Daniel Silvermint is a writer and Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Connecticut. You can find him on Twitter at @DSilvermint.
It all comes down to how stories are crafted, and for that, we need to start with two different types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters create a detailed outline before they commit a word to the page. Pantsers prefer to discover the story as they write it—flying by the seat of their pants, so to speak. Both approaches have their advantages. Since plotters know the story in advance, it's easier to create tight narratives with satisfying conclusions. But that amount of predestination can sometimes make characters feel like cogs in service of the story. Pantsers have an easier time writing characters that live and breathe. They generate the plot by dropping a person with desires and needs into a dramatic situation and documenting the results. But with the characters in charge, pantsers risk a meandering or poorly-paced structure, and can struggle to tie everything together.
To be clear, these are just advantages, not guarantees. Plotters can write memorable characters and pantsers can write thrilling sequences. The differences usually smooth themselves out over successive drafts, anyway. Where the effect can be pronounced is in an ongoing television or book series, since the beginning of the story gets released and digested by the public while the rest is still being written.George R.R. Martin describes this distinction in terms of architects and gardeners. He's firmly among the latter. He plants character seeds and carefully guides their growth, and when the show was directly adapting his A Song of Ice and Fire series, the approach paid off. It's why every emotional beat and fair-in-hindsight surprise landed with such devastating weight: The terrible things that happened to these characters happened because of earlier choices they'd made. Those ever-blooming stories were a boon to the showrunners, who had their pick, but they're also the reason the narrative momentum of the books slowed over time.
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That's why Game of Thrones feels different now. A show that had been about our inability to escape the past became about the spectacle of the present. Characters with incredible depth and agency—all the more rope with which to hang themselves—became whatever the moment needed them to be. They took uncharacteristic actions and made uncharacteristically bad decisions so the required events could unfold with the appropriate stakes. Characters were spared the deaths they'd sown so they'd be available for later scenes. Organic consequences gave way to contrivance. Gone was the conflict between complicated people with incompatible goals. Grey morality turned black and white. Characters rushed through their foreshadowed arcs for the thinnest of reasons, or in some cases reversed their arcs entirely. The characters just weren't in charge anymore. The ending was.
No one's to blame. Really. Keeping a million plates spinning the way Martin did is hard, and if you're the showrunners, setting those plates down without breaking too many is hard, too. Writing is hard. Especially when literally everyone's watching.
Still, the approach to storytelling changed in the third act, and an audience can feel that happening. We fell in love with one kind of show, but that's not the show that's ending. No amount of spectacle or fan service is satisfying if we don't buy how the characters got there. Treating the journey as equally important to the destination is how you get conclusions that feel earned, and it's how characters stay alive after they've met their fates.
Endings invite us to consider the story as a whole; where it started, where it went, and where it left us. And we can feel the gaps as this one comes to a close.
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