Why are some fans disappointed with the Game of Thrones ending? It's all about Setups and Payoff
There are plenty of spoilers below, so if you haven't finished the final season I'd steer clear.
I first discovered George R.R. Martin's trope-eradicating series back in the previous millennium. 1998 for anyone keeping track. There were three books out, and those books were amazing.
I burned through them like wildfire, and then quickly spread the books to my circle of friends. I knew a lot of fantasy readers, and every last one was enchanted by Martin's epic.
Why? Because it broke the rules. Because the good guys didn't win. Because we had no idea what was going to happen. When Ned Stark was beheaded all the sudden we were rudderless. Off the map.
This wasn't our father's story any more.
But there was a lot more happening under the hood that 22 year old Chris couldn't see. I didn't understand that entertainment serves as a cultural mirror. The fantasy world loved A Game of Thrones, because our real world was, by and large, a pretty decent place.
In the late 90s America was enjoying unrivaled economic prosperity. We hadn't had the dot com bubble burst, or the real estate crash of 2007. We hadn't been scarred by 9/11, or the endless wars, or our economy unraveling.
In 2011 the series I so loved came to the small screen. Fantasy geeks everywhere were shocked. What do you mean HBO is making a fantasy series? And they nailed it. The world agreed. The first four seasons of Game of Thrones were universally hailed as an unparalleled achievement.
As with the books it came at a better time for us. Things weren't as rosy as they were in the 90s, but we'd recovered from the economic pit of the previous decade. Most people were doing better, a little at least. We were enjoying shows like The Walking Dead. We could see a worse world, because our own world wasn't so bad.
Scenes like the Red Wedding, or Lady dying, were painful, but endurable. As the series progressed we saw this more and more often. Characters we knew and loved died. Characters we hated died. Characters we didn't care about died. At first, this was fine.
But by about season 5 two things had changed. First, our economy was once again in trouble. Things were getting harder out there. The brief period of rest came to an end, and more and more your average viewer was forced to struggle a little harder just to tread water.
We got tired of dark dreary shows. The Walking Dead jumped the shark. People began to get frustrated with Game of Thrones. The chatter on the internet began to turn. People were done with casual rape, and just plain tired of seeing bad things happen to people we cared about.
As a storyteller myself-- we have to make our characters's lives painful. It's our job. If we want to sell books, then we eventually have those characters overcome their struggles. Otherwise, we have written a tragedy.
Everyone has heard of Hamlet. Almost no one is excited to watch or read it. You feel like a discarded dish towel after it ends. Emotionally worn out.
And this is the trouble with season 8.
As a storyteller you have to choose the emotional resonance you are seeking. You are playing your audience like a symphonic instrument, and you have to decide your finale. How are they going to feel when it is all over?
Most epic fantasy chooses a positive ending, our happily ever after. A price was paid to get there, and in Game of Thrones's case that price was steep indeed. But things basically work out, and the heroes, the ones we really care about, survive. I would call the ending to the Wheel of Time or Lord of the Rings my favorite examples of this.
Grimdark, the genre that Game of Thrones almost single-handedly created, often ends badly, with a brutal punctuation mark. Given Game of Throne's run most of us expected this type of ending, and that is exactly what we got. Honestly? I think the style was the correct choice.
The problem was execution.
Daenerys going insane and slaughtering a city full of innocents out of anger could have made sense. After all other family members have gone insane, and committed similar atrocities. Here's the thing. We've spent, quite literally, hundreds of hours getting to know these characters. We've seen how Dany solves problems, what her principles are, and what she will do if tested.
What she does in that scene makes no sense. At all. Not even a little bit.
Why? Because there was no foreshadowing. Every decision Dany makes, at every point, is calm, rational, and from the standpoint of a military leader trying to win a war. She never does anything out of wanton cruelty, nothing that suggests she carries the same type of insanity her family is known for, or that we hated in Joffrey.
