In its last two episodes, Game of Thrones turned Daenerys Targaryen into a war criminal and then had her die at Jon Snow’s hands.
This ending is already one of the most divisive conclusions to a beloved television series in recent memory, with some counting it as a colossally disappointing coda to a show that lost its way, and others seeing a clumsy but ultimately tolerable sendoff.
Even fans of the show can admit the final season was flawed. Count me among them — and among those who’ve read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels and felt torn between wanting to know how the story ends and wondering how the original writer might have delivered the same conclusion. But seeing the final episodes hasn’t diminished my desire to read Martin’s version of this story’s climax — quite the opposite.
Martin has been working on A Song of Ice and Fire’s sixth, still unfinished book, The Winds of Winter, for nearly eight years now. Since the end of season five (give or take; the show and the books don’t align perfectly), Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have been without source material for the rest of the story, though they have had Martin’s oft-noted input.
“The major points of the ending will be things I told them five or six years ago,” Martin told Rolling Stone in March, before Game of Thrones’ final season debuted. So it seems safe to say that Daenerys’s turn to raining fire and blood down on King’s Landing and her subsequent murder by Jon are part of his plan to end his novels.
The result is something of a metatextual fluke: a story starting in one medium told by one storyteller and finished in another medium, by different storytellers. The debate over whether Martin has an obligation to finish the books is irrelevant; it’s simply possible this is the only ending for this narrative we’re ever going to get.
I agree with Vox’s Andrew Prokop, who has written that Dany’s descent to the dark side is a brilliant climatic twist befitting of Martin, a master of surprise. It’s clearly something Game of Thrones has been building to, both onscreen and in Martin’s text. In a story built on subversion and shocks, the massacre of the King’s Landing civilians is a devastating last stroke.
But the complaints about the show’s portrayal of the Dany twist have merit. Game of Thrones’ showrunners do fixate on (truly awe-inspiring) spectacle over character and plot development, and while the series boasts many fine performances, its emotional storytelling has become at times confused and stunted.
While Martin has admitted to tying himself into a plot knot in his writing, I’m confident he would never lose sight of his characters in the same way. He structured the entire Song of Ice and Fire series around living in their heads and reading their every thought. His depiction of Daenerys’s break, if he ever does write it, will presumably be more convincing.
The muddled execution and polarized reaction to the show’s final episodes have underscored the importance of the point-of-view motif that Martin uses in the books, and have only deepened my desire to read his telling of the tale. With luck, we will still find out how Martin would have presented this ending.
It doesn’t matter that we’ll already know the story beats. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff has argued, spoilers don’t have to ruin the experience. While Game of Thrones has been able to show fans things that Martin never could, he is still the best (and maybe only) person who can finish the story “right.”
Why Dany’s turn will be more satisfying on the page — if it ever happens
A Song of Ice and Fire comes to life in readers’ heads. Martin writes every chapter from a single character’s point of view; this approach infuses the books with an emotional complexity, where heroes and villains are cast in deeper shades of gray, that can be difficult to portray in the same way on TV, when we don’t have the same access to characters’ inner lives.
We have been with Dany since her difficult younger days with her brother in Pentos. When the time comes — assuming Martin does write what we’ve now seen on the show — we will probably have to read along as her thoughts snap and she decides to kill innocent women and children. Martin loves to make things hurt, for his characters and readers.
The show’s viscera and the affection it’s built for its versions of Martin’s characters, in no small part because of its great cast, has certainly moved me. But it’s undeniable that Game of Thrones’ shortened final seasons (seasons one through six ran 10 episodes each; the last two ran for seven and six, respectively) gave the writers less space to convey to viewers that Dany was apparently falling apart. Her turn ultimately played as a little too abrupt, and that ruined it for some viewers. Such a cataclysmic shift really needs to feel earned to work.
Now, fans of Martin’s books — many of whom have always felt some trepidation about leaving the story’s onscreen ending to Weiss and Benioff — have to wait and hope they get to see how Martin would have told it.
I trust it will be more emotionally satisfying. Martin is simply too committed to his characters, especially an original like Daenerys (the number of perspectives he’s juggling widens considerably in later books) to really miss that. The way he tells a story is he gets inside his characters’ heads and imagines what they would think and do, and goes from there.
Martin has compared this method to gardening — planting seeds in his characters and letting them grow:
I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.
It seems that Martin has always had some kind of plan, though; Jon Snow’s secret parentage being an obvious example. (In fact, that Weiss and Benioff had already puzzled out that Jon is actually the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, not the illegitimate offspring of noble Ned Stark, is part of the reason Martin entrusted them with the television show.)
