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‘Game of Thrones’ Is Running Out of Ways to Make People Unhappy. Is That a Problem?

The famously subversive show is rapidly approaching the end of its internal logic. Can it figure out a way to offer resolution and subversion at the same time?

HBO/Ringer illustration

Two sisters, separated for years, have finally found their way back to each other. After surviving multiple abusive relationships and an identity-destroying death cult, respectively, Sansa and Arya Stark have a belated catch-up in the crypts below Winterfell, the castle where they grew up. The conversation, which arrives in the middle of Sunday night’s “The Spoils of War,” is the kind of feel-good moment you can count on in the third act of an epic, even one as protracted and defiantly unsentimental as Game of Thrones. But some uncharacteristic sentiment nonetheless peeks through, courtesy of Arya’s observation about a statue of their father. “Everyone who knew his face is dead,” says Sansa. “We’re not,” Arya responds. On a show where death is so commonplace you can literally bet on it, the line is a fourth-wall break in the middle of a heart-to-heart.

Game of Thrones has never lent itself to season-by-season analysis: Its narrative is characterized by the steady, long-term progression of a thousand disparate strands. It’s hard to argue that “the season where a bunch of stuff happened, some of which worked and some of which didn’t” is any better or worse than “the season where a bunch of other stuff happened, some of which worked and some of which didn’t.” Just past the halfway point of its seventh and penultimate volume, however, something fundamental has shifted in TV’s biggest blockbuster. The pace is massively accelerated, with characters traversing half a continent in the space of an episode. (How did an entire army of Dothraki get themselves to the mainland right after their side’s entire fleet got wiped out?) There’s an air of impending finality, lending every scene an additional layer of urgency: Each line could be a minor character’s last, each plot development an indication of the show’s endgame. Most of all, however, there’s been an abundance of a feeling that seems antithetical to Game of Thrones’ guiding ethos of subverting expectations. Season 7, weirdly enough, has been full of satisfaction.

It’s satisfying to see all the surviving Stark children reunited in their ancestral home. It’s satisfying to see long-forgotten characters like Hot Pie reappear happy and safe, or underappreciated ones like Sam Tarly get a chance to apply their dormant skill sets. And it’s satisfying to see Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, two people only partially aware of their world-historical significance, come face to face and negotiate the conditions of their unsteady alliance.

Such undiluted pleasure is a strange feeling in Westeros, a world where heroes die, survival comes at a cost, and villains are too human for us to enjoy their comeuppance. But as Game of Thrones speeds toward the conclusion of a story that’s been in the world, in one form or another, since 1996, it’s inevitable that predictions will be fulfilled and loose ends tied up. That guarantee presents David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the cocreators who’ve successfully shepherded George R.R. Martin’s book series into a globe-spanning megahit, with a brand new problem in an already intricate and challenging adaptation process. On top of how to distribute finite screen time among infinite characters and how to do justice to their source material after chronologically moving past it, Benioff and Weiss are finally confronted with the questions that haunt any beloved cultural project: What qualifies as fan service? Can it be avoided? Should it be?

Game of Thrones hasn’t come anywhere near it-was-all-a-dream levels of betraying its narrative or thematic consistency, but there’s a reason why the device, or even the prospect of it, feels especially at odds with Game of Thrones’ sensibility. (Like many terms of art, “fan service” lies in the eye of the beholder; for the purposes of this piece, however, I’m defining fan service as a creative decision that prioritizes pleasing fans over serving the needs of the story.) However much of a reputation Thrones has acquired for twists and surprises, the show follows a rigid internal logic. Since its inception as the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Martin’s universe has established itself as much as a rebuttal to other fantasies as an original invention. Thrones is filled with implicit commentary on its genre, dwelling on what others skip out of convenience. Killing the hero who’d otherwise become king before the end of the first season, having a lost girl reach her family just as they’re about to be slaughtered, letting the Mountain beat Oberyn Martell and denying Tyrion a dramatic acquittal in the process—collectively, these actions constitute the opposite of fan service by following the story to its logical conclusion as determined by the parameters established at the story’s outset. Which brings us to Thrones’ specific problem with resolutions in general and Season 7 in particular: When shock is the default, anything predictable carries a faint whiff of the service-y, even if those predictions came from clues the show itself was offering.

Now that viewers have had six years and book readers more than 20 to internalize that logic, surprise is much harder to cultivate in an audience that’s become as jaded and savvy as Martin, Benioff, and Weiss have conditioned them to be. Fortunately, Game of Thrones doesn’t seem to be chasing twists for twists’ sake: J does, in fact, equal R plus L, and Dany fighting fire with dragonfire feels entirely in keeping with her personality. But is giving fans exactly what they want—even if it makes sense for the story—a betrayal of the show’s philosophy? Or does any alignment with expectations feel unnatural because Thrones has so long made its reputation on defying them?

“The Queen’s Justice,” the third episode of the seventh season, provided an early glimpse of how Game of Thrones might handle a wanted—by the audience, anyway—development. Jon and Daenerys are two mainstays whose trajectories were always going to merge: Dany is in possession of three giant, fire-breathing WMDs in a war where fire is an all-important weapon; Jon is Dany’s only living family member, not that he or she knows it yet. If you’ve been picking up what the show’s been hinting at, neither Jon’s parentage (all but confirmed last season) nor his fledgling alliance with Dany came out of nowhere. Instead, the show is simply acting out what attentive audience members have been anticipating for years. (Thanks to the cottage industry of close reading and theorizing that’s sprung up around the show, they’ve anticipated quite a bit.) It’s difficult to sense the line between gratuitous winking and simple cohesion in such moments, all the more so when the two are stacked on top of each other. Jon and Tyrion essentially recapping Season 1 on their walk to the throne room: wink. Davos and Missandei out-hype-manning one another: reasonable (and delightful). Melisandre blatantly referencing the books by saying she “brought ice and fire together”: wink. Jon and Dany recounting their families’ troubled histories with one another: sensible.

