Game of Thrones trafficks in misery. Death and torture, agony and despair, estrangement and abandonment. It’s hard-core bummertown 99 percent of the time. (The other one percent is establishing shots.) Last night’s season-five finale didn’t change course — carnage and woe, as always — but it did feel a little different from previous instances of destruction. It felt like the beginning of the end.
GOT’s creators have said they’d like the show to go seven seasons, though HBO executives have indicated they’d love for it to go longer. There are still two more installments on George R.R. Martin’s to-do list, but at this point, the show has deviated substantially from the books — and unless GRRM surprises everyone and drops both volumes in the next few weeks, the show will have to continue covering un-booked territory. We assumed this day would come, when the show lapped the books, but prolonging that era doesn’t seem wise.
GOT’s biggest vice is that the story only sometimes feels like it’s moving forward; more often feels like it’s just moving outward. More, more, more, more, more: more people, more locales, more beefs, more baggage. There was so much to get to this season that a number of characters sat the entire ten episodes out. But “Mother’s Mercy” indicated a shift in direction. With Stannis’s apparent death, and the death of his whole camp, there’s no one there left there to revisit. Even Melisandre has fled. If Jon Snow dies, plus Sam is gone, who’s left for us among the Night’s Watch? Many (including me) think Jon is just mostly dead, and that either through Melisandre’s magic, or maybe through White Walker–led zombification, he’ll live to fight another day, but even so: We’re already back from beyond the Wall. Jon has gone (physically) as far as he’s going to go. Same goes for his occasional mirror Daenerys: She finished last night’s episode back where she (more or less) started, among the Dothraki.
On some level, we know the series is headed toward another massive battle, and that involves proximity. Everyone’s eventually going to die or be marching toward each other. Exactly who will be fighting against whom remains unclear: all of humanity against all supernatural beings? All blondes against all brunettes? Daenerys and her followers against all comers? Whatever the fight card, the drumbeats are getting louder.
Season one mostly set the table, precisely but precariously, and then, with Ned’s execution, the dominoes started falling: Seasons two and three were about ripples and sprawl and distance covered. Season four still had plenty of scattering momentum, and then in season five, things slowly started to fold back in on themselves. The season opened with a flashback, a reminder of the gravitational pull of “destiny” in the series. Cersei decided to bring Myrcella home. Jorah and Dany were reunited. We heard Arya’s list over and over. A sense of repetition developed: another marriage, another massacre, another advance and retreat. We’ve seen the mighty fall and the dead rise. How much more “out” can there be? We’ve reached the physical ends of the world, and now it’s time to hasten the end of the world.