Game of Thrones is going to disappoint us in the end.
Rather, Game of Thrones is going to disappoint us because it’s put itself in an impossible position, and no matter what happens, its ending will dissatisfy many, or even most, of its viewers.
Since its very beginning, the show has been built atop three pillars, all of which have contributed to its popularity: the heroic fantasy, the subversion of that heroic fantasy, and the detailed history of Westeros. As I've written about in my book on the series and elsewhere, Game of Thrones has derived an astonishing amount of power from being both a traditional fantasy story — one where kids come of age, embark on magical quests, and discover that they’re the true heirs to the throne — at the same time as it subverts traditional fantasy story tropes. Ned Stark and Robb Stark’s deaths, the rises and falls of Stannis Baratheon, Daenerys Targaryen’s difficulties in Meereen, and especially Jon Snow's betrayal and murder at the hands of the Night’s Watch are all tragic stories that traditional fantasy doesn’t normally tell.
And all along the way, both the HBO series and the George R.R. Martin novels on which it’s based have gone into a tremendous amount of detail to fill in the entire story of Westeros and much of Essos at the end of the world. The detail of Game of Thrones has been a tremendous strength — its world feels solid, lived-in, and real enough to support an ever-escalating, apocalyptic story within its fantasy setting.
But as the show now hurtles toward its endgame, it has only six episodes left to braid these three major elements into a single resolution. The problem is that each of them lends itself to a completely different type of ending, and all of them will upset viewers for one reason or another.
Game of Thrones must choose a heroic, subversive, or history-based ending — it’s impossible to successfully achieve all three
The first option Game of Thrones has for its ending is a heroic one. Heroic fantasy depends on a teenager coming of age, defeating evil, and ascending into power. Think of Aragorn at the end of The Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars if Luke Skywalker took a Jedi throne (as was implied). Both Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen specifically fulfill many of the tropes of heroic fantasy — albeit in a more meandering and political fashion than normal — and with the ancient evil of the White Walkers now invading the Seven Kingdoms, the presence of heroic fantasy is more visible on the show than ever.
So what does one heroic ending look like for Game of Thrones? I call the tropiest version the Targaryen Incest Happy Ending. This would be the most obvious conclusion to the story: Jon and Dany's alliance defeats both Cersei and then the White Walkers; Jon's Targaryen blood allows him to tame a dragon and also makes him a traditional wedding match for Dany; and the wedding solves the sovereignty debate. Maybe there are a few glorious or redemptive deaths, but overall, the heroes come out on top.
The heroic ending is incredibly predictable, and it doesn’t quite track with Game of Thrones’ previous penchant for subverting fantasy tropes. It would inevitably dash the hopes of viewers who want to see the show go out with one final shocking moment. But it’s one that’s popular with fans who’ve come to love the characters they’ve spent seven (or 21) years with. And even if the show doesn’t go all-in on incest with a happy marriage between Jon and Dany, a core focus on a band of heroes coming together to defeat a great evil would firmly align with traditional heroic fantasy tropes.
Game of Thrones’ second option is the subversive ending. In its earlier seasons, the show repeatedly upended viewers’ expectations: What if the heroes lose? What if Ned Stark does the right thing and is executed for his troubles? What if his son does the same? What if Stannis invades King’s Landing while it’s defended by Tyrion, and both sides simultaneously do and do not deserve to win? What if justice is a travesty?
This subversion is the reason so many people first fell in love with Game of Thrones: They didn’t want a predictable happy ending.
A subversive ending for Game of Thrones would suggest that having any ruler seated on the Iron Throne, whether good or bad, would be a disaster. Perhaps it would put Cersei or some other villain in power. Or perhaps it would make explicit the show’s implicit themes that feudalism is an awful system, with Davos or Sansa or Tyrion becoming President of the Westerosi Republic. Even if it’s nominally happy, the idea that a character who isn’t a traditional hero like Jon or Dany could end up being the key to the future would make a strong statement.
Finally, Game of Thrones’ third option is the history-based ending. As Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels have progressed, they’ve become increasingly detailed in regards to the history and inner workings of the Seven Kingdoms. What was a once a simple story of Starks and Lannisters is now filled out with minor Daynes and Mallisters and Rowans who’ve never made it onto the HBO series. And some of those seemingly minor filler characters, like Barristan Selmy and Roose Bolton, eventually emerged from the detail to become major players.
