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Is ‘Game of Thrones’ Supposed to Be a Nihilistic Story?

George R.R. Martin has said that his ending will be bittersweet, but the show based on his tale seems to be heading toward a decidedly more tragic outcome. Was that a mistake? Or was Ramsay right, and we haven’t been paying attention?

HBO/Ringer illustration

Some of Game of Thrones’ most famous quotes are also its most misunderstood. Cersei’s “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die” aphorism, for instance, led many viewers (and maybe the showrunners, too) to focus primarily on who was winning the titular contest. In reality, though, that line was a cynical bit of justification from a villain who was wrong to consider the joust for power as a binary pursuit.

As Thrones approaches its series finale and final 80 minutes, another such example comes to mind. “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention,” Ramsay tells Theon in one of Season 3’s torture scenes. Viewers have long taken that line, which does not appear in the books, as a sort of mission statement for the series—and how could they not, when this is the same story that killed Ned Stark, that staged the Red Wedding, that crushed Oberyn Martell’s skull like a ripe Dornish grape?

As strange as it is to say about a series that has supplied such shockingly tragic moments, I don’t take this quote at face value; I don’t believe the A Song of Ice and Fire story is destined for an unhappy ending. Bittersweet—sure, that’s the word George R.R. Martin has used. Fully happy—maybe not quite that far. But Ramsay isn’t a reliable narrator in this regard, and his taunt to a shackled prisoner doesn’t necessarily serve as a clue for the whole series’ conclusion. The planned seventh book’s title will be A Dream of Spring, after all—both “dream” and “spring” connoting hope in the end.

But after Daenerys’s fiery rampage Sunday night, with just one episode remaining to resolve that new problem, position Westeros for its future, and close every remaining character’s arc, Game of Thrones the television show has a lot of work to do if it wants to avoid an unhappy ending. As is, considering the whole of Season 8 thus far and the ultimate message it suggests, the show seems to espouse a nihilistic worldview. Is that how it wants to end?

Maybe the showrunners don’t care one way or the other. “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports,” David Benioff told Grantland’s Andy Greenwald before Season 3. But there’s a reason teachers instruct those eighth-graders to find and consider themes: Without a clear message, presentations become scattered and erratic, stricken by unforced errors, and confusingly paced and organized. Sound familiar?

It’s possible, of course, to enjoy Thrones without worrying about the show’s teachings. The acting, cinematography, and score were all extraordinarily rendered on Sunday night, and have been all season—and series—long. Thrones offers unprecedented spectacle for a television show; maybe that should be enough.

Yet when a show delights for so long in espousing messages and morals about power, about people, and about fundamental aspects of the human condition, it can’t then abdicate that role at the close. Whether Benioff and D.B. Weiss want to or not, their show still teaches implicit lessons to the audience, but as they adapt another writer’s story, they seem to be perverting his lessons, and limiting the impact of their own presentation in the meantime.

The lesson of Daenerys’s climactic emotional descent appears to concern the corruptive nature of power. We’ve seen that plenty of times on this show already, though, most notably with Cersei. Or perhaps the lesson concerns the danger of excessive belief in destiny. We’ve seen that before with Stannis, to a similar degree: Both rulers believe in their intrinsic hold on the Iron Throne and use magic to advance their cause, interrupt their quest by helping Jon Snow with some trouble up North, and return to their chief task by burning innocents.

Reiterating the same messages over and over renders them oddly static and punchless. The plot propels forward with momentum; the morals should, too. This notion doesn’t mean that Daenerys’s decision was a poor storytelling choice; even before Sunday night, in fact, I believed such a switch would flip in the books as well, thanks to copious “fire and blood” foreshadowing.

But it does mean that if the series ends with that kind of violent turn and, presumably, some sort of murderous intervention from Jon or Arya that concludes the show with the tragic downfall and death of Daenerys, the ostensible and oft-framed hero, all its messaging would point toward nihilism. A savior rises in the East and sets in the West, a once-burning sun doomed to disgrace and destruction.

