Well, here we are. Whether you like it or not, the end is nigh. But it’s not like Game of Thrones ever had a reputation for being sensitive to our needs and wants as an audience. So, can you feel it now? Will you even acknowledge its presence? The invisible force that is pushing all of our heroes and villains towards a collective and precipitous end. It seems like an eons ago when Robert Baratheon and his begrudging Lannister posse strolled into a happy-go-lucky Winterfell. Ever since then, the chess pieces were brutally forced into place for the final formation. Now, with the conclusion of the sixth season, we are all witnesses to that bloody procession nearly coming full circle. And now it seems that we’re all headed towards an icy (or fiery) apocalypse, or rather more aptly put, it’s coming after us.
This season of Game of Thrones brought with it the unique experience of melding two different parties (“book readers” and “show watchers”) together for the very first time. Finally, we as a collective audience were forced to contend with the knowledge that George R.R. Martin’s ink and paper had run dry (for the time being at least). With The Winds of Winter still yet to be released, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and their team of writers charted out the labyrinthine arc of this season’s episodes based on scrap notes from the author. But there was a certain thrill in that understanding as the “render farm”, which is the collective internet, started to churn out fan theory after fan theory during the off-seasons leading up to the Season 6 premiere. Most obviously, Jon Snow’s resurrection led this pack, along with long-awaited confirmation of “R + L = J”, the “Clegane-bowl”, and “Arya-is-Jaquen” theories amongst many others. While the first two have happened, as very much expected, the rest were quickly shut down in the coming weeks (see episode 8, “No One”). For me, there’s a certain relief that some of these theories never came to pass as the show may have become too predictable or fan-service-y. Moreover, I didn’t want to see Game of Thrones lose the chaotic, unmerciful grip of its original maker, instead opting to heighten the tension and unpredictability right down to the final minute of the series finale.
Just two years ago, a Shakespearean tragedy set in the barren deserts of Albuquerque, New Mexico faced a similar path. A split final season, the end game in sight, an audience swelling due to its accessibility on new streaming sites. To me, Breaking Bad’s final run of episodes is the golden mean of how you close out a television series. The heart-in-your-throat quality of tension and uncertainty that escalated with each passing episode, delaying the denouement until the last possible moment in the series finale, “Felina”. But it’s unfair to compare these two series simply based on the concept of proper scaling. While one is a story about a single man’s fall from grace, the other visualizes all sorts of individuals climbing the ladder of chaos in their quest for power. And despite all of these divergences, that palpable tension and penchant for surprise has also reservedly appeared throughout the sixth season. Scenes such as “Hold the door!” to “The King’s (bloody) Landing” and “the Sept of Baelor” show the writers ability to still shock and awe, it’s just that these moments have come about in decreasing fashion when compared to seasons past.
As a tradeoff for those YouTube reaction vid worthy moments, Game of Thrones has rather leaned towards tying up six years worth of loose ends. While I may have stated in the opening paragraph that Game of Thrones never held any desire to satisfy our needs for an audience; the season finale, Winds of Winter, has changed all of that. What we just witnessed was nearly six years of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink storytelling in this series finally come to fruition. In the span of just an hour and fifteen minutes, we finally learned of Jon Snow’s royal lineage, the tragic truth of Cersei’s childhood prophecy, Arya’s first faceless kill, a Stark reclaiming Winterfell, a new King of the North and a Targaryen setting sail for Westeros. What I want to note here is that there’s a notable difference between fan-service and narrative completion. Season 6, undoubtedly, has felt more predictable that its predecessors. While we did have moments of genuine shock and horror, they were not peppered throughout these past ten episodes. This is because the earlier seasons also had the luxury of time. Their hand was unforced by the specter of the end. So, with an unconfirmed fourteen episodes now left in this series, predictability should not be viewed as an issue as long as Game of Thrones gave us an adequate reason to predict it. And that they did in spades.
So the challenge for Game of Thrones in these final episodes is to hit that sweet spot between unpredictability and narrative culmination. As we watch our main players, Cersei, Daenerys, and Jon make their power moves across the chess board that is Westeros, the final conflicts becomes clearer with each passing episode. But that’s where the Night’s King and his army of the Undead come in. Like a nuke to the fridge or the jump over a shark, the way the writers handle this frozen, zombified X-factor will determine how thrilling these final hours of Game of Thrones will be. Humans will always act like humans on this show. Their thirst for power, destiny or common decency will make them just as predictable as we’ve come to know them to be. But ice zombies? Who knows the daily thoughts and day-dreams that pass through those crystallized noggins. The White Walkers not only wield the power to raise the dead but also command the greatest power in Game of Thrones: the ability to sow storytelling chaos. So many questions about them remain. Will they push all of Westeros to the brink of extinction in these last episodes? How will they begin their march past the Wall? Will they triumph in their inevitable clash with Daenerys and her dragons? The only thing we now know is that all of these questions will be answered, sooner rather than later. All that’s left to do is to take up the black and patiently wait for another 46 weeks (give or take).
Our final watch begins.