Game of Thrones Season 8 spoilers ahead!
Game of Thrones Season 8 is over, for better or worse. The finale made some pretty unexpected moves, perhaps most of all placing Bran on the throne (well, a throne, not the Throne). How the show reached that point, and what it all means, is a topic we could (and honestly will) debate for years to come. But the big question looming over all of this is: Will the ending be the same in the books, once author George R.R. Martin actually finishes writing them?
Bran ascending to rule Westeros (six of the seven kingdoms, at least) makes a certain amount of sense in the show. In communing with the Three-Eyed Raven beyond the Wall, Bran gained powers that allowed him to view events from throughout history, past and present, anywhere in the world. Once every character in the show accepted that Bran has these powers and thus has more knowledge than anyone else could ever hope to gain, the lords of Westeros all agreeing to crown him king is a logical move. It's not totally clear why Bran did many of the things that he did (or didn't do) over the last few seasons, besides a vague sense that everything happened for a reason.
If you're a glass-half-full type of viewer, you might choose to believe that Bran spent several years playing puppet master with the goal of becoming king because he's ultimately benevolent. Bran has seen every possible future, and he knows that, despite the horrors that have occurred along the way, this was the best path in the end, because he'll be a good ruler and avoid even more bloodshed in the future. It's the fantasy version of Doctor Strange's "one in 14 million" path forward in Avengers: Infinity War.
There's one key difference, though: Doctor Strange didn't peer into 14 million possible futures and then pick the one where he becomes emperor of the galaxy. Did Bran manipulate events throughout Game of Thrones to achieve the best possible ending for everyone--least lives lost, most wars averted, etc.--or was the purpose of his machinations simply to put himself in power, no matter the cost?
If Bran was meant to be evil in the end, the show did a pretty bad job explaining how he got that way. I don't believe that's the case, but things might turn out very differently in the next book, The Winds of Winter--even if on the surface, they appear to turn out the same. It all has to do with the Three-Eyed Raven's real identity, Bran's warging/skinchanging abilities, and another possible meaning of the "song of ice and fire."
Who Is The Three-Eyed Raven?
The entire storyline around the Three-Eyed Raven is one area in which Game of Thrones simply missed its mark. If you only watch the show, you probably know roughly three things about this character: He was played by two different actors across two seasons (Struan Rodger and Max von Sydow), he lived in a cave north of the Wall, and he didn't much care for the Night King.
His story is so much better in the books, where he's known as the Three-Eyed Crow--and where he has an actual identity beyond teaching Bran how to do magic and be weird. In the books, the Three-Eyed Crow is actually Brynden Rivers, or Lord Bloodraven--a Targaryen bastard who served as Hand to multiple Targaryen kings, remained loyal to the Targaryens through several rebellions of a splinter faction called the Blackfyres, and was eventually arrested and sent off to the Night's Watch. There, he rose through the ranks to become Lord Commander, but disappeared while ranging north of the Wall (not unlike Ned Stark's brother Benjen).
When Bran meets Bloodraven in that cave in the far north, the Targaryen bastard is around 125 years old. Obviously, that's far beyond a normal human's lifespan; the sorcerer is essentially a living corpse, with a weirwood tree growing around and through him, roots snaking in and out of the empty socket where he lost an eye in a duel with his half-brother Aegor "Bittersteel" Rivers over 100 years earlier. (There's a saying that Bloodraven, a spymaster and skinchanger, had "a thousand eyes, and one.") He also has a distinctive winestain birthmark on one cheek--the source of his name, as it apparently resembles a bird.
(I should stop here to note that, technically, the Three-Eyed Crow and Bloodraven being the same person isn't 100% confirmed yet in the books, although the amount of evidence and clues that point to this theory being fact is overwhelmingly convincing.)
Why does any of this matter?
It's been established that author George R.R. Martin gave Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, at the very minimum, the basic gist of his story outline, so that they could work toward the same ending even as the show passed the books. But "Bran is king in the end" might not be the exact same ending George has in mind.
In the books, Bran was still chilling in that cave with the Three-Eyed Crow the last we saw. The show passed the books when Bran escaped the Night King's attack there, was rescued by Benjen, and headed back down South. Afterward, Bran was clearly changed: He no longer seemed like himself, and even made cryptic statements about how he wasn't really Bran anymore.
If we assume that some or all of these details came directly from the original author's still-unpublished book material, then there are some logical leaps we can make. I'll shout-out here to Twitter user T.J. Hafer, who started me thinking about this theory.
What if Bran really isn't Bran anymore? What if the Three-Eyed Crow isn't a benevolent being who wants to help Bran fight the White Walkers (the "Others" in the books), but simply another player of the game of thrones vying for power? The books are full of Targaryens and Targaryen loyalists who want to see their dynasty returned to glory, many of whom are not present in the show, and Bloodraven might be simply one more--albeit one playing a very long game.
Bloodraven may have sensed Bran's latent magical abilities and lured him north of the Wall so that he could get close to the Stark boy--and steal his body. It's been suggested--and this is how it seemed to work in the show--that "Three-Eyed Raven" is a mantle that can be passed from character to character. But what if becoming the Three-Eyed Crow really means that Bran literally becomes Bloodraven?
In the books, if Bran is really the Targaryen bastard Brynden Rivers in disguise when he returns southward, his actions throughout the rest of the series--if the novels play out at all like the show did--could make a lot more sense. Brandon Stark wouldn't sit around doing nothing while tens of thousands of innocent people died, but Bloodraven might, if it meant returning the Targaryens to power. In the book's history, Bloodraven traveled north to the Wall in the company of a young Maester Aemon--yes, the same Maester Aemon who's still alive in Jon and Sam's time. But unlike Aemon, Bloodraven may not have been content to let his family be snuffed out, even if it meant biding his time for decades and concocting a demented, complex plan to maneuver his way back to power in King's Landing.
And maybe the titular Song of Ice and Fire--although it still applies to Jon and Dany, too--could also symbolize the war between Bloodraven, a firey Targaryen, and the Others, who want to stop him from carrying his plan out for some reason. For book readers who have had a lot of time to speculate in between releases, these theories go deep--there are rabbit holes involving things like the Stark family's connections to the Others, and that may all play into this as well.
One thing I know for sure is that the ending as presented on the show--that Bran appeared to manipulate the other characters by selectively revealing bits and pieces of information only when it suited him and allowed tens of thousands of people to die horribly so he could be a Good, Just King--doesn't sit quite right with me. Whether the series' true ending is something that fans have already predicted, exactly the same as the show or completely different, or even something that no one has yet foreseen, we'll simply have to wait to find out.