There is a tension at the heart of both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, a contradiction which threatens to swallow the world and our heroes whole if they don’t manage it properly: How do you save the world without breaking it in the process? If you burn everything down to win, what’s the point of winning?
Indeed, fire has always proved an excellent vessel for this question, from Melisandre urging Stannis on to messiah-dom at cost of his soul to Tyrion defending King’s Landing by unleashing hell on the sailors below. I wrote about this recently with regards to Quentyn Martell, a Dornish character in the books sent by his father (the dead-on-the-show Doran Martell) to marry Dany. After Dany turns him down, he is haunted by his failure and the thought that his companions who died along the way gave their lives for nothing, Quent tries to tame one of Dany’s dragons to impress her, and he burns alive for it. Quent took the big foolish romantic risk you’re supposed to take as a fantasy protagonist, but died horrifically because the dragons don’t care about character arcs. As a companion notes just before Quent gets crisped up, “They’re monsters, not maesters.” You can’t tell them riddles, you can’t flatter their egos, and they have no treasure you can steal. They are nuke-armed helicopters with teeth.
Yet without the dragons, the Seven Kingdoms would still be eternally at war, as they were before Balerion’s black wings were seen over Westeros. Without the dragons, thousands upon thousands of people would still be in chains in Slaver’s Bay. Without the dragons providing their ever-regenerating flame, the white walkers might win and slaughter everyone. And as Jon points out in this week’s episode, the dragons aren’t merely flesh and blood in the minds of the people who see them. They’re religious icons, and not just for the Dothraki who knelt before the Unburnt last season. They exist, Jon says, as living proof that rules can be broken and anything is possible.
So how much is too much? There’s an “all the protagonists are turning evil, which ones of them are still OK to like” instinct in both book and show fandoms that I think obscures the more interesting questions of ambiguity. Can fans accept Dany as a savior figure after she burned a bunch of soldiers alive on this week’s episode? Well, Tyrion burned a bunch of soldiers alive at the Battle of Blackwater in order to keep Joffrey on the Throne, and remains a fan favorite. So, yes, clearly we can! Reconciling it all isn’t simple, and this sort of Faulknerian “human heart in conflict with itself” theme is central to the source material. Ultimately, this is what the dragons are for:
That night she dreamt that she was Rhaegar, riding to the Trident. But she was mounted on a dragon, not a horse. When she saw the Usurper’s rebel host across the river they were armored all in ice, but she bathed them in dragonfire and they melted away like dew and turned the Trident into a torrent. Some small part of her knew that she was dreaming, but another part exulted. This is how it was meant to be. The other was a nightmare, and I have only now awakened.
Dany will eventually have to save the world; the story is about whether the costs are worth it.
Speaking of the end times, many of the same issues apply to Bran, and this is where the question goes psychedelic. It’s easy to get frustrated that all we’re getting from the story’s ultimate seer is gnomic bits and pieces instead of a full-on battle plan for dealing with the White Walkers, but Bran is new at this, and his training was rather fatally cut short. Moreover, what his POV is like right now can’t really be conveyed visually without going full Brakhage or invoking the last act of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the books, GRRM has only begun to touch on what it looks like to take the step from humanity to divinity:
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one. The singers of the forest had no books. No ink, no parchment, no written language. Instead they had the trees, and the weirwoods above all. When they died, they went into the wood, into leaf and limb and root, and the trees remembered. All their songs and spells, their histories and prayers, everything they knew about this world. Maesters will tell you that the weirwoods are sacred to the old gods. The singers believe they are the old gods. When singers die they become part of that godhood.”
Bran’s eyes widened. “They’re going to kill me?”
“No,” Meera said. “Jojen, you’re scaring him.”
“He is not the one who needs to be afraid.”
“Men live their lives trapped in an eternal present, between the mists of memory and the sea of shadow that is all we know of the days to come. Certain moths live their whole lives in a day, yet to them that little span of time must seem as long as years and decades do to us. An oak may live three hundred years, a redwood tree three thousand. A weirwood will live forever if left undisturbed. To them seasons pass in the flutter of a moth’s wing, and past, present, and future are one. Nor will your sight be limited to your godswood. The singers carved eyes into their heart trees to awaken them, and those are the first eyes a new greenseer learns to use … but in time you will see well beyond the trees themselves.”
After that the glimpses came faster and faster, till Bran was feeling lost and dizzy. He saw no more of his father, nor the girl who looked like Arya, but a woman heavy with child emerged naked and dripping from the black pool, knelt before the tree, and begged the old gods for a son who would avenge her. Then there came a brown-haired girl slender as a spear who stood on the tips of her toes to kiss the lips of a young knight as tall as Hodor. A dark-eyed youth, pale and fierce, sliced three branches off the weirwood and shaped them into arrows. The tree itself was shrinking, growing smaller with each vision, whilst the lesser trees dwindled into saplings and vanished, only to be replaced by other trees that would dwindle and vanish in their turn. And now the lords Bran glimpsed were tall and hard, stern men in fur and chain mail. Some wore faces he remembered from the statues in the crypts, but they were gone before he could put a name to them.
