Warning! this post contains lots of spoilers for both Avengers: Endgame and Season 8 of Game of Thrones so, if you’re not all caught up, please read no further.
last chance – spoilers ahead!
I didn’t know quite where to start with this post. I’ve had thoughts buzzing around ever since I watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones, The Long Night. What I saw was rumbling around in my brain and mixing together with some other thoughts that I’d already had and I thought I’d just have to vomit it all up onto the page as I am about to do in order to be able to process things and move on. It’s been a real treat in the past week or so to have so many things to look forward to. To have the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers plot and the war between the living and the dead all in the space of a few days is a real treat. The only thing is, I was left feeling a little empty after the latest of these.
I’ve heard the term ‘fan service’ used quite a bit over the last couple of years and, if I’m honest, I’ve never been exactly sure what the proper definition of it is. My interpretation of it is that it is where creators of narratives, whether they be in print or on screen, insert things into plots specifically to keep groups of fans happy or engaged. A random example would be Chris O’Donnell saying “Wholly rusted metal, Batman!” in 1995’s Batman Forever. It’s a nod for fans of the Adam West series in the 60’s where Robin would say “Holy…” followed by whatever the point was. There’s no need for it in the plot. It’s just a nice little nod to the fans. A little bit of it goes a long way. Too much of it can be grating. I always felt that Only Fools and Horses went much too far into fan service in its later episodes, where it seemed like we couldn’t make it through an episode without having some awkward reference to something that had gone before. Another terrible example is Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which seemed incapable of making it through five minutes of screen time without making a ham-handed reference to a previous film (the most egregious example of this being a tactlessly placed photograph of the late Denholm Elliot). I also see fan service as having plots play out in a certain way simply in order to keep fans happy, for example, making sure two characters end up together romantically at the end of a film (the hero gets the girl, etc). A nice showing of how this last one can be turned on its head is Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile. At the end of the first film, Jack and Joan are together just as we expected and hoped and its all romantic, and then at the beginning of Jewel of the Nile, they are really struggling in an actual relationship because they don’t have a lot in common besides adventures.
To illustrate my thoughts on this subject, and help organise my concerns about the way that episode 3 of Game of Thrones’ final season played out, I’m going to look at it alongside three other recent examples of big projects: Star Wars: the Last Jedi, Twin peak: The Return, and Avengers: Endgame. Now, taking on all four of these controversial subjects in one article is probably going to get me strung up by a large proportion of any number of fan communities if I’m not careful so I should probably preface this whole thing by saying that I love all of them.
I’m a proud member of so many fan communities. Through my writing over the past three years on this website, I’ve had so many interactions in so many groups and I love the diversity of opinions that you find. I love it especially when people can accept that everyone else doesn’t think like you. I usually start these kinds of article by saying that what I’ve written here is just my opinion. If you disagree, please tell me why in the comments. I will listen. Chances are there will only be about ten people who read this thing so I’ll probably even respond if you do comment.
I’ve reached this point and I don’t know where to start, so I’m going to pick one at random…
Twin Peaks: The Return
This perhaps occupies its own place on the spectrum, being that there is little or no fan service in any of its 18 episodes. David Lynch’s decision to stick firmly to his own vision when directing the massive script that he and Mark Frost wrote can be described in any number of ways: brave, stubborn, cavalier, unappreciative. In fact, the only thing it does for fans of the original show is to immediately exclude anyone else from the outset. It’s made very clear to anyone who is new in town that they are not welcome. You have to know what went before if you’re even going to attempt to make sense of what is going on. As my friend Cameron over at Obnoxious and Anonymous has pointed out on many occasions, it isn’t like watching season 3; its like watching season 27 and having to fill in the blanks yourself about what might have been going on for the last 25 seasons. From the very beginning, the only fan service is the fact that you are allowed on the bus. Once on board, you shouldn’t expect anything to be done to live up to your expectations.
All that said, there are some nice callbacks to the original series and the film, but these seem more like Lynch and Frost’s little retrospectives for themselves (a look back over their own careers) rather than for anyone watching. Because of this we, the viewers, had no idea what was coming from week to week. Were we going to see our favourite characters? Were we going to see Agent Cooper back to his crime-fighting best? You know the answers now. At the time, we were left to twist in the wind, watching someone push a broom around for three minutes to the tune of Green Onions. This was a domain where nothing was done for the fans. As a result, a great many fans of the original series felt underappreciated; deprived of all the things that they loved about what had come before. Some felt insulted; others felt that this new iteration felt cold and disjointed and that they were left with more questions than answers. Those of us who were able to embrace the new vision and pick out of it things to love knew that however we hoped it would end, the chances are it was going to be nothing like we expected. People would unpick episode titles prior to airing and try to figure out what they might mean. Universally, people were wrong. David Lynch is an auteur: a creator who is true to his vision and detests the thought of adding or taking away anything from his product to suit someone else’s. Going in, we all had to accept that. It’s what made the original series so great. All along, though, we hoped there would be a nugget of the comfortable; a little nod to us for all our perseverance. The net effect on some fans was to feel that they had rescued a wasp from a spider’s web only to have it sting their fingers.
