This post contains spoilers through Season 7, Episode 6 of Game of Thrones.
Jon Snow is about to die. Again. This time, his imminent death is coming at the bony hands of the army of the dead: Jon, attacked by wights, has plunged into an icy lake. Torn at by the zombies and closed in on by the frigid waters, he seems to be done for. And, yet—here is a spoiler that, if you have been watching Game of Thrones, will be not much of a spoiler at all—Jon survives. Maybe because he’s a really strong swimmer who is not at all weighed down by the layers of animal pelts he had donned specifically for their heft. Maybe because of the Targaryen fire that warms his blood. Maybe because his soul is buoyed by his growing romance with his aun—
But we are not meant to question such things. Nor are we meant to question it when, during the epic battle between the Night King and the Guardians of the Known World, Tormund gets saved, at the last second, by the Hound. Or when Benjen gallops into the battle at the very last minute, sacrificing himself to the zombie-horde so that Jon might ride again, even though both of them totally could have fit on that
raft horse. Or when Daenerys herself arrives on the scene at precisely the right moment: to save the remaining Guardians, Jon, finally, included.
In some ways, those moments are simply continuations of approaches Game of Thrones has long taken in its storytelling: plot twists, destabilized time, a steadfast faith in magic—the kinds of powers that merge the world of the show and the world beyond it. The kinds that come from authors, and showrunners, and the surly demands of narrative. More and more, though, as the show approaches its final season, it has been losing its reassurance of narrative control. Its seams are showing. Its stories are cracking like so much zombie-ice. We are not meant to question—this is a fictional and fantastical world, after all—and yet it’s becoming more and more difficult not to. So while the show’s current season is establishing mysteries about sororicide, and incest, and zombie-dragons, it’s also establishing a broader one: Does this story still know what it’s doing? Will viewers’ longstanding loyalty to it, in the end, be rewarded?
Game of Thrones is in many ways a show about faith: in gods, in others, in oneself. But it also demands, as any such show will, another kind of faith—in storytelling. In authorship. In the universe that is being constructed as a setting for the other things—a universe full of its own authors. Who knows, in this world, things others do not? Who decides how the stories will play out, and how the games will be played? The Lord of Light, and the Three-Eyed Raven, and Bran, and Hodor, and time travel, and resurrections, and dragons, and magic: Their presence has made Game of Thrones not just a work of fantasy, but also, in its way, a work of logic. This is a universe with its own rules to be obeyed—and, for the audience, its own disbeliefs to be suspended. Wildfire works as a weapon because, in the show’s world, it literally works as a weapon. Bran becomes the Three-Eyed Raven because we watch him in the transformation. Arya has become “no one,” we understand, because we have watched her become so many someones.
That so little of this has seemed the tautology it is has been a credit to the show’s execution: Game of Thrones, with the help of its hefty budget, has proven exceptionally skilled at the art of universe-construction. It has been fantasy that has, against all odds, made sense. What is dead may never die has long been an element of the show; the remarkable thing is that, for the most part, the death-fleeing has seemed a natural extension of the order of things rather than a violation of it.
And yet here are some things that happened on Sunday’s show: Viewers learned that Arya carries around a set of rubbery death-masks in a tasteful leather satchel. And that ravens can travel, seemingly, at the speeds of turbo-jets. And that Gendry, on the ground, can somehow do the same. And that the army of the dead is as resourceful as it is populous, apparently, able as it was, after the battle was fought, to procure the massive chains with which to remove a dead dragon from icy waters. Maybe there’s a Home Depot conveniently located next to the Arby’s off the I(ce)-95?
In some ways, sure, all that is simply an extension of the disbelief-suspension that has always been a requirement of the show—the deus-ex-machina twists that have been presented not as easy solutions to narrative problems, but rather as evidence of the show’s cosmic surefootedness. Again and again, fate, which is to say the show’s authors, collectively, intercedes. The battle is lost—until Stannis makes a surprise appearance. Arya’s cover will be blown by Ser Amory—until Jaqen H’ghar kills him the second before he can tell her secrets. Daenerys and her small band of loyal advisors are doomed on Meereen, enclosed on by enemies—until Drogon shows up to save them, just in the nick of time. Jaime, in the line of dragon fire, is at the last minute pushed into a river by Bronn—and, then, rather than sinking to the bottom, as one might expect given the Kingslayer’s clothing (armor) and prosthetic (a hand made of gold), he survives by means unknown. Showrunners are their own kinds of gods; they tell their own kinds of truths.
But, now, winter has come. The series is coming to a close. The time for resolution is here. And the show has established, at this point, many more questions than answers. Is Arya still Arya, or someone—something—else? Will Bran, notably absent in Sunday’s episode, provide an as-yet-unseen salvation? Will the zombified dragon breathe fire, or something else? Will the battle that will inevitably ensue be the final song of fire and ice? Is Jon Snow, infallible and invincible, the Drowned God? Will he and Daenerys—“Dany”—join the long line of coupled-off Targaryens?
They’re enticing questions. But “Beyond the Wall,” on Sunday, did not bode well for their answers. This is a season, after all, that has at times seemed almost overly aware of Thrones’s success as a cultural phenomenon. The Ed Sheeran cameo. The many, many meme-friendly moments. The plots that seem designed to get from one spectacular set piece to the next. As my colleague Spencer Kornhaber put it, “The fuzziness with time just adds to the impression that this is a story driven by coincidence and expedience rather than logic.” And it suggests a certain sloppiness in a show that has otherwise been so precise in its world-building—a sloppiness that asks other questions: Will Game of Thrones keep jumping sharks? Will it nuke fridges? Will it take the good faith it has built up over nearly seven seasons and squander it? Could it, in the end, go the way of Lost, its myths busted, its key questions unresolved?
Or: Is the show simply building, with all its moments of easy absurdity, to some final, pivotal plot twist?
Sunday’s grand battle followed in one of the traditions Game of Thrones has established over its seven seasons: It provided an epic event not to close out the season, but as a capper to the season’s penultimate episode. Next week’s finale will ostensibly yield, if past formulas are any indication, an episode that will pick up the pieces and start to make sense of the new state of things. It might provide another epic battle, cannily staged and stunningly shot. It might provide another extension of the question fans have been asking since those squawking dragons first crawled over Daenerys’s sooty shoulders at the end of the show’s first season: What if the bad guys get one? What then? We’ll soon find out. And we can safely assume that Jon Snow, saved by fate and fortune and the workings of a show that needs him, will be there to find out along with us.