It was game 6 of the 2006 NBA finals, and the Mavericks were down 3-2 to the Miami Heat. As the final seconds ticked away, and the Mavericks lost the series 4-2 to the Heat (at home, no less!), I stood up and stomped out of my friends TV room where I had been watching the game with around 20 other people. Someone yelled “Sam, where are you going? Are you walking out?” or something to that effect. I yelled back “The Mavericks walked out on me” and walked out of the house into the summer night, and drove home.
I returned the next year, and attended a few of the Mavericks’ first round games against the Warriors, when the Mavericks were the number 1 seed in the conference and had won 67 games, and they lost that series. In 2011, when I watched them beat the Heat in 6 and return the favor, I was happy, but not as happy as I had been angry 5 years before. I had, after the finals loss, closed part of myself off to caring deeply about sports.
The same sort of thing happened to me with television, and television series. I watched Lost from the beginning, and was passionate about it, diving deep into theorizing. One of the extended universe characters for Lost shared my name, and I remember feeling very excited about that. I also remember Lost having strange tie in books, and all sorts of early-stage alternate reality games floating around the internet. There was this idea while Lost was going on that there was some actual comprehensive mythos that it was drawing upon and that the story we were seeing in the show was just the particular window that we were getting to look through, but that the thing we were seeing was whole, complete, viewable from many angles. Three dimensional. We now know that this was a lie, one we told ourselves but also one that the show runners and promoters encouraged us to tell ourselves, and then proceeded to lie about.
The sin that the Lost creators and ABC were perpetrating was one of not redirecting the audience towards their actual view of the show. The team behind Lost believed that the island and its mysteries weren’t important; they believe that the characters being on the island wasn’t important; what they did believe to be important were the relationships between the characters. This is a crazy way to read the show as it was being made, since many of the seasons focused so much on the presentation of mysteries. These mysteries either never paid off, or they would pay off in ways that a ten-year-old playing with toys might come up with.
The writers of the show are true to the idea, that the relationships between the characters and the friendships they made on the island was what was important. I’ll give you an illustrative example - in the final episode, the characters are shown in a kind of afterlife, where they have gone after they’ve died. The object we thought we were observing through a window turned out to be a painting - everything that mattered could be seen.
And so, after Lost, I gave up watching shows before they were done if they were mysterious or serialized dramas. It just wasn’t worth my time to invest in something that could turn out so poorly, or be so misunderstood by its own writers and creators.
When writing a story, a writer is forced to confront the question of why. Why is today the day I am starting this story? Why is this the person I am following? Why do I think this is an important story to tell? With a mystery show, or a political show, or serialized dramas in general, the answer to the question is usually fairly straightforward. As the author, I am telling this story to reveal something about the world, or about an insight I’ve had on the world, and I’ve written it in this manner so that I can show the scale of the story. I have an ensemble cast and characters so that I can make a point about how the world is arbitrary/meaningful/chaotic or any other kind of worldview for the story. Sometimes I, the author, am writing a story so that I can show people what I think about stories like this, as they are typically told. Perhaps I am writing my story so that I can subvert the typical narrative cliches that stories in the genre I am writing in adhere to. I am writing a story about heroes where the heroes aren’t heroic, or a story about zombies where the people all die. I am writing a story about superheroes in our world, and what that would mean. I am writing a story about the monomyth, and trying to set it somewhere far away, to try and render it timeless.
To their credit, the eventual Lost writers did not start telling the story - they did not set up the elements that they would eventually need to pay off. That was J. J. Abrams, the writer responsible for more say-nothing fluff than perhaps any other writer and director in the modern era. If you’ve wondered why so many movies feel so samey these days, I would argue that it is because of J. J. and the success he had. I digress, however. Though the Lost writers were given a show that had already been seeded by another creator, they were still responsible with how they told the rest of the story, and the choice they made there was the unforgivable one. They decided to allow the audience to imagine that the story was a window into a large, expansive world, when in fact they were hoping to tell a small story of characters and their relationships, and that the location was the hook, but ultimately incidental.
There was a much hated-at-the-time episode on Lost where the creators accidently showed their hand, and let the viewers see what they were actually doing. The episode focuses on Hurley, and on his attempts to fix up and start a van - at the time, the showrunners said they thought that the episode was one of the best they had created. It was nearly universally loathed, because it was seen at the time as being emblematic of the show’s punting on moving anything forward - and it was - but also it was an example of what they cared about on the show. They didn’t care about the mysteries of the island. They did care about Hurley, and they did care about his backstory. At the same time, the audience is confused - are the mysteries going to be answered or not? They are not, of course, because the mysteries aren’t important, and the world that we’re observing is the world of a T.V. show. We were wrong to think otherwise 1.
When Lost ended several seasons later, with most of the mysteries still unanswered (or answered with careless handwaving), I promised myself I wouldn’t let it happen again.
