Is ‘Game of Thrones’ Too Big to Build a Satisfying Ending?

game of thrones season 6 finale
Courtesy of HBO

George R.R. Martin's books aimed to deconstruct the fantasy genre. It was never going to be an easy task, but HBO's "Game Of Thrones" has given up entirely

The problem with “Game Of Thrones,” from its inception at HBO, was that the story didn’t have an ending.

The same month that the series debuted, the impatient fan community around “A Song Of Ice And Fire” author George R.R. Martin — who had already been, for years, “GRRuMbling” to themselves that these books were taking an awful lot of time to get written, were the subject of a 2011 New Yorker piece. At that point, readers of the 1996 book “Game Of Thrones” had been waiting 15 years for the resolution of the grand tale.

As of today, they have waited 20 years. Though “A Dance With Dragons” did finally come out in the summer of 2011, the long-promised final installments of the septet — “The Winds Of Winter” and “A Dream Of Spring” — are still, theoretically, in the works. After spending five years trying to keep pace with Martin, this past season of “Game Of Thrones” marked a massive divergence from the established canon of the Westerosi universe, in a deliberate expression of leaving Martin, and his dithering, behind. In that 2011 New Yorker piece, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss sound a little alarmed at the fervor of fans waiting for a new installment. I imagine that right about now they have a lot more sympathy with the impatient readers. “Game Of Thrones” has struggled mightily to conform itself to Martin’s vision, but that’s nothing compared to the difficulties the show has had in trying to write past Martin’s work. Five years into this project, Benioff and Weiss have gotten some perspective into both the fans’ frustration and Martin’s: It’s very annoying how long this story has taken to resolve, but also, when you look at this material, how on earth do you resolve it?

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“A Song Of Ice And Fire” is built on subverting expectations, and though that’s a great way to start a story, it’s a difficult model to build an ending on. Without the source material to work from, the HBO show has leaned into the spectacle of the expected — those scenes or showdowns that fans have anticipated for years. It looks like an ending, but it doesn’t feel like the “Game Of Thrones” we fell in love with.

It helps to understand the literary context that “A Song Of Ice And Fire” came from. The fantasy series is very rooted in the genre, both in terms of its cliches and its challenges; it’s a call-and-response to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord Of The Rings,” but the conventions of genre fiction are smattered and subverted all over the thousands of pages of the series. What interests Martin most — what has interested him most since the first page of “Game Of Thrones”— is deconstructing the tropes of fantasy, as it stood in the early to mid- ‘90s. Hence the particular focus on female characters — neither the plate-glass embodiments of virtue of Medieval tales of chivalry, nor the plucky tomboys who become princess-knights in books penned by such authors as Robin McKinley and Tamora Pierce. Martin’s narrative wants to uncover the projected identities of his characters to discover the common humanity underneath, and that means that the moral certitudes established at the very beginning of the series become rapidly murky.

Deconstruction of certain beloved archetypes and prevailing moral ambiguity practically scream “prestige television drama” (the pitch to HBO was literally “‘The Sopranos,’ but in Middle-Earth”) so it’s natural that HBO produced compelling television out of what material they had in the first few seasons of “Game Of Thrones.” But unraveling a vast tapestry only works to a point. Martin — and Benioff and Weiss — found themselves with a whole mess of loose ends and no way to put them back together. All of that blurring of the line between good and evil created an indeterminate amount of gray, and gray is just not that interesting to watch.

What Benioff and Weiss have decided to do is to stop deconstructing. This sixth season of “Game Of Thrones” has been about picking up the loose ends and making some sense of the landscape they inherited. And the result has been a season that is both explosive and frequently hollow, as the story has attempted to satisfy “Thrones” fans with a type of storytelling that is definitively antithetical to what made “Game Of Thrones” so popular and so satisfying. The result is a mix of conventional action sequences, indie filmmaking and pure camp — an intriguing and at times fascinating combination, but one that is a far cry from the brooding, bloody drama about the human condition that “Game Of Thrones” once was.

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The Season 6 finale, “The Winds Of Winter,” was an especially good example of this phenomenon; there appear to have been multiple plot points that were executed to maximize spectacle. On one hand, some grand things did occur: Cersei (Lena Headey) was crowned queen, Arya (Maisie Williams) killed Walder Frey (David Bradley), and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finally set sail for Westeros. The score, composed as usual by Ramin Djawadi, was unusually creative and dominant, accompanying long, dramatically lit montages that were framed and cut with loving perfection.

