(This is written from the perspective of someone who has watched all of Game of Thrones, read the first book ten years ago, and listened to way too much of The Ringer’s wonderful podcast Binge Mode. Spoilers everywhere.)
How do you finish a story another author has started?
Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have famously left behind many of George R.R. Martin’s notes. As The Show that Was Promised, a lot is on the line. But we’ve actually already seen this happen with the 20-year fantasy series The Wheel of Time, written by once-Martin friend and blurb-writer Robert Jordan before he sadly succumbed to amyloidosis before he could finish. The series was taken over by a young author named Brandon Sanderson, who would eventually become the current heavyweight title holder of fantasy… well, heavyweights.
While Sanderson received a great deal of acclaim for his Herculean approach to an impossible task, I was roundly disappointed. I’ve liked much of his other work, but the wrong scenes were rushed, characters betrayed their true natures, and the ending fell flat. How much of Sanderson to blame? How much was it Jordan’s own ideas? And how much of it was just a monumentally difficult undertaking during a monumentally difficult time?
It’s easy to take off and fly high. The question is whether Benioff and Weiss and Martin’s long game will successfully land the plane. Long-held mysteries must be unveiled, characters must reunite, redemption and vengeance must be meted out. Prophecies must be fulfilled and twisted and broken and fulfilled again. We’ve already seen one beloved series collapse under the weight of its own mythology. Will we have another Lost?
Here is our very simple ranking system. 1 will be awful (Theon’s torture), 5 average (Gendry), and 10 (the Tower of Joy).
Secrets and Twists: 10 points
Character Meetings and Reunions: 10 points
Resolving Storylines: 10 points
Character Growth: 10 points
Watercooler Moments: 10 points
TOTAL: 50 points
SECRETS AND TWISTS
We’ve already seen some of the secrets play out, extraordinarily successfully. The reveal of John’s true parentage at the Tower of Joy, Hodor, the stunning culmination of Maggy the Frog’s prophecy in “The Winds of Winter.” Our last major one remaining is who is the Prince (or Princess) Who Was Promised? My personal guess: Dany and Jon both? We’ve already seen Brandon Sanderson play with the grammatical syntax of prophecies in his Mistborn series to great effect.
The great thing about this prophecy is that it is simple. It doesn’t have to go through the expositional gymnastics of Lost to explain those polar bears. The answer to the prophecy is a name or two. It’s just a giant murder mystery.
Where the show is struggling in is in the clues to the foreshadowing. Missandei’s grammar lesson is blurted out instead of subtly dropped about six episodes ago when she was teaching Tyrion the finer points of Valyrian. To quote Tyrion, the foreshadowing was “a bit nostril.”
Same to the mini-mystery of Euron’s priceless gift, upon which a thousand prop bets were launched. You can’t shoehorn in a single-episode mystery this late in the game with this much fanfare. Tone it down a bit, guys.
On the other end of the spectrum, the common theory that Sam writes A Song of Ice and Fire is played more for a quick laugh on Archmaester Ebrose. It’s an appropriately small hint for a small question. (In my most savage dreams, Sam undercuts Ebrose to finish it before he can.)
But most damningly of all, we were robbed of the truth of whether they took Grey Worm’s pillar and stones. I had a great deal of imaginary money riding on whether they’d go the CGI route or the prosthetic scars route. And that is an automatic deduction.
Secrets and Twists Ranking: 5/10
CHARACTER MEETINGS AND REUNIONS
We had a ton of them this week, and even more are teased. Arya and Hot Pie. Arya and Nymeria. Arya and Sansa. DANY AND JON. Davos and Melisandre. Hot Pie and my damned heart.
Let’s start with Dany’s small council meeting with Tyrion, Ellaria, Varys, Yara, and Olenna. It’s like the set-up to an uncomfortable Thanksgiving family reunion Oscar-bait movie. It’s Rachel Getting Married times a hundred. The Tyrion-Ellaria bad blood is rich territory for mining, but it’s passed up for a history-less Danaerys-Olenna battle.
Dianna Rigg as Olenna Tyrell, once a scene-stealer of the highest order, had been reduced in Season 6 from her many dimensions to a few one-liners. This time, she gets to throw down one of the big thematic gauntlets of a leader based on love versus fear. In any other story, we would know who wins, except we saw what honor did for Ned Stark. It’s a solid scene, but it loses its luster relative to Danaery’s mini-clash with Varys, whereupon Conleth Hall gives another astounding performance as the biggest badass with no balls. (Sorry, Grey Worm!)