This shift notably doesn’t result just from Daenerys’s own decisions, but rather is framed as arising from the innate madness she inherited from her father, and from generations of Targaryens before him. The “Previously On” segment before Sunday’s episode ended with a montage of quotes related to the Targaryen tendency toward terror, concluding with Viserys’s “You don’t want to wake the dragon, do you?” And in the early moments of the episode, Varys repeats a now-familiar line to Jon: “They say every time a Targaryen is born, the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath.” It’s one thing to dictate such a momentous decision by showing how the character’s values produce it. It’s quite another to argue for genetic destiny in a story so often about nuance and choice.

Daenerys’s arc isn’t alone in this regard. Jaime’s, which ends with him returning to try to save Cersei after sharing such intimate moments at Winterfell with Brienne, also highlights the dominance of unavoidable nature over relatively futile choice in this world. “He knows that they belong together,” Weiss said on Sunday’s Inside the Episode segment, “that they came into this world together, that they need to go out of this world together.” That sounds like a combination of nihilism and destiny—nothing Jaime has done over the last seven-plus seasons matters for his endgame—which makes for a bizarrely aborted character journey and raises questions about why the show devoted so much time to this character and his ostensible growth at all.

At least from Daenerys’s perspective, one way the show could have prevented the dour moral of its end would have been to reverse the order of Season 8’s battles. We don’t need to relitigate the decision-making around and deployment of the Night King (I’ve done that plenty already), but consider, for a moment, the alternate scenario in which the fighting in King’s Landing comes first, and the battle between living and dead after.

What happens if Daenerys razes King’s Landing in this scenario, whether via intentional slaughter like in the last episode or via a narrower attack that ignites a cache of wildfire and inadvertently kills thousands? In the actual show, it will surely be painful for Jon to have to take a stand against his love, but his impending decision is an obvious one, after what he observed from his queen last episode. Daenerys spent an hour committing war crimes; the show made very clear who is evil now and who is not.

What if, though, the dead still threatened the realm after Dany’s turn? Then the characters would need to figure out how and whether to compromise their ideals to retain a powerful ally in the fight against the Night King, which would add layers of welcome complication to the currently clear-cut choice. Could Jon welcome Daenerys’s help immediately after watching her and her followers massacre a population? The actual show already forced him in this direction when he tried to recruit Cersei and allowed Jaime to fight alongside his forces at Winterfell, but that same decision applied to Daenerys—with whom his relationship is far more personal, and whose atrocities he witnessed firsthand—would elevate the drama considerably. The kind of politicking Benioff and Weiss enjoy would still be relevant; tricky human relationships and Martin’s “Battle is fought chiefly in the individual human heart” idea would still be involved.

Daenerys would also, in this scenario, receive an opportunity to redeem herself in a story that, from Jaime and Theon to Jorah and Melisandre, offers its characters ample opportunity for rehabilitation. Almost no crime is too extreme for the possibility: Theon commits an act of grave betrayal, then arranges for the butchering and burning of two innocent children, yet he fulfills a sweeping redemptive arc by the time of his death. “You’re a good man,” Bran tells him before he dies. With only one episode left, Daenerys won’t have the chance to earn her version of forgiveness or to express whether she even thinks she needs it; if the Battle of Winterfell still remained, she could atone, or at least try to compensate, for sin. The show could explore again, and with the greatest impact, the notion that people can choose to change even after making mistakes.

And if the fight between living and dead came last, the final message of the show could turn to the importance of humanity binding together against the existential face of evil, instead of returning—after the brief joy of Winterfell’s post-battle party in Episode 4—to the nihilistic bent of Red Wedding–era Thrones. For as much as the Red Wedding exemplifies a particular aspect of the Thrones viewing experience, it doesn’t encapsulate the entire thing, and at least in Martin’s books, it likely won’t exemplify the end.

Even as the showrunners adapt some of his vision of the series’ endgame, their construction of the final season, whether intentionally or not, conveys a worldview that almost certainly runs counter to Martin’s intent. So, too, does the immensely tragic tone of the show’s final hours, which seems slated to persist for the last episode as well. “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention,” Ramsay says—but why is the show deferring to Ramsay, of all people, to define its very essence at the end?

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.