This essay contains spoilers about Avengers: Endgame and the final season of Game of Thrones.
In 2008, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man started what would become a 22-movie cycle that, on 26 April 2019, the Russo Brothers’ The Avengers: Endgame (hereafter, Avengers) closed, becoming the highest-grossing film franchise in history. Less than a month later, on 19 May, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-19) arguably the most culturally significant television series of the decade, aired its final episode. While viewers and reviewers will discuss what they liked and didn’t like about the series’ final installments, taken together, these hours-long, multi-year arcs can help explain how stories work—especially now that they’re over.
The Stories’ Beginnings
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” These famous first lines—from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and George Orwell’s 1984, each open with an antecedent-less “it”, and then hook the reader through immediate irony, paradox, and surprise. And yet at the same time, nearly every opening is its own Once Upon a Time, its own “In the beginning…”, unfolding possibilities. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
In their debuts, both Avengers and Game of Thrones used many of the familiar trappings of their genres: for Avengers, superheroes—with their powers, costumes, good vs. evil motifs, and villains; for Game of Thrones, fantasy—with its swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons. Both captivated audiences not because they exemplified their respective genres, but because they also subverted them. The Avengers’ Tony Stark dispenses with a central conceit of superheroes, the secret identity, in his first movie, and later, even more than the plot of a megalomaniac with a super weapon and an alien army invading Manhattan.
Indeed, The Avengers had more in common with Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, John Ford’s 1939 Western classic Stagecoach, CBS’s Gilligan’s Island, and John Hughes’ ’80s hit The Breakfast Club than it did with traditional superhero stories. That is; the primary interest, and conflict, came less from Loki and the Chitauri—faceless, invading hordes—than its characters and premise: people from diverse backgrounds thrown into an unlikely situation where they must learn to get along, now with superpowers. Subsequently, each Marvel movie of its Cinematic Universe (MCU) established, and then followed, a familiar narrative trajectory: an origin, since Americans love beginnings; a struggle against the hero’s own hubris, and then an antagonist who acts as a mirror and foil to the hero; a huge concluding battle; and a resolution that nevertheless set up the next conflict.
Game of Thrones, though, went much further. It didn’t even begin at the beginning of its story, but arguably at the end of its history, for Westeros, its fictional kingdom. Despite its royalty and bloodlines, the characters behaved like people, not symbols, archetypes, or avatars. King Robert Baratheon is neither good nor bad, exactly; instead, he is a tolerable man who let power and boredom go to his head. He is easily manipulated by his ambitious advisers and his cravings for food, wine, entertainment, and sex. The ostensible hero is Ned Stark (either a coincidence with Marvel’s Tony Stark or because the word “stark” struck the right tone for each), played by Sean Bean, bringing his Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001) cred with him, as Robert’s old friend, brought in as his chief advisor.
In a different, more conventional fantasy world, Ned’s attributes of honesty, loyalty to friends and family, and old-fashioned virtue would ensure his eventual victory. However, Season 1 asked, in Westeros, what would victory even look like? What, other than military brutality in a bygone war, entitled Robert to the throne at all? What, the series would go on to ask, entitles anyone? Blood? Destiny? Power? Desire? As a reward for his integrity, Ned loses his head—and even worse for him, his good name—at the whim of awful boy-king Joffrey. The scene, in the penultimate episode of Season 1, was shocking at the time, not because it couldn’t or wouldn’t happen—it happened, frequently, in real-life history, as depicted on shows like
The Tudors (Michael Hirst, 2007-10) and BBC Two’s Wolf Hall (2015) —but rather because viewers had become so accustomed to the conventions of the fantasy movies that Game of Thrones superficially resembled.
The Stories’ Middle Parts
And so, having laid the groundwork of at once gratifying and challenging audience expectation, the MCU and Game of Thrones continued. In stories, the middle tends to be trickier than the beginning. High school English and narrative arcs depict a lot of rising and falling, of action and fortune, with obstacles to be overcome, objects to be acquired, quests to be pursued. Despite the annual slew of summer movie critics lamenting sequels, though, most people’s favorite in a trilogy is the second, e.g., The Godfather II, The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, Aliens, Toy Story II, and The Dark Knight. Without the beginning’s requisite work of securing the audience or the ending’s need for completion, the middle is the sweet cream between the opening’s and closing’s hard cookies, the vast narrative possibility of plot and character in the middle of things.
