For all that has been made of Game of Thrones‘ bold, innovative storytelling, there has remained an obvious direction for the show to go in and certain characters that appear untouchable. Jon Snow, Daenerys, Tyrion, Arya, and Sansa have all been put through such a wringer that to not see them achieve their goals would be infuriating for the audience; we’d hate to see all that time spent caring wasted. Which is a weird attitude to have for a show that helped popularize the “anything can happen, no one is safe” attitude of modern dramas like The Walking Dead and Fargo.
The end of season five suggested this might not be the case: the finale left us with Jon Snow apparently dead and Dany stolen away from her advisors, army, and dragons. Would Jon really be dead? Would Dany really never get back to her place of power? These were some of the big teases going into this season, but overwhelming we, the audience, didn’t believe them. Jon would be brought back to life, we all knew it, it was such a part of pop culture that SNL did a sketch about how drawing his resurrection out was a waste of precious time. As for Dany, being reduced to a slave of a Dothraki horde (literally exactly the predicament she was in at the start of the first season) was just as obviously a temporary condition. So when she burnt her way out (literally exactly how she got out of this predicament at the end of the first season), it was pretty cool but hardly surprising.
That’s pretty much how I felt about this last season of the show: it technically has never been better, but narratively seems almost like fan fiction. This makes sense, because up to this point the writers of the show had lengthy, exhaustively detailed books to draw inspiration from. Now they’re working from, at best, an outline George R.R. Martin jotted down for them. And so what was once a rich world where characters could come and go, new places would rise and fall in prominence, and power was constantly shifting, has instead become a set group of locations and characters who freely teleport between them at the plot’s convenience (except for Sam who has to take his damn time traveling because who knows where that story is going).
The resulting loss of realism and gravitas is made up for with a heavy dose of spectacle. Magic has slowly been creeping back into Westeros over the entire course of the series, and now it’s literally exploding all over the place. Cersei’s destruction of the sept in the finale was enormous and terrifying, as in it was like an actual, real-world act of terrorism. Hodor died by being stabbed to death by walking skeleton soldiers while having a time-traveling seizure. Dany’s dragons are huge, fire-breathing behemoths capable of undoing an entire siege in mere minutes. The face-swapping ways of the Faceless Men, once mysterious and disorienting, are now freely available to Arya, despite totally flunking out of class. George R.R. Martin probably won’t dedicate lengthy chapters to how sweet the Battle of the Bastards was, but for viewers like me, that was one of the best parts of the season, if not the show’s entire run.
Style has become a huge part of Game of Thrones now, as if the showrunners have decided that if they can’t surprise you with what happens, they can at least enthrall you with how it happens. Dany burning the Dothraki leadership wasn’t shocking – I assumed she would find a way to take over, like she always does – but burning them up and emerging triumphant played out as a cool moment when those violent visuals are accompanied with the show’s great score. It was a moment visually reminiscent of the pyre scene at the end of the first season, but also a sign of her strength – she emerges not as a confused, ash-covered girl this time, but a strong leader who demands respect.
I don’t think that works in the book. That, the Battle of the Bastards, Cersei sabotaging the sept… these are moments that I have a hard time imagining playing out in Martin’s POV-driven books. The books don’t follow the same formula as the show, they don’t have to worry about having shit hit the fan in the second-to-last chapter like the show does (at least, based on the three that I’ve read). The books have time to meander, talking about meals and history and spending time with characters who aren’t great warriors, leaders, or their direct descendants. The show can’t do that, it has an audience to keep happy and already too many members of the cast (we barely saw Bronn this year, and fan favorites like Brienne and Jorah disappeared). Game of Thrones is less like something new and more like a TV show than ever before.
But a TV show with the production values of a blockbuster movie. It is extremely rare that a show ever hits it peak this late in its run – usually the second or third season end up being the best of pretty much everything I’ve ever watched. But what shows like the begin to lose in innovation, the can make up for in execution – and like I said, there couldn’t be a better time for this show to make that transition than when it ran out of source material. Game of Thrones is worse at being A Song of Ice and Fire than ever before, but it’s never been so good at being Game of Thrones, the show.
We go into the break between seasons this year knowing that the end is in sight. Rumor has it that there will be only two more, shortened seasons before it’s all over, and that seems like enough given the grandiose, climactic nature of this season’s finale. I hope the showrunners can continue to bring the confidence of the end of this season into those last episodes. If they can I’m sure I’ll have a lot of fun to look forward to through 2018. It’s just, I’ll probably want to read those books, too.