Tonight the bloodstained curtain falls on Game of Thrones, the epic HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. In a fittingly meta twist, the final season’s harshest feud unfolded not between Starks and Lannisters, but viewers and writers. Denouncing television adapters David Benioff and D.B. Weiss as “incompetent”, last week half a million fans signed a petition on Change.org to demand a remake of season eight.
Personally, I think this is a trivial thing on which to squander democratic energy. Almost every TV show I ever loved eventually did things with the story I didn’t like. I just stopped watching (and sometimes wrote my own damn endings; that’s what fan fiction is for, people). Nonetheless, the fan outrage illustrates the deadly dual nature of a storyteller’s power to create alternative realities.
Subversion can be seductive…
When I finished the first book, I had to reread the final chapters to confirm that Ned Stark was actually dead. Who executes their main perspective character? It was a daring move from Martin, clearly demonstrating that his dark fantasy wasn’t going to play by the traditional genre rules. That trope-shattering approach drove me to pick up the next book. Normally I can predict plot points with depressing accuracy (“You ruin everything,” my Laddie once sighed when I called the outcome of a show within the opening minutes) so I appreciated the tale’s ability to surprise me. TV fans expressed similar sentiments in the early seasons, reveling in the excitement that came from abandoning their safe story conventions.
A good story is like a roller coaster. We climb aboard for the thrill, but too many twists might nauseate some people, and no matter how turbulent the ride, everyone expects to arrive safely at the end. Game of Thrones’ last few episodes plunged into a free-fall that left viewers screaming “I want to get off!” The outcry demonstrates the delicate nature of audience expectations. Fulfill them too explicitly and risk boredom; deviate too far, and fan disappointment brings the entire lofty vision crashing down around its creator like the Red Keep under dragon fire. It’s a difficult balance for authors. There’s no perfect formula, but it’s especially challenging with a massively engineered construction like Westeros.
World-building can be wondrous…
I’m not much for elaborate world-building these days, but even I admired the breadth of imagination in Game of Thrones. With its layered past and generations of political maneuvering, Westeros often feels more like alternate history than high fantasy. Martin supposedly drew inspiration from the Wars of the Roses in 15th century England, and the story grew like a rosebush as well, sprouting new subplots and thorny dilemmas until the narrative became a sprawling hedge maze with endless crannies to explore. Television brought it to life with lavish spectacle. But sightseeing isn’t a story. At some point, that vast architecture must bring all its components together.
…until it’s time to wrap.
Wrangling an expansive story into a tight finale is a Herculean task. I still wince to recall writing the finale of my Syzygy novella series, and that entire hexalogy totaled only about 150,000 words, half the length of Martin’s first (and shortest) novel. Perhaps that’s why he still hasn’t finished: the prospect of tying up all those loose ends is just too daunting. So his ponderous books keep expanding like the universe, while the television adaptation has rapidly compressed into an unsatisfying singularity. Without source material, Benioff and Weiss’s once-deft adaptation became harried. I don’t necessarily fault their narrative choices—presumably Martin bears some responsibility for the plot—but there’s no excuse for poor craft. Chivvying the story to its end these past two seasons, they’ve resorted to out-of-character behavior, physics-defying timelines, and some of the worst battle strategies this side of Agincourt. It’s been hard to watch as a fellow writer. No matter how brilliantly a story began, missteps at the end can ruin the entire thing.
Winning the game
With high stakes and delicate equations for success, any story of Game of Thrones‘ magnitude struggles to live up to its own astronomical expectations (other examples that come to mind include Harry Potter or The Hunger Games). No matter how it ends, someone will be disappointed. When you play the game of tomes, you win or you die…or you walk away a millionaire with a checkered entertainment legacy on your resume, neither a failure nor fully triumphant. For creators of a fictional world notorious for its moral ambiguity, this might be the most appropriate ending of all.