In 2014, George R.R. Martin met with Game of Thrones’ showrunners to outline how the story they were all telling would conclude. That talk, which covered what would end up being the last four seasons of the show, included three “holy shit moments”: the immolation of Shireen Baratheon, the origin of Hodor’s name, and one that David Benioff would only hint was “from the very end.”
After watching Daenerys Targaryen lay waste to King’s Landing, it’s safe to say we’ve hit the third of Martin’s big holy shits. It was soul-shaking to watch the dreams of a better Westeros literally go up in flames, 72 episodes’ worth of hope for the future obliterated in a few fateful, terrifying minutes. It would have been hard to believe, had Game of Thrones not trained us from the beginning to always expect the unexpected. The show’s single-minded devotion to replicating that feeling of shock and disbelief as often as possible is one reason the series, with one episode to go, feels like it’s yanking us from one plot twist to the next rather than coasting in for a smooth landing.
As with Arya’s killing of the Night King, the heavy foreshadowing of Daenerys’ transformation from messianic hero to wanton murderer—references to the “Targaryen curse” of hereditary madness; her habitual isolation; her scarily unshakable belief that she was destined to rule—didn’t keep it from feeling like a cheat, as if the characters were being bent to the plot rather than guiding it. Perhaps that’s an inevitable result of the unenviable position in which Benioff and D.B. Weiss found themselves, working toward Martin’s predetermined ending after the guideposts set by his novels had run out. (Not even Martin himself, hopelessly lost in the weeds between books five and six, has managed to find the way forward.)
But it’s also because Benioff and Weiss have opted to value the element of surprise above all else, forcing themselves to deliver as many holy shit moments as possible but too afraid of being outguessed to visibly progress toward them. The result, as the show ekes out its last hours on our screens, has been a series of plot turns that somehow feel both overdetermined and underdeveloped, obvious and arbitrary.
Is Game of Thrones “the last show we watch together”? The eight years every network has spent trying and failing to make the next Game of Thrones are a good indicator it might indeed be the last of its kind: the last must-watch series to be released on a weekly schedule, leaving viewers speculating for days about what might happen next. In a world driven by the rush of binge viewing, it’s become increasingly hard for linear shows to make the same kind of impact; it’s like running a marathon against an endless relay of sprinters. Linear TV’s primary weapon in the streaming wars has been the holy shit moment, the plot twists and out-of-the-blue revelations whose impact is increased by the weeklong wait to see what happens next. Game of Thrones has put that lesson into practice more consistently than any show (or at least any show not overseen by Shonda Rhimes or Ryan Murphy), and it’s reaped massive rewards in the form of audiences of millions desperate to be in front of a TV or tablet on Sunday nights lest they be spoiled by friends at work or on their social feeds. But the emphasis on surprise has crippled the show’s ability to build toward its most shocking developments, so that even when they fit into its larger themes, they still feel as if they were pulled out of a hat.
In many ways, Daenerys’ murderous rampage is the perfect bookend to Ned Stark’s death. The show told us from the beginning that it was a mistake to believe in noble rulers destined for the throne, and the fact that Daenerys was more successful than Ned doesn’t make her more fit to rule. The series has suggested all along that no single ruler, no matter how ordained or enlightened, can overcome our flawed human nature or our fractious societies—while at the same time all but forcing us to invest in Dany and/or Jon Snow’s drive to seize the Iron Throne from the Lannisters. “The Bells” turned our expectations against us, cutting off what seemed to be building to an epic battle at the midway point and shifting to a wholesale slaughter. Instead of taking out her wrath on Cersei, Daenerys took it out on Cersei’s people, the subjects who, as soon as the bells of surrender tolled, were effectively hers.
That makes perfect sense for Game of Thrones. It made far less sense for Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys, who had been a stern and occasionally vindictive ruler, but who had never taken the kind of joy in meting out death one would think you’d need to dragon-strafe a fully inhabited city. The focus on the ground-level destruction in the episode’s second half underlines the human cost of her terrible decision, but it’s also revealing that once Daenerys has made the decision to slaughter innocents, we never again see her face. Clarke brought her A game to the look of hollowed-out resignation just before Daenerys commences her rain of fire, but the show can’t convincingly show us what she looks like in the middle of it, because it hasn’t done the work to get her there.
Martin’s books are famous for their twists, but they’re also full of prophecies and visions and dreams that at least hint at what’s to come. When Martin first met with Benioff and Weiss about adapting A Song of Ice and Fire for TV, he tested their worth with a pop quiz about Jon Snow’s true parentage—a secret that Martin hadn’t revealed but one to which he had left ample clues in the text for anyone diligent enough to puzzle them out. Even when Game of Thrones, the TV show, pretends to have predicted its own ending—as with Melisandre’s Season 3 prophecy that Arya would shut the Night King’s blue eyes—it feels like a retcon, not the kind of development that makes you kick yourself for not seeing it sooner. Some fans outraged by the series’ denouement have accused Benioff and Weiss of ruining Martin’s masterwork, but they may have actually done him a favor. If Martin ever does get around to completing his saga, he won’t be saddled with the burden of surprising his readers, and he can put more work into satisfying them.