How to end Game of Thrones: the best finales in books and television | Books


As we await the final season of Game of Thrones, curiosity settles on a single question: how will it end? Fan sites buzz with speculation about what the most convincing conclusion could be. Surely Jon Snow’s true lineage will be revealed to him? Won’t we have to find out the truth about Cersei’s pregnancy? Will the White Walkers finally be defeated? And above all, who will reign at the end?

The makers of the series have set themselves a challenge: conjuring what the great literary critic Frank Kermode called “the sense of an ending”, and they can no longer rely on the original novels of George RR Martin. For the first five seasons, the series drew largely on the respective volumes of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, but for some time it has been ahead of the novelist, even if he has supplied the writers with hints of his intentions. Readers continue to wait for Martin to end his roman fleuve; TV scriptwriters cannot be so patient.

They have a special challenge because this long narrative, extending already for some 67 hours, has been distinguished by its abrupt surprises and its willingness to kill its leading players without warning. It has refused to contrive just outcomes for its characters. Yet its scriptwriters must know that a satisfying ending makes a story. And also remakes it: an ending can cause us to change our minds about what we have already watched.

Everyone has their own example of a TV drama made ultimately absurd by an ending that failed to satisfy the logic of what had gone earlier. Could we believe that the terrified young woman tricked into becoming a suicide bomber in the first episode of Bodyguard was really the sure-minded fanatic she was revealed to be in the last episode? Was it credible that the emotionally pummelled young wife in The Cry could become a cleverly vengeful husband-killer by the end?

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When an ending does not satisfy, the disbelief that was willingly suspended floods over us. The ending is where the contract with the viewer or reader is fulfilled – or not. Today’s writers of television drama face many of the same narrative issues once faced by Victorian novelists. Thackeray, Dickens, Gaskell, Hardy and Wilkie Collins all wrote serial fiction. The weekly endings of TV drama serials that leave us needing to watch the next episode unconsciously imitate Collins’s brilliant cliffhangers in novels like The Woman in White, initially published in weekly instalments. The term “cliffhanger” probably derives from a Victorian serial novel: Thomas Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes, published monthly between September 1872 and July 1873. Henry Knight, who has been walking on a Cornish clifftop with Elfride Swancourt, the woman he loves, slips over the edge. As the reader reaches the end of the instalment, he is dangling over the precipice and the cliff face is beginning to give way. (Spoiler alert: at the beginning of the next episode, Elfride rescues him with a rope made of her torn-up underwear.)

“Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; make ’em wait,” was the oft-quoted advice to the writer of 19th-century serial fiction. (Though often attributed to Collins or Dickens, it was said by the versatile and eccentric novelist Charles Reade.) No one exploited the serial form better than Dickens. He did not have to renew his narratives for series after series, like the creators of Game of Thrones, but he did have to work out how to hold his readers’ attention over months and months. Writing Little Dorrit he noted the necessity “that the thread may be kept in the reader’s mind through nearly two years”. He had nothing like those rapid synopses of previous key moments that we get at the beginning of every new episode now.

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Episodic ... the BBC’s 2008 adaptation of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, starring Claire Foy.



Episodic … the BBC’s 2008 adaptation of Dickens’s Little Dorrit, starring Claire Foy. Photograph: BBC/Nick Briggs/BBC

In his early novels, Dickens improvised as he went along, with only a few clear ideas about how he would finish. Most famously, in The Old Curiosity Shop, he was adamant that, whatever else he did, he would kill off Little Nell. However, from Dombey and Son, his seventh novel, onwards he closely planned his books, foreseeing the endings with a clarity that a TV thriller screenwriter would surely admire. We know this because he left behind the number plans – the “mems” as he called them – for all the later novels written in monthly parts. “Pave the way”, he wrote in his number plans for Little Dorrit; “lay the ground carefully” he instructed himself as he planned Our Mutual Friend. The ending was in his mind from the beginning.

In his essay The Art of Fiction, Henry James mocked the Dickensian ending in which justice is meted out, “a distribution at the last of prizes, pensions, husbands, wives, babies, millions, appended paragraphs and cheerful remarks”. In novels such as The Portrait of a Lady, James pioneered the indeterminate ending, an option for which the makers of The Sopranos notoriously plumped. After 86 episodes it was perhaps inevitable that The Sopranos should end without certainty. Had a hitman finally got to Tony? Debate will ever rage.

But Dickens’s plans and devices are closer to those of popular TV drama. When everyone seemed to be speculating that perhaps home secretary Julia Montague in Bodyguard had not been killed by a bomb (who saw the body?) and would return in the final episode to claim her man, it was reminiscent of the arguments left in the air when Dickens died exactly halfway through the writing of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Had Drood been murdered by his uncle (and rival in love), the opium-addicted John Jasper? Or would he re-emerge from his hiding place? Perhaps Jasper, who seems to have been plotting the disposal of a body, mistakenly thinks that he has killed him?

Of course, by the time that viewers are debating the likely ways in which a television series might end, the writing and filming have long since been concluded. All those involved have to keep quiet about the denouement. Adrian Dunbar can tease interviewers about whether his character Superintendent Ted Hastings, thus far the touchstone of troubled rectitude in Line of Duty, will turn out to be, as widely feared, corrupt. The Victorian novelist, in contrast, sometimes had time to adjust his or her endings to meet readers’ requirements.

Dead or alive? Keeley Hawes as Julia Montague in Bodyguard.



Dead or alive? Keeley Hawes as Julia Montague in Bodyguard. Photograph: Des Willie/BBC/World Productions/Des Willie

The most extraordinary example is one of the best of all 19th-century novels, Great Expectations. For this story, which had been appearing in weekly instalments in his own magazine, All the Year Round, Dickens wrote one of the few unhappy endings of his career. In the first draft, Pip returns from years working abroad. He is walking down Piccadilly with the young son of Joe and Biddy, named Pip after him. A lady in a carriage summons him; it is Estella. She is now married to a doctor who lives in Shropshire:

“I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella, too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it!” (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.)

I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.

Piercingly, Dickens and his narrator allow Estella to depart on a misunderstanding: she believes that Pip has married and had a son – but in fact he is alone, his capacity for love cauterised by his experiences. He does not get Estella; he does not get anyone. When Dickens’s friend and fellow novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton read this he was horrified. What would the author’s loyal readers, who expected their usual happy ending, think? Dickens was persuaded to write a new ending, in which Estella is husbandless when she meets Pip again in the ruins of Satis House. This time the narrator sees “no shadow of a future parting” from the woman he loves. Dickens, who scanned his monthly or weekly sales with just the attention a TV producer might give to viewing figures, succumbed to fears about what his audience wanted. He scrapped a brilliant ending in favour of a merely serviceable one. Have the scriptwriters of Game of Thrones been worrying in a similar fashion about what their devotees want and expect? Or will they give us an ending as arbitrarily brutal as the world they have created?

The final season of Game of Thrones begins on Sky Atlantic on 15 April.



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