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Game of Thrones vs. the penultimate season curse

Planned, next-to-last seasons are often pretty bad. Might Game of Thrones sidestep that problem?

Game of Thrones
Cersei is ready to destroy your penultimate season curse!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

As Game of Thrones prepares to begin its seventh and next-to-last season, there’s ample reason to proceed with caution. Namely, next-to-last seasons are often pretty darn weak.

You only need to look back to the spring to see just such a problem unfold with The Americans, which had a somewhat disappointing season after three terrific ones with its penultimate fifth season.

But beyond even that, everything from Mad Men to The Shield to The Sopranos has struggled with the episodes that don’t play out the end, but rather set up the end.

Even Breaking Bad, which probably had the best luck with this “curse,” struggled in the first half of its fifth season. (That season, like the final seasons of Sopranos and Mad Men, was split in two, so its first eight episodes fulfilled the “next-to-last season” role.) Though that half-season had some brilliant episodes, it also took some major narrative leaps in order to get things to a place that would result in the series’ final eight episodes unspooling as they did.

It’s hard to see why Game of Thrones would avoid the same fate. It, too, is at a place where it essentially has to devote a whole season to setting up conflicts, rather than beginning to knock them down. And nothing’s less fun to watch than a TV show’s writers moving characters around until they’re in the right places on the board.

Game of Thrones’ penultimate season problem isn’t unique — but other issues the show has to deal with are

Before I continue, I should state something outright: The next-to-last season rule only really applies if the show’s creators know they have a final season coming up. If they’re scraping for every renewal they get, the next-to-last season can be as good as any of them.

There are exceptions, of course. Justified didn’t know with absolute certainty that its sixth season would be its last when it began production of season five — and that fifth season was still its worst by a long distance. Lost had a three-season plan for its end, and the best season ended up being the penultimate season (its loopy, time-travel-driven fifth). But for the most part, knowing that you have a certain number of episodes left all too often results in the first half of those episodes leaving audiences wondering when the story is going to get going already.

The reason for this is pretty simple, I think: Most TV shows have a series of cards they’re waiting to play in the endgame. As an example, a big card Breaking Bad was holding back was Walter White’s brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank, learning that Walter was a drug kingpin. Hank found that out at the very end of that first half of season five — which gave the second half a tremendous sense of momentum.

But because the show needed to delay having Hank find out, that left that character (along with a few others) treading water throughout the final season’s first half. They were already where they needed to be for the endgame to play out, save one last card being flipped over. Once it was flipped, their story could resume.

Game of Thrones HBO

What’s unique to Game of Thrones is that nearly the entire show is in a place where it has, in essence, one last story beat to play out before the ending begins. At some point, the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens will clash (with occasional cameos from the other major houses), with alliances shifting and breaking, before the White Walkers break in and make everybody realize that the true menace is all the ice zombies up north.

But the really meaningful story beat involves those ice zombies. The closer we get to the end of the show, the harder it becomes to ignore that everything else is just a prelude to that. No matter how skillfully the show plays out the political tensions within Westeros this season, viewers are going to be hyperaware of what the ending will probably look like when all is said and done. This could give even the best episodes of the show the feeling of a long plot stall.

And my guess is that the show might not even get that far. I rather expect a season that’s about 75 percent political maneuvering and 25 percent actual plot development. And to be sure, there are political maneuvers I want to see — like whichever side Arya ends up choosing, or Dany and Jon finally meeting — but this is a show that can get lost in its own needlessly elaborate construction far too easily.

Add on to that the fact that Game of Thrones largely built its reputation atop being unpredictable, atop dangling catharsis in front of viewers, then snatching it away, most famously when Ned Stark died, or when the Red Wedding cleared several major players off the board. But the deeper we get into a story, the more we crave catharsis, and I’m not sure the kind of catharsis Game of Thrones has to offer is something that will properly sate its many millions of fan theories. (Rowan Kaiser has written much more about this very problem here.)

Even as I realize the end of the show will probably be “Jon and Dany against the White Walker hordes” — doesn’t that feel just a little anticlimactic, a little pedestrian for a show that has built its name on some pretty bold storytelling choices? And yet what would likely be even more disappointing is the White Walker threat simply dissipating into the snow.

I don’t write any of this to be a doomsayer — I haven’t seen any of Game of Thrones’ seventh season as I write this, and I’d love for the show to pull a Lost and make this next-to-last season the best yet. And there’s some evidence this just might happen. Season six of Game of Thrones, for instance, was actually improved by a little hard-earned catharsis, especially when it came to, say, Cersei destroying many of her enemies in a barrage of wildfire or Dany finally setting sail for the Seven Kingdoms.

But if Game of Thrones doesn’t suffer a penultimate season slump, it’ll be going against a bunch of TV history precedent. It’s not impossible — but I also wouldn’t hold my breath.

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