But on the other hand, the mechanics of nearly every plot twist made little to no sense. Cersei’s wildfire was remarkably controlled for such an unpredictable weapon — a single building implodes with a sigh, like a collapsing soufflé, with no damage to the rest of the city, as Cersei, who somehow inherits the crown from her son, whose hair hasn’t grown in a year, crowns herself queen. Arya, who was in Bravoos for two nearly interminable seasons, suddenly shows up back in in Westeros with an apparently long-secret pie-making and person-butchering ability. And Dany’s close adviser Varys (Conleth Hill) demonstrated a surprising ability to teleport, appearing in both Dorne and on a ship with his queen in nearly back-to-back scenes. “Game Of Thrones” is a series that captivated viewers with its rich world of careful details. To skate over so many inconsistencies and questions seems to be uncharacteristically careless. The story cannot revel in the details of a long-seeded theory from the past — the parentage of Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) — while skimping on the details of the momentous events of the present without losing at least some of its richness.

And it must be said: The season, and especially the finale, have been redolent with a hurried sense of expedience. Characters are being dragged from one side of the globe to the other, to prepare them for the long-expected endgame; when characters have reached the level of emotional complexity or geographic necessity required, they are frozen in time and space. Gone is the sense of a living, breathing universe, such as in Season 2, when Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) and Arya unexpectedly, fatefully and absolutely compellingly crossed paths.

The sixth season was not without its truly magnificent moments. Sansa (Sophie Turner) accepting Brienne (Gwendoline Christie)’s oath of fealty in the premiere is one of the finest moments of the show, and Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman)’s sudden suicide last night evoked both Bran Stark’s “accident” in the first episode and was wholly unexpected, unanticipated either in the show’s foreshadowing or in the books. But as “Game Of Thrones” tries to construct something out of a half-written thought experiment in deconstruction, it’s abandoning the interrogation, ambiguity and nuance that it developed along the way. Perhaps this is an impossible task that Martin, Benioff, and Weiss have set themselves: To create a massive world, tear it to pieces, and then try to find a way to end the story. But whether deconstructing a fantasy and creating a satisfying narrative out of it is an impossible task or not, it is a task many viewers are waiting ravenously to watch. Season 6 does not inspire confidence, and the clock is already ticking towards Season 7.

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  1. Mary W says:

    In my opinion, as one of those who’ve been a long time fan(16 years), they (Benioff and Weiss) don’t have much room to blame their haphazardly strewn about story bits on Martin for not having a book yet when it’s their own fault for going lazy. They ran out of material because they omitted half the story and simplified a third of what was left. I don’t believe eliminating the Boltons helped there cause any and I know final episode didn’t. I was absolutely disgusted by the way Manderly’s meat pie exchange was handled. One of my favorite moments. Not only did they ruin a wonderful scene, they may as well have spit in my eye by having Manderly and Davos and several others involved in that party all cast and present in the very next scenes. How do they not have have source material anyway? They know where the closest Barnes & Noble is, right?

  2. Arvin says:

    “Close adviser?” They havent even met. Their first scene together was aboard that ship.

  3. lfire1 says:

    I think you need to sit down and pay more attention to the episodes you’re reviewing. For starters the Sept of Baelor didn’t implode quietly like a souffle, as you put it. It blasted outwards, wiping out buildings and streets and people, taking out a a huge chunk of the city! It was no controlled explosion and probably would’ve been worse if Tyrion hadn’t already used a big part of the stock in the Battle of the Blackwater. Seriously, implosion?

    Arya serving up Frey Pie is not that hard to fathom either. She killed both men overnight, and carved up a section of them, and baked a single pie. Given her time on her own, she has probably picked up some cooking skills (and there was Hot Pie too!) and oh yes…she worked in a temple where delicately slicing off people’s faces was a training skill, so carving off a a hand or two for a pie was probably rather easy compared to that work.

    Likewise if you’d paid attention you’d have seen the sails of the Tyrrells of The Reach and the Martells of Dorne in among Danaerys’ Armada. Varys clearly came with them to meet Dany’s already sailing Targaryean / Greyjoy fleet, and they are now heading past Dorne. It’s not that hard to figure out the logic, or does it have to be explained out for you with each shift of scene with a big “6 days…weeks…months…” later.

