Reviewed by Tania Evans
Part 6 in Tania’s review of the last season of Game of Thrones, read her review of Episode 1 here, Episode 2 here, Episode 3 here, Episode 4 here and Episode 5 here
Straight white men often tell me that I am giving academia a bad name because I research Game of Thrones. They are quick to point out that it is “just a TV show” and a “waste of taxpayer money,” asking why anyone would bother considering the politics of a series that is “gratuitous violence for violence’s sake” (Morrison in Thistleton, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2015). The finale of Game of Thrones answers this question, even as it raises many others. As the most powerful characters in Westeros decide who their leader will be, Tyrion Lannister asks, “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” Stories are one of the most powerful forces on the planet. They allow us to make sense of our own identities, our history, our culture, our connections to others. Some stories, like Game of Thrones, resonate with us so deeply that they unite tens of millions of people across the globe. The sense of unity that stories give us is more important than ever before as generational political rifts and environmental disaster threaten our planet in unprecedented ways.
How are we to move through this violent present to make the world a more liveable place? That is the central question for the real world and for Season Eight of Game of Thrones. The finale, “The Iron Throne,” sees Jon murder Daenerys and the nobles of Westeros elect Bran Stark – dubbed Bran the Broken – as King. Arya sails away to discover new lands, Jon is exiled to the Night’s Watch, and Sansa becomes Queen of the North. More a fracturing than an ending, this episode celebrates brokenness in its many forms.
Perhaps the most significant breaking in the series and the season is that of “the wheel,” the pseudo-medieval patriarchal system of reproduction wherein power and violence were passed from father to son. As I have argued elsewhere, Game of Thrones has a history of critiquing this circular pattern as only ever leading to destruction (Evans, 2018). Characters who repeat their fathers’ patriarchal violence, such as Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton, Cersei Lannister, Robb Stark and Eddard Stark, are variously figured as monsters or are killed because they are unable to adapt their rigid ways. Bran is not excused from this list – his cruelly optimistic attachment to knighthood leads him to enact psychological violence on Hodor on multiple occasions – but he abandons these patriarchal structures and embraces the Other when he becomes the Three Eyed Raven, and it is this connection that allows him to survive and, in this final episode, be named the King of Westeros. While some fans argue that this decision sidelines more qualified candidates, it is worth questioning the potentially subversive implications of naming a disabled warg as sovereign of Westeros.
Bran’s disability forced him to shift the citation point for his masculine performance from the figure of the knight, a normative model wherein violence, physical strength, and sexuality are central, to the Three-Eyed-Raven. The end of “The Door” (S6E5) sees Bran become the new Three-Eyed-Raven, a process wherein he receives the entire history of Westeros and everyone in it at the expense of his own identity, subjectivity, and affective capacity. As the then-Three-Eyed-Raven tells him: “it is time for you to become me.” Bran becomes abject in the sense that he loses the borders that secure his identity and subjectivity, yet it is a rewarding abjection because he no longer needs these boundaries for he gains a new strength from connection to others. The complex state of Bran’s abjection is demonstrated when his long-time travelling companion, Meera, becomes upset in “The Spoils of War” (S7E4) when he has no emotional reaction to her decision to leave him and return home. She cites the sacrifices she has made for him and the characters who died to help him, ending with a simple plea: “Bran…” The boy responds, “I’m not, really. Not anymore. I remember what it felt like to be Brandon Stark. But I remember so much else now.” As the new Three-Eyed-Raven, Bran cites this model of masculinity almost perfectly; Meera aptly comments that the boy “died in that cave.” Bran gains a very different view of masculinity because of the Three-Eyed-Raven, and it is possible to see gendering as “the reality-effect of a violent process”: Bran’s disability means that he cannot access normative masculinity, and this leaves him little choice but to become the new Three-Eyed-Raven (Judith Butler, Gender Trouble 1990, 155).
Bran’s character and his merging with the world illuminate one way in which masculinity might be embodied as a site of connection rather than isolation. Discussing psychic powers in Fantasy fiction generally, Lenise Prater in “Queering Magic” (2016) argues that they “help to reimagine the boundaries between the self and the other, and this destabilization of the unified masculine subject provides space for an alternative understanding of identity” (23). Bran’s potential is also noted by Pascal Massie and Lauryn Mayer, who argue in “Bringing Elsewhere Home: A Song of Ice and Fire’s Ethics of Disability” (2014) that “Bran’s paralysis allows him, paradoxically, to move more freely: to cross two borders, the first one, of a shamanistic nature, between humans and animals, the second of a metaphysical nature between mind and body” (53). This movement is not necessarily of the liberating kind usually associated with the crossing of boundaries; as I have noted, Bran takes psychological control of Hodor in multiple scenes. Nevertheless, Bran’s altered subjectivity has significant implications for his relationship to patriarchal kinship and gender norms; his disruption of normative ideas about Cartesian dualism, identity, and subjectivity is demonstrated through his psychic bonds with the natural world, specifically animals and trees.
