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18 March 2015

Fans’ reaction to Game of Thrones is a reminder that no one owes you the story you want

By James Cooray Smith

This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones season eight. 

Once upon a time, American television series didn’t end: they just stopped. Received wisdom was that endings made shows unattractive in syndication, the permanent repeat market which – due to the insane economics of mid-20th century TV networks – was the only point at which anything made a profit.

Quinn Martin, the producer of The Fugitive, felt the opposite was true. He fought the network and won. That series’s finale became the most watched television episode in American TV history, and began a long slow march to now, where TV is expected to “land” much-anticipated endings.

Which brings us to Game of Thrones.

The dissatisfaction has been brewing for weeks. In the middle series of something like Thrones all the series’s possible endings exist, suspended. Yet no ending to a story an audience has invested dozens of hours over several years can satisfy its entire audience, and epics, especially television epics, narrow as they go on. The number of characters reduces; the number of possible endings collapses. The death of possibility can hit the invested as hard as that of any character.

Some interpreted Jaime’s final speech in episode four of this season as indicating an intention to kill Cersei: doing so would redeem him. For them, this week’s episode senselessly reversed Jaime’s decision to ride to Winterfell to fight for the living, against the wishes of his sister/lover.

Yet it didn’t undo his character development: he’s still the man who chose to fight as a common soldier for the living against the dead. It’s just that he’s still the man who pushed a child out of a window for Cersei, too – which is literally what he said.

Earlier in the season, there were protestations about how that army of the dead was defeated, often from those who had decided it was a metaphor for the climate crisis. This brought scorn that they should be defeated relatively early in the final season, leaving said Cersei and Jaime’s under-characterised, over-enunciating fishy rival for her affection, Euron Greyjoy, as the final enemy.

But Game of Thrones is a series that has inverting dramatic convention deep in its dramaturgy. So Jaime – a character the audience has come to enjoy and other characters at last to respect – dies unredeemed. The army of the dead can be defeated.

And Daenerys Stormborn does not walk into King’s Landing at the head of multiple foreign armies to be greeted as a liberator. This last was always a fantasy, even in the context of fantasy, and too many people have said it was going to happen for there to be any chance of it happening at all. Daenerys’ long march is the only one of Game of Thrones’ stories that has never quite flipped, until now.

But “This isn’t what I expected” isn’t a critique, just a complaint, while “This isn’t what I wanted” isn’t even a complaint, it’s a statement. No one owes you the story you wanted – even if far more people resent having their expectations overturned than would ever admit to it.

This is probably the reason so much fan criticism takes the form that it does. Just as “the death of the author” is used merely as cover to talk extensively about authorship while ignoring anything the author might say, discussion of television indulges in faintly ludicrous fan argot about the difference between “plotting” and “pantsing” (don’t ask), and deploys “deus ex machina” to mean “I was unpleasantly surprised”, pretending that there are rules about how stories must play out, rather than simply conventions about how they do. This faux-technical diagnosis is simultaneously couched in ethical terms, an attempt to condemn mere storytelling decisions as morally unsound as well as practically inept, asserting them to be objectively wrong in two senses.

So, Jaime’s final moments with Cersei, we are told, endorse, rather than merely depict, their weird, abusive, incestuous love and thus all their actions in service of it. Meanwhile a completely different group of people announce that the trained assassin Arya Stark killing the Night King with a move we’d seen her learn onscreen is a combination of “Deus ex machina” and Mary Sue-ing, and proof that the production hates men. (Yeah, I know.)

Perhaps the most remarkable of these has been the assertion that the chunk of this week’s episode, where it essentially turns into a disaster movie, with a lengthy sequence told entirely from the point of view of the Daenerys’ victims – one which fills you with sorrow and pity at the pointless, entirely avoidable death toll – enthusiastically endorsed and glorified the violence depicted.

Had Daenerys she been true to her stated principles, she’d have “bowed the knee” to Jon three episodes ago, despite his protests: the system to which she claims devotion places him ahead of her in the line of succession. But her motivation was never about the right to rule, it was about desire to – and in this series, no one who desires to rule is trustworthy.

Men, women and children have sat on the Iron Throne over eight seasons. None has graced it, from lecherous inadequate King Robert, beneficiary of a bloody conquest built on a lie, to his widow Cersei, an inadequately calculating vessel of purposeless ambition. Pretenders, too, have formed a bloody club of entitled failures, the worst of whom, Stannis Baratheon, sacrificed his own child on the altar of his pretension, a depth to which even Cersei would not sink.

So the tension between Daenerys’ rhetoric and actions has always been there. That most – not all – of those she killed were monstrous hid the calculated excuses she made for outbursts of violence. And the idea that her failure to live up to her own stated ideals is gendered overlooks the extent to which she’s her father’s daughter: the messianically inclined child of a Mad King who himself decided to destroy the people for not loving him enough.