    The only travel inconsistency I will happily grant this season is Sam’s interminable journey towards Oldtown and the Citadel. He left *before* Jon was killed last year…and is only reaching it a full Season later, while other characters have moved back and forth across Westeros and from Westeros to Essos (or vice versa) in the meantime. Was he walking most of the way?!

    • Robert Kraft says:

      You summed it up perfectly, especially those details about the fleet and the “implosion”. Thank you!

  4. Tom B. says:

    One of the things that drove my crazy when reading LOTR was the small-minded readers who just *had* to have the narratives line up chronologically. It’s just such an overly-simplistic form of story-telling. Narratives should parallel around motifs and climaxes, not time. The heart of your complaints are that you didn’t like the pace of the last several episodes, with presumably multiple months condensed for narrative efficiency.

    Please, do tell, would have preferred a season of sitting around, waiting for them to painfully show day in and day out the Greyjoys traversing the sea, or the many weeks it would’ve taken to repurpose a fleet? Perhaps an entire episode of Meera and Bran, trudging silently in the snow, with no dialogue, just to really capture that sense of how slow and painful their journey is….

    I also would suggest you do some research on the writing process; it’s true that the details are original content, but the writers had extensive discussions with RR martin when drafting the script (his first manuscript for book 6 was finished before they wrote the script for this season), so it’s disingenous to treat the 6th season as if it’s a major departure from book 6, particularly when you have no idea what is in it yet.

    • Rodrigo says:

      I don’t know about script writing, and I don’t know about book writing, but what I do know as an audience member is what I first loved about the show in the beginning. Lately more than ever it seems like they are taking decisions that have to be taken because it’s how they need it to be to finish the story.

      Before they would take a decision based on what feels right in the world. And this world is cruel, real, unforgiven. A world where a character who makes a stupid decision like going alone against a whole army would either have died with the arrows flying at first, or the horses charging against him, stepped when his own army panics, or AT LEAST, when they were surrounded, with no way to escape.

      Maybe they do have a purpose for that, maybe the “god of light” do intend something with John Snow and that’s why he didn’t die, or something. But that’s not the only example, and hopefully the god’s will would neither be the only excuse.

      I don’t mind the pace, I don’t mind the teleporting, or the condensed time for narrative. I appreciate all that. I specially appreciate how hard it is to do in writing what they are doing with this characters. I find it truly amazing.
      What I don’t appreciate though is when I feel, episode after episode, that the real and raw tone of the world they set up to us, is now fading for conclusion purposes.

      More satisfying would be if the white walkers simply dominated the world because men didn’t manage to find peace among themselves before realizing how they should gather and fight against the dead, then have a romantic character survive impossible odds and overcome every impossible task he finds to be the rightful king of the seven fairy kingdoms.

      Respect to all the writers, and I can’t wait to see how this unveils!

      • SP says:

        If you can’t see that Jon Snow not get skewered by a flurry of arrows, trampled by a cavalry of horses or curb-stomped by a mass of routing soldiers was an extremely intentional plot point, you need to go back and rethink the entire show. How many more times do they need to allude to Azor Ahai or miraculously resurrect Jon before it sinks in?

  5. Ally G says:

    Dany’s armada is headed straight from East to West. The sun is behind them. There are two locations where it could happen according to the map of Essos and Westeros: on the way to Dorne while still being south of Essos, or while approaching King’s Landing. If they met up with Dornish and Tyrell’s ships on the way, then they must be approaching King’s Landing. Assuming the sun behind them was meaningful in this way and not just right weather for shooting.

  6. Ally G says:

    I agree with the article. Everything feels rushed, the richness is gone. There are still great moments, like Sansa accepting Brienne’s oath (loved that scene), or Jaime talking to Edmure. The Battle was awesome. The plays in Braavos were a genius idea. Brienne and Jaime. Ramsey saying “THEIR army is gone”. But such scenes are too few. In after the episode analysis the creators and actors talk about character’s motivations, and I was like, I didn’t get that, there wasn’t enough information to get that. One shouldn’t have to rely on these explanations to know what’s going on.

