It’s been less than a week, but it’s already hard to recall a time when we were not collectively withering under the blazing sun of a billion Game of Thrones hot takes. Even if you’ve never watched the show or read the books, you probably still know who died, who wound up as ruler of Westeros, and who finally pet his Very Good Dog in the show’s finale, simply due to the vast number of reactions, reviews, criticisms, and defenses that have been posted online in the wake of “The Iron Throne.”
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that the end of the fantasy series has proven to be a cultural rallying point rarely found in our current landscape of Peak TV, where there are always too many shows and never enough time to watch them all. But for the past eight years, for a couple months each spring (or summer, in the case of Season 7), a remarkably large number of us have managed to carve out an hour each week for the high-stakes world of Game of Thrones, eager to see who wins, who dies, who gets baked into a pie, who rides a dragon, and who occasionally turns into a bird. Gathered together around our digital water cooler, we speculated and theorized, mourned and raged, hoped and celebrated as the Starks, Lannisters, and all the rest battled it out for the Iron Throne.
Yet now that the final episode has aired and the ash has settled, the reactions from fans have been… shall we call it intense? While some people loved it, most viewers felt highly dissatisfied, as evidenced by the episode’s abysmal Rotten Tomatoes score, currently sitting at a rotten 49% (the series as a whole still holds a very respectable 89%). Common criticisms include unearned character choices, left-field plot twists, and unsatisfying resolutions to many of the questions the show spent eight years convincing us were important.
In the years days that have followed the Game of Thrones finale, these arguments have called to mind the final episode of a very different show, one which took an entirely different approach to its storytelling, yet wound up dividing its fanbase in a remarkably similar fashion.
Recently, I’ve found myself in a surprising number of conversations about the LOST series finale — which aired nine years ago this week — likely because people have had divisive endings on the brain ever since Game of Thrones Season 8 started heading south (both literally and figuratively). While LOST was a show that tended to prioritize character over plot, and the opposite has recently been said of Game of Thrones, both were series with sprawling ensemble casts and a heavy emphasis on mythology, which wound up shocking and angering their massive fanbases in their final episodes. And the criticisms of both shows have been largely similar, claiming that their endings were unearned, unsatisfying, and failed to deliver on the promises the shows had made throughout their preceding seasons.
Cards on the table: I did not like the Game of Thrones finale, and I adored the LOST finale. I loved it so much that I’ll still rewatch bits and pieces of it on a regular basis when I just need an emotional jump start, either in the form of a cathartic cry, or a happy, um… cry. (That finale is really emotional, okay?)
And what I’ve been thinking about lately, as a person who has found myself on both sides of a particularly zeitgeisty and poorly received finale, is this idea that I’ve heard tossed around by finale fans of both shows: that if you didn’t like it, you are a “hater” who “just wasn’t paying attention.”
This has always struck me as odd for a couple reasons. One, while hate-watching is definitely a thing some people do, it seems reasonable to assume that most of the time when someone carves out the time in their schedule to watch every episode of a show over the course of many years, right on through to the end, it’s because they actually like it. There are way too many options available to us to waste our time on shows we can’t stand. I definitely don’t hate Game of Thrones; I love Game of Thrones, and have spent an embarrassing number of hours in my life analyzing it, speculating about where it will go, and just plain fangirling over my favorite characters (R.I.P. Margaery; I have missed you every minute of every episode since you’ve been gone).
Only when I care about something deeply can it truly disappoint me. It’s hard to get super riled up about a show I’m only sort-of invested in. The only shows that can make me savagely angry are the ones that, at least at one point in time, I loved. I suspect this is true for a lot of us.
But the other thing that has never quite sat right with me is this idea that to be dissatisfied with a show’s ending means that you “just weren’t paying attention.”
Didn’t find Daenerys’ murderous heel turn believable? You just weren’t paying attention.
Didn’t think the flash-sideways was satisfying? You just weren’t paying attention.
Didn’t buy Tyrion’s argument that Bran should get the melted remnants of the Iron Throne? You just weren’t paying attention.
