By Isaac Vaught
In the previous part of this article, we discussed the denial of passions (as exemplified through Jon Snow) as the first means of combating the impulses that propel cycles of systemic violence. However, it’s clear from the complexities of government that simply choosing duty over love cannot be all that’s required to create positive systemic change.
Creating such change requires the work, at least in part, of people in positions of power who can make wise decisions and use their power to change those systems for the better. In season four, after Joffrey dies and young Tommen becomes next in line for the throne, Tywin Lannister attempts to prevent him from repeating Joffrey’s mistakes by posing a question to him: “What makes a good king?” Tommen offers several answers — strength, justice, etc. — and Tywin offers counter examples for each one that prove they in themselves aren’t sufficient characteristics for a good ruler. Then he asks, “What do they all lack?” and Tommen says, “Wisdom.” “Yes! Wisdom,” Tywin responds, “But what is wisdom, hm?” This is another core question of “Game of Thrones.” How are rulers to make the best decisions they can? Much of the story is occupied with various people in positions of power struggling to make the right choices in their roles as leaders. When it comes to the question of how someone in a position of power can cultivate the wisdom necessary to truly serve their people well, Martin answers with another controversial plot point: King Bran Stark.
While critics of the final season also took heavy aim at this plot choice, this is a feature of the show’s ending that Martin confirmed to have been planned for the ending of the book series since the very beginning. Bran is the very first point of view ever taken in the books, and if you examine it closely you can see that the very beginning of his story is a lesson in how to be a good king. Jon tells Bran to not look away when Ned Stark beheads the man who deserts the Night’s Watch after an encounter with the White Walkers. Ned attempts to lead by example here, imparting the lesson to Bran that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” But Bran seems unsure of whether or not the man truly deserved to die and asks his father if it’s true that he saw the White Walkers, to which Ned responds by simply shrugging him off, saying “a madman sees what he sees.” This was, of course, an unacknowledged but incredibly consequential choice, because if Ned had listened to the man then the White Walker threat might’ve been dealt with far sooner. But instead of first seeking understanding, Ned immediately goes forward with the administration of “justice,” which becomes a common trend among the many unwise choices that are made in “Game of Thrones.”
Because of this, Bran’s story is very much an education in the wisdom required to make a ruler good, and this is done through a mythological increase in his ability to gain understanding. The first aspect of wisdom that’s explored through his story is learning from the past. Bran’s journey centers on him becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, a magical being with the power of greensight, a gift originally harnessed by the Children of the Forest, which allows the user to observe all of history as though they were actually present for it. Bran is able to learn from the past in a way that no one else in the story can. This is especially important given how much Westeros doesn’t seem to have learned anything from its own history. For example, Daenerys was not the first Targaryen to invade Westeros. Three hundred years before the start of the story, Aegon the Conqueror invaded Westeros with his sister-wives, and each of them rode in on dragons, burned down cities and united the seven kingdoms (with the exception of Dorne) under a single ruler. Someone had already accomplished exactly what Daenerys had been aiming for, and yet somehow she believed the results of her campaign would be different. Examining the past can help humanity prevent repeating the same mistakes.
It’s also important to note that because of his ability Bran is able to become the embodiment of the denial of passions. By season seven he becomes stone-faced and completely detached from any personal relationships. He insists that he’s not quite a man anymore, nor is he completely Bran Stark – “I remember what it was like to be Brandon Stark, but I remember so much else now.” When Jon is reunited with him he says, “Look at you! You’re a man!” and Bran responds, “Almost.” It is because Bran is cut off from feelings of passion that he is incorruptible, and this provides him the clarity and, consequently, the superhuman wisdom needed to save Westeros. He’s able to save humanity by partially cutting himself off from his own.
While Bran is the only one with magical abilities in this regard, some of the wiser characters in the story also make a habit of learning from the past using the closest human approximation to greensight, which is reading. In season one, when Jon asks Tyrion why he reads so much, Tyrion responds, “A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone.” Tyrion reads heavily and thus becomes one of the wisest characters in the story and even a fan-favorite suggestion for who should sit on the Iron Throne. In fact, it’s Bran’s special relationship with the past that Tyrion resonates with; it later serves as the basis of Tyrion’s case for why Bran should be king — he frames Bran as being “the keeper of all our stories,” and believes this will allow him to be the best possible guide for Westeros’ future. Samwell Tarly is perhaps the story’s most fervent reader, and the knowledge he gains from doing so ends up becoming crucial to the rest of the world: his reading helps him learn of the use of Dragonglass in fighting White Walkers; it helps him learn how to cure Jorah Mormont of Greyscale; it helps him confirm that Bran’s claim about Jon being the heir to the Iron Throne is true, and so on. Those who learn from history play crucial roles in the story, and everyone around them is better for it.
