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So Game Of Thrones can’t surprise us anymore? In 2017, few shows can

Ed Harris and James Marsden (Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO), Lena Headey (Photo: HBO), Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee (Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Showtime)
Ed Harris and James Marsden (Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO), Lena Headey (Photo: HBO), Kyle MacLachlan and Sheryl Lee (Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Showtime)

This post contains discussion of plot points from Game Of Thrones and Westworld.

Surprise is an overrated narrative device. If the most imaginative aspect of a fictional work is its twist ending or unexpected midcourse swerve, than that imagination has been improperly spent. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” Frank Morgan says in one of cinema’s most famous reveals, and its advice worth heeding: The Wizard Of Oz can’t really tell Dorothy Gale anything she hasn’t learned along the yellow brick road. It’s true even of works by creators renowned for loop-de-loops: If O. Henry, Rod Serling, or M. Night Shyamalan haven’t put in the work around their respective acts of rug pulling, those acts have no impact. Just ask anyone who’s seen The Village.

Game Of Thrones’ ending is still a year away, but the HBO series has earned a reputation for throwing narrative curveballs in its six seasons on the air—especially where mortality is involved. No character is ever safe on Game Of Thrones, just one of the many tweaks to fantasy convention made by the show and the George R.R. Martin novels that inspired it. But as it heads into its seventh season, Game Of Thrones’ arm ain’t what it used to be: The Narrow Sea of spoilers separating book readers from the rest of the show’s audience has dried up, and season six ended on a handful of unexpected notes (Cersei’s explosive power grab in King’s Landing, Arya’s assassination of Walder Frey), but there’s also the matter of Jon Snow’s poorly teased-out return to life. Over at GQ, the handling of that storyline, along with the sense that every major player’s role in the show’s endgame is already set, has critic Scott Meslow asking “Can Game Of Thrones surprise us anymore?” But in an age of readily available set leaks and spoilers, when Easter eggs, bread crumbs, puzzle pieces, and other assorted forms of foreshadowing can be so easily accumulated, cataloged, and assembled into scarily accurate Reddit threads and YouTube videos, I’d add this to Meslow’s question: Can any TV show surprise us anymore?

Online TV fandom has ushered in a golden age of speculation and theorizing, a digital scavenger hunt that grants an added layer of interactivity to your favorite show. This is nothing new: Making educated guesses at a story’s ending is as old as readers solving crimes alongside the literary sleuths of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie; it found new, 21st-century life in the widespread community of clue hunters devoted to decrypting Lost. The novelty’s in the volume of viewers now making those guesses simultaneously, in full view of and sometimes in collaboration with one another. I’ve spoken with showrunners who’ve expressed both delight and dismay at this contemporary trend; Dan Harmon put it in stark terms ahead of Rick And Morty’s second season:

You cannot write payoff-based TV anymore because the audience is essentially a render farm. They have an unlimited calculation capacity. There’s no writers’ room that can think more than 20 million people who can think about it for an hour a day. That season of Dexter being the big example: They had planned out this whole Fight Club reveal that there was a character that didn’t really exist except in someone else’s head. They’d planned out the whole clever thing, and they were going to reveal it, and all this stuff, and then after episode one aired, somebody on Reddit just like, [Snaps fingers.]. You can’t do it anymore. You can’t try to fool the audience.

Not that creators have stopped trying. This past fall, Westworld emerged on HBO as an heir apparent to Game Of Thrones, a sprawling science fiction epic overseen in part by one of the seemingly puzzle-obsessed brothers who brought us Memento and Inception. Amid their meditations on what it means to be human and what it means to be a human attending a theme park where you can shoot and fuck robots to your heart’s content, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy laced a split timeline concerning Ed Harris’ mysterious Man In Black and Jimmi Simpson’s gallant guest William. It was the sort of thing that could be easily camouflaged by Westworld’s many storylines and ageless androids—or given away by the discrepancies in inner-park branding. And Westworld had conditioned its viewers to watch for this type of thing, thanks to the mid-pilot switcheroo involving one character previously implied to be a flesh-and-blood guest and another previously implied to be an AI host.

“Once you train an audience to look for significance, they start to find it everywhere,” Gravity Falls creator Alex Hirsch once told me, and that certainly applies to Westworld. An insightful audience got an appetizing whiff of theory early in the first season, and in their multitudes, sniffed out Westworld’s finale-twist treat well before Nolan and Joy were ready to wheel it out. It would’ve been impossible to reverse course, and so for the second time in under a year, a major HBO series built to a storytelling milestone that many in the audience were viewing as a foregone conclusion. (It didn’t help that the episode that finally connected the dots between William and The Man In Black does so in such agonizing, self-satisfied fashion.)

Photo: HBO

Game Of Thrones is in a unique position at this point because a) it’s approaching its conclusion with only a handful of logical outcomes still in play, and b) those outcomes have been the object of speculation for nearly 21 years. The series’ “render farm” is composed of people who watch Game Of Thrones intently, and viewers who watch Game Of Thrones intently with the history of A Song Of Ice And Fire committed to memory and/or bookmarked in their web browser. Never mind guessing at Jon Snow’s resurrection based on coy press clips and Kit Harington’s proximity to shooting locations in 2016; there were conversations about what Ned Stark saw, heard, and did outside and within the Tower Of Joy dating back to 1996. Even as it works ahead of what Martin has put down on the page, Game Of Thrones has to race against that institutional knowledge.

Or, and what this critic presupposes is, maybe it doesn’t? The other part of that Rick And Morty interview that’s stuck with me is Harmon’s follow-up to the “render farm” observation:

[T]he really cool thing is that render farm reduces your job as a writer to story and jokes. Character. Just things that in the moment that you provide for them, it’s like you’re spinning plates or juggling. This idea that you’re a magician that, like, gets there early and puts threads somewhere—they’re always going to see it.

If a show’s writers aren’t giving surprise that much attention, they can focus on the things that give heft to past surprises. The idea that any character on Game Of Thrones could die at any moment keeps me, as a viewer, on my toes, but the reason those deaths smart is because of characterization, or performance. I’m still reeling from Margaery’s death in the Great Sept of Baelor not just because the wildfire boobytrap caught me off-guard, but also because she was one of my favorites among the show’s scores of schemers, her machinations imbued with a smirking cockiness by Natalie Dormer. It’s not just that Game Of Thrones relishes taking these characters away—it’s that it’s invested in making you feel their absence, too. For all his loathsome traits, I do miss having Joffrey Baratheon to kick around.

And as for that creeping sense of the inevitable: That was always going to affect a show where prophecy and destiny drive so much of the action. And even as certain elements of those forecasts come true, like the “shrouds” designated to Cersei’s three children, it has created intrigue about others. Until the events of the last season finale, there was still uncertainty about who would fulfill the “younger and more beautiful, to cast you down and take all that you hold dear” part of Maggy The Frog’s message to Cersei. All men must die, all men must serve, winter is coming, the prince that was promised—this is a shallow read, but certainty is a central tension on Game Of Thrones, with or without dozens of Redditors dissecting those certainties.

And if Game Of Thrones’ unpredictability was essential to your enjoyment of your Sunday-night premium-cable appointments, take comfort in this: Try as it might, the internet’s not going to predict where Twin Peaks goes next.