Quick disclaimer: I’m on my second read of the novels, and not yet to the Red Wedding again, so I’m going to be looking just at the ending of A Game of Thrones (the book).
Everyone with even passing knowledge of the series knows about the dramatic and shocking event at the end of AGoT and Season 1 of the show: Ned gets beheaded and Sean Bean is once again out of a hugely profitable franchise at the end of just its first chapter. (At least Jason Momoa still has Aquaman, for whatever that’s worth.)
If we were to create a list of the best stories where the bad guy wins, surely AGoT would be in there. Not only has Joffrey taken Ned’s head, but he’s already begun tormenting Sansa, showing it to her spiked on the city wall. Lady is dead as well, and there’s no justice for pushing Bran out the window or the death of Jon Arryn. It really feels like Joffrey: 2 — Starks: 0.
And yet, AGoT doesn’t leave us actually feeling like the bad guys won.
The Denouement Reversal
Ordinarily the denouement of a story (the final moments that follow the climax and resolution of the central conflict) should serve to amplify the meaning of the story either by directly commenting on it, or simply staying in the mood of the resolution. An example of the direct commentary would be the ending of The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” We also have the “I think the light is winning” speech from Season 1 of True Detective. For an ending that simply lingers on the mood, Pride and Prejudice Vol III Chapter XIX is essentially a 3 page long “and they all lived happily ever after.” On film, we have the award ceremony ending Star Wars: A New Hope, as well as the tonally more complex celebration ending Return of the Jedi.
AGoT does something markedly different though, and I want to discuss its structure by first analyzing the ending of another “bad guys win” story, The Empire Strikes Back.
Han Solo has been frozen and sold off to the gangster Jabba the Hutt, while Luke narrowly escaped Darth Vader, losing his hand in the process. Vader: 2 — Rebels: 0. Not to mention the destruction of the rebel base on Hoth, C3PO getting blasted apart, and Vader dropping a massive truth bomb on Luke. Still, I think there’s something incomplete about just saying the bad guys won, and that’s because the film doesn’t end with Luke dropping out the bottom of Cloud City.
The actual ending of the film is Luke back aboard a medical frigate testing out his new robotic hand after escaping Vader and refusing to join him against the Emperor; Vader scored points, but he did not fully win. Chewie and Lando depart on the Falcon to rescue Han Solo. Though the rebels lost at Hoth, we’re shown a rebel fleet bigger than any military force they’ve had before. Leia even smiles when Chewie makes his farewells. These final shots don’t tell the audience “sometimes the bad guys just win,” nor is the tone one of despair. The tone is uncertainty, some sadness, but most of all it’s hopeful. This ending has taken the mood of the film’s climactic lightsaber duel and done a complete 180. We’re told this isn’t the end, it’s only half-time, and the good guys are poised to take the lead after the break.
A Game of Thrones has a remarkably similar ending. I’ll briefly summarize the final chapters that follow Ned’s execution:
Just after Ned is executed, Arya’s chapter ends with her being whisked away by Yoren, a Night’s Watch brother who is very friendly with the Starks. It’s a chapter of intense pain, but we get Arya to a place of relative safety.
Bran’s chapter, while sad, also goes to confirm his greenseeing. Though as readers we know his visions are accurate, this confirms it for him, setting the stage for some grand personal journey.
Sansa is taunted with the heads of Ned and Septa Mordane, then beaten by Ser Meryn, though she is given a moment of kindness from The Hound. Despite the Hound’s interference at the end, this one is pretty messed up.
Dany’s first concluding chapter has her finding out that she was betrayed by Mirri Maz Duur, and she puts down the catatonic Khal Drogo. Her second chapter is Drogo’s funeral pyre, the execution of MMD, and the miracle rebirth of dragons.
Tyrion meets with Tywin’s war council and is told he’ll be ruling King’s Landing as Hand of the King in Tywin’s place, and specifically to get Cersei, Joffers, and all the other shits on the Small Council back in line. Tyrion’s in the bad guy family, but we like him and see him as a good guy, so we feel the promotion as a sort of triumph.
Jon has his moment of doubt, almost deserting the Night’s Watch, but regains his place. Mormont declares the Night’s Watch will ride out in force to find Benjen and deal with Mance, the Others, or whatever else lies beyond.
Robb is named King in the North.
Of these closing chapters, only Sansa’s is one of despair. But, just as we see Lando and Chewie off to rescue Han, we know that Robb is on his way with an army of northmen, and even Tyrion is headed to reign in Joffrey’s worst impulses. And, just like the end of Empire Strikes Back, at the end of AGoT we don’t feel like we’re lost in despair. We feel like things are about to get better.
That is, of course, until cynicism shoves naivete out, and we know that the promise of better times ahead can’t be trusted. Still, we get to conclude the story on a slightly up note, feeling hopeful for the future.