It’s worth noting here that as much as I’m coming to enjoy the glam-swagger take on Euron that the show is presenting, what you lose with that is the vital role he plays in this dynamic. In the books, Euron “Crow’s Eye” Greyjoy is basically Evil Bran and Evil Dany, a sorcerer-king set up as a dark mirror for our heroes in the realms of both Ice and Fire. He returns home tripping on the warlocks’ drug and bearing Dragonbinder, a gigantic twisted devil-horn that makes a sound straight out of a nightmare, and sets out to steal Dany’s children with it.
GRRM drops strong hints that Euron, like Bran, was visited in his dreams by a magical bird, but when Euron’s third eye was opened, he chose the white walkers over humanity: he shows up in Dany’s dreams with an ice-cold schlong, and declares at the kingsmoot that “a crow can spy death from afar, and I say that all of Westeros is dying.” The red priests have a mind-searing vision of him as a “tall and twisted thing with one black eye and ten long arms, sailing on a sea of blood,” Sam arrives in Oldtown just ahead of Euron’s invasion of the city while bearing a horn that might be able to bring down the Wall, and Euron force-feeds the aforementioned warlocks’ drug to the brother he’s been abusing since childhood to induce the mother of all nightmares, in which Euron unveils his eldritch apocalypse:
He showed the world his blood eye now, dark and terrible. Clad head to heel in scale as dark as onyx, he sat upon a mound of blackened skulls as dwarfs capered round his feet and a forest burned behind him.
“The bleeding star bespoke the end,” he said to Aeron. “These are the last days, when the world shall be broken and remade. A new god shall be born from the graves and charnel pits.”
Then Euron lifted a great horn to his lips and blew, and dragons and krakens and sphinxes came at his command and bowed before him. “Kneel, brother,” the Crow’s Eye commanded. “I am your king, I am your god. Worship me, and I will raise you up to be my priest.”
“Never. No godless man may sit the Seastone Chair!”
“Why would I want that hard black rock? Brother, look again and see where I am seated.”
Aeron Damphair looked. The mound of skulls was gone. Now it was metal underneath the Crow’s Eye: a great, tall, twisted seat of razor sharp iron, barbs and blades and broken swords, all dripping blood.
Impaled upon the longer spikes were the bodies of the gods. The Maiden was there and the Father and the Mother, the Warrior and Crone and Smith...even the Stranger. They hung side by side with all manner of queer foreign gods: the Great Shepherd and the Black Goat, three-headed Trios and the Pale Child Bakkalon, the Lord of Light and the butterfly god of Naath.
And there, swollen and green, half-devoured by crabs, the Drowned God festered with the rest, seawater still dripping from his hair.
The dreams were even worse the second time. He saw the longships of the Ironborn adrift and burning on a boiling blood-red sea. He saw his brother on the Iron Throne again, but Euron was no longer human. He seemed more squid than man, a monster fathered by a kraken of the deep, his face a mass of writhing tentacles. Beside him stood a shadow in woman’s form, long and tall and terrible, her hands alive with pale white fire. Dwarves capered for their amusement, male and female, naked and misshapen, locked in carnal embrace, biting and tearing at each other as Euron and his mate laughed and laughed and laughed.
Pretty fucking metal but, hey, a lot of that ain’t plausible in the show. However, what you lose when trimming away Euron’s more outlandish tendencies is a strong sense of what Dany and Bran are pushing against on the metaphysical end of things. As it stands, Bran comes off as aloof and detached more than he does someone who’s fighting the war on a different plane, and Dany’s use of the dragons is so asymmetric that it cuts into our sympathy for her, to the extent that writers had to have Tyrion show up for no earthly reason other than to maintain our concern for people on both sides of the battle.
But the show still proves extremely adept at grounding the larger issues in interpersonal actions, as when Bran simply does not understand why he should feel sad about Meera leaving. Watching this revelation, in all its anger and sadness, course across her face was absolutely heartbreaking, and interrogates the Hero’s Journey spine to Bran’s story: How does it feel to realize all at once that you’re just a supporting character, that in the wars to come it doesn’t matter all that much that your little brother died to get the protagonist where he needed to be? Jojen had powers, but he wasn’t the Unblinking Godhead-Eye at the center of time and space, struggling to remember that It was once called Brandon Stark and loved to climb. The Reed siblings are left to fade sadly and quietly into the background. They, too, are casualties of apotheosis: gods don’t have friends. This is how that above vision-cluster of Bran’s ends in the books:
Then, as he watched, a bearded man forced a captive down onto his knees before the heart tree. A white-haired woman stepped toward them through a drift of dark red leaves, a bronze sickle in her hand.
“No,” said Bran, “no, don’t,” but they could not hear him, no more than his father had. The woman grabbed the captive by the hair, hooked the sickle round his throat, and slashed. And through the mist of centuries the broken boy could only watch as the man’s feet drummed against the earth … but as his life flowed out of him in a red tide, Brandon Stark could taste the blood.
Gods eat people, whether they be gods of ice or fire, water or tree, and the gods ate Bran. “You died in that cave.” Again: was it worth it, if he can save the world? It’s definitely true that parts of the show feel like they’re spinning their wheels while they wait for an endgame (Littlefinger especially feels blatantly extraneous to the drama at this point), but it’s worth it to give that endgame some real meaning. Not that watching flying hell lizards set fire to half a continent full of ice demons wouldn’t be enthralling in a vacuum.