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Tyrion subtly won the Game of Thrones

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Who’s more important: the person who sits on the throne, or the person who puts him there?

Photo: Macall B. Polay / HBO

Warning: spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones’ finale, “The Iron Throne.”

In the Game of Thrones finale, Bran Stark — inarguably the least useful character who managed to survive all eight seasons of the show — became king of Westeros. If you’re spitting bile right now, that might be because you’ve thought of the Iron Throne as the series’ putative prize, and you’re feeling rightfully let down by the injustice of handing that position to an undeserving, fairly creepy sideline observer. But rewind for a moment and ask yourself, who’s more important: the person who sits on the throne, or the person who puts him there and keeps him there? And what if the whole point of Game of Thrones is that the throne is no prize at all?

The Game of Thrones finale was an exhibition of the power of Tyrion Lannister (and the acting mastery of Peter Dinklage, who brought the character to life so deftly). From inside a jail cell, Tyrion is able to convince Jon Snow to assassinate the queen Tyrion couldn’t control. Later, chained and facing execution yet again, Tyrion delivers a fine speech, and basically picks his own king. If the winner of Game of Thrones is the person who holds the greatest power at the end, Tyrion Lannister is our reluctant, diminutive victor.

I would argue that this interpretation is the one the Game of Thrones writers want us to come away with. For literal years, they’ve been illustrating the toxicity of the throne, the way it ironically disempowers its occupier until they eventually die. When the young and recklessly vile Joffrey Baratheon sat on the throne, did he rule? Was his successor, Tommen, ever in charge? Conversely, when the elder Tywin Lannister ruled the kingdoms, he never needed to sit on the throne. Nor did the High Sparrow need to be in the throne room to control all of King’s Landing.

Every person who’s sat on the Iron Throne is, at the conclusion of the show, dead. Daenerys Targaryen merely touches the throne, and within minutes, she’s taking her last breath.

Photo: HBO

At its best, Game of Thrones is a story about the cyclical destructiveness of the pursuit of power. There was never going to be a good way to end such a tale, as leaving anyone unilaterally on the throne would suggest that the chase for it was somehow worth it or justified. So the throne was conveniently melted down by Drogon, who apparently has a keen dragon sense for allegory. And Tyrion comes up with a sort of power-sharing solution that makes “no one … very happy, which means it’s a good compromise, I suppose.”

Tyrion appears to be more a vessel of power than an active agent of it. Before the final episode begins, his actions lead to his brother and sister’s death, after he frees Jaime from captivity and directs him to an exit route from the Red Keep that ends up burying the pair under a collapsed tunnel. He’s also never quite sure of the effect of his words, which Dinklage artfully conveys by looking around fretfully after proposing Bran as the new king. Like Daenerys with her armies and dragons, Tyrion has a profound vulnerability and uncertainty in exercising the power he has. There’s something beautifully humane, believable, and often tragic about people’s inability to fully know and control their power.

That being said, there are good lingering reasons to be upset over the denouement of the Game of Thrones series. Cersei Lannister, having burned so bright and violent for most of the show, peters out meekly in the penultimate episode. Daenerys loses her mind worse than Bilbo Baggins with the One Ring in his palm. And Bran’s character is so poorly developed that he seems to be a confirmation of the prejudice that having a disability makes people helpless. Bran could have used his knowledge of history and of the present — his power over everyone’s supposed secrets — to be every bit as effective as Varys, the Master of Whisperers, or Littlefinger, the master of backstabbing intrigue. Or Tyrion.

In the series’ very first episode, Sansa Stark tells her mother that being queen is “all [she] ever wanted to do.” Then she proceeds to show adept leadership, judgment, and, where necessary, cunning. She’s the show’s most qualified surviving candidate to rule the kingdoms by a long stretch. Even by Tyrion’s arbitrary criteria of having the best story, Arya’s adventures and perseverance make her far better qualified to rule than Bran is. So yes, if the title of “King of Westeros” is the important thing to you, this Game of Thrones finale was a letdown that can be measured on the Lost scale of anticlimaxes.

Photo: HBO

But ending the show inconclusively is a courageous move from the writers. In giving the final episode and say to Tyrion, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss make sure to remind us one last time that the dynamics of power are more complex than they appear. In rendering Jon Snow as a perpetually torn character, they convey some of the frustrations and imperfections we have in the real, less fantastic world. Many of the relationships and interactions of Game of Thrones are simply about human folly and feelings, realistic and relatable, even though the show is set in a high-fantasy environment of ice zombies, mutant wolves, and dragon fire.

It’s far from obvious that the truce settled upon at the end of the HBO series will last. Gendry Baratheon was legitimized and granted a title by the dead and disgraced queen Daenerys, so there’s no guarantee that his neighbors will respect his claim to land and power. Bronn the mercenary is also a recently ennobled lord with dubious prospects of governing justly and sustainably. Westeros is still a divided nation facing a long recovery period. Without the unifying threat of a common enemy, squabbles are guaranteed to break out again.

That’s how it has to be. The game of thrones isn’t supposed to have a winner, and it can’t, really. But for this final episode of this final season of one of the best sagas on TV, Tyrion walked away as the sorrowful winner.