Storytelling Lessons from the Final Season of Game of Thrones
Contains spoilers galore. You’ve been warned.
Last night Game of Thrones came to an end in a spectacular display of anticlimax. Everyone got what they wanted way back in season one. The Starks rule the day. So why is everyone disappointed?
The writers of Game of Thrones had an impossible task in bringing the series to its rapid conclusion. Be honest: There was no satisfying way to end the series. Because the series could not go on indefinitely, a dizzying array of interwoven plots had to find their way to one, single logical ending. All that dramatic world building, those intricately tangled relationships, and the compelling intrigue to be resolved in six hour-long episodes. Good luck.
As I’ve contemplated the big finish of Game of Thrones, I’ve been thinking about what storytelling lessons writers can we take away from the final season of a show that, despite all odds (Dragons? Zombie-like “white walkers?” Incest? Eunuch armies? Come on.) became a global phenomenon. As a novelist and teacher of literature, I think a lot about story structure and what makes stories succeed or fail. Here are my insights into what went wrong in the conclusion of a series that hooked me from the very first episode.
Storytelling Takeaway Number 1: The problem of too many protagonists
The more protagonists you have, the harder it will be to find a satisfying ending.
What made Game of Thrones so compelling in its early seasons were the characters: noble to a fault Ned Stark; the unapologetic villain Jaime Lannister; Arya, a girl dissatisfied with the narrow possibilities of womanhood; Jon Snow, a kind, smart boy desperate to belong but never allowed to forget that he doesn’t. The transformation of these characters throughout the series was remarkable. Go back to season one and see Daenerys as she was when we first met her, a beautiful naive pawn in her brother’s game; scan ahead to season 6 episode 4 when she destroyed the Dothraki leaders who would force her to live out her days in the temple with the other widows; and then watch her in the second-to-last episode of the final season, destroying King’s Landing after its soldiers have surrendered, slaughtering innocent people in the name of freeing the world from tyranny. Talk about a character arc.
Unfortunately, having such a large cast of beloved characters made bringing the series to a satisfying conclusion more or less impossible. We wanted too many competing people to have the endings they deserved.
The best sorts of conflicts are the ones in which a character wants two mutually exclusive things. When you know a character cannot possibly get all he or she desires, when you know that whatever he or she chooses, something undesirable will also occur, the tension is delicious torture. For instance, in the Harry Potter series, we know Harry wants both to defeat Voldemort and to live, but we also know that no one, not even Dumbledore, believes such a thing is possible due to the link between the two characters. For Voldemort to die, Harry must also die. What will happen? How will the conflict possibly be resolved? Those questions kept us on the edge of our seats for a seven-book, eight-movie series. And you may recall a lot of people felt Rowling’s solution to this dilemma was a cop-out. Much like Game of Thrones, the stakes were so high, the situation so impossible — how could the ending be anything but a letdown? (As for me, I liked it, so before you start sending me hate mail, I’m not dissing Rowling. I’m a fan. I’m just pointing out that not everyone thought the ending worked.)
In Game of Thrones, we had a bunch of characters who wanted mutually exclusive things, and the various things they wanted often conflicted with one another. Jon and Tyrion both wanted to be loyal to Dany, but they also wanted to do what they believed was right for humanity, and they couldn’t have both. Sansa wanted at least to be queen in the North, at best to be queen of the Seven Kingdoms, but she also wanted to do right by Jon, the people’s choice to be king in the North and the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Daenerys wanted to free the world from tyranny, but she also wanted to be its sole ruler, and she had no problem using violence to fulfill her goal. What does a happy ending look like when trying to juggle all of these characters? Thank goodness Arya’s driving passion for revenge was solved in the second-to-last episode. At least in the finale we didn’t have to worry about her.
