Game of Thrones has a lot of loose ends to tie up and questions to answer when it returns for its eighth and final six-episode season this April. One burning and yet to be answered question is, of course, the matter of who will ultimately sit on the titular throne (or if anyone will at all).
For better or worse, Thrones has progressed past its nascent stages of grounded political maneuvering and subtle character studies, transitioning with much critical acclaim into a clumsier exploration of battlefield and bedside domination. Nevertheless, the show continues to be defined by its recurring exploration of power: its gain, its abuse, and its loss. While power and the control, acceptance, and achievement that come with it has taken on many forms in the show for its various characters, the Iron Throne has served since the beginning of the series as a polarizing visual representation of that overarching theme.
With Season Eight fast approaching, most fans of Game of Thrones will tell you that they want a happy ending for their favorite character and in the next breath they will clarify that such an ending entails a place on the uncomfortable seat of the Iron Throne when all is said and done. Nevermind the raging ice zombies left to destroy or tempting complexities of introducing democracy to Westeros– that throne had better have a worthy rear-end firmly planted on it by the finale or people are going to feel cheated. This is, after all, Game of Thrones.
HBO is clearly aware of what audiences want, given that the marketing campaign for Season Eight has been delineated by the tagline #ForTheThrone. Rather than reveal anything about the upcoming season, HBO recycled snapshots of key scenes from previous seasons, united by the hashtag, when it began to promote the show’s return. The marketing campaign was out in full force in New York and Los Angeles late last year with posters slathered up and down sidewalks and subways. Amongst a cacophony of guts and gowns, some notable entries include Jon Snow deep in the midst of his brawl with the Boltons (#ForTheThrone), his aunt Daenerys Targaryen munching on a horse heart (#ForTheThrone), Ned Stark being executed (#ForTheThrone), Tyrion Lannister killing his father, Tywin (#ForTheThrone), and Hodor dying a gruesome death at the hands of wights (#ForTheThrone).
Over the years, those who have read George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Ice and Fire have questioned some of the adaptive choices that show-runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have made when translating the sprawling, and yet to be completed fantasy series into an award-winning television show. Back in April of 2011 when the show first premiered, no one was particularly puzzled, however, when Martin’s ponderous title for the series was replaced with the snappy, definitive Game of Thrones. Inspired by the title of Martin’s first entry in his series, “A Game of Thrones,” the show’s title is effective in many ways. It immediately establishes the overarching stakes of the show and its characters’ ultimate goal. The title also helped enact the show’s (successful) bid to be “a fantasy show for people who don’t like fantasy.” The title suggests a sense of playful cynicism about its larger conceit and equally promises some good old fashioned grounded human drama in an attempt to snag the attention of otherwise skeptical viewers. It is also a lot easier to say (and put on posters, shirts, and mugs) than A Song of Ice and Fire.
Martin’s incomplete series includes several titles after “A Game of Thrones,” including “A Clash of Kings,” and “A Feast for Crows.” Such titles are oddly impersonal for a fantasy series that is stylistically irrevocably married to its characters who tell a sprawling story of chaos and struggle through a tapestry of interwoven perspectives. However, the jarring detachment of such wording successfully highlights the futility and devastation that comes from human upheaval.
Just as Game of Thrones proved that fantasy can be successfully marketed to a variety of audiences, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series more or less created the modern, Western fantasy genre with its demonstration that “fairy stories” are not just for children. However, often the inspiration that Tolkien drew from ancient myths left his characters feeling like pawns or place-markers which was not at all inappropriate for the tradition of the literary epic that Tolkien was invoking. Tolkien’s series is earnest and uplifting and it was successful in its mission to be a contemporary myth with themes that are meant to enlighten and inspire—a palatable, memorable parable for the modern era. Similarly, though he takes a grittier approach that some might mistake for nihilistically inept, Martin’s book series is also in conversation with myth (this time perhaps moreso The Lord of the Rings rather than Beowulf) and it also invokes the tradition of fantastic simplification as a means of imparting larger, important insights about the real world to audiences. The very title, A Song of Ice and Fire, pays tribute to the oral tradition of the original epic poems and the sweeping enormity of their content.