So, take The Return. It does very little, if anything, to service fans. let’s put that to one side for a moment and look at something else.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
I’ve loved Rian Johnson’s work since Brick. You can read why I love that film here. It’s clear that he was trying to do something a little different and put his own mark on the Star Wars Universe in The Last Jedi. Unfortunately for him, many people weren’t prepared to accept it. They weren’t prepared for their heroes to act in strange ways; for Luke Skywalker to toss his lightsaber to the ground and walk away. With Star Wars, he was dealing with such ingrained attitudes and expectations, most of which were fostered in the childhoods of their fans. these expectations are dangerous to mess with as he found out.
Some people went as far as to suggest that there was too much fan service in The Last Jedi; that the entire film was a marketing stunt designed to bow down to women and the LGBTQ community. They suggested that the entire plot was the brainchild of Kathleen Kennedy purposefully to stick a middle finger up at every white male fan in the world.
Personally, I think Johnson came up with a unique take on the mythology that we are used to. He tried to do something a little bit different and threw in some wonderful visuals. Unfortunately, Star Wars sits in its own area, much like the Avengers does as you’ll see below. Star Wars is a fantasy. It has to conform to the fantasy elements that it always has. Good guys will win. Right will prevail. Star Wars does not admit grey areas. Even Han Solo, presented to us a smuggler and a criminal, never actually does anything remotely shady in the entire span of his character. It’s hinted at but never shown. Ok, he shoots Greedo in cold blood but Greedo is a bad guy so he gets a pass. Star Wars is very Black and White. Darth Vader is bad, and then he’s not. There are perhaps a few seconds where he is conflicted, but these are climactic moments that define him. They’re not littered throughout. We aren’t shown him agonising over the poor dude that he chokes to death for insulting him in a meeting.
In the arena of Star Wars, people have to stick to type for the most part or the whole fantasy falls apart. We sit down expecting the good guys to win and, while it might be dicey for a while (we might even end a film on a bit of a down note), we know that’s where we’re going to end up. Within The Last Jedi we are asked to look at more grey in both Luke and Kylo and I just think this is too risky in the Star Wars framework. It certainly doesn’t work for lots of fans. I think Kylo Ren is a great character and Adam Driver does a fantastic job realising him on screen. I’m veering off the point here. The plot of The Last Jedi does have some lovely moments of fan service (how nice was it to see Yoda again?) and for the most part they are handled well.
With a three hour running time, Endgame had plenty of chances to play around and make fans happy. They took every single one of them. Avengers has managed to play with grey areas since the first film, building things up nicely to a point where we could be given some really cathartic payoffs. The way they chose to work Endgame, bringing the characters back through time into previous films was a wonderful way to pay tribute to what had gone before, while giving fans a new perspective on things. When Captain America meets his future self and says, “I can do this all day,” the reaction from his counterpart was perfect; the payoff for so much screen time through the series of films. This is fan service at its very best. Every character was given their own moment to shine within the larger whole. At no time did this feel forced. It just added up to a brilliant three hours of entertainment. The death of Tony Stark provided the perfect payoff for his interaction with Steve Rogers in the first Avengers film, where it was questioned as to whether he could sacrifice himself to make ‘the hero play’. All the plot strands that had been weaved into the material were tied up in a neat bow and that’s a real credit to those involved.
Throughout the Avengers films, we know that people are going to arrive in the nick of time to save the day. It’s what we expect because that’s the kind of Universe we’re in. It’s just like Star Wars as I mentioned above. Good guys win! When all looks bleak, chances are we’re going to hear from Alan Silvestri and someone is going to show up to help out. If someone is taking their last breath and are surrounded by foes, we know that someone is going to swoop in and save them. That’s fantasy, and that is what we want when we sit down to watch this kind of material. It’s what makes grown men whoop and cheer when this kind of thing happens. (skip to 1:13 if you want to save time)
That brings me neatly on to the real reason that I wrote this. I wanted to organise my thoughts about…
The Long Night (Game of Thrones 8:3)
When you’re creating a narrative, I think it’s important to stick to your own vision of what should happen, like David Lynch did with Twin Peaks as I mentioned above, rather than bowing down to pressure from the assumed expectations of others. After all, who are we making these stories for? George R R Martin had a story to tell and he’s still in the middle of it. The corporate behemoth that the televised series has become since its inception has overtaken the author and turned into a far more ‘by committee’ approach on the surface from Benioff and Weiss.
Game of Thrones set itself up as something completely different. It was fantasy, but not the fantasy that we’re used to seeing. In Game of Thrones, the good guys didn’t always win. In fact, they rarely won at all. Most of the time they got their heads chopped off. When I watched Season 1 all those years ago, and I saw Ilyn Payne’s sword swinging down towards poor Ned Stark, I still expected him to survive. I thought there had to be some get out, like in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Someone will save him. They didn’t. A couple of seasons later, I was watching a nice wedding and everyone had buried the hatchet, and then something happened that genuinely scarred me for days. In this world of Westeros, the danger was real. There was no escape when things were bleak. This created in me, and maybe I’m not alone, a real sense of tension between each scene. Anything could happen. Any of your favourites could be taken from you. Just because someone was popular, didn’t mean they would survive; just ask little Shireen Baratheon!
