Well, looks like it’s that time again. That’s right: it’s time to talk about our good friend, Subverted Expectations™.
(WARNING: Game of Thrones spoilers below the jump)
Hey, who’s super excited for the upcoming Benioff and Weiss Star Wars trilogy now?
I’m alluding, of course, to the latest episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, in which, after an 8-season-long journey learning to own her own power, master her fate, lead armies, free slaves, and reclaim her family’s place on the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen evidently got just a wee bit too much girl power and decided to become…bad? I guess? Boy, who could have foretold such a stunning subversion of expectations?
I mean, a woman gaining power, being gradually resented by the men around her for her ascent, and eventually being viewed as a megalomaniacal villainess who needs to be taken down a peg is kind of the opposite of a subversion, it’s actually pretty much what happens to most women in power, fictional, or non-fictional, but I digress)
Fan response, needless to say, has been…mixed. Generally, folks seem to be unhappy with this course of events, given that, aside from some allusions to “Targaryen Madness” throughout the series, the buildup to Dany’s heel turn has been widely seen as rushed and somewhat arbitrary. True, she’s suffered a lot in the past few episodes, but the series has also put quite a lot of effort into making Dany a sympathetic character. Complicated, yes, and flawed, as most GoT protagonists are, but still heroic and generally good. Even as a conqueror, she holds her armies to a code of conduct, shows sympathy to the downtrodden, and overall seems to want to be a good, ethical ruler even after she’s taken the Iron Throne. So, uh….what gives?
Those of us who were Star Wars fans during the release and aftermath of The Last Jedi will recognize this feeling all too well. And, much like with TLJ, the backlash itself spawned a backlash. “Actually,” declared the internet masses, “It’s good that Rian Johnson subverted our expectations. To follow through on what Abrams set up would have been obvious and boring. The whole point of storytelling is to be unexpected!” But if this is the case, why did so many people walk away from TLJ, or this past episode of GoT, feeling so unsatisfied? And why, for god’s sake, do we find ourselves constantly having this argument any time a new piece of media comes to an end?
The internet certainly provides many examples of the attitude that objection to an incongruous shock ending is somehow weak, entitled, emotional, and juvenile. There’s a sense that true fans of a franchise are tough enough to absorb an unsatisfying ending, that they actually find satisfaction from the dissatisfaction, and that to want an ending that ties up loose ends and closes character arcs (dare I say, even happily, at times) is to want one’s hand held, or to be incapable of handling nuance or bittersweetness. “Life isn’t always happy!” the internet masses cry. “Life doesn’t always make sense! Life is disappointing too! Deal with it!” But stories aren’t vegetables we’re supposed to choke down before we can leave the dinner table. The purpose of storytelling, for adults, at least, is not just to condescendingly remind the viewer that bad things happen sometimes, and force them to suck it up. Which, of course, isn’t to say that all endings have to be neat and happy, either–there are stories with dark endings that are deeply satisfying (Breaking Bad) and ones with happy endings that are deeply unsatisfying (How I Met Your Mother). There are even stories with subtle, unclear endings that still feel logical and satisfying to many viewers, albeit not all. The ending of The Sopranos, for instance was famously controversial for its ambiguity, but even this ending was tied to themes and concepts planted earlier in the series, and several perfectly cogent arguments have been written to explain this quite persuasively.
But what satisfying endings tend to have in common, that unsatisfying ones don’t, is a feeling of appropriateness and completeness. Most fans who hated the finale of How I Met Your Mother did so not because they resented that it was “happy,” but because they felt it was a 180-degree turn from the arcs of all the characters and storylines up until the last few minutes of the last episode. Conversely, people didn’t love Breaking Bad’s ending because it was “difficult” or “dark,” they loved it because it was a believable, complete, fitting ending to the story that had come before (funny enough, I would wager that more people guessed the ending of Breaking Bad than guessed the ending of How I Met Your Mother, though that’s neither here nor there). But in the current cultural environment, a person can gain quite a bit of attention for boasting that unlike those blubbering fake fans, they LIKED that this ending didn’t conclude the arcs that had built for years, didn’t pick up dropped plot threads, didn’t allow protagonists to learn anything or achieve their goals, and so on and so forth. That they, by virtue of some unspecified quality, didn’t NEED an ending like that in order to enjoy what they were watching. Do I believe people who say this? Well, maybe. Human opinions are varied, and I don’t allege some conspiracy where everyone secretly hates the same things I hate. Nonetheless, I often find a degree of disingenuousness in these statements. A good ending can be obvious, unexpected, happy, sad, or even ambiguous–but more often than not, what makes it good is that it is satisfying. And loving an ending because it is unsatisfying, because it gives the audience nothing it wants, runs counter to this instinct, like it or not.