Marvel, then, created a series of competent and entertaining middle movies, many of which didn’t quite challenge the superhero genre so much as the idea that superhero movies are a genre unto themselves. Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is, in many ways, a nostalgia piece and WWII-style film, laying the groundwork for The Avengers less in introducing “the first Avenger” of the subtitle but in its ragtag group of operatives coming together, just as the Avengers would be. Its sequel, The Winter Soldier (the Russo Brothers, 2014), draws heavily upon the conspiracy films of the 1970s, such as The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, and Three Days of the Condor, even down to a supporting role for Robert Redford.
Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World (2013) is high fantasy; Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) and Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017) and Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck, 2019), space opera; Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015), techno-dystopia; and Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017), high school coming of age drama. Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)—in many ways, the best and most ambitious of the films—is an Afrofuturist What-If allegory of an African country, Wakanda, blessed with magical natural resources also magically unravaged by colonialism. While connected through overlapping characters and burgeoning subplots about the Infinity Stones, which would narratively coalesce in Avengers: Infinity War (the Russo Brothers, 2018), each had the luxury of establishing its own pace and style—and its own narrative middle.
As a single story, Game of Thrones had more plot and character heavy lifting to do. Viewers were tasked with keeping track of dozens of names and multiple storylines, some of which would disappear and reappear episodes or even whole seasons apart. Its structural model and precursor was not Lord of the Rings but The Sopranos, both in its narrative complexity and moral ambiguity, which, Game of Thrones always implied, naturally went together. While some characters, like Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsey Bolton were self-evidently terrible, for the most part, each time Game of Thrones switched points of view, viewers could often find some reason to empathize with whomever we were looking through, even though it inevitably contradicted what we may have felt. It was possible to root for earnest Robb Stark, survivor Daenerys Targaryen, warm Renly Baratheon, and clever Tyrian Lannister, even as we understood that their mutual victory was against the game’s rules.
Meanwhile, as the game continued, amassing its senseless body count, very few characters—and thus also the audience, creating dramatic irony—understood that the true danger remained the White Walkers, undead creatures whose ultimate motives, unlike the humans’, remain mysterious, but whose immediate drive was to wipe out humanity. The repeated catchphrase, “Winter is coming” refers to Westeros’s unusual natural seasonal pattern, but also this supernatural, impending threat. Humans seemed to be rearranging pieces on a board that was about to be overturned.
The Stories’ Endings
While beginnings create possibility, and middles develop them, endings, inevitably, must close them, and the options for closure are, by necessity, limited. There is, of course, happily ever after—conflict resolved, and the world is a better place than when the story began. There is the unhappy ending—conflict resolved, but characters, relationships, or worlds died, and the world is a worse place than when the story began. There is the bittersweet ending—conflict resolved, but at some cost and something is lost, but the world is still a better place. And there is the ambiguous, non-ending, or recursive ending, where the conflict is unresolved or the story circles back to where it began.
At the same time, the ending helps the audience retrospectively understand the story they thought they were experiencing. If Romeo and Juliet had lived and married, Shakespeare’s play would have been a comedy instead of a tragedy. A good ending, then, should take the audience by surprise, yet also work. It should leave the audience satisfied, yet also wanting more. Even a happy ending can leave the audience with a sense of bereavement at the “death”, if you will, of the story itself.In both this phase of the MCU and Game of Thrones, the hours and years amassed, and the characters accumulated. But then, with the ends of both series’ in sight, they needed to winnow further narrative possibility.
For a while, it looked like neither series could bear to come to an end, keeping characters and storylines alive beyond a reasonable limit. (See “The End of Endings; or, Why Won’t Anyone Stay Dead?” Kavadlo, PopMatters, 17 Sep 2018) But then, Avengers: Infinity War and Game of Thrones Season 7 finally brought together their disparate threads and characters, many of whom had been having parallel adventures and never having met, despite occupying the same story and world. The first Avengers movie was supposed to bring together separate, solo heroes, but Infinity War pulled in the entire, extended teams of Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, plus Dr. Strange, Black Panther and, in the post-credits scene, the still-unintroduced Captain Marvel, to face Thanos. Thanos is a villain who mirrors the heroes and is concurrently building a team and has plans hidden behind the scenes of each film and, like the White Walkers, poses a shadow threat to our superheroes that is distinct from other threats.
