'Game of Thrones' and the Power of Resolution
NOTE: This column is chock-full of spoilers, not just for Game of Thrones, but for one other television show as well. I'll try to warn you ahead of the really, really big spoilers, but bear in mind that if I do this for the small spoilers too, half of all words used will likely be "spoiler." So just consider this your pre-warning for the latter.
Last month, The Walking Dead wrapped up its fourth season, not with a bang, but with a whimper. For the latter half of these sixteen episodes, all roads—or rather, train tracks—literally led to Terminus, a fabled safe-zone that the recently separated group were all heading towards. To some degree, the overarching question was, "Will they make it there?" But really, most people wanted to know: "Just what the hell is this mysterious place anyway? What's with all the cryptic messages and maps scattered along the countryside? Is it a trap, or is it the real-deal—do those that arrive truly survive?" (And yeah, I know, if I'd read the Robert Kirkman-created comic books, I'd already have all the answers to these questions. Well, I haven't read them, so deal with it).
Fast-forward to the season finale, "A," written by Scott M. Gimple and Angela Kang. One chunk of the group had already made it to Terminus in the previous episode, and we've learned the security there is pretty lax, and when you enter through the front door, there's a nice lady cooking dinner who greets you with a smile and a gentle voice. So now Rick, our de facto protagonist, his son "Where's" Carl, and resident BAMFs Michone and Daryl have snuck through Terminus's back door, and the residents there end up being (SPOILER) not as welcoming as previously seen. Long story short, there's a ton of gunfire that forces Rick and Co. to take a brief tour of Terminus's buildings, including a weird candle-filled room with even more cryptic messages written on the walls and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it glimpse of a fenced-in area full of bloody organs and body parts. Finally, they get locked up in a train car, where they're reunited with Glenn, Maggie, and several others. The episode ends here, with Rick saying, "They're gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out...they're screwing with the wrong people."
That's it. Wait, that's it? That's it?!? You haven't revealed anything to me, show! What the hell is this place? Who are these people? What are they up to? You're not going to tell me now, in the last episode of the season? I have to wait how long before you'll tell me? (Expletive deleted)!!!!
This has been the M.O. of The Walking Dead for the past few seasons now: leaving us with cliffhangers at season's end. Now, I don't believe cliffhangers are inherently bad. When used properly, they are an effective means of further hooking viewers into the narrative, particularly late in the story when some excitement and further investment is needed to punch things up a bit. But, there is a time and a place for cliffhangers, and the end of a season isn't one of them. They're better suited for individual episodes, like the one deployed by writer Vanessa Taylor (by way of George R.R. Martin) in "Dark Wings, Dark Words," the second episode of Game of Thrones, season three. Jaime Lannister, aka the Kingslayer, aka one of the "bad guys," is headed for King's Landing with his captor Brienne, Catelyn Stark's personal knight. On Lady Stark's orders, Brienne intends to exchange Jaime for the estranged Stark daughters Arya and Sansa. A band of men on horses surround the travelers and quickly reveal their own intentions: to take Jaime from Brienne and deliver him back to Robb Stark, Catelyn's son and the rightful heir to Winterfell (if you watch the show, all of this makes perfect sense). Being a wealthy Lannister, Jaime attempts to bribe the men into letting he and Brienne go, but their leader replies, "If the King of the North [Robb] hears I had the Kingslayer and let him go, he'd be taking [my head] right off. I'd rather he take yours." They advance on Jaime and Brienne, the music swells up, and the screen fades to black. It's a tense moment with serious consequences, depending on who is victorious in this standoff. It leaves us on the edge of our seats with a bunch of unanswered questions, wondering without any means of immediate satisfaction, "What happens next?"
