The beginning of the end has begun, and that end will arrive a lot sooner than you think. "Game of Thrones" – which returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO for its penultimate seventh season – has just seven episodes this season and six next to wrap the most intricate, complex and ambitious story in TV history. But how? Fans have thousands of theories. Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have hinted at none. George R.R. Martin has yet to finish the final two books of the source material, "A Song of Ice and Fire." His ending could conceivably differ from theirs.
In fact, beyond the incessant clash of kings, dance of dragons and storm of swords, it's hard to see how this could possibly wrap. There are dozens of storylines, hundreds of characters. Which one will lead to that final scene in 2018? Which beloved character will prevail – or won't?
So let's make this simple: What is "Game of Thrones" really about (or not about) and how might that hint at a possible outcome?
'GAME OF THRONES' IS ABOUT DUALITIES. "Dualities" are two properties that appear opposite in meaning, and "Thrones" is packed with them – light and darkness, north and south, east and west, night and day, fire and ice, realism and magic, true gods and false idols, "true"-born and bastards, country and city, seeing and blindness. Why all these opposites? Lots of theories, but a reasonable one suggests they're about a dialectic of history. Martin's fantasy history is built on real history – notably the War of the Roses – and the incessant strife of human affairs. Order comes from disorder, justice from injustice, power from weakness, faith from doubt. Divided within themselves, humans strive blindly toward a future they can't see. It's a tragic dialectic, hinting at a tragic outcome.
'GAME OF THRONES' IS NOT ABOUT GOOD VERSUS EVIL. There's an easy temptation to see Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) – the "fire" and "ice" respectively of this tale – as the good guys, and the Night King (Vladimir Furdik) and his "White Walkers," aka the Others, as the bad guys. But not so fast. In Martin's dialectic, good and evil are conjoined in sort of a yin-yang embrace. Good comes from evil, and vice versa. They're two sides of the same coin. Dany and Snow may be set on a course for a final showdown with the Others. They may even be set on a course for a final showdown with each other. Maybe the White Walkers aren't even as bad as we think. (Could they be much worse than the humans?)
'GAME OF THRONES' IS ABOUT SEEING. Seeing, or vision, is so important in the world of "Thrones" that Martin even built it into the structure of the books, where long chapters are based on individual characters' own specific "points of view." The so-called POV characters see only what they see, and are blind to what they can't see, sometimes a fatal flaw. Of all the POV characters, only one has "greensight," or the ability to see past, present and future in his dreams, as well as multiple points of view. This season, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) has also morphed into the "Three-Eyed Raven," and has even greater powers of foresight, and the ability to influence future events. Bran has a role yet to play, either of good or ill, and almost certainly a major one.
'GAME OF THRONES' IS NOT 'THE LORD OF THE RINGS.' Seeing is a huge part of that other great fantasy novel, "The Lord of the Rings" – recall Sauron's all-seeing "eye" – but "Game" and "LOTR" diverge otherwise. A few fans have been deluded into thinking that "Game," like "LOTR," is hurtling toward a final all-conclusive battle, where good will prevail over evil. That will not happen here. Martin, Benioff and Weiss never saw this as a good-triumphing-over-evil tale, so those waiting to see the crown go to either Dany or Jon may be disappointed.
'GAME OF THRONES' IS ABOUT SUBVERTING EXPECTATIONS. In the books and series, Azor Ahai (who has not yet appeared on the series) – the so-called "prince that was promised" – assumes a key role. In Westeros' distant past, he (or she) defeated the Others, ending the last "long night," and the Westerosi believe he (or she) will come again to end the next "long night," or approaching winter, by defeating the White Walkers. Most of us assume Jon is that prince, and he may well be. But why not Dany, or even Bran? Maybe the White Walkers are expecting their own "prince" to help them beat the humans. Could that even be – gulp – Jon?! Azor Ahai is also known as the prince of fire, which isn't exactly Jon's specialty, but rather Dany's. Yes, this is confusing, which is the whole point. Martin, Benioff and Weiss want to challenge your assumptions, perhaps demolish them. They may do just that.
