Game of Thrones, Contested Conventions, and the Death of Surprise

(SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for last night’s Game of Thrones, and for last season’s too, I guess, although if you pay any attention to GoT it isn’t really a spoiler, which is sort of the Point…)

(ALSO SPOILERS for Walking Dead and Mad Men, but at some point, come on, you know?)

(IMPORTANT NOTE: I promise this isn’t some Maureen Dowd-like piffle-paffle, where “Donald Trump may think he’s Tywin Lannister, but he’s really Lady Melisandre. I get paid millions for this. My brother’s writing tomorrow’s column!” It might not be any good, but it won’t be that.)

The last scene of last night’s Game of Thrones was the Red Lady attempting to resurrect Jon Snow, the erstwhile hero killed in last season’s finale, using what seemed to be the laziest spell ever (basically cutting his hair and saying, like, “hey, come back to life” in a magic language. It seemed really easy, honestly). At first, it seemed like failure, and Lady Melisandre and Snow’s allies left in despair. But then…panning over his prone body, a rush of air, a gasp, a convulsion, and an opening of eyes. Cut to black. What was dead is now alive.

Holy cow, right? That’s bonkers. Except that everybody watching the show knew it was coming. There was no way not to. From the moment Snow was killed last summer, all speculation has been on how he’s coming back to life, and when, not if. There were elaborate theories about his parentage and how that ties everything together, meaning he can’t be dead dead. There were people spotting him near the set. Kit Harrington’s haircut was parsed with a sort of Jesuitical ferocity for clues as to his role. Almost before the credits rolled on his death scene the internet was, collectively, sure he’d be back.

And so what could have been an interesting, if not mind-blowing scene, was only watched to see if the showrunners were going to make it interesting or if they were going to much it up. There was absolutely no suspense, and that is through no fault of their own. The writers and directors did as good a job as possible, I suppose, making us think he might be fully dead. But they knew that we knew he wasn’t going to be.

The creators of Cartoon Networks’ mind-bendingly brilliant Rick and Morty talked about this problem in an interview with the AVClub last year. As Dan Harmon put it:

I think that’s a really remarkable thing about today’s TV audience. You cannot write payoff-based TV anymore because the audience is essentially a render farm. They have an unlimited calculation capacity. There’s no writers’ room that can think more than 20 million people who can think about it for an hour a day.

Harmon was being complimentary, and said that for some shows it was a bonus, since they could focus mostly on jokes and characters, and the audience would fill in the plot. They’d even get credit for references they weren’t making. (“‘Was this a that reference?’ And I always want to answer them like: ‘Why, would that be cool?'”).

But for a drama, that can be a real problem. There is little room for surprises, especially in huge, world-building shows with legions of devoted fans. Smaller shows like Better Call Saul or Fargo can have interesting twists, but the only way for huge shows like GoT or The Walking Dead to do so is to jerk around the audience.

The way art is consumed has changed entirely. There has always been a weird relationship between creator and consumer, with an alchemic interplay, but in some ways the consumer has leapt in front of the creator. It’s not just mashups and remixes or whatever, but it is anticipation and analysis before creation. It’s putting people into corners, where they have to really stretch in order to surprise. That’s not always a bad thing, but it could be. In The Walking Dead, which was never really a well-written show anyway, the endless speculation about who Negan was going to kill meant that the only way to surprise was to not show who he did, and that didn’t turn out very well.

The artists behind TV shows, especially, have to create in anticipation of fan reaction in every corner, and have to deal with the hive mind that, as Harmon pointed out, collectively thinks about the show exponentially more than even its creators. No one really bought the “Don Draper is DB Cooper” theory, as fun as it was, because Matt Weiner wasn’t a “connect the dots” storyteller. But there was part of me that imagined that it was his plan, and then some jerk on the internet figured it out, and he had to change his vision to avoid being “scooped” in his own imagination.

This knowledge of what is going to happen reduces our capacity to be surprised, and really just heightens our innate lust of critique: we just want to see how well the story conforms to our expectations, and then rush to publicize our disapproval. Most of us I think do the same thing. My wife and I tend to talk more about if the showrunners are making the right choice or doing it well rather than if it was good or not, and if we don’t do so publically, our private conversations are no more generous to the spirit of artistic intention.

In a way, it’s the same thing with contested conventions. This feedback loop moves so quickly that, even in a contested convention, which we haven’t seen since 1976, every move is essentially choreographed in advance. We know which delegates are in play, and which ones aren’t Legions of pundits and people who actually know what they’re talking about have mapped out every scenario in advance. We know what parliamentary tricks Ted Cruz might try to use. The only drama comes in if he can do it well enough to work. But there won’t be any real surprises.

This, as much as anything, explains why the media and the public (and me) can’t stop talking about Trump. There isn’t a strategy or a plan. It’s terrifying, and that mentality would make for a horrible President (just as his instincts and personality would as well). But there is a certain thrill in not having any idea what will happen. We just know it will be monstrous and revolting and probably dangerous. But for many, that barely matters. Trump is the only unpredictable phenomenon out there. (Bernie is different, because while it isn’t totally predictable, he is sticking to the rebel script, to the detriment of his campaign and possibly his putative party. But more on that later).

I’m not saying that our knowing about Jon Snow’s resurrection is why Trump is winning. There are a lot of reasons, each one worse than the last. But a huge factor in his ascendancy has been the breathless attention being paid from the beginning. Much of this was valid; especially as his candidacy grew, it needed to be exposed as the dangerous sham it still is. But the reason for so much of the coverage is because it was wholly unpredictable, and in its own way, a true artistic enterprise. Not a good one; it’s a sick parody of Weimar porn, a clanging dissonant soundscape that reduced bowels to mush and drove people into mad syphilitic fits. But it was original, and for many, that’s all that matters.