However, there is a glaring problem with history: historical records are incomplete. Not only is quite a bit of information missing from the historical record (i.e., no one in the show but Bran knows who created the White Walkers and why), but historical accounts often conflict with one another and make it difficult for readers of history to know what exactly to trust. This is also a massive thematic element in “Game of Thrones,” and it’s one that Martin has repeatedly used to help ground the story in reality. As the story progresses, much of the historical “facts” that many take for granted as truths in Westeros actually turn out to be false. Rhaegar Targaryen didn’t actually kidnap and rape Lyanna Stark — they were in love, and they had a son. Ned Stark didn’t actually defeat Ser Arthur Dayne in single combat — he was stabbed in the back by Howland Reed. Joffrey, Myrcella, and Tommen weren’t actually Cersei’s and Robert Baratheon’s children — they were products of incest. Even at the end of the story, when Samwell Tarly presents the king’s council with a written history of the events of “Game of Thrones,” titled “A Song of Ice and Fire” after the book series, we come to find out that Tyrion, who we know played a crucial role in the story, is not even mentioned. Bran is able to see events as they truly happened, but everyone else must rely on their readings of history, which always comes from a limited perspective. Martin was so committed to adding this more realistic element to his fantasy world that when he wrote an historical companion to the “A Song of Ice and Fire” universe, he structured it as a compilation of writings from different Maesters across time with the same access to material that an actual historian would have: primary sources, secondary sources, legends, and oral traditions. More is known about some events than others, some accounts of the same event conflict and it’s never completely clear what is true and what isn’t. This adds a very grounding nuance to the story’s treatment of history and serves to tell the more realistic fantasy story that Martin wanted to tell.
So given that learning from the past is not the only aspect of ruling wisdom, what else does Bran’s story exemplify? This brings us to the final, most crucial piece of wisdom in the story: empathy.
So many of the wrongs in “Game of Thrones” are committed by those who seek to judge without understanding, those who are so sure they truly know what other people deserve that they end up needlessly taking the lives of others. Characters like Daenerys, Tywin, Stannis, etc. carry out bastardized versions of justice because they repeatedly refuse to take another person’s point of view, and this closes off the potential for compassion. When Jorah Mormont advises Dany in season five, he says, “It’s tempting to see your enemies as evil, but there’s good and evil on both sides of every war ever fought.” If there’s no distance between one’s sense of justice and one’s hatred or desire for revenge, then it’s impossible for justice to serve any kind of productive role — a wheel of cyclic violent power plays can’t be stopped by carrying out more judgements using hatred and retribution, but rather through mercy and understanding.
Bran’s abilities allow him to empathize with others more than anyone else in the story can. Not only can he see the past and understand the truth about people’s experiences, but as a warg he literally has the ability to see through the eyes of others. Throughout the show he transports his consciousness into that of wolves, ravens and even other people. He’s capable of literally walking (or flying) a mile in another’s shoes.
Bran’s detachment from his own passions and ego allows him to have an understanding of others that actually yields productive change. Even though Jaime viciously maimed Bran at the beginning of the story, when he returns to Winterfell Bran not only forgives him but is able to take a bird’s eye perspective (pun intended) and see how such an act may have been for the best:
Jaime: “I’m sorry for what I did to you.”
Bran: “You weren’t sorry then. You were only protecting your family.”
Jaime: “I’m not that person anymore.”
Bran: “You still would be if you hadn’t pushed me out of that window. And I would still be Brandon Stark.”
Bran offers the same kind of forgiveness to Theon — a character whom he, if he were still merely human, would likely have hated and sought revenge against. Despite all of the murders Theon committed against the Starks in season two, in season eight Bran decides to forgive Theon and show him compassion. After Theon defends Bran at Winterfell in one of the most emotionally wrought moments of the season, Bran looks at Theon and says, “You’re a good man. Thank you.” He finds it in him to see Theon with compassion, and this allows Theon the possibility for redemption. In the same way, if Sansa and Jon had not forgiven Theon in previous seasons, he never would’ve made it to Winterfell to defend Bran in the first place.
Not only is Bran able to forgive, but he’s able to maintain focus on what’s productive rather than what’s gratifying; to separate what’s actually best for the wellbeing of everyone involved from what merely offers primal satisfaction.
Jaime: “Why didn’t you tell them?”
Bran: “You wouldn’t be able to help us in this fight if I let them murder you first.”
It is precisely this capacity that allows Bran to actually break the wheel rather than contribute to its turning; he’s able to make use of restorative justice rather than retributive justice. This helps contrast him with the forces that had been moving Westeros for centuries before. When Tyrion is brought to trial in the finale, Grey Worm objects to him being made Hand of the King on the grounds that he committed treason and that he “deserves justice.” But Bran responds by saying, “He just got it. He’s made many terrible mistakes, and he’s going to spend the rest of his life fixing them.” Bran is able to carry out justice in a way that actually allows for reconciliation and systematic change — an antidote to the vengeful justice that has plagued Westeros for so long. It’s justice that’s less focused on what someone deserves and rather on what is best for everyone involved. While Bran began the story by witnessing an act of “the old way,” or retributive justice, with Ned Stark beheading a deserter of the Night’s Watch, Bran ends it by ushering in a new way with an act of restorative justice, using mercy as a means of allowing what’s broken to be fixed.
