This post contains spoilers for last night’s ‘Game of Thrones.’
Last night's Game of Thrones, the second episode in the final season, had a familiar vibe. Dozens of characters the audience has grown to love over seven years gathered in Winterfell to have conversations, drink, and bone for the last time. People made plans in the face of mortal danger, characters separated by years of plot reconnected to resolve lingering plot threads, and folks generally partied in the face of impending death. It was the calm before the storm, a beat that mirrored almost every role-playing video game I’ve ever played my entire life.
In Mass Effect, developer Bioware's space opera RPG, the players and their cast of friends faced annihilation at the hands of The Reapers—an ancient machine race that rises once every few millennia to wipe out all organic matter and reset the universe. In Mass Effect 3, players spend the final portion of the game talking to all their friends, allies, and colleagues. There’s a party, plots are resolved, and everyone gathers for one moment before facing certain death at the hands of The Reapers. It’s also the last opportunity the player has to consummate their romantic interests.
In The Witcher 3, Geralt and his Witcher friends spend the final act of the story sequestered in Kaer Morhen—an ancient castle and home of the Witchers. They’re about to face The Wild Hunt—a mythical army with frost powers that’s come to kidnap one of their own. They spend their last night of freedom talking, resolving various plotlines, and getting shitfaced drunk.
The moment before the final battle is a popular trope in video games, which are hugely influenced by the genre fiction that Game of Thrones belongs to while defying its expectations. It’s a place where ensemble casts have a chance to spread out and the reader or player gets a nice character moment before shit hits the fan, Reapers teleport in, The Wild Hunt attacks, or White Walkers hit the gates. In video games the setup is usually the same—the protagonist walks around a base that’s served as the hub for the game and talks, one last night, to all their favorite characters, presumably because a lot of them are about to die.
It’s not a moment I’ve seen on television before, but there hasn’t been a television show like Game of Thrones before. For me, that’s bittersweet. Game of Thrones began, in both its books and the television show, as a story that subverted the tropes of the genre. The first season took the time to establish Ned Stark as the protagonist, only to execute him in the first season’s penultimate episode.
That moment, and all the shocking moments that followed, made Game of Thrones popular. This was not your typical fantasy fare—in Westeros, actions had consequences and no one was safe. When you played the game of thrones, you lived or you died.
I still love the show, but it changed when HBO ran out of source material and moved towards the endgame. It became less a dark, subversive take on the fantasy genre, and more a fanservice machine geared towards delivering a satisfying ending for its millions of fans.
When Jon and his crew of misfits ranged beyond the wall at the end of last season, the episode’s plots and battles felt as if they were drafted for a video game. There are epic battles, there’s sacrifice, and a kick ass cut scene at the end featuring a dragon. I loved it, but it felt different than the show I fell in love with when Ned Stark lost his head.
Game of Thrones is different now. It’s not the story author George R.R. Martin wrote to subvert our expectations about what happens in fantasy novels. It’s become an RPG where all the characters, each with their own special ability and weapons—Beric Dondarrion flaming sword, Arya’s bag of human faces, and Daenerys’ dragons—are working their way through all the dialogue tree before the final battle.
What gives me hope is knowing that the next episode is a gigantic battle, where some characters are sure to die, and what feels like it should be the climax of the story. The armies of the dead are about to fight the living. Yet we know that three episodes, each running upwards of 90 minutes each, will follow. That’s a lot of story left to tell, and I hope it moves away from video game tropes and back to the frustrating, subversive decisions that made Game of Thrones culturally relevant in the first place.