The practice of reproducing queerly by spreading one’s consciousness has valuable implications for how audiences are led to understand masculinity. T.A. Leederman contends in Mastering the Game of Thrones: Essays on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (2015) that, “A Song of Ice and Fire suggests that hegemonic knowledge alone cannot solve our problems; we must look back, to earlier eras now wreathed in legend, and sideways, to other species, for new conceptual tools and ways of being in the world” (A Thousand Westerosi Plateaus: Wargs, Wolves and Ways of Being, 193). Key among these diverse ways of being is a sense of connection: “Bran is learning to see the world as a plane of immanence, of all people, times and happenings occurring in a web of connections, actions and reactions” (200). The “web of connections” facilitates a conception of subjectivity that breaks away from the patriarchal model, wherein the male body is singular, closed, and stable, and acts only in the interests of the self and for the purpose of perfectly reproducing the culture that sustains it. In Game of Thrones, Bran’s narrative reveals that patriarchal violence – such as that which underpins the version of knighthood to which he once aspired – can only bring about domination and abjection, whereas models that thrive on connection and mutual co-operation can provide a means of repeating that is not dependent upon others’ destruction.
The possibility for a more sustainable model of repetition is highlighted as one of Bran’s main credentials when Tyrion proposes that he become king. The other nobles are initially dubious; Sansa points out that Bran “can’t father children,” but Tyrion argues that Bran’s inability to reproduce the patriarchal system of reproduction as critical to his sovereignty. He says, “sons of kings can be cruel and stupid, as you well know. […] That is the wheel our Queen wanted to break. From now on rulers will not be born. They will be chosen.” Bran’s ascension represents a final blow to the system of patriarchal reproduction: its heteronormative logics are troubled as the biological family loses its central connection to power, as demonstrated by the dissemination of the Stark family across the land in the episode’s final scenes. The normative masculine discourses with which heterosexuality is tied are also contested as a disabled man is named King because of – rather than in spite of – his radical connection to other lives and stories.
Tyrion dubs his new king “Bran the Broken,” but I suggest that he may be better conceptualised as Bran the Breaker: Breaker of Hegemonic Masculine Norms, Mother and Father of Stories. Bran’s story will be watched by over twenty million people across the world this week, a rare moment of unity that further highlights the power and importance of stories for bringing us together. How these stories will be taken up remains to be seen, and will likely fuel future research on this series. In the meantime, I suggest that “The Iron Throne” and Game of Thrones invite us to acknowledge and celebrate the cripples, bastards, and broken things we encounter in our own lives and those around us. In the end, Game of Thrones suggests that it is only by embracing the Other that we can make the world a more liveable place. But how exactly are we to do this? How can we harness the power of stories in order to foster these connections? Answering these questions will be central in the humanities – especially Fantasy studies – in the years to come, and will necessitate disciplinary breakings, unlikely queer kinships, and giving academia “a bad name.”
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 4th edition, Routledge, 1990. vol. Book, Whole.
Evans, Tania. “Vile, Scheming, Evil Bitches? The Monstrous Feminine Meets Hegemonic Masculinity in a Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.” Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies, vol. 5, no. 1, 2018, pp. 14-27, https://www.aeternumjournal.com/issues
Leederman, T.A., 2014. A Thousand Westerosi Plateaus: Wargs, Wolves and Ways of Being. Mastering the Game of Thrones: Essays on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, edited by Jes Battis and Susan Johnston, McFarland, 2015, pp. 189-204.
Massie, Pascal and Lauryn Mayer. “Bringing Elsewhere Home: A Song of Ice and Fire’s Ethics of Disability.” Ethics and Medievalism, edited by Karl Fugelso, D. S. Brewer, 2014, pp. 45- 60.
Prater, Lenise. “Queering Magic.” Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Popular Fantasy: Beyond Boy Wizards and Kick-Ass Chicks, edited by Jude Roberts and Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Routledge, 2016.
Thistleton, John. “Retired General David Morrison Takes Aim at Game of Thrones' Blatant Violence.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 September 2015. https://www.smh.com.au/national/act/retired-general-david-morrison-takes-aim-at-game-of-thrones-blatant-violence-20150922-gjrxhp.htmlhttps://www.smh.com.au/national/act/retired-general-david-morrison-takes-aim-at-game-of-thrones-blatant-violence-20150922-gjrxhp.html.
Tania Evans is a cultural studies researcher at the Australian National University, Australia. Her PhD on masculinity and Fantasy in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire (1996 - current) and its television adaptation, Game of Thrones (2011-2019), was recently passed and she will be graduating in July 2019. She has written several essays on gender in popular culture, which have been published in Gothic Studies, Fantastika Journal, Masculinities, and Aeternum: The Journal of Contemporary Gothic Studies. She teaches literary studies, film, and feminist theory.
Read more of Tania’s work on Game of Thrones here:
- An article on Cersei in Aeternum: https://www.aeternumjournal.com/issues
- A meme version of this article: http://cass.anu.edu.au/news/10-memes-explain-how-game-thrones-cersei-lannister-blowing-patriarchy
- A book chapter on Shireen: https://www.palgrave.com/jp/book/9783319964560