“They wouldn’t, would they?”
That’s a question that comes so easily while watching the twists of “Game of Thrones” unfold. After the shocks established with the first season’s killing of Ned Stark and the Red Wedding bloodbath in Season 3, the show built a reputation for no-one-is-safe storytelling that had many fans dreading the battle of Winterfell two weeks back. Now, with a potential for heavy casualties once more looming Sunday in the battle for King’s Landing, those words have again been echoing through the minds of viewers — but perhaps for different reasons. With some 160 minutes remaining in its final season, there’s a creeping concern that after more than 70 episodes of tangled plots, conniving characters and enough far-out fan theories to occupy half the internet, “Game of Thrones” might stumble at the finish.
(And yes, if the direction of this piece isn’t clear enough, there are definitely spoilers ahead.)
The writing first appeared on the wall during that fight with the Night King’s forces in this season’s third episode dubbed “The Long Night.” Even setting aside the difficulties parsing what was happening in the dim lighting conditions (the cinematographer subsequently blamed viewers for a failure to create cinema-like conditions, a justification that carried its own tyrannical ring), the series built on sudden gut-punches and harsh realities seemed to lose its nerve. No one wants to see their favorite characters die, of course, but with hundreds of nameless casualties piling up as the battle raged, it seemed like a let-down — a departure for a show that rose to prominence on unpredictability — that so many main characters survived.
The deaths of three who didn’t make it out of the episode — Theon, Jorah and Beric — wasn’t unexpected given the arc of their characters. The surprise was killing off the Night King so suddenly halfway through the season, which may have been satisfying, but it forced “Game of Thrones” to double back on one of its often-repeated principles. For all the machinations to gain power and position that served the show’s title, the story repeatedly argued such squabbling was pointless in the face of a species-threatening event that was the Army of the Dead.
How could a return to earthly concerns like wealth and power feel anything but anticlimactic? This doesn’t even take into account the pressing mysteries behind the Night King’s origin and his penchant for cryptic symbols drawn from human remains along with the purpose of Bran Stark’s time-jumping mysticism, which up to now seemingly existed just as a long route toward proving Jon Snow’s parentage. After so much build-up, these matters were swept aside with one dagger thrust by Arya Stark — or, more likely, pushed back to that “Game of Thrones” prequel in the works.
But even if these wider issues return to the forefront in the last two episodes, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have shown a worrying tendency to dismiss other promising aspects of the show as characters have begun behaving in ways that have seemed unrecognizable.
This may be an issue of time, which is strange to consider for a show that has gone this long and needed almost two years to complete filming on its final season. But when adapting the novels by George R.R. Martin, the show held a mostly steady hand while both sprawling from and condensing its source material. With “Game of Thrones” now having outpaced what Martin has published, the series may be struggling to connect the dots in Martin’s planned conclusion, one that might have needed three more books and two seasons to adequately cover.
This is an admittedly generous interpretation, but it could explain how Daenerys Targaryen, the show’s queen-in-waiting who promised to “break the wheel” of oppression under the rule of other monarchs, descended into erratic behavior that drew an easy connection to the cruelty of her father, “The Mad King.”
A smart and compassionate character corrupted by power is ripe territory (“Breaking Bad,” anyone?), but less so when it seems to manifest in the span of an episode, especially in the service of elevating the chances for an honorable but less compelling character in Jon Snow. Just as sudden was last Sunday’s turn by Brienne, who after seasons of noble self-reliance and power that often exceeded her male counterparts, was reduced to tears with the sudden departure of her apparent love Jaime after a couple nights together.
Less generously, it’s perhaps no coincidence that some of the show’s most puzzling developments center around its female characters. Daenerys’ ascent felt like a just turn for a Westeros long led by repugnant men whose cruelty toward women was depicted as so casual it became a calling card for the series as well.
In an example of the show struggling with how best to reckon with that history, Sansa Stark and the Hound shared a baffling scene last Sunday. Speaking to another would-be queen, he coarsely dredged up the abuse of her past without any reprisal from her, and Sansa’s troubling, casual response indicated the trauma made her into who she was. Jessica Chastain was one of many disgusted voices who took to social media after the episode, writing “Rape is not a tool to make a character stronger.”
It’s not as if these characters aren’t allowed to behave this way; they’ve just long been presented as knowing better. In past seasons, “Game of Thrones” may have made fans yell at their screens about surprise deaths, but seldom has it inspired the sort of shouting that comes from an audience knowing more than its characters. Why, for example, would Daenerys go into yet another negotiation with the self-obsessed Queen Cersei expecting a different result? Or not prepare for an ambush when returning from a battle everyone knew she had been fighting?
All of this may yet build to a satisfying conclusion, although it’s worth even wondering just what that could look like amid such high expectations. Maybe what we want is a sense that a show that could mirror our own world with its knotty political gamesmanship, looming existential threat and ingrained cruelty that kills fathers in front of their daughters and subjects women to trauma could, eventually, tilt toward a better one.
But failing that, our only hope is an ending that offers something more than we have already seen. “Game of Thrones” shifted the ambition for television. It would be a shame if the series retreated to a place that, for all its dragons and mythmaking, remained rooted to Earth.
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