'GAME OF THRONES" IS NOT ABOUT HAPPY ENDINGS. Wish however hard you like, but "Game of Thrones" will not have a happy ending. At best, it will be ambiguous, or the show's own version of going to a blank screen (as "The Sopranos" ended). In what many take as his inspiration for "Thrones," Martin long ago cited the famous William Faulkner line that "the only thing worth writing about is the human heart divided against itself." From the beginning and almost certainly to the end, "Thrones" has been that human heart divided, and its endless capacity for good and mischief. It's about humanity divided against itself, and the barbarity that ensues. It's not about the stuff that dreams are made of, but the stuff of nightmares.
So who will "win" the "Game of Thrones?" Don't be too surprised if the winner also turns out to be the loser.
CATCHING UP WITH THE CHARACTERS
Winter is coming. Where will some of "Game of Thrones"' key characters find themselves on the eve of this cold and momentous occasion? Here's where we last saw them:
CERSEI LANNISTER (Lena Headey) Pulls a "Godfather" in the sixth season finale, when – just before her trial – she has all the Sparrows and their supporters liquidated in rather dramatic fashion, by exploding the wildfire beneath the Great Sept. Her accusers thus vaporized, she crowns herself Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, holder of the Iron Throne.
DAENERYS TARGARYEN (Emilia Clarke) Also consolidating – and displaying – her power, she got her three precious dragons, Drogon, Viserion and Rhaegal, to torch the fleet of the nasty slave masters, while the Dothraki under her command destroyed the Sons of the Harpy. She then formed an alliance with some Greyjoys, in preparation for a conquest of that which is rightfully hers (she says): The Iron Throne and the Seven Kingdoms.
TYRION LANNISTER (Peter Dinklage) Dany has named Tyrion "Hand of the Queen" – effectively her second in command – as both prepare to invade Westeros with the Iron Fleet that Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) has lent her.
JON SNOW (Kit Harington) The lords of the North and the Vale name Jon the King of the north, while Bran has a vision that reveals that Jon in fact is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. That means he's the progeny of both fire and ice, so to speak, and therefore (maybe) the "prince that was promised" who was prophesied to one day save Westeros from the White Walkers.
SANSA STARK (Sophie Turner) After Jon and Sansa's armies defeated the Boltons and killed their leader, Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) – who was also Sansa's former malevolent tormentor – Winterfell in the north is finally under Stark control again. She and Jon form a pact – to trust each other forever – and by no means ever trust the treacherous Petyr Littlefinger Baelish (Aidan Gillen). We last saw her at Jon's coronation as King of the North.
ARYA STARK (Maisie Williams) Leaves the House of Black and White, or the temple of the Many-Faced God in Braavos, to return home to Westeros, where she kills a couple of stooges then bakes them into a pie that she serves to their father, Walder Frey (David Bradley) – who had ordered the murder of her brother and sister at the Red Wedding. She then finishes him off.
JAIME LANNISTER (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) Returning to King's Landing with the Lannister army after their victory at Riverrun, he sees the Great Sept demolished, then learns his son, Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), had also committed suicide. He watches, bleakly, as Cersei crowns herself.
SAMWELL TARLY (John Bradley-West) He, Gilly (Hannah Murray) and little Sam were last seen in Oldtown, where he began preparations to become a master of the Night's Watch. He looks on in awe at the huge library where he will study.
BRAN STARK (Isaac Hempstead Wright) Becomes the Three Eyed Raven – a human with special visionary powers who once lived with the remnants of the Children of the Forest beyond the Wall – and after placing his hands on the magic Weirwood, he's transported to the Tower of Joy, where he learns that his half-brother Jon may well be the famed and much-discussed "Prince that Was Promised" – AKA Azor Ahai, a legendary figure of yore who defeated the Others with his sword, Lightbringer, and is prophesied to come again to lead Westeros through the coming long night.
BRIENNE OF TARTH (Gwendoline Christie) She and Podrick (Daniel Portman) headed to Riverrun to enlist the support of Brynden Tully (Clive Russell) in Sansa's campaign against Ramsay Bolton – and instead finds Tully under siege by Jaime and the Lannister forces. She's back in support of Sansa, and now Jon, too.