Which brings me to the igniting incident for the writing of this post. I, like many others, was very disappointed by the ending of Game of Thrones, the popular HBO TV show that ended, unbelievably, only 1 week ago. I feel like in the week following I have digested a million takes on the end of the episode. The reaction has been amusingly similar to the end of Lost - there are many fans who are trying to rationalize it as a not grey ending but one that at least has some satisfying moments, and then there are fans like me, who were hoping up to the end that they had been watching a different show, even as they realized they were watching the one they were watching. In the minds of many viewers of Game of Thrones, they were watching a show about the world of Westeros, and how it reacted to a series of executions, wars, and existential threats. As George R. R. Martin said, this is a story about Aragorn’s tax policies. And it was, until it wasn’t. When the show outran the books, it became clear that, in fact, it was not a show about Aragorn’s tax policies anymore, and was shrinking into the same kind of show that Lost was, where the character moments were the important parts of the story, and that everything else did not matter. So you have people focusing on just character arcs, and how they want characters to get places, without considering the characters’ actions in the world or how they impacted the world. Every decision that they make to get to the end is cynical character plotting, because they’ve determined (or had determined to go with George’s ending) to 1. get to the end as fast as possible and 2. that to get to the end they needed to hit several plot points. Unlike in Lost, where the bait and switch is from mystery-world-show to character-driven-show, the switch here is from expansive-realized-world show to character-plotlines-only show. None of the types of consequential questions that play heavily into earlier seasons are addressed in any way in the latter few seasons of Game of Thrones, because they are no longer important to the creators. They didn’t and don’t care about what happens to the world of Game of Thrones, nor do they make any attempt to really understand it.
This is best evidenced by their dismissal of magic into an also-ran part of the show by the last episode. For a show that starts with the re-emergence of magic into the world, it is consigned out of it by the end of the third episode of the final season. What does magic mean to the world of the Game of Thrones TV show? It is another device that can move characters into positions to have character moments, and that’s pretty much it by the end. It leaves key questions raised by the show unexplained and unexplored.
It’s also evident in the story they tell and don’t tell. This is well-trod territory, but after the end of season 6, Cersei blows up the High Sparrow and the Sept of Baelor2, and it is never brought up once in the rest of the show. The reason it’s not brought up is because it is not important, because the world is not important. The important thing in the show to tell us through the destruction of the Sept is that a character is ruthless and smart, and that they are powerful. That is all they are trying to say.
I don’t really follow sports teams anymore, but when you’re following a team, the sense of betrayal you feel when your team gets close to and misses a goal (like making the playoffs, or winning the championship, or getting promoted) is on you. You were telling yourself a story about the season your team was having and reality got in the way. This is disappointing, but at least it’s true. You’re frustrated not because things were going to be different or could have been different, but because you believed they would be different. Your disappointment is the disappointment of your faith going unrewarded. So you can get around the disappointment by putting aside any faith in phony narratives, and just experiencing the joy of watching sport.
With stories, things are different. . The storyteller, though they can’t control the audience, is the god of the story, and has it under their control. They show you what they want you to see, and they tell you what they want you to hear. If, as a reader or audience member, you find the story to have disappointed you because it ceased to follow its own rules, that you were told that you were looking through a window, but that it is revealed that you were actually looking at a painting, that is on the storyteller. You didn’t “not get it”. The storyteller failed. The only real way to avoid this pain is to avoid the unfinished story. This, of course, is very hard to do with one medium in particular, that being television. So, I’m afraid, the only way to avoid this kind of issue with TV is to not watch it live. I don’t think that’s a real option though.
So then what? Are we as readers destined to keep watching shows that trick the viewer into thinking that we are watching one type of show, when we are actually watching another type? Yes, if we want to keep watching the shows that are coming out right now. Give yourself over to this disappointment - it means you’re learning something true about yourself and about stories. You push the boulder of what you imagined a story could be to the top of the hill, only to watch it fall and recede back down to the bottom. As you chase the boulder to the bottom, and look for the next boulder that you will push up the hill (The Expanse? Doom Patrol?), you experience the feeling of disappointment, the feeling of anger. But you also experience hope. Stories are beautiful, wonderful things that people can tell each other, and the best ones are so good that they can change your life. As you feel this disappointment, know that the next story you see could be one of the good ones. I hope it will be. And you should too.
I actually want to give one of the show runners on Lost some very well earned praise here for another one of his series: Damon Lindelof created a masterpiece with the Leftovers, and I think it’s clear why - he could answer all of the questions around why he was telling the story, and he communicated those reasons to the audience. We were always on the same page, audience and writer, about how the show was being presented, how the central mystery was being treated, and why the characters mattered. On that show, no one expects the disappearance of 2% of the world to be definitively answered. The world is explicitly built around the response of the rest of humanity to the event, and the world feels rich, and the responses genuine, and it makes for an incredible television show. The view we get into the world of the Leftovers leaves the audience sure that we are seeing just one aspect of the world through this story, but it’s a beautiful story. ↩
The show’s Pope & Vatican ↩