“Bittersweet.” That's the word that George R.R. Martin has repeatedly used over the years, whenever he's asked to describe the ending to his unfinished series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, which has served as the basis for its hit TV adaptation: Game of Thrones. And going into the eighth and final season of the HBO series — which returns after a gap of 20 months this weekend and then wraps up in just five weeks — that's the biggest clue we have for the ending to Game of Thrones, given the show passed the books a while ago. Martin has been hard at work on the penultimate one, The Winds of Winter, since Thrones began eight years ago but only a dozen chapters have seen the light of day.
In the paraphrased, borrowed words of the famous jab delivered to a younger, less wise Jon Snow: we know nothing, essentially. (For what it's worth, that's on par with the previous two seasons, much of which were also set after the events penned down by Martin.) All we do have to go off are the story threads left hanging at the end of the seventh season. Given the size of the main ensemble — Game of Thrones has killed off more than a dozen across seven seasons, but we still have another dozen left — it makes sense to concentrate on the big-picture arcs.
The most immediate concern is the White Walkers and their army of wights. One could argue that Game of Thrones has been building up to the face-off between the living and the dead ever since the opening scene, in which audiences were first introduced to an otherworldly threat. The kings, queens and lords of Westeros rebuffed even their existence for the longest time, and it took a widely-recognised bastard, a dead dragon, and some sloppy writing for it to be accepted as fact across the Seven Kingdoms. And though there has been extreme secrecy around Game of Thrones season 8, the cast and crew have let slip that the third episode — the longest-ever for the show at 82 minutes — will give us a look at that war, with the new Stark-Targaryen alliance making its stand at Winterfell.
That gives Game of Thrones a full two episodes — albeit comparatively shorter ones, running less than an hour each — to set the stage for that big living-vs-dead battle and deal with the other chess pieces on the board. The most prominent of them all is the game-changing reveal that Jon Snow is not a bastard, as we have been led to believe, but rather a legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen (son and heir to the Mad King Aerys) and Lyanna Stark (sister to Ned Stark). It's what book fans have referred to as the R+L=J theory for years, being mindful of not spoiling it for others. That not only throws a wrench in the fledgling relationship between Jon and Daenerys Targaryen, who's biologically his aunt, but it also complicates the rules of succession, more so since one has pledged fealty to the other.
That's not all Game of Thrones season 8 will need to contend with. There's also the matter of who currently occupies the Iron Throne. Cersei Lannister currently sits and rules as the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms atop that (uncomfortable) seat forged from molten swords, which she inherited in an unintended consequence of her plot to evade trial and wipe out her internal enemies in King's Landing, all in one fell swoop. Having bought herself an unexpected truce to a war against Daenerys she would have likely lost, by issuing a false promise of troop support for the other war way up north, she now plans to wait out the conflict between the living and the dead. Meanwhile, to bolster her forces, she has dispatched willing minion Euron Greyjoy to fetch the Golden Company, a group of sellswords that's renowned for their skill and strength in numbers.
Over the years, Game of Thrones has steadily built up the threat posed by the White Walkers, whose arsenal now includes an ice dragon in the undead Viserion, in addition to the countless number of wights. The Stark-Targaryen alliance too has a sizeable force on its side that includes the Unsullied, the Dothraki, the forces of the North, and two dragons of their own. But if the show wants the Army of the Dead to be taken seriously, it's obvious who must be the victor when the war comes to Winterfell. (Season 8 teasers have alluded to this, for what it's worth.) At the same time, some of the primary characters must survive for Thrones to carry forward its narrative, which suggests a chosen few will escape — possibly on the back of dragons? — fall back south and regroup.
Beyond that, Games of Thrones season 8 is slightly up in the air. To figure out where we go from there, it bears looking at the themes that the show has been conveying. Though it's set in a fictional, fantastical universe, Westeros has several parallels to Earth, with Martin drawing off several real-life events. Like ours, Game of Thrones is largely about progressing from a violent, tribalistic world of everyone fighting each other towards a more humane one where people are ready to work with one another for the greater good. If the writers stick to that messaging, it bodes well for those that are more rational and modern (Jon, Tyrion, Bran, Sansa, and Jaime) as opposed to those more concerned with the past and other squabbles (Daenerys, Cersei, Arya, and Euron).
If that's the direction Game of Thrones takes in season 8, then it argues Cersei would vacate the throne for a more sensible ruler. Given the destructive power carried by the White Walkers, the question isn't who — most likely from the new Stark-Targaryen alliance — is best suited to rule the Seven Kingdoms but rather rebuild them. Many great houses have already been wiped out or are at their lowest point, including the Tyrells (Highgarden), the Tullys (Riverrun), the Baratheons (Storm's End), the Martells (Dorne), and the Freys (The Twins). Game of Thrones has been a lot more predictable, clichéd, and unconvincing as it has approached its endgame, likely owing to the fact it has operated without the written framework provided by Martin's books.
Sure, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have an outline of the ending Martin is working towards in his novels, but they have deviated over the years on several occasions. The Dorne storyline is a notable highlight, one that is universally agreed upon as having been butchered on the show. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly last month, Martin admitted that he had “mixed feelings” about the show concluding before the books had, and added that “there may be important discrepancies [since] they passed me several years ago” and have had to come up with “a lot of minor-character [arcs] on their own”.
Can Benioff and Weiss be trusted to deliver a satisfying end then? During the press tour for Game of Thrones season 8, where everyone has naturally had to stay away from any spoilers, the two have talked about their inspirations for the series finale. Benioff brought up The Sopranos' infamous cut to black, which has been divisive for viewers, and called it “the best of all possible endings for that show”. Meanwhile, Weiss has said that he hopes the Game of Thrones finale will kick off the “the Breaking Bad [finale] argument where it's like, ‘Is that an A or an A+?'” Those are considered two of the best shows of all-time — in the top five of many TV fans, including myself — and both ended their run in fine fashion. That's a high bar to aim for and their work in the past two seasons doesn't augur well for those ambitions.
That said, thanks to the sheer emotional investment in the main characters and the wonderful, poetic arcs set up in the first five years, there are so many big moments in Game of Thrones' back-pocket that it can easily coast through on those alone in the final season. A quick name-check of some: Jon learning his true parentage, his reunion with Arya, her reunion with Gendry, and Tyrion and Sansa seeing each other, as will likely Bran and Jaime. And the last of them potentially being the one who kills Cersei, a part of the prophecy given to her that exists only in the books for now. Additionally, it's sure to deliver some dragon-vs-dragon action during its jaw-dropping, big battles.
In an ideal world, if Martin had completed his books on time, Game of Thrones would be scrutinised and critiqued for its depiction of the written story — as with Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and dozens of other text-to-screen adaptations — rather than the narrative choices it has made. But the latter is exactly what has happened as the show has entered its home stretch. The show's title suggests a simplistic outcome, one that feels realistic yet bleak. But the words of its author convey hope of a brighter future with caveats. Might Dany deliver on her promise to “break the wheel”, though it may fall to someone else, say Jon, who fulfils that wish out of love and a sense of duty?
Now that would be bittersweet. But then, Game of Thrones became the world's biggest show by upending rules and expectations of the fantasy genre. It would do well to honour its foundations as it prepares to say goodbye.
If you're a fan of Game of Thrones, check out Transition, Gadgets 360's gaming and pop culture podcast for a discussion around season 8, popular fan theories, and our favourite characters. You can listen to it via Apple Podcasts or RSS, or just listen to this week's episode by hitting the play button below.