The first time I interviewed author George R.R. Martin in 2011, it seemed like he was on the brink of completing the fantasy book series that would become Game of Thrones.
The author was just about to come out with A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in what he said was going to be a seven-volume series. He already had a title for the sixth book (The Winds of Winter) and the seventh (A Dream of Spring), and he planned to knock them both out and watch HBO adapt them into a TV series.
“The books are very complicated and complex, and I spend a lot of time trying to get that right,” he told me. “In my view, it’s more important to get that right than to get it out on time.”
That was eight years ago, and we haven’t seen any books in that series since. Martin has said that when it comes to storytelling, he’s less like an architect who plans everything out, and more like a gardener who prunes and waters the thing he’s tending as it grows. In other words, there’s no blueprint, only seeds.
As a result, the producers have had to complete the HBO version of Game of Thrones based on their own imaginations and where Martin said the plot was headed. They’ve raced ahead of the original series and are wrapping up their take with the final episode airing this Sunday, May 19.
What will post-Westorosi life look like? Martin not only hasn’t released any new books in his fantasy series since 2011—he hasn’t even announced a timetable for when the next installments might come out.
But this may be a good thing.
The fact Martin hasn’t finished the books is a big reason why we care so much about the TV show; if we knew who was going to end up on the Iron Throne, we probably wouldn’t be illegally downloading it at record-breaking rates. (It’s estimated 54 million people illegally watched the season eight premiere; only 17 million watched it legally.)
Jon Snow isn’t the only one who knows nothing—the reality is nobody knows anything definitive when it comes to the show. Over the eight seasons Game of Thrones has been on the air, I’ve talked to many of the stars of the show, from Sophie Turner to Kit Harington, and until this season, not one of them seemed to know exactly where the story was going.
“I never really turned to the books,” Turner told me in 2016. “I think I read the first two books and then after that the storylines were kind of going away from each other anyway. My character’s storyline in season five in the books was actually replaced by a whole other character, so I didn’t want to pay attention to the books at that point.”
That quantum uncertainty is part of the reason why Game of Thrones is the perfect franchise for the social media age. Because the answer hasn’t been set via Martin’s books, nobody is right and nobody is wrong; the Reddit thread can spin on forever. Dozens of bloggers and pundits have filled the information void, spinning theories about how the franchise might finish up and debating minutiae from the show, like why a Starbucks-style coffee cup was left visible in one scene, or whether the “Azor Ahai” prophecy from the books will actually come to pass. In one Game of Thrones podcast I was listening to recently, one caller ranted that “the complete lack of direwolves was infuriating.”
When you’re infuriated by a lack of direwolves, you’re in deep.
The Game of Thrones TV finale won’t really be the end—it’ll just be the end of HBO’s version. In addition to the final two books by Martin, more Game of Thrones spin-off series are in the works. Martin recently blogged that five “successor shows” had been in development at HBO and currently “three of them are still moving forward nicely.”
Martin’s books will also have the chance to right some of the wrongs that have irked the show’s fans. Earlier this season, Missandei—one of only two main characters this season who is a person of color—was beheaded. The other person of color is her lover Grey Worm, who had to stand by helplessly and watch her die in chains. Will Missandei go out that way in the books, too? Would Martin really reduce the minority population of The North by 50%? He will have a chance to rewrite the past and give fans deliverance on their sorest points.
But deliverance may take some time—if it ever arrives. In a blog post just this week, Martin wrote that not only was he not done with book six in his series—he hadn’t even started book seven. He stopped writing episodes for the TV show after season four, and he hasn’t shared many details in interviews about how the ending in his books—when and if he puts it on paper—might differ from the finale of the show.
For example, in Martin’s books, at least so far, there’s no central villain like the Night King, the young warrior-assassin Arya hasn’t made her heroic leap at the Battle of Winterfell, and Daenerys hasn’t gone all Anakin Skywalker and rained fire on King’s Landing. We don’t know if Martin has fed those plot points to the producers or if they’re the inventions of the TV show’s producers.
Martin’s silence is as golden as Jaime Lannister’s hand. Even though winter has ended, it means there’s hope that alternate storylines could still be coming.
If you love the show, you’re probably bracing yourself for Westeros withdrawal. What are you going to with your Sunday nights now? How will you reallocate all the time you’ve been spending on sites like WinterIsComing.net and podcasts like “Bend the Knee,” hashing out signs, symbols, and themes from the show? What does daylight look like after the long night?
In an interview in 2014, Martin told me he plans to write more about his fictional world of Westeros, even after he completes the central series. “I hope I have as much energy as Jack Vance or Jack Williamson or some of the other great [sci-fi and fantasy] writers who have continued to write into their 80s and 90s,” said Martin, who is now 70 years old. “I would like to recapture my youth, my lost youth. It’s probably in Bayonne, New Jersey, where I was born, somewhere. I’ll go over and find it there in some pizza parlor.”
Even though the show is ending, the discussions and debates will continue, because the books haven’t even been finished—and there’s a chance they never will be. There’s even a Change.org petition, which has nearly reached its 500,000 signature goal, calling for a remake of the eighth season. Until Martin writes the last line in his books, every one of us is on the Iron Throne.