Game of Thrones and the Limits of Prophecy

In “The Long Night’s” Game Revealed featurette, Kit Harington remarks of Arya being the one to kill the Night King: “I was pissed that it wasn’t me.”

It’s the easiest thing to imagine, isn’t it? Jon Snow coming back from the dead, becoming King of the North, turning out to be the heir to the Iron Throne then going on to defeat the Night King. So easy it’s almost too good to be true.

I think that’s the problem.

Some fans aired the same grievances following the end result of the Battle of Winterfell, forgetting that their very expectation is the course that Game of Thrones has fought tooth and nail to subvert since Season One. Cries that Arya’s trajectory in the episode was “unearned” are unearned in and of themselves. Because it suggests that prophecies and especially fan-prophesizing should be the way to go in the current hyper-active pop culture climate.

Fan theories for the Azor Ahai prophecy are a testament to how fan-fevered Game of Thrones is, but also how warped these expectations have become when fan theories aren’t realized. Reactions to “The Long Night” are crucial in understanding the criticisms that have befallen the show intensely since then.

 

The Fan Theory That Was Promised

The Azor Ahai prophecy is as follows:

8,000 years before Aegon’s Landing, a long night fell upon the world, and Azor Ahai was the chosen hero to bring the dawn.

To fight the darkness, Azor Ahai needed a hero’s sword. He labored in the forges for 30 days and 30 nights. When he went to temper the sword in water, the blade broke. He started over. The second time he took 50 days and 50 nights. He captured a lion and drove the sword into its heart, but once more the steel shattered.

The third time, he knew what he must do, laboring for 100 days and nights. He called for his wife, Nissa Nissa, asked her to bare her breast and drove his sword into her heart – her soul combining with the steel of the sword, creating the weapon known as Lightbringer.

Following a long summer, an evil, cold darkness will descend upon the world once more. According to ancient prophecies, Azor Ahai is to rise, and, wielding Lightbringer, he is destined to defeat the darkness once again.

The show makes use of a bare bones version of The Prince Who Was Promised. It’s important to note that The Prince and Azor Ahai aren’t drawn explicitly to be the same person, more so Azor Ahai reborn or reincarnate. This, of course, is by GRRM’s design – as was Jon Snow’s parentage, whether the Night King might be a Stark or a Targaryen, etc. A long-standing puzzle with thousands of pieces for fans to do with it as they so please. The show instead pulled a Last Jedi-esque twist – subverting the Night King a la Snoke and a Force Awakens switcheroo from an obvious hero in Finn, to an unexpected and emotionally satisfying one in Rey.

The problem with Game of Thrones fan theories is that these prophecies have increasingly become a one-size fits all for Jon Snow, admittedly THE most popular theory, but it comes at the cost of removing everyone else’s role in the story. Since Game of Thrones started, it has never been about one person.

 

A Song of Heroes and Red Herrings

Anyone who’s put forth their own champion towards the prophecy knows that there is a long-standing list of those speculated to be the chosen hero. The books have reiterated the specifics of The Prince/Princess Who Was Promised: being born beneath a bleeding star, amidst salt and smoke, having woken dragons out of stone. Aside from the red comet and an idle reference of salt & smoke in Season Two, the show never repeats these specifics, thus casting a wider net of potential candidates. Doing away with Azor Ahai, the show is much freer in its interpretation of the prophecy and notions of an obvious “hero.”

The show has since gone on to use markers like red comets and salt & smoke as Easter eggs for book fans, as well as misdirection – one of GRRM’s trademark tools. He’s got us or (we’ve got ourselves) studiously looking for bleeding stars, wisps of smoke, stains of tears… even searching for smoked ham. (Frankly, Azor Ahai is synonymous with Red Herring.) But these prerequisites don’t exclude candidates so much as it casts a wider net of potentials, which includes Arya.

Like a great deal of characters, Arya has had a symbolic rebirth or two. (She, too, keenly “shuts her eyes” in these moments.) She *dies* when Ned Stark is beheaded at the Sept of Baelor, Yoren of the Night’s Watch clasping her eyes shut. She dies at the Red Wedding upon seeing Grey Wind’s execution just before The Hound knocks her unconscious. When she comes to in the following episode, the riverlands are on fire, loyal Stark men are being slaughtered, and she bears witness to Robb’s corpse with Grey Wind’s head sown on top. (The Hound, too, had procured a wagon hauling pig feet.)

Arya’s rebirth might’ve happened later in the episode, her killing the Frey soldier boasting about murdering the Starks. (The soldiers gathered around a fire, and Arya’s merciless killing intermingled with her grief.) Perhaps it happens at the tavern where she scratches Ser Polliver off her list of names— the chimney billowing, the innkeeper’s daughter crying. You could certainly count her time in Braavos as a rebirth or a reawakening of her Stark identity.