    And I personally find all the multitude of paybacks too conventional in how they satisfy the audience’s craving for revenge. It’s exactly what early Thrones wouldn’t indulge in. Or if it did, it would be striking or interesting in some way, feel organic. Viserys getting his gold crown, or Geoffrey poisoned at his wedding no less. Tywin’s death on a toilet. Ramsey eaten by his starving dogs is unimaginative imo, I don’t know what Martin’s intentions for Arya were, but I would find it far more interesting if Arya’s training in Braavos did affect her and made her not so obsessed about revenge anymore, more in control of her urges. That would be character growth consistent with her experience through her training. Instead she goes all brothers grimm on Lord Frey. Too literal, and like something out of a B-movie. The bastard dying from old age would have been closest to honoring the early Thrones spirit. Justice denied. As it so often is in real life. Or, if you want to do justice, follow the notion that he offended the gods themselves with his red wedding, so the gods themselves punished the Freys with some kind of “The Doom of the Freys.”

  7. Natalie says:

    Way to over think a TV show.

  8. Cersei getting the crown was a bit more subtle,but that’s why Pycelle had to die. Without any surviving members of the small council, Uncle Kevan was in the sept etc.. there was nobody around to disagree with any interpretation. It wasn’t an accidental crowning, she was dressed for it right from the start, knew the days outcome, and murdered enough people to be able to get away with it.

  9. Joe says:

    So much of this article sums up how I feel about the direction of the show post season 4.

  10. Dan Fender says:

    You must have no fun watching TV Sonia.

  11. Laura Bonaventura says:

    If you had actually watched the episode you would know that Varys left Mereen to go to Dorne. When he is in Dorne the wildfire in King’s Landing has already happen. When he’s on Daenerys’ ships there are the Dornish and Tyrell’s ships as well. What you see at the end is not Daenerys leaving Mereen, it’s Daenerys leaving (most probably) Dorne, sailing to King’s Landing. It has been addressed multiple times that the storylines are not necessarly set at the same time: if it’s the 27th of June in King’s Landing, it can be the 1st of August in Winterfell.

    ASOIF isn’t a call and response to LotR. They belong to different genres.

    In George RR Martin’s head there were three books. In the first one events like the Red Wedding happen. Because they are not subverting anything in particular, they’re a set up for the main characters storylines (Jon Snow, Arya, etc.), that would have been told in the other two books. Then Martin wrote a way longer story, but the structure is there and it hasn’t been changed for the show.

    The only way to subvert storytelling is to not tell a story at all, like Samuel Beckett did in “Waiting for Godot”. But ASOIF is not an absurdist play, it’s a story. A geat story, that has been masterfully adapted in a TV series.

  12. Robert Norris says:

    Varys’ presence on board Dany’s fleet was clearly a matter of weeks, not days. Some sharp-eyed viewers have picked out the symbols of HouseTyrell and of Dorne among the sails of the fleet. Clearly, several weeks’ worth of preparation took place between the time we last saw Varys in Dorne and the time he appeared aboard ship.

    Let’s also address Sonia’s thoughtful analysis. True, the divergent plotlines are now converging with rapid speed. It’s exciting and dramatic. And unless this saga means to wander aimlessly for all time, that’s what needs to happen. Despite its compelling commentary on the nuances of real life, this isn’t real life. It’s drama. It’s ultimately forced to return to certain conventions, and what of it? This is a story. Stories have endings. So long as this one ends on a note of ambiguity or irony (and I have great faith that it will) few will consider that they have been betrayed by convention.

  13. For the record Martin, Benioff and Weiss all know exactly how the book is supposed to end, and this has been revealed repeatedly in interviews, so from where I’m standing your central thesis is moot. Good research! Although the point about teleporting is valid.

  14. Amber Petrovich says:

    This article nailed all of my issues with the series. At this point, Game of Thrones knows as much about its ultimate direction and ending as its fans do.

  15. Stella says:

    I appreciate reading such a thoughtful piece on this season of GOT. I believe your criticisms may be very valid but as a non-reader of the books, or any fantasy literature actually, I understand your disappointments but do not share them. I find the series pretty great and have enjoyed this season immensely.

    But Sonia Saraiya I would give a lot to have you write about season 5 of VEEP. Never have I been more disappointed in a show that seemingly all critics think it is more brilliant than ever. Meanwhile I am in mourning for a wonderful satire that became a totally ridiculous farce.

  16. roxas says:

    Is ‘Game of Thrones’ Too Big to Build a Satisfying Ending?

    They killed off half the cast in The season 6 finale lol

    At this point what more is there left to do

    1. Dany going to Westeros and dealing with Cersei

    2. White walkers getting across the wall and Jon leading the battle against them

    Sure there are some smaller storylines to resolve but overall there really isn’t really much story left and The Fact is Game of thrones was never as big or as complicated as Martins books.

