Game of Thrones and the Problem of Unhappy Endings

AP Photo/HBO, Nick Briggs

Throughout America, fans of HBO's Game of Thrones slept soundly last night, or at least more soundly than they had the week before. On the finale of the series' third season (warning, spoilers ahead!), no major characters were killed and no key story lines came to an abrupt halt. But last week's episode, featuring the dramatic "Red Wedding" at which three key characters met their end—including Robb Stark, the closest thing the series had to a protagonist—generated an unusual amount of consternation and even anger among viewer, directed at the show's producers and George R.R. Martin, the author of the books on which it is based. Twitter exploded with comments like "I WANT TO KILL THE WRITERS AND PRODUCERS OF GAME OF THRONES," and "I'm pissed right now. Seriously want to scream. Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin, you evil, evil man," and "YOU RUINED MY LIFE GEORGE R R MARTIN + IF YOU DIDN'T LOOK LIKE SANTA I'D PUNCH YOU IN YOUR STUPID OLD MAN FACE." There are hundreds more, but you get the idea.

Why should a television show make people so mad? The reaction to the Red Wedding episode tells us some interesting things about the expectations we bring to narrative, even a series that has made abundantly clear it won't be hewing to established conventions. After all, Robb's father Ned, seemingly the story's central character at the beginning, was likewise bumped off at the end of the first season. Though we have more stories, and more kinds of stories, available to us than at any time in human history, many of our reactions to them have remained the same for thousands of years. We've been taught what to expect, and when we don't get it, we can become unsettled, or even enraged.

Storytelling is probably as old as language itself, and it always served multiple purposes. When our ancestors gathered around the fire to relate the events of a hunt, they were surely entertaining one another, but they were also communicating the values of the group. Moral instruction became a key part of storytelling; for instance, a story about a hero overcoming his enemies wouldn't only be exciting, it would to teach you to be brave and loyal and to persevere. "Someone said once about The Iliad that it was the encyclopedia," says Karen Hornick, an associate professor at New York University who teaches about literature, cultural history, and media. "It was everything the Greeks knew about how to live a good life. All of their values, all their ideologies and beliefs were contained within that story."

We can see it still today; not only do stories impart values, most of them are governed by a kind of overarching moral structure, one that determines how we expect the story to proceed, and perhaps most importantly, to end. Along the path of a story, innocents may suffer and bad things may happen, but in the end justice will be served, and the bad guys will get what's coming to them. When it doesn't turn out that way, we feel like we've been cheated.

Which brings us back to Game of Thrones. George R. R. Martin obviously has a good understanding of narrative conventions and is more than happy to subvert them. When Ned Stark was executed, it was so shocking not only because it left viewers without the person with whom they assumed they were supposed to most identify, but because the scene itself felt so familiar, right up until the moment when the blade met Ned's neck. We've seen it repeated a thousand times, in every action or adventure story. At some point, the hero always suffers a setback—he is captured by his enemies, or he is betrayed by one he trusted, or he's injured and looks on the verge of defeat. Then at the last moment, he finds some clever way to escape and triumph. Those who hadn't read the books were waiting for that moment as Ned stood before the king, the executioner, and the crowd. And then his head rolled away.

But his son Robb's death was portrayed in an entirely different way. It wasn't preceded by a lengthy countdown; it was sudden and shocking, challenging expectations in a different way. "It's kind of ridiculous that Robb Stark is killed so simply," Hornick says. If he's a heroic warrior, we expect his death to be filmed with grandeur, maybe even in slow motion. And in the story, it has to serve some higher redemptive purpose, such as a noble sacrifice for the purpose of saving others. But it didn't happen that way. Robb just died, along with his wife, his mother, and his army. Martin and the show's creators found a different way to confound our expectations of what happens to heroes.

The show still has a few dozen interesting characters left standing, but it doesn't have a protagonist. Asked whether we as an audience need a central character to be the vehicle that carries us through a story, Hornick says, "It's difficult to think of any successful stories that don't have a clear protagonist." But well-known stories have pulled switcheroos on us before. Hornick points to Psycho, where Janet Leigh's character seems like the story's protagonist, and then she's killed off very early on, and it turns out the film isn't about her after all. But now Game of Thrones has no clear protagonist; you're free to choose whichever character you'd like to root for.

The problem is, you may end up disappointed (oh, let's be honest—you almost certainly will). We know by now that in this world, not only do bad things happen to good people, but villainy frequently goes unpunished. And one of our central expectations of narrative is that eventually, even if it comes at the end of a long road, the bad guy will get his comeuppance. When that doesn't happen, says Hornick, "there's a sense of formal fairness that has been trespassed." It isn't that every story needs a happy ending, but if our emotional investment isn't allowed to resolve in a satisfying way and if some measure of justice doesn't prevail, it can be deeply disturbing. If you watch Game of Thrones, ask yourself this: aren't you just dying to see someone run Joffrey through with a sword like he deserves, then stick his head on a pike? And how will you feel if it never happens?

Not having read the books, I have no idea if it will. Martin hasn't even finished writing them; there are two more left to come. But he has said that he doesn't write "that certain kind of fiction where the guy will always get the girl and the good guys win and it reaffirms to you that life is fair." So you might want to prepare yourself.

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