Didn’t like when Christian Shepherd showed up in the church? You just weren’t paying attention.
Didn’t think Jon getting sent back to the Night’s Watch made sense? You just weren’t paying attention.
In a way, this logic makes sense. After all, if a show’s ending makes sense to you, then it seems reasonable to assume that someone who didn’t like it must have missed all the details that made it click in your mind. They failed to pick up on the foreshadowing that you caught, they weren’t listening to the conversations you heard, and they didn’t connect the dots that were clearly right in front of their faces.
Or maybe it was the show’s thematic throughlines that they missed. They wanted a happy ending, when this show has never been about happy endings. They wanted their favorite character to live, when they should’ve realized that the best characters always die. They wanted things to make sense, in a story that has consistently been about chaos.
But when I think about what I loved about the LOST finale, and what I hated about the Game of Thrones finale, it turns out that some of the elements that drove me up a wall in “The Iron Throne” were things I was perfectly happy to dismiss in “The End,” and it’s not because I wasn’t paying attention; it’s because of what I was paying attention to.
People watch shows for any number of reasons: some for the characters, others for the twists and turns of the plot, and others simply to be surprised. Whether or not you’ll find the ending of a show satisfying tends to rely on the reason why you were watching the show in the first place, and how closely the finale aligned with your interests.
For me, I always watched LOST for the characters, and not so much for the weirdly convoluted sci-fi plot. While I was curious about the polar bears and smoke monsters, the biggest question I had as it approached its end was not about the Dharma Initiative, time travel, or immortal island guardians, but what would ultimately happen to these characters I cared about. And that’s exactly what the finale gave me: two hours of showing me that everyone I’d ever loved on the show was going to be okay — even if they did, eventually, die (as everyone does). “The End” wasn’t satisfying to everyone in its audience by a long shot, but it was satisfying to me because the elements that it decided to pay off were exactly the things I’d been paying the closest attention to and cared about the most the whole time. Because it hit the notes I wanted it to hit, I was willing to overlook quite a bit that was far lower on my list of priorities.
Conversely, this is why I was left so dissatisfied by the Game of Thrones finale. It turns out that, in the end, the elements I’d been most invested in during my eight years of watching the show weren’t the same things that the showrunners cared about. Like with LOST, I had been watching for the characters, but this time, the finale didn’t cater to my interests at all. Instead, it focused on delivering a rapid-fire series of intentionally shocking plot resolutions, many of which felt at odds with the character arcs I had cared about so deeply.
While I will probably remain convinced that Game of Thrones’ final season was rushed and disjointed until the day I die, it’s interesting that while I was perfectly willing to shrug off some of LOST’s bigger mysteries being left open-ended, it drove me up a wall when the same thing happened in Game of Thrones. Neither finale was perfect, but with LOST, since my primary show-watching needs were being met, it became a lot easier to let all the other stuff slide. Whereas with Game of Thrones, when the things I cared about most were left unresolved, everything else grated that much more.
This isn’t to argue that all finales are good, or that we shouldn’t criticize anything because everything is a matter of opinion and priorities. It’s true that art is subjective, but there’s still a lot of technical craft involved in its creation, and it’s fair to critique a sloppy execution, or to feel betrayed when a show delivers something totally different than what it seemed to originally promise. But no matter how we feel about the way the things we love end, and whether or not our criticism or praise feels technically valid, it’s good to remember that even when someone totally disagrees with us, that doesn’t necessarily mean they love it any less, or that they weren’t paying just as much attention as we were. We may have just been paying attention to two different things.
I don’t regret the time I spent watching Game of Thrones, or the emotional energy I invested in it. For eight years, it was something to look forward to, something to talk about incessantly with friends, something that thrilled and surprised me, and broke my heart in the best possible ways. No, I was not pleased with how it ended, but that’s the risk we take when we fall in love with a show. We have no guarantees that we’ll like where the journey ends, or that the people forging the path even know where we want to go; all we can know is that we’ve had fun along the way.