To use one example of a satisfying ending (albeit not a true ending, since it comes in the middle installment of a trilogy), Darth Vader’s revelation that he is Luke Skywalker’s father has gone down as one of the greatest plot twists in cinema history. Indeed, if you didn’t know that a mystery like this was building, you’d never think to put the pieces together–the ominous references to Luke having “too much of his father in him” or having “much anger…like his father,” the Chekhov’s gun of Anakin’s murder that goes unaddressed throughout A New Hope, and so on. But this twist is somewhat unique in that much of the buildup to it was done retroactively. During the writing of A New Hope, there was no plan for Vader to be Luke’s father–instead, the decision was the result of looking back at what the story had built, and following it to a coherent, unexpected, yet somehow totally natural conclusion that set up compelling stakes for the subsequent chapter. That is why the Vader twist works–it wasn’t chosen purely so the audience couldn’t guess the ending of the film, it was chosen because that was a compelling direction for the story to go, because it complicated and heightened the stakes, and because it deepened the existing text through unexpected means. In other words, arguably the greatest movie twist in history wasn’t great just because it was hard to guess, it was great because of the emotional impact of looking backwards and realizing how well it fit into the framework that was already in place despite the twist being unexpected. The surprise on its own is only a surprise; the surprise filling in the blanks of the story so effectively is what makes it sublime.
So why, then, do we find ourselves sucked into a maelstrom of hot takes every time we say we dislike a shock-value ending? And why does this trend seem to have gotten so much worse in recent years?
Well, it should come as a surprise to nobody that fandom culture to begin with is notorious for the ways in which elitism, gatekeeping, and all-around dick-measuring feature in its social interactions. Anybody who’s spent time in a major fandom has undoubtedly encountered this bizarre form of competitiveness, whether it’s being quizzed by strangers on their knowledge of canon or listening to boasts of “I was into it before it was cool” that would make a Brooklyn vinyl store owner blush. What has changed in recent years is the increased integration of the larger internet into these fandoms, shifting fan discussions from the confines of in-person hangouts or small online chat rooms, into massive public forums such as Tumblr and Reddit. Suddenly, said dick-measuring is not only happening for a far larger audience (including the general public, not just hardcore fans), but likes, reblogs, gold, and upvotes actually give fans a metric by which they can “win” or “lose” these competitions, further incentivizing them as a go-to mode of interaction among fans.
Now, with longform franchises, such as Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones, this who-is-the-nerdiest-of-them-all dynamic runs headlong into another common form of fan interaction; that is, speculation. When fans of a certain TV show or film series gather together, it’s only logical that one of the main topics of discussion is what they think might happen to their favorite characters next. These two dynamics in conjunction with one another form a fertile breeding ground for the almost gladiatorial style of fan speculation we see in most major forums nowadays. One person theorizes about a certain future plot line and receives a shower of upvotes, likes, favorites, and so on. Another comes back with a biting critique, and is given even more praise. Eventually, what might otherwise be a simple discussion becomes an outright competition, complete with points and ranking systems to keep track of who is “winning.”
This paradigm, in turn, incentivizes a very specific style of speculation. If I begin telling you a story about a girl named Cinderella who lives with her wicked stepmother and two wicked stepsisters, who asks to go to the prince’s ball, and leaves a shoe behind on the steps of the palace, your inevitable prediction that the story will end with a shoe fitting and a royal wedding may be correct, but it’s hardly cause for bragging. Of course you could predict how the story would end, because the ending was obvious. However, if I gave subtle clues in my story that the ending would go a different way, and you were the only one to predict that in this version, Cinderella was actually a vampire the whole time, and the story would end with her turning all the other characters into vampires, you could get praise for your attention to detail and ability to pick up on clues others had missed in this (absolutely bonkers) adaptation of Cinderella. Those of us who have followed the Star Wars online fandom since the release of The Force Awakens will recognize this pattern of behavior, especially in the areas of Snoke’s identity and Rey’s parentage. Though most agreed immediately on the heels of TFA that Rey was heavily implied to be Luke Skywalker’s daughter (or possibly Han and Leia’s), it only took a few weeks for the tide to shift to increasingly fantastical theories. First, the relatively mundane theories that she was a Palpatine or a Kenobi, then the slightly more perplexing suggestions that she was a Lars or Naberrie, and eventually theories that she was an immaculately conceived Force baby, or a clone, or a reincarnation of Padme Amidala.
