After five seasons of grim death, horrifying twists and a general sense there's no light at the end of the tunnel, Game of Thrones finally opened up the curtains with last week's "Book of the Stranger." Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Jon (Kit Harington) reunited for the very first time! Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) literally set fire to the patriarchy, regaining her power and sense of self! And we all learned to love again through Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Brienne's (Gwendoline Christie) bear-based moon eyes at each other!
But why, after five seasons of grim death, horrifying twists and a general sense there's no light at the end of the tunnel do you suddenly think Game of Thrones will have a happy ending?
Look: I'm glad that the show packed insane action and true character development with moments of heart into its last hour. I've written before about how these sorts of character moments have been sorely lacking this season. But time and again, Game of Thrones has set up these moments only to pull the rug out from under viewers.
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It all stems back to the books, of course. Writer George R.R. Martin has been pretty open about how he built the books as both a tribute and response to his initials brother from another mother J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal work, The Lord of the Rings.
"Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper," Martin noted during a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone. "We look at real history and it's not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn't ask the question: What was Aragorn's tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine?"
What Martin aimed (and presumably still aims, if he ever finishes the next book GEORGE WHY ARE YOU READING THIS GET BACK TO WRITING) to do with Thrones (née A Song of Ice and Fire) was play against fantasy stereotypes and genre cliches. The good guys don't always win! Righteousness isn't always the correct path! And he's even hinted that there may be no boss battle at the end, no Sauron-like figure for our heroes to take out and save the day.
The last book in Martin's cycle, for decades now, has been titled, A Dream of Spring, indicating that the constant threat of winter may have passed. But it sure doesn't say that everyone will survive, or what shape the world of Westeros will be in once Martin is done. It's a dream of spring; not the actuality of one, which is pretty consistent with the hopelessness and reality that has commanded Martin's narrative so far.
The show has been the same deal. Ned Stark (Sean Bean) manages to wrest control of King's Landing from the Lannisters, only to be betrayed and beheaded. Robb Stark (Richard Madden) gets a wife he loves, a baby on the way, and seems about to save the kingdom, and then the Red Wedding — the single most traumatic moment in, arguably, TV history — happens, and Robb, his wife, his mother, and whole army are murdered in cold blood.
Also there's that time when Jon Snow saved the Wall from destruction only to get stabbed so many times Caesar watched the episode and said, "Holy sh--, that's a lot of stabbing."
So every time a little hope creeps into Game of Thrones, a little creep (Littlefinger, Walder Frey, Olly) pulls it right back out. Or stabs it to death. That's crucial to understanding the books; and even Martin, who ostensibly is controlling the characters, has said that things don't turn out the way even he would want them to: that's just life.
Up until now, I would have applied the same rules to the TV show, but there is a sense things are changing. As we enter the halfway point of Season 6, things are coming up Stark. Sansa and Jon are together, and going after Rickon (Art Parkinson) with an army of Wildlings — and, though they don't know it, an army of The Vale courtesy of the formerly treacherous Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen). Daenerys, meanwhile, now has an army of unstoppable Unsullied warriors, a mounted force with the Dothraki, and possibly will team up with the salty Greyjoys to get her navy back. Also: dragons.
And once Jon and Daenerys team up, they'll all be able to stop the White Walker army and dance to "Celebration" in the Red Keep as Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) welcome back that lovable scamp Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) with open arms. Right?
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Wrong. Why would you think that? What gives you any indication that Game of Thrones is headed towards any sort of happy ending? What previous plot points show us, in the text of the show, that even with multiple armies ready to take back Winterfell there's any chance Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) won't kill or capture everyone?
Even moments of catharsis, like the much anticipated death of Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) in Season 4, come with caveats, and only raise the danger. One of those little creeps we were talking about above, the boy king Joffrey had terrorized our heroes since Day 1. And when he died, the world celebrated... but he didn't die by the hands of any of the characters we would have wanted to kill him; and it led to Tyrion being imprisoned and nearly killed, as well as Sansa ending up in the dangerous care of Littlefinger.
Every victory, even the small ones, comes with an even higher price. It's impossible to think that Jon Snow returning from the dead won't have terrible ramifications down the road, because that's just how the show works.
... Unless that's not how the show works anymore. Many reams of Internet paper have been filled with speculation about how this season of the show — as well as the tentatively discussed final 13 episodes following — is the first that truly deviates from the books. It's entirely possible that, freed from Martin's text, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are reverting to a more traditional, emotionally satisfying path for the TV show than Martin will take for the books.
So we could see the Starks reunited by the end of the season. We could see Daenerys ready to bring the full might of her army to take back the Iron Throne. And we could see them all team up to take down the greater threat, the icy undead army to the North.
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The leader of that army is, in fact, what indicates this change might be coming. The books have barely told us what the White Walkers (called "Others" in the novels) are up to, and certainly haven't shown us the Night's King. The TV show, on the other hand, has clearly indicated he's the Big Bad, the ultimate enemy our heroes need to take out to save the realms of men.
If Martin hasn't changed his plan, it's entirely possible the Night's King will never manifest the way he does on the show; and in the books, we'll never have that loathsome, hissable villain that's part and parcel with every other fantasy epic. That's part of Martin's design.
"I think the battle between good and evil is thought largely within the individual human heart," Martin told Time in 2011, "by the decisions that we make. It's not like evil dresses up in black clothing and you know, they're really ugly."
On the show, we do have an evil, ugly villain who dresses in black clothing. It's possible Benioff and Weiss might pull the rug out from under us — Night's King is really a super nice guy — but that we have this focal point for our hate has already made the show into a more conventional narrative than the books.
So to answer the initial question, why do you think Game of Thrones will have a happy ending? That's why. Because if the show wanted to be true to the books, the happiness fans feel after watching last week's episode would be ripped away by season's end in the biggest, most heart-wrenching way possible.
Freed of the book, there's a greater chance — though some heartbreak is surely ahead, regardless — that we're headed towards that epic fantasy ending. It's more emotionally satisfying. It's potentially more exciting. But it's also safer.
"We all yearn for happy endings in a sense," Martin said during a 2015 talk at Northwestern. "Myself, I'm attracted to the bittersweet ending."
Those of us looking to keep Game of Thrones happy ending-less, to get that bittersweet, instead of the ending where the Starks all do the electric slide, Ned comes back to life to tell his kids he's proud of them, and Theon (Alfie Allen) grows his penis back? To have a dream of spring rather than the actuality of it? We'll just have to keep waiting for Martin's next book. And waiting. And waiting...