With television's arguably most prominent dramatic series ending amidst the ashes of King's Landing and the outrage of many of its most loyal fans (including a remarkable Change.Org petition demanding an entire Season 8 redo), I find myself reminded of Frank Kermode's classic study, The Sense of an Ending (1967). Exploring the ways that human beings use storytelling in order to make sense of their lives and history, Kermode focuses his attention on the "high art" literary tradition, but the same attention can be paid to popular art as well in ways that can explain, at least in part, the extraordinary reaction to GoT's final two episodes. Here's how.
First, let's note that fan pressure on creative artists is nothing new. Charles Dickens' readers pleaded with him, in the serialized run-up to the climax of The Old Curiosity Shop, to please not kill Little Nell, while Arthur Conan Doyle was successfully lobbied by disappointed readers to bring Sherlock Holmes back from the dead after apparently killing the popular detective off in "The Final Problem." And movie producers routinely audience-test their films before making their final cuts. So all the popular uproar is not really different in kind from things that have happened before, but it may be different in degree, which is where its significance lies.
Because no one, except for the series' writers and actors, appears to be fully satisfied with what finally happened after eight long, and violent, years in the battle for the Iron Throne. The most common complaint seems to be that Daenerys should have been allowed to follow her "character arc" to become not only Queen of the Seven Kingdoms but also a kind of messiah. However, it isn't my purpose to wade into the controversy to offer my own opinion about what "should" or "shouldn't" have happened, for that's an esthetic, not a semiotic, question. Rather, I want to look at the extravagance of the negative response to what did transpire and what it tells us.
To understand this response we can begin with the fact that Game of Thrones ran for eight years as a continuous narrative—conceived, in fact, as one gigantic movie: a TV "maxi-series" if you will. Eight years is a long time, especially for the show's core audience of millennials who effectively entered adulthood along with GoT's main characters. This audience largely overlapped with the generation that grew from childhood to adolescence as the Harry Potter novels were published and filmed, and who also were on hand for the definitive cinematic Lord of the Rings: the fantasy novel to beat all fantasy novels first raised to cult status by baby boomers and turned upside down and inside out by George R.R. Martin to create A Song of Fire and Ice.
Such a long wait, at such a formative period of life, is simply bound to build up a great load of gestaltic expectation, a longing for the kind of ending that would redeem all the violence, betrayal, and heartbreak of this essentially sadistic story ("Red Wedding" anyone?). Both The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter novels prepared viewers for such an ending, one in which, to quote Miss Prism from The Importance of Being Earnest, "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily." Instead, everyone got something more along the lines of King Lear.
And there you have it, for as Miss Prism tartly adds, happy endings are "what fiction means”—or as Frank Kermode might put it, the triumph of the hero and the defeat of the villain is one way that our story telling makes sense of (one might say, makes bearable) the realities of human experience.
But that isn't what George R.R. Martin—who knows full well how the triumph of the House of York only led to Richard III, whose defeat, in turn, brought Henry VIII and Bloody Mary to the throne—ever appears to have had in mind for his epic saga. Mixing historical reality with a lot of Tolkiensque fantasy, Martin (whose own conclusion to the tale is yet to come) thus put the show's writers into quite a bind. Because a completely conventional "happy" ending would have contradicted the whole point of the story, while a completely dismal one (say, Cersei triumphing after all) would have really enraged the customers. I use that word deliberately, for in popular culture audiences really are customers, and they expect to get what they pay for (the complaint on the part of some fans that by making GoT's producers and actors rich they were entitled to a better wind up than they got is especially significant in this regard). So Benioff and Weiss essentially compromised in the way that pop culture usually does. The really bad villains do end unhappily, and the Starks do regain power after all, but Martin's fundamental thesis that power itself is the problem is preserved in the madness of Daenerys at the moment of achieving absolute control.
It wasn't a bad compromise in my view, but it quite clearly hasn't been a successful one either. Still, because of the odd reversal in the relation between novel and film, with the film being concluded before the novel was, the game isn't over. If the novels ever are concluded, I suspect that Martin will have more shocks up his sleeve, beginning, I suppose, with King Bran turning tyrant and bad trouble between Jon and Sansa.
Photo Credit: “Game of Thrones Paperback Book” by Wiyre Media on Flickr 7/15/17 via a CC BY 2.0 License.