You win or you die

John Lanchester

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen

According to the Foreign Services Institute, the US government body that trains diplomats and soldiers in foreign languages, it takes between 575 and 600 hours to learn Spanish from scratch. Not to be fluent, but to attain level three, ‘general professional proficiency in reading and speaking’. I’ve been wanting to learn Spanish for a while now, so I sometimes think about that number when I’m watching TV, while simultaneously trying not to remember Robert Robinson’s maxim that anybody watching television has taken a ‘conscious decision to waste time’. For instance, I rewatched the first seven series of Game of Thrones, prior to the start of season eight on 15 April. Two complete viewings of Thrones is 146 hours. If I had skipped that, and also The Sopranos (86 hours), Breaking Bad (62 hours), The Wire (60 hours), Battlestar Galactica (84 hours) and Gilmore Girls (153 hours), I would now hablar español.

So Game of Thrones is arguably responsible for a quarter of my not being able to speak Spanish. Has it been worth it? A loud no from the internet to that one. More than a million enraged netizens have signed a petition saying that ‘David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have proven themselves to be woefully incompetent writers.’ ‘This series,’ they add, ‘deserves a final season that makes sense.’ What’s striking about this isn’t the fact that some people don’t like season eight – plenty of people dislike plenty of things – but the sense of personal betrayal and disappointment. It’s to do with viewers’ ‘investment’, which feels newish as a metaphor for having sat in front of a TV programme. A barbarous sign of late capitalism, perhaps, an index of commodified leisure, of our enslavement by and impotent resentment of the attention economy.

And yet we all know what it means, to have followed a creative enterprise across its life and to feel badly let down by its resolution. Arthur Conan Doyle’s attempt to kill off Sherlock Holmes triggered probably the best-known historical example of a fan backlash, but the dynamic with books is different, perhaps because you can always go back and reread the ones you like, and also because reading happens at your own pace and in private. With TV the potential for rage is greater. Viewers are carried along at a fixed rate to a fixed destination according to a fixed schedule, and accordingly the feeling of having a show you love go badly wrong at the end is like being dropped off at the end of a road somewhere to find the hotel where you’re supposed to be spending your precious two weeks’ holiday hasn’t been built yet. You’ve been let down, manipulated; you suddenly realise the whole thing wasn’t worth it.

Probably the most virulent backlash to an ending was to the finale of Lost, which became a byword for how to ruin a story and infuriate a fanbase, though the ending-gone-wrong is as old as ambitious television. More than half a century ago, in 1968, Patrick McGoohan fled the country to avoid outraged fans complaining about the last episode of The Prisoner. We want our endings the way we want them, goddammit. When the creators get it right, the rewards are commensurate.

The longest narrative sequence in cinema is the newly completed set of 22 Marvel films that began with Iron Man in 2008 and has just finished with Avengers: Endgame. That last script had to bring together a huge cast of characters, in front of a fanbase that’s ‘invested’ to the point of obsession and deeply preoccupied by questions of internal consistency across the MCU (that’s Marvel Cinematic Universe); it had to provide satisfying character ‘beats’ for its huge cast of deeply loved characters, and a rewarding conclusion to their many different narratives; it had to address growing concerns about diversity and minority under-representation in the franchise; it also needed a payoff to justify several hundred million dollars of sunk costs. That must have been a cause for quite a few 3 a.m. sweats, but perhaps it was not so much writing as a form of engineering, building a colossally complicated Lego edifice for a demanding client who won’t say what she wants but will know it when she sees it.

The general response was that the final movie was a triumph, critically and with fans, and as for commercially, $2.5 billion in three weeks isn’t shabby. Sites that aggregate audience opinions in numerical form are on the whole useless as a guide to aesthetic merit, but perhaps we can make a slight exception for works like this, whose whole point is to please a huge fanbase: if so, the IMDB score for Endgame, at 8.8 after 400,000 votes, is a big endorsement. Hardly anything, however popular, ends up with numbers like that. Across the eight series, Game of Thrones has an aggregate score of 9.5, which is pretty much unprecedented. The last three episodes, though, score 6.5, which isn’t great, 5.9, which is awful, and 4.8, which is in the same territory as Howard the Duck.

It’s lucky there’s no law saying we all have to agree about everything. I’ve enjoyed series eight, all the more I think because I built up to it by rewatching the earlier shows over the preceding weeks. Game of Thrones is better viewed at binge-speed, say two episodes at a time, rather than week by week. Elements of the storytelling that seemed too fragmentary and disparate – in the middle seasons where the showrunners were juggling six or seven narratives – are much more satisfying when you’re able to keep them fresh in the memory. I had increased respect for the radicalism of the project, from a narrative point of view: characters and stories kept moving just by a few lines of dialogue in a single scene, hours apart from our last encounter. The sense of precarity, that anyone could die at any moment, was the aspect of the show that I most enjoyed when I first wrote about it at the end of the second series; that aspect weakened a little over the next few years, just as it does in George R.R. Martin’s original books. The depth and density of the imagined world, increasing as the viewer and the actors spend more time in it, makes up for it, I think.

