There was a moment during the Game of Thrones finale when I wondered whether Benioff and Weiss had read Yuval Noah Harari.
In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari engages with the notion of story as a social unifier, a carrier of meaning, and a marker of cultural identity. The understanding that human beings are wired for story is not new, nor is the remarkable endurance of certain kinds of stories or the way they inform cultural meaning. My mother has never read Lord of the Rings, but in watching the movies she, a lifelong Catholic, immediately discerned that Tolkien had been one as well. The necessity of intercession for Frodo’s salvation is an explicitly Christian notion; one need not be a Christian to understand this, nor to enjoy Frodo’s story, but it’s there. Inasmuch as I agree with the statement that the United States is a Christian nation, it is in the sense that Christianity has inextricably informed what we find important about stories. If you don’t believe me, look at the popularity of Star Wars, likewise a tale founded on redemption. (I’m not saying here that all redemption stories are necessarily Christian. But redemption is woven through the Christian religion, and Christianity itself is a massive cultural force. These things have impact.)
But Lord of the Rings is also about story, itself: Tolkien wrote it in part to create a mythology for a culture that he saw as lacking it, and the work is infused with an invented history so powerful that there are people who know it better than the history of their own countries. For this reason, when Samwise Gamgee discourses on the power of story I give him a pass, even though I usually dislike it when fiction lampshades itself this way. It’s thematically appropriate for Sam to explain why stories are important, because one of the things that Lord of the Rings is about is why stories are important. Given Lord of the Rings‘ enduring popularity, I’d call Tolkien’s argument a success.
Which brings us to the finale of Game of Thrones. There’s a moment in the (rushed and curiously flat) scene in which a hastily assembled council determines who will rule the Seven–excuse me, Six–Kingdoms, where Tyrion makes a point similar to Samwise Gamgee’s about the power of story, and uses this to argue for Bran Stark as king.
That’s when I wondered if the showrunners had read Harari. I may also have muttered “You have got to be kidding me” to the television screen. For a few reasons, among them that Tyrion’s claim that Bran has had the most interesting story out of all the possible candidates is debatable, and Westeros’s remaining politicians accepting this without argument implausible. Maybe they were tired enough of war that they’d have accepted anyone on the throne who wasn’t a Targaryen. Who knows; the show was pretty obviously disinterested in its own politics at that point.
But for me the moment didn’t land well because it was yet another thing that the show hadn’t earned. In terms of being about story, what Game of Thrones has mostly been about is the danger of forgetting stories: the people of the Seven Kingdoms forgot about the dangers north of the Wall, in the way we all tend to forget about dangers that aren’t immediate. (We know this, among other reasons, because it occurred to no one that sending the non-combatants at Winterfell into the crypts during a battle against an army that can raise the dead would be a bad idea.) Game of Thrones has been about a lot of things: the pervasive corrupting influence of power, humanity’s short-sightedness particularly when it comes to personal ambition, and response to trauma. But it’s not directly about story, not in the way that Lord of the Rings is.
This isn’t to say that Bran’s memory isn’t important. It is, because human memory is fallible and Westeros’s lack of collective memory is part of the point. But in choosing Bran, Tyrion seems to be countering his own argument: Bran’s story, while interesting, is not the most interesting one in all of Game of Thrones, and even if it were it would be a pretty weak argument for Bran as king. Tyrion, perhaps, wants Westeros to be a place founded on stories; we know that he values books and knowledge immensely, and is distressed to be left out of the book of history that Sam Tarly hands him. But within the story we the viewers have experienced up to that point, that transition has been neither earned nor made.
This essay on Tor.com makes a similar point; Bran’s ascension could in fact be read as part of Game of Thrones‘ skepticism concerning the methods by which we choose who is fit to rule. Midway through season 8 I had the thought that in its way, Game of Thrones was thematically similar to Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, wherein the ruler of the galaxy turns out to be an old man living in a shack on a remote planet with only a cat for a companion. If there’s anyone in Westeros as disinterested in ruling as that old man, it’s Bran.
I wish the show had taken more time to play this theme out, because I think it’s an important one. I think a major reason so many people have gotten so invested in this show is because, in America at least, there is a deep and widespread national cynicism around leadership, political power, and how who gets to have those things is decided. (That cynicism, incidentally, goes way farther back than the current administration; Americans could stand to know our own history better, too.) As the show drew to a close and people began discussing, often in very negative terms, how it ended, there’s some understandable consternation about why those people are so upset about a TV show when there are so many real world things to be concerned about.
But, as Harari says, stories are one of the ways we achieve cultural unity–and Tyrion said the same thing, albeit hamfistedly. It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen such a mass investment in a TV show; the last time I can remember, there were a lot fewer channels. That Game of Thrones got so much traction in an era of hundreds of channels (to say nothing of the plethora of entertainment options available on the Internet), and on a premium channel at that, is significant. Among other things, stories are proxies: we use them to talk about what matters to us in a lower-risk, lower-stakes way than addressing those matters directly. People were disappointed that Daenerys wasn’t a savior. Other people couldn’t believe anyone thought she would be. Plenty of people, myself included, thought that the best outcome would be no one getting the Iron Throne–well, Drogon saw to that, and the throne on which King Bran sits is of necessity more practical. Samwell Tarly proposed a democracy, but Westeros is going to have to wait at least a few more centuries for that. Over a million people were so disappointed that they signed a petition demanding a remake (which is almost certain to happen at some point, petition or no petition; we’re getting a Lord of the Rings TV show, after all). Interestingly, almost everyone (even people who liked the ending) seems to agree that the final seasons were rushed, and season 8 most of all.
That, I think, tells us something about people’s investment in the show. It wasn’t the spectacle–there were visuals in the series finale worthy of Zhang Yimou, so if it had been a matter purely of spectacle no one would have been disappointed. People were interested in the politics. They were interested in how Westeros was going to solve its problem of leadership. They were interested in seeing, once the supernatural threat had been dealt with, exactly how the survivors were going to figure out how to live together. It’s one of the reasons Hamilton has been so incredibly popular; the music’s great, of course, and incorporating hip-hop into Broadway productions is still novel enough to get people in the door, but these things alone don’t explain the massive appeal of a show that uses them to bring us a Cabinet meeting (two of them, in fact). I don’t think it’s an accident that both of these shows have achieved overwhelming popularity in a time of deep political unease and unrest. The questions posed by Game of Thrones and Hamilton are the same questions we are asking ourselves.
For all our sakes, I hope we figure it out.