Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season 8 episode 3
To all those that are disappointed that the Night King didn’t “win” and that humanity was not overcome, perhaps Game of Thrones is not telling the story you think it is.
It may sound odd, but Game of Thrones is one of the most life-affirming shows I’ve ever seen — people fighting for life and doing what’s right beyond all odds, beyond all reasonable hope, beyond logic. At face value, it seems innately dark, even nihilistic, but I think the deep threads that course through the veins of the narrative are the most spirited and fully enlivened I’ve ever seen. Actively towards life. And towards people making decisions to do the right thing in the face of absolute darkness or with no cliche or innately self-aggrandizing reasons.
The stakes are quite literally medieval, and the physical, visceral situations these people find themselves in are some of the most extreme imaginable. Yet somehow the show maintains intimate honesty and gargantuan stakes and consequences at the same time. And despite the stakes and consequences, the characters still fight against the darkness. Not just this past Sunday, but in every episode, whether it be with words or swords. And still, characters (only some, mind you) tell the truth at great cost. They fight for another and with another.
So, what am I saying? Perhaps it’s okay that the show doesn’t end with the Night King on the throne. Perhaps everyone is putting too much emphasis on Game of Thrones being about devastation, breaking convention, and huge, shocking moments. Good storytelling isn’t solely about shock value, and there is still quite a bit of story left to tell. That’s why so many characters are still left.
Game of Thrones is and has always been a masterful character drama, as intimate as it is grandiose. That’s why it’s good this huge moment is over. DB Weiss and David Benioff are great at pacing and structure; the fact that this battle was in episode three means that yes, there are more waves to ride. Trust in that structure.
Game of Thrones is Not All About Reveals
Game of Thrones is about telling a story, not solely about shock factor. If it relied solely on shock factor for its narrative, it would fail. But it is and as always been telling a story. A fact that one would presume would actually make fans satisfied in seeing the pieces come together, as we saw this Sunday with a main character’s narrative arc coming to fruition and meaning. In fact, nearly all of the deaths this Sunday provided fruition to the characters in question’s story arc. In a way, that was not trite but rewarding over the long haul. Game of Thrones can continue with its magnificent storytelling and “break convention” in a number of smaller ways. There were still a great many unclean moments and failures on Sunday.
The Battle of Winterfell
Sunday night’s Battle of Winterfell was part and parcel narrative climax as well as essential Game of Thrones meaning-making. Plot-wise, it decimates the armies fighting against Cersei, thereby making taking the Iron Throne a conflict at all, whereas before it was nothing for Dany and an obvious given. It isn’t solely a plot device, but a part and parcel of the making of a story.
But in terms of overall meaning-making, the “point” was to unite the characters, not even solely in an Avengers way, but in a “you’re all humans, get over your ego and worthless ambition and recognize that” way. And perhaps that is the narrative arc of Game of Thrones (whose name even recognizes that it’s a worthless game for the throne), which a lot of fans miss, perhaps because they’re expecting a more cliche “what’s the trick to the plot” reveal and weighing the show’s merit too heavily on that.
You Likely Haven’t Seen the End of the Twists and Turns
Honestly, a lot of characters may have survived this battle only to die in the next one, which would provide the “surprise” many fans hope for (because now they’ve got nearly nothing to fight Cersei and the Golden Company with). In fact, this might be the “set up” structurally of the season — prep for massive character deaths, then get a false sense of security that they’re all fine, only for many more of them to go down in the way you didn’t expect.
And that wonderful unity they achieved will certainly be dissolved in a lot of ways, possibly leading to the imperfect or bittersweet or surprising ending everyone wants. Another structural effect of building the season this way bring the characters together to have them turn on one another. And Dany’s entitlement (which surely will grow now that her claim feels threatened) will seem absurd in relation to this battle. This will once again bring the plot back to the human condition — where the show’s narrative truly lies — not in some fantastical battle leading to mere destruction.
But establishing Cersei as the true villain will once again shed light on human nature and the need for community. It will shed light on how profoundly humans need to release the division of artificial ties, a point that this conflict so beautifully brought home (literally and figuratively). And it will bring the plot back to where it lays (at least for me): in the fragile fight for our own humanity that we all fight every day.
It does seem that regardless of anything, certain people will inevitably be disappointed because they crave disaster and the upset of a narrative which has been crafting itself elegantly for seven seasons. But might it also become just as cliche simply to break convention just because it’s shocking? Isn’t that just as worn out? Game of Thrones should tell the story it’s telling, and audiences should recognize that the shocking moments existed because they served the story it has always been telling, not solely because they break convention.
A story solely about dissolution and destruction and about the breaking of stereotypes “just because” is one note in and of itself. But a true and honest story, which betrays stereotypes in its honesty, is truly a great work of art. Not only because it betrays stereotypes, but because it tells an honest story. And I think the show is telling a story about humanity, not about the lack of it.