Game of Thrones is ultimately just as concerned with succession rights and diplomatic marriages as it is with dragons and ice zombies. A history-based ending, then, would see someone like Stannis Baratheon ascending to the throne, not because he filled the role of the chosen hero or conniving villain, but because he didn’t. Stannis, as a totally normal heir to the throne, could have won it through normal political and military maneuvering, not resurrection or magic dragons.
Stannis may be gone now, but his nephew Gendry could, for example, step in to sit on the throne once the big names have all been eliminated. Or perhaps Lord Philip Plumm — the last surviving heir of the last time the Targaryens married outside of their family — could arrive on the show to wear the crown.
You may have noticed that these historical options seem increasingly implausible; Game of Thrones has already disappointed fans hoping for this kind of ending, barring a sudden interest in Gendry's legitimization. One great strength of the series has already largely fallen by the wayside.
Though Game of Thrones has found fans based on all three of these different aspects of its story, trying to resolve all of them successfully is essentially impossible. This, in my opinion, is why Martin hasn’t yet finished his novels. He has to square a circle of an extremely detailed story that subverts heroic fantasy tropes yet also hits familiar heroic fantasy beats, and he can’t figure out how.
But television operates on a different timeline than publishing, one where actor ages and production contracts don’t typically allow for a show to pause for years at a time. Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have no choice but to complete the story, regardless of the squared circle issue, and they’ve been forced to choose only one type of ending — heroic, subversive, or historical — to finish with. And it’s not difficult to figure out which one they’ve chosen, or why.
How Game of Thrones got itself into this predicament
There’s plenty on the screen to suggest that Game of Thrones has evolved into a traditional fantasy story instead of the subversive one it initially promised to be — namely, Jon Snow’s resurrection and rise to power, Dany’s success in Meereen and invasion of Westeros, and the alliance of the two heroes against the straightforward evils of Cersei and the Night King. But it’s worth taking a step back and noting that all of these developments have been predictable for a few years now. And they’re all rooted in Game of Thrones’ three aforementioned strengths: heroism, subversion, and history.
The show’s heroic fantasy element was promised from the beginning, when the White Walkers were revealed to viewers (though not to the show’s actual characters) as a massive impending threat in the very first scene in the pilot episode. The story was relatively simple then: good Starks, evil Lannisters, exiled Targaryens. Sure, it was a little darker than conventional fantasy — an adult shoving a child out a window and a puppy being executed will do that — but it still fits.
In the series’ third episode, however, the action shifted to King’s Landing and the story changed dramatically. This is when Game of Thrones’ subversive element really kicked in. Many of the show’s most important players were introduced via the Small Council, with the morally ambiguous Varys, Littlefinger, and Renly Baratheon each expanding the story in ways that don’t entirely fit the conventional fantasy model.
The Baratheons in particular, along with their semi-allies the Tyrells, were to become key characters in the morally ambiguous subversive fantasy that Game of Thrones continued to espouse from the middle of its first season through the start of its fourth. Melisandre’s prophecies about Stannis Baratheon, for example, were a direct thumbing of the nose to the very common fantasy trope that every prophecy must be true. Margaery Tyrell’s role as an ambitious would-be queen in a Lannister-ruled nation also directly contradicted her apparent fundamental goodness, in consistently fascinating fashion.
But in season four and its aftermath, Game of Thrones moved into a “historical” phase where it attempted to tell the story of its entire world. Beyond the original core political controversies, we had Sam going to Oldtown (why?), the much-lamented Dornish subplot (why???), and the political battles of the Iron Islands somehow becoming prominent. This expansion of scope led to massively fragmented storytelling during probably the weakest season of the show, the fifth.
I’m not just pulling this chronology out of nowhere — indeed, it roughly mirrors that of Martin’s still-in-progress Song of Ice and Fire novels. The massive fourth and fifth installments of the series, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, are so sprawling that their storylines are organized geographically. This is because they concentrate on telling the larger story of Game of Thrones’ entire world: The Greyjoys and Martells and Boltons and so many other previously minor stories are given prominence in these books because Martin wanted to go beyond the lives of his main characters.
