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The 'Lost' vs. 'Game of Thrones' War, and the Agony and Ecstasy of Endings

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 6th 2011 11:30AM
So what would happen if the Others waged war on Lord Eddard Stark? If you recognize those references, you probably already know about the beef between Damon Lindelof, one of the creators of 'Lost,' and George R.R. Martin, the man behind 'Game of Thrones.'

In the run-up to the April 17 debut of HBO's 'Game of Thrones,' a drama based on Martin's fantasy book series, Martin was profiled in The New Yorker, where he took some swipes at the ending of 'Lost,' saying he felt "cheated" by the finale, and in a Time interview, he likened it to a "turd on my doorstep."

'Lost' creator Damon Lindelof fired back on Twitter, saying, "I don't take issue with his opinion, I take issue with the fact that he coined 'Pulling a "Lost"' as empirically '[Screwing] up the ending." In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Lindelof called himself a fan of 'GoT,' which he's reading now, but added, "Look, 'Lost' is my baby, and you don't put baby in a corner."

It's a fascinating conflict, given the many similarities between 'Lost' and 'Game of Thrones.' But, all things considered, Martin's reaction to the finale of the ABC drama is not surprising.

The New Yorker piece mentions that Martin has added a tower to his house in Santa Fe, and that's an apt metaphor for what he's done so far in his book series (which, as a whole, is called 'A Song of Ice and Fire'). In his fictional universe, he's constructed an ambitious structure, one that is emotionally engaging thanks to a wealth of lively and complex characters, but his book series is, as Martin notes in the New Yorker story, increasingly dependent on logistics.

Part of the reason it's taken Martin six years between books is that he's gotten hung up on the schematics of which character needs to be where in order for the story to move forward. At this point, 'Lost' fans are nodding their heads in wry amusement. Much of the 'Lost' saga, especially in the last season or two, concerned good, old-fashioned shoe leather -- characters were constantly moved around like chess pieces on a board, and the show's writers threw Hurley into the mix as often as possible to amuse viewers while the survivors took their millionth trek through the jungle.

Given the mass of mythology and logistics the 'Lost' crew had built up by season 6, many fans expected a payoff that would serve as the perfect capper to that towering structure. Something similar went for the ending of 'Battlestar Galactica': Some fans wanted the mythology "solved," as it were. As Time critic James Poniewozik (who also offered valuable insight and further 'Lost' commentary from Martin here) wrote when 'BSG' ended, to some devotees, sci-fi shows can't just end, they're expected to have an Answer. And I completely understand why those expectations existed, given how much the creators of those shows devoted to clues, mysteries and red herrings.

Some fans hated the 'Lost' and 'BSG' endings because, in their views, the finales didn't dwell sufficiently on finalizing that last layer of structure. The finales did wrap up storylines, up to a point, but an Answer wasn't the entire focus; in each finale, the brain trusts behind those shows attempted to give the characters emotionally satisfying sendoffs.

At the end, it wasn't about schematics, it was about catharsis. For that very reason, I was fine with both endings, but I can understand how fans who had been led to expect a more structurally oriented ending felt let down. Perhaps that's the reason Martin was disappointed, or perhaps it's due to the fact that, as he said to Poniewozik, the 'Lost' ending recalled things Rod Serling (in Martin's view) had done better decades earlier.

Whatever the cause of his discontent with 'Lost,' Martin himself will be staring at a blank computer screen one day, trying to write the final pages of his book series. Perhaps he'll do his level best to wrap up every plot thread and make the final section of his last 'Song of Ice and Fire' book structurally sound.

But my main hope for the ending to his book series is this: that he ignores what everyone else wants, including me. I hope he does what the creators of 'Lost' and 'Battlestar Galactica' did and gives his story the ending that feels right to him.

That's the common ground to celebrate here. These ambitious stories got the endings (or, in Martin's case, will get the ending) that their creators wanted for them. Even if you didn't like the 'Lost' finale, you can't deny that Lindelof and executive producer Carlton Cuse put their own particular stamp on it. They didn't necessarily ignore what they thought fans might want, but in the end, that was the wrap-up they wanted for 'Lost' and they were happy with it. Such freedom is staggeringly rare in hit franchises on the small or large screen.

That's all I want for Martin -- the freedom to write the ending that makes him feel satisfied and pleased as the teller of the tale. Even if I don't particularly like the ending he comes up with (and maybe I will), the thing will be dead on the page if he isn't content with it first. Sure, I tend to like emotionally charged endings and I don't care as much about structure as some of my nerd brethren do, but he has the right to end his tale the way he wants to.

And as long as we're talking about towers, let me bring Stephen King (a major influence on the 'Lost' brain trust) into the mix. I recently finished his seven-volume 'Dark Tower' series, and the ending of this grand, sweeping saga, which bears more than a few comparisons to both 'Lost' and 'A Song of Ice and Fire,' made me laugh. I didn't like the last few pages of the final 'Dark Tower' book, but I could see how what King did in those final pages supplied an elegant solution to the storytelling dilemmas he faced.

