The hugely popular TV show Game of Thrones has two seasons to go; already the showrunners, David Benioff and Daniel Weiss, are speeding towards the endgame. But providing a satisfactory conclusion to a show that has multiple, interweaving storylines and which incorporates both realist and high fantasy elements is no easy task.
George R R Martin, author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series on which the show is based, is also obliged to invent endings for narratives within an even more complex storyworld. Can Benioff and Weiss - and Martin - wrap things up in a way that will satisfy the fan communities and make narrative sense?
One of the pleasures of both show and books is the multiple genres that they encompass. Detective story, horror, sci-fi have all been invoked: who killed Jon Arryn, and why, was a pressing question in the first and fourth seasons.
Horror tropes are activated when the zombie wight army and the White Walkers loom into view; meanwhile discredited Maester, Qyburn, is reinventing himself as Victor Frankenstein in his laboratory down in the Black Cells. The genres of epic, comedy, myth and tragedy offer different possibilities for closure to the stories of the Targaryens, Starks and Lannisters - and the rest of the Known World.
A comic ending - in the sense of Shakespeare's comedies - is attractive. In this scenario, Daenerys wins the Iron Throne, marries Jon Snow, has lots of children to perpetuate the Targaryen dynasty, and everyone in King's Landing lives happily ever after.
One of JRR Tolkien's plots within The Lord of the Rings came to just such a conclusion; Aragorn became king and ruled wisely and well for a hundred years. Martin has expressly criticised the conventional nature of Tolkien's comic ending though, and this solution would leave a number of questions unanswered, even if the Starks become Wardens of the North once more and Tyrion is Hand of the Queen.
Epic, meanwhile, is a public and political genre, concerned with the rise and fall of empires. An epic scenario would expand on the comic version by offering global solutions to the narratives. In this scenario, I'd expect more focus on the Essos plots, closing down the saga of Slavers's Bay with the restoration of the slave-trade. The city of Volantis, the regional super-power, would intervene to restore the status quo. Peace would be restored throughout the Seven Kingdoms, thanks to Daenerys and Jon's combined wisdom and firepower. These turbulent few decades in Westeros and Essos history would come to a satisfying end.
Comic or epic endings don't solve the North's most pressing problem however: Winter is coming, but a winter unlike any in living memory. How can the Westerosi combat or call off the implacable White Walkers?
A heroic ending?
Now that Benioff and Weiss's vision has gone beyond the plot material in Martin's published works, they are free to opt for a heroic-mythic ending. The fan community would certainly like to see a titanic battle between the forces of fire, embodied by the dragons, and the petrifying antithetical figures of the White Walkers/Others, along with their Army of the Dead.
A heroic ending would mesh with the prophecy that the legendary warrior, Azor Ahai, will be reborn in order to overcome the existential threat to the Known World. Jon and Dany (representing Azor Ahai as male and female principles) could sally forth on dragon - back to battle against the blue-eyed ice-demons.
But if they are to save the Seven Kingdoms, their triumph will surely come at a cost. Fans have speculated that, by virtue of his Stark ancestry, Jon could become the new Night's King, the White Walkers' leader, and negotiate a peace on their behalf with the southern humans. That would put paid to his chances of sitting on the Iron Throne, but his sacrifice might be worth it.
An almighty annihilation
Finally, there's the tragic possibility. As those relentless assassins, the Faceless Men frequently remind us: Valar Morghulis "All Men Must Die". Martin's title, A Song of Ice and Fire may allude to Robert Frost's short poem "Fire and Ice in which Frost explicitly figures the world's end either in fiery conflagration or as a new Ice Age.
Apocalypse may be on the cards, a ragna rök like that described in the Old Norse poem Völuspá (The Seeress's Prophecy), composed around 1000 CE. In this terrifying vision, flame leaps up and consumes the heavens and the earth sinks into the sea from which it once arose. Humans, gods and giants perish and the great World-Tree shudders.
This eschatology wouldn't fit with Martin's hints about a "bitter-sweet" ending, however. The destruction of the Known World would be bitter indeed for fans, and there would be no consoling sweetness to temper the shock.
Benioff and Weiss could be tempted to blow their CGI budget on an almighty annihilation of everyone and everything; the show that staged the Red Wedding and the destruction of the Great Sept might not shrink from such a bold conclusion. In the final verses of Völuspá, a new world arises from the ocean, the eagle hunts fish on the mountainside and a fresh generation of gods and humans appear. So there can be hope on the other side of apocalypse.
Still, Benioff and Weiss have about 14 hours of screen-time in which to finish up and they may not be able to close down every single storyline in a satisfactory way.
Martin has two more books at least, and although the critic John Mullan has recently suggested that the author has literally lost the plot, Martin has more leeway to dream up multiple endings for his different narrative arcs, just as Tolkien did. Reflection on how medieval and modern genres work would help him in that challenge.
An educated guess
My guess is that the show will take the comic option, contenting itself with a marriage between Jon and Daenerys and finding some quick fix for the White Walker problem. The dragons will surely help.
Martin will go for a heroic-mythic ending, fulfilling the messianic prophecies in circulation about Azor Ahai and the even more mysterious Prince That Was Promised. Jon will sacrifice himself, unafraid to die once again, and Daenerys and her human children will rule wisely and well for generations to come. We'll just have to wait and see.