There’s a great deal at stake when the final season of “Game of Thrones” begins this Sunday, and I don’t mean the question of who will end up sitting on Westeros’s Iron Throne. Rather, HBO’s fantasy epic is staring down the quandary that faces all true water-cooler shows, and has been especially pressing in this so-called Golden Age of television. Can showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wrap up the story in a way that is satisfying to fans — some of whom have been longing for this conclusion since 1996 when George R.R. Martin published “A Game of Thrones” — and more importantly, in a way that is true to the show’s finest qualities?
Trying to accomplish both of these sometimes-contradictory goals is a tremendously difficult task, even for the most accomplished television shows. “Sex and the City” and “Breaking Bad” both whiffed, the former by going full fairy-tale, the latter by allowing its meth-cooking high school teacher to reinvent himself as an action hero even after acknowledging that he was a monster. “The Shield” succeeded by delivering an incomplete reckoning to crooked cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) that highlighted both the value of his pursuers’ persistence and the difficulty of achieving accountability. And “The Sopranos” achieved immortality and launched a thousand speculations with its now-infamous cut to black.
Despite the years I’ve spent reading, watching and writing about “Game of Thrones,” I don’t know where the series is going to finish. But if the series is to conclude with integrity, I know exactly how it should end: with no one sitting on the Iron Throne.
There are many ways to judge “Game of Thrones” — from the technical and logistical accomplishments that produced its stunning battle sequences and moments of magic; to the casting alchemy that brought together first-time actresses Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams as sisters Sansa and Arya Stark; to the brilliantly convoluted plotting that Martin bequeathed to Benioff and Weiss.
But the reason “Game of Thrones” was worth all of the breathless discussion and Internet sleuthing was revealed slowly over the first season. The dissolution of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) serves as a blunt reminder that being able to bash people’s chests in with a war hammer is no guarantee that you’ll be able to run your government, love your wife or find a new way forward into dignified middle age. The stunningly casual cruelty of the king’s brother-in-law, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the brooding menace of Gregor Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) argue that knight’s armor is decoration, not proof of good character. And the iconic moment that Ned Stark (Sean Bean), our well-meaning ostensible hero loses his head, wasn’t merely a stunning twist. It was the instant “Game of Thrones” really got started on its brutal deconstruction — emphasis on brutal — of our Disney-fied conception of fairy tales in general and the ideals of chivalry in particular.
That commitment to turning an entire genre ruthlessly topsy-turvy is the reason viewers and critics could talk about “Game of Thrones” as more than, as the actor Ian McShane memorably put it, “tits and dragons.” Yes, the series featured an awful lot of naked women, but it also had smart insights about how a person’s — and a society’s — gaze can turn from admiring to rancid. The show depicted rape frequently, but it took both an individual and systemic approach to the subject, exploring how tolerating sexual violence can upend whole societies.
I understand why it’s tempting to place your bets for who will occupy the Iron Throne. But if you’re rooting for a version of “Game of Thrones” that lives up to the show’s sometimes-uneven exploration of big ideas and arguments about the institutions and traditions that shape people, the only possible happy ending is one that ends with that infernal chair either abandoned or melted into slag.
If “Game of Thrones” ends with Jon Snow (Kit Harington) ruling Westeros, the series might as well go back in time and reattach Ned Stark’s head for all it will have done to undo its efforts to unsettle our expectations for how this sort of story goes. If Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Sansa Stark (Turner) or Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) takes the throne, the show will be one step above that, a dark feminist retelling of a canonical story, perhaps with an antiheroine rather than a true heroine, but it would still be something we’ve seen before.
Rather, for “Game of Thrones” to be true to its argument, its protagonists must be destroyed by the systems they’ve attempted to transcend or give way to something entirely new. If Daenerys follows in the tradition of her ancestors and goes mad; Jon has to kill her; or if the messy mass of humanity can’t stand against the implacable, snowy discipline of the White Walkers, the repudiation of the dream that one good person can save us that “Game of Thrones” began in its first season will be complete.
But there is one alternative. The long-announced title for Martin’s final novel in the series is “A Dream of Spring.” The book was originally supposed to be called “A Time for Wolves,” which would seem to herald a renaissance of House Stark and its direwolves. But when Martin announced the switch in 2006, he said “it gives a better sense of the book that I want to write.” A happy ending for Martin’s characters, and for the occupants of the world torn by warring kings where we’ve spent so long, might be to walk away from the Iron Throne entirely and allow a new kind of government to push forth hopeful shoots in its place.