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The One Death Game of Thrones Can’t Face

There’s no way humans should win this battle.

Jon Snow battles White Walkers in Game of Thrones.
Jon Snow et al. face impossible odds, and yet … HBO

I can’t tell you how Game of Thrones ends, but I’m pretty sure I can tell you how it doesn’t. From the beginning, the series has depicted a world in which attempting to appeal to others’ sense of a higher purpose is the quickest way to get yourself killed. (Just ask Ned Stark’s severed head.) Viewers have known from the beginning that humanity is facing an existential threat from the army of undead known as the White Walkers, but the show’s characters have discovered the looming crisis only gradually, and they’ve been slow to reckon with the little they do know. Now, with the Night King’s masses marching south from the sundered Wall, there’s no doubt that the threat is real. And yet, with only five episodes of Game of Thrones remaining, the human race is resolutely failing to rise to the occasion. Jon Snow’s attempt to form an alliance with Daenerys Targaryen has created dissension instead of unity, with some northern houses deserting the cause and others, like poor little Lord Umber’s, left unprepared and undersupplied. Despite having pledged her troops, Cersei is merely lying in wait, hoping that the rival armies weaken each other enough for her to conquer whatever remains.

There is only one plausible conclusion to this saga, and it’s that humanity does not survive. Westeros’ various factions either never get it together at all, or they realize, too late, that even the divisions between them that have lasted for centuries pale next to the gulf between the living and the dead. In the first season, Cersei explained the struggle for power to Ned Stark—who, at that point, still had his head—as one in which “you win or you die,” and the years that followed have uncovered little evidence of a third option. No one’s negotiating peace with the Night King.

The facts on the ground in Westeros are different than those in our world, but human nature is constant across universes, and what we’ve seen of Game of Thrones’ take on it is unsparingly pessimistic—and entirely warranted. The series’ utility as an allegory of climate change can be overplayed, but to the extent that it reflects our ability to band together in the face of looming catastrophe, it’s all too accurate. Last year, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that irreversible changes could set in as early as 2030 and that preventing them would require a massive and unprecedented transformation of the global economy. Faced with a clear deadline and overwhelming scientific consensus, we’ve done … “nothing” seems not too strong a word. There’s nothing remotely approaching the kind of unshakable public resolve that would move politicians and industry to prompt, decisive action. Some of us are pretty upset about the whole thing, but others are either too flush with fossil-fuel cash or too busy drinking from Liberal Tears mugs to admit the problem exists. (As I am currently writing about a popular television program rather than chaining myself to the doors of the Environmental Protection Agency, on a global level I’m not accomplishing much more.)

What little we know about Game of Thrones’ final season suggests the series will at least flirt with the possibility of mass extinction. The episode-length Battle of Winterfell will likely fall in the season’s third episode, directed by Miguel Sapochnik, who’s directed the series’ previous blowouts. (Given that the troops are already assembled, it seems unlikely the show would wait until the fifth episode, also directed by Sapochnik, to play that card.) That means the human armies will make a do-or-die stand at Winterfell, and unless the series plans to spend three full episodes on the comparatively unimportant question of who ascends to the Iron Throne after the Night King’s defeat, my guess is that humanity will lose that battle. And since every human killed is not just a loss for one side but an undead addition to the other, that ought to be the ballgame. As a viewer, I’m rooting for Jon Snow and co. But if I were an Essos gambler laying a bet, I know whom I’d put my money on.

There’s just one problem. The show that became famous for its willingness to kill off seemingly essential figures has grown less and less likely to do so. Even before Jon Snow came back from the dead, viewers had begun to develop a sense of which characters were essential to the series’ endgame, and thus impossible to kill off. You didn’t need Ramsay Bolton or even Littlefinger to tie up the story’s loose ends, but it’s impossible to imagine Dany or Jon getting axed for shock value. There was no chance the High Sparrow would dethrone Cersei for good or that Arya would fail the Faceless Men’s tests. The show’s core characters had acquired what fans call “plot armor,” which meant that any time the odds seemed truly hopeless, when they were backed against a wall and there seemed to be no way out, we knew the question wasn’t if they’d escape but only how.

Now that the series is almost over, individual characters are finally losing their invulnerability. (For all we know, any of those essential figures could buy it in Episode 2.) But there’s still one suit of plot armor left, and it’s the biggest and clankiest of all. I don’t know which humans will survive till the end of Game of Thrones, but I feel certain humanity will—that the series will end in a Westeros in which the Night King has at least been beaten back, if not wholly defeated. The logical endgame to the precepts Game of Thrones has espoused is the Night King grinning on the Iron Throne, surrounded by his army of the dead, but HBO hasn’t invested close to a billion dollars to tell a story whose moral is that humanity is screwed. Victory will come at a cost, but that cost will be paid; life, of one sort or another, will go on. There are, unfortunately, no such guarantees in our world. We might lose our battle, and there will be no one left to appreciate the plot twist.