WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS FULL SPOILERS FOR THE SEASON SEVEN FINALE OF GAME OF THRONES
All of Game of Thrones’ seventh season was leading to the final moments of last night’s finale: the Night King, riding atop the newly undead Blue Eyes Wight Dragon, breaking through the Wall and marching his cursed army into Westeros. “There’s only one war that matters: the Great War,” Jon says in “The Dragon and the Wolf”, as he’s said many times before the last two seasons. “And it is here.”
Here it is, indeed, after all these years, and I’ll be honest, its got me worried—and not in the way Benioff and Weiss want me to be.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m worried about what’s going to happen to the characters next season. All of my favorite characters are going to be in the North fighting against a massive undead horde that grows stronger with every person who dies, after all. But I’m also worried in other ways.
There’s only one season—six episodes—left, and now that season seven’s over, I’m really beginning to grapple with that fact, and to seriously consider what, exactly, I ultimately want out of Game of Thrones. And I’m worried that the show isn’t going it give it to me.
The Night King Isn’t What Game of Thrones is About
Technically, that isn’t true. We saw our first White Walker in the very first scene of Game of Thrones’ first episode. The Night King and his army have been a looming, behind-the-scenes threat for the entire duration of the show; we always knew they were coming, and it was always obvious that they would suck up most of the narrative air when they did.
But the behind-the-scenes nature of that threat meant that Game of Thrones had to be about something else in its day-to-day storytelling: human characters, fighting and loving and dying in a battle for the Iron Throne. These incredible, flawed, resilient, beautiful characters crawling over mountains of corpses in an effort to come out on top are why I’ve spent the last twelve years of my life first reading the books, and then tuning in to the show. It’s the struggle between them that engages me with the show, not the war with the Night King.
Let’s be honest: as scary as the Night King is conceptually, he’s only a character in the sense that he’s a humanoid entity played by an actor. The Night King is a cipher, completely lacking in complex psychology, or even a voice. From an existential perspective, what the Night King is and what he represents has huge thematic significance for a show that, at its heart, is about finding a reason to live in a world of senseless horror. As a physical reality, however, the Night King and his army are a textbook example of spectacle over substance.
That give-and-take between spectacle and substance is at the heart of the problems season seven suffered from. From the supply line battle to the entirety of “Beyond the Wall”, season seven brought us some incredible imagery. At this point, it’s safe to say that Game of Thrones is the most dazzling, technically sophisticated show in the history of television, a legacy that we can assume will only be cemented by whatever’s coming in season eight.
But that increase in spectacle has frequently come at the expense of character and internal logic. As the insanity has ratcheted up, characters have acted entirely inconsistently with previous attitudes, not because of any legitimate changes of heart, but because if they hadn’t then these amazing visual sequences couldn’t have happened. Combined with a newfound disregard for how fast horses can gallop and ravens can fly and we got a season of television that, while frequently exhilarating, also felt rushed and frustrating.
“The Dragon and the Wolf” was easily the best episode of the season overall, and the answer to why is simple: with the exception of the Night King’s explosive entrance into the Seven Kingdoms, the episode was entirely focused on character. The gathering of virtually every major player left in the Game at the Dragonpit; Cersei and Tyrion’s fascinating, impassioned reunion; Sansa pulling the rug out from under Littlefinger; Jamie breaking free of Cersei; the truth about Jon finally spoken out loud while he and his aunt Daenerys consummate their newfound love; these are the kind of wickedly nuanced, emotionally fraught moments that have made Game of Thrones one of the most engrossing and unpredictable shows on television for the last seven years. The dragons and Night Kings and sword fights are wonderful, essential components of the show, but the messy alchemy of disparate character’s histories, motivations, and allegiances butting heads and vying for dominance is the foundation of its phenomenal success.
It’s that alchemy that I’m afraid we’re losing in Game of Thrones’ headlong rush to its conclusion. There are only six episodes left, and the Night King and his army are not something that can be easily swept aside; if that were the case, then the huge dramatic import characters have spent years attaching to this conflict would be drastically undercut. It’s a frustrating Catch-22: the Night King has to provide a significant, screentime-consuming impediment to our characters’ survival in order to be realistic, but it’s much more interesting to watch the characters fight with each other, which they can’t do as long as the Night King remains a threat.
This is the crux of my fear for Game of Thrones’ final season. I understand how much time needs to be devoted to the spectacle of the Night King, but I don’t want the series to end with whoever survives the Great War exhaustedly collapsing on the Iron Throne, cut to black. For the end of the show to be truly satisfying, it needs to be the characters we’ve spent years investing in fighting each other in one last mad scramble for the Throne, which means the Night King needs to be taken care of with enough time in the season—and characters left alive—for that to happen.
Not All Hope is Lost
As worried as I am, there’s reason to be optimistic that season eight can play out in satisfying fashion. Firstly, while most of our major remaining players are going to be in the North taking on the undead army, not all of them will be. Cersei, in a totally unsurprising moment of epic backstabbery, has elected to ignore the promise she made to the others and not help fight the Night King, instead waiting in the South for who/whatever wins the Great War to head her way, with the Golden Company brought across the Narrow Sea to bolster her forces. Theon also isn’t heading north; he’s taking his small remaining band of loyal Greyjoys on a most likely suicidal mission to rescue Yara from Euron.
Having these plot threads open would seem to indicate that Benioff and Weiss are planning for some significant story material to take place after the Night King is defeated, which is exactly what I’m looking for. On the other hand, until the Night King’s defeat, these plots don’t seem very compelling on paper. With Euron at sea and Jamie riding north, there are no other major characters left in King’s Landing for Cersei to have scenes with; she’s completely narratively isolated. And Theon’s Theon, and I don’t like watching him, so that whole thread doesn’t actually do a lot for me. Thankfully we’ll have plenty to occupy our attention in the North while those things are happening in the wings, waiting for the rest of the characters to shift their focus back down south.
The second thing we need to consider is the way we’re trained to think about television in general. When we hear that the season is only going to be six episodes long, the gut response to that news is thoughts about how few episodes that is compared to how much story it feels like there’s left to be told. For most shows, that might be an accurate assessment, but Game of Thrones plays by its own rules, and we need to take that into account. Scuttlebutt around the web is that the six episodes of next season will all be as long as or longer than “The Dragon and the Wolf” an episode that’s itself the longest in the show’s history: a feature-length hour and twenty minutes.
Viewed from that perspective, what we’re getting next season isn’t really six episodes of Game of Thrones but six movies of Game of Thrones, and a lot can happen in six movies. Viewed like this, it’s possible that the battle with the Night King could only take up the first three episodes of the season. While your initial reaction to that statement might be “three episodes is hardly anything! The Night King is a bigger problem than that,” remember that those three episodes could easily add up to more than four and a half hours of television. That’s the same length as the extended edition of The Return of the King; in other words, plenty of time to give the Night King his due, and then still have three more feature-length episodes left for the show to focus squarely on the character-based conflicts that I love most.
So while season seven has left me worried that we’ve left character behind for the sake of spectacle, there’s still reason to hope that Game of Thrones will bring the series home in satisfying fashion. If misters Benioff and Weiss manage to find the balance between unprecedented televisual scope and compelling character drama that they’ve captured before, but which frequently eluded them this season, Game of Thrones can go out as what it’s always strived to be: a sprawling, ambitious, epic, yet powerfully intimate drama, one of the best that television’s ever seen.