“We really wanted to subvert expectations” David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said in their interviews after episode 3 of Game of Thrones’ eighth season aired. Their reasoning was they wanted fans to be surprised with their end product. They wanted people to come away from watching the grand finale to an amazing TV show saying “wow, I did not see that coming”. Well, mission accomplished. But was it worth it?
SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES (Up to ep. 8.5), MR. ROBOT SEASON 1, WESTWORLD SEASON 1 AND AVENGERS: ENDGAME WILL FOLLOW
And now I’ll tell you all about how to make the best bearded-style pancakes! All you need to do is get yourself a pan, get yourself some flour and go ham!
AHA! Didn’t expect that, did you?! Your expectations were just subverted! I am a master subverter! Please hire me for your new Star Wars trilogy, D&D. I’ll make sure that no expectation goes unsubverted, no mind unblown, no script unsoiled! Seriously, DM me, I have some great ideas on how to ruin ALL the lore!
Seriously though, the level of that dumb joke is about the level of subversion introduced by Weiss and Benioff in the final season of Game of Thrones. You see, essays have a structure, just like stories. Just like you probably didn’t expect a paragraph about pancakes in an essay about television, you probably didn’t expect a show about consequences of actions to do a 180 and totally forget about that fact. Were you surprised? Probably. Did it make you enjoy it any better? Probably not.
Mind you, subversion is not a bad thing at all. It’s actually probably one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal when used correctly. My favourite recent example of this is Avengers: Infinity War. In the movie, we get an amazing setup for a gutwrenching punchline. We’ve been trained over our lives that superheroes always win in their movies. We’ve been conditioned to see what was going to happen. To use wrestling terminology, both sides kick out at two a few times before the heel finally getting pinned for the three-count. So, when Thor swings his axe at Thanos, we’re kinda ready to go “oh, another one bites the dust”, wait for the two post-credits scenes and leave the cinema.
That’s what made the moment Thanos snapped his fingers in Infinity War so powerful. It was against all we’ve come to expect, yet it was earned by the writing. Thanos told us he was inevitable. “Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives.” The Russo’s actually framed Thanos as the protagonist in the movie, which is something you don’t realize until you watch it again. There was a sense of his win making absolute sense. Our expectations are completely subverted, but we are left satisfied due to the excellent setup we weren’t able to notice.
Game of Thrones had these moments too. Ned’s death was an excellent example, as was the Red Wedding. We didn’t expect the two protagonists to die so soon, yet the reasoning was clear, both from an in-story and meta perspective. These two events set Thrones (and A Song of Ice and Fire to give George R. R. Martin due respect) apart from other fantasy works. The characters were vulnerable, actions had consequences and a noble attitude seemed like the first thing to get you killed in the cutthroat world of Westeros.
The problem is, of course, that two people who have enjoyed the books well enough to figure out Lyanna Stark is Jon Snow’s mother, failed to analyze the books to realize some of their primary themes. Sure, they got the family part right, as they did with power. But, they forgot about these actions and consequences. Suddenly, in a battle against the dead, nobody of real importance to the plot dies.
Suddenly, Arya Stark becomes the Night-King-slayer, although I’ll give them some props for trying to earn that moment by using Arya’s conversation with Melisandre from an earlier season. Suddenly, Tyrion’s being a massive dunce again. Suddenly, Daenerys doesn’t see an entire fleet. Suddenly, Jaime just stands up and leaves Brienne, throwing his character arc down the dumpster. Suddenly, Cersei doesn’t kill her enemies when she has them at point blank range. Suddenly, Jon doesn’t pet ghost, because wrecking an entire f***king city with CGI fire was more important than petting a good boy. Suddenly, Dany just straight up goes insane.
All of these moments feel absolutely unearned. They could’ve been earned, had D&D opted for a longer season to flesh out these characters’ motivations, but they prefered to get rid of thrones from their agenda so that they can work on Star Wars, turning Game of Thrones into a dumpster fire. But they weren’t earned because the writing duo has an obsession with surprising audiences. It’s like they’re writing the show just to watch the reaction videos posted on YouTube afterwards.
It’s no surprise given all that, that the most satisfying moment in the episode was Cleganebowl (insert airhorn here). Why? Because it was set up in the very first season and teased over and over again. If it was to follow this season’s template, it would’ve ended with Gregor and Sandor hugging it out and grabbing a drink together at the tavern. It was very much expected, but that fact only made it the more epic when they went at it.
Similarly, Avengers: Endgame ends on a wholly predictable note. It hits all the story beats, Tony dies, Cap retires, everything is as predicted by any self-respecting comic book nerd. And that’s a good thing. Because it makes sense. If Benioff and Weiss wrote the movie, it’d probably be Spider-man who died at the hands of Iron Man who decided that Thanos was right all along. Yet, our expectations were still subverted in this movie, with, for example, Big Thorowski and Thanos’ first death.
In today’s age being unpredictable in a TV show is nigh on impossible if you want to write an actually good story. That’s because good stories are based around foreshadowing, actions and consequences. Imagine if Mr. Robot decided to scrap the Fight Clubesque twist because somebody figured it out. Imagine if Westworld made Logan the Man in Black in order to SUBVERT EXPECTATIONS because some goddamn nerd on Reddit spoiled the fun.
That’s not how you write stories. You don’t write them for the handful of fans who theorize every little bit of them — they’ll be happy, as long as it makes sense. You don’t write them for the malcontents who think everything that’s subtly foreshadowed is obvious and predictable. You write them for the story itself. If you can have a person watch all 8 seasons of your show in one go, and be surprised, then you’re doing it right. If you’re angry that they stop every 5 episodes to talk about it with their friends, then you become the screenwriting equivalent of a jump scare. A cheap thrill-writer who values unpredictability over coherence, the ending over the journey. In the end, the only expectation you’re going to be properly subverting is that of delivering a good story to the fans.
Over the last month, we’ve gotten two endings to two stories. One, meticulously crafted, carefully arranged and perfectly executed. The other, written in what seems a rush, pointlessly twisted and unceremoniously dumb at times. If you told me something like that two or three years ago, I would’ve surely said: “Wow, they really screwed up Avengers, eh? Glad that at least HBO got it right again.”
Oh, how the mighty have subverted expectations.
As a side note, because I don’t think I’ll be reviewing much of Thrones anymore, hats off to two people involved in the production process: Ramin Djawadi for his amazing score and Miguel Sapochnik for the genius move of showing us the horrors of both the Long Night and the sack of King’s Landing through the eyes of Arya. I only realized this now, but both of her sequences really underlined how bad are the threats she was facing, given she’s a magic ninja assassin who was now scared, broken and panicking. I think somebody wrote that he has never seen bad writing produced this well (well, outside the coffee cup) and I’d have to agree. It’s just too bad.