The series’ greatest flaw is the same as it always was: its willingness to sexualise violence. Just to be clear, the fault isn’t the violence, because Thrones depicts a quasi-medieval world in which violent death is closely proximate to everyone all the time; nor is it the sex, frequently gratuitous though that is (especially in the form of narratively and characterologically redundant female nudity). The problem has always been the showrunners’ willingness to juxtapose titillation and misogynistic violence, especially in the stories of Sansa Stark and Daenerys Targaryen. In life there is no such thing as sex-and-violence; they are different. Sex-and-violence is a culturally constructed category which has been reverse-engineered from ratings systems which divide audiences by age: they’re in the same censorship category, so they’ve become linked in the world of entertainment, even though they have no real connection. As a conscious choice, Game of Thrones gave into the idea that there is such a thing as sex-and-violence, and that is its biggest flaw.

Still, that isn’t why many fans have hated season eight (spoiler alert). The story of Daenerys Targaryen is the main source of the backlash. Her turn towards madness and evil has not consistently felt ‘earned’ (there’s that investment language again). I don’t agree – though of course there is no objective measure of these things, and if enough viewers feel that it doesn’t ‘make sense’ (in the words of that petition), then something has misfired. But it made complete sense to me. Daenerys is a victim of circumstances, and of men – sold off, raped, multiply betrayed – and also a fighter, a leader, a person of integrity and courage, with whom we are encouraged to identify. This makes it easy to miss just how keen she is about setting people on fire (the witch Mirri Maz Duur, the Dothraki leaders, the Astapor fleet, the Lannister loot train, the Tarly family, her counsellor Varys), crucifying them (the Masters of Meeren), and immuring them alive (her handmaiden Doreah).

The difference is that in the early cases of Daenerys’s ultra-violence we were on her side. We wanted her to come out on top, to do her worst. This is subtly done, making us identify with her when she is slowly breaking bad/mad. And then her complete insistence on her destiny, her pyromanic Targaryen indifference to the suffering of others, gradually win out over the moderating influence of her counsellors and her better self. I suppose it would have been possible to make her reckless and sociopathic, rather than fully evil: to show her burning down the Red Keep and killing thousands of innocent civilians as a byproduct of her ambition rather than an end in itself. That way she would have been a charismatic and successful leader who gradually loses her moral compass and becomes an object of general obloquy, rather than a full-blown evil tyrant – Targaryen Tony Blair, rather than Sexy Blonde Ladyhitler. But I think a rewatching of the show, with the character’s ultimate destination in mind, will show that the writers knew what they were doing.

This isn’t to say that season eight is perfect. The timing is wrong – and that’s a big thing to get wrong. The six episodes are overcompressed, so character development makes too-big jumps (Brienne and Jamie’s sexual non-healing), problems are solved too quickly (Arya and the Night King), people apparently teleport around Westeros (passim), and huge coincidences are crammed down the viewer’s throat (the annoying, scenery-chewing baddy Euron just happens to wash up on the secret beach where Jamie is smuggling himself into Kings Landing – really?).

Add all these together and it is fair to say that season eight has felt, to appropriate Wordsworth’s opinion of Goethe’s poetry, ‘not inevitable; not inevitable enough’. There is a sense that the showrunners wanted to get it over with, and had had their fill of Westeros – and while it’s always risky to attribute motives, it would be easy to see why that would be the case, given that Benioff and Weiss have been working on the show since 2006. You know what, though? I don’t mind, because I too am keen to get on with other things. A hundred and forty-six hours has been enough Game of Thrones for me, and if I were ever to feel that it wasn’t, I don’t need more episodes, I’d just go back and watch the existing ones again. Besides, my Spanish Duolingo streak is already up to day four. ¡Olé!


  • 21 May 2019 at 12:07am
    garyamdahl says:
    The use of the term “ultra-violence” of course reminds me of Burgess and Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange: the novel “knocked off in three weeks for money,” the movie condemned (not to mention Condemned, as in the Catholic Church) for its “glorification of violence.” Kubrick and family received death threats when such things were not a matter of dropping a hat, protesters camped in front of their home, the movie was banned in a few countries, and quickly withdrawn from theaters. In the US, it was rated X, which meant I couldn’t see it, being only sixteen. Burgess all but disavowed it. A bookseller in Utah was arrested for selling the novel, and was forced to close his shop.

    Crazily different social contexts, to be sure, but what exactly is the difference? “Glorification of violence” now is not only usual and expected, almost hum-drum in some instances, a TV and movie staple, but requisite to the dramaturgy. Characters are meaningful only in their relation to torture, murder, massacre, genocide. It’s also a way to maximalize profits. Who doesn’t thrill to annihilation?

