One attempted to give fans everything they said they wanted while the other openly defied those expectations; one concluded with happily ever after while the other basked in tragedy and a lack of resolution; and one made its central heroine an official Skywalker while the other stabbed her in the heart. This is the tale of two massive endings to two of the past decade’s most celebrated fantasies, Star Wars and Game of Thrones. Yet together they make one mirror, each reflecting the different roads that can be taken to the same endpoint: crushing disappointment among fans.
2019 began with massive anticipation for the impending finales to three of geekdom’s most prized properties (Avengers: Endgame being the third). But in the case of Game of Thrones and the “Skywalker Saga” that the entire Star Wars brand is built upon, nothing but division and acrimony followed. HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels finished first, seeing the critical raves drop from around 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes during the first two episodes of season 8 to a scathing 48 percent for the finale. The fans were harsher, with nearly two million of them signing a Change.org petition demanding a remake of the final season tailored to their specifications.
The Rise of Skywalker earned a similarly tepid reception on Rotten Tomatoes with a 54 percent score, and by all accounts has continued to divide a fanbase already split after Rian Johnson’s ambitious The Last Jedi subverted and deepened the Star Wars mythos. And judging by the newly bubbling fan movement to #ReleasetheJJCut among angry Twitter users, The Rise of Skywalker’s own reversal of Johnson’s changes is only growing discord.
This is not to say that all or even most viewers who enjoy these properties were heartbroken by the treatment of fictional characters. A professional poll conducted by The Hollywood Reporter/Morning Consult found that 63 percent of viewers liked the Game of Thrones finale, and it did win a number of Emmys for its final year, including Best Drama. Also, while hardly an enthusiastic rating, CinemaScore’s opening weekend poll showed most audiences graded The Rise of Skywalker with a “B+” (down from the “As” The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens earned). Nevertheless, if one dares enter fan driven communities on Reddit or Twitter, it is like charging headlong into an army of White Walkers with a single torch as your protection. What is fascinating about the alleged failure of both properties, however, is not that they took different paths to get to the same place, but that their parallel disappointments suggest much about the inherent challenges of “ending” a popular narrative in the 21st cenutry. Both creative and commercial.
Prior to the height of the online backlash, Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were fairly candid about the ending to their pop culture phenomenon. For instance, they famously said the key reason they refused to let the series’ closest approximation to a traditional fantasy hero in Jon Snow—the white, male, and humble everyman who has a little bit of that Luke Skywalker steel in him—kill the Night King is because “we hope to kind of avoid the expected, and Jon Snow has always been the hero and the savior.” For that reason, they allowed young Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) to pull a clutch victory over the Army of the Dead in a moment that is tremendously cathartic… but in direct opposition to just about every fan theory ever written regarding Jon, the Night King, and the legion of unfulfilled Westerosi prophecies lingering in Martin’s novels.
Still, this choice is arguably in keeping with Martin’s ethos as a writer, which propelled Game of Thrones to popularity. From the start, Martin would tease grand high fantasy and then offer brutal reality, often drawn from historical horrors. You are promised that noble hero Ned Stark (Sean Bean) will end the corruption in King’s Landing and avenge the crippling of his son, and instead the good man is overwhelmed and then beheaded by more politically savvy courtiers. You are promised a traditional Chosen One styled savior in either Jon Snow (Kit Harington) or Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), but the latter’s “liberation” by dragonfire just ends up looking like more of the same cruelty exercised by most of the powerful in a feudal state. And the only thing Jon can do is to spare Westeros from more warfare by killing a woman he and audiences have come to love.
In its own way, Game of Thrones’ refusal to follow narrative tradition, and to actively eschew fan service, is very much part and parcel for the brand. But the execution left more than a little to be desired. Already a truncated season with only six episodes, Game of Thrones placed most of the dramatic heft of Dany’s descent into darkness on a single episode, “The Last of the Starks,” and it was similarly hurried in their plot machinations that caused other fan favorite characters to make surprising turns in a handful of minutes. Coupled with an ending openly designed to upset audiences and force them to reevaluate their relationship with these characters—and their greater relationship with the power those characters personify—the rushed and sometimes poorly plotted final season tasted as ashen as the “snow” falling on the Red Keep.
Conversely, writer-director J.J. Abrams attempted to please everybody with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. A much more archetypal and even primal story than Game of Thrones, the Skywalker Saga already flirted with subversion and deconstruction with its previous installment, The Last Jedi. In fact, it appears Lucasfilm and Abrams concluded that was the problem. While The Last Jedi made over $1 billion and received rave reviews, the social media backlash to a film that dared to suggest the Jedi were vain and Luke Skywalker could grow old and bitter—and worse die!—was so toxic that the film’s newest star, Kelly Marie Tran, deleted her Instagram presence.
