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Unhappy Endings: When Our TV Show Worlds Get Rocked


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary.

Fans of "Game of Thrones" are well-aware by now that George R. R. Martin, author of the popular book series, is not afraid to kill off his characters. Those who read the books are way ahead of those who discovered the series through HBO. TV viewers were stunned when the first season ended with the graphic beheading of the man everyone thought was the hero of the saga. Season three, which just ended, offered more violent and unexpected deaths.

We won't say exactly what happened, but this sampling from Twitter gives an idea of how fans reacted. It ranged from sadness: I've never cried so hard. I hate "Game of Thrones" right now. I don't know if I'll ever recover from this. Too rage. No, I'm out. I quit. I'm done. "Game of Thrones" has killed me. Goodbye cruel world. It was nice living.

I have to confess that I am among those who sat in stunned silence as the credits rolled at the end of the most recent shock on "Game of Thrones." But there have been other shockers in TV series recently as well. Who knew that violent deaths would overtake the world of "Downton Abbey," for example? And who knows what the writers have in mind for everyone's favorite meth dealers in "Breaking Bad."

In a recent piece for The American Prospect, writer Paul Waldman analyzed how we react when storytellers go against our long-held ideas of how a narrative should play out. So have you ever felt betrayed by a writer, whether in a book, a TV show or a movie? We'd like to hear your story. Call us at 800-989-8255 or sent us an email to talk@npr.org. Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect and his piece "Game of Thrones and the Problem of Unhappy Endings" ran on their website yesterday. And he joins us now via Skype from his home outside D.C. Paul, welcome to the program.

PAUL WALDMAN: Thank you.

NEARY: So now, without giving too much away, how has "Game of Thrones" just smashed all of our ideas about narrative conventions?

WALDMAN: Well, I think that a lot of people who watched the show - if you hadn't read the books - should have been ready for something like what happened last week because of what you said about what happened at the end of the first season. You know, we expect certain things of a story when we approach it, that it's going to have a central character and that that character's actions will be sort of carry us through the entire story. And then at the end of the first season, Ned Stark, who everyone assumed was the central character, was bumped off.

And what was so interesting about that is that up until the moment where he was killed it felt so familiar, you know, if you - anytime you've ever seen, say, an action movie. There's always the scene where the hero suffers some kind of a setback. You know, he gets captured or he's injured and you think he's not going to make it and then at last moment, he escapes. And that scene of Ned's execution felt like those scenes that you've seen 100 hundred times before, right up until the moment when they lopped off his head. So at that moment, everyone should have been aware, from that point forward, that there was something very unusual about this and that the story wasn't necessarily going to meet your expectations.

But nevertheless, people seemed to be not only shocked by what happened near the end of the second to last episode of this season, but really angry, and that was what's so fascinating about it. Not just that they were disappointed that, you know, the characters who they had liked would no longer be on the show, they were really angry. And I think that shows just how locked in we are to the kinds of conventions and expectations that we have when we approach a story, even at a time when, you know, we have more stories available to us than at any time in human history. Nevertheless, we feel like it's supposed to go down a certain kind of path.

NEARY: But you - and...

WALDMAN: And if it doesn't, we're upset.

NEARY: Yeah. And you point out that these sort of conventions, these sort of long-held beliefs in how a story should go, that we've - they've been around for a long time. I mean, you talked about that it goes back to "The Iliad," and I'm sure even before that.

WALDMAN: Right. You know, when we were sitting around a campfire, you know, storytelling, I'm sure, served a number of functions. It entertained us, certainly as, you know, people relayed the events of the hunt. But it also imparted values of the group, and that's, I think, something that "The Iliad" did.

And even stories that we think of as maybe not all that sort of momentous that we read today, I think we still expect there's going to be kind of an overarching moral structure to it. You know, bad things might happen along the way, but at the end, you know, the story is going to be redeemed. There will - fairness - unfair things that happened will be corrected. If there are villains who do awful things, they will get their come-uppance. And so we still want that kind of moral resolution to come around at the end.

But by now, if you're watching "Game of Thrones," you should have learned that you shouldn't be expecting it. You know, I'm sure that everyone who watches this show is just so eager for that moment when somebody runs King Joffrey through with a sword.

NEARY: Can't wait.


WALDMAN: But - exactly, but if you're...

NEARY: Actually, he need a worse death than that, I think.

WALDMAN: You know, I haven't read the books, but by now I've come to expect that that'll never happen just because you want it so much.

NEARY: Yeah. Well, listen, you know, earlier I mentioned "Downton Abbey," which, of course, is a very upper class and, well, you know, "Upstairs, Downstairs" view of British life. Everything is very pristine and beautiful. And then two of the characters had shocking deaths in that story as well. But afterwards we learn that that was because the actors wanted out, and that felt like a real cheat to me. And I wonder, is it different when - from when a writer is doing it deliberately?

