Television

The Sense of an Ending: Game of Thrones, Lost and Delayed Anticipation

There really is nothing like an ending.

We are obsessed, as audiences, with endings. At times we lose sight of how important the journey is of the stories we digest precisely because of how obsessed we are at what will happen in the grand denouement. Often it takes rediscovering a series long after it has all been said and done, taking in the breadth and scope of it, to truly understand and appreciate the piece as a complete entity. We judge so much on the destination. This is a fate about to happen with Game of Thrones, much as it did with the last true genre phenomenon of mainstream television: Lost.

Neither of these two shows are alike in any way except for one key aspect. Both of them saw their audiences become enraptured in the power of delayed anticipation like no other series before them. No other series outside of them have been so assiduously studied, examined, picked apart and theorised about, all of them, in many respects, to crack what has been most important to their audiences from day one: how they are going to end.

The journey to this delayed anticipation and gratification was different for both shows.

Lost evolved into a series where the endgame became crucial and central to the entire journey. The first two seasons in particular were concerned with establishment as the collection of (apparent) strangers on Flight 815 who crashed on the mysterious Island began to uncover, slowly but surely, an arcane mythology filled with all kinds of rabbit holes and dead ends. Certainly by the end of Season 3, showrunners Carlton Cuse & Damon Lindelof had pretty much figured out how the show would end, given their confidence in employing ‘flash forwards’ by Season 3 finale ‘Through the Looking Glass’. The final three seasons were announced as being *it*, a roughly 50 episode or thereabouts run at wrapping up a swirl of narrative ideas, character journeys and mythological concepts. By the start of Season 5, nobody had any idea how they could possibly conclude Lost with any satisfaction with just 32 episodes left.

It was different for Game of Thrones. That began as a show which had a wealth of material behind it, thanks to George R.R. Martin’s five published books, that show-runners David Benioff & D.B Weiss for at least four seasons roughly followed verbatim. Audiences knew that by Season 4, the show would roughly be in tandem with fourth book A Feast for Crows and fifth book A Dance of Dragons (since chronologically they overlap), and we expected certain key events in Martin’s grand narrative to have happened. All through his story, unlike in Lost, there is a developing narrative inevitability – the White Walkers (or Others in the books). At some point, they are going to invade.

The entire show, and book series A Song of Ice and Fire, is built on the idea that while the houses of Westeros war and scheme, only the Night’s Watch of the far north truly understand the threat of the undead to come. Audiences have therefore spent the majority of the series waiting for two key things: the war with the undead and the return to Westeros of deposed heir to the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen. With Lost, nobody really knew quite where it was heading, only that it was heading somewhere. With Game of Thrones, we’ve spent years waiting for anticipated storylines to happen.

It became clear around halfway through Lost that the crash survivors escaping and getting home was not the point of the series. Lost’s title itself was an illusory double meaning; it literally referenced the plight of the crash survivors, lost on a remote island, but it figuratively concerned their lives and destinies – as Jacob, the mystical Island God-figure entwined in a cosmic battle with his dark Devil brother at the heart of the series, opines to a core group of survivors in penultimate episode ‘What They Died For’: “You were all alone. I gave you something that you couldn’t find out there”.

That something was each other and, by extension, the Island – a place they could come together, a place that could be a paradise if not for the corruption of men. Lost’s ultimate message about finding your place, finding who you really are, is extemporised through main character Jack Shepherd; he undertakes a classical Heroes Journey (which I will be expanding more on in my forthcoming book on TV mythologies) of awareness, acceptance and realisation, to the point he wants to return to the Island to fulfill what he understands to be some greater destiny. What people never realised about Lost, and why the ending still infuriates many to this day, is that the show in truth was never about the destination – it was always about the journey.

That is not really the case for Game of Thrones, not to the same extent. It *is* about the journey in the sense that most of its characters have undertaken powerful and wild literal and metaphorical journeys over the last seven seasons whereby they are vastly different people now to who they were in the pilot episode, ‘Winter Is Coming’, those who have survived at least.

The difference is that the series has been devised around the two key narrative payoffs that the final season and Season 7 before it are delivering. Daenerys’ return to Westeros, to bring fire and blood with her immense dragons, has loomed over the various Wars of the Five Kings or Battle of the Bastards etc… that have kept the Seven Kingdoms busy for the majority of the show. Daenerys as a character has learned to win and lose as a ruler in the eastern continent of Essos over this time but has consistently come close to launching her campaign on Westeros, to reclaim the Targaryen dynasty robbed of her by Robert’s Rebellion that unseated her crazed father when she was just a baby, only to find another problem demanding her attention – freeing a city of slaves or kidnap by the Dothraki horde. It was a narrative bomb Benioff & Weiss waited six seasons to explode, particularly given in Martin’s unfinished book saga, she is still entangled in eastern politics at the end of A Dance of Dragons. The payoff however, across Season 7, was absolutely worth it. The delayed gratification for the audience in seeing Daenerys interact with characters we’ve followed elsewhere for years—particularly the show’s male lead Jon Snow—was unlike anything previously experienced in television history.

Such gratification will be even more acute when, in the final season, the White Walkers finally invade and do battle with all of our assembled main characters. The recently released Season 8 trailer promises a confluence of personalities from across the map, centred around a massive battle at Winterfell, and it will be the culmination of a conflict we have spent the entirety of Game of Thrones waiting for. We always knew the Wall would probably fall. We always knew the Night King would cross. The journey getting there is where some of the unexpected twists and turns have taken place. Who expected an ice dragon? Hard core fans of the books and show will have seen signs, symbols and clues across the entire run which have given rise to a mountain of theories as to where these characters and storylines will end up—chiefly the R+L=J theory, so well communicated by the master of theories, YouTuber Alt Shift X—some of which have gained ground, others sinking into the background as arcane conspiracy theory.

