Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How to say goodbye

with 4 comments

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Spoilers follow for Mad Men, The Vampire Diaries, and Game of Thrones.

Earlier this month, in the span of less than a week, I said goodbye to three television shows that had been part of my life for a long time. One farewell, to Mad Men, was an involuntary one, forced by its series finale; the others, to The Vampire Diaries and Game of Thrones, were a matter of choice. And while my decision to bail on the latter two might seem to have clear reasons—namely a major cast change and a repellent scene of sexual violence—it was really more gradual and complicated. When we fall out of love with a show, it’s often like the end of any relationship, where it can be hard to pinpoint the moment when it all went wrong. In many cases, as with Glee, I can barely remember when or why I stopped watching. And even a more obvious trigger might only catalyze a growing sense of disillusionment. At first glance, it might seem that I gave up on The Vampire Diaries because Nina Dobrev, its ostensible lead, was leaving, or that I’m abandoning Game of Thrones because of what it did to Sansa Stark and how it did it. Really, though, I’m bowing out because of a calculation, reluctant in one case and decisive in the other, that neither show is the best use of my limited time. An isolated scene or cast departure isn’t likely to send viewers packing if a series remains rewarding in other ways. But in both cases, sadly, the shows made my choice an easy one.

This becomes all the more clear when we compare it to a show that I loved and savored until the very end. The last scene of Mad Men is fiendishly clever, almost a little too clever, but the more I think about it, the more impressed I am at how perfectly it encapsulates everything the series, and particularly the character of Don Draper, has been building toward for years. Matthew Weiner hit on the one perfect image that both tied a bow on the story and raised countless questions of its own, and it works because of how deeply he understood and identified with Don himself. And it looks even better next to The Vampire Diaries, which muddled through Elena Gilbert’s endgame precisely because it never quite figured out who she was. Elena, at her best, was a compelling, resourceful heroine, but after season after season of personality changes, possessions, and memory wipes—and the inexplicable choices she made just because the story demanded it—we were left with an empty shell. (It’s no accident that Elena is sidelined for most of her own last episode, asleep in a magical coma while the real action unfolds everywhere else.) And if I’m bidding farewell to a show I once really liked, it isn’t because I’ll miss Elena so much, but because a series that can’t decide what to do with its protagonist doesn’t seem likely to make smart choices once she’s gone.

Sophie Turner and Iwan Rheon on Game of Thrones

Any series that runs for an extended length of time will experience a few bumpy transitions, and the real issue is less about any one development than about whether the show can be trusted thereafter to pay back our investment. This is what makes the case of Game of Thrones so interesting, and ultimately so sad. What many of its defenders fail to recognize is that the issue isn’t a rape scene in itself, but its presentation, its context, and what it says about the narrative strategy—or lack thereof—of the series as a whole. For its first two seasons, this was an uneven but masterfully paced show that burned quickly through plots and knew how to balance subversion with payoffs. Later, perhaps as the showrunners realized that they were coming too rapidly to the end of the material in the books, it began, for lack of a better word, to stall: long stretches of inaction or reversions to the same few beats were punctuated by the “Oh, shit” moments that were the only way it knew to hold our attention. Even a year ago, this pattern was becoming grindingly obvious, and using Sansa’s rape as an episode’s punchline only confirmed how mechanical, even lazy, the approach had grown. In particular, the fact that the show’s writers thought that it was a good idea to capitalize on it, after a similar scene had aroused such outrage the previous season, implies that they’re either clueless or don’t care. And neither possibility fills me with much hope that this show will continue to be worth watching.

It all boils down, as I said before, to a question of trust. A show with any narrative ambition asks for some degree of patience from its viewers: when we don’t know where a story is going, we can only hope that we’re in good hands. Game of Thrones has slowly been squandering that goodwill for a long time, and last week’s episode eliminated what little remained. It’s a show that no longer seems to remember that a subversion of the viewer’s expectations can only be justified if the payoff is greater than if it had been played straight, and for too long, this series has been all subversion and stasis without any reward. (Even if Sansa’s arc is “going somewhere,” as I’m sure the writers would insist, it’s a basic mistake to put the scene of her wedding night at the end of an episode, without any sense of what comes next, which leaves us with nothing to anticipate except whether our time would be better spent catching up with old episodes of Deadwood.) I honestly don’t know how I might have reacted to the scene if this season of Game of Thrones had been consistently fantastic, any more than I know if I’d still be watching The Vampire Diaries in Elena Gilbert’s absence if the show had maintained its quality from its height. Both had a good run, but in the end, they lost the narrative trust that Mad Men maintained up to its final minute. And it’s why I watched one show to the very end, and I’m saying goodbye to the others now.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2015 at 10:16 am

4 Responses

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  1. Saying farewell to a TV show and its characters is a loss and there is a time of mourning and transition. I agree that sometimes its best to say farewell to a program that has stuck around too long.

    Tony Burgess

    May 25, 2015 at 10:18 am

  2. (Possible spoilers)

    I agree with what you have to say in accordance to Ramsay raping Sansa. But for me, the point where I realized the pattern of “Oh Shit” moments was when D&D killed off Barristan Selmy. I have to point it out since we’re already on the subject. He was called Barristan the Bold for a reason. It was lousy enough for the writers to kill him off with great injustice. He’s one of the great fighters in Westeros and yet he was murdered by ~untrained~ cowards who hid behind masks.

    F.R.V.

    May 25, 2015 at 10:22 am

  3. @F.R.V.: That scene bothered me, too. I know it was sold as the kind of epic battle sequence that the series does so well, but it just seemed so inconsequential—there wasn’t anything at stake that justified the exit of that particular character.

    nevalalee

    June 1, 2015 at 9:02 pm

  4. @Tony Burgess: It reminds me of that exchange from Eyes Wide Shut: “I never did understand why you walked away.” “No? It’s a nice feeling. I do it a lot.”

    nevalalee

    June 1, 2015 at 9:03 pm


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