The final Season of Game of Thrones premieres Sunday night, and it is likely to premiere to a truly massive audience — of a size that one hardly ever sees any longer, even on network television. But while there will be an high degree of excited anticipation, amongst the show’s longtime fans there will also be a bit of nervous apprehension. Can the show’s creators land this plane? Can they take one of the best shows in television history and give it the ending it deserves?
Before Season Seven premiered, I wrote a National Review cover story that attempted to explain its appeal. Yes it had high fantasy elements (ice zombies, dragons, an immense wall that no human could build without magic), but at heart it was more House of Cards than Lord of the Rings. More precisely, it was House of Cards if House of Cards was consistently awesome.
But then Season Seven came, and after a promising start, things began to unravel. I tried to be optimistic about it (my recaps were generally positive), but in general it suffered from two problems — one imminently understandable and the other potentially worrisome.
First, let’s deal with the more understandable issue. George R.R. Martin created a truly sprawling fictional universe, imagined a story to match, and then seemed to have essentially given up on finding a way to end it. So by the time the creators of the HBO show ran out of books to guide them, they were left with characters in far-flung places, facing multiple challenges, and no reasonably expeditious path to bringing them together.
So they apparently decided that the characters and the story just had to move. Voyages of weeks seemed to take days. Dragon flights that would take days happened in mere hours. Characters were brought together by implausible schemes. And a huge challenge — how does the Night King get past the wall? — was solved by essentially gifting him a dragon.
In a way I get it. The table had to be set. The pieces are now in place. All will be forgiven if the last phase of the great game is well-played.
But that brings us to the truly troubling concern. Game of Thrones is about to become more like Lord of the Rings, and I’m not sure it’s up to the challenge. In Tolkien’s masterpiece magic is of paramount importance, and while good characters can be flawed, the contrast between good and evil is still profound. No one doubted Sauron’s malice. No one doubted that it would be catastrophe if the coalition of men, dwarves, and elves lost.
As for Game of Thrones, this is how I put it before Season Seven:
The politics are gritty, good men are hard to find, and honor and virtue are often rewarded with swift death. While magic exists and terrible enemies lurk, the story centers on the politics and personalities of the great houses. In fact, the brilliant first three books of Martin’s series often read more like Renaissance political thrillers than fantasy novels. Alliances are made and broken, palace intrigue trumps battlefield results, and even magical creatures are shockingly vulnerable to the most mundane of defenses. In other words, don’t look for magic artifacts to save the day. In Martin’s world, people rule, people fight, and people make the decisive difference.
In Thrones, there was a Sauron figure (the Night King), but he was largely an afterthought. He was lurking up north, while the real action took place south of the wall. That’s all changed now. The “game of thrones” feels suddenly pointless. It’s unite or die to a zombie horde.
I confess that I can’t wait to see the battle against the Night King’s army that we all presume will take place at Winterfell. Word from the set indicates that it may well be the longest continual battle scene in modern history. Given the quality of previous set-piece fights — Blackwater Bay, Hardhome, and the Battle of the Bastards were each amazing — I expect it to be a joy to watch. But it still feels different. Imagine watching seven seasons of a Cold War spy thriller only to have aliens arrive for the final few episodes and make all the espionage feel just a tiny bit ridiculous.
We knew this moment would come. We knew the “real enemy” would emerge. After all, we catch a glimpse of the northern menace in the very first episode. But we don’t know if the show can handle such a seismic change. There might be a temptation to rush it, to dispense with the Night King by episode three (when the Winterfell battle is rumored to occur) and get back to classic Game of Thrones action, but that might feel cheap.
Let me close with a note of optimism. If anyone can pull this off, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can. They assembled an outstanding cast. They’ve navigated an intricate plot. They’ve given us moments we all remember. Martin gave them a gift of an extraordinary world, but he also gave them a challenge — a challenge of ending a story that Martin himself can’t even seem to handle. Starting Sunday, we’ll find out how Benioff and Weiss meet that challenge. If past performance is any indicator of future results, I expect to be surprised, enthralled, amazed, moved, and perhaps even ashamed that I doubted it would all end exactly as well as it should.