No one should be surprised by what Daenerys is. Yet people are, because the cult of the Khaleesi has bled from fiction into real life. Barack Obama endorsed Hillary Clinton for president with the words “Khaleesi is coming to Westeros” (and how long ago does that seem now?), while his own 2012 Presidential opponent Mitt Romney tweeted this the morning before it all happened.

It makes you feel sorry for people who have called their children Daenerys or Khaleesi, except then you remember they’re people who called their children Daenerys or Khaleesi. If both viewers and characters have taken her too much at her own estimation, bought into her fantasy of herself, that’s a feature, not a bug – and their simultaneous gasping, clawing horror at the realisation that she is not what she said rather gives the lie to the idea that this is bad technique. That’s exactly what this plot twist working looks like.

Neither is the series andro-centrically setting up Jon Snow as a rightful, reluctant King of the Seven Kingdoms in her place. That’s the ending of The Lord of the Rings, not an inversion of it. If Jon does end up King, the series will not present it as a validation of him or the title. More likely, someone – perhaps Jon, perhaps Tyrion, perhaps Varys (I am curiously in denial about his death) – declares, if not a democracy, then certainly a republic. The series distrusts hereditary power.

At least that’s what I expect. But if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean what has happened instead is wrong.

That’s not to say that there aren’t valid criticisms to be made of, well, everything. At times since it overtook its parent book series, the series has felt sketched rather than fully rendered. Personally, I regret that – like Babylon 5, another heavily serialised, indebted-to-The Lord of the Rings TV series – Thrones increasingly found itself without the space to show the “little people” alongside its grander characters, despite having made such a point of that early on. Everyone involved is lucky that Qyburn is played by as good an actor as Anton Lesser, given that he hasn’t had a line that isn’t exposition since early 2015.

A fan response consisting of a strange mix of moralising and semi-digested theory has also turned up in Star Trek fandom more times than I can remember. Trek fandom is the ur-media fandom, and there’s a book to be written about how and why the last forty years have seen audiences turn into Star Trek fans, in form if not content.

A notable example of this kind of fantitlement is the very strange situation where Star Trek: Enterprise co-creator and showrunner Rick Berman was attacked by fans for bringing in two characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation for that series’s finale. Yes, the creative merits of that move are at best highly debatable, but there is something disconnected from reality about accusing Berman of creative egomania for prioritising two characters he did not create or cast over half a dozen which he did.

Twenty years ago this week, the first Star Wars prequel was released. Much of the initial criticism it drew came from frequent confounding of fan expectation. The mere existence of Qui-Gon Jinn, a character not mentioned in any previous Star Wars film offended some. Others had wanted The Omen in Space, and were bothered that the future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, was portrayed as a talented, innocent child.

Later films in the series would be accused of erring in their portrayal of Anakin/Vader, by a fandom that had invested heavily in the idea the character was cool. They wanted Milton’s Lucifer: they got a snivelling Judas. But Star Wars creator George Lucas never thought Vader was cool: he thought he was sad and empty. When some fan criticisms were put to him, Lucas responded blankly “That’s the story”. It was. It just wasn’t the one fandom wanted.

Steven Moffat has noted that some fan complaints about Sherlock boiled down to disappointment that the series was his and Mark Gatiss’s version of Sherlock Holmes, not the complainant’s own. His solution was to suggest fans write their own Sherlock Holmes, like he and Gatiss had done. At least some, he was sure, would outdo theirs. Given that Sherlock Holmes is out of copyright, there is literally nothing stopping anyone from doing that.

Game of Thrones is a trickier prospect, but many of its characters are archetypes and its setting in many ways generic. And there are concrete examples of fan fiction become successful series in their own right. Fifty Shades of Grey started off as Twilight fanfic. Moreover, it has been argued (though never accepted) that Twilight started off as Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfic. Thackeray wrote a sequel to Ivanhoe that undid, reversed and “fixed” the ending of its romance plot. Tolkien’s walking tree species, the Ents, owe their existence to his adolescent annoyance that Macbeth’s Birnam wood did not literally come to Dunsinane Hill. The only way to get the story you want is to write your own.

Incidentally, The Fugitive’s stars, David Janssen and Barry Morse, fugitive and pursuer respectively, earnestly wanted that series’s ending to be a hard flip. Janssen’s Dr Richard Kimble, after five years on the run protesting his innocence of his wife’s murder, would turn out to be guilty after all. Morse’s Philip Gerrard would have been right all along. Quinn Martin demurred: the audience deserved an ending, but they would not accept that their hero was the villain all along.

And, in a final twist, Quinn Martin is actually author George R R Martin’s Dad. Okay, he isn’t. Everything else in this article is true, but I made that bit up. It’s just the ending of the story I wanted to tell.

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