WALDMAN: Well, I guess if they do it well enough, then you as a viewer won't ever notice. You know, it won't matter to you whether it was because of some sort of prosaic idea like that or it's really meant to deepen the story.

But I think that, you know, one of the things that sometimes leads to this is when there are expectations that are locked into certain kinds of genres. And when you approach a story that fits into a particular genre, there are some things we expect and some things we don't expect. You know, when you go to a horror movie, you probably know by now that there may not be a happy ending. You know, there's often that scene right at the end where you think the killer's dead, but then it turns out that he's not, and that will lead to the sequel. And so the unhappy ending is expected. But you know, for instance, I haven't seen the new "Superman" movie, but I'm pretty sure he's going to win in the end because that's something we've come to expect from that genre.

And so you take something like "Game of Thrones," which is, you know, set in sort of a fantasy world, and it also had these elements of gritty realism, and I'm sure that in Hollywood now people associate sort of the unexpected deaths of character with that kind of more serious work that is more realistic. And so that may be kind of bleeding into genres where we don't expect it, even something like "Downton Abbey," where you don't expect a death. Well, you know, obviously, death is part of life. But that - so that sort of realistic element that is not necessarily all that pleasant could be seeping over into genres where we haven't expected it before.

NEARY: Yeah. Let's see if can take a call now. We're going to go to Jill, and Jill is calling from Tallahassee, Florida. Hi, Jill.

JILL: Hello.

NEARY: Go ahead.

JILL: When "M*A*S*H" killed off Colonel Blake, I was a child, and I was extremely upset. Even now when I see it in rerun after rerun, I still cry. I wrote them a letter, and I got a letter back, which I remember because it had the "M*A*S*H" letterhead with the asterisks on it and it was in green, and he explained to me that they tried to capture the reality of war.

NEARY: And as a child, did you sort of take that in? Were you able to accept it a little bit more once you got that answer?

JILL: No. No.


JILL: And I mean it just seemed to me that so many years later, when I watch it in reruns, I still cry, and I tell my children about it and I - I mean I wish they could've not done it, but there it was. And apparently, I mean I've read about it as an adult - a lot of people wrote letters. They were very upset.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for calling, Jill.

JILL: You're welcome.

NEARY: And we're going to go to Cindy, and she's calling from Cincinnati. Hi, Cindy.

CINDY: Hi. Thank - hi. Thank you for taking my call.

NEARY: Oh, you're welcome.

CINDY: I was just saying that we recently are Netflix addicts and have just seen "Gran Torino," which is, of course, the fabulous Clint Eastwood movie from a few years ago. And my boyfriend and I had very different reactions to it because at the end, and I know this is a spoiler, but the Walt character sacrifices himself for the greater good, for the two Hmong neighbors that he has befriended. And rather than handling it by going to the police, and he knows he's dying, he sacrifices himself to the gang members.

And I understood that that was the way it should've happened. However, my boyfriend that I watched the movie with was just devastated. He was horrified that that was the way it ended. And so I can see where a writer will write an ending in that way, and it really - I thought it was a beautiful ending. I thought it was appropriate, but my boyfriend vehemently disagrees because it was very sad and - but it was also beautiful because the Clint Eastwood character completed his life that way. He didn't want to die in a hospital. He didn't - and he really became a much more complete person by dying for those kids. That's what he did.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks much for you call, Cindy.

CINDY: You're very welcome. I really enjoyed the show.

WALDMAN: You know, Cindy, that's a great example. That's a great example because it shows that we can accept characters' deaths when there's something kind of redemptive about them, when it has a purpose in the story. And I think that's one of the things that got people so mad about that episode of "Game of Thrones," was that the death didn't seem to have any purpose. These characters who were essential to the story just died, and it was just awful, and there was no sacrifice. There was nothing that kind of redeemed that and propelled the story forward or allowed it to come to an end that could make you find something worthwhile to take out of it, so...

NEARY: Well, we don't where it's going. We don't know where it's going, and he still has two books to write, so it may have served a purpose to the storyline.


NEARY: We just can't see it yet. Now, here's an email from someone from someone, from Mitra(ph) in Houston, Texas that has nothing to do with death. It's much milder than that. But Mitra writes: My first betrayal was by Louisa May Alcott in "Little Women." My eight-year-old self was devastated that Joe turned Laurie down. I threw my book across the room and swore I wouldn't finish it. It took me two years to pick it back up, and I'm still sad every time I read it or see the movie version. And I wonder what she thought when Amy later on ended up with Laurie. But...


NEARY: That's a much milder example, I think. But a good example of how an unexpected - any kind of unexpected turn can sort of throw a reader or a television viewer.

