Some of the challenge in evaluating “Game of Thrones” lies in determining what the show actually was.
In the beginning, it could have been mistaken for a conventional fairy tale about a virtuous man battling the corruption in his kingdom — until Ned Stark (Sean Bean) lost his head. Characters shifted from victims to protagonists to antiheroes in a way that gave some viewers whiplash, a dynamic that came to a head when Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her dragon burned a city in the show’s penultimate episode. “Game of Thrones” was a show about trauma and the consequences of treating women as sexual objects — yet the series had a bad tendency to ogle bits and pieces of minor female characters rather than treat them as people. And just as the Marvel Cinematic Universe brought long-arc television storytelling to the multiplex, “Game of Thrones” executed blockbuster spectacles for television, only for its cinematography to fall short at a crucial juncture. Whether you think “Game of Thrones” was a success or a failure largely depends on what you thought the show was trying to do.
“Game of Thrones” debuted in 2011, at an inflection point for American television and American politics. Later-stage Golden Age antihero dramas such as “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” were heading toward their conclusions and the idea of a Republican “war on women” was taking hold on the left. During the series’ run, Hillary Clinton suffered a shocking loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election; white nationalism surged back into public life; the #MeToo movement exposed the prevalence and impact of sexual violence; climate change took on a new and apocalyptic urgency; and a spike in television production splintered the water-cooler conversation possibly beyond repair.
As a result, “Game of Thrones” took on a prismatic quality. Turn it one way and the series was an argument that trauma gave its female characters moral authority; shift it just slightly, and the show suggested that they couldn’t transcend the damage that had been inflicted on them. The White Walkers, the show’s uber-supernatural villains, stood in for the perils of climate change — until they were vanquished with a single blow. The slaves Daenerys liberated in the early seasons of the show were props in a white-savior narrative until they were invoked as proof that she would never break bad. The show’s cultural footprint suggested that rolling out a television show week by week was still the best way to create community around art. Or its viewership numbers, modest by historical standards, could be evidence for an argument that our culture has fragmented beyond repair.
If “Game of Thrones” didn’t settle all the debates it inspired in a definitive fashion, well, neither have we. The vibrant debate about the show among feminist critics reflects real, ongoing tensions about an entire intellectual movement and how it is expressed in art. The desire to see the White Walkers as an embodiment of dramatic shifts in climate is an expression of a wish that the most vexing policy problem of our day be shrunk down to manageable size. And our struggles to figure out whether men such as Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) deserve forgiveness for their past bad acts are a lower-stakes version of the questions raised by the early stages of our national reckoning with sexual assault.
Another version of “Game of Thrones” might have offered more decisive arguments about the subjects it raised, or avoided ogling and other artistic pitfalls. That show might have become a cult favorite, but without its intellectual ambiguities and spots of bad taste, it never would have become a phenomenon. “Game of Thrones” caught viewers by surprise when it eliminated its supernatural Big Bad so early in its final season and left the characters to work out their messy, entirely human differences. When the credits roll on Sunday, “Game of Thrones” will leave viewers with the same challenge: tackling some of the hardest problems before us without a unifying magical distraction.