The Wheel Breaks You: The End of Game of Thrones

Ahead of the Game of Thrones series finale this Sunday, Abe Beame explores exactly what was with Daenarys Targaryen bugging out.
By    May 17, 2019

Arya Stark killed the Night King after reading our shit. Please support Passion of the Weiss by subscribing to our Patreon.

Abe Beame totally shipped Jamie and Brienne.

A few months ago I wrote a piece that spent much of its focus comparing Marlon James’ new fantasy epic Black Leopard, Red Wolf to Game of Thrones, in that piece I said this:

From the beginning, GoT has been a story about the pettiness of man. How our clannishness, our envy, our selfishness blinds us to the existential threats that lie just on the other side of our nearsighted desires. The story has always promoted a Darwinian sorting that advances cunning and deceit over moral fiber, and rather than openly judging these bad actors for their evil, there’s a kind of at least temporal logic that commends them for understanding human nature and how to manipulate the rules of the game. It’s a deeply cynical take, and the reason why I believe the only rational way to end the story when the show concludes in several weeks, that honors Martin’s vision and the logic he’s meticulously constructed, is a triumph of the White Walkers. It would be a realization of Martin’s warning of the urgent peril of our humanity that exposes us to extinction since the epic began.”

And I stand by that characterization. So I’m one of those sickos who were actually disappointed a few weeks ago when the Night King was neatly dispatched by Arya and her ambidextrous death strike. It was too pat a conclusion for a threat that had dominated this story, that had served as this cloud hanging over every moment since the opening passage of the first installment was published 23 years ago. How could this series that had dedicated so much of its telling to the nearsightedness and stupidity of man conclude focused on a comparatively meaningless struggle for the throne hinging on nearsighted stupidity?

But that all changed on Sunday when I realized, at least Weiss and Benioff had a different goal in mind. Regardless of the outcome in the finale, GOT wasn’t about the threat of the Night King. In his disposability, the message was there will always be another Night King, another existential threat to ignore until it’s nearly too late, the real clear and present existential threat is us. We weren’t building toward a final showdown at King’s Landing between Cersei and Dany, it was a setup, a final moral quandary for Dany to fail as she realized her tragic arc.

The story has been littered with characters whose fates are linked to their damage, to their natures: When Dany razed King’s Landing, when Jamie shrugged off Brienne and a good, noble existence to die in his evil sister’s arms, when the hound plunged to his inevitable death in fire with his brother under him, when Ned was executed honorably and incredibly stupidly all the way back in season one. It’s a story about the unbreakable bond between us and our irrationality, the fulfillment not of prophecy but of nature and nurture.

Even before this week, I’ve seen this sentiment described as a nihilistic ending, back when the Night King was still a contender for the Iron Throne,. Many believe the only humanist ending has to be happy and redeeming. I don’t understand it. Is An Inconvenient Truth a nihilistic documentary? Art can be corrective. It can be a wakeup call, a demand for reflection, a call to arms. Scotch taping the epic story GOT aimed to tell isn’t an act of humanism, it’s selling out and undercutting the show’s prime motivating theme. John reluctantly accepting power and ruling over a tranquil realm in good hands would be a complete betrayal of everything this story has been trying to communicate to its audience since day one.

There are a multitude of quibbles. Since the show went off book it’s been predictably dumber, due to the truncated storytelling and the fact that even when it had George R.R. Martin’s prose as a source, it could never quite match the shifty intelligence and ruthlessness of his line-by-line decision making. In its absence, it’s just become fucking stupid. The most cited example is Tyrion, once the anchor and hero of the story, who has been relegated to a bit player continually giving his queen shitty advice. However, in light of the last episode it’s become clear that the shift in Tyrion since joining Dany’s cause was moving from pessimist Machiavellian cynical lush to an optimist — a stupid optimist but the audience proxy begging these characters to move away from their own dark impulses and the inevitable ramifications they will have to contend with. Another debate is over Daenerys and her Mad Queen turn.

Was it earned? Does it make sense? I’d say both yes and no. They dutifully laid the seeds for her to burn King’s Landing. But her character began to be shaded differently last season with no real inciting incident. She went from compassionate aspiring Queen with the desire to lead for the greater good, to a throne hungry, power mad tyrant between seasons with little to no logic. It’s a fulfillment of character arc and a betrayal of character simultaneously.

In years to come, I suspect the greatest ambiguous point of contention in how we will read this story, in how to understand its tragedy, at least until Martin’s books drop, assuming they ever do, is what is the meaning of the clip above. When Dany expresses her desire to “break the wheel,” what does this mean? My interpretation had always been some form of democracy. She wants to take the Iron Throne to destroy it, and give people self determination and a means of keeping their rulers accountable for their protection. She says “This one’s on top then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.”

Another interpretation of this in the light of the penultimate episode and the last two seasons of her bald hunger for rule suggest this wasn’t her intention at all, that breaking the wheel means a lasting and final Targaryen dynasty that was at least initially meant to be a benevolent and compassionate dictatorship handed down through generations, raised up in the ashes of King’s Landing.

The most logical and tragic interpretation would be the former. That Dany began as a reformer who wanted to change the world for the better, but was slowly destroyed in her ascent to power. She wanted to be a reformer who changed the system from the inside, but instead, the system changed her, she essentially became another spoke on the wheel.

Depending on the resolution Sunday, Game of Thrones could be a story that decides to say fuck it and give Gollum the ring of power. A story that concludes with the breaker of chains inserting herself as a fascist tyrant would elevate the story of this dark chapter in Westerosi history beyond a magical realm and into modern and meaningful contexts like David Simon’s Baltimore. It’s a story of corrupted ambition, dreams deferred and a broken, emptied out woman whose quest for a greater good ended up costing her everything. It’s far more terrifying than a Zombie King and his motivationless dream of destruction: It’s extremely, terrifyingly human.

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