George R.R. Martin, who admires Tolkien and his legacy, even as he famously complains about the lack of specificity when it came to Aragorn’s tax policy, set out to create his own epic where the pawns in the game were strikingly, shockingly, beautifully human. Even The Lord of the Rings was never even remotely about the ring. It was about human hope and goodness in times of darkness and despair, a theme epitomized perhaps most greatly by the series’ stalwart Hobbit protagonists. Similarly, A Song of Ice and Fire was never about the throne: it is about people and their capacity for complexity and change. More so it is a call for empathy and seemingly impossible reconciliations of values and understandings— a coming together of ice and fire.
For all of its dragons, White Walkers, battles, and prophecies, Game of Thrones has always depended most on the immense popularity of its varied cast of human characters. Most people are drawn to the show’s infamously morally “grey” characters because they see themselves in them, or failing that, enjoy the complexity and unreliability of their motivations in comparison to the traditionally limited character archetypes of the fantasy genre. Battles and dragons are fun to watch but at the end of the day, Game of Thrones has primed audiences since its beginning to really just want to see their character of choice surviving the harsh world of wintry Westeros, maybe even thriving, and ultimately marching up to the Iron Throne and sitting down, never to budge again. #ForTheThrone cleverly appeals to our cultivated loyalty to the show’s characters, and it also acknowledges the endless appeal of power.
At the same time, #ForTheThrone undeniably over-simplifies things. When everything that a character has ever done or experienced, good or bad, is at some level #ForTheThrone, there is little room left for love, loyalty, hatred, or stupidity– things most of us have experienced even if we have never hoped to sit on a throne. It’s hard to believe that Bran warged into Hodor and effectively murdered him #ForTheThrone rather than out of fear and its certainly not flattering. Even worse is to entertain the idea that Tyrion Lannister killed his father #ForTheThrone rather than out of a complicated medley of resentment, pride, and hurt. Did Jon Snow really go to war with the Boltons not because of their assault on his family and their home, but because he somehow felt it would increase his chances of sitting on the throne? If all of this was #ForTheThrone and #ForTheThrone alone, then I have been spending far too much time trying to erroneously understand the motivations of characters in the show.
Ultimately, HBO’s eye-catching marketing scheme isn’t of course a revisionist assertion that at the end of the day there is no driving motivation for Game of Thrones’ characters other than throne-lust. Still, it provides us with something to think about as we ponder how Game of Thrones might end and how we want it to end.
Game of Thrones still has remnants of A Song of Ice and Fire’s recurring theme of empathy. However, Martin’s book series acknowledges human imperfection and failure even amongst the most virtuous of characters. It explores the motivations behind such flaws and encourages empathy as we see the same emotions and motivations in the most lauded and loathsome of characters, and ultimately in ourselves. In contrast, Game of Thrones offers audiences the tantalizing opportunity to relate to characters who have ascended to power.
Supposedly, it is easy to empathize with the plucky underdogs, Jon and Daenerys, in whose struggles we all see ourselves. Thus too, we can now empathetically enjoy their successes when they rise to power. It’s no wonder that the show and its audience have increasingly little patience for those characters who don’t have shot at the monarchy, and why should they? It was the throne that was promised since Season One and the throne that they want.
The difficulty is that power has a habit of corrupting one’s ability to empathize and while A Song of Ice and Fire warns against sacrificing one’s humanity in the quest for power, Game of Thrones seems to celebrate it. I don’t know how else to interpret a massive poster of a little boy who is also a sadistic tyrant dying in his mother’s arms, emblazoned with #ForTheThrone.
If A Song of Ice and Fire, in dialogue with the likes of Tolkien, is an attempt at a modern parable, Game of Thrones is a product and a good one. But reconciliations are difficult and ending the show in a way that is meaningful and equally memorable is going to be hard to pull off. We see this in the Season Eight marketing campaign which distills years of stories of suffering and success into neatly packaged moments of shock and surprise.
#ForTheThrone in all its anachronistic glory offers us the chance of vicarious victory, and victory, not to mention the power that comes with it, in all of its intoxicating impossibility sells.
Game of Thrones Season Eight premieres in April of 2019.