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Game of Thrones: Theory of the End, Part 2

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For those of you who read part one of this piece, you’ll know that Sunday’s episode showed it was largely incorrect. However, while the “how’s” of it were wrong, the “why’s”, or the core themes motivating the ending’s structure, are pretty accurate. For this reason, we’ve decided to still run part two of the theory, in the hopes that it may give the real ending more context and maybe even make it more enjoyable.

First let’s discern the implications of what’s already happened. It would be too cliche for the story of “Game of Thrones” to end with the death of an ugly supernatural bad guy wielding dark forces. That’s never what the show was about. A great battle is never the end of anything, despite the way “Lord of the Rings” does it. There’s always an after. Who rules? How do we govern ourselves? What’s the right tax policy? Do we keep waging more wars?

Daenerys taking her dragons to King’s Landing to battle Cersei for the throne is no different from what’s always been happening. As Jon pointed out to her last season, if she burns cities and takes them over she’s no different from every other conqueror throughout history. Judging by what’s happened Episode Four, this is where the story is going, and what’s really compelling about this is that it proves that the White Walkers, who wanted to bring down humanity to stop its rampant unending destruction, were right.

Daenerys articulated as much in season five with her famous statement about how the noble houses of Westeros are just “spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top, and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.” She’s right, the game they all play, the ‘game of thrones,’ is incredibly toxic, because there are no real winners. No one comes out the game having gained more than they lost. Those who gain the most power pay the highest prices. This might be represented by the Night King’s symbol, a wheel, literally made out of the body parts of the dead, designed to hold humankind’s sins up to its face (this also aligns with George R.R. Martin’s stated antiwar positions).

Now back to Cersei’s winning(?) strategy: If this is possible, then surely she’s not the first person to have discovered it. It must’ve happened once before. Ever notice how odd the ancient history of Westeros is when it claims that the White Walkers were created by the Children to fight the First Men, then the Children made a peace pact with Men, and then thousands of years later the White Walkers suddenly ‘returned?’

What if that’s not the real story? What if the White Walkers didn’t ‘return,’ and instead there was a massive struggle for power during the Age of Heroes, one that ended when one of them discovered the power of the Night King and used that to try and win the game of thrones, just like we see in the current timeline? Remember Martin’s famous quote: “History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes.”

The secret to gaining the powers of the Night King may have been the repeated culmination of war throughout Westeros’ history. Someone becomes too power hungry, they try to take this ultimate power for themselves, fail to control it and then force the remaining living to band together to defeat them. But soon enough humanity always forgets this lesson, and the wheel of war and destruction turns once again.

Let’s think about another symbol of this cycle: dragon glass. The same thing that creates White Walkers also kills them, making the battles potentially never-ending. Dragon glass is referred to as “frozen fire” and the title of the series is “A Song of Ice and Fire,” two elements that have symbolically chased each other round and round since the series started, leading to an infinite stalemate.

To understand how the cycle can be broken, we first have to understand what perpetuates it. Jamie told us at the end of the very first episode: “The things I do for love …” In the history of Westeros, thousands of lives have been lost in the name of love. Rhaegar chose Lyanna over his wife and an entire war started because of it. Theon murdered those who raised him in order to gain the love of his father. Robb Stark chose the woman he loved over the agreement he made with the Freys, and cost his entire family and army their lives. Jamie pushed a ten-year-old out of a window to save Cersei, the love of his life. Sansa encapsulates this well in Episode Two of this season when she tells Dany “Men do stupid things for women.” Love, the same force that leads to the creation of life, also leads to the destruction of it, just like dragon glass.

Likewise, it’s also true that many of the victories in the story have come about as a result of people doing what’s right in spite of their love for others. If Ned Stark hadn’t risked his relationship with Catelyn and told her Jon Snow was his bastard, Jon would’ve been murdered. Later on, if Jon hadn’t betrayed Ygritte, the wildlings and the Night’s Watch would never have joined forces and they all would’ve been killed by the White Walkers.

So if the ending doesn’t just involve blowing up King’s Landing, what else does it entail? Violence alone cannot end violence, so a battle will not solve everything. And it will have to involve someone acting in spite of those they love to save people they don’t. This is the crux of the long-debated Azor Ahai prophecy: The fabled last hero forged the sword Lightbringer by tempering it in the blood of his beloved wife. The greatest power requires the greatest sacrifice. Given the thematic significance of this, we may be able to finally understand the prophecy’s meaning: It’s not a prophecy at all. It’s a proverb — one that tells of the solution always required when the game of thrones inevitably gets out of hand. It tells us how to break the cycle. It will take the sacrifice of the very thing that makes us human: love. And multiple characters will likely have to be the Azor Ahai of their own part of this story. Jaime killing Cersei in the manner described above is one example, but there’s another, even more heartbreaking example: Daenerys.

Daenerys has been one of the most sympathetic, root-for-able characters in the entire series, and that’s precisely what makes her a great villain. She was famously told in a prophecy in the books that she will know three betrayals: one for blood (the witch from Season One), one for gold (Jorah), and one for love, which hasn’t happened yet. But it should be clear now that there’s really only one candidate for this betrayal: Jon.

