Is it possible to love a show and forgive a terrible, horrible, no good ending? This is a question that’s been on my mind lately, as Game of Thrones—possibly one of the most successful TV series ever—screams towards its final episode on May 19. The show is based off of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, and the past few seasons have jumped far ahead of the infamously slow author. Martin’s saga focuses on a slate of characters, most of whom are competing (either out in the open or hidden in shadows) for the Iron Throne of Westeros and the rulership of the Seven Kingdoms. The bloodshed is relentless and basically every character you fall in love with dies, whether they’re vying for the throne itself, supporting someone else’s claim to the throne, or trying to save the world from the undead, called White Walkers. The first book, A Game of Thrones, was published way back in 1996, and Martin hasn’t published a new instalment since 2011—he still has two books left to go in his series. As the show attempts to write an ending that (presumably) remains a question mark in Martin’s mind, I can’t help but think this could go very bad very fast. More than that: as both a writer and a fan of good fiction, I know a bad ending can destroy the goodwill created by everything that came before it.
If the last six seasons are any indication, a lot of people will die. Martin doesn’t just kill his darlings; he flays them alive. The TV show’s co-creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, are no kinder. From the first episode of season one, GoT promised us that “winter is coming.” The sombre Eddard Stark (known colloquially as “Ned” in the series) drilled this phrase into the heads of his children and, thus, his audience. Among fans, it became a catchphrase and a pledge: this story will end when winter arrives. Well, winter’s here with a vengeance, and the show needs to show us what that means. Does Westeros drop into a frozen fugue of anarchy while winter is upon it, only restored to stability when “spring is coming?” Does this happen every generation or so? Can anybody stop it? Whether characters like Jon Snow (or, as we now know him, Aegon Targaryen, son of Rhaegar), Arya Stark, or Daenerys Targaryen manage to survive the winter remains to be seen. Maybe the Free Folk will outlive all these warring families and take whatever’s left. Or maybe Tyrion Lannister and Sansa Stark will figure out they’re meant to be together and rule jointly (fine, that’s just me). Honestly, I’m not even sure which ending will make the fans happy, but the story deserves a great ending—one as good as, or better than, its beginning.
Many shows are infamous for their disappointing endings scattering their bitter fans to the winds. The morning after Lost ended, the fans started arguing in every corner of the internet. Nine years later, we’re still arguing about whether the ending ruined the whole show. True Blood started out as a bloody antidote to the vampires of Twilight but was barely sucking blood by the time it finally ended six years later. Entertainment Weekly’s assessment, headlined “That Terrible True Blood Finale: What Went Wrong?” perfectly captured the fandom’s outrage. The writers of Hemlock Grove—a show most fans agree started to go downhill by the end of the second season—completely botched the ending when they killed certain characters and destroyed certain relationships. Raising the stakes can make for a strong ending—the death of Ned Stark, supposedly the main character in Game of Thrones’s first season, showed us that there can be big dramatic payoff when a fictional narrative mirrors the nobody-is-safe reality of real life. Instead, Hemlock Grove fell into a common storytelling pitfall: its final deaths were anticlimatic and meaningless, more infuriating than gut wrenching. Ugh.
To be a fan of a story is to invest a lot of your time and a lot of yourself. There are shows I cannot watch again because of their terrible endings; I still feel too cheated. This is not an exaggeration. I’m not being (overly) dramatic. To quote Peter Parker’s uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and what greater power is there than the godlike creation of a compelling story? Capturing our imaginations with a tantalizing storyline that keeps you guessing still requires a satisfying resolution. I want writers to be as obsessed with the finale as they are with the premiere. Do not subject us to multiple seasons and make us fall in love with characters only to end it all on a fizzle, not a bang. The problem, sometimes, is that juicy complexity: How do you write your way out of a show like Game of Thrones, with so many possible endings, without pulling a choose-your-own-adventure conclusion? This problem has existed since writers first began telling complex stories—and a TV series is no different.
I have to believe there is a right way to end stories. As a fiction-series writer, I know that writing endings after writing multiple instalments is hard. But I also know they matter. A lot. I also know that, too often, things like impatience, greed, and, yes, even the fans, can get in the way of a good ending. It doesn’t help that many writers focus on the story’s hook, which is understandable—to a point. But you really sell a script with its “engine,” the thing that keeps the story moving. Think of The Handmaid’s Tale TV series, The Hunger Games movies, or the TV series Stargate. They all have immediately compelling sells: a new world order where fertile women are farmed, the fascist control of a conquered population through the organized murder of children, the discovery of an Einstein–Rosen–type portal that allows you to travel through the universe. A good engine allows a writer to generate book after book, episode after episode, movie after movie. But, like any engine, the story will eventually run out of fuel, and that is, sadly, rarely discussed until you are well into the story arc.
