Watching Game of Thrones recently has often been synonymous with watching long-held predictions come true before your very eyes. That was never more true than the closing scene of Sunday night’s “The Dragon and the Wolf,” which saw a cataclysm that’s been five books, seven seasons, and an entire cottage industry in the making: the fall of the Wall, and the army of the dead’s entry into Westeros. The wait for Game of Thrones’ final battle is over. And because final battles are, well, final, the show soon will be, too.
It’s finally happening, if not until 2019: The end of Game of Thrones is in sight. There are just six episodes of HBO’s biggest moneymaker, fantasy’s most successful crossover hit, and television’s last great unifier left. Die-hards have long viewed Game of Thrones’ finish line with a mixture of anticipation and dread: It offers the thrilling prospect of watching years of investment coming to its head, combined with the saddening knowledge that a story’s climax must be followed by its end. But Thrones’ abbreviated seventh season has added a new feeling to that already heady combination: trepidation. As you have possibly read or even complained about on the internet, its seven episodes contained numerous jarring sudden-onset flaws. None individually proved catastrophic, but collectively, the episodes brought up the uncomfortable possibility that Thrones’ powers that be don’t quite know how to land this gargantuan ship—or worse yet, that the show itself, founded on sprawl and subversion, is impossible to end well.
This latest volume of Thrones was not the first showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took on without the guidance of George R.R. Martin’s books. That Rubicon was technically crossed with Season 6: “The Winds of Winter” was a standout episode partly because every part of the show’s fan base—including the book readers—could share in the shock and awe of Cersei nuking a temple, or Tommen committing suicide, or Dorne and the Tyrells putting aside their generations of bad blood to become Daenerys Targaryen’s first allies on the mainland. Game of Thrones inaugurated its post-book era largely by continuing in the same grand, diffuse, occasionally gut-punching fashion as it had before, just with the added benefit of gut-punching more people. The clear implication was that we were in good hands. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s Game of Thrones was inseparable from George R.R. Martin’s, and the way their story proceeded without his detailed instructions confirmed it.
Season 7, on the other hand, has faltered without the guidance of the books. The most recent set of episodes operated under a significantly revised guiding ethos, to the point where the show was sometimes unrecognizable as its meticulously plotted, ruthlessly unsentimental former self. There was the sudden enlistment of fan service as a go-to plot mechanism, which gave us multiple Lyanna Mormont grandstands, a major battle with zero major casualties, and Brienne and Tormund as the Improvised ’Ship That Could. This led to the accompanying worry that concluding a story is incompatible with Thrones’ history of genre reinvention, a natural speculation when faced with a dragon-on-zombie showdown or protagonists, like Jon or even Theon Greyjoy, who survived for no reason other than plot. (If someone’s made it this far, the show’s logic clearly went, they’re either in it till the end or need a grand exit. No way Theon was going to lose that fight on the beach.) Blatantly reverse-engineered developments had detrimental effects on beloved characters like Arya, whose actions had no clear motivation beyond delaying Littlefinger’s death, or Jon, the supposed natural leader who organized a suicide mission that did nothing for his side and everything for the Night King’s. Looming over it all was the prospect that Thrones’ zombie endgame means turning away from the human-scale conflict that makes the show so compelling. All of this unfolded at a disorienting hyperspeed that broke all previously established rules of time and space, a baldly utilitarian pacing choice that jerked many fans out of this once patiently unfolding sprawl.
It’s in the nature of television for shows to fluctuate in quality from season to season. (Thrones itself has had its ups and downs: remember Dorne, or Theon’s torture scenes?) Besides, even if Game of Thrones should fumble its landing, it ought to be noted that this series has long since established its legacy as an unprecedented feat of scale and world-building. As The Ringer’s own Maester is fond of pointing out, should George R.R. Martin never publish another word, the intricate, brutal universe he created and populated with vivid, unforgettable characters stands perfectly well on its own. Something similar is true for Game of Thrones: The series that gave us “Hardhome,” the infamously titled “Loot Train Attack,” and moments like Jaime and Brienne squaring off in a hot tub has forever changed our expectations for what television can accomplish, both as a logistical enterprise and a long-term narrative. Its staggering popularity at a time when water-cooler series seem like a thing of the past alone testifies to its success, though Thrones is more than a Big Bang Theory or even Walking Dead. It’s one of the most ambitious TV adaptations to date, and while its overall track record might prove uneven, it’s frequently succeeded in bringing the essence of Martin’s vision to our living rooms.
And yet it’s understandable to be looking toward Game of Thrones’ home stretch with as much consternation as excitement. In any story, there’s an inevitable tradeoff between potential and specificity; by choosing a particular direction to go in, one automatically cuts off all the alternatives that might have been. The anxiety that comes with a definitive ending is especially acute in TV, which gives viewers hundreds of hours to dream up their own preferred outcome or gather evidence for why the one they got isn’t the one the show deserved. And with Thrones, whose conclusion will have to serve as both its own finale and a placeholder for an obsessively beloved book series’, the ante is upped even further. Is it any wonder the sloppy rationale behind the expedition beyond the Wall, Arya’s out-of-character threats, or the warp-speed exposition dumps have raised people’s hackles?
Yet those specific missteps often feel like avoidable examples of a more unavoidable problem. As Thrones has gotten closer to its final hours, more and more of its endgame has been brought into focus, dimming the wide-open “anything could happen” feeling of Ned Stark’s death or the Sept of Baelor’s fiery explosion. The central irony of Game of Thrones’ relentless pessimism—conventional heroes don’t have what it takes to win wars; conversely, great fighters don’t always make great leaders—is that there’s an optimism inherent within it; just as Dany promises there’s a different way to govern a fractious, war-torn kingdom, Thrones promises there’s a different way to craft a fantasy. And yet I’ll be shocked if Thrones’ ultimate outcome doesn’t include some version of Jon and Daenerys vanquishing the White Walkers and sharing the Iron Throne. Just because they’re related doesn’t mean Jon and Dany don’t otherwise fit our preconceived notions for what rulers look like: the conventionally moral heartthrob (who’s now outright obstinate about learning from his father’s mistakes) and the take-no-prisoners queen who exacts justice via dragon.
All of which raises the question of whether it’s even possible to end Game of Thrones in a way that’s both satisfying and consistent, a query fans will doubtless spend this extensive interregnum mulling over. While no finale can or should define an entire series, a show as serialized, popular, and momentum-driven as Thrones has far more riding on its last moments than average. Having shortened the final season to a mere half dozen installments, Benioff and Weiss have only compounded the pressure on how much to do with the little space they have. And with nearly a year and a half until we get more material to analyze, we’ll have plenty of time to consider the infinite ways Thrones’ ending could go right or wrong.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.