In Game of Thrones, competing protagonists/Iron Throne contenders Daenerys Targaryen, has spent five seasons accumulating two armies (the Dothraki and Unsullied), three dragons, and an entourage of advisors, including Tyrian Lannister, Jorah Mormont, and Varys. Jon Snow—together with Arya and Sanza Stark — who each had their own multi-season adventures, and the army of the North—finally meet and, together, entreat Queen Cersei, Robert’s widow, to combine her forces with theirs to fight the now-approaching and inevitable army of wights and White Walkers. In so doing, what had been dozens of threads in the plot became braided into three, and then, one. For a moment, it looked as though the conflict was similarly simplified between the armies of the living and the army of the dead. Cersei, of course, betrayed Danny and Jon, but even then, her betrayal was relegated off-screen in service of the existential showdown.
To begin the end, Infinity War essentially negated the endings of each previous characters’ story: the immediate predecessor, Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017), ends with the destruction of Asgard but also the rescue of the Asgardian people since, we are told, Asgard is a people, not a place. Yet Infinity War opens with the in medias res slaughter of half of the Asgardians. Dr. Strange is instructed to guard the Time Stone at all costs, yet he gives it up easily. Spider-Man is told he isn’t ready for the Avengers, but then, suddenly, there he is, fighting alongside Tony Stark. Black Panther vows to protect Wakanda, but now leaves it vulnerable to destruction. The film ends with Thanos’s fatal snap—in an image that generated a thousand memes, half of our heroes disintegrated into dust, literally becoming undone just as their stories had begun.
The subsequent action of the final movie, then, would be if not quite avenging, then about restoring the dead and the status quo. The disappearance of half of the heroes—and half the universe’s population—is arguably the climax of the entire series; that is, the moment in which viewers understand the inevitability of what comes next and last. The remaining heroes must bring their disappeared teammates back. What some critics dismissed as unbelievable—how can characters already slated to be in upcoming sequels stay dead?—was, in a way, the opposite of the point: the final movie would not hinge on whether these heroes came back, but rather, how to do so in a way that felt, as endings must, surprising, yet appropriate, and earned.The answer, in Endgame, is to anticipate the most obvious possibility—using the same Infinity Gauntlet to undo the snap—and undermine that expectation. But the story would not be undone twice.
Figuratively and literally, Thanos destroys the stones. Frustrated, Thor decapitates Thanos, but his act of violence has no effect. In what becomes the film’s plot and meta-commentary, the remaining Avengers must travel through their pasts, which audiences had already seen in the previous films, primarily Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy. In a so-called “time heist”, the team splits up to regain the Infinity Stones in alternate timelines, in a plot development more reminiscent of Back to the Future II (itself referenced in the movie), Harry Potter III, and strangely, Bradley Raymond’s animated film, The Lion King 1 ½ (2004). It’s a funny and surprising journey not just through time, but through the series itself, a way to reinforce what now, in retrospect, seems to be the series’ key conflicts: not between good and evil, or the Avengers and any particular villains, but between the past and the present. This is best represented by parents and children in both of these stories.
If the end clarifies the beginning, we can now see that, all along, the Marvel Universe has dramatized adolescence, comic heroes’ perceived demographic. The MCU display the need for adult autonomy but also parental love and approval, shown through Thor meeting his now-dead mother; Tony Stark, now the older man with a child, meeting his long-dead father before Tony’s own birth, to give him parenting advice; and Nebula and Gamora, daughters of Thanos and a microcosm of the film’s universal conflict, who demonstrate that people are capable of breaking free from parental and familial trauma. In the movie’s opening, Clint Barton loses his family to the cosmic snap, and Scott Lang misses five years of his daughter’s life, but both get their reunion, if not the time back. Tony Stark risks his life with his new daughter to save Peter Parker, his surrogate son. Where Iron Man began with the premise that Tony, slowly but fatally injured, was a dead man flying, living on borrowed time with each subsequent adventure, in the end, the supposed narcissist sacrifices himself, just as he was willing to do in Iron Man and Avengers, for the world and his team—his chosen family.
Steve Rogers, in conflict with Tony since Civil War (2016) over the quintessentially American argument between individual liberty and community safety, goes back in time, just as he was originally propelled into the future by being trapped in ice, but this time, he stays to live out his life with the formerly deceased Peggy Carter. For all of his heroism and self-sacrifice, what he really wants is love. As a sentence, it’s corny. As a sentiment, over more than a dozen movies and a decade, it’s earned. It’s classic bittersweet wish fulfillment but worthy of a few tears, something that, before these movies, might have been hard for the general public to imagine about Captain America.
In its final season, Game of Thrones also begins to cull its characters, although, in the end, perhaps not nearly as many as fans had feared—or hoped. While many fans are disappointed—and indeed, much of the pacing and sense of time and place have required more suspension of disbelief than the dragons—the conclusion is not, as some fans have put it, “bittersweet”, but rather, a combination of bitter as well as sweet. First, happy, since for all the talk of threats, the White Walkers are vanquished and, it seems, Winter is no longer Coming, as Jon sees a green shoot in the far North.
