We need to talk about Game of Thrones.
Yeah, yeah, I know, everyone and their mother has posted something about the ending of Game of Thrones, but I want to talk in depth about one criticism in particular that I’ve been hearing: subverted expectations.
For those of you who are new here (hi!) you’ll notice that I’m not a reviewer. I’m a writer, and my blog posts are specifically related to writing techniques and how to improve your skills. So I’m not here to bash the series but to learn from it – not just to dissect what they did wrong but to praise what they did right, and learn how to navigate both so we can apply it to our own fiction.
So with that out of the way, let’s talk about Subverting Expectations.
What do we mean by Subverting Expectations, anyway?
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about writing that takes what we’ve come to expect and then turns it on its head, sometimes to great effect and sometimes, well, not. Nowadays when someone says that the writing “subverted expectations” it comes across as an insult – a snide derision that the writing undercut its own narrative arc for shock value. But that wasn’t always the case.
Back before fans started using it as a shorthand to criticize The Last Jedi, “subverting expectations” was generally seen as a positive thing. Stories that relied too heavily on genre tropes to drive their narratives were seen as hackneyed, predictable, and didn’t add anything new to the cultural landscape. Audiences crave stories that are new and different, or at the very least, those which present old tropes in a new way. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, this meant a new era of antiheroes, grounded tales in gritty realities, and ironic self-awareness.
But it wasn’t enough to just point out the tropes.
As the writing in film and TV became increasingly subversive, writers took more narrative risks beyond coy nods to the source material or surface level plot twists. In order to truly subvert expectations, writers began to deconstruct the core tropes their genres were built on.
Let’s look at one example:
I love this scene.
For context, at the end of the first Iron Man movie, Tony Stark gives a press conference. His closest associates tell him to deny any involvement with Iron man, and as audience members we go into this scene expecting Stark to take their advice. Secret identities are as integral to the superhero genre as their powers. The conflicts that arise from keeping their alter-egos a secret is the basis of countless stories including Raimi’s Spiderman 2, Jessica Jones’ private detective practice in the Alias series, the debate over right to privacy vs. the superhero registration in the Civil War comics… you get the idea.
So when Tony Stark comes out as Iron Man at the end of his first movie, the whole superhero universe is thrown on its head. This is something that we’ve never seen before, something that’s never been done before in mainstream cinema, and we as an audience have more questions than the reporters in that room.
That’s how you subvert expectations.
When Game of Thrones Got It Right
So let’s get back to Game of Thrones, and why we all fell in love with it in the first place. From the very first episode, Game of Thrones built its reputation on subverting our expectations. I was hooked from this episode forward, as it proved that it was going to throw conventional rules of storytelling out the window. Literally.
From Ned Stark’s beheading to the Red Wedding, the show and the books it was based on delighted in serving up the unexpected. Every time we thought we knew where it was going, they’d take us in a new direction.
Given the rich history of plot twists, complaining that GoT’s ending “subverted expectations” is a profoundly weird criticism. We knew what this show was about; it was the reason we were watching to begin with. So I don’t think that fans are upset because the show went in an unexpected direction or because we had some unrealistic expectations that the show failed to live up to. (Well, not all of us anyway.) The problems come not from the twists themselves, but because they 1. weren’t set up in a way that made narrative sense and 2. didn’t contribute anything new or meaningful to the story.
To explain what they did wrong, we first have to look at what they did right in more detail. Let’s compare subversive storytelling to a plot twist. When I wrote about twist endings three years ago, I included the following quote (emphasis mine):
“[The surprise ending] depends on a writerly balancing act, in that to be successful a twist must be an ending the reader did not see coming, but also logical and plausible once it happens.” – Nancy Cress
“Logical” and “plausible” are the two key elements here. In Game of Thrones, every subversive act was set up in advance and paid off in a surprising way. The surprise comes from misdirection and your own expectations based on the fantasy genre tropes.
We’re conditioned to believe that Ned will survive because he’s been set up as the main character and main characters generally do not die, even if they’re played by Sean Bean. But like Tony’s Stark’s press conference confession, Ned Stark’s execution made perfect sense given the clues they seeded leading up to that scene.
We already knew Joffrey was petulant, we were just led to believe that Cersei had him under control. Of course Joffrey’s going to seize his first opportunity as King to pull a power move like that. He’s too young to know the full political ramifications and is out to prove himself as a “strong” leader by executing his enemies. Likewise, we realize that Cersei is neither as clever nor as powerful as she thinks she is, something that was also set up in advance.
The other reason this subversion works so well is that it was done with a broader narrative purpose. It’s not just a random surprise, it also establishes a more grounded and realistic fantasy world where actions have consequences. The idea that anyone can be killed is one of the core tenets of Game of Thrones .
At least, it used to be.
Subversion without Set-Up or Meaning
In season seven we started getting scenes like this:
If this were an earlier season, Jaime would’ve been a dead man, and rightfully so. This kind of death is reminiscent of the show’s earlier subversions. In any other fantasy story, the dashing knight would slay the dragon, but in this grounded reality Jaime would’ve been burned to a crisp. Furthermore, his death (while unexpected) would’ve felt earned in that it’s already been set up that Jaime is a self-sacrificing man who puts the safety of the kingdom ahead of his own well-being (he is the Kingslayer, after all.)
Instead, he inexplicably survives for another season and a half, probably because Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s contract guaranteed he’d finish out the series.
