We all know by now how Game Of Thrones ended and that it was horribly rushed. Perhaps because Benioff and Weiss were eager to write the new Star Wars trilogy. Or not. Either way, a lot of us fans are disappointed, understandably. I am too but for a different reason, one that has to do with the theme of the series, more than with the actualization of it.
Martin’s place in fantasy
Game of Thrones is only the last hugely successful fantasy series. Stepping back to the old days of classic fantasy, the ones of like Tolkien, Eddison, C.S. Lewis, Le Guin, Zelazny, Eddings and so on, roughly those writing from the 50s to the early 80s, fantasy was more straightforward. You had a clear evil character, think of Voldemort or Sauron, and one or more good ones, think of Frodo or Harry Potter. Classical fantasy didn’t change those characters much throughout the story, they remained good or evil till the end, with minimal variations. The reader knew it from the very beginning. Easy peasy.
Enter grimdark. The term indicates a subgenre of fantasy in which the world is more nihilist, more “grim”, more inspired by the morality and dynamics of our real one, where the characters are flawed, imperfect, not exactly 100% evil or good like in classical fantasy, where the reader has not a clear idea of what is good and what is not, as the concepts are in a flux and bound to change before the end.
Bear with me this simplistic definition. Grimdark originated with Warhammer 40k and a few early fantasy writers like Donaldson and Cook. Martin obviously falls into this subgenre. Most of his characters are written in a light/dark way: think of Jaime, Dany, the Hound. The tv shows has bastardised a few of them but definitely Martin started Game of Thrones with the world’s view that it is a flawed one, where most characters have dubious intentions (Varys and Littlefinger for instance) and where various powers move in different and ever changing ways to follow their agendas. Much alike a real medieval Europe, where countries that fought for 5 years against each other would end up being allies in the next war out of changed objectives and a different balance of power.
Game of Thrones’ main issue is the Starks
In a grimdark world there is no space for thoroughly good or evil characters then. Otherwise we wouldn’t face a grimdark world at all. Taking for granted the tv adaption as we don’t know how Martin will end the books, if ever, we see a long list of characters that commit crimes along with good acts, or out of good intentions. Just to name the main ones:
Jaime Lannister kills the Mad King to stop him burning all King’s Landing but then throws Bran out of the window to hide his incestuous relationship with Cersei. Then tries to redeem himself by helping the Starks agains the Night King only to fall back to support Cersei at the very end.
Cersei has no issues in burning alive even the wife of her son or to sentence his brother to death but does it all to protect her children (in a very convoluted way, admittedly).
Tyrion has no qualms fucking around, strangling prostitutes or killing his own father but tries also to support Dany in order to make the wars end. Plus, he shows a lot of compassion for peasants and Jaime.
Jorah Mormont has been loyal to Dany for most of the story but had no issues selling slaves and being a spy against his sworn queen.
Varys has been living off intriguing for all his years. Just for the good of the realm though, not exactly for personal power. He paid with his life this attachment to the “greater good”.
Tywin Lannister commited the first King’s Landing sack, turning his face against his legitimate king at the time, and fought off the Starks after Robert Baratheon’s death. As with Cersei, most of his intentions were to keep the power of his family, and the family itself, safe and prosperous.
The Hound had no issues killing around and was consumed by the desire of revenge against his brother but showed a good side by taking care of the few people he thought worthy of living (namely, Arya).
Even Ramsey Bolton, the most unequivocally “evil” character in the shows after the Night King, did his atrocious crimes in order to be recognised as a legitimate son by his father. Only to kill him when he realised he had outgrown him and had become stronger than him.
I could go on. You get the meaning. All these characters have story arcs that are congruent with the grimdark theme of Martin’s story and the world in which they are put, that is worth remembering is one of constant wars and squabbling among a myriad of different factions, sometimes for really petty reasons, much like it was in our own for centuries. Only the Targaryen managed to keep those families together for most of their rules, out of fear and power, no less. If wasn’t for dragons, the families of the Seven Kingdoms would have kept warring against each other for 300 years more.
The Starks make exception. The Starks seem to be the one-sided ones, the naively and stubbornly good ones of the story. Arya has a list of people to kill but they are all well worth of her revenge. Jon works for most of the story to keep people together, to be nice and good to each other, with a sense of honour that was learnt from his adoptive father.
Speaking of which, Ned Stark’s honour was the one which actually started the whole war we’ve been seeing in the tv shows. He could have been silent on Robert’s children not being his, as he was on Jon not being his for years, yet he had to talk and start the Starks vs Lannister feud all over again. His wife, after the war started, was stupid enough to not use the captive Jaime in exchange for a truce or perhaps even peace but instead had to play the good mother and free him. Without any strategic gain. Robb, Bran and Rickon have not been seen committing any crimes whatsoever.
