Spoiler alert: This article discusses details about the “Game of Thrones” series finale, titled “The Iron Throne,” plus more before that Stop reading if you haven’t watched yet, or don’t blame us for what you find out.
It’s almost hard to remember now, eight years later, how shocking the final scene of the series premiere of “Game of Thrones” felt at the time, especially if you hadn’t read the books, let alone the later realization of how one brutal shove ended up starting a war. But that accidental instance of coitus interruptus courtesy of free-climbing Bran Stark, who saw Robert Baratheon’s Queen Cersei getting it on with her brother Jaime Lannister of the Kingsguard through the window of a Winterfell tower and therefore had to be silenced, not only kicked eight seasons’ worth of plot into motion, but also established the ongoing emotional undercurrent of the show.
“The things I do for love,” Jaime deadpanned, right before pushing ten-year-old Bran Stark to what Jaime and Cersei surely presumed to be his death, in order to ensure eternal silence about their unholy and royally delegitimizing affair.
“Game of Thrones” is a story about the corrosive nature of power and the pursuit of it, but it’s also a story about all the dumb, destructive and downright inhumane stuff people do and rationalize to themselves in the name of love and personal loyalty. That can be easy to forget — as I so often have — what with the opening credits animation telling us before each episode to focus on the ancient machinations of power at work instead.
Bran didn’t die after his fall, but he did spend the next several years gradually shedding his human form to become the Three-Eyed Raven — whatever the point of that was supposed to be in the end except to leave Bran free to go a-wheelin’ and a-wargin’ while the Small Council does all the work of ruling the now-Six Kingdoms. Jaime’s resigned little sigh in the moment, however, should also be noted as the genesis of a key fall-back reason for any “Game of Thrones” character doing terrible or otherwise inexplicable things over the last couple of hastily-plotted seasons at least.
Cersei touching scuzzy Euron Greyjoy without gloves, let alone letting him think she’s carrying his wee pirate in her belly? The things I do for love. Jaime betraying Brienne despite seasons’ worth of evidence of his personal growth, and Tyrion betraying Varys despite obviously knowing that a little royal bet-hedging would have been a solid deal at that unstable moment? Ditto. Daenerys torching an entire city’s worth of innocent smallfolk? Tyrion trying to help Cersei, of all people, escape justice? You guessed it.
Even the fan-trauma of watching Ser Brienne of Tarth reduced to standing “in her housecoat, in the middle of the night, while begging the man she loves not to go,” as Salon’s Melanie McFarland wrote two weeks ago about the scene in which Jaime loves and leaves Brienne to go once running once again to his diabolical sister’s side — her reaction running so counter to the stoic instincts and ferocious demeanor Brienne had to hone over years fighting in the man’s world of Westeros — can be chalked up to, “ehn, what can you do, she loves the guy.”
In the finale, by the time sweet but ambivalent dumb-dumb Jon Snow is finally convinced to off the Mad Queen, stabbing her in the heart as he aunt-frenches her in front of the Iron Throne in order to prevent her from repeating the King’s Landing fire act all over Westeros in her twisted pursuit of “liberation,” it becomes clear we’ve been trapped not in a 4-D chess game of power and strategy but in a Meatloaf melodrama for eight seasons: I would do many things for love . . . Ok yeah no but I won’t do that.
As motivations go, love — even in all its dysfunctional and occasionally incestuous Westerosi permutations — is a powerful one and, because it’s irrational in addition to conveniently reversible, its application can cover a multitude of plot sins. If, in the words of Wildling Orell to Jon Snow back in his undercover Crow, Ygritte-loving days, “people are loyal when it suits ‘em, love each other when it suits ‘em, kill each other when it suits ‘em,” then as long as the writers can insert a love and loyalty hook, they can get away with literally all kinds of murder on top of any number of inexplicable acts great and small and call them justified within the text.
After King Bran the Broken is crowned and the survivors start the long work of putting the Six Kingdoms back together again, the show couldn’t resist giving Brienne one last “the things I do for love” task. Because having Brienne write Jaime’s history in the Big Book of Badass Kingsguards the way she did served no greater plot good, coming as it did in the final moments of the final episode, it must be assumed it was done to give Brienne closure on her journey surviving all the bloodshed and battles that came with her sworn duty to protect Catelyn Stark’s daughters after Renly Baratheon’s assassination. And yet it did so by having the upstanding knight act so out of character that the show can only be saying that a man’s legacy is more important than a woman’s values or feelings, which, given the show I’ve been watching for eight seasons, sounds about right.
When Brienne opens the book to Jaime’s entry and sees it left unfinished around the time of service to King Tommen, she decides to finish, filling in the basic outline from Battle of Whispering Wood to facing the Unsullied at Casterly Rock to taking Highgarden. “Pledged himself to the forces of men and rode North to join them at Winterfell” — and here she pauses to consider deeply how she should proceed with Jaime’s turning point — “… alone. Faced the Army of the Dead, and defended the castle against impossible odds until the defeat of the Night King. Escaped imprisonment and rode south in an attempt to save the capital from destruction. Died protecting his Queen.”
That’s a generous read on Jaime Lannister’s final days to say the least, down to the fuzzy wording of “his Queen,” which could be interpreted as Cersei or Daenerys, depending on what would cast him in the more loyal and valiant light by future readers of the book. It’s not a decision made lightly by Brienne, who — by the logic of her character’s fidelity to her sworn oaths — apparently determined it was the just and brave route to paint Jaime Lannister as a self-sacrificing hero, which is absurd.
Jaime wasn’t choosing to rescue Cersei over his own path to redemption — despite deciding to break ranks with her to join the forces of men, which felt like a natural extension of the arc Jaime had been on for years now — because he believed she had a better claim to the throne than Daenerys, or because he predicted Daenerys would go Big Mad in the end, or because he cared about saving the people of King’s Landing in order to serve the greater good. That would be strategy at work, which at that point only Tyrion had been able to convince himself he was still governed by. Blunt, stupid, irrational and inexplicable love simply won out, as it so often does.
Brienne could have written that, along with everything we and she know about his doomed Lannister line. She chose dishonesty (mostly of omission, but still!) instead. She chooses to forgive him the personal betrayal as well as the larger breach of honor and duty that she ought to consider non-negotiable, and she does so consciously. Her last gift to Jaime is making him, in the permanent record, the hero he wanted to be, rather than the man he was with the history he alone earned. The things I do for love.
This small but maddening lie makes no sense for the Brienne the fans came to know and love over the years. Give Brienne peace? Yes, please. But not at the expense of her sense of justice. The show’s writers were loyal to Brienne when it suited them, that’s all. To acknowledge her character’s humanity fully and honor her properly in the story’s final moments, the writers would have had to love Brienne enough not to betray her. And if “Game of Thrones” told us one thing over and over about its relationship to its women characters, it’s that they won’t do that.