It’s astonishing to me that even with the prophecy’s vast openness in interpretation (on the show’s end), people still can’t wrap their heads around it being Arya. That even after the Night King conflict has come to pass, that it still registers as “out of nowhere” to some when there has been just as a methodical foreshadowing and placement as, say, bleeding stars, or a plate of ham in front of our faces.

That this was so far out of the realm of possibility for certain viewers is what worries me. That Jon Snow being the only hero of the series was the whole point of the show for some people, for their and only their theories to come true. That stories or conventions can’t possibly be subverted in a show that made a name for itself doing just that. That if a certain fan expectation isn’t met, we “revolt.”

 

The Backlash of Unrealized Expectations

We want our proposed prophecies to be fulfilled, but are they really fulfilling in a conventional sense? That Game of Thrones outlined its endgame in a poem or prophecy spoken long ago is catastrophically anti-climactic for mastermind GRRM, a man whose aim was to subvert the popular fantasy tropes of Lord of the Rings. Viewers are now claiming that since their theories haven’t been realized, their investment in the show has been wasted— when all that time spent theorizing indicates exactly the opposite.

Since the show has been plotting its own course as early as Season Five, it has given fans creative licensing to spur their own ideas of how the story would end. And, like the Snoke and Rey predictions preceding The Last Jedi’s release, Game of Thrones has been under tremendous expectation to give the fans what they want. The show, in that regard, is no longer free to shock us as it once did nor chart its own course; it has to stick to trajectories predetermined by fans who, while waiting for the next entry, came up with this “whole amazing Night King theory.”

This is what happened with Last Jedi and now Game of Thrones. It’s perfectly normal to have expectations, but it’s clear now as fans we’re holding the show hostage to our “predictions” and “theories.” Holding onto one and only one possibility deters all other possibilities, which is a moot concept this late in the game considering Ned Stark’s death taught us otherwise.

Perhaps we’ve grown so used to vengeance returning in full (i.e. Joffrey dying, Tyrion killing Tywin, Brienne killing Stannis, Sansa returning the favor to Ramsay), so used to “Yaaas Queen” moments and clear-cut good and evil battles. Perhaps we’ve rounded back, that one singular hero could save Westeros. Which is why some of the complaints coming down on Game of Thrones’ final season feel like overheated reactions to a media that doesn’t conform to viewers’ belief systems as opposed it being badly written. (Though, you could certainly make the case.)

And yet no one seemed to have considered that Jon Snow being resurrected, made king, made savior, and then made to sit on the Iron Throne might be too good to be true even for Game of Thrones’ own good. Remember when Robb and Catelyn Stark went to the Twins hoping to secure the Frey’s alliance in hopes of taking Casterly Rock?

Could one character like Jon Snow or Daenerys really be the hero who was promised to end the long night AND sit on the Iron Throne? Or could it be more plausible, from the show’s standpoint, that multiple characters could help fulfill those ends. Dany awakening dragons from stone; Theon, Davos, Jaime, Tyrion being reborn amidst salt and smoke, Jon beneath a bleeding star; The Hound brought back, Beric resurrected numerous times AND wielding a flaming sword; Gendry laboring night and day in the forges. They all had a part to play in the Battle of Winterfell. That, to me, seems truer to the ensemble of Game of Thrones, where a king needs a hand, a small council, commanders, armies to rule, etc.

Arya killing the Night King isn’t just a subversion of an expectation, but a logical endpoint to the undead conflict in the North. It meaningfully ties together Arya’s assassin-training, her teachings about the God of Death, AND her Northern allegiance in a literal one fell swoop. The dagger, the location of the godswood, and Bran’s placement at the scene provide a symmetrical and conclusive end to the Night King conflict, of past and future visions meeting at a pivotal locale where viewers get to cast aside predictions of what might happen and bear witness to what will. (Bran, too, had his own symbolic rebirth in Season One, Episode 2, fulfilling the dual Prince/Princess Who Was Promised roles – just putting that out there.)

Yes, it’s true that some predictions and prophecies have been fulfilled: Jon Snow being both Stark and Targaryen, Cersei’s woods witch prophecy seen to completion in the final moments of “The Bells.” But our rampant prophesizing in no way entitles us to versions of events we want to see come true, no matter how many times we browse or share a thread on reddit. There will of course be overlap because even the greatest mysteries of the world can’t be misdirected from fan anticipation. Otherwise, all popular fan predictions can’t come true, not all the time. It shouldn’t. Because if it did, then Game of Thrones would be predictable, and that would truly be the end for the show.

It’s only fitting that one of the most watched shows of television comes under the might of fan expectation. It’s a testament, really, to its staple in pop culture and the sheer square footage it has taken up in our mental real estate. But if Game of Thrones is going to surprise us all the way to the end, it’s crucial that our expectations be the first to die.

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