Game of Thrones' Final Season Is Shaping Up to Be a Beautiful Mess
When it comes to Game of Thrones opinions, there's really only one I trust: WIRED alum Laura Hudson's. Back when we worked in the same office I used to secretly marvel at her dog-eared and tattered copies of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. That's why it was so disheartening when, at the end of the show's last season, she pointed out something many of us had been avoiding for a while: Game of Thrones was failing its fans. "It's happened," she wrote, "and all that hope and emotional investment has been reduced to a series of bullet points and cartoons, an empty dragon breathing blue fire with all the CGI fury of a broken promise with too much momentum behind it to do anything else." Despite the fact that I screamed "What??!" at my TV no fewer than five times during that finale, it was heartbreaking how true her words felt.
The show's eighth and final season lands on HBO early next year. It will, as promised from the beginning, feature an epic battle for the soul of Westeros (so to speak). It will, reportedly, cost some $15 million per episode. It will also, naturally, bear the brunt of having to conclude one of the most sprawling and ambitious television shows in history.
This is the blessing and curse (mostly curse) that has always loomed over Game of Thrones. In a new report in Entertainment Weekly, the show's cast and creators go to great lengths to belabor the point that they didn't want to drag out the show too long. It's a noble effort. Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—who long ago learned the Song of Ice and Fire saga's ultimate denouement from slow-typer Martin—have spent seven years and millions of HBO's dollars setting up the three-dimensional chess board of Westeros viewers see each week in the Thrones opening credits. From kleptocracy to rape (so much rape) to the schaden-feudal death of Joffrey Baratheon and ultimate fall of the Seven Kingdoms patriarchy, the result has been one of the most intricate narrative tapestries ever woven on TV.
There's also been the bloody slaughter of half the Stark family at the Red Wedding, the castration of Theon Greyjoy, the rise of Daenerys Targaryen as the breaker-of-chains and potential heir to the Iron Throne, the ascension of Jon Snow from bastard to King in the North, Sand Snakes, Dothraki hordes, the Battle of the Bastards, and an entire Army of Dead threatening all of it. And that barely scratches the surface. The surviving Starks I haven't even mentioned yet—Sansa, Arya, Bran—have become queens, assassins, and the Three-Eyed Raven, respectively.
All of which is to say that in the 60-plus hours of Thrones that have aired so far, we've come to expect (or at least hypothesize) certain outcomes. Emotional debts must be paid, and soon we'll find out if Benioff and Weiss are Lannisters or Littlefingers. If that EW story is any indication, their goal is to give the people what they want. But how is that even possible with so many ends to to tie up and only six (albeit supersized) episodes of television in which to do it? The answer is simple: It's going to be a beautiful mess.
The one thing fans know is coming—besides winter—is a climactic battle, one final fight between the living and the dead. (It's that thing Jon Snow was grumbling about pretty much all of last season.) What the EW feature revealed is that the final season begins with Daenerys and her army entering Winterfell, much the way King Robert's forces did at the start of the show. It culminates, one presumes, with the fight, something EW reports is "expected to be the most sustained action sequence ever made for television or film." (No idea how one qualifies or quantifies this, but sure.)
At $15 million or so per episode, the final set of episodes will likely look gorgeous, thanks to new built-out sets and elaborate costumes. It took weeks upon weeks of shooting and, apparently, incorporates both combat and emotional arcs. "Having the largest battle doesn't sound very exciting—it actually sounds pretty boring," Benioff told the magazine. "Part of our challenge … is how to keep that compelling."
Enter that whole beautiful-mess thing. The payoffs that have come in recent seasons—Littlefinger getting his comeuppance at the hands of the Stark sisters he'd manipulated for so long, Brienne of Tarth finally finding Sansa Stark and fulfilling her promise to protect her, Tyrion Lannister joining Daenerys and ultimately facing his sister, Cersei—have been rewarding, even cathartic. But with Game of Thrones having spent seven seasons setting up its toy soldiers, will watching them fall reach those heights?
There are two options: All the characters fans love get the endings they deserve and fans are happy and unsurprised, or there's a twist and, dunno, Samwell Tarley ends up ruling the Seven Kingdoms and everyone walks away confused and dissatisfied. The actual ending will likely be somewhere between those two poles, but no matter where that locus ends up being, at least something about it will feel rote. We've all been on this ride too long not to expect some of the big reveals. (Well, maybe not all of us; Sansa Stark is, at the beginning of the season, peeved about her brother Jon bending the knee for his new love, Daenerys. Wait until she, and everyone else, finds out Dany is actually Jon's aunt.)
To expect a perfect ending to such an ambitious show is perhaps to expect too much. It's the TV shows bent on pleasing all their fans that inevitably fail. The ones that ignore extracurricular chatter like message boards and—well, like this essay—now come much closer to transcendence. Over the years, the Game of Thrones crew has behaved as if they wouldn't kowtow to fans' desires; they wouldn't have killed off so many beloved characters if they did. But they seem willing to give the people what they want for the finale, even if those people have been conditioned to know bad things happen to good people on this show.
All I'm advocating for here is some sanity, some setting of expectations. Not everyone will be pleased; not everyone can be pleased. When Game of Thrones ends, it will be massive, thrilling, and probably shocking (in good ways and bad). Ninety percent of the fans who have stuck it out this long will likely watch it with their mouths agape. But be ready for some letdowns—after all, it's the end of a show, not the end of the world.