Daenerys’s unforgivable rampage feels like the same kind of twist, something the story has always been building toward. But while it didn’t feel organic on the show, we can reasonably hope for a more satisfying payoff in the books.
A Twitter thread by Daniel Silvermint, a philosophy professor at UConn, captured well the difference between Martin’s emotional storytelling and the HBO series’ more calculated feel. In an analogy similar to Martin’s “gardeners versus architects” comparison, some writers are what Silvermint calls pantsers: They let their characters guide the story. That would be Martin. Then there are plotters, people who plan everything before they start writing. Weiss and Benioff have taken on that role because they are really finishing somebody else’s story.
Well, GRRM is one of the most epic pantsers around. He talks about writing like cultivating a garden. He plants character seeds and carefully lets them grow and grow. /8— Daniel Silvermint (@DSilvermint) May 7, 2019
That’s why every plot point and fair-in-hindsight surprise landed with such devastating weight: everything that happened to these characters happened because of their past choices. But it’s also the reason why the narrative momentum of the books slowed over time. /9— Daniel Silvermint (@DSilvermint) May 7, 2019
So the books the showrunners were adapting ran out. What now? People assume the show suffered because they didn’t have GRRM’s rich material to draw on anymore, as if the problem was that he’s simply better at generating new plots than they are. But that’s not what happened. /14— Daniel Silvermint (@DSilvermint) May 7, 2019
For a season or two, the showrunners actually tried to take over management of GRRM’s sprawling garden, with understandably mixed results. When that didn’t work, they shifted their focus to trying to bring this huge beast in for a landing. /15— Daniel Silvermint (@DSilvermint) May 7, 2019
They gave themselves a fixed endpoint - 13 episodes to the finale, and no more - and set about reverse-engineering the rest of the story they wanted to tell.— Daniel Silvermint (@DSilvermint) May 7, 2019
You see, I think the showrunners are not only plotters, they’re ending-focused plotters by design. /16
“By placing so much emphasis on the ending, the showrunners changed the nature of the story they were telling, meaning the original story and the original characters aren’t the ones getting an ending,” Silvermint wrote as he wrapped up his thoughts. “Their substitutes are.”
If Martin doesn’t finish his books, he didn’t do anybody wrong. He opened up this world, and millions of people fell in love with it. But if he does publish the final two planned books — The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring — readers should welcome the chance to see how he ties everything together.
It doesn’t matter that we’ll already know the ending
I’m not worried about already knowing the ending, either. Generally, I do avoid spoilers if I can. That’s my choice. But in this case, a cosmic confluence of business and art forced all of us to find out how Martin’s story ends, broadly speaking, before he has actually published it.
It’s a bummer. But Martin’s version, as the dreamer who imagined this universe and these families, will still be worth reading. I find this line from VanDerWerff’s treatise on suffocating spoiler paranoia compelling as an explanation for why: “The worst thing about spoiler paranoia, I think, is that it preferences plot above all else.”
As VanDerWerff observes, there is more to watching a TV show than plot. There are performances and filmmaking choices. In the case of Martin’s eventual books, we will presumably get to experience, in Dany’s head, her decision to incinerate innocents. That will inevitably provide a very different emotional knockout than what we’ve experienced watching the TV show, even for those of us who have liked it. (And we don’t know exactly how closely the show will track with what Martin writes.)
The show itself, with shortcuts that led to an emotional inertia so alien from George R.R. Martin’s writing (remember the bizarre Arya-Sansa tension last season?), has shown us how necessary it is to read the author’s telling of the tale. The fall of Daenerys ranks among Game of Thrones’ most audacious narrative turns in the abstract, but we will never feel the full weight of it until we can understand it from her point of view. Jon’s decision to kill her and Bran’s ascension to king — again, assuming the books do follow this path — can also only be helped by giving us a window into the characters’ inner thinking.
I can accept knowing the basic beats of the ending because there is more to reading a story than finding out what happens next. What has always made Martin such a strong author is his understanding of that, and his commitment to character. I believe in Martin’s talents, that he would give us such emotional satisfaction.
There are also literally dozens of characters in the books whom TV show watchers have never heard of (hello, Darkstar and Arianne Martell). Martin has a lot of threads to tie up (what about Lady Stoneheart?!) that are unique to his literary creation. He likes to compare this phenomenon to the butterfly effect: Every time the show diverged from his books, it set the adaptation down a new path, while his novels still have to finish out their original course.
“When you ask me, ‘will the show spoil the books,’ all I can do is say, ‘yes and no,’ and mumble once again about the butterfly effect,” Martin wrote in 2016. “Those pretty little butterflies have grown into mighty dragons.”
The only question is whether we will get that chance to read it. You really don’t owe us anything, George. I’m just hoping.