As the outraged multitudes blasted social media with their feelings about what should and should not have happened during the penultimate episode of “Game of Thrones,” my thoughts turned, strangely enough, to Little Nell.
“The Old Curiosity Shop,” like many of Charles Dickens’ works, was published in installments, and as those installments evolved into a novel, readers began to have very strong feelings about the fate of its homeless, poverty-stricken protagonist Nell Trent, and many wrote to Dickens begging him to spare her.
Spoiler alert: He did not.
Many people objected, for many reasons (Oscar Wilde famously observed that “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing”) but “The Old Curiosity Shop” was a hit even so. And as far as I know no one was angry that they had “wasted all this time” with a story that did not end they way they wanted it to or publicly threatened to never read anything by Dickens again (which is a good thing, since most of his best-loved novels were to come).
But then Dickens didn’t have to deal with Twitter.
The reaction to last Sunday night’s episode of “Game of Thrones” was over the top even by reaction-to-“Game of Thrones” standards. When Daenerys decided to raze King’s Landing after the city’s surrender and in spite of her counselor’s advice, many people decided to raze “Game of Thrones.”
In an avalanche of outraged tweets, creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were accused of misogyny, laziness, character abandonment, nihilism, preoccupation with their next project and a disregard for their audience or the show’s legacy.
It was glorious, a symphony of angry superfans.
Didn’t the writers know we all wanted Dany to be the good queen to Cersei’s bad one?
That Dany had previously been a woman of peace (despite owing her success almost entirely to dragons)? That we had completely different deaths in mind for Cersei and Jaime, that we are not rooting for Jon because he is a dishrag, that we wanted the evil Qyburn to suffer more?
Didn’t Weiss and Benioff remember how “The Lord of the Rings,” which they have referenced several times, ended with a bunch of cool marriages, general happiness and a brand new Party Tree in the Shire? (Never mind Frodo, Gandalf and a bunch of the Elves going to the Grey Havens, which is Tolkien-speak for dying.) Who’s going to get married and plant the new Party Tree at the end of “Game of Thrones”? No one, it seems. How can happiness prevail in any way with just one episode left? Was all this war for nothing?
Well, maybe. George R.R. Martin, who consulted with Weiss and Benioff on how the show should end, was a conscientious objector after all, so one assumes he takes a rather dim view of war.
And maybe not, since, you know, the show is not over yet. But that doesn’t matter; for many superfans, and quite a few critics, the show they hoped to see is over, because, alas, it never existed — they are left instead with the one written by the writers who made them superfans in the first place.
As my colleague Todd Martens wrote in 2016, the rise of the superfan has long been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has kept television alive in the wake of dwindling audience numbers. On the other, well, obsession leads to expectation, expectation to demands and, when those go unfulfilled, anger and resentment.
This doesn’t mean that criticism isn’t deserved or that reaction isn’t important — the conversations sparked by “Game of Thrones” and other shows are wonderful and necessary because they reflect issues that are far larger than any particular story. Any television show that provokes this depth of feeling about topics including pacing, character development, inclusivity and the depiction of women is a win no matter how it ends.
Also, I am a big fan of outrage when warranted, but even though things are not going at all the way I had “planned” this season, I am more happy that we still don’t know how this wildly anticipated, highly parsed show is going to end.
Also, I did not understand this particular explosion of outrage. (She pauses to acknowledge the irony of offering an episodic opinion after lecturing on the dangers of them.) Daenerys has been very clear about her goals throughout the show. She came to Westeros to attack King’s Landing and take the Iron Throne; she has repeatedly said she will burn cities to the ground to do this.
Jon convinced her to put a pin in that and go north to fight the White Walkers. Which, unlike Cersei, she did, at great personal and political cost. And she hung in there even after Jon told her, with the worst possible timing ever, that he had a better claim to the throne than she, and also they are related.
Daenerys lost one dragon saving Jon and then half her armies saving Winterfell. She knows that without her dragons there is no way Arya would have survived to kill the Night King.
And what does she get? No celebration of her role, little respect as a queen, continual side eye from Sansa and a lot of foot-dragging from her supposed allies when it comes time to return the favor.
On the way back from the North, where she never planned to go in the first place, she loses another dragon, her best friend and her fleet. One of her advisors starts plotting against her and suddenly all the people who were so happy to use her fire power when they needed it are wondering if having a queen with a dragon is really such a good idea.
To add insult to injury, Jon decides that their relationship should really be just professional and Tyrion, who has been giving her terrible advice and literally defying her wishes, keeps telling her to calm down.
Instead, she decides to do what Olenna Tyrell told her to do before everything got crazy: Ignore the men and be the Mother of Dragons.
Which is not at all the same as going crazy.
The notion of a merciful leader who rules with dragons has always been a contradiction, whether audiences wanted to admit it or not, and no one mobilizes the Dothraki for a peaceful takeover. They are a horde for goodness sake.
And as for King’s Landing, well, from the beginning, it has been portrayed as a perfectly dreadful place, the physical embodiment of all sorts of corruption, where nothing good ever happens and no one really wants to go.
The fact that it was extra-full of civilians created the first real moral crisis Daenerys has faced, and she chose what so many have chosen: To commit a horrific act for what she believes is the greater good by establishing herself as queen once and for all.
She did try kindness first, but that didn’t seem to be working out.
Or maybe this is not what she was thinking at all. Maybe she no longer cares about mercy and has gone full Targaryen and would happily kill everyone.
Maybe she will feel really bad the next day and order Drogon put down and then she and Jon will move to the North and build a little house by that waterfall. Maybe Arya or Tyrion will kill her before she gets a chance. Maybe she does become queen, restarting the cycle of oppression and rebellion and somewhere outside the Wall, another Night King is being created.
Maybe some maester will resurrect Little Nell and she’ll grow up to be a real jerk.
Like “The Old Curiosity Shop,” “Game of Thrones” is a story and stories require surrender, which is hard, especially as the story comes to an end. More than any other art form, television requires an act of faith — books, films, plays, symphonies, art shows are all released and reviewed in their entirety. If you choose, you can have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into.
Not so with TV, or at least this kind of TV. This kind of TV has conflict built in: You may not want the experience ruined by spoilers and critics but you also don’t want to wind up feeling played. It’s a gamble.
That’s why it’s so exciting.
So maybe the ending will suck and we’ll all be disappointed and burn our Khaleesi T-shirts and wish we’d never subscribed to HBO or HBO Now in the first place. Or maybe it will all come together in a way that makes perfect sense.
Either way, I will still consider it the greatest show ever — just look at all the triumph and despair we’ve experienced, the outrage and elation. Look at all the great conversations we’ve had about so many things.
That’s the real, and best, game in “Game of Thrones.”