Disney and Abrams’ solution to the disdain some vocal, and vocally racist, fans expressed toward Tran was to sideline her character Rose Tico in The Rise of Skywalker. Apparently a handful of other scenes were cut, but the message was clear in the less than two minutes of screen time she did have: Don’t worry, we won’t let her be one of the heroes of this film or, for that matter, the trilogy. Is this what you want?
Yet Disney and Abrams also wanted to placate those who liked The Last Jedi’s bold choices too. This in itself leads to a thematically chaotic experience where The Rise of Skywalker reveals the big bad behind everything is Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), inexplicably resurrected after meeting his end in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. But Adam Driver’s new villain Kylo Ren is still his liberated own man (kind of), as established in Johnson’s movie… one who nonetheless wears his Darth Vader fanboy helmet because fans liked it in The Force Awakens.
It’s a mismatch of creative impulses and commercial pandering that when blended together has the sound and fury of an old man explaining to you why his generation of music was better than what kids listen to today. Indeed, rather than build on The Last Jedi or even The Force Awakens, Abrams relies on his patented frantic pacing to obscure that the plot is a glorified video game fetch quest that stitches together a series of appealing moments anticipated by Reddit users who claim Star Wars was their entire childhood: like Lando showing up to explain to Poe how to defeat the First Order; or Luke appearing to Rey to explain how to fight the Emperor with his help (even though he faced Palpatine alone in ’83); or Han Solo mystifyingly appearing to remind Kylo Ren that he needs to have a redemption arc and die at the end like Vader did.
That last one even helpfully occurs on the ruins of the Second Death Star, as if the whole film is built on the tattered remains of a giant Easter Egg meant to placate angry adult fans who didn’t think their nostalgia was properly worshipped in The Last Jedi.
Both are flawed endings, although I’d personally argue Game of Thrones is the better of the two. Whatever missteps Benioff and Weiss made after running out of Martin’s source material novels, their desire to end the story in as aloof and unsparing a manner as “A Song of Ice and Fire” was plotted was a genuinely artistic one, and true to the overall narrative that preceded it. The execution was frustrating, but Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) reclaiming her ancestral home as Queen in the North, and Jon’s story not ending but simply beginning a new chapter in a thawing paradise beyond the Wall was satisfying.
Whereas Abrams playing both sides of the “Reylo” debate—with some fans adamantly opposed to a Kylo Ren and Rey (Daisy Ridley) romance and others noting the obvious sexual tension Johnson cultivated in The Last Jedi—left most everyone unimpressed after the pair made out at the end of The Rise of Skywalker and Kylo needlessly faded away. By having Ben Solo immediately die after their kiss, there is no narrative or emotional consequence to the nod toward Reylo shippers (or Johnson’s movie). He dies before they or the audience have time to process their feelings about this relationship (and whether Kylo has really yet earned redemption), which in turn is meant to appease those who hated the attraction. It’s an empty gesture toward both sides of a fandom debate. Maybe that’s why the whole movie feels like a checklist of compromises made in a conference room.
Be that as it may, each story’s failure to satisfy fans suggests there may be no way to really offer a satisfying ending to geek-based properties, especially today. As we’ve noted in the past, fan communities are notoriously averse to endings of any kind. That was true when Return of the Jedi came out nearly 40 years ago, and it is only truer now in an age where entire cottage industries have sprung up with weekly conspiracy theories made by professional speculators on YouTube and Reddit. Generally, it seems impossible to satisfy any invested fanbase in a time when fandom is grotesquely entitled, using the internet to command creators (or their premium cable network bosses) to give them the ending they think they deserve, or abusing social media to harass actresses who dare not look like them.
Avengers: Endgame, the third edge of 2019’s geeky finales, was much more universally praised by critics and fans alike, but it’s also not really an ending. To be sure, it is the end of the road for several popular characters, including Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Captain America, but the story was closer to a season finale than a series finale. And the new season began less than three months later with Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Increasingly, it appears the best conclusion that content creators must hope for is none at all. In the long run, such cynical calculations might cause my fear of “Supersizing Star Wars” to come to pass, with a brand once considered mythic and sacred due to its finite legacy being diminished by oversaturation and endless serialization. But if it’s super in size, then the end of the damn thing can always appear just out of reach.