What can Game of Thrones writers learn from the endings of other hit shows?
As fans prepare for the last episode of their beloved series, Ed Power asks what the writers need to do to get it right - and what they could learn from other shows
With just one episode to go, Game Of Thrones is at serious risk of losing its crown as the world's favourite television show. Many fans are outraged over how the sword and sorcery (and wobbly naked bits) saga has pivoted in its final season.
They've been aghast at the transformation of Queen Daenerys into a civilian-slaughtering 'Mad Queen'. And they've wondered why, after years of foreshadowing, noble Jon Snow was cheated out of his destiny to kill the Night King, with his little sister, Arya, instead bagging the big job.
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Such is the disgruntlement, Thrones devotees have launched a petition demanding HBO remake the eighth and concluding series. Some 54,000 have already signed. But how many more will share in the widespread displeasure after the series winds to a close at the weekend? 'Sticking the landing' is always a challenge for a long-running and widely beloved television drama. Some shows, like Lost and Battlestar Galactica, have crashed and burned.
Others have brought their story to a predictable yet satisfying conclusion (Breaking Bad). Then there are those that have chosen the WTF? option of a final episode that raises more questions than answers (The Sopranos and its cut to black ending).
Yet when David Benioff and DB Weiss began the long road to adapting George RR Martin's Game Of Thrones novels a decade ago, they must have thought they would have the easiest route in the world. Martin was, after all, due to publish the final volumes in his saga in the near future - meaning the entire journey would be mapped out for them.
But Martin got bogged down in his tale and six years elapsed between the publication of A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons - billed as the fourth of seven volumes. He has spent the intervening eight years working on The Winds Of Winter - with no firm publication date in sight.
As season five came around, Benioff and Weiss were forced to go it alone. Martin sketched out some important plot points (it seems he had indeed ultimately planned for Daenerys to become the villain of the piece). But how to get there was left up to the showrunners - and what a proper Sandor Clegane they've made of the entire thing.
Still, even as viewers gnash teeth and take to the internet to add their name to petitions, it should be acknowledged that Game Of Thrones isn't the first show to literally lose the plot as the final curtain loomed.
The same issue bedevilled Lost as it embarked on its final season in 2010. Lost, set on a tropical island brimming with uncanny happenings, had set itself the impossible task of tying up the endless loose ends that it had dangled across its previous six years. Mystery had been piled atop mystery - more than a few chucked in without any idea as to how they would eventually be solved.
The ultimate solution presented by show runner Damon Lindelof was to emphasise the importance of ambivalence. The answers weren't what mattered, he insisted. It was how each of us responded to the questions posed. Did this sound like a cop-out? A majority of fans felt that was indeed the case.
"It's not that I didn't care about the mythology of the show, it's just like, many shows have come and gone that are very focused on their mysteries and their mythologies and their ambiguity," an unapologetic Lindelof would say in 2012. "There is no worse scene in the history of genre than the Architect explaining to Neo everything that happened in The Matrix, and I wasn't going to [rude word] touch that with a 10ft pole."
Game Of Thrones' final season is arguably worse in that it seems to betray many of its characters. Arya Stark, having killed the Night King, travels to King's Landing to dispatch her sworn enemy Queen Cersei - only to change her mind at literally the final moment and decide to become a peace-loving teenager instead. Jaime Lannister, meanwhile, abandons his new girlfriend, Brienne of Tarth, to ride to the side of his twin-with-benefits Cersei, so they can suffocate to death in the bowels of their fortress home. In both cases, years of character development is chucked from the top of the battlements.
In seeming to break its own rules, Thrones has reminded some of the disastrous conclusion to serial killer thriller Dexter in 2013, which had the eponymous anti-hero retire from murdering to become a lumberjack instead. Almost everyone found this ludicrous. Even the show's star Michael C Hall appeared to have his misgivings, admitting the drama had lost cohesion towards its end
"You know, Dexter morphed," he would say. "It was a many-headed creative monster, and certain heads were lopped off halfway through the life of the show. It was difficult to maintain a cohesive narrative in many ways but, primarily, in terms of the conception of the character, once he started to move into murkier, blurrier, more human territory, it became a very difficult thing to wrap my head around."
One criticism of Game Of Thrones this season has been that Benioff and Weiss have been obsessed with "subverting expectations" - throwing in shocks they hadn't properly earned.
The complaint is they are trying too hard to jolt the audience. Sometimes it's okay to give us the predictable end we all saw coming. Consider Breaking Bad, where the downbeat finale was one everyone could have guessed - but that didn't rob it of its punch."We went through a lot of false starts and endings that went nowhere, but we knew we needed to dot all the 'i's and cross all the 't's," Breaking Bad's creator Vince Gilligan would say. "This story was finite all along. It's a story that starts at A and ends at Z. It's a very closed-ended thing."
Gilligan in the same interview praised the ambiguous conclusion to The Sopranos, which finished with Journey's 'Don't Stop Believin'' blaring from a jukebox as the screen cut to black. What did it mean? One popular theory is that mobster Tony was about to be assassinated. But the ambivalence was what gave the finale its power. If you can't provide a satisfactory answer, sometimes it's better to depart in a swirl of mystery. It's a lesson to which Game Of Thrones should perhaps have paid closer attention. Whatever happens this weekend, it's unthinkable the HBO blockbuster will finish on a note of Sopranos-level inscrutability. But given the vandalism wrought upon our favourite characters this season, perhaps a merciful cut to black is the best we can hope for.
The final episode of Game Of Thrones airs at 2am on Monday (Sky Atlantic)