Quite a few long-running stories that I’ve been following across different media are coming to an end these days. In the cinemas, there’s Avengers Endgame, the climax of a story that started with Iron Man in 2008 (and which I’ve seen—more on that soon). In comics, there’s Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which has been running since 2014 and is on its final story arc. And on TV of course, there’s Game of Thrones, now two episodes into its six-episode final season.
Endings are tricky things, of course, all the more so when stories are as sprawling as these three examples are. But these stories have an advantage: a large cohort of dedicated fans, who have invested in and stuck with the story from the early days. Perhaps the key to getting the ending right lies in making sure that these fans feel a sense of payoff for their dedication. And from the two episodes so far, Game of Thrones‘ creators understand this well.
(Spoilers for Game of Thrones below, but also for sundry other endings.)
Game of Thrones death prediction games have been all over the place lately. Predict who’s going to die, ante up some money, and see how good you are at guessing where the story will go. Most of them had an entry deadline of before the first episode of the final season, but that’s been extended in all cases I know of. Why? Because the first two episodes have seen no deaths at all.
The first episode was all about meetings—both long delayed and never before seen. The majority of the cast gathered together in one place, setting the stage for the story to come by reflecting on the path they’d travelled. The second episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” was, by contrast, all about endings. With a final few greetings swept out of the way, the assembled characters now faced a long dark night together, facing up to the fact that the looming battle for which they’d gathered meant that few, if any, were likely to live through another day.
If you’re going to introduce and play with apocalyptic threats in your story, then it’s best to do it in such long-running narratives, where you can dig deep into what it would mean for someone to face up to near-certain doom, not just for themselves but for most of those they know. Game of Thrones, having a wealth of interrelated characters and stories to play with, took the time to have these characters play off one another in the most recent episode, in pairs, trios, and larger groups.
This kind of long-form story has a rich history in science fiction and fantasy. Apart from sprawling, multi-volume book series (Tolkien may have been first, but others have expanded on and deepened this habit), it’s extended in more recent years to television and video games. Movies, as with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are a harder trick to pull off, but now that Marvel has, we’re likely to see similar efforts made there too.
The first time I really became aware of the power of this kind of storytelling was with Joseph Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5. A mid-1990s competitor to the Star Trek franchise, it took the different tack of following a “five-year story arc.” While that planned storyline was warped by studio interference and concerns over cancellation, the payoffs that it did provide, especially in the first half of its fourth season, were massive for those fans who’d stuck with it through the variable quality of the earlier seasons. Its story-arc driven approach would be picked up by later shows, including subsequent Trek spin offs, and season-long story arcs would become practically required in the era after Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Yet if you’re looking for an analogue to where Game of Thrones is at, it’s not to television you should look, but rather to computer games. Bioware are (or were) the masters of storylines that spanned multiple games, and their magnum opus in that regard is the Mass Effect series. A science fiction epic to match anything that Star Wars and Star Trek have to offer, Mass Effect cast the player as the hero of a galaxy-spanning story, surrounded by a cast of deep, flawed characters. The final chapter in that story, Mass Effect 3, proved controversial for its final few minutes and how they played out, but that controversy missed the fact that most of the final game was narrative payoff for fans who’d been along since the start. The relationships, large and small, that the player had invested time in across three games paid off in some incredible ways, and the game itself was filled with callbacks to prior events. As with Game of Thrones, the characters were facing almost certain doom and the narrative took the time to examine just what that situation would mean for them individually, and for their relationships. Controversy or not, anyone who’s played Mass Effect 3 will have moments from that last game that still stand out clearly, even seven years after its release.
This is evidently what Game of Thrones is aiming for in its last season, and the first two episodes are as benign as that effect is likely to be. The characters have had time to take pleasure in each others’ company, and the viewers have had that pleasure with them. A newcomer to Game of Thrones wouldn’t get the pure hit of satisfaction from the narrative payoff of the second episode, but for a long-term follower, it was an immensely satisfying hour of television. When the massive battle that looms for the third episode arrives, the time will arrive to pay the piper. All of the renewed bonds and audience satisfaction will be staked against the existential threat of the White Walkers. Tragedy, after all, cuts deeper than camaraderie, and the dark side of investment in a story is that when that tragedy arrives, the viewer will find themselves entangled in it. We’ve been shown hope and warmth, but winter is no longer coming. It’s at the gates.