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

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

game of thrones season 6 finale
Courtesy of HBO

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?

“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.

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.