This has felt like a very long year for many reasons, but the fact that it was the first year we didn’t get a new season of Game of Thrones didn’t help. The fantasy phenomenon wrapped up its penultimate seventh season the summer before last, and the show’s tens of millions of fans still have to wait until April of next year to know the fates of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and the other remaining survivors. I’m dying to see the story’s end as much as anyone — but I’m also kind of afraid, because I don’t think there’s any possible ending that will be truly satisfying.
Endings are hard to do well, period. Even just sticking to modern TV dramas, there are plenty of excellent shows that left their viewers either wanting more (The Sopranos), wanting something different (Mad Men), wanting their proverbial money back (Lost), or wanting to have never wasted their time in the first place (Dexter). There are always a few series that stick the landing (Breaking Bad), but they’re the exception, not the rule. And the more time and attention fans have invested in a story, the more anticipation they have for the story’s end, continually raising their expectations — and their chances of being disappointed, too.
Game of Thrones is most like Lost in that it is a cultural phenomenon, a series with a huge audience that transcends any specific group as a proverbial “water cooler” show. (If you had told me 10 years ago that my mother, who’s never picked up a fantasy book in her life, would be calling me on Sunday nights, desperate for answers about that night’s episode of a show with dragons in it, I never would have believed you.) The immense popularity of the show gives it more real estate in the modern pop culture consciousness, which inspires fandom and media coverage and merchandising, which attracts more viewers, which increases pop culture landholdings, etc.
To be fair, it will be genuinely difficult for Game of Thrones to pull out an ending that is as unsatisfying as that of Lost, if only because Martin has had a basic plan for how his story would end since he kicked off the A Song of Ice and Fire series with A Game of Thrones back in 1996, and has given the TV adaptation’s a bit of a head’s-up, while Lost’s arbitrary ending seemed to prove the rumors that there had never been an end in mind at all. But Game of Thrones has a greater impediment to finding a conclusion that will satisfy its fans — which, ironically, has also been its greatest strength.
I’m dying to see the story’s end as much as anyone — but I’m also kind of afraid, because I don’t think there’s any possible ending that will be truly satisfying.
Dragons and ice zombies may be part of Game of Thrones’ appeal, but that’s not why the series has drawn such a wide audience since its 2011 debut. As the people watching the show, despite things like dragons, will tell you, their fandom is owed to its compelling, well-rounded characters and unidealized feudal setting, both of which ground the series and make it an epic drama, first and foremost, and a fantasy spectacle second.
It’s the “epic” part that’s the problem. Game of Thrones is a tale of dozens of major characters, going on individual micro-journeys while several major factions vie for control on the macro level, all buoyed by centuries of their own historical context, set on an enormous stage, creating a sense of infinite possibilities. Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin augments this with his penchant for ignoring genre tropes — most famously by killing off characters it feels impossible for the story to lose — and primarily because of his uncanny ability to create an organic narrative, where everything affects the overarching plot, where something seemingly innocuous can have major repercussions many chapters (or even books!) later, and where even the most shocking, unexpected events feel like a natural, logical progression of the story he’s telling.
Since the TV series has largely replicated Martin’s storytelling on screen, it’s enjoyed similar success and inspired similar passion as the books. But now that the show is ending, it’s been narrowing down those infinite possibilities in order to reach its conclusion — in a sense, tearing down Game of Thrones’ most enthralling quality like the White Walkers tearing down the Wall in the season seven finale. It’s utterly necessary to complete the story, and completely unavoidable, but it makes the infinite finite. The series will have to diminish itself in order to complete its story, regardless of the actual content of the ending.
Game of Thrones’ fandom is owed to its compelling, well-rounded characters and unidealized feudal setting, both of which ground the series and make it an epic drama, first and foremost, and a fantasy spectacle second. It’s the “epic” part that’s the problem.
Let’s take, for instance, what will most likely be the final major development of the series: Who will sit on the Iron Throne? There’s only one major (remaining) character whose journey has been specifically to rule Westeros, and that character is Daenerys. She’s the obvious choice to win the throne game — so obvious, in fact, that it would feel like a letdown for a series that’s been so dedicated to upending standard fantasy story beats. Still, the next best (possibly most popular) option would be to give it to Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion, since his life has been full of misery and indignity, and he’s shown himself a capable administrator in the past. This makes narrative sense and is probably the closest the show could get to a happy ending. But should Game of Thrones have a happy ending? Do we want it to? Wouldn’t it, in some way, feel like a cheat — like the story wasn’t being true to itself?
But the problem isn’t really with Daenerys, Tyrion, or all the other characters that may end up ruling Westeros or whether anyone rules Westeros or if it splits back into seven kingdoms or suddenly becomes a democracy or whatever. (Okay, that last one would be very crappy.) It’s that Game of Thrones is so popular and so epic and its ending so anticipated that every possible outcome, regardless of how good or bad it is, is inherently not as exciting as the spectrum of possibilities that precede it.
That’s a bummer, but it can also be liberating. However the show ends, whatever issues the final season might have, your enjoyment of Game of Thrones the series does not have to be dependent on it. Maybe the characters make decisions that no longer make sense. Maybe the quality of the writing keeps dropping. Maybe all semblance of quality storytelling is dropped for the spectacle of seeing giant battles of the living and the dead, but with dragons (eat your decomposing heart out, The Walking Dead). Maybe it turns out the show has just been a board game played by a bunch of kids in Milwaukee in the ’70s, and the series’ grounded realism is shattered into a million pieces.
Any one of these could happen, or all of them could. Maybe the one thing that will finally unite our country, and thus the world, will be in our universal agreement that the final season totally blew. But it will still only be a part of the series that you liked, loved, or were so completely consumed by that you purchased the Game of Thrones Cookbook in a fit of crazed fandom after the “Battle of the Bastards” episode, and it’s been collecting dust ever since.
If you end up disappointed with the end of Game of Thrones, it will be because of how much you enjoyed Game of Thrones prior to it. Try to remember that during the series’ final shot of Cersei Lannister and her new husband Samwell Tarly holding the first democratic elections in Westeros.