WALDMAN: Well, yeah. Obviously when a story is well crafted, we become emotionally invested in the outcome. And the simple stories, you know, the action movies always follow a kind of - a very predictable sort of path that we know that in the end the hero is going to save the day and everything is going to be fine. And that's why those are not very challenging and probably don't, you know, stay with you for years and years. Nobody is, you know, terribly angry about what happened in some Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that they saw 20 years ago, right?

NEARY: Right.

WALDMAN: But "Little Women" has stayed with this woman her entire life because she had such a profound emotional investment in the characters.

NEARY: Yeah. It's that investment in the story, I think, that makes these deaths or these sudden, unexpected turns so hard to sort of absorb.

WALDMAN: Yeah, absolutely.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Rob, and let me remind you, by the way, that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We're going to go to Rob, and he is in Columbus, Ohio. Hi, Rob.

ROB: Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good. Thanks.

ROB: I was very interested in this conversation because one of the first television shows that stayed with me was "Knots Landing." And there was a character on their called Sid Fairgate, and at the end of one of the seasons, he drove off a cliff. Now, the normal reaction would be, OK, this character has died. But when it came back the next season, it was like he was pulled from the wreckage, he was in the hospital.

And, in fact, in that day they didn't kill off the main characters that frequently in TV shows. And he lasted two or three episodes in a hospital room and then he chose to have an operation to get his paralysis done and they killed off the character. And it was a shock to every - anyone who was watching because they went to the commercial break and they came back and like he didn't revive. And everyone was just like, OK, what happened?

And it set up a real big set of storylines where his wife changed the date, his sister, and it was - that's how it propelled into a whole new set of circumstances for the show, and it really - even with the character gone, the ghost of that character stayed with the show for the longest time.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks very much for calling with that example, Rob. That's one I didn't know about, I have to admit. Let's take a call from Annie. She's calling from Corvallis, Oregon. Hi, Annie.

ANNIE: Hi there. I'm a reader of the book and I started reading it a number of years ago when I was pregnant. And that was very emotional, as you could imagine. But the thing that, you know, myself and my friends have come to is calling GRRM-ed(ph) for his initials. If something utterly atrocious happens to, just, you know, your love has taken, put in a shelf and then shot from 50 feet, burned and then buried, you know, you've been GRRM-ed.


ANNIE: But I really appreciate that. You know, he doesn't, you know, as he was saying, follow a predictable path. You know, I really like foreign films, you know, especially, you know, Asian films for that matter. We just watched "War of the Arrows," and that was really fun because, you know, it's that same kind of wrenching like - but, you know, you feel involved. You feel invested. And, you know, that's really redeeming (unintelligible) everything happens.

NEARY: Yeah.

ANNIE: Why should the guy get the girl, you know? And the kind that make me feel - I don't know - like a - it's almost insulting, right?

NEARY: Yeah.

ANNIE: Because that's not how life happens, so why should I spend my time watching something that really doesn't, you know, play to - I don't know - not even reality. But, you know, and that's another thing. I also, you know, I'm history a major. The things that he writes about, you know, people really did that, and I appreciate that. You know, there were child brides. Hey, you're 12. All right, let's (unintelligible).

Oh, hey, look, there's a bunch of people over there, 300 people. They're not our religion. Let's slaughter them mercilessly, you know, babies, women, children. You know, that's just what people did.

NEARY: Yeah.

ANNIE: And, you know, he does draw a lot of from history and, you know, that's probably shocking to people who aren't really, you know, aren't familiar with that. And so I really appreciate what he's doing...

NEARY: Anne, I'm just going to ask you, are watching the TV show? And please don't give my any spoilers from the books. I don't want to know. But are you watching the TV show as well? Oh, I'm sorry. We just lost that call. Well, let me just ask you, let me ask you, Paul, to just comment on that because, you know, people are still watching "Game of Thrones." The Twitter world may have gone crazy and there may have been a lot of people saying they were angry and they were quitting. But despite the fact that so many people get killed off in these "Game of Thrones" series, it's enormously popular both as a book series and a television series. People are - are you giving up on it, for example? I'm not.

WALDMAN: Oh, no. Absolutely not.


WALDMAN: And I think that people are capable of adjusting their expectations as they go along. And so, you know, the next time a major character gets killed, perhaps it won't be so shocking. And in that way, it may have create its own kind of genre with its own expect - set of expectations or maybe lack of expectations. You know, the previous caller mentioned soap operas, where like "Game of Thrones," they're serials. They don't actually end. And there, there really are no rules. I guess they kind of invented the character of the person you love to hate.

And it's OK if that person just keeps getting away with their terrible crimes, whereas when there is something that's contained in a story, if it's a two-hour movie or a show that, you know, like "Law & Order," where each episode is its own self-contained unit, then we expect everything to be resolved by the end. And even if something terrible - if a story begins with something terrible, by the end there will be a climax where it all get wrapped up and, you know, the order is restored.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us, Paul.

WALDMAN: My pleasure.

NEARY: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect. Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us. Neal Conan will be back. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.