This includes mild spoilers for the first episode of Game of Thrones season 8.
When Game of Thrones premiered – way back in the FIRST Obama term! – its season-ending refutation of heroic tropes was groundbreaking. Ned Stark being executed, despite being the hero and being noble and seemingly the only guy in Westeros who wasn’t a piece of shit, hit like a hammer. George RR Martin’s novels had eviscerated the hopefulness of heroic fantasy years earlier, but his cynicism coming to television was revolutionary, even post-Sopranos (there’s a difference between rooting for bad guys and rooting for heroes who get roundly defeated at every turn).
But the world of 2019, in which Game of Thrones is ending, is vastly different from the world of 2011. Everything has changed in the past eight years, from sexual norms to our very national character; we went from a hopeful and oblivious nation to one that has memorized the warning signs of fascist takeover. The thrills we got from seeing the good guys get kicked in the teeth are gone, and more than gone watching the good guys get kicked in the teeth feels too much like the real world outside our doors. So how can Game of Thrones end in a way that feels true to its story and themes while not leaving us in nihilistic despair?
I think it’s very possible for the show to thread this needle (I’m curious what Martin’s plans are for his ending, which could be quite different from the show’s). More than possible, I think that’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to get a happy ending of some sort – beloved characters will, for sure die, but it will be generally happy – leavened with a reminder that the world of Westeros, like our own, is a difficult and complex place and full of difficult and complex people.
There are a couple of ways this could happen. One would be this season seeing the birth of a new Age of Heroes, with the characters ascending to positions of mythology and magic making a big return to the scene. This is the worst way to end the show, and it’s not going to happen; it’s possible that the show could end with some sort of jump through time – Westeros in the Renaissance! – where we see that the very human, fallible characters we have been following have, through time and storytelling, been sanded down into antiseptic, one-dimensional heroes (imagine some dad regaling his son with a tale of Ser Jaime Goldenhand, the brightest and purest knight of them all. That feels Martin-esque to me). But that won’t really happen on the show, and to go that big and bright would be a terrible betrayal of the past seven years.
In fact I might guess it would go the other way; we’ll see the very end of magic. Dragons have not returned to Westeros, they’re making one last visit to Westeros. The White Walkers and the Children of the Forest won’t make it through to the other side, Beric Dondarrion will be the last dude to wield a flaming sword, and Melisandre will be casting the last spell. This will be the equivalent of the end of Lord of the Rings, as the Third Age ends and the Age of Man begins.
More than that, I wouldn’t hold my breath for our heroes to all come together, Avengers-style, to defeat the Night’s King menace. One of my favorite aspects of Winterfell, the season 8 premiere, is how it brought together characters who have not seen each other in years (some not since the first episode or two) and showed us not only how they have changed in relation to one another but also how they have come to be at odds. The most obvious of these is Arya and Jon Snow, who have an emotional reunion that culminates in Arya’s icy reminder that she places family before all else – a worldview that feels sort of dated as the army of the dead heads south for the winter.
But more ominous is Jon getting the one-two punch of learning he’s Aegon Targeryan, the true King of the Seven Kingdoms, and that he actually might have a better claim to the throne than Dany… who is also his aunt, I believe is how the bloodline works out. This, combined with Sam finding out she killed his family and Sansa taking an instant disliking to Dany, foreshadows some internal conflict in a big way, even before Cersei’s machinations start fucking things up.
Herein lies the seeds of what I think might be the real happy ending of Game of Thrones. Jon is now in a very strange and powerful position, and his journey over the series has tempered him for it. Jon has again and again escaped positions of leadership, and that is exactly what makes him the ideal leader for Westeros. Dany, who we love (and who I support, even feeling how I do about Jon!), is just another player in the Game of Thrones, albeit one who uses her reputation as a ‘liberator’ to try and set her apart from the more obviously personally-motivated players. Yet she remains personally motivated; she wants to rule and she wants to be queen. We can root for her because of how she came to his position – abused and mistreated, literally rising from the ashes – but I think the largest theme of this whole show is going to be that anyone who wants to be a leader definitely should not be a leader.
So what’s the happiest ending for the show? Jon, after internecine fighting (including possibly being at violent odds with Dany, although I suspect that the show ends with Dany taking her dragons to an unexplored area of the world. Learning they hate the North feels like laying the groundwork for a trip south of the Equator) and the eventual defeat of the army of the dead, ascends to the Iron Throne… only to have it melted down or smashed. He then returns control of the Seven Kingdoms to the people of the Seven Kingdoms, intending the entire island to run as a commonwealth. It’s democracy, or a fantasy medieval version of it! Westeros is well-past due for a parliament of its own; the War of the Five Kings is inspired by the War of the Roses, and England had a Parliament already by the time of that conflict. The Parliament of England is not some great pinnacle of representation for the people, but it’s better than the shit going on in Westeros right now.
But this is still Game of Thrones, so there’s no way the show just ends with Jon as some kind of Cromwell-ian Lord Protector and we assume everything is good. No, the Game of Thrones never ends, so we will come to the finale of the series with good guys, of some sort, in charge but with plenty of scheming scumbags still skittering at the sidelines, whispering in the ears of the powerful and the power-hungry.
Some may see an ending like that as cynical or hopeless, but it’s just realistic. As Dr. Manhattan once noted, nothing ever ends. And history moves in great big cycles, with events repeating again and again. A happy ending is all about where the storyteller decides to stop; to quote Neil Gaiman the problem with stories is that “if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.”
But understanding this, and making it explicit, is a happy ending. Because every time things repeat themselves there’s another chance to get it right; even now as we live in some hopelessly retro remake of the rise of fascism we have the opportunity to get it right this time. It’s Groundhog’s Day, on a vast sociopolitical scale. But you can break out of the cycle once you know you’re in the cycle. That is what will help Jon survive the ending – he knows what happened to Ned, and he will not make the same mistakes. At least I hope not, as I’m not sure we can handle another gutpunch like that.
As the world has changed around Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones has somehow become more relevant to the world. The larger threat to the world is climate change, one that is in danger of being ignored because of petty day-to-day politics and damaged personalities. The machinations of the elite have totally fucked the common folk, and the common folk are certainly getting sick of it. And of course there are huge dragons (okay, perhaps this is less relevant to the modern world). It’s easy to see our politics in the politics of Westeros now – much easier than it was in 2011.
That’s why it’s important that at least some of the ending be obviously positive; the show can’t end with the Night’s King on the Iron Throne, for instance – this is basically ending an eight year story by saying “You’re fucked, global warming will for sure end you.” And it can’t end with Cersei or Pirate Greyjoy on the throne because that message is “Nothing matters, the bad guys always win.” And they don’t – nobody really wins, it’s an everlasting back and forth, and the show clearly understands that.
So any ending that has a positive outcome will feel very hopeful for us, as it should. Yes, we can make it through this long winter! But I am sure the show will include a note of sour in the sweet so that we can be reminded that we have to be vigilant and aware in order to not repeat history again; I think a lot about people who complained about the ubiquity of Holocaust movies once upon a time, and wonder what they think about the rise of Neo-Nazism.
What I want is hope, but with an undercurrent of bittersweet reality. This is a show uniquely situated to do that – it has earned a more positive ending, but it will not turn its back on its roots and give us something saccharine. In other words, this show, more than any other fantasy work, represents the reality of how life works, and it can offer us the sorrow, the joy and the warnings of the real world while it also gives us wights and dragons.