I was thinking back on when this show lost my confidence, and it was in the moment (or rather from this point on) where I felt like the show I loved was dead. I started seeing narrative convenience crop up in places where it didn’t belong, and the subversions we did get were fundamentally lacking in both set-up and meaning.
The Night King’s death is the best example.
In order for this to be a good subversion, Arya killing the Night King would’ve been 1. set up in advance and 2. contributed something meaningful to the overall story. Looking back on it, we should feel as though the twist was inevitable given the way the story had built up to this point.
Instead, the writers pay the barest of lip-service to set up by referencing a single line from season three and retconing its meaning. I say “retconed” because in context, Melisandre’s prophecy makes no sense. If she really believed that Arya would be key to defeating the white walkers, then why did she use Gendry Baratheon for a blood sacrifice immediately afterwards? She spent the next two seasons so convinced that Stannis was the chosen one that she burned his daughter alive, but no, apparently she knew all along that Arya was destined to defeat the King.
The other argument is that Arya’s assassin training was set up to justify the subversion, but that doesn’t work either. She might have the skills to get the job done, but her most powerful assassin ability – shape-shifting into the faces of the dead – isn’t used against the Night King or anyone else in the last season. What is set up is that nifty little hand trick she used against Brienne in season seven, which doesn’t count. Set up is spending two seasons watching Arya scrub corpses and lose her sight so she could learn to shape-shift, not reusing the same fight choreography.
As for the meaning behind this subversion, David Benioff had this to say:
“We hoped to kind of avoid the expected, and Jon Snow has always been the hero, the one whose been the savior, but it just didn’t seem right for us for this moment.” – David Benioff, Inside the Episode, Season 8 Episode 3
There’s nothing inherently wrong with subverting the chosen one trope, but for contrast let’s talk about Red Wedding for a second, and another savior who doesn’t get his due.
On first glance, killing off Robb Stark feels like it has no meaningful purpose other than shock value. Instead of a satisfying conclusion to the avenging son arc, his story hits a dead end when he’s killed off without fulfilling his goals. Yes, it may be logical and plausible that he’s made mistakes (go check out HelloFutureMe’s in-depth breakdown for that explanation), but what was the point to his death?
Well, from a classical Greek tragedy perspective, his mistakes are the point. We were so caught up in the righteous avenging son narrative that we failed to notice that Robb was setting himself up for a different story arc altogether. Robb’s story makes sense if you view him as a tragic hero whose choices lead to his ultimate downfall. Robb’s death affirms that mistakes add up, and your allies will turn against you if it serves their own agenda. Each house, even the minor ones, has their own motivations, and you can’t discount any of them: not the Greyjoys, not the Freys, and certainly not the Boltons.
So if Robb’s choices lead to the Red Wedding, what are Jon’s choices that prevent him from fulfilling his narrative arc to defeat the Night King?
Jon Snow has flaws of his own, but they lead to his death by allies in season five, and his near-defeat by Ramsey Bolton in season six. None of those flaws prevent him from fighting the Night King directly, which is why taking that away from Jon feels cheap. Likewise, choosing Arya to deliver the final blow doesn’t mean anything in the broader context of the story. As Just Write said in his video, if the writers meant to subvert the “chosen one” prophecy, then logically some random soldier should’ve killed the King instead of retconing the plot to imply Arya was the chosen one all along. They threw out the trope for no reason, because they didn’t supplant it with anything of substance.
Every subversion in season eight feels like this. Much of the set up for these twists are taken from very early in the show’s run. You can’t point to Daenerys’s “when my dragon’s are grown we’ll burn your city to the ground” speech in season two as justification for her brutal actions when she’s had six seasons of growth in between. Same thing with Jaime – why have him grow at all if they’re going to revert the character back to his starting traits to justify the ending?
And the meaning is even worse. What’s the point of subverting Jaime’s character arc and sending him back to Cersei? You’ll never overcome your flawed tendencies and redemption is a dead end road? What’s the point of Bran becoming King? That the best ruler is an impartial judge who doesn’t want to rule? We had eight seasons of set up showing how Jon and Daenery’s compassion for their people made them fit to sit the throne. But in the end we get an emotionless robot who literally uses his dearest friends as pawns and discards them after they’re no longer useful. Yeah, he’ll make a great King. Can’t imagine how that might cause problems in the future…
When you include subversions that don’t make logical, plausible sense and don’t comment on standard tropes in a meaningful way, you end up with shock value for shock value’s sake. And that cheapens the meaning of subversion to the point that it’s become shorthand for “shit.”
Is Subversion Dead?
So, where do we go from here? Has Game of Thrones ruined the idea of subversion forever?
I doubt it.
Going back to what I said at the beginning, audiences are always going to crave new and inventive storytelling. No one bitched about “subverted expectations” when Thanos snapped his fingers at the end of Infinity War, after all. We want fresh writing that goes into uncharted territory. What we don’t want is stories that give us the opposite of what we expect regardless of whether or not it’s logical and for no reason other than to be shocking.
I think somewhere along the lines writers forgot that their subversions need to serve a broader purpose. If you can pull of a logical, plausible twist in your writing then audiences will eat it up. Keep pushing yourself to try new things; don’t just rely on outdated tropes to navigate you through a story.
But do it for the right reasons, not as a cheap substitute for narrative pay-off.
Happy writing, y’all.