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Can the Living Actually Win on GAME OF THRONES?

Two competing ideologies sat across from one another in the busted Dragonpit on the season finale of Game of Thrones as the dead marched unstoppably onward, south to the living, who will only survive through cooperation and trust.

Good luck, humans.

Cersei Lannister, the representative of the old world, sees power as something to seize and hold onto with guile, wealth, and weapons. Daenerys Targaryen, the representative of the new, sees power as something to earn and hold onto with guile, leadership, and compassion. One views life as nasty, brutish, and short. The other views it as full of greater potential.

One wants to be feared. The other, loved.

Both have known death, but Cersei wants to seek revenge against it while Daenerys wants to conquer it. That doesn’t mean one is incapable of compassion and the other is incapable of violence–both are complex and suited to all methods of persuasion. The difference is Cersei is a product of the status quo; she wants to maintain that status quo since she’s risen to the top of the game. But Daenerys has sacrificed sure victory through the fiery old ways in favor of clearing the chalkboard to write a new reality.

They aren’t merely two women fighting over who should rule; they’re two women fighting over how to rule.

Let’s assume for a moment that the living can conquer the dead in the war to come. Dragons have danced, obsidian has been shattered, and Team Breathing emerges victorious. Yet, there has to be a morning after.

Maybe Cersei is dead. Maybe Daenerys is. Maybe Jon is. Maybe all three are, and Sansa is overseeing grain storage for the entire realm. Maybe they’re all alive, turning their daggers on one another anew. What’s the value of survival if you beat Armageddon but die on the following Tuesday?

Another sure sign of a failing ideology, Cersei is willing to cast the entire realm into the sea before the dead are even quashed. As she told Tyrion during the finale before lying wholesale about cooperation to Team Targaryen, “I don’t care about making the world a better place.” Cersei’s worldview is exactly the fever mankind will have to break in order to survive in the long run.

As such, whether mankind can learn from its mistakes will depend on who triumphs and how they take control, not only from a plot standpoint, but from a thematic one as well. The show has evolved from the tale that killed Ned Stark for being a generally honorable dude to one that killed Jon Snow for being a generally honorable dude and brought him back to life to make it fair. We’re long past the trauma of the Red Wedding and worrying about whether our favorite characters will die. The climactic battle for life itself is on our doorstep, which means the most major figures are safe until they pull some heroics in service of literally all living beings.

The shift from fantasy trope subversion to standard fantasy saga has also proved that Westerosi humanity is at least capable of rebuking the childish itching for empty power. What’s more, Daenerys bringing dragons back to life, and Jon as one of the first to recognize the real threat of the White Walkers, have literally brought elements of fantasy back to a realm consumed by backstabbing palace intrigue. They are Chosen Ones in a world that had grown tired of Chosen Ones, forcing the old ways back into vogue in order to save Westeros from eating itself.

Daenerys’ quest has taken so long, and its lessons have been so brutal and numerous, that her talk about doing things a different way makes all of Cersei’s old model scheming seem quaint. Or maybe it’s the army of darkness on the move that makes flirting with Euron Greyjoy feel petty and trite. Either way, one leader is still wishing she hadn’t painlessly poisoned an old, thorn-tongued enemy as if it matters, while the other is strategizing how to save everyone, including her enemies, from doom. If the latter succeeds, she’ll make Cersei obsolete.

That means that it’s not just Westeros’ fate, but also the heart of the show that will reveal itself in the final season. Will it fully shift from a subversive take on fantasy to a thoroughly traditional version where the heroes win and the ending is happy? Or will it slide back into its old form, finding death for its major players in unexpected ways that leave the land more hollow? Or could it go even darker, cementing the show’s initial bold, seething nihilism by depositing the Night King on an Iron Throne overlooking zombie Arya and undead Sansa.

In other words, is the show done rebelling against the form? Who ends up on the Iron Throne will signal the answer.

If Cersei wins, assume a conveyor belt line of combatants jealously eyeing the pointy chair she issues decrees from until the end of time. The old ways are back again forever. Cersei remaining queen as the last credits roll would be philosophically interesting, but narratively unfulfilling. If the wheel simply keeps spinning, why is this the end we get to see? If this is only the story of how the realm came together to defeat the undead, why did we start with Ned Stark?

If Daenerys wins, the world will spin in a different direction, and the thematic intimation is a kind of Pax Westerosi. With the War of the Five Kings and the War of the Two Queens and the War of the Holy Shit What Are Those Things over, the world can get back to singing songs and baking elaborate breads.

Of course, that we’re talking about two queens at all is revolutionary. In Westeros, the future is female. It’s one evolution the show has already gone through, replacing its bickering blowhards (on the hunt, at a wedding, on a toilet, on a bridge, etc.) with women and a young man who would rather glower than gloat.

And it’s already signaling a much grander evolution through Cersei’s isolation. Her last scene with Jaime in “The Dragon and The Wolf” not only put her style of leadership through fear on display, it also saw it fail miserably. Jaime called her bluff and walked away from her, ostensibly to join Daenerys and the others in the north. It’s still possible that the cornered Cersei could lash out even more wildly, but people fleeing her is a sign that the people in power have the potential to change.

It was rivaled in importance only by Jon’s forgiveness of Theon Greyjoy, a somber moment that proved that, when the difficult day of setting aside past revenges comes, Jon can provide a model for the others alongside Daenerys.

Game of Thrones is currently poised to prove that humanity can learn from its mistakes, that it can rebuild the world in a new, peaceful image after Daenerys gives her “Today we celebrate OUR Independence Day” speech, that it can reclaim the peaceful ending of its fantasy literature heritage. To do so, Westeros will have to purge Cersei from its system.

It will also have to remember the value of cooperation after all the dead are buried.

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Images: HBO, Giphy

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