Television

The Same Things That Made Game of Thrones Great Make It Impossible for It to End Well

Davos, Jon, and Tyrion look toward the gates of King’s Landing.
HBO

If you’re tired of feeling like Game of Thrones is making it obvious what’s going to happen in its final two episodes, try this for a surprising twist. We’re on the brink of war between Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister. All the forces are aligned. And just when the battle is about to begin, the Seven appear. You know, the Father, the Mother, the Smith, the Maiden, the Stranger, the Crone, the Warrior—the embodiments of the divine worshipped by a good chunk of Westeros. Instead of allowing the people who survived the Night King’s assault to slaughter one another just as a yearslong winter is about to start, the Seven intervene and create a new order, with civic institutions to adjudicate disputes (even those involving rulers), an end to feudalism, and a newly robust state with a monopoly on the use of force.

I love this ending. It’s shocking, it reconnects with the source material’s deep skepticism about the efficacy of violence, and it’s the way that the story of the House of Atreus, the original multigenerational revenge saga, ends in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. But it’s a little too shocking, a little too deliberately unsatisfying, and it’s missing a sense of inevitability to mix with the surprise. What we really want when something ends is the delicious feeling of watching something unexpected happen and then realizing, perhaps with a wry smile and a nod, that it always had to end like this.

Game of Thrones doesn’t really seem to have a lot of surprises left. The biggest twist in the Battle of Winterfell was that no one we have any investment in died. The characters seem to do exactly what we expect them to do, with moves telegraphed several steps in advance. Tyrion thinks he’s a great strategist and master of rhetoric, but he keeps coming up short. Jon is a lawful good dunderhead. Cersei is evil and manipulative. Ghost is not on screen enough. Can a show that built its reputation on subverting expectations really have become so … predictable?

The answer is probably yes, but it’s an inevitable result of what happens to stories when they end. Embracing an unending complexity in character, story, and world building is exactly why George R.R. Martin’s series of novels remains unfinished. A Song of Ice and Fire has spun out on an ice slick of infinite possibility, introducing, among other things, a horn that can control dragons, another one that can topple the Wall, a Sansa imposter, a mysterious new Targaryen who invades Westeros, and complicated, unexplained intrigues at the Citadel, possibly involving the Faceless Men. More than 1,000 pages after Tyrion left Westeros, he and Dany have yet to meet. As the books amply demonstrate, at some point writers have to stop creating options and start making choices. In fiction, as in life, there’s a fundamental sadness to those choices: We can feel alternate possibilities perishing the moment that the die is cast. But those choices also set the outlines of a story, and without them, it loses its shape.

The phrase the die is cast was, according to Suetonius and Plutarch, famously uttered by Julius Caesar, as he stood on the banks of a river deliberating over whether to bring his army into Rome. All of the previous decisions in his life had brought him to this one choice, and once he made it, only two possibilities remained: death or victory. (Put another way: You win or you die.) He crossed the river, which, because it was ruddy from the mud on its banks, was called the Rubicon. And in crossing it, Caesar gave us a central metaphor for a choice that cannot be taken back—what writers call a one-way gate.

Caesar, at least, lived in the real world. The poor characters in genre stories have far fewer options. Shakespeare’s tragedies give us characters with groundbreaking interiority and self-consciousness, plays that use familiar stories to limn the human condition, but they still end in sword duels and death. Even Hamlet—an overstuffed dumpling of existential musings, plays within plays, pirate ship rescues, and court intrigue—ends this way. Often, Shakespeare’s characters have a moment when they realize they are trapped in a tragedy. When this happens to Romeo, he cries, “I am fortune’s fool!” Hamlet, on the other hand, is more sanguine:

If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?

The it he’s talking about is death. In facing death, Hamlet becomes noble and virtuous, a martyr who exchanges forgivenesses with the man who kills him so that both can go to heaven. Horatio, his best friend, and Fortinbras, who assumes the throne of Denmark, both sing his praises. He becomes, well, good, despite his many shades of gray throughout the play. Claudius, who is given shades of gray himself, becomes a sniveling, evil, coward. By the fifth act, the choices both men have made have made them who they are.

Game of Thrones has spent quite a bit of time this season reminding us of how the characters’ choices have led them to who they are now. They have walked—or sometimes been forced—through one-way gates, and they can’t go back. From the perspective of character development, the last meaningful choice Cersei made was betraying Ned Stark at the end of Season 1. Sansa’s last meaningful choice was calling in Littlefinger to help Jon at the Battle of the Bastards. Arya’s was siding with Sansa over Littlefinger. The Hound’s was joining up with Beric Dondarrion. Only a few characters—Jaime, Varys, and Daenerys chief among them—still have an opportunity to redefine themselves.

There’s something very uncomfortable about all of this, because it means the characters all have very limited agency. We like to think of characters, and ourselves, as having more independence to shape our lives. We like to think that we could, at any moment, reveal hitherto unseen aspects of ourselves, and that there is no choice we’ve made that is so dire it can’t be taken back. If the great comfort of genre fiction is the use (or rejection) of familiar tropes, the discomfiting thing about it is that its characters are trapped in those tropes. Even kings and queens, who have extraordinary agency within the world of their stories, have less independence in the stories themselves. In Greek tragedy, which is the West’s earliest form of high fantasy, characters often had no agency at all. What they thought were their own decisions turned out simply to be the fulfillment of prophecy, or the result of manipulation by crafty, powerful gods. Literary fiction, meanwhile, presents an uncomfortably unpredictable world with fewer known rules at the outset but, with its focus on interiority and the individual, comforts us with characters who often have more freedom to take their stories in unexpected directions. The genius of A Song of Ice and Fire is that George R.R. Martin gave us both a story shaped by its relationship to genre tropes and characters with interiority who behaved in unexpected ways that frequently threatened to break the genre’s mechanics.

But Game of Thrones can’t have it both ways forever. The pleasures of stories as they end—catharsis, resolution, payoff—are not the same as when they begin. The only way to keep all the nuance—which is to say, all the possibility—of Game of Thrones alive is for the show to never end. Were it a long-running soap opera, it could keep characters changing and plots twisting unexpectedly forever. Just as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have had to break the laws of physics, telescope the size of Westeros at will, and mercilessly cast off untold side plots, they’ve had to make the choices the books refuse to in order to bring about the end of this story—the ending Martin gave them but may never reach himself. Not all of those choices work. But the most problematic choice isn’t in the scripts at all; it’s the choice to dole out what vanishingly little plot remains over six weeks after an 18-month hiatus. The sheer amount of time we’ve spent waiting for this story’s conclusion, along with the hype generated by HBO’s preseason publicity efforts, has led us to expect an ending that will both remain as tricky, unpredictable, and densely plotted as the earlier seasons while also satisfyingly wrapping up a considerable number of dangling plot threads.

But the ending, like winter, is here. When the final episode airs, there will likely be surprises—the original audience for Hamlet probably found Gertrude’s death shocking, too—but very few of those surprises will reveal new sides to these characters. We know them too well and have spent too much time with them for that. Game of Thrones built its reputation on defying the more comforting and triumphant tropes of its genre, aiming instead for a brand of truth centered on the inadequacy of institutions and the darker sides of human nature. It would only be in keeping with this for Game of Thrones to show us that people are less complicated than we’d like to believe and that our lives narrow, rather than expand, as the years trudge on.