Last night, the first episode of Game of Thrones, Season 5, premiered in London. Chatter about the end-date for Game of Thrones, mixed with premiere reviews discussing the way season 5 feels like it’s moving the wheels toward an endgame has me wanting a soapbox.
Now, it’ll be very, very interesting to see what this show does in terms of telling a complete story. I think much of we’ve seen from the broadcast renaissance is reaching its pinnacle in Game of Thrones, specifically in terms of narrative and storytelling.
TV in the 80s, 90s, and much of the early aughts has been transitioning from procedural, episodic, killer/monster-of-the-week plots to overarching, narrative-heavy, serial dramas. That’s a transition. Network executives love to cash in on a prize show for as long as possible. In the days of the procedural, this was easy enough, because the more minor overarching story arcs could be manipulated and dragged out for ten seasons or more. Look at CSI (and the various spinoffs, since it’s the same show), Law and Order, NCIS, etc.
The X-Files was one of the earlier shows to try on a bigger narrative thread, and it was the first to be met with criticism for lasting far too long beyond its run. The creator’s plan for the show was a five season arc with three movies to wrap up the story. Instead we got five seasons, a movie, a renewal, four more tired seasons, a tired movie, and perpetual chatter of a third movie and possibly a reboot (both of which I think are needed, as despite the #9SeasonsAnd2Movies run, the story is yet unfinished.
But the X-Files didn’t teach network execs much Supernatural, for instance, went for five perfectly good seasons, blending monster-of-the-week procedural with a BIG story arc that became the show’s driving powerhouse for its final two seasons… Well, I say final, because after they wrapped the end of the world apocalypse plot, the creator left, his original five-season-arc being told… and CW renewed the show because fifth season was so successful. And then they renewed it again. And again. And now we’re in season, what? Eleven? Though the fanbase is strong, I’m sorry to say the story has been told.
Lost was a crucial transition to present-day TV as we know it. Lost set the perfect balance of episodic problems in the midst of a huge overarching narrative that continued to promise and promise (all on JJ Abrams now-exhausted Mystery Box theory) that the writers knew where the show was going. Though the show went maybe a season too long, and despite now hearing too many suggestions that the writers never had a plan past season 2, Lost set an end date (and one long before some whimpering season 12 finish) and the network went for it (even on a powerhouse network show like Lost) and it was a HUGE success. Sure, not everyone liked it. Sure, a lot of people completely misunderstood the end. But the show was a success. ABC treated the finale as a network event, and the finale saw ratings better than it had seen in two seasons.
It paved the way for creator control over when to end a show in a landscape of serial television that’s now cropping up everywhere, from cable to network. Breaking Bad is one of the perfect examples of such a show, which may have meandered for a season or two before finding its groove, but once the writers saw their story arc clearly, it was full steam ahead to either an epic finale, or, well, Meth-Selling, the soap-opera.
And now we have Game of Thrones. The series whose end is mentioned in just about every article written about it. Largely due to whether or not the show will surpass the book series before it’s completed by Mr. Martin. But Game of Thrones is a show that’s been based on a book series that will be finished at some point, and it’s always been a show that asks “Who Will Win?” Fans are foaming at the mouth to know who will take the iron throne before we Cut to Black.
Right now, it’s a show that’s been telling a tight story. Political intrigue, betrayal, amassing armies on a (semi) realistic scale that takes time to do. But it’s too easily a show that could get lost within itself. With no promise of the end that’s so needed, we just watch old enemies form alliances, and then new friends betray each other, over and over, until the numbers have dwindled so far that the network finally cuts the life support. And Game of Thrones has never been a show that’s wanted to do that.
So when Weiss and Benioff start talking about how they see seven seasons (and maybe a movie) to wrap up their show, I’m over here fist-pumping like a champ! Let’s do it. Let’s wreck shit. Let’s see who winds up on that throne and what it’s all going toward.
Certainly everyone brings their own perspectives to a post like this. Many fans just love spending time every week with their characters, like friends on the screen, and every episode is going to provide the needed escapes week to week.
But what I lobby for is good, powerful, tight storytelling. A story with a beginning, a middle, and a fucking crescendo of an end. Kill everybody, I don’t care. Just follow through on the promises the show has made through its run, rather than stringing what once was a good story with big promises into a soap opera of old situations between different characters.
And then there’s the network execs, who say, “Well, gosh, I love this show! The fans love this show! And as a fan I don’t want it to end! I’d love to see ten seasons or more of such a great work of art!”
Which leads me to two retorts, the first being that dragging a good story on for too long (like a bad joke or a, well, bad story that a friend may be subjecting you to) stops it being a great work of art. And the second being that it’s a bit scary to start reading between the lines of the HBO executives comments, who, even in text online, appear to be saying one thing with a forced smile while making murderous hand gestures. Says HBO President of Programming Michael Lombardo, “We’ll have an honest conversation that explores all possible avenues. If they weren’t comfortable going beyond seven seasons, I trust them implicitly and trust that’s the right decision—as horrifying as that is to me. What I’m not going to do is have a show continue past where the creators believe where they feel they’ve finished with the story.”
So, sure, on paper, he respects the creators knowing when a show is going to end! But when a person who has “President” in their title at the network your show airs on uses the word “horrifying” to describe ending the show at seven seasons, and suggests having an “honest conversation to explore all possible avenues,” that hair on the back of your neck has gotta be standing up at this point.
I can only hope it’s seven or eight seasons. I can hope that Weiss and Benioff stand their ground and pull this thing together in a spectacle of awesome. And I just really, really, do not want to see this thing go for ten to twelve seasons.
Nobody wants to see a rusty iron throne by the time some old, bored, actor/actress gets there.
Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide and the book, Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team and now travels the world lecturing about approaches to paranormal research. He’s also a portrait photographer based out of Colorado.