone capable of riding dragons, but he’s also someone who rose from the dead. After he does this he’s even told by Tormund that the men of the Night’s Watch think he’s “some kind of god.” But rather than use this perception to gain and solidify power, as Daenerys does, Jon quits the Night’s Watch. He never believes it to be the duty of others to follow him, but rather only to contribute to the fight against the dead. His actions are not guided by a sense of personal significance or divinity. One of the most famous quotes from the show is Ygritte’s “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” and when you examine how much Jon doesn’t purport to know things, especially in comparison to someone like Daenerys (“I know what is good”) and other characters, this quote takes on a much deeper meaning. Although he’s willing to go to great lengths to do what seems to be the right thing, Jon doesn’t allow himself to be clouded by his own sense of pride. Even in his prison cell, months after killing Daenerys, Jon still asks Tyrion, “…was it right? What I did?” and Tyrion replies, “Ask me again in ten years.” Jon is always questioning his actions, and this is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign that he has the humility needed to truly do good.

It’s because of this humility that he has no sense of entitlement to any power, which is reflected in his continuous refusal of the Iron Throne, despite knowing that it’s technically his birthright. Unlike Daenerys, Cersei, and most of the other characters in the show, Jon is able to help put an end to the game of thrones because he refuses to play. He’s more concerned about doing the right thing for all of humanity than he is with doing the right thing for him, and this is what makes his end so fitting. In season one Cersei famously says, “When you play the game of thrones you either win, or you die,” and in the end Jon neither “wins” nor dies. Instead he rejoins the Night’s Watch, committing himself once again to duty at his own expense, as he always has.

Another aspect of Jon’s character that allows him to contribute to actually breaking the wheel of systemic violence is that unlike Daenerys, Jon doesn’t enjoy violence. When Jon and Daenerys meet in season seven, they walk along the ramparts at Dragonstone together, and Daenerys says, “We all enjoy what we’re good at,” and Jon responds by saying, “I don’t.” Jon is a skilled fighter who doesn’t enjoy fighting, and this helps allow him to actually use violence judiciously when he does engage in it. Most of his fighting throughout the series occurs as an act of defense, whether that’s protecting villagers from the wildlings, protecting wildlings from the White Walkers, and so on. In one of the few moments in which Jon seems to be relishing violence – the moment he defeats Ramsay Bolton in the Battle of the Bastards and begins beating him to a pulp – he catches himself and stops. Jon’s use of violence is even sometimes merciful, such as when he fires an arrow into Mance Rayder’s heart to save him the agony of being burned alive. It is never, however, gratuitous or done with purely retributive intentions.

However, if you’ll recall Martin’s thematic intentions, you’ll see that Jon’s character certainly adds to his anti-violence themes, but you might wonder how his story subverts typical fantasy tropes. In many ways, Jon Snow is a cookie-cutter fantasy hero — a King Arthur-esque figure who’s honest, righteous, and humble in his bones. He even fits into a fantasy narrative we’ve all seen before: the secret heir to the throne who’s called upon to reclaim what’s theirs and depose a tyrant who currently sits on it. If Martin wanted to write a fantasy story that broke these tropes in meaningful ways, then it’s clear that the story could never have ended with Jon assuming his rightful place on the throne – that would’ve not only been the exact kind of cliche Martin wanted to avoid, but it would’ve also ripped many layers of nuance away from the story. Ever since the start of “Game of Thrones,” we’ve been continuously reminded that “doing the right thing” often comes at great cost, and that righteousness alone is not a sufficient characteristic for gaining or maintaining power. Bronn captures this point well in season eight, when he pulls a crossbow on Jaime and Tyrion at Winterfell, attempting to threaten his way into securing riches once the battle between Cersei and Daenerys is over:

Jaime Lannister: Highgarden will never belong to a cutthroat.

