It has been a long time coming, this wrapping up of the “Game of Thrones” saga. It has been eight years of tracking each and every Stark, Targaryen, Lannister, Baratheon, Greyjoy, Martell, and Tyrell, eight years of speculating about who’s zooming, dooming, and entombing who, eight years of watching Daenerys’s braids multiply with each of her victories. Our presidential campaigns seem to go on forever, our own games of thrones an eternity of punditry and polls, but they last only about one-fourth the length of the HBO show’s run.
So the pressure to get it right — to “stick the landing,” the metaphor TV critics are wont to use about series finales — is massive. I’m not sure any final season could satisfactorily pull together all the copious elements of “Game of Thrones,” even as the main cast has come down to a half-dozen or so frontrunners. Even for the best TV writers, resolving “Game of Thrones” would be a test, finishing up an intellectual exercise that has rivaled “Lost” for complexity. This isn’t only a matter of giving audiences an emotional sense of closure, the kind of final gesture that “Six Feet Under” delivered so brilliantly. This is also about placing those last remaining pieces into the elaborate puzzle the show has built over its seasons, letting us know that it has all been carefully designed and not a random accumulation of plots.
And I’m sad to say that, so far, in terms of both emotional and intellectual wind-down, the final season of “Game of Thrones” has been a dud. The reasons for disappointment abound, in terms of character continuity and logic, but they all share one thing in common: pacing. The show is heading into its denouement at a much greater speed than everything that came before it — accelerating when it should be decelerating. Now is the time when the writers should be letting us savor each last development, each decisive twist, not rushing forward and throwing bouquets of fan service at us as a kind of subliminal apology.
There may be no better symptom of this than the war between the living and the dead, the Great War that took place in the third episode, “The Long Night.” Since the opening frames of the series, we’d been heading toward this potentially shattering existential threat, which had by comparison dwarfed the battling among the houses. And that has only been going on for eight years for viewers; the knowing inhabitants of George R.R. Martin’s quasi-medieval world have been waiting for the confrontation for thousands of years, having built the Wall and formed the Night’s Watch in anticipation of a clash.
But still it all came down to a chaotic, narratively choppy, and geographically muddled battle whose peak — Arya suddenly appearing to plunge her Valyrian steel dagger into the Night King’s chest, thereby defeating them all — was as momentous as a popped balloon. It was as if, after all the growing tension about the army of the dead, we were issued a cursory “never mind.” Certainly if you look online, you’ll find an excess of fan theories about how the stealthy Arya got to the position from which she could rain down on the icy villain — but the strain to justify is evident in them. Really, the show stuck with Jon Snow in order to mislead us and add to the surprise of Arya’s triumph, the kind of manipulation you’d expect from a lesser drama.
It was only an episode later when Dany hurried into a confrontation with Cersei, without due diligence, losing a dragon and Missandei — and our need for at least a tiny nod to battle logic — in the process. (Tyrion actually tries to appeal to Cersei’s heart after the fight, as if he hasn’t already learned the hard way that his sister doesn’t have one.) The overall goal appears to be the descent, perhaps into madness, of Daenerys, as she loses supporters, armies, and dragons; but her fall is too abrupt, just as her chemistry-less love for Jon is. The series spent a lot of time showing her transformation from an abused little sister into a great liberator, marshaling viewers’ support for her, only to let it deteriorate in a few episodes.
Generally speaking, I’m a fan of concision when it comes to long-running series. The ideal aim is to let the show go on as long as the story merits, and not an episode longer. Too many popular shows succumb to extra seasons, to make more money for all involved, and not because there’s more story to tell. So it is odd for me to wish that HBO and the show’s creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, had more episodes to wrap this baby up. Even though some of this season’s episodes are long, they are not long enough to do justice to all of the plot turns afoot. Many major things are happening politically and romantically, as well as a number of important deaths, but we aren’t seeing them fully dramatized so much as handed to us as one-scene-wonders or faits accomplis.
I don’t see any danger of a “Lost”-like finish, by which I mean a disastrous effort to tie up loose strings and explain the point of everything. “Game of Thrones,” with only two episodes left, probably won’t leave us with a gnawing feeling that nothing we watched across all these years ultimately makes any sense. Instead, it’s running the risk of leaving us with a highlights-reel of a season that tells us what happens, but fails to show us enough of it. We’ll understand what went down, more or less, but we may not feel it very deeply.