    The rape scenes in Clockwork are truly disturbing, and difficult to watch. And there may be the difference: difficulty in watching. The voyeur becomes uncomfortable. His erection is less and less viable with each passing second. Sex and violence are not quite the exclusive sets Lanchester says they are. They certainly ought to be! But they are not. There is no difficulty in watching Game of Thrones. The voyeur never becomes uncomfortable. The violence is cheap, like fast food. The voyeur becomes obese. But if hundreds of millions of people are similarly obese, the measure ceases to be a helpful indicator of health.

    • 22 May 2019 at 11:14am
      hag says: @ garyamdahl
      "There is no difficulty in watching Game of Thrones. The voyeur never becomes uncomfortable."

      I couldn't disagree more. The marital rapes of Dani and Sansa are utterly horrible, and I challenge anyone to derive even the slightest satisfaction / erection from them. In Sansa's case, the viewer identifies with her in the first instance, and also with the helpless and mutilated Theon who is forced to watch. Both characters mirror the utter helplessness of the viewer / voyeur in the face of a visceral understanding that this kind of wedding night experience for newly married women is wholly uncontroversial in GoT, as it was for much of our own history.

  • 21 May 2019 at 4:39pm
    David McKenna says:
    I greatly admire John Lanchester's fiction and journalism and so am really curious about him saying that: "In life there is no such thing as sex-and-violence; they are different." It seems to me that the two are often horribly connected in real life.

  • 21 May 2019 at 5:00pm
    Michael Saler says:
    I’m with you on most of this, but think that Freud made a good case for the link between sex-and-violence. (Not that the show-runners dramatized his insights; they leaned more towards exploitation, at least in the initial seasons.) And when it comes to obsessing over fiction, fantasy readers historically have been in the vanguard, from the fictional Don Quixote to the adults who pretended that Sherlock Holmes was real, to the hobbyist historians of Middle-earth, Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on. People literally inhabit imaginary worlds at the level of the imagination; the investment may be greater than for realist works of fiction, partly because of wish-fulfillment and the novel details of the fantasy world itself.

  • 21 May 2019 at 5:07pm
    eduardo gonzalez says:
    desolado amigo John, debes obtener de alguna manera la versión en español que seguramente es doblada del inglés al castellano, volver a ver la serie en inglés y español en pantallas simultáneas,
    buena suerte!

  • 22 May 2019 at 10:43am
    hag says:
    I largely agree with this review, though I would question the notion of television as a "conscious decision to waste time". How is this different from the rest of life, unless one fetishizes the word 'conscious'? And if story-telling is a quintessentially human activity that imbues our experiences with structure and meaning (and escape, and vicarious pleasures of all kind), thereby exercising our imagination and empathetic organs, then are the hapless consumers of said stories really wasting their time?

    A note on the sex and violence in GoT: While there is a lot of gratuitous nudity, especially in earlier seasons, I never thought the sexualized violence was as problematic as made out to be. There is absolutely no pleasure to be had in watching Dani or Sansa's ordeals, they are far too horrible for that, and the decision to put them on screen drives this home in no uncertain terms. Our empathy and identification is entirely with the victims here, after all. And given the medieval context of GoT, where the concept of rape within marriage is wholly absent, even the label of 'rape' misses the point. The only sexual encounter that seems worthy of discussion is the one between Jaime and Cersei that takes place over their first-born's dead body, an event that is depicted somewhat differently in the novel.

    All in all I think that the final two seasons felt unnecessarily rushed, and I would have enjoyed wasting anther ten or so hours on GoT; but it still remains the pinnacle of its genre to date.

  • 22 May 2019 at 12:45pm
    Steve Goodin says:
    Mr. Lanchester writes "In life there is no such thing as sex-and-violence; they are different."


    The author addresses the heavy use of misogynistic titillation to attract an audience to GOT. We understand his point about the series, but his choice of words is unfortunate; Mr. Lanchester might want to solicit responses to his "life lesson" from real-life victims of violent sexual assault.

  • 30 May 2019 at 8:24pm
    Theo says:
    Admission: I don't have cable and didn't watch or buy GofT. I have read various reviews, however.
    At once remove, I would have to agree with one reviewer who found the script for Dani going berserk at the end as misogynist in the extreme and a salute to the status quo, imparting the message "Don't make waves. Nothing should or can be changed." I read also that her character earlier in the series was not exactly exemplary in all cases as well. So, take it or leave it from one who has NOT seen the series. It just didn't interest me. None of these mega television events do. I do appreciate reading cultural analyses of television shows/series, however.

    That said, I also think Mr. Lancaster's belief that sex and violence are different is and isn't true. Yes, they can be different and it is wonderful when sex is free of violence and embued with mutual pleasure giving and acceptance between lovers, although there is without question rough sex built into the human sex act and because of this it lends itself to violence and of course there are many other reasons for violence, most of which is aimed at females. And the link between sex and violence can be found in cultural artifacts throughout the history of the West and especially since the 19th century and the rise of visual and textual media continuing without abatement into our time. That link is also present within the cultures of other civilizations. It is endemic and is so common it is very rarely questioned. It's taken in like air and has wide acceptance, but it is a killer.

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