It isn’t that Game of Thrones doesn’t have the capacity to surprise—how many of us gasped at the Hodor revelation midway through Season 6? The difference is that much of the narrative, and many of the jaw dropping twists and turns, have been well seeded and previously foreshadowed as to make them less of a shock twist and more of a deliberate, satisfying payoff. When The Winds of Winter absolutely confirmed that Jon Snow was secretly a Targaryen, and The Dragon and the Wolf provided the true context, the aforementioned R+L=J transmuted from theory into reality, yet nobody would have felt robbed by the revelation. This is the skill in how Game of Thrones has paved the way for its final act – while surprises are yet to come, and we don’t know the final fate of these characters, audiences will have much to cheer about when a “YES! I knew they would do that!” moment takes place on screen. Mine, I’m convinced, will be Arya slitting the throat of a victorious Cersei. Let’s see.

This is not to say, of course, that the ending of shows like this is always universally satisfactory. Indeed endings often create much deeper ire than anything on the journey toward them. Many of the biggest genre series have experienced a deep lack of audience satisfaction at how they came to a close. Lost, of course, remains a chief example to many of a series which failed to ‘stick the landing’; its final revelation of an ethereal world where the main characters exist in a pre-after life alternate reality, all tied up with a quasi-Christian spiritual journey, felt like a cop out paean to the many theories that the Island was a form of purgatory. In truth, it’s a reveal designed primarily to complete the Heroes Journey of Jack, the final step of him being ‘found’ as a real world sacrifice gives way to rediscovering his father figure as a symbol of faith.

Lost opted less for an ending which conclusively explains its myriad tangle of storylines and theories, and instead chose one deep rooted in emotional character payoff. When you watch the series back in one sitting, it becomes even more apparent that this choice made sense. Lost, the TV equivalent of a Lewis Carroll modern novel, being all about the journey meant the destination, and the final mystery *of* that ultimate destination (be it the Island or the afterlife), was less important than the fate of the characters involved. It’s an ending which remains sorely misunderstood and underrated.

Star Trek: Voyager has long been a series with a derided ending, as it too seemed to opt for a literal narrative resolution than the character one everyone hoped for. The fourth Star Trek series was built on the foundation of a lost starship trying to get home which, again, placed the presumed ending of the series front and centre – Voyager would, surely, in the final episode, get back to Earth. Where Voyager remains a maddening contradiction is in how it repeatedly proclaims “to the journey”, as Captain Kathryn Janeway toasts, a show about the family constructed between these Starfleet and renegade Maquis officers thrown together on an unexpectedly long voyage. Yet after seven seasons, seven years and over 100 episodes, the finale Endgame sees a time travelling future Janeway use Borg technology to help propel Voyager home when, originally, it took them over 20 years to make it, and not all of them made it alive.

What we get instead is a sudden shock of a return to Earth, as much of a shock to Janeway and her crew as the audience itself. The show ends without any true sense of character resolution, which Kirsten Beyer later dealt with in tie-in sequel novels Homecoming & The Farther Shore. Audiences however had been spoiled by the ending of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine two years earlier – the conclusion of a galaxy-spanning tapestry of characters and narratives which felt like the closing of a book, not just a chapter. DS9 was a very different show to Voyager, but there is no reason that Endgame shouldn’t have had some post-mission character resolution to give the audience closure. Even if you can accept the time travel gambit that gets the ship home, the lack of satisfaction is hard to swallow.

In retrospect, however, was this the right ending for Voyager? Can we apply the same sense of audience gratification to a show which lacked the same level of serialised character work as a Lost or DS9?

Audience gratification of a narrative ending can come in different forms. Nobody questions how powerful the ending of The Sopranos finale ‘Made in America’ is, in which David Chase ends his seminal show with a cut to black, leaving the fate of Tony Soprano open to interpretation. It’s less maddening as it is brilliant. A much different series recently, Sharon Horgan & Rob Delaney comedy Catastrophe, applied a similar trick in which the show was actually compared to The Sopranos; Sharon and Rob are left both literally and metaphorically swimming against the tide, an ending as hapless and desperate as the uncomfortable domesticity of those characters deserved. Those are endings which remains open and unresolved yet they remain hugely satisfying, since the audience on some level have conditioned themselves to not expect definitive conclusion.

They did with Voyager, except while the premise delivered (the ship returned to Earth), from a character perspective it was woefully undercooked. The same can be said for both endings of The X-Files, which first came to a conclusion in The Truth at the end of Season 9 with one eye on a subsequent movie series; this placed that finale in an awkward groove of trying to mirror and symbolically parallel the pilot episode in its final scene but not give any definitive conclusion for the Mulder & Scully characters, aware that we’ll likely see them again in another motion picture. The second ending, 2018’s My Struggle IV, was rushed and piecemeal, both suggesting a new life for the characters and leaving the door open wide enough for the show to return. The X-Files remains perennially inconclusive, which for that show is just as maybe. Yet the remains a lack of gratification amongst audiences. Endings matter.

Game of Thrones, therefore, *has* to stick that landing. There is enough great work in the tank to already assure its place in the annals of television history – it has been a trend setter, format breaker and envelope pusher in a multitude of ways, and it’s legacy will ripple across storytelling for many years to come. But more perhaps than any other series in television history, the ending means something. The ending has been the *point* since the beginning. It is the ultimate example of delayed anticipation and though it will without question polarise, and will equally come as a disappointment to certain fans who have already made peace with the ending they’ve long hoped for, Game of Thrones will hopefully give its fans who have embraced the world of Westeros for the better part of a decade one thing that will have made it all worthwhile: satisfying closure.

Oh and maybe a dragon fight, because who doesn’t want to see that?

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