Character Meetings and Reunions: 7/10
Greyscale has loomed over the show for a long time, from Princess Shireen to the Stone Men to Jorah’s scaly arm. Several seasons of buildup is solved by Sam chiseling him and slapping on some lotion? It’s hard to say greyscale deserves anything, but it deserved a better cure. (Two points for the graphic match editing to that smashed-open pie. I nearly threw up.)
Missandei and Grey Worm also finally get it on after years of Ser Pouncing around. (See what I did there?) GoT certainly has a diversity issue, so it’s nice to see translators and eunuchs finally get there day. But did it have to be such a forgone conclusion? What was really holding these two apart? In contrast, Dany and Jon are rivals for the throne and continents apart. Grey Worm’s brief shame aside, these two were about five feet apart, getting drunk with Tyrion, and clearly into each other. Jaime and Brienne gave us everything we could ask for. These two deserve a better rom com.
Resolving Storylines Ranking: 3/10
The show ends with Theon’s relapse into Reek-ian cowardice. It’s a powerfully tragic moment, and speaks to the necessity of having characters fail. One of last season’s most heartbreaking moments was Jaime turning evil again. Watching him and Brienne stare at each other across an emotional gulf and a single, rotting suspension bridge of love got me all choked up. Let’s just say it was more deftly handled than the Hound’s redemption arc, which wasn’t even linear so much as exponential.
The best part of “Stormborn” is Arya however. Since the Season 7 premiere “Dragonstone,” I’d been hugely concerned about her portrayal as unstoppable badass. (Okay, I was concerned since she healed from about 40 stab wounds from the Waif.) Like Jaquen, she was a cheat code. Point her at any villains, and they would die. The only tension came from whether she would turn evil or not. That ham-fisted humanizing scene with the Lannister soldiers was even worse, and that’s IF you excluded the much-celebrated Ed Sheeran cameo.
My heart cries out in pain every time she barely notices Hot Pie, only Westeros’ most lovable survivor. I’m still debating over Arya’s bare lack of external reaction when Hot Pie gives her the news that Jon is alive, but it resolves itself in a beautiful moment when she accepts Nymeria’s need for freedom. Hope lives! And so does Nymeria!
This one is not really a major growth, but it’s extraordinarily similar to Arya’s previous problems. Lyanna Mormont has been dunking on everyone lately. A ten-year old half-pint of a girl slapping around a bunch of stuffy, disloyal North men? If you wanted to build a recipe for Internet fan favorite, she would be it. For the first time, we don’t see our new heroine support our hero John within moments. She has to make mistakes. It’ll only make a good thing even better.
Character Growth Rankings: 8/10
There weren’t a ton of showstoppers in the first two-thirds, especially as it’s an early episode. It moved the chess pieces where we thought the chess pieces would go. But what an ending. Euron might dress in high couture and be kind of a dick, but he lands a boarding plank on a guy. Most importantly of all, we’re now just down to one Sand Snake.
Watercooler Moments Rankings: 7/10
OVERALL SCORE: 30/50
Personal Non-Definitive Rankings of Best and Worst SFF Series Endings
1) Futurama (TV show by Matt Groening) – The first ending!
2) The Magicians Trilogy (books by Lev Grossman) – The better version of Harry Potter.
3) The Dark Knight Trilogy (movies by Christopher Nolan) – Yes, I stand by it!
4) Harry Potter (books by JK Rowling) – Loses points for the epilogue. If you count The Cursed Child, it should top the other list for ruining my childhood.
5) The Lord of the Rings (movies by Peter Jackson, definitely not the books) – I was the only person who liked the 18 endings.
1) Shadow Saga (books by Orson Scott Card) – Petra dumps Bean and marries Peter in a hot second. Later, Bean will become a literal giant in the next series.
2) Lost (TV show by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse) – Enough said.
3) The Reckoners Trilogy (books by Brandon Sanderson) – I liked 90% of the reveals in The Mistborn Trilogy.
4) The Hunger Games Trilogy (books by Suzanne Collins) – Tried too hard to be dark.
5) The Chronicles of Narnia (books by C.S. Lewis) – Susan.
* I like many parts of these series. After all, I had to read and/or watch through a lot of it to get to the end.