This story contains spoilers for all seven seasons of Game of Thrones.
So here we are: Seven seasons and 67 episodes of Game of Thrones are in the rearview mirror. Only a half a dozen are still ahead of us, with the eighth and final season starting Sunday. Where do things stand?
The Night King and his army of the dead have breached the Wall, thanks to a conveniently mislaid and reanimated dragon, and they’re headed south to kill everyone. Jon Snow has pledged fealty to would-be Queen Daenerys Targaryen, and the two have united to face the encroaching undead threat. What we know, though they don’t, is that Jon is himself (a) a Targaryen, (b) the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, and (c) Daenerys’s nephew—which makes the fact that the two jumped into the sack in last season’s finale simultaneously awkward and a very Targaryen thing to have done. Jon’s presumed (but not actual) half sisters, Sansa and Arya Stark, are running Winterfell in his absence and have yet to be informed of any of these developments.
Cersei Lannister agreed to help in the war of the living against the dead but, being Cersei, she lied and is planning to backstab her putative allies just as soon as Euron Greyjoy’s fleet ferries her over an army of mercenaries from Essos. This betrayal proved too much for her brother/lover Jaime—yes, there’s plenty of incest to go around at this point—who’s abandoned her in order to keep his word and head north to fight the good fight.
That might sound like a lot, but in Thrones terms, it’s remarkably straightforward. The last time one could get up to date on the HBO show’s principal plots in just a couple of paragraphs was probably way back in Season 2.
But perhaps it’s better to ask not where we are, but how we got here and what we have to look forward to. And that’s where things get rather more complicated.
Game of Thrones has by this point progressed far beyond its source material, the famously unfinished—and almost certain to remain unfinished—novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. And though Martin provided the showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss with a general map of where his saga was intended to go, they’ve increasingly had to chart their own course. In so doing, they’ve corrected some of the errors of Martin’s diffuse and meandering later books. Along the way, they’ve done some marvelous writing of their own: Littlefinger’s “Chaos is a ladder” speech; the Hound’s tavern disquisition on chickens, Tyrion’s tale of “cousin Orson,” and on and on. But they’ve also shown, ever more conclusively, that when it comes to plotting, they can’t hold a candle to prime Martin.
This has been a concern going back as far as Season 2, when Benioff and Weiss took an uncharacteristically lame Martin subplot in the eastern city of Qarth and replaced it with … a subplot just as lame. In the otherwise exemplary Seasons 3 and 4, the showrunners’ fondness for ramping up their saga’s extreme sex and violence led them to take Ramsay Snow/Bolton—a sociopath whom we heard of only secondhand in the books—and place him grotesquely, yet tediously, center stage.
The plotting continued to stumble in Seasons 5 and 6, as Benioff and Weiss were forced to depart from the books and strike out on their own, with Martin’s loose blueprint forming a flimsy net. Many of the new story lines were irredeemably silly (Jaime and Bronn’s rescue mission in Dorne, and pretty much everything to do with the Sand Snakes) or poorly executed (the Faith Militant’s almost instantaneous takeover of King’s Landing; Stannis Baratheon’s abrupt moral collapse).
But Season 7—the penultimate season, which aired in 2017—is when Game of Thrones seemed as though it might have finally jumped the shark … or dragon, as the case may be. It began with Euron Greyjoy—the contested ruler of a fourth-tier, much-subjugated “kingdom”—using a fleet he built in approximately five minutes (on islands explicitly devoid of lumber) to destroy not one but two of the greatest armadas ever seen in Westeros. This was followed up by the single dimmest narrative thread of the whole series, in which seven principal or semi-principal characters embarked North of the Wall on a suicide mission to capture a wight, which they intended to take to Cersei to persuade her to join them in the war against the White Walkers.
Now, anyone who’s watched the show at all—let alone the hatcher of the plan, her brother Tyrion—should have known immediately that this was precisely the opposite of how Cersei would respond. (And indeed, after several tedious reversals—more on this below—she wound up exactly where we all knew she would: grateful that the dead would help destroy her northern enemies while she attacked them from behind.) Even apart from its abject failure to achieve its stated goal, this imbecile mission supplied the Night King with his very own ice dragon! (This, of course, raised the unaddressed question of how he had intended to overcome the Wall before our heroes gifted him a zombie Viserion.)
