Sunday night’s 80-minute finale of “Game of Thrones” delivered its usual helping of twists and turns — but also more than its fair share of dick jokes. This is not wholly unexpected, because “Game of Thrones” is a show that has drawn in fans by depicting an epic fantasy world with visceral impact: Its violence, like its sex, contrast flesh-and-blood humans and their basic needs with catastrophic forces outside their control. Dick jokes are funny — and significant; they tweak taboo and illustrate bias, both in Westeros and in our own world.
And in Season 7, a season that has forged major plot developments outside of George R.R. Martin’s books, the dick jokes flourished: “Beyond the Wall,” the penultimate episode, features dialogue between Tormund and the Hound about the relative satisfaction in using the word “cock,” and in the finale, Theon wins a fight by being penis-less, when a lout knees him in the groin. And when Bronn disdains the Unsullied, who are fighting even though they don’t have families (and in Bronn’s mind, never will, because they can’t father children), Jaime glumly delivers what feels like a series-defining pronouncement: “Maybe it really is all cocks, in the end.”
It’s hard to tell what “Game of Thrones” means with its own dick jokes, because so much of the show is intended to work both on a superficial level and on a more analytical one. Maybe all Jaime means is that men only end up doing things to prove their dicks are metaphorically bigger than everyone else’s. But I read that line as a hint of the show’s rich subtext about bodies. In a world where literal magic happens, “Game of Thrones” is and always has been focused on the fundamental limitations of bodies. Bronn and Jaime, like Tormund and the Hound before him, are trading these droll observations about penises on the brink of battle, with a looming existential threat in front of them. Jaime’s offhand remark reveals anxiety — penis anxiety, even.
After all, in a kind of crass way, Bronn and Jaime have summed up what it means to live in a patriarchal world. It’s a funny punchline to the scene, but a sort of tragic one, too: Does power, and identity, in “Game of Thrones” really boil down to having a penis or not? After all, most of the tension in the show is between individuals and the relentless demands of their birthrights; in a system as medievally patriarchal as Westeros’, it does all come down to penises, and who has them, and what children they produce. This has been true as far back as the major twist of the first season, when Ned Stark realized that Cersei’s children weren’t really Robert Baratheon’s. “The seed is strong,” is what Jon Arryn had noted, before he was killed. It takes Ned the whole season to understand what he meant: that Cersei had circumvented the Baratheon bloodlines by making her husband’s heir a son that she conceived with her twin brother. In Westeros, that is an act so offensive and outrageous that it is high treason — and even in Season 7, it’s still a secret to the world at large.
Cersei meddling with the expected genetics of marriage is part of her reclamation of power from Robert — and in line with the show’s movement toward isolated women wielding power, sometimes quite destructively. In Season 7, a few women almost exclusively controlled politics and warfare in Westeros. But that movement has inspired some existential dread. Bronn’s musings about children highlight something strange about the “Game of Thrones” universe — something it has been easy to lose sight of in the heady atmosphere of the show’s magic and terror: There currently are almost no children, and very few nuclear families, in the “Game of Thrones” cast. The first few seasons were crowded with kids growing up too fast and hasty marital alliances. But the Starks aged and scattered; Cersei and Jaime’s children were all killed; Robb and his pregnant wife Talisa were killed before they had a chance to start a family; Sansa escaped motherhood in both of her unwilling marriages; and Daenerys believes she’s infertile. (Of course, this being Westeros, most of the women do not have much of a choice about when and how they reproduce. But given that most of our female characters at this point are women with some degree of control over their bodies, I feel safe referring to it as a choice.)
Of the weddings we’ve seen in the show, almost all have ended in violence and death; even the flashback to Rhaegar and Lyanna in “The Dragon and the Wolf” confirms the shadows hanging over the basic desire to get married and start a family. By contrast, Westeros now is a much darker and sadder place. Earlier in this season, the Hound found the bodies of a father and daughter who he sentenced to death; the father had killed the daughter to put her out of her misery. Their skeletons are arranged together in a pose that would be loving, if it were not marked by the total despair of a parent deciding a child cannot suffer anymore.
Meanwhile, those who do reproduce are often figured to be somewhat horrifying: Craster, beyond the Wall, who fathers children upon his own daughters; Melisandre, who births shadow assassins; and Cersei, who has conceived another child with her brother Jaime out of her own narcissism. The only intact and functional family unit in the show — Samwell Tarly, Gilly, and Gilly’s son Sam — carries with it a history of incest and rape and shotgun adoption.
This reckoning with family is probably going to become a primary theme of the final season. In one way or another, Westeros has been ravaged by war ever since Rhaegar and Lyanna fell in love and ran away together; now, the country is facing not just war but possible extinction. As the viewers, we are pretty sure the story’s getting wrapped up in six hours. But for the characters, merely surviving is hard to imagine; surviving and thriving to the point that they might feel ready to bring more humans into this world must seem very distant. And at the same time, it is what rebuilding Westeros will require; happy families make for a peaceful and prosperous world, and vice versa.
Season 8, by default, has to be about how Westeros moves on — and partly, that will be about finding a place in this country for the eunuchs and the barren women; about reckoning with the physical toll of violence on a population. And above all, it will have to be about redefining family — or maybe, to be more exact, redefining children. In “Beyond the Wall,” after the whole discussion about the word “cock,” Tormund tells the Hound that he wants to have children with Brienne of Tarth, because they would be “great big monsters” that would “conquer the world.” It’s not exactly a cozy picture of domestic tranquility. And neither is Daenerys’ version of motherhood, in which three great big monsters literally are her children. (In a funny “Jerry Maguire”-like touch, Jon’s comfort with Drogon is positioned as a significant part of their love affair.) The subtext throughout the show has been that reproduction, in this uncertain world, is cloaked with fear or even disgust. In this season, the notion has been advanced that only the creatures that are made to be somehow more or different than merely human have a chance of surviving. And the child of an aunt and nephew — between a man once dead and a (supposedly?) infertile woman who can’t be killed with fire — would be something more or different than the average person, too.
It’s funny: In creating human stories in a fantasy world, “Game of Thrones” has apparently reached the limits of humanity. This would not be totally out of sync with the themes of the books, which traces several different sub-races amongst humans, including the First Men, the Andals, and the Children of the Forest, who learned from and evolved with each other. It’s hard to tell exactly how these arcs end, because Season 8 will resolve these threads, one way or another — the show might introduce a new ethnicity for Westeros to evolve towards, but it’s more likely it would eschew that book-lore detail for something more practical. But in the meantime, it is fascinating and even alarming, to see how the subtext of the show arcs towards one weird idea: Maybe the post-apocalyptic future requires people who can be more than simply human.