The simplest explanation for this progression is just that people get bored of talking about obvious theories and want to mix things up with more unusual “what if” scenarios. But it’s hard to ignore the way that the competitive nature of social media fandom fosters this paradigm as well. Like someone betting on horse races, the lower the odds, the higher the reward and the sweeter the victory. Guessing that Rey is Luke Skywalker’s daughter, immediately after The Force Awakens, would be like guessing that the story of Cinderella ends with a wedding–yes, you’re likely right, but so is any schlub off the street who watched the movie once and made an idle guess. However, if you guess that Rey is the reincarnation of Padme Amidala, conceived through the Force, and you’re right, you may well be treated as some sort of prophet. Cue the showers of fake internet points.
I should be clear here–I don’t think there is anything wrong with wanting to guess the right answer to a mystery, or come up with a particularly clever solution to a problem that nobody else has thought of before. To the contrary, these are very normal human desires, ones that anyone who follows my writing knows that I myself engage in. The problem is, again, that this incentive to up the stakes of speculation with increasingly nonsensical, out-of-left-field proposals, purely to outdo others, makes it so that cohesive storytelling without shock value is stigmatized in fandom discussions. Which, of course, makes it harder to call content out for being unsatisfying without being accused of being childish, unsophisticated, or foolish. And so, we wind up in a self-perpetuating cycle. When we set up a paradigm where guessing the plot of a story is a competition, any predictable, reasonable, ho-hum answer becomes “too easy.” We expect content creators to structure their stories to make our guessing games harder, because after all, what’s the point of consuming media if the sweetness of “victory” is undercut by a simple, obvious answer? And if setting up these unexpected endings comes at the expense of a satisfying story, the response from many fans is “so be it.”
Which brings us to an even more pressing issue: the actual impact this discourse has on media itself. Content creators are praised by this subset of fans for creating endings that viewers didn’t expect, because, as established, this style of writing enriches the “game” that they play with one another in various forums. Consequently, fans begin to assume it is in longform media writers’ best interest to structure stories this way–to build a story that seems as though it will go one way, only to pull a U-turn at the last minute just to ensure nobody guessed the ending. Fan discourse, in other words, is normalizing bait-and-switching as a core pillar of storytelling, rather than one of many techniques writers can use to build a compelling story. And, as more people who came of age in the internet era grow up to become content creators themselves, I fear that this recent spate of shock-value media is going to become more of a trend than an aberration. Much has been said about the internet creating political echo chambers, but so too can it create artistic ones–and without dissenting opinions at the table, those reverberations will only get stronger.
So, am I advocating that people fearlessly defend “predictable” storytelling in its common connotation of “boring” and “unoriginal?” Of course not. But even if a story isn’t predictable, an audience member with a keen eye, a good instinct, and some time and attention, should in theory be able to predict it. It shows that the writer has put thought into foreshadowing, thematic congruence, consistency of character and motivation, and overall cohesion. Great, surprising endings are not created by building false decoys of these things. Instead, they’re created by rendering them subtly, slipping them in under the audience’s nose so they’re not aware of a surprise building; or sprinkling in deceptively contradicting information so the audience has to struggle to reconcile these conflicts in their minds. To expand upon a metaphor from our own HypersonicHarpist, a good storyteller–like a good magician–may disguise what they are doing with sleight of hand and misdirection, but ultimately they don’t stop mid-act, set down the hat and wand, and then pull a rabbit out of a nearby air duct vent instead. Put quite simply, we are hard-wired to want stories that leave us feeling satisfied. And the beauty is, we all have different ideas of what that looks like–that’s where good, productive discussion comes in.
But when we let disingenuous, performative internet groupthink make us doubt our instincts that something is amiss, for fear of appearing uncultured or childish, we do ourselves and our media a disservice. Bad-faith criticisms of “predictable” story arcs have poisoned fan discourse to the point where even genuine appreciation for certain shocking endings are drowned out in the cacophony of hot takes. And until more people begin to honestly admit it when they don’t see the Emperor’s new clothes, discussions on media will remain that way. As fans in the age of the internet, we have unprecedented voice and access to content creators, and more tools at our disposal to create content ourselves than any generation before us. Now more than ever, the way we talk about media guides media. It’s up to each of us to make sure we have a voice in that conversation.