Some seconds, minutes, or hours after the closing credits appeared on Sunday’s Game of Thrones finale, every viewer experienced the same sense of deflation. There we were, more than 12 million strong for the live airing, transfixed by Littlefinger’s lifeblood, Jon Snow’s globular butt, the ominous sight of snow falling on the Crownlands, and the even more ominous sight of the barrier between the dead and the living crumbling before the Night King’s ice-dragon assault. The plot was progressing, secrets were spilling, and long-looked-for couplings were coming to pass. And then: darkness, and the prospect of no new Thrones until … wait, when, exactly?
Potentially a really long time, by traditional TV standards (if not necessarily HBO’s). Because winter weather was required for filming, Season 7 started later than the six previous seasons, debuting in mid-July rather than the spring. Not only will even more wintry weather be required for the remaining six extra-long episodes, but an inevitable series of big battles involving mythical creatures will mean more time- and budget-consuming special effects. As a result, the gap between seasons 7 and 8 is likely to last significantly longer than the almost 13 months that elapsed between the Season 6 finale and the Season 7 premiere, which means that fans stand (as George R.R. Martin might write) no more than a mummer’s chance of seeing the series return in 2018. The wait for 8—not to mention The Winds of Winter—will probably take until 2019.
During the comedown from the finale, I compared the Thrones drought ahead to the Long Night. As dark and full of spoilers as the next year or two might seem, though, I’ve decided to savor the hiatus, knowing that an even longer night awaits us on the other side of the series’ final season. Even if the showrunners resolve the saga in satisfying fashion, the anticipation, speculation, and conversation surrounding Thrones are an even greater reward than the several hours of screen time and remaining plot payoffs in store whenever HBO airs the remaining episodes. And as long as those episodes are still in the works, that anticipation, speculation, and conversation can continue to build.
Even though it seems as if Thrones is following a more predictable path in the series’ old age, loads of loose ends are still flopping about. Yes, we can count on Cleganebowl, and it seems all but certain how Cersei will die. But we can only imagine how Jon will react when he finally learns that he’s humping his aunt and belongs to a family that follows the same naming conventions as House Foreman, or how his aunt will handle the news that the umpteenth Aegon has a stronger claim to the kingdoms than she does.
We don’t know the Night King’s origin story, why he wants to wight-out humanity, or how he’ll be stopped (by Dany on Drogon and Jon riding Rhaegal?). We can’t say whether someone (or someones) will sit on the Iron Throne, or whether breaking the wheel will require a more comfortable chair and less autocratic rule. Add in the standard concerns about body counts, oft-repeated prophecies, romantic missed connections (Arya-Pod? Tormund-Brienne?), and whether we’ll ever see Ghost again, and the suspense is still strong, despite all of the answers that seasons 6 and 7 supplied. That suspense will swell with each day that carries us closer to the series’ return.
Either next year or the year after, our curiosity will be sated, presumably in a span of six orgiastic weeks. And once we reach that point—after what will have been an eight-year odyssey for show watchers, and a much longer journey for A Song of Ice and Fire readers—our watches will end in one of two ways. Either the denouement will be bad, in which case we’ll feel worse than we do today, when we’re suffering from withdrawal but still expecting catharsis to come. Or the ending will be just what we wanted, which will also come with a catch.
It will feel like a relief, at first, to replace this gnawing not-knowing with certainty. We’ll retrace the twists that took us to the end, marvel at how far the surviving characters came, and toast one of TV’s crowning accomplishments.
And then—barring a book release a decade down the road—we’ll stop thinking about Thrones. Like late-model Bran, we’ll have gained access to everything, and in the process, lost a lot. Our Jon Snow jokes will start to sound dated. The Reddit threads about theories will dwindle and dry up, and the Wikis won’t be updated. We’ll forget the names of a direwolf here or a Ser there. Some of the actors will spend the rest of their careers coming off the HBO bench or looking for and failing to find parts with one-tenth the cultural cachet that they had at the height of their Thrones fame. We’ll have to ask strangers if they’ve seen Game of Thrones, rather than assuming it’s safe to make an analogy to that time in Season 6 when so-and-so did such-and-such. We’ll all struggle slightly more to make small talk.
If we’re lucky, we’ll get a good prequel; of the five in development, one or more might make it to air. Prequels, of course, are difficult to do well, and almost impossible to do so deftly that they rival the original. The best case might be Better Call Saul, which is almost the artistic equal of Breaking Bad but doesn’t inspire the same feverish need to know what’s next that briefly bound us together on Sundays during Heisenberg’s heyday. It’s easy to imagine a Thrones spinoff as a modest success, but any prequel that covered a well-known event from the world of Westeros would lack the narrative tension that Thrones maintains, and any attempt to flesh out an obscure story would have less detailed texts to draw on, and much smaller stakes. Future Thrones offshoots could settle into post–Deathly Hallows Harry Potter territory, where we desperately lap up each scrap of new information, argue about authorial ownership of the franchise, and never recapture the joy that the series proper provided.
Maybe the monoculture will bounce back and produce another obsession that will save us from the splintered TV future that’s currently looming after 2019. For now, though, Thrones is the best hope we have for a lingua franca of fiction. I’m glad we don’t have to stop speaking it soon.
We know that Thrones’ secrets are out there, locked in some safe or hard drive that, in the wake of this summer’s senseless hacking spree, no longer seems so secure. I’m content for them to be doled out at the creators’ preferred pace. If your desire to know where all the pieces end up outweighs your will to wait, the internet will probably oblige with early leaks, just as it did several months before Season 7 started. But if you can hold out for HBO’s big finish, distracting yourself in the interim with some GRRM-approved Thrones methadone like The Last Kingdom, the delay will only enhance the enjoyment, like a Stanford marshmallow experiment for fans of prestige TV.
Until the next episode starts—and with it, another countdown to credits—Westeros will be a vibrant world where we can spend our idle hours and dream up our own endings. For the next year or two, Jon and Dany will be banging on a slow boat to White Harbor, Sam will be warming himself by the fire and bantering with a blank-faced Bran, and the army of the dead will be marching south without ever arriving (just as it did for much of Season 7). Thrones is dormant, but it’s still simmering. Long may it linger.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.