As an author everything we do is divided into setups and payoffs. The problem with season eight is that the show runners had a list of payoffs they knew needed to happen. But they took very little effort to set them up. In other places they removed the payoff almost entirely.
Remember the Night King? Who was he? Why was he coming south of the wall? Why did he want to eradicate life? Why was he after Bran? Why does murdering the memory of the world matter? Who is Bran? What is the three-eyed raven, really? Will the Night King ever come back? Will there be another one? Do we need a new wall? Are white walkers still possible without the night king?
We want answers to it all. We crave a payoff. Instead, Game of Thone's full on Snoke-d the Night King. They killed him without telling us who he was, or what he wanted.
What was the point of the wall? Why did men spend thousands of years guarding it? That all seemed incredibly pointless. If it isn't we need to be told why. But the setups never received their payoffs and the audience is left wondering.
In the case of Jaime Lannister they've been setting up his character arc across the entire run of the show. Up until this season Jaime might have been the best character arc in fiction. Now he's a joke.
Why? Because he goes back to his sister. He erases seven years of character development, and walks it all back. Now that could have worked. It could have been fine. We could have even loved it.
If they'd somehow set it up. The problem is that the Jaime we know, this man we've followed through hell and back, is smart enough not to go running back to his mad sister. The move feels cheap, and we don't believe it. We check out.
Moments like this happen all over season eight. People act out of character. They do things that shock us, and not in a good way like the early seasons. They shock us in a WTF did I just see way.
Even when they do things that make sense, like (in my opinion) naming Bran king, they haven't set it up properly.
Bran is an excellent choice, as his abilities allow him to judge the context of any action he takes. He can literally see the future, while learning from the past. But we have no idea what his abilities are in the show. We have no idea what his motivations are. You have to go to the books to really understand that.
Viewers have no idea who he is, or why it was important for him to go north of the wall. That's never explained, and it needed to be. We needed scenes from Bran's perspective. We needed to understand his motivation, and as the credits role we still don't.
Bran could be the evil dark lord. It could be that when the Night King died his spirit possessed Bran. We don't know. It could be that the Night King was the good guy all along, and this was all the evil three-eyed raven's plan to take over the world. We don't know.
We don't know jack. Bran gets like 9 words of dialogue in season 8, and then suddenly he's crowned king at the end. I understand rationally why they would appoint him to the role, that makes sense to me, but as a viewer the scene didn't feel satisfying.
When an author does their job well setups feel natural, and readers don't spot them happening. They don't realize that every detail is important, and will matter later. This makes the eventual payoff FRIKKING AMAZING.
Remember the red wedding? Remember the reaction videos floating around the internet, because we book nerds knew what was coming and recorded our loved ones and their horrified reactions? That payoff was setup perfectly.
We all knew Frey was petty. We knew he was ruthless. We knew he'd do anything to win, and that he'd sworn vengeance against Rob Stark. We just never thought he'd go that far. When he does the payoff makes complete sense. It shows us a new layer of ruthless. We're horrified, but we understand, and it all makes sense to us.
When the Night King is advancing on Bran, the undead are winning, and then Arya pops out of the shadows and one shots him the payoff isn't satisfying. It's a McDonald's burger when it should be a bacon-wrapped filet.
What if Jon were standing there with Lionsclaw? What if he and the Night King exchanged a few blows, and then the Night King GASP actually spoke to Bran? The Night King revealed a bit of his motivation. We learned what he's after. Then, as he is monologuing, Arya one shots him.
We needed 2-3 minutes of exposition. That's it. But it's clear the writers aren't viewing it through the same lens as the audience. They aren't setting up their payoffs, and they aren't paying off their setups.
Overall I enjoyed the series, and I liked the finale. It was flawed, but thematically it offered closure. We always knew this was going to end bad. I feel like if we'd had a few more episodes focused around setups and payoffs, then this could have been the best series of all time.
As it is...Game of Thrones is still an amazing achievement, warts and all.
What did you think of Game of Thrones, both as a whole, and the final season? Share your thoughts below!
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