As if that was not enough, Season 7 ended with a death that might as well have been a metaphor for the show itself: that of Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. At its best—and throughout its earlier seasons—Game of Thrones was, right down to its title, a grim joke, an extended subversion of the fantasy genre. Forget your brave knights and strong rulers. The true players of the game were the behind-the-scenes schemers, many of them misfits of one kind or another: Tyrion the dwarf, Varys the eunuch, Littlefinger the low-born. Who actually sat on the Iron Throne was secondary (Robert? Joffrey? Tommen?). What was important was who had influence over them. Never did this become more apparent than when Tywin Lannister was crossbowed on the privy at the end of Season 4. He’d never worn the crown, but he was the longtime shadow ruler of the realm as, among other roles, hand of the king and father of the queen. It was his death—not Robert’s, not Joffrey’s—that truly broke the Seven Kingdoms. Without him, the center could no longer hold: Dorne rebelled. Highgarden rebelled. The Lannister mystique was shattered.
Littlefinger was Tywin’s ignoble twin: also a true, if unheralded, architect of Westeros, who was once described, modestly, as worth more than 10,000 fighting men. He single-handedly initiated the War of the Five Kings: framing the Lannisters for the death of Jon Arryn (actually accomplished by Arryn’s wife, Lysa, at Littlefinger’s instigation), and then framing them again for the dagger attack on Bran Stark in Winterfell. Then he planned and enlisted Highgarden in the regicide of the Purple Wedding. By the time he was done, three of the great families of Westeros—Baratheons, Starks, Lannisters—were all but decimated.
Yet after multiple seasons of aggressive narrative diminution—the idea that Littlefinger married Sansa Stark to Ramsay Bolton without knowing that the latter was a psychosexual sadist was among the most idiotic plots of the show—he died almost as an afterthought, his throat slit by Arya Stark, following a “trial” that viewers had been led to expect would be hers. Here, again, Benioff and Weiss disappointed: Every crime that Sansa cited for Littlefinger’s execution was one she had been aware of for a very long time. Yet we endured scene after scene of escalating tension between Sansa and Arya (real? feigned? does it even matter?) specifically so that we could be “surprised” when it was ultimately Littlefinger being judged rather than Arya. Again: Sansa could have had Littlefinger executed at any time without all this elaborate sisterly rigmarole. It was there to trick us, the viewers, rather than anyone in Winterfell.
This is the precise type of shallow reversal in which Game of Thrones has indulged more and more frequently. Forget the “way too much like Batman v. Superman” resurrection of Jon Snow in Season 6. When Dany and Drogon attacked the Lannister loot train returning from Highgarden, it appeared that Jaime would be roasted. But no! Bronn saved him, only to have him apparently sink to the bottom of a deep river to drown. But no! Bronn saved him again—though how we’re to believe he pulled a fully armored knight from the watery depths is beyond me. Likewise, on the mission beyond the Wall, Thoros was apparently dead, then he wasn’t, then he was. Tormund appeared to be killed, then wasn’t. And I could hardly keep track of how many times Jon seemed to die—like Jaime, he returned from a presumed drowning—only to receive an implausible last-minute reprieve. In short, Season 7 was one cheesy narrative fake-out after another.
So what does this mean for Season 8? I have no more knowledge of what Benioff and Weiss have in store than any other viewer, let alone of what Martin might have intended back in the days when we could all pretend he was actually going to finish the series. But I presume Game of Thrones will continue its shift away from narrative subtlety in favor of large-scale action sequences (its execution of which, to be fair, has become quite accomplished). The show’s central subversion—that plotters outweigh warriors—will continue to recede. Littlefinger and Tywin are dead, after all. Tyrion hasn’t had a good idea in seasons now (truce with the slaver cities? sneak attack on Casterly Rock? let’s go snatch a zombie?). Varys has all but vanished. And Cersei, as her father would be happy to remind her if he were still alive, was never as good at the game as she thought she was. Genius will thus be replaced by genealogy, in the persons of Jon and Dany. (And perhaps Tyrion? His being revealed as a secret Targaryen would be a late and poorly set-up twist—though, again, that may now be the norm—but there are reasons to believe that Tywin was not his actual father, and it’s worth noting that the Targaryens historically flew in threes.)
Game of Thrones has been an extraordinary television adaptation of an extraordinary novel series. But as the former has moved beyond the latter, it has become less a cunning reimagining of the classic post-Tolkien epic and more precisely the kind of generic sword-and-sorcery epic it initially seemed engineered to subvert. I, as much as anyone, would be thrilled if Season 8 could surprise us anew.