Well, it’s been a long and arduous process, filled with delays and setbacks. There have been so many difficulties, so much needless pain, that it’s been easy to wonder if it’s worth the trouble. But at last, the end is in sight, years of patient effort about to be rewarded.
We’re just a week away from the final episode of Game of Thrones.
We didn’t use to care this much about series finales. It was once rare for a show to get a conclusive send-off, and on the rare occasions that it did, it usually amounted to the characters saying good-bye to each other (i.e. MASH, the Mary Tyler Moore show, etc.) That’s not even considering the legions of shows unceremoniously cancelled, their last episodes hastily thrown together and burned off in the dog days of summer. Once in a great while, something truly memorable would happen, and the audience would bask in the giddy knowledge that the show had all taken place in a snowglobe next to a slumbering Suzanne Pleshette.
We’ve grown so much more demanding these past years, since the rise of high-quality serialized storytelling. We want our shows to behave like the novels they’re adapting more and more frequently; we want them to provide satisfying payoffs for dozens of narrative strands. We feel angry if they don’t; we feel betrayed if they don’t. (Ask a LOST fan.) The more complex the shows become, the harder it is to pull off such a feat. And yet, when a show announces its concluding episodes, the frenzied anticipation builds again, as we hope that this time, this show will be the one to stick the landing.
With Game of Thrones, this frenzy is heightened by the fact that the narrative has a built-in question to crystalize all of our feverish speculations; who will sit on the Iron Throne? Which, if you think about it, is a strange thing for us to have been asking. Maybe not this week, of course, after (SUPER HUMONGOUS SPOILER ALERT) Daenerys went full-tilt Mad Queen and killed off half the cast. (Um, yay turning strong female characters into psychopaths? Which is what we need right now?) But this week is the only week of this show’s decade-long run in which it’s actually possible to ask that question. Because there’s always been somebody on that damn throne. We just didn’t like them, they were either weak-willed or eeeeeeeevil, and we assumed that the show would end when some better person sat on the throne in their place.
But then what?
Let’s assume that next week, all the remaining characters will turn on each other in a bloodbath out of Jacobean Drama, and the last person standing is, oh I don’t know, let’s say Hot Pie. Hot Pie sits on the throne and unites what’s left of Westeros. Hell, let’s assume that he lives and rules another sixty years in which absolutely nothing bad ever happens. He’ll still die, eventually. (It’s Westeros. EVERYBODY dies.) And then factions will emerge, and struggle for power, and the cycle of violence will start up all over again. The game will continue. The story will go on.
So why end it here? What’s so special about this sequence of events to begin and end it precisely this way?
See, the ending of a fictional narrative does more than tell you “what happened.” It tells you why it was important that it happened. It provides the moral and ethical framework to evaluate the story; it tells you what the point of the whole damn thing was. (A distinct advantage fiction has over real life.) Sometimes that “moral of the story” is neat and tidy, sometimes not at all. Either way, though, it lets you know if your whole investment of time and energy as an audience member was worth it.
As an example, let’s assume (again) that our plucky band of heroes had lost the battle of Winterfell a few episodes back, and that pesky army of the dead was still advancing. Let’s assume that any survivors made it to King’s Landing to try and rally everybody for a final stand. And let’s further assume that this backstabbing, bickering crew managed got so bogged down in their infighting and their betrayal that the Night King won. Took over Westeros, and wiped out humanity. That would be a pretty damn bleak ending, but there would be a point to it – that our short sighted and petty natures left us unable to come together against true threats to humanity. It would have been a potent metaphor for our inaction on nuclear proliferation, or climate change, and it would have been obvious why George R. R. Martin needed to tell this story, this way, at this time.
Of course, that didn’t happen, because Arya Stark is the absolute best at murdering stuff, and so here we are. Wondering, for one final week, who’s going to sit on that darn Iron Throne. And possibly wondering, in some secret part of ourselves we don’t like to acknowledge, if we’ve been wasting our time in caring.
Well, we’ll know in a week. The episode was shot months ago, it’s ostensibly based on an outline that Martin’s had for years, and so nothing we can say or do can change it. But for what it’s worth, from my own point of view, there’s only one way to finish this story so that the question of why it’s being told is at all ethical or humanistic. If it were up to me, there’s only one right answer to the question of who should sit on the Iron Throne.
For the past ten years, this television show has been showing us the most horrific sights imaginable. Fantasy readers have been wading through the parade of violence (and Martin’s endless descriptions of what characters of eating at any given time) for over twenty. The characters of Westeros spend half their time pointing out, to each other and the audience, how unremittingly awful life in Westeros is. The other half of their time is spent in rape and murder, all of it in pursuit of that Machiavellian notion of power that Martin has coined “the game of thrones.” And that view of things has seeped into our real world in many terrible ways. When you hear, for example, that Vladimir Putin has poisoned another of his political opponents, or that some head of state in some puppet nation of his has thrown a tantrum when that poisoning has come to light (can’t imagine who that could be), we shake our heads and say, “man, that’s some Game of Thrones shit.”
Over time, that stops being an insult. It even stops being criticism. Over time, the fictional corruption and depravity of Game of Thrones seems to have normalized the real-world corruption and depravity we see around us – at least, in the eyes of some fraction of its audience. And I can’t believe that’s what Martin intended when he started telling this crazy story.
So if there is a point to this story, hopefully the point is that the game of thrones is too awful a game for anybody to ever play. Hopefully the reason they’ve been telling this specific story of Westeros is because it’s the moment when Westeros was finally freed from this nonsense. Hopefully that’s the lesson we’re supposed to learn. And hopefully, since he burned down pretty much the rest of the continent in last night’s episode, next week Drogon will turn his breath on that damn Iron Throne and melt it down into slag, never to be rebuilt.
It probably won’t happen that way, of course. But I can hope. Otherwise, what’s the point?