Bronn: No? Who were your ancestors, the ones who made your family rich? Fancy lads in silk? They were fucking cutthroats. That’s how all the great houses started, isn’t it? With a hard bastard who was good at killing people. Kill a few hundred people, they make you a lord. Kill a few thousand, they make you king. 

Because of this, it would’ve been very difficult for the story to end with Jon on the throne while still preserving the grounding in reality that Martin wanted for it. It would also have been a tough ending to justify, given that it would only perpetuate the toxic feudalistic system that has plagued Westeros for centuries. Many people complained about the reveal of Jon’s true parentage as a “wasted plotline,” but this was actually Martin brilliantly subverting this “rightful heir” fantasy trope. Rather than having the secret parentage and birthright be a force that propels the hero in question to power, amassing armies and assuming their throne, Martin actually uses it as an obstacle to peace. Its discovery only ends up presenting a problem to Jon and Dany, and ends up sowing the seeds of dissent and chaos within those close to them. The system of birthright becomes something that burdens Jon rather than emboldens him.

The final way in which Martin meaningfully subverts fantasy tropes within Jon’s story is through the use of prophecy. The most famous prophecy in all of “Game of Thrones” is that of “The Prince Who Was Promised” which is connected to the legends of “Azor Ahai” and “The Last Hero.” The prophecy tells of a chosen one who will forge the flaming sword “Lightbringer” in order to defeat the darkness, and it was generally assumed that this would take place in the context of the White Walkers. However, such a fulfillment would’ve leaned too heavily on common fantasy tropes, and Martin made it clear he was keen on using prophecy in nuanced ways in his story: “Prophecies are, you know, a double-edged sword. You have to handle them very carefully…they can add depth and interest to a book, but you don’t want to be too literal or too easy …” 

In order to have the fulfillment of prophecy fit Martin’s intentions, such a fulfillment would not only have to be non-literal, but the way in which it is figurative would have to contribute to the story’s thematic depth. While the actual legend of Azor Ahai is not spelled out in the show, we know from the books that it is as follows: Azor Ahai needed to forge the sword Lightbringer in order to fight the darkness that lay over the world. To do so, he first tried forging the blade for thirty days and thirty nights, but when he went to temper the blade in water, it shattered. On his second attempt, he labored for fifty days and nights to make the sword, and then tempered it by piercing the heart of a lion, but it shattered again. Then, on his third attempt, he labored for a hundred days and nights, and then tempered the blade by piercing the heart of his own beloved wife, Nissa Nissa. If you look at this prophecy with the themes of “Game of Thrones” in mind, it’s easy to see that this tale is clearly an example of someone choosing to pursue duty over love – Azor Ahai must sacrifice the one he loves in order to forge Lightbringer. This adds an incredible layer of nuance to both Jon’s story and the story as a whole. Rather than forging a real sword, a weapon of war, what Jon is actually trying to forge is peace. He first tries bringing peace by defeating the White Walkers, but this isn’t enough. Then he tries to bring peace by overthrowing Cersei (a lion), but this isn’t enough. In the end he actually helps bring peace to Westeros by sacrificing the one he loves, and piercing his blade into Daenerys’ heart. He forges peace by, as he always has, choosing duty over love. This allows the prophecy and “chosen one” trope to work in the story in a way that adds depth rather than detracting from it. While most “chosen ones” in fantasy have an increasingly self-deifying rise to power, the prophecy of which Jon is the subject is actually more like a curse — “doing the right thing” has a tremendous personal cost, and in being the “prince who was promised,” Jon is actually called upon to suffer losses rather than enjoy gains, because this is what acting against one’s passions and choosing duty over love entails. 

But where does this leave us? Ending systemic violence and bringing peace can’t simply be a matter of choosing duty over love — after all, the challenges and dilemmas one is faced with in running a state are often far more complex, and those facing these challenges have to choose between far more than two choices. In the fifth and final part of this article, we’ll delve into the traits Martin sees as essential to ending cyclical violence, and how these traits are manifested in the story.

Contact Isaac Vaught at ivaught ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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