While Martin has claimed that the upcoming yet massively delayed sixth book, The Winds of Winter, will be more streamlined as his point-of-view characters arrive in the same locations, he’s also still using the perspectives of relatively minor characters like Aeron Greyjoy and Arianne Martell. (He also, obviously, still hasn’t finished writing the book, despite the supposed streamlining.)
Why did Game of Thrones’ focus ever shift from subversion into detail? In short, the story’s expansion into morally ambiguous characters like the members of the Small Council or the Baratheons and Tyrells was incredibly successful. Both the TV show and its source novels were at their best in the era when things were complicated. So they essentially followed a natural progression from “expanding this world made the story fantastic” to “let’s tell the entire story of everything important in the world.” The rub was that eventually, the detail overwhelmed the thematic depth.
Why Game of Thrones is headed for the predictable, heroic ending
In 2015, a bookseller mistakenly published much of Martin’s original pitch for his novel series. The broad strokes are familiar: good Starks, evil Lannisters, and a coming-of-age story for five core young characters — Jon, Arya, Bran, Tyrion, and Daenerys — with a civil war transitioning into an apocalyptic war against the undead. But some of the details are quite different; thankfully, both the books and the show avoided the planned Jon/Arya/Tyrion love triangle, and Sansa’s role has become significantly more prominent and better. Still, the broad strokes reveal where Game of Thrones is headed.
There are two key revelations in Martin’s original pitch. First, the original planned trilogy of novels began with A Game of Thrones and ended with A Dance with Dragons, which became the first and fifth books in the series. The plot of A Dance with Dragons as it was originally outlined is similar to both the eventual book and its TV counterparts (seasons five and six), with Dany heroically amassing a horde of Dothraki to invade a Lannister-controlled Westeros. This suggests that much of what happened in between — the trope subversions and the detailed history of Westeros — was added later. The heroic fantasy was both the start of the story and its end, but a surprisingly intricate middle of Baratheons and Boltons and Meereenese was apparently appended after Martin started writing.
Likewise, most everything that happens in the first 100 or so pages of the first novel — and in the first two episodes of the TV series — aligns with the original pitch, even down to the (potential) Jon-Arya love story. At its outset, Game of Thrones was very much the tale of its designated central characters: the four core Starks (Arya, Jon, Sansa, and Bran), the Lannisters (Tyrion and Jaime, whose political role in the original pitch was transferred to his twin, Cersei), and Daenerys Targaryen. No character who wasn’t from those three Great Houses (or who’s not a point-of-view character in that first novel) mattered.
In keeping with this, ever since Game of Thrones the TV show went “off-book” with its season five finale, it has consistently worked to reduce the expansive storylines wrought by the books’ subversive and historical interests, bringing everything back to the original core characters. At one point or another, Houses Baratheon, Tyrell, Martell, Baelish, Bolton, Frey, Tully, Arryn, and Tarly have all had characters become major political players. But now every single one of those houses has been removed from power, either with its named characters all dying or becoming irrelevant at a political level. They’ve all been revealed as mere obstacles in the way of the true heroes getting to the end of the story.
In other words, Game of Thrones’ entire sixth and seventh seasons were essentially dedicated to extinguishing all the vestiges of the subversive and the historical parts of the story. Only the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens still matter — just as they did in Game of Thrones’ very first episode, and just as they did in Martin’s original pitch.
We know that Martin has provided Game of Thrones’ showrunners with a rough sketch of how his version of Game of Thrones will end — and he has repeatedly said the story’s conclusion will be “bittersweet.” But based on how the show has progressed since it’s moved past his writing, there is no reason to believe it will depart wildly from what was in his original pitch.
Consequently, I have come to terms with the idea that the iteration of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire that I personally loved best, the one that subverted the expectations of the fantasy genre and created a massively detailed world, ended with Game of Thrones’ third book and fourth season. Margaery Tyrell is more important to me than Daenerys Targaryen, regardless of how this story’s ending is eventually framed. In my mind, what’s happened since Tywin’s death has been a futile exercise in ending a subversive near-satire of a genre with a satisfying resolution.
I’m confident that Game of Thrones is headed for a heroic conclusion that sees Jon and Dany winning the day. Perhaps there will be a “shocking” death or two to prevent a full-on happy ending. But I caution that, for anyone who believes Game of Thrones needs a strong thematic ending — one that ties in the heroic, the subversive, and the detailed history — only disappointment awaits.