The season is filled with moments that seem to blur the line between catering to fans and simply not trying to outsmart them. It makes sense that Winterfell would once again coalesce into a power center under Stark control, mirroring the series’ beginning. But given this show’s longtime resistance to conventional narrative and legible patterns, doesn’t that coalescing feel a bit too symmetrical—especially with nonfamilial supporting players like Littlefinger, Brienne, Pod, and Meera Reed thrown in for good measure? It makes sense that nonessential players like Yara Greyjoy and the Sand Snakes would have to be dispatched quickly to avoid another War of the Five Kings, since we know this conflict is just a warm-up to the coming fight against the White Walkers. But given how long that far less consequential struggle raged on, isn’t that dispatching happening a little too quickly, with all of Dany’s major allies eliminated not three episodes after they joined her side? Much of this unease is a natural pitfall of winding down a story where finality and many of its side effects run counter to its core themes. But however much Thrones has set itself apart from typical stories, it’s still a story, and stories come to a dramatic close.

The dizzying expediency of the plot this season serves the producers as well as the consumers; it’s a hell of a lot easier to break story when you don’t have to worry about justifying transportation time. Nevertheless, “get to the good stuff already” is a real demand that this shortened season so far indulges happily. Rather than spend most of the season getting Jaime to Highgarden, as Thrones might have in earlier seasons, we get Olenna’s gloriously vindictive death scene as early as Episode 3. Rather than show us how Euron tracked down his niece and nephew, we get a surprise grand entrance via drop-down gangplank, logistics be damned. A shortcut for a screenwriter means an easier, more immediate payoff for their audience.

Then there are scenes like Arya’s chance run-in with her childhood pet, Nymeria, that don’t serve any apparent big-picture purpose, though they do allow for a beloved (if CGI) character to get a proper send-off. These are the true acts of fan service: the needless reappearance of Hot Pie (another Arya moment); Jorah Mormont getting fast-tracked to a quick-and-easy cure for a supposedly incurable disease; Jon claiming he’s “not a Stark” immediately before a dragon flies over his head. (And then there’s that Ed Sheeran cameo, which, considering the reaction from actual fans, might be more accurately called “Maisie Williams service.”) I’ve come to think of these as “fist-pump moments,” many of them revolving around the show’s female characters. Game of Thrones is no stranger to you-go-girl bone-throwing—“All men must die … but we are not men”—and the intricacies of Thrones’ feminism are a subject for an entirely different essay. But there’s a certain shallow, easily satisfied pleasure in watching preteen Lyanna Mormont dress down a room full of old dudes—a pleasure I’m not sure we would have gotten quite so much of in this season’s early episodes if the character hadn’t become a meme last year. At best, these scenes are just superfluous. At worst, they take us out of the carefully constructed reality of the series, undoing some of the hard work that makes Westeros so convincing, and therefore so immersive.

The most intriguing parts of the season have been Thrones’ efforts to counteract fan expectations even as it must meet at least some of them. The thrilling parting shot of “The Winds of Winter”—the Season 6 finale and definitive best episode to date—saw Dany heading straight for Westeros, formidable host assembled and ready to pillage … and then Season 7 immediately handed her a series of devastating losses, on land and at sea. Even an unambiguous victory for Daenerys, with the Lannister side in tatters and a dragon fully deployed, came with pointedly illustrated drawbacks for the invested viewer. The joy of Sunday night’s “DRACARYS!” was immediately coupled with the image of an incapacitated Jaime sinking into the deep.

Not coincidentally, the seventh season’s highlights have also been the moments that indicate a path forward through the expectation minefield, often by confronting those preconceived notions head on: Thrones has used some of the reunions that make for the ripest fan service as opportunities to push back against the prospect. The Stark reassembly, in particular, has highlighted how the now-grown siblings have drifted apart and changed as much as it revels in their renewed connection. Bran, now in possession of thousands of years of memories in addition to his own, can no longer relate to mere mortals. Sansa’s hard-won cynicism butts up against Jon’s big-picture crusading. Arya may relate to her more traditionally feminine sister more now that they’re both trauma victims, but it’s still alarming for Sansa to see her kid sibling grown into a killing machine.

This is Thrones having the best of both worlds: gathering its central figures together for the big finish, but doing so in a way that’s true to the show’s unflinching view of human nature. As onlookers, we get the emotional rush of seeing the Stark children who made it to adulthood congregate under the weirwood tree—and the lingering fact that there are two children who didn’t make it, plus the knowledge that their struggle isn’t over just yet. The Stark dynamic goes to show that while fan service is a new risk for Game of Thrones to navigate, it’s not an unavoidable one, and not necessarily any more overwhelming than the challenge of bringing this world to life in the first place. There’s also the tantalizing prospect of Benioff and Weiss potentially achieving what Martin hasn’t yet been able to. By reconciling convention with subversion, Thrones could redefine the way fantasies end, just as its saga has expanded the possibilities for how the rest of fantasy operates. It may be possible after all to end Thrones on its own terms, bringing its values over the finish line along with the story itself.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.