    It never introduced 100 of new characters and storylines that it has to all of a sudden resolve

    Season 6 has been masterful when it came to resolving storylines and tying up loose ends’

    It did not feel hollow at all ( I think must be mistaking this season for season 5 lol )

    Also did you even pay attention

    We are told that both Cersei kids were Doomed and she will out live them at the beginning of season 5
    So how you thought Tommen death was unanticipated is beyond me

    P.S. lets wait and see what happens before jumping to the ridiculous conclusion that game of thrones has given up deconstructing the fantasy genre

    I think anybody who thinks this is going to end with the classic good guys vs bad guys is fooling themselves.

  17. Has IQ’s dropped significantly this season? Do people honestly believe that Season 6 is in “realtime”. Does anyone think that Varys actually teleported?

    I’m sorry, I thought the first five seasons were sufficient enough to frame the size of the world, and we don’t need to be constantly told that it takes this many days/weeks/months to travel from x to y.

    It’s not even reasonable to think that season 6 took all of 10 weeks. Arya’s journey from Bravos to The Twins took at least that long, considering a trip from Kings Landing to Winterfell took a month, and that was on open road.

    So please, can we stop with the amazing teleporting Varys and Speedy GoneSansa references and realize that while the events are much more “compressed” this season, they are only so compressed because we haven’t seen a lot of what happens between major plot points.

    Use your brain…..

  18. Chefkey Boards says:

    Sorry but I disagree that season 6 was hollow. It was the most enjoyable season for me since the beginning. At some point you want to see the people you are rooting for succeed. After so many seasons of heartache it was nice to see a hero’s welcome. My only gripe would be that they bit off more than they could chew. They should have worked with George Martin before writing season 5 let alone 6 to work down the main characters so they could make the dialogue more in depth for the remaining characters. I am hoping next season 7 will have enough breathing room for good dialogue between characters as they killed off quite a few right at the end of season 6. Either way, I found season 6 to be very enjoyable and the music by Ramin Djawadi was excellent. It was some of the best musical scoring he has ever done for the show.

  19. Tommen’s death unanticipated? “Gold will be their crowns . . . gold their shrouds.” He was never going to survive past this season.

    • Gene Harris says:

      I agree Shana, Tommon was quoted as saying: ‘The faith and the crown are the two pillars that hold up this world. One collapses, so does the other.’ Pretty clear cut, the Sept was destroyed, so Tommon had to follow.

  20. Joost says:

    Just a quick answer to your teleportation argument. The series is mostly chronological, but scenes don’t happen at the same time. The only moment that scenes actually happen at the same time, is when story arcs intertwine. I agree that seeing Varys on the boat looked odd and could have been handeled better, but if you recall, people didn’t like the scene with Samwell Tarly traveling on the boat while on his way home. There’s no reason to see characters travel while nothing happens, so why include it? There’s often days or weeks between certain scenes as traveling around Essos and Westeros takes a long time. This also explains how Olenna Tyrell was talking with the Sand Snakes in Dorne about how Cersei killed her grandchildren and other characters still didn’t know.

    • Amber Lisa says:

      Joost I agree. I mean it is important to note that travel takes a while, as they just have horses and ships but no cars or planes – and as another commenter noted that’s been established. What is the point in continuously observing long bouts of travel? Like we get it – it takes a while to get around their world! They have no planes! (But they do have dragons) so I mean who knows, really, how long all travel takes in their world? I was like…ummm how did Varys get on the ship? So I used my imagination and came up with this: Tyrion was like, “Yo Stormborn, I gotta raven from Varys – so check it, before we set it off in King’s Landing we gotta stop by Dorn, pick up my dude, cause we got some more players for the team!” And she was all like… “Yo, Ty! This just keeps getting doper! I got Unsulled, Iron Born – now Sand Snakes and Lady Olena!?!?! Man! Let’s do it! Let’s rock the landing!”

      Now Arya is a little trickier…she did seem to manage to get back in the West pretty damn quickly. But given that she can switch faces and such, maybe she actually can teleport too. I don’t care. Just wanted her to kill Walder Frey by any means necessary! I waited for that- for several seasons. Walder was grimey – he needed to die.

      It’s not like the show doesn’t get fantastical! Jon’s back from the dead! Bran’s Uncle actually is dead and yet alive. There are nymphs and raven trees and zombies and dragons so umm, yeah teleporting is not that freaky.Go Arya!

  21. Robert Kraft says:

    Thank you!

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