At the end of the first season of Game of Thrones, we held our hands to our mouths at the prospect of Ned Stark's imminent execution. Surely, the show wouldn’t kill off its main character. Not Ned, the moral compass of an otherwise unruly cast of degenerates all battling it out for the Iron Throne. But the executioner’s blade fell, and Sansa Stark screamed as her father's head rolled to the ground. And so began a dark, boldly original narrative — one that catapulted Game of Thrones to the top of HBO’s programming, and ends next month when the show wraps its eighth and final season.
But with just three episodes left, has the show finally lost its steam?
The most recent episode of the drama ("The Long Night") was the long-awaited showdown between the living, led by Jon Snow, and the dead, led by the Night King. This conflict has been brewing from the opening scene of the very first episode, when the White Walkers were introduced to us as Westeros’s looming, mysterious threat. Over the course of eight seasons, that threat has always lingered, but we still knew very little about the Night King's motivations and, most importantly, the reason for his fixation with the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran Stark. After seasons of steely-gazed buildup between the Night King and Jon Snow, Arya Stark was the one to deliver the fatal blow to the supreme leader of the undead, wiping out his entire army of wights in the process.
While Arya certainly earned the moment — her training started all the way back in Season 1 — the chapter on the undead was closed all too abruptly, and it made little impact on the game of thrones the show’s characters have been playing for centuries.
One couldn’t help but feel that the Night King’s end was a bit anticlimactic. He died no more transparent than he existed, a mere plot device to temporarily distract our heroes from their larger power struggle. Now, after defeating the undead, they turn their attention South to King's Landing to stage one final battle with Cersei Lannister. Will more of our heroes die in the crossfire? At this rate, maybe not.
After all, this epic battle for Winterfell and the Seven Kingdoms turned out to be light on death. There were hordes of nameless Dothraki, Freefolk, and soldiers of the North who perished and were remade into soldiers of the undead. But there were no meaningful losses on the battlefield (unless you count Dolorous Edd’s easily telegraphed exit). Beric Dondarrion had been dead on multiple occasions, what was one, more final exit? Lyanna Mormont somehow took down a giant. Melisandre, the plot device that kicks the show in the shins whenever it needs a jolt, died of her own accord.
Theon Greyjoy and Ser Jorah Mormont were the only show-stopping casualties. But they wrapped up character arcs that were, let’s face it, kind of predictable. Theon, on this redemption road since forever, had to die for someone; it just wasn’t clear if it would be for his sister, Yara, or a member of the Stark family (“You’re a Greyjoy and a Stark,” Jon told him in Season 7). And Ser Jorah fought through hell and high water for Daenerys all the way to the end. There was nothing left for him to do, but at least he died having made his family name proud with a Valyrian steel sword in his hands.
"The Long Night"'s problem — clearly visible plot armor that robs pivotal characters’ conflicts of any real danger — started in Season 6 when Jon Snow rushed headfirst into a battle with Ramsay Bolton’s enormous army, facing an opposing horde twice the size of his own. But Snow’s plot armor was made of Valyrian steel. Arrows felled men all around him, yet he emerged unscathed. He was literally buried under a mountain of terrified men and corpses, only to magically rise to the top for the sake of a callback to the finale of the third season. He was the first onto the battlefield and the last one out, given the honor of punching Bolton to the point of death. The rugged, grotesque aesthetic was visually outstanding. But the logic behind Jon Snow’s determination to be the classic hero cheapened the victory and the show for it. In Season 7, he took on the army of the undead with a group of people and, at one point, became the only one still involved in the fight. Just as he was about to kick the bucket, again, he’s saved; this time by Daenerys who just so happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Jon's luck continued in the Battle of Winterfell. He chased after the Night King by himself, literally immersed in a gigantic cavalcade of previously raised soldiers, only to take them out one by one. After looking him up and down, the Night King could sense the episode’s writers were on Snow’s side. He turned around and walked away. I sighed. Minutes later, Snow was engaged in a screaming match with an undead dragon and was saved from becoming the banner of the Flayed Man by Arya Stark’s twist-for-the-sake-of-not-being-too-predictable: stabbing the Night King. Jon lives another day, again. So does (almost) everyone else. And now we march onwards past the show’s biggest battle.
The earliest seasons of Game of Thrones thrived on their unpredictability. George R.R. Martin’s source material is riveting and complex, giving characters the axe without warning. There was a sense that each episode could be a character’s last because that’s just how life is. We don’t always complete our character arcs — we just die. And in Game of Thrones’ early goings, people died. There was no plot armor. Characters made believable but ill-fated decisions and suffered the consequences of their actions. Nothing felt cheap, and every death felt earned. I was shocked when Robb Stark died until I realized that he was the cliche. He was the first born, charismatic son, seemingly unkillable in combat, on a path to retake the kingdom in the name of his betrayed father. For Martin and the showrunners, he was a necessary sacrifice to get to the real story.
But blowing past this epic source material made Game of Thrones play fast and loose with the logic and suspense of the narrative. When Sam Tarly is a hardened wight slayer who battles a squadron of the undead without so much as a scratch on his face, you won’t find it as fun. When Ser Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne survive frontline assaults by countless wights while everyone around them dies — but not the blacksmith Gendry, of course — the scenes feel like nothing more than fancy CGI without stakes or a sense of meaning.
So close to the end, Game of Thrones has been robbed of its venom. It’s no longer a snake. It’s a belt.