This thematic importance of empathy in “Game of Thrones” also allows us to understand more about how it pervades the stories of other characters. Many of the main characters’ journeys involve them stepping into the shoes of others. When Jon Snow joins the Night’s Watch, many of the other new members begin to bully him, target him and even corner him in a stable and put a knife to his throat. While Jon is tempted to hate them, saying that they’re just jealous of him because he’s a better swordsman than them, Tyrion guides him onto a different path — he tells Jon about how each of them was born poor and powerless and that none of them had a “Ser Rodrick” to teach them how to fight growing up. He forced Jon to consider how much privilege he was blessed with compared to them, and as a result Jon is able to work with them rather than become their enemies. Instead of fighting back, he begins giving lessons to the other brothers about how to fight with a sword.
Later on in Jon’s journey, he’s forced to befriend the Wildings — a group of people that the rest of the Watch has continuously labeled as “savages” and has been hellbent on killing. But Jon spends more than a season living as a wildling, and in doing so he grows to admire some of them and even falls in love with one. Later on, this empathy and compassion he has towards the Wildlings allows him to see them as human beings rather than heathens, and because of this they’re able to work together to help defeat the White Walkers, who would’ve had a much larger army were it not for Jon’s efforts to save the Wildlings he was supposed to keep as enemies. This is its own form of breaking the wheel — Jon refuses to commit useless violence and add to the army of the dead, and as a result unity is created rather than division.
This concept is also demonstrated symbolically in Arya’s story. Arya’s journey is focused on her training with the Faceless Men and becoming No One — setting aside her own personal desires and identity for a higher purpose. She’s forced to literally walk around in other people’s shoes, disguised as them and wearing their faces. While the Faceless Men are a group of assassins, their killing is dispassionate, merely carrying out the will of the God of Death, and sometimes even merciful, such as when they offer painless suicide to those who come in seeking it.
In a way, this is what Martin has done with his story as a whole: he’s gotten us to empathize with a vast range of characters, sitting in their points of view for hours and hours, learning to resonate with everyone from upright heroes to secret tyrants, and being able to have compassion for all people, not just the ones we like or know, is crucial to breaking patterns of systemic violence.
In the end, “Game of Thrones” leaves us on a hopeful note. The feudalistic system’s wheel that turned and caused destruction in Westeros for so long is now at least starting to crumble — rulers are no longer inherited but chosen. Of course, one could say that the wheel is not really broken, given that an Oligarchy comes with its own host of problems and won’t solve all the societal issues that Westeros has, but it’s important to remember that Martin wanted to ground his story in reality, and in reality progress is slow. It would’ve been outlandish for this first Westerosi council to go from monarchy to democracy in a single day. But this doesn’t mean that progress is finished — the fact that Samwell Tarly even suggests the idea of democracy in the finale is a sign of hope that such further progress will occur, even if it’s not in the lifetimes of the characters we know. And even though governing and changing society is a rough, messy process — as exemplified by the bickering in the final high council scene — it is one that can bring about positive change and leave the world a better place for the children of future generations. While the story began with the coming of winter, this ending leaves us, in the words of Martin’s planned title for the final book, with “A Dream of Spring.” And we’re given a beautiful nod to this in the show’s final scene, which ends the series just as it began, with a group of people heading into the forests north of the wall. Only this time there are no White Walkers to greet them; instead, there’s only open land: a safer place into which Jon Snow can lead the children of tomorrow, and as they trudge onward we see a tiny green plant peeking out from underneath the snow — a sign that winter is finally coming to an end.
As “Game of Thrones” continues to hold such a significant place in our cultural landscape, it’s important that we’re able to talk about the story in a way that fully grasps its meaning and all the ways we might use its themes to examine our own lives and the societies in which we live. It’s also important that we’re able to critically analyze and examine stories, thinking about why the author has made the choices they made rather than giving into our rage about not getting particular endings we wanted. This will not only allow us to more accurately judge works of art, but it will also allow us to catch the beauty and genius underlying so many stories that we might otherwise miss if we’re too quick to judge. I hope that the analysis in this article has allowed us to do that with “Game of Thrones,” and that rather than letting it sink into a pile of vitriol we can instead come to see it for what it truly is: a profound and innovative contribution to the fantasy genre and one of the most brilliantly told stories in the history of television.
Author’s Note: Many of the arguments found in these articles have been informed and/or inspired by arguments made by other fans of the series. The most formative sources for these arguments can be found below:
Contact Isaac Vaught at ivaught ‘at’ stanford.edu.