Only Sansa, thanks God, has an interesting and more grimdark story arc: she starts as the most naive, and honestly annoying, of the Starks and season after season, after having endured rape and held captive for months among her enemies, becomes more subtle and cunning. Curiously she ends up working against her own family by putting Dany and Jon against each other, out of a desire for power, nothing less, while she could have just let them marry and reign together. But Starks’ haven’t been known for their strategical acumen.
Therefore the show letting all the Targaryen and the Lannister succumb to the Starks is an anti-climax, not much grimdark and simply an ending meant to appease the fans that aren’t fantasy experts and just fell in love with “the good ones” from season 1. Jon killing Dany is a very “Targaryen act”, more than a Starks one, while his renounce of the Iron Throne consistent with his adoptive family but a huge letdown for his character and his true origins. He was brought up as a Stark but has Targaryen blood too. If he had to be a Targaryen in the end by killing her aunt for power, he should have taken that power, not being a good boy at the very end by doing it exclusively to “save” the people of Westeros.
How Game of Thrones should have ended
With that said, the show could have done much better in respecting the grimdark vision of Game of Thrones’ world. Letting only the Starks prevail, mostly unscathed, is an easy coup for the showrunners, sure to get the support of most of the fans, but an incredibly plain ending.
And it would have been so easy to have a proper finale. They could have done it like this: let Dany get mad, or at least increasingly cruel. Let Dany become the “Mad Queen”, as her father was the Mad King. It’s in her blood after all. Let her take the throne by force, by killing civilians that are partly innocents (let not forget they supported the High Sparrow religious fundamentalism and didn’t rebel against the ruthless rule of Joffrey and Cersei). Let her get mad at Tyrion and Varys for plotting against her and condemn them to a death penalty inflicted by Drogon, in pure Dracarys-style. Fine.
But then don’t go to full “restoration mode” and let Jon win, Tyrion be spared and, oh God, Bran being “elected” king. The latter is absurd after decades of war, an election is the least probable decision the various families could take.
Instead the ending should have been way more subtle, more chilling and both good and evil, in a pure grimdark tradition. For instance, let Jon be persuaded by Tyrion and Varys to kill Dany in order to stop her and claim his rights to the Iron Throne. Right at the beginning of the last episode, as a big event that would shock fans after the total win of Dany in the penultimate one.
Then have the rest of the episode telling of the coronation of Jon, with both the Starks and Lannister participating and unite, finally, in recognizing a true king. Have a big reunion of all remaining characters, with Jon dispensing justice at the head of the council, organizing the reign after decades of war and putting the various factions back to their places. All happy about how it finally ended, all glad that Jon is king, and a better one than all his predecessors since a hundred years probably. Plenty of happy faces and merry scenes.
But an happy ending wouldn’t do for Game of Thrones. At all. Game of Thrones should have ended with a truly dark twist, a la Red Wedding. And what better of a twist would have been the very last scene having Jon decide what to do of the war prisoners, the ones who remained faithful to Cersei till the end, and the families who sided with the Lannister throughout the war, while sitting on the Iron Throne. He would be pensive, reflecting on the best course of action to take. He would have flashbacks of his grandfather, the Mad King, uttering “kill them all”. Perhaps smirking to himself. What better ending than instilling the doubt in the viewers that Jon isn’t safe from the madness of the last Targaryen, the madness that made him kill Dany to save the realm from hers, only to show signs of it at the very end himself by considering to condemn all the past enemies to death, out of cruelty?
After all Jon has been long mocked, remember “You know nothing Jon Snow”?, betrayed, killed and then humbled himself for Dany in the last season. He was silent and took it all on his shoulders, not seeking revenge on anybody. If the authors had him kill Dany, suddenly at the very last episode, despite his sense of honour and his love for her, they can’t also pretend he is still a good character. He has the madness spark too.
That would have been an ending in tone with the rest of the series. It would have even let the story open to sequels, narrating the descend into madness of Jon and how the powers of the Seven Kingdoms had to deal with it too, years later.
It would have been deliciously grimdark. Deliciously Game of Thrones, as in the first seasons. But Benioff and Weiss went into full fan appeasing mode and decided Game of Thrones should have ended by concluding the story of the war and giving the Starks a full revenge over the Lannister, sacrificing in the process Dany as a “new evil”, and keeping them as the only, true and throughout, “good ones”. A pitiful ending. A long show, with tens of characters and an awesome setting deserved more than we were shown.