(This article will contain spoilers for the series Game of Thrones, and may discuss elements of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series as well. If you are not caught up, I would not recommend reading further)
Last Sunday on Game of Thrones, the moment fans have been anticipating for years finally happened: Jon Snow came back to life. After six months of intentionally misleading cast interviews and vehement denials that Kit Harrington would remain on the series, the moment occurred roughly how most hardcore fans expected: with Melisandre using her magic to awaken the fallen Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. However, instead of jubilation at the fact that the character was back, or pride over correctly guessing which way the series was headed, lots of fans just sneered and faulted the show for being “too predictable.”
Such a criticism would be an issue for Game of Thrones, a series that has been lauded since its first season for surprising its viewers and taking its story in unpredictable directions. The show revels in subverting tropes, setting up likable characters only to knock them down and convincing the audience to empathize with the more initially-despicable ones. Fans love discussing and theorizing over the direction of the show’s narrative, and if that were too easy or predictable, it would drain a lot of fun out of the experience.
But fans need to realize that criticizing the predictability of this particular plot-point is a bit unfair. The most recent book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons, was released in 2011, and Jon Snow’s death was one of the last chapters of the novel. This means that fans have had five years to discuss and theorize around the character. Over that time, certain logical conclusions will be reached. If readers can piece together Jon Snow’s actual parentage (a reveal that will likely come next week in the show and has yet to be explicitly revealed in the books), then guessing that Melisandre would be able to revive Snow isn’t much of a long shot.
However, even beyond this moment, it is likely that Game of Thrones will become a bit more predictable than it has been. This isn’t a narrative failure so much as the nature of storytelling. According to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, they only intend to make roughly 15 more episodes after the end of season six. The shape of the narrative is much more clear than it was in season one, when all we had to go on was a Lannister conspiracy, a potential queen in the east, and the Stark family as protagonists.
In the early years, the show could get away with killing off major figures like Ned and Robb Stark, because they were never intended to be the “heroes” of the series. What the show (and the book series) did so well was trick the viewer (or reader) into expecting a different narrative than they were actually consuming. It’s shocking to us when Ned is beheaded in season one because everything about the show’s construction was meant to convince us that he was our central protagonist, but from a writer’s perspective, the plan for the actual storyline was already being seeded in the background.
That’s just not possible six seasons in. Too much plot has been established, and the series has to prioritize wrapping up plotlines and providing catharsis over surprising the audience. The actual needs of the narrative are far more transparent at this point, so of course certain things we’ve been anticipating for years will happen. We can expect to see Daenerys cross the Narrow Sea to Westeros, and for Ramsay Bolton to get his comeuppance, and for the Southern part of Westeros to finally have to deal with the existence of the White Walkers. But just because we can predict these things doesn’t make them weak points in the narrative. To simply change course and ignore plotlines just to yank the rug out from under the audience would be a detriment to the story.
And frankly, just because the narrative demands of Game of Thrones guarantees that it will be less surprising in future seasons doesn’t mean that it can NEVER surprise. The very same episode that contained the resurrection of Jon Show also featured Ramsay Bolton’s surprise coup against his own father. The fact that this happened at all isn’t especially shocking, but that it happened when it did, in the middle of so much change and conflict throughout Westeros, still allowed the moment to land effectively. Plenty of surprises can be orchestrated through smart timing alone, something that D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have proven themselves to be quite adept at.
So to answer my own title question, Game of Thrones’ ability to surprise us has lessened over the years. But such a thing is an unavoidable necessity of good storytelling. Weiss, Benioff, and George RR Martin are obligated to start paying off the story that they’ve been setting up for all of these years. By nature the following seasons should be faster-paced and less surprising. But as long as they can sneak up on us with the occasional plotpoint, Game of Thrones’ status as water-cooler television will continue to its last episode.