However, since we overtook the literary source material, more and more times we have veered back towards the kinds of tropes that we expect in Star Wars and Avengers. Now, before I go any further, let me say, I loved this episode. I thought it was brilliantly filmed and acted. I loved that Arya was the one; I think that’s a stroke of genius and brilliantly built up through previous seasons. I loved that Ser Jorah was able to die defending his Khaleesi one last time, I didn’t mind how dark it was because it’s night time and it’s a battle and it made everything so urgent. Also, there is a brightness control on my TV for occasions like this.
So what’s my problem? Well, I was tense all the way through the episode so that’s good. I had a genuine concern for people on screen fighting for their lives; that’s good too. At the end, I thought: this is not going to live with me the way Oberyn, Ned Stark or the Red Wedding are going to.
If we look at the logical universe that Game of Thrones established in its opening seasons, then the following should be true at the end of The Long Night, and I don’t want deaths and gore because it’s exciting; I want it because it makes sense in the narrative that we’ve been brought into for seven seasons. So, here is how things should look:
Jon is dead (really he should never have made it back from beyond the wall that last time but I’ll give him a pass for being a hero. Dany is dead, Jaime and Brienne are dead, Sam is so dead, Grey Worm looked like he was holding his own so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I’ll also give the people in the crypts the benefit of the doubt as we never saw exactly how many dead people burst out on them. Also, Ser Jorah was dead much earlier. I can’t say exactly what Ser Davos was doing through the nasty part of the battle but I don’t like his chances either.
This is what happens if we believe in the consequence-heavy universe that Game of Thrones set up for itself. We were invited to buy in and now it seems that the rules have changed. If Jon is surrounded by wights with no way out, next time we see him he will have got to safety. If he’s confronted by a dragon in the courtyard, he can just yell at it and things will be OK. The problem we have is that there is all this narrative baggage to sort out. WE knew going in to episode 3 that both Lannister brothers were safe. Really, we knew. Why? Because we have the Bronn plotline to resolve. What would the point be of introducing that if there wasn’t going to be a payoff? The downside is that it means the tension is gone. It’s the same with Jon and Dany. We knew they were safe too because they need to resolve what came before. With Bronn, it could just as easily have been written that Qyburn told him the Queen had a job for him. We didn’t need to know what it was. We’re clever people and we could have guessed at it. We wouldn’t have known, though, and that would in turn mean that we wouldn’t know that Jaime and Tyrion were safe at Winterfell.
I’m fine with the Dothraki riding off, swords blazing, towards the approaching army. It’s a puzzling tactic under the circumstances but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t cinematic. But if you want to show us real stakes, when Jorah rode back into camp, his eyes should have been blue. That would have made us sit up and pay attention; that means all bets are off.
Now I’m not one who usually tells people how to do it. As a fan I just want to be treated consistently. What I loved about Game of Thrones was the way it was a fantasy grounded in the grim realities of a medieval setting. Now, I could be wrong here. There are still three episodes to come and they could be the most brilliant, shocking conclusion to the story that we could ever hope for. I have to say that I feel a sense of anti-climax building in me that I hope is misplaced. For the past seven seasons we have been building towards the great war; the war between the living and the dead. We had an antagonist of truly epic proportions. Within the space of an hour and twenty minutes, that has all been resolved. I know there are budgetary constraints but this seems like a little bit of a weak resolution to all that build up. I’ll have to wait for the last three episodes to see the reasoning behind this. Benioff and Weiss have stated that they want everyone to be happy at the end, and that makes me a little worried. What I want to hear from them is that they don’t care whether we’re happy or not; they’ve made the absolute best product they can. That would make me more confident.
Now, I want to draw this to a close by thinking about fan service. It would seem that fan service is what we expect in certain genres and when it is done well, it makes us all feel loved and appreciated. I think that consistency is the key in this. If you’ve set yourself up to treat fans in a certain way, then it works beautifully. If that means that you’re going to make allowances for fans and include them in the process then it can work beautifully as it does with the MCU, which is a tremendous amount of fun, even after 22 films. If you make no allowances whatsoever as David Lynch does, you may alienate people, but you retain the artistic integrity of your work. If you change tack halfway through, as Game of Thrones seems to have done, the result can be disorientating for the audience and it can put at great risk the suspension of disbelief at the heart of any fantasy story.
I am a fan of all the things I’ve been talking about in this piece. As someone who is trying to come up with a narrative of my own, constantly facing decisions about how things should play out and looking for reasons and motivations for the things that happen, I know how difficult it is. I’m a little bit disappointed by The Long Night, but only because it comes out of something that I willingly acknowledge is one of the greatest series ever on television. What should have been a powerhouse episode never actually reached the heights of Hardhome, Watchers on the Wall, Battle of the B******s or Beyond the Wall.
Thanks for reading,
If you want to see any more of my writing, this would be the best place to start