There is a series of questions that every person asks themselves when a relationship falls apart. Why did this happen? What could have been done differently? How did we end up here, after everything we shared? And then the most fundamental question, the one that holds itself up to your eye like a magnifying glass in the sun: Why did I love you in the first place?
There is no single answer to this question that will resonate for every person, every situation. But the most universal answer, the one that speaks most powerfully and broadly to everyone’s heart, is also the simplest: I believed in you.
If the finale of the seventh season of Game of Thrones says anything, it is that this show has failed its fans, and has been doing so slowly for a long time. It did not want to admit it, nor did they. But alas, it’s happened and all that hope and emotional investment has been reduced to a series of bullet points and cartoons, an empty dragon breathing blue fire with all the CGI fury of a broken promise with too much momentum behind it to do anything else.
And so every major character in the series gathers at the dragonpit, because they have to. Not because the story demands it, but because the story has found no way around itself. Maybe George R. R. Martin knows one, but he may never finish writing his epic tale. So what’s left? A saga that is larger and more complicated than anyone in control of it knows how to finish to anyone’s satisfaction.
Listen: It is not an easy task. Does anyone truly feel they could face the sheer weight of this story, sword in hand, and conquer it? Who thinks it would be simple? Everyone wishes they could be smarter, stronger, more eloquent when faced with their fundamental inadequacies. In the end, people are who they are, unable to be better than their limitations, especially when painted into a corner. If anything, that is when they are at their worst, the most unable to see what happens next.
Perhaps the most unbelievable moment in all of this is the one with Littlefinger, the great puppeteer who orchestrated the War of the Five Kings, the man who has worked himself inside and outside of every vector of power he encountered like a living cross-stitch. Prior to Bran, he was the closest thing this tale had to a seer, a mind with all of his eyes open.
“Don’t fight in the north or the south,” he tells Sansa. “Fight every battle, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend. Every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way, and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before.”
So what’s left? A saga that is larger and more complicated than anyone in control of it knows how to finish to anyone’s satisfaction.
And yet when his moment comes, he is undone by the Scooby-Doo gang of Westeros, his mask torn off by those meddling kids—the boy with infinite recall of all events, the girl who learned subterfuge and murder from the greatest teachers alive, the woman who doubts him above all others—and was somehow taken completely by surprise, even as they orchestrated an elaborate Screw You involving multiple political factions across the nation. Why didn’t this master of espionage and his vast network of spies see this coming? Apparently, it doesn’t matter.
“So much of that scene is what happens beforehand and building up the tension between Sansa and Arya in the earlier episodes where you really believe that one will potentially kill the other,” showrunner David Benioff says in his Monday-morning quarterbacking of this particular execution. “It’s one of the benefits of working on a show like this, where over the years so many beloved characters have been killed and so many characters make decisions that you wish they hadn’t that you can believe that Sansa might conspire against Arya, or that Arya might decide that Sansa has betrayed the family and deserved to die.”
No one believed it, of course. The only real question was what they were asking viewers to believe, what kind of faith they thought they had and exactly how blind it was. The better question for fans is the same one that you would ask of a lover who disappeared without warning, who ghosted after all of their promises of something more: Why did you tell me that this was more than it was? How could you have made me believe, when you had no idea where this was going, or whether or not you could possibly show up?
The better question for fans is the same one that you would ask of a lover who disappeared without warning, who ghosted after all of their promises of something more. Why did you tell me that this was more than it was?
There are many religions in this show, some of them revealed as “real,” the ones that take the form of shadows that have knives, prophecies that open like veins, ordained saviors so powerful that the fire cannot touch them. But if you think about the religion of the series, the one that has propelled fans to obsess for hundreds of thousands of hours about its internal consistencies and inconsistencies, here is its true article of faith: People thought there was a reason. They believed this was going somewhere that was known, to a prophecy or larger truth, to an ending that made a sort of sense, to something that made all that devotion worth it in the end.
But it is difficult to imagine nearly every character in Game of Thrones, as previously established, not being entirely embarrassed by themselves in this season’s finale. The Hound, who once harbored his childhood traumas with a quiet fury, marching up to his zombie brother and announcing their conflict like a reality TV contestant to every lord who can hear it. Tyrion, who trusted his sister only in her ability to commit atrocities, believing her bizarre pivot into humanitarianism, and questioning no further. Theon begging for forgiveness from Jon only to be absolved and told that he is yet another heir to Ned Stark, only days after the King in the North threatened to kill him for his disloyalty. Littlefinger, who has never taken a foolish step, trying to coerce Sansa into believing that Arya wants to be the Lady of Winterfell, the one role she has rejected above all others.
But it is difficult to imagine nearly every character in Game of Thrones, as previously established, not being entirely embarrassed by themselves in this season’s finale.
That’s the problem with Game of Thrones now, the one it won’t survive. The one where fans are forced to believe that despite all of its careful, intricately built narrative palaces of politics and history and personal struggle, that all of that careful architecture has to dissolve into dust, like a wight stabbed with dragonglass. That none of it can matter, because something something, because the terrible urgency of the story tells us to look somewhere else. Look there, because no one can bear you looking in another direction, because the story cannot bear it either.
There should be nothing to regret, honestly. People loved the story for reasons as good as anyone ever loved anything. I loved Game of Thrones for its nuance and its scope—the way that it felt like it could contain everything from the intensely personal to the broadly political. Imagine it as a magnifying glass, an icon with a plus and a minus. No matter how far you scaled in or out, its integrity held. There was no level of magnification where its world-building or its character-building would fail you. Just forever deeper and broader, amen and amen, like it would never end.
But here at the end, where it asks that no one look beyond an individual moment of horror or glory, beyond the theatrical grandeur of a dragon breathing fire or an army marching rudderless into a great battle, its narrative scope is failing. And so viewers descend into the great nightmare of being a writer, staring down the outline of a story and having no idea how to bridge from one choice to another, when there are no answers to give. What do you do when they turn to you and ask what it all means, and why you have been doing this for so long? You stumble and gibber and with nothing else to offer, you say: absolute goddamn nonsense.