[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 7 through Episode 6.]
The best thing and the worst thing that can happen in the “Game of Thrones” finale is one and the same: A major character dies.
From the fan fiction coupling of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenarys (Emilia Clarke) to back-to-back dragon battles with no notable (human) casualties, the truncated penultimate season has offered much in the way of elegant spectacle and little in the way of emotional resonance. It’s also been agonizingly predictable. Arya’s (Maisie Williams) opening assassination of House Frey may be the most successful surprise, and even her revelation felt inevitable as soon as the wine came out.
Death is a “Game of Thrones” Tradition
Dating back to the shocking beheading of Sean Bean’s Ned Stark, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ drama has a rich history of surprise kills. Just last year, in the Season 6 finale, Cersei (Lean Headey) orchestrated one of the series’ most stunning sequences, if not its most stunning. Her work already done, Cersei sipped wine and watched as her master plan unfolded: The King’s Landing nobles led by the High Sparrow were trapped. The candles were burning. The music soared and silenced, just as the candle was lit.
On every artistic level, the scene was astonishing. Headey’s controlled satisfaction juxtaposed the panic inside the Citadel, while the editing, score, and structuring came together to illustrate each phase of her plan just when the audience wondered, “What’s next?”
More to the point, Cersei’s plan resulted in the deaths of six recognizable characters and at least two major players (the High Sparrow and Margaery Tyrell). It set up the final shot of the finale, when Cersei sat on the Iron Throne, as well as the entire next season. The shock and awe of her wildfire gambit paid massive dividends for the future and left fans with a higher opinion of the season as a whole.
But just as often as these deaths hold relevance, they can also feel like a crutch. Oberyn’s (Pedro Pascal) demise is still hotly contested as either a grand illustration of the brutal injustice of battle or a lame rationale for combining emotional and physical violence. Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram) being burned at the stake generated a fair share of controversy, as did Talisa Stark (Oona Chaplin) with her unborn child. And then, of course, there’s the Jon Snow cliffhanger.
Season 7 Has Catered To Expectations Too Often
As audiences have learned from the series’ many imitators, crafting a narratively surprising, satisfying, and progressive death is much harder than it looks. Sure, if any of the long-term series regulars die — Harington, Clarke, Heady, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, or Peter Dinklage — it will be a surprise, but with an unknown number of months between the Season 7 finale and the Season 8 premiere, the context must hold up to heavy scrutiny.
So far, Season 7 has shown flaws under a lesser lens.
Strictly speaking towards character death, there have been more bait-and-switches than any prestige drama could withstand. There’s Jaime charging toward Dany and her dragon, only to be knocked away from a burst of flames at the last second by Bronn (Jerome Flynn). The writers double-downed on that fake-out by ending the episode on a shot of Jaime sinking helplessly to the bottom of a lake, only to resurrect him (unsurprisingly) in the next episode.
Just last Sunday, the same scene was used for Jon’s non-death, when he was pulled into a freezing lake by a horde of White Walkers only to inexplicably crawl out a few not-so-agonizing moments later. Then, for anyone legitimately upset over a CGI-flying dragon taking one in the sternum from an Olympic-level javelin-throwing zombie, you’re in luck: Viserion was resurrected. It will be back as a blue-eyed dragon that its mother, Dany, will probably have to kill with her own hands.
This last example, despite the cavalier introduction, actually brought emotional weight to future episodes. Even if Dany doesn’t kill Viserion in the finale, that confrontation is coming. For all the enemies she’s taken down, Dany has never been on the opposite side of her children. Setting up that conflict is a progressive twist, and more of the same is needed — with better handling. That final shot, waiting for Viserion to open its eye, was so drawn out viewers started wondering where the White Walkers got their giant chains.
The Hail Mary Ending
Herein lies the challenge facing the finale. As anticipation builds, the pressure mounts for a momentous ending, but pulling it off is another story. Defenders have claimed critics need to wait and see how these stories come together. Episodic requisites aside, as the game nears its end, this is when Benioff and Weiss need to play their trump card.
In the past, that’s meant bodies. A successful, unsettling move could put a pin in the fan service arguments plaguing Season 7, many of which come down to the creators keeping fans happy heading into the final season; that they’ve been playing it safe instead of rocking the boat. Fans got a new relationship to fawn over and dragon battles to admire, but there’s been nothing of weight that compares to Ned Stark’s death, the Red Wedding, or Cersei’s vengeful wildfire.
Season 7 needs its signature moment, and a major death could reset the game board yet again. At best, an effective plot twist could make Season 8 feel like a wide-open world where anyone can take the Iron Throne. At worst, it’s a mere distraction that could anger the fanbase and keep viewers on the same path they’ve been walking for weeks.
But courage is not galloping head-first toward a dragon. Courage is letting Jaime throw the spear — or feel the fire.