The battle between Cersei and Dany will likely bring about the end of Westeros as we know it. It’s been well established by other theories that Game of Thrones is essentially a medieval telling of the mythology of Ragnarok, which is about a war between the gods that ends in the destruction of the earth and the creation of a new one. I won’t go into all those parallels here, but just know they’re very, very strong.

So when Jon sees the destruction being caused by their war, and that madness that has been known to consume Targaryens now reaching Dany, he will likely have to act just as he did with Ygritte. He will have to betray his love for the greater good, in the same way that his betrayal of Ygritte led to her death. His ability to ride dragons may be the exact ability he needs to take her down. This act would be the culmination of both what makes him so heroic and what makes him so tragic. He’s capable of paying the price for victory very few others can.

This ending would make complete sense of the vision Dany had back in Season Two. Dany walks into a desolate throne room in King’s Landing, which is covered in snow and has had its roof blown out. This is likely the aftermath of her battle with Cersei, and the presence of a winter storm may signal the return of the Walkers in some way.

But there’s one further betrayal needed to break the cycle. One of such a high magnitude that it will (hopefully) truly break the wheel of death and destruction forever. And it’s been happening behind the scenes for multiple seasons now.

Given that the fire of human love has propelled the wheel for so long, it makes sense that the arcs of many characters have involved losing their sense of humanness. The turning point in Jamie’s redemption arc came when he lost his hand. For Theon it was when he lost his penis. For Arya it was when she had to renounce her wealth and privilege as a Stark and literally become No One.

But there’s no example of this more potent than Bran.

Bran began his journey by losing his legs, the first step in dissolving his connection with his human body. But the real turning point came when he stepped (no pun intended) into his role as the Three-Eyed Raven. His powers have allowed him to see so far beyond himself he’s no longer truly human. This also seems to have an even more drastic implication: Bran already knows the endgame. He knows how it all plays out. But he can’t tell everyone everything he knows, because if he did then it wouldn’t happen the way it must.

So if everything up to this point is true, Bran must already know. And the greatest betrayal of all will come when he allows the people he used to love and those that fight for them to die in droves in the final confrontation with Cersei, because he knows that the destruction of Westeros is the only way to truly break the wheel.

His detachment from his family over the last couple seasons isn’t a flaw in his character — it’s the sacrifice he knows he must make. The son of Ned Stark, as everyone knows, can be trusted to stay true to his word. But he’s not Brandon Stark. He’s the Three-Eyed Raven.

Given the nature of Bran’s powers, the sacrifices he makes will not be confined to the present day. He already famously sacrificed years of Hodor’s life on accident in the name of ultimately defeating the Walkers, and now that he knows of this power, he can do it on purpose — and do the things throughout time he knows he must do. In the same way he made Hodor go mad, he will do the same to the Mad King. “Hodor, hodor, hodor,” mirrors “Burn them all, burn them all, burn them all!” He will sacrifice countless lives to make sure events play out the way they need to.

He will also need to protect the conditions that allow him to be born. This is why so many Starks throughout history have been named Bran. He influences Bran the Builder to build the Wall, and creates the mantra that “there must always be a Stark in Winterfell” because if the Stark line doesn’t continue, then Bran is never born.

Bran’s interference with history also explains the Faith of the Lord of Light. Martin has said that no gods will influence the story of “Game of Thrones”, but if that’s the case, why does Melisandre’s magic seem to be real? The twist is that it’s really been Bran using his godlike powers to move through time and tailor the past to make it what it needs to be. He tricked the followers of the Lord of Light into believing in him, because the Faith would be crucial to the survival of mankind against the White Walkers. If this is the case, then the often-repeated phrase “the Lord of Light isn’t done with you yet. He brought you back for a purpose” takes on a whole new meaning. Bran has allowed them to survive, because they have a part to play in the last war.

So, there we have it. Bran’s betrayal will allow for the destruction of Westeros and the birth of a new world. The story (at least in the books) started with Bran, and now he will be the one to end it. This new world will be one without an Iron Throne — one that allows for the possibility that the children of tomorrow can live in a world without the cycle of violence and suffering. But one question remains: If the thing that drives the wheel is one of the very things that makes us human, how do we know the children won’t do the same thing?

Samwell Tarly told us a couple episodes ago. “Death is really just forgetting. Being forgotten. If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore.” The reason the wheel has always continued is because men have forgotten the lessons learned from the previous long night. So the children cannot forget how their world came about. But how can they not? None of the characters will live forever, always around to remind people of the truth.

But what outlives people? The songs we sing — the stories we tell. Talking about war as something glorious will make us more prone to it, but a story that acknowledges its horror could change the future for the next generation, as it has in real life. In the same way, the stories in Westeros matter, even if they’re false. A false story about Lyanna’s kidnapping led to an entire war. A false story about Joffrey’s parentage kept him in power. If we romanticize the Iron Throne in our narratives, we’ll remain blind to its evil.

So a new story must be passed on — the story covered in “Game of Thrones.” And who’s been our series’ storyteller, the one always buried in books and actively learning from the past? Samwell Tarly. Sam will ensure the survival of the story by penning his own — the story detailing the destruction of the old world and the creation of the new world.

That book’s title? A Song of Ice and Fire.

Contact Isaac Vaught at ivaught ‘at’ stanford.edu.