The peril of “good premise, horrible ending” is perhaps most obvious with the remake of Battlestar Galactica in the early aughts. The show aired its last episode in 2009, after four seasons. In the inciting incident of the first episode, the show’s main villains, an artificially created race called the Cylons, rise up to destroy their human masters. The humans go on the run, and a few ships leap through space, trying to evade annihilation while being infiltrated by so-called skin jobs, Cylon robots made to appear human. The show has awesome protagonists, captivating character development, and a story that plays on and extends the Terminator trope of human versus machine—these humans are just as villainous as the machines. The problem is some of the first title sequences of the show made a promise: “The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled. They evolved. There are many copies. And they have a plan.” Except they didn’t.
Or, rather, the writers didn’t. I watched the last episode with incredulity, waiting to understand why the fan-favourite character Kara “Starbuck” Thrace was killed and then resurrected in the finale, Jesus-style. The Cylons lose the last fight, and the remaining humans (and the Cylons that have made nice) set up on a new Earth and are revealed to be our ancestors. The finale wraps up with two characters, Number Six, a humanoid Cylon, and Gaius Baltar, a human, walking through modern-day New York and talking about the little humans like we’re ants and they’re gods. Horrible, annoying, gross gods. I can’t rewatch the show because of how badly the ending was handled. And this is coming from a serial rewatcher.
In 2017, one of the show’s executive producers, Ronald D. Moore, admitted that the show’s tagline was an empty promise. He told the Los Angeles Times that the line was merely something he and executive producer David Eick thought sounded cool. He rightly guessed that audiences would love the intrigue and very wrongly guessed that the show’s writers would figure out the “plan” later.
Another survival story, The Walking Dead follows a group of humans as they attempt to evade the swelling zombie apocalypse, the origins of which go unexplained. The storylines of the TV series and the graphic novel upon which the show is based slid out of sync pretty quickly, but in both, Sheriff Rick Grimes leads the main group of protagonists in a tight circle around Atlanta, in search of safety, losing and picking up members. They run in to other groups, all with their own rules and leaders; the humans kill each other as much as the zombies thin their numbers.
Ten seasons in, I would challenge any consistent viewer to tell me where or how they think this all ends or whom you’d actually want to survive. The villains are a repetitive mishmash, and at this point, new characters are just other versions of existing, beloved characters. Honestly, is there anyone worth rooting for anymore? Or have the writers done so much damage to the characters that you should basically call a pox on all their houses?
This is the downside of the antihero fetish TV has embraced since the late ’90s. In The Walking Dead, no one is innocent, nearly everyone has killed someone for their own survival, and confronting morality in the face of trauma is one of the main threads in the story. The problem is what to do with all that trauma, all that necessary evil, in the end. As Walking Dead fans wade through season after pedantic season, waiting for writers to finally kill Negan, the show’s villain (aside from the zombies), I often wonder if a bad ending would be better than this endless denouement of disappointment.
Quantum Leap was the first show I watched that ended in a way I loved. In 1993, the show’s writers did something rare: they delivered a deliberately unhappy happy ending for the show’s protagonist. The premise of the show is pretty simple: Dr. Sam Beckett is trapped in the Project Accelerator he created, and he leaps from time to time and body to body, trying to get home to his own body, to his own life sometime in the late twentieth century. In the form of a hologram, his best friend, Al, is able to give him limited guidance from their secret lab in the present time. The unshakable friendship between these two men kept me and other viewers watching, but it’s the ending that makes you forgive the sometimes-cheesy writing.
Sam knows that Al has never gotten over his first wife, Beth, who remarried after Al was declared MIA and presumed dead after the Viet Cong captured him. When he got back from his captivity, Al spiralled, flitting from marriage to marriage, which all resulted in misery. When Sam gets the opportunity to control a leap for the first time, he decides to leap back in his own body, but to 1969, so that he can convince Beth to wait for Al and not remarry. Sam chose to change Al’s past and give him back the chance to be with the woman he has always loved, rather than come home.
That’s a satisfying ending (for me—some fans hated it) that leaves room for a rescue mission to find Sam (hint, hint, NBC). Ultimately, this is what makes a satisfying ending: a combination of believability (knowing that his friend’s happiness is more important to Sam than his own) and an answer to the show’s very first question, its premise (whether Sam would get home). In this case the answer is no, he won’t. In my opinion, it’s a fully realized ending, true to the character’s development and to the show itself, even if some people might not like the writers’—or Sam’s—choice.
Sometimes, shows get cancelled and writers lose the ability to end their stories the way they wanted to, like Joss Whedon and Firefly. Sometimes, those writers flip the bird to the networks and create a film to answer all the questions we need answered, like Joss Whedon and Firefly.
And maybe that’s what will happen to GoT. Maybe Benioff and Weiss will take a swing at the ending on TV this spring and, if it fails, get another chance at bat in the form of a film. Or maybe Martin will rectify any bad ending in the TV show with his own ending, in book form. No matter who writes the best ending, GoT owes us a clear winner—whether fans love or hate the pick, because when you play the game of thrones, as Cersei Lannister famously said to Eddard Stark in season one, “you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”