The bottom line here is that more characters should have been eliminated from the show or from our good graces before the final battle. In the first few seasons of Game of Thrones, as in the first few books in the series, some of our protagonists died. What greater shock in this world than the death of Ned Stark? What scene is more horrifying than the Red Wedding? While, by any account, the whole series is a bloodbath, after the Red Wedding, the characters who died were no longer the protagonists. Sure, we felt sad when likable secondary characters like Catelyn Stark and Ygritte died, but these were supporting players, not central ones. Then, to make matters worse, characters who began as pure villains, like Jaime and the Hound, became people we rooted for. By the final season, we had way too many good guys, all of whom we liked, and all of whom had slightly different goals. They were sort of on the same team, but not really or at least not always. We went from a relatively even match of protagonists and antagonists to a story with far more protagonists than villains.
Philosophically, I like this. I think there are more good people in the world than bad. But when it comes to telling a story, to “imposing a narrative line on disparate images” (to quote Joan Didion), it’s a problem. Stories need to simplify the complexities of life so we can manage them. Stories need to show us what to pay attention to and what to care about. Without a clear focus, there can’t be a clearcut ending unless the writer resorts to some serious deus ex machina trickery and/or rushed, unearned happy resolutions.
Because life is rarely clearcut, I’m a fan of ambiguous endings stories, so I don’t necessarily think it’s a problem to have a muddy situation, but I know I’m an outlier here. My students despise ambiguity in stories. They want to know what is right, what is wrong, and what the moral of the story is. Undoubtedly aiming to please, the final episode of Game of Thrones shifted away from nuance and provided clear and definite closure and a trite message of hope in humanity.
Storytelling Takeaway Number 2: What’s the moral of the story?
Preachy morals don’t make sense for complex stories.
That trite, almost glib, message of hope is what really bugged me about the ending.
Daenerys is dead, and her dragon is gone, so now Sam can invent democracy! And then, because metafiction is hip and because Sam’s assertion is such blatant pandering to the audience, everyone else can realize the notion of democracy is laughable and agree on a compromise where the lords and ladies choose their leader and the hereditary monarchy is no more. And then they just accept this new world order instantaneously, allow the North to leave the Seven Kingdoms without a fight and without anyone else deciding to break away, and suddenly adopt an enlightened sense of justice where living with one’s crimes is a fate worse than death. All of this is so far out of keeping with everything we know about the world of Westeros.
Tyrion’s final speeches were so heavy-handed and preachy that I could hardly stand to listen to them. Did they bring Aaron Sorkin in to write them? (For the record, I’m a Sorkin fan, just not in this context.) And, I mean, come on — Jon Snow was held prisoner for some months while the remaining nobility could be gathered? Yeah right. Grey Worm would have killed him on sight after Daenerys died. But if that had happened, Jon couldn’t have a happy ending, and we wouldn’t have such a bright, shiny message of faith in humanity at the end.
The series was a story about power and redemption, one that made us question right and wrong and allowed us to believe that individuals can do good in this world even if they’ve done terrible things in the past, that good people can turn bad no matter how good their intentions, and that those who stand up for what’s right in a world that’s all wrong can expect to pay the ultimate price.
Given those themes, both Jon and Tyrion should have been dead at the end. They did what they believed was best for humanity, and they probably saved Westeros from a mad queen, and still, they should have died. Given everything we know about the world of Game of Thrones, that ending is the only possible outcome for them. Instead, a series that taught us that nothing is clearcut undermined itself by giving us a Hallmark ending.
Morality tales are predictable and boring. Yes, audiences seek reassuring morals, but when given those simple morals, audiences often feel let down. That’s what has happened here. The writers tried to give the audience a comforting moral, and it was, well, a little anticlimactic. It turns out audiences don’t always know what they want, and that, fellow writers, is a relief. Instead of pandering to what audiences think they want, to thine own story be true.
Storytelling Takeaway Number 3: What’s at stake?
The highest stakes any story can have are the complete obliteration of humanity. All else pales in comparison.
