How do you tell the world a story when the world wants to keep interrupting? It is an odd dilemma to tell a long and involved story to an audience bound together by social media, spoiling and obsessing and guessing things out loud. How can a conjuror satisfy those who want to see beneath the sleeves?
In 2014, George R.R. Martin—writer of the A Song Of Ice And Fire novels that turned into the world’s most popular television show, Game Of Thrones—set down some truth. “If you have planned in your book that the butler did it, and then you read on the internet that someone’s figured out that the butler did it, and you suddenly change in midstream that it was the chambermaid who did it, then you screw up the whole book." Martin said. “You have got this foreshadowing early on, and you have got these clues you have planted, now they are dead ends, so you have to introduce new clues, and you are retconning, and it’s a mess."
Martin wasn’t talking about the final seasons of the show, but he may as well have been. The eighth and ultimate season (streaming in India on Hotstar Premium) was a severely anticlimactic disappointment, a hollow and often ham-fisted attempt that played out like a weak cover band trying to reach the show’s earlier dizzying highs.
Once showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss outran the Martin books, they created their own boogeymen—but lacked the conviction to see them through. The Night King does not even exist in Martin’s books. In the novels, the “Night’s King" is a character of lore, who predates the events of the series by aeons. The TV show builds up this fearsome villain and makes him the central antagonist, yet his icy threat doesn’t even make it to the finish. He’s a false clue they planted—not a bad storytelling gambit, except they ended up making the dead herring too important.
The more we feel invested, the more we demand. The world watched Game Of Thrones in participatory fashion, like pro-wrestling, not only applauding and hissing but expecting cheers and jeers to be counted by those scripting the wars and weaving the wigs (give Tyrion more wine! Yay for Jamie-Brienne! More yay for Brienne-Tormund! Make Khaleesi stronger! No, not that strong!).
This is not a fair way to consume scripted art, but the reason we could treat Game Of Thrones like a ladder match between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels was because the showrunners let us. They indulged characters who became popular, rehashed the greatest hits, and fed us more of what we thought we wanted instead of staying true to the story and the characters. This show that stunningly killed its darlings turned tame. Threads were lost—Arya Stark spent endless episodes learning to swap faces but ended up Rajinikanth-ing the Night King out of nowhere—and women were weakened: Brienne cried, Sansa justified rape, Arya cowered with fear, Daenerys lost her mind and Cersei Lannister was left with no plan. What had this show become?
What happens when the world guesses the butler did it? You let the world see the butler doing it, instead of trading story for shock.
Foreshadowing exists to clue perceptive audiences into the future. Everyone will have their own version—the lone shining moment in the finale had television favourite Tyrion Lannister finding out that in the show’s version of A Song Of Ice And Fire, a collected history of their times, he doesn’t merit a mention—but if everyone had a say, it would not be art. It would be Twitter.
I watch Game Of Thrones with friends. We watch it at night, unlike those who watch it at dawn and get sadistic, Bolton-ic joy from posting memes without spoiler warnings (if any of those people are reading this, you, former friends, are the bannermen of buffoonery). It has been a tremendous social experience. We theorized, shared articles about the complexities of costumery, watched and whined together. Sometimes in the same room and sometimes across oceans, we laughed and compared notes, all drinking from the same grail.
The final conversation between Tyrion and the eternally feckless Jon Snow sounded to me like a verbatim exchange between Benioff and Weiss, discussing the way they brought down the curtain.
Tyrion: No one is very happy, which means it’s a good compromise, I suppose.
Jon: Was it right? What I did?
Tyrion: What we did.
Jon: It doesn’t feel right.
Tyrion, after pausing awhile: Ask me again in 10 years.
Perhaps they are right. Perhaps we will eventually look at this ending more kindly. Perhaps Martin’s denouement will be worse. Perhaps, but don’t hold your breath. As they face loathing after years of reverence, we must acknowledge the peculiarity of their position—the loneliness of the long-distance showrunners. The greatest trick the devils ever pulled was convincing the world not to look away.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.