You might be asking, "But isn't that the same thing The Walking Dead did?" Technically, yes, both shows used cliffhangers as a narrative device. The difference, of course, is the amount of time we have to wait to get the answers we so desperately seek. With GoT, we only had to wait one week to find out if Jaime and Brienne get captured. With TWD, we'll have to wait until October to (presumably) learn all of Terminus's secrets, not to mention find out what the hell ever happened to Carol, Tyrese, and Beth (they were not among the reformed group in the train car). Both cliffhangers are frustrating, but only TWD's makes me actively angry. Not angry enough to give up on the show, but enough I'm willing to publicly bitch about it.
GoT has never once ended a season with a cliffhanger. The writers have certainly posed new questions for the audience to ponder, but they take care to give viewers a sense of resolution and closure, even when so many matters are left unresolved. Moreover, series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have consistently ensured that the heaviest, most shocking moments of the overarching story happen the episode before the season finale, reserving the finale itself for falling action and—again—resolution. For instance, season one does not end with (SPOILER!!!) Ned Stark's beheading at the hands of stupid rotten brat-face King Joffrey, but rather with Catelyn and Robb's emotional response to the loss of a husband and father, respectively, and the formation of Robb's campaign to become King of the North, plus the rise of Daenerys and the supposed impossible birth of her dragons. Season two plays out much the same way, with the ever-looming Battle of Blackwater finally exploding—literally—in the second-to-last episode. The writers address many unresolved issues in the finale, but most importantly, they answer the most pertinent question on everyone's collective mind: yes, Tyrion survives that nasty sword-slash to his face. In both instances, new narrative threads are introduced, but "new" is the key word here—a promise of as yet unseen stories and conflicts, not the premature termination of ones already running full-hilt.
This has been a relatively easy format for Benioff, Weiss and all the writers since seasons one and two were essentially books one and two of Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series, and literary writers are less apt, I've noticed, to end their works right in the middle of the action. But look again to season three: I haven't read the books, but from what I understand, it comprises only half of the third novel A Storm of Swords. Despite this separation, the show's creators follow the exact same pattern established in the first two seasons: they save the infamous "Red Wedding" (which I won't spoil at all, except to say, OH HOLY SHIT WTF?!?!) for the second-to-last episode, then spend the finale exploring the immediate consequences of said colorful nuptials, as well as wrapping up other loose ends and, of course, establishing new branches of the ongoing narrative tree—a narrative that, while not fully wrapped-up just yet, is at least wrapped-up for the moment, allowing the audience to breathe a sigh of relief while at the same time hold their breath in anticipation of the next chapter. Plus, after viewing something as intense and heart-wrenching as the "Red Wedding," we need this more subdued, emotionally-focused episode to unpack our tension. Look to the French word dénouement, often used interchangeably with resolution in relation to narrative structure: it literally means "to untie a knot," a definition relevant both to plot proceedings as well as viewer well-being. Simply put, with GoT, season finales are like warm bubble baths after a long, stressful day at work.
Not so with TWD, whose finales of late substitute lengthy sessions with a cat-o-nine-tails for a soothing soak in the tub. Can it be said, then, that the writers of TWD are being willfully lazy? No, I don't think so. I think the misconception they carry is that, because this is an ongoing narrative, they can get away with cliffhangers (i.e., narrative imbalance) in their finales. They believe audiences truly won't mind if significant questions are not answered by season's end because everyone knows the show ain't over yet. And yeah, I'm sure that plenty of people, like myself, will still come back in October to find out what happens next, and finally get the chance to exhale. It's just this: we should've had that chance already, and it's hard not to feel a bit cheated, particularly, too, since season four was overall The Walking Dead's best so far.
With Game of Throne's fourth season now underway, I'm sure we'll have more of the same narrative resolution to look forward to, and just in time too. We need it, after the slap TWD just gave us.
So what do you think? Did you see TWD's recent season finale? Did the cliffhanger bother you? How do you feel about cliffhangers in general, particularly when they're used as finales? Does GoT give you the same sense of closure it gives me? What are some other shows that eschew cliffhangers for conflict resolution (Breaking Bad, anyone?). Discuss!
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