When creating a story you begin leading the reader down a path. You know where you’re going, or at least can pretend to know, but the reader does not. But, with some well laid out clues and foreshadowing, they can begin to piece the map together. Now here comes the crucial bit. Are the readers right in their expectations or are you, ultimately, subverting them?
Subverting expectations is neither a good nor or a bad thing. The term is neutral after all. However, the subversion has to be earned. And yes, this is spoiler territory for the entirety of Game of Thrones again but it’s a great example.
Throughout eight seasons of Game of Thrones, we have had a series of expectations built up for us, only to have them be “subverted”. It has been a deliberate narrative device employed by the writers to illicit a response from us however that response was not earned. In season 1 of GOT, Ned Stark, a very well loved character both by the fans and in-universe, found himself on the losing end of an execution, a subversion that had many fans shocked. Given Ned Stark was a prominent point of view character, the idea that he could be dispatched like this rocked the foundations of the audience’s expectations and, as a result, fundamentally changed them.
The audience went in, expecting the main characters to be safe. The bad guys would trip on their own swords and the good guys would win. Ned Stark lived by a code of honour, a quality we, as a society, regard as a virtue. We rooted for Ned Stark and believed he could triumph over a seemingly corrupt monarchy because we, as an audience, have been taught to value honour and that it will eventually win.
However, our expectations that honour always wins was subverted when in fact, Ned’s honourable actions were used against him and he was ultimately punished for it. What that subversion then went on to do was set up a new expectation that no character, regardless of how important they were, were safe. At any one time they could be taken away from us.
Fast forward to season 8. No longer are the characters’ very lives at stake, even when pitted against the very threat that’s been building since the first ever episode; The Night King himself. Arya, who up until this point has had very little to do with the “Threat Beyond The Wall” plotline is seen fit to nip it in the bud over Jon Snow who’s entire arc has revolved around it. His arc, the classic hero's journey, now feels unfulfilled as everything he has struggled through amounted to nothing as it was stolen by his little sister for the sake of a subversion.
The subversion did not feel earned as these were not realistic consequences of their actions. Rather, to create this set up they had to completely undermine the characters at their core and deny the audience a satisfying conclusion to the characters’ arcs. Thus, subverting the expectations of the audience has, in fact, resulted in very poor writing particularly when juxtaposed with the ending to season 1.
In the end the biggest subversion of the show was how badly they would end this epic and that the real threat to Westeros was not Cersei, Daenerys or even the Night King. It was the writers themselves.
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Emma_Clare at 12:00AM, May 17, 2019
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