Like Endgame, the final episodes undo much of its past, but perhaps less successfully. While Thor could not chop his way to victory, Arya, in stabbing the Night King—the leader of the army of the dead—with the very weapon from Season 1 that began the Game of Thrones, ends the supposedly world-ending conflict and kills what we had earlier thought to be a metaphor. In Endgame, time travel became literal but also powerfully symbolic, a way of reconciling with our past and present selves and past and present loves. In Game of Thrones, to wrap things up, the Night King is no longer symbolic, and his motives, true identity, and still-open plot points die with him and his army. As the show runs down, it becomes clear that some mysteries and threads, like some characters, needed to be culled to help funnel the story’s way to the finalé.
I’m tempted to say that the ending of Endgame was more successful than the end of Game of Thrones, but with a caveat: they were never competing in the same weight class. HBO’s Game of Thrones was always attempting to challenge viewers more than the MCU, and therefore gave itself a far more difficult task: how can a show that prided itself on surprising its viewers and upending expectation end when endings themselves require a certain narrative conformity? Can a show that pivoted on surprise even have a surprise ending? That is; if we’re expecting a twist, can we get one? Author George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books upon which the series was based, is still struggling with ending his series (“It’s Time to Accept the Fact That George R.R. Martin May Not Finish ‘Game of Thrones’“, by Erik Kain, Forbes, 20 Feb 2018). The Sopranos ended as it lived, ambiguously, and to famously mixed reaction.
Game of Thrones ends well, mostly, for the Starks; sadly, for Daenerys and her followers; and ambiguously, for the fate of Westeros. If the ending forces us to reassess the beginning, we now understand the show to have belonged to the Starks all along: Ned’s Season 1 beheading, and the Stark massacre at the Red Wedding at the end of Season 3, were early sacrifices in the game because, in the end, Bran rules the kingdoms; Sansa rules the North; Jon, ever frowning, is seemingly banished to the Wall but really free to live with his friends, the Wildlings, and his dire wolf; and Arya is sailing to new lands.
The penultimate episode sees Daenerys and her dragon burn all of King’s Landing and its people to ash, in an image reminiscent of the effects of Thanos’s snap, but here there can be no cosmic undoing. In the end, Jon stabs Daenerys, as Arya stabbed the Night King and Jaime Lannister stabbed her father. Daenerys’s dragon, in a great symbolic gesture, melts the Iron Throne, the object of all the games and death. In its stead, those who remain elect Bran, christened Bran the Broken, as king because, as Tyrion convinces them, Bran has the greatest story. Compared with Sansa and Arya, this may or may not be accurate, but the chair upon which Bran sits, his wheelchair, is a powerfully different symbol than the throne of swords.
What seems like derisive, ableist language (and maybe it is) is, for Tyrion, a source of pride and strength when he said, back in Season 1, “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things,” to comfort Bran after he lost the use of his legs. Now, the cripples, bastards, and broken things rule the kingdom. The boy in the chair who sees beyond time—even if, unlike in Endgame, he does not travel through—is king, advised by a dwarf, a formerly illiterate former smuggler (also with a disability), a formerly poor, now rich sellsword, a woman rejected because of her gender from the Knighthood but now leader of the King’s Guard, and the rejected child sent to the wall but who is now a maester. Is, as Daenerys’ wanted, the wheel broken—a further, empowering message in Bran’s new name? Or has the wheel merely turned—in concluding reversal, those who began the series at the bottom have rotated to the top? Does this mean the game continues, just with new players? The story doesn’t say, and will not tell us.
In Watchmen, Alan Moore’s 1985, pre-Marvel movie deconstruction of the superhero genre, the seeming villain who, like Thanos and Daenerys, deemed himself a hero for his strategic, utilitarian mass murder, asked Dr. Manhattan, a character who, like Bran and Dr. Strange, can see the past, present, and future together, whether “it all worked out in the end.” Dr. Manhattan responds, “‘In the end’? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” R.R. Martin is still working to complete the final novel in his series, and Game of Thrones already has several possible prequels and spin-offs in development. Marvel’s next movie, Spider-Man: Far from Home, comes out in July. Finally, in an HBO preview aired during the Game of Thrones finalé, Watchman, subject of a previous film adaptation and comic-book prequels, has been adapted into a new television series. The reports of these stories’ endings are greatly exaggerated.