Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for Game of Thrones' "The Long Night".
In the wake of the Night King's shocking defeat, it may be a good time to remember that Game Of Thrones has been successful by defying audience expectations. The wildly popular HBO series has become a cultural phenomenon through its continued subversion of normal fantasy storytelling tropes, routinely blurring the lines between the protagonists and antagonists as it's gone on. Who could have imagined rooting for Jaime Lannister after he pushed Bran out that window in the series premiere? Yet there he was at the Battle of Winterfell, nobly defending the North against the Army of the Dead.
Beyond simply zigging when audiences expect it to zag, Game Of Thrones has managed to pull off a remarkable trick on multiple occasions by reframing who this story is really about. That sort of high wire storytelling doesn't always make for comfortable viewing, and the show has unquestionably leaned into its darker, meaner impulses more than was necessary on occasion. But keeping its viewers off balance - and even occasionally offending them - has been a key Game of Thrones' success, and has been every bit as monumental of a television innovation as the poetic amorality at the heart of The Sopranos was at the beginning of the 21st century.
So how did Game of Thrones, ostensibly about the political wrangling between the Starks and Lannisters, morph into a tale where a young heroine saved all of existence by stabbing an ice demon in the gut? It did it though fearless - and occasionally reckless - but rarely boring storytelling.
Game Of Thrones Was Tricking You From Season 1
If you haven't watched it in a while, it may be difficult to even remember what Game Of Thrones was like in season 1. All the major players were on hand already, but many of them were children, completely ignorant of the horrors that would await them down the line. And while the very first scene of the series dealt with threat of the Army of the Dead beyond the wall, it would mostly be set aside in favor of royal politics. It was also a decidedly smaller scale affair, revolving largely around the Baratheon/Lannister alliance in King's Landing. For a show that's built its reputation on its sprawling cast and characters, season 1 really is told almost completely from the perspective of Ned Stark, our obvious heroic protagonist who we'd be spending many years with as he played politics with the slimy Lannisters.
Then Joffrey had Ned beheaded, and all hell broke loose. It seemed at this point Game Of Thrones had revealed the real story it was telling, with the War of the Five Kings and our new, true protagonist, the King in the North, Robb Stark. But Ned's eldest son, while a great military leader and good-hearted man, shared many of his father's flaws, and it soon became clear he was not a match for the Lannisters' underhanded scheming. The show's most seismic shift happened at the Red Wedding, which saw not only the death of Robb, but also his mother Catelyn Stark, arguably the two most prominent characters on the show at that point.
Not only did this effectively end the Starks' stake in the war, but soon all the other contenders for the throne would be killed, leaving Cersei as the ultimate power in Westeros. Game Of Thrones essentially blew up its own premise at the end of season 3 - for the second time.
The Real Story Game Of Thrones Was Telling
By the time of the Red Wedding, Game Of Thrones had tipped its hand about the actual story it was telling. Jon Snow and the Night's Watch were beginning to realize how real the threat of the Night King's Army of the Dead was, just as Daenerys Targaryen began consolidating power on the other side of the world. Jon, once the bastard outsider of the Stark family, was suddenly our heroic lead, and one of the show's few main characters largely uninterested in ruling the Seven Kingdoms. While his family was caught up in medieval political warfare, Jon was busy fighting off supernatural evil and his own comrades in the Night's Watch.
Daenerys, meanwhile, gained power and influence far away from the War of the Five Kings. Using her dragons and savvy allies like Jorah Mormont, Daenerys amassed a huge army of Dothraki and Unsullied while the Starks and Lannisters weren't even looking. When Jon and Daenerys' paths crossed, it was like the show was acknowledging its own long con - these two outcasts, who had operated on the fringes of the show's world for most of its run and who had more in common than they could possibly know, were suddenly the unquestioned heroes of the story, and it seemed it would stay that way until the very end. However, it turns out the Stark sisters may have something to say about that.
How The Battle Of Winterfell Continued Game Of Thrones' Story Tricks
The ultimate battle between the living and dead took place in Game of Thrones season 8, episode 3, which was later titled "The Long Night". Despite Jon's near-superhuman fighting prowess and Daenerys' pair of fire spewing dragons, the living were clearly outmatched by the dead. The two heroes of the story came off as noble but hapless, blindly punching at the waves of an overwhelming ocean. Enter Arya Stark. Arya, Ned's youngest daughter, has had one of the more harrowing story arcs. Essentially orphaned after Ned's death, Arya learned to survive on her own, and was eventually trained as an assassin by the Faceless Men. Arya, it turns out, killed the Night King, saving all of humanity from oblivion in the process. Our savior wasn't the resurrected warrior king or the fireproof dragon queen; it was a young woman who overcame unspeakable horrors to find the hero within herself.
Not only did Game Of Thrones throw audiences off balance with Arya's role in the Night King's death, but it ended the epic battle for the future of humanity with three episodes left, possibly its boldest move yet. And our two heroes may not be exactly what they seem. Jon and Daenerys recently learned that Jon is Aegon Targeryen, and has a stronger claim to the Iron Throne than Daenerys - or anyone else in Westeros, for that matter. Sansa Stark, who's the current Lady of Winterfell and savvy leader in her own right, is already wary of Daenerys, and news that her brother is the rightful ruler is not going to do anything to assuage her concerns. And all of this is happening in the shadow of Cersei, who has amassed an army to take out what's left of the North's forces now that the battle with the Night King is over.
There's no telling how this story will end. Are Jon and Daenerys still allies now that they're common cause is over? Would Jon even want the throne? What will Daenerys do now, especially without the dearly departed Jorah Mormont, who often served as her calming influence? It's anyone's guess at this point, but that actually feels intrinsic to what Game Of Thrones ultimately is. We've come to love the show because it subverts our expectations, and surprises us in both pleasant and horrifying ways. However the show ends, it's managed to keep its audience off balance for eight seasons (give or take the seventh one), and that's a massive achievement all by itself.