“GRRM is shook,” wrote our resident maester, my colleague Jason Concepcion, on The Ringer’s internal Game of Thrones Slack channel on July 22. “He has no idea how to end the story.”
At the time, Jason’s sentiment was close to the consensus view on the state of George R.R. Martin’s masterwork. Ten days earlier, Martin had published an image of the Doom of Valyria on his LiveJournal, accompanied by a lone line of text that read, “Alas, alas, that great city Valyria, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.” That message, along with Martin’s listed mood (“enigmatic”) and the post’s rarely used “song of ice and fire” tag, briefly inspired speculation that the author was about to announce the release of the long-awaited sixth book in the series, The Winds of Winter. (One exegesis even suggested a street date.) But as hours passed and no new details emerged, Martin’s post appeared to be either a defeated response to or a trollish attempt to upstage the L.A. unveiling of the Thrones Season 7 premiere, which on the following Sunday set a series record for overnight views.
Jason’s comment was prompted by a subsequent post on Martin’s site, which seemed to preclude the possibility of Winds being published before 2018 and allowed that it might take much longer. That admission, coupled with Martin’s confession that increased scrutiny and the show’s popularity were subjecting him to unprecedented pressure, fueled a spreading belief that he would never finish the books. Even if he did, the thinking went, the TV adaptation had already stolen their thunder. Not only had Game of Thrones—which debuted on HBO two months before the release of the fifth book and seems likely to be completed before we see the sixth—become the more culturally visible version of the saga, but it was already spoiling the books’ big finish by being the first to divulge secrets such as Jon Snow’s parentage, which Martin had hidden and hinted at for decades.
Two months ago it looked like Martin had lost control of his life’s work, upstaged by a televised series that had made him wealthy and famous but also one of the most mocked and pitied people in the literary world. Fast-forward six episodes, though—which Martin, whose recent public output consists of modeling hats, claims he hasn’t watched—and the conversation surrounding the Westeros world-builder has changed. For the first time since the show’s narrative progress surpassed that of the books, Martin seems like the true steward of the story and the best hope for a fully satisfying resolution. As we wait for Sunday’s HBO finale, Martin has been the biggest winner of a spotty Season 7.
After several seasons in which the series’ universally positive critical reputation matched its popular status as the only remaining show that it’s safe to assume a stranger has watched, a Game of Thrones backlash has begun. The latest season, which the show’s creators voluntarily truncated to seven episodes from the series’ customary 10—ironically, in an effort not to compromise on quality—has seemed to suffer from that brevity. The past two episodes, in particular, have been marred by far-fetched timing and travel, idiot plots, and, most distressing of all, deftly developed fan favorites acting out of character.
The media scaffolding that’s sprung up around Thrones has responded accordingly, clocking record-breaking ravens, diagnosing the show’s worst decisions, and taking leery looks forward in articles, including one by The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey on Wednesday, whose subhed asked if it’s too late to correct course. Maybe 60-some strong episodes should have earned Thrones a longer grace period than it’s gotten, but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, in a possible unforced error, have left themselves only seven more episodes to work with, which makes every moment matter. And even small-sample missteps are notable for a series that’s rarely had an off episode.
When Benioff and Weiss sailed past some of the books’ story lines last season, armed with only a basic overview of how Martin intended to end his series, the show initially seemed not to take a hit from losing its quasi-script of prepublished material. It was exhilarating—if at times bittersweet—for book readers to watch without foreknowledge and non–book readers to watch without worrying about being spoiled (or lectured about how something was better in the books). And with the hard work of world-building already achieved by thousands of pages of prologue, Martin’s continued involvement seemed extraneous. As a piece by Wired’s Emily Dreyfuss proclaimed, “George R.R. Martin doesn’t need to finish writing the Game of Thrones books.” Some critics even praised a new looseness and levity that they perceived as a change of pace from Martin’s “power and pathos.”
Now, though, the possible costs of the series’ separation from its original source are starting to show, in ways as minor as the mundane names of the (ugh) “Loot Train Attack” and as major as Tyrion’s predictably disastrous plan to put together a posse and kidnap a wight north of the Wall, which provoked a chorus of why-would-they-do-thats. Many and more writers have described recent episodes as feeling like fan fiction that lacks the authentic Martin touch. Nor has the series succeeded in surprising us the way it once did; its latest twist, the Episode 6 “ice dragon” reveal, was easy to see coming.
It’s possible that none of this would have happened if Martin’s watch weren’t ended (or at least long-delayed). Whatever his lapses on the single-sentence level, Martin is a brilliant, meticulous plotter who’s demonstrated incredible attention to detail. Surely the man who coined “The Field of Fire” would have found a more memorable way to describe an offensive involving a dragon and the first charge of the Dothraki on Westerosi soil. And surely the visionary who created these characters and spent years deciding how to move them around the map would have crafted a more elegant—and less temporally implausible—plan for putting them all in one place. The show seems as if it’s rushing toward an ending, which is certainly one sin of which Martin can’t be accused.
Of course, if Martin could have played out every plot line perfectly, maybe he already would have. His slow going on his signature series—even as his non-Winds word count climbs—seems like a sign that he’s out of answers, too. But now he’s not alone in fumbling toward a finale, and whatever problems he’s having are happening on a DOS-powered word processor’s screen, protected from the prying eyes of fans as well as from the hackers who’ve plundered HBO’s digital vaults.
Even if Martin can’t top the ending that’s unspooling on screen, the fact that the show is struggling makes his own difficulties less glaring. Benioff and Weiss are skilled artists, too. That their series is slumping now, when it’s never been closer to the center of the cultural spotlight, is a reflection of how hard it is to tie up a story with this many moving parts. Game of Thrones did great work with a wide canvas, an almost limitless set of possible outcomes, and a huge cast that it could kill off at unexpected times. Now, the focus for the finale has narrowed to a few locations, the events of the endgame are easier to envision, and eliminating any of the core characters who’ve managed to last this long would leave the show a bit less, like Beric after a resurrection. Thrones seems more and more like traditional TV because circumstances no longer allow it to be the mold-shattering show it once was.
But the series’ stumbles in its second-to-last leg have left open the possibility that Martin could reclaim his creation. As Martin told Time in July, when asked about the conflict between the two coexisting incarnations of his story, “The walls are up in my mind.” Those walls could keep the books from being tainted if the show’s reputation is sullied by how it handles the last act.
If Martin can find a path past the plot pitfalls that have hamstrung the show, he can still establish A Song of Ice and Fire as the superior version of the Westeros saga—not for the HBO viewers who’ll consume the story only one way, but at least for the fans who’ve taken the time to read as well as watch. Martin has one advantage: If he wants to watch or read fan feedback, he can see what did and didn’t work on screen and avoid making the same mistakes. HBO was the first body into the breach, absorbing the inevitable blows from a rabid fan base that expected a flawless finish. Martin might face less fire if and when he launches a second assault on the target.
But a better approach needn’t necessarily require massive deviations from the TV version. Even if Martin’s story sticks to the same broad beats, it could benefit from unfolding over thousands of pages, without the compression and corner-cutting that have made Season 7 seem so elided. Books rely on their readers’ imaginations to provide visuals, and imagination doesn’t have to stay under a certain CGI budget.
We’ve known for some time that Martin won’t be the first to finish the series he started. But the longer the lead that HBO builds, the more likely it looks that Martin’s last words won’t have to be wind.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.