The art of the ending... Game of Thrones' bloody bang
Season five of 'Game of Thrones' has gone out with a bloody bang - and fans are up in arms. Our TV critic looks at how TV's best writers keep the viewers coming back for more
The bigger the show, the more passionate the fans, and in recent years Game of Thrones has spawned a cult so fervent it almost seems like a religion. They dress up as their favourite characters, hold conventions and host online forums to argue endlessly about the meaning of it all.
This week, however, they are not happy. Season five of the fantasy epic came to an abrupt and bloody end on Monday night, and die-hard fans are raging about the high-handed stunts the show's writers have pulled. Stannis Baretheon's assassination on the field of battle at least had a certain natural justice to it given his previous behaviour, but did they have to make his wife kill herself as well?
Then there was the public humiliation of Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) who, like some Nazi collaborator, was forced to walk naked through a spitting and filth-throwing crowd. Ok, so Cersei is no saint - she's a ruthless schemer, and enjoys incestuous sex with her twin brother - but the scene seemed excessive in a show that's been heavily criticised for its depiction of violence towards women.
Worst of all, though, was the last-minute killing of Jon Snow, a handsome warrior played by Kit Harington and one of Game of Thrones' only genuinely sympathetic characters. That death was so unexpected it felt like a gratuitous attempt to hook in the viewers who'll have to wait till early next year for season six to begin. And it proves there's a fine line between keeping the public interested in your story and putting them off altogether by messing with a winning formula.
Getting season finales right is tough for writers and show-runners, because if you're too cautious and careful, the network might cancel you anyway.
There was probably no danger of that with Aaron Sorkin's sparkling political drama The West Wing, but he took no chances by ending season one with a classic cliffhanger.
When your show's star is the US President, sooner or later someone's going to take a pot shot at him, and Jed Bartlett and his team were leaving a town hall meeting when a gang of white supremacists opened fire on them. We were left wondering if the lovable leader had been shot, but it was only his whiny adviser Josh Lynam, who soon recovered.
This was as nothing, however, compared to last year's season two finale of Hannibal, which ended in a bloodbath of such Shakespearean proportions that it left you wondering would anyone remain alive to appear in season three. Mads Mikkelsen plays the serial killing psychiatrist, who seems on the verge of being caught when he wounds Jack Crawford, stabs his nemesis Will Graham in the stomach, kills one woman and throws another out a window before calmly departing for Italy. It got your attention.
Breaking Bad was full of such bravura cliffhangers, but perhaps the best was the one at the end of season three. After Walter killed a group of gang members and his sidekick Jesse went on the run, Jesse arrives at the drug manufacturer Gale's house and pulls a gun on him. And as he squeezes the trigger, the screen goes blank, leaving you unsure whether Jesse had taken the irrevocable step of killing him. He had.
Soap operas have produced some of the most memorable season-enders, using cliffhangers so preposterous you can help falling in love with them. In 1985, facing stiff competition from network rival Dallas, the writers on Dynasty came up with the something pretty special to finish season five. Alexis Carrington's secret daughter Amanda Bedford has travelled to central Europe to marry a Moldovan prince when a military coup erupts and terrorists break into the church to spray the entire cast with bullets. As priests and bishops dived for cover, one feared for the wellbeing of Blake, Alexis and Krystle. But when the show returned, we learnt that only a few minor characters had copped it.
But that's not the soap season finale most people remember. When Dallas started in 1978, Larry Hagman's character J.R. Ewing was supposed to play second fiddle to his glamorous younger brother Bobby (Patrick Duffy). But J.R. was a man everyone loved to hate: soon the New York Times had dubbed him "the nastiest man on television", and by the end of season three it was clear he was the show's big star.
Which made it all the more delicious when, at the end of a season ending episode entitled A House Divided, J.R. was shot by an unseen assailant while working late at the oil company.
Fans had to wait an entire summer before finding out who did the deed. We hoped it might be Bobby, or Pamela Barnes, or her crazy brother Cliff, but it turned out to be one of J.R.'s many disaffected mistresses. It remains one of television's most iconic moments, and more than a decade later The Simpsons paid tribute to it by having someone take a pot shot at the despised millionaire Monty Burns. Throughout the summer of 1995, fans in America could call a 1-800 number and offer their guess as to who had shot Springfield's most unpopular resident.
In 1998 the writers on Friends came up with a wonderfully novel way of ending a season. Rachel has finally realised that she loves Ross, and raced to London to prevent his wedding to his annoying English girlfriend, Emily. Not only did she arrive too late, but Ross said "I take thee Rachel" name instead of "Emily", leaving no one feeling particularly happy.
Which was clever stuff, but you can be too clever. David Lynch and the writers of 1990s classic Twin Peaks made sure that season one would be followed by a second by having a masked gunman shoot special agent Dale Cooper. Which is fair enough, but what happened in the finale of season two still annoys me 20-odd years later.
Kyle MacLachlan's Agent Cooper was the drama's hero, and had implacably tracked down the lunatic killer, Bob. But in the show's final scene Cooper appeared to have been possessed by Bob, and passed over to the dark side. It was depressing, and far too clever for its own good, but in fairness the show's writer Mark Frost had always intended there to be another season. Now, it seems, there finally will be, as a new season of Twin Peaks is about to enter production.
And spare a thought for all Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans, who had to put up with all sorts of finale traumas during the show's run. She was cast out into the wilderness, alone and friendless at the end of season two, but in season five's finale, the show's creator Joss Whedon actually killed her.
She came back later, but we weren't to know that.