Now, back to that anticlimax problem. If you didn’t realize after the Battle of Winterfell that everything else was going to be anticlimactic, you might not have been paying attention. There can never be another battle where the stakes are higher than the battle against death itself. Arya killed the Night King. Our valiant warriors stared death in the face and fought back eternal night to save humanity. That’s about as epic as it gets. After the combined forces in the North saved the entire world, the standoff between Daenerys and Cersei seemed a little beside the point.
That said, I found a grim satisfaction in the idea that even if they defeat the ultimate enemy, humans will still fight with one another. You might think that facing the Night King would give people a sense of perspective and they’d set aside their differences and learn to live in peace. LOL. Yeah right.
But that grim take on human nature brings me back to Storytelling Takeaway Number 2. How, in a mere three episodes, do we go from humanity locked in an endless fight against itself to humans agreeing to abide in peace under a unanimously chosen king? It doesn’t add up, kids.
The more exciting Hollywood ending, which would have perhaps been more satisfying for its sheer drama factor, and which would have actually been a more straightforward happy ending, would have been to save the battle against the Night King for last. Let Dany and her dragons take down Cersei and then go fight the White Walkers and give us a true blockbuster ending. If the show couldn’t go on forever, why not go out with a bang? Sure, this wow-factor ending would be less complex than what the writers gave us, but, given the genre, I’m not sure we cared about complexity at that point.
Storytelling Takeaway Number 4: I don’t like your tone
Inconsistencies in tone are super annoying.
Jokes about brothels — really? In the early seasons of Game of Thrones, there was plenty of humor that let us enjoy otherwise tiresome Tyrion and Sam, that humanized Jon, and that reminded us that Arya and her friends on the run were just little kids. Jokes about brothels were fine in the early days. There was nothing to laugh about in the final season, though. Maybe, with a few more episodes, the laughs at the end might have felt earned, but crammed into the same episode where Jon murdered Daenerys… it felt a little too cute, like trying too hard to assure us that joy is possible again even after tragedy.
The key word here is tragedy. The ending of this story was a tragedy, and it had to be. From the very start, we always knew it would be. In fact, Game of Thrones is like all of Shakespeare’s tragedies rolled into one epic series. Go watch Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello and then tell me, Is anyone laughing at the end? Tragedies have sad endings and everyone dies. What’s more, a tragic ending doesn’t have to be unsatisfying, but happy endings often are.
Storytelling Takeaway Number 5: It’s not easy to build the ship as you sail it.
It’s always a gamble to make a story public in pieces in the form of a series when the writers don’t yet know how it will end.
The writers of this series had a hell of a job to do. They were given a set of very long, complicated books to adapt and they did not have the benefit of a conclusion. I think it’s a safe bet that way back when they wrote seasons 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and maybe even 7, they had no idea how it was going to end. They were just writing. They were making the story exciting. They were developing characters we loved and loved to hate. They were raising the stakes again and again, but eventually the stakes could go no higher, and what do you do then? This is a problem in most high concept television shows. Certainly Lost and The Man in the High Castle suffered the same problem. The writers of Game of Thrones did an amazing job keeping us glued to the screen and, I think, with perhaps the exception of the last few episodes, the storytelling got better as the series evolved.
The beauty of writing novels is that the writer usually gets all the way to the end before publishing the story. They figure out the plot and then revise the beginning and middle again and again until it all makes sense and has the impact you were after. When writing a series, though, whether it’s a TV series, a series of books, or a serialized novel, your story becomes public before it has an ending. That’s an awful lot of pressure.
I’ve heard people complaining that the ending was “lazy” writing, but I don’t think that is it at all. I think, actually, the writers were ambitious. They were aiming for a complex ending befitting a complicated story, but the genre and time constraints didn’t allow their vision to be fully realized, so the conclusion felt rushed and a little bit cheesy.
The series as a whole is masterfully told. Anyone looking for a study in character development need look no further. So it wasn’t a perfect ending, but, for me at least, its flaws were less about who “won” the “game of thrones” than about tone and pacing.