Did the fact that I didn't like the ending make me retroactively hate the book series? Hell no. I enjoyed most of the 'Dark Tower' saga, which wasn't perfect but which, like 'Lost' and Martin's books, was packed with inventive boldness, memorable characters and moments of poignant emotion.

It wasn't the ending I would have chosen for King's book series. But then, it wasn't up to me.

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Matthew G.

I'm a big fan of Martin's books and was also a huge fan of Lost and BSG. The ending of Lost gets an F and the ending of BSG gets a C-. Martin is correct in all of his criticisms (except that he got backwards which ending was worse, as between Lost and BSG, because the ending of Lost was so vacuous that it made the entire series insusceptible to rewatching, while the ending of BSG was merely a little bit silly and I'll surely watch the latter series through again someday).

And I'm not taking sides here. I'll hold Martin to the same standard. If a complicated structure is the key to how you draw in your readers, you have to write an ending that answers the questions you have posed.

Martin has an inherent advantage, because a novelist can buy time better than a screenwriter can, but you take your medium as you find it and you need to be equal to the task. Martin is right to fret about "Pulling a 'Lost,'" and Damon Lindelof needs to come to terms with the fact that that phrase belongs in the language. To paraphrase Roger Ebert's memo to Rob Schneider: "Dear Mr. Lindelof: Your finale sucked."

April 20 2011 at 2:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm not particularly worried about how the ending of Martin's saga will turn out, I just hope he makes it there sometime in the next twenty years. I think it's easier to get the ending right for a series of novels than it is for a television show, because no matter how many twists and turns the story takes, the author of a book series is always writing towards a known destination. Even if they don't have all the details of the ending worked out, they know where the characters are going, and every page written is one more step in that direction.

The problem for a television series like LOST is that, by the nature of the medium, television writers can't be working towards any fixed ending three seasons away because they might be canceled after one, or they might be a huge success and have to stretch the story out for ten years. TV needs to be always in the moment, which works fine for episodic shows, but caused lots of problems when LOST tried to keep big mysteries running for the entire series run. They might the right call ending it after six seasons and giving themselves a fixed time frame in which to wrap things up, but I feel like by that time it was already too late. In their efforts to sustain the mystery of the island, they had added more loose ends and unsolvable mysteries in the first three seasons than they could ever hope to have answered. I liked the ending of LOST for what it was, but was disappointed by all the things left unresolved.

Emotional catharsis is necessary at the end of any good story, but I don't think it has to be the focus of the ending. For me, a good ending should let you sit back and reflect on the story that has preceded it, and along with the characters themselves, realize the full scope of the journey they have taken. A great ending should let you nod your head and say to yourself, "I see, so that's what it was all about." Personally, I loved the ending of the Dark Tower, because it wasn't an ending at all, and the journey was what it was all about.

April 09 2011 at 1:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

LOST is still my favourite ending to a series yet, so -shrugs-

April 07 2011 at 6:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

OK, so what have we really learned here. If Martin was show-running 'Lost' it probably would have been a very different show at a million points. Which is cool with me - don't really see Damon Lindelof re-booting 'Beauty and The Beast' in this or any other lifetime and, honestly, I know The Twilight Zone is sacred to a lot of people but I find the show over-reliant on obvious and gimmicky "twist" endings.

But have you read 'Y: The Last Man', Mo? I know people who went nuts that the one thing Brian K. Vaugan never delivered was a definitive answer to this question: What caused the gendercide? Everyone has a theory, but he quite deliberately refused to say one was "right". I'm cool with that, lots of other people weren't and said so at the tops of their voices. Different strokes for different folks.

April 07 2011 at 3:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I’m fine with the fact that Damon and Carlton ended the series on their own terms, as long as they actually did. But the way the last couple of seasons played out, I got the feeling that they locked themselves into a timeframe and had to make concessions based on that timeframe. They’ll never admit it, but did they *really* end the show on their own terms? Or did they end it based on the timeframe they set for themselves 3 years earlier?

April 07 2011 at 2:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Seth's comment

I didn't like the ending. But I do agree with you. It felt, to me as well, that they got to the end and ran out of time to try to wrap up all those questions/loose ends they'd manufactured over the six seasons. I loved the show but they left me with too many questions for me to be satisfied with the ending. The least they could have done was answer why Walt was so important after spending many hours convincing us that he WAS in fact important/special.

April 13 2011 at 1:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great piece I agree with almost every word - just that I did like the ending of the Dark Tower even if the 7 books were not always very good.

April 07 2011 at 1:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Xung Xoo

Nice, looks like that is going to be very interesting indeed.


April 07 2011 at 10:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Helen Thompson

I think there's plenty of structure to the Battlestar ending as well as the undeniable character send offs and that structure works at several levels. There's the end of the journey. It was always a story about them finding earth and they found it and within that story there's the journey from the lie of earth Adama invents in the mini to the fiction of this being earth that he gives as a gift to Roslin. The mystery that is revealed is our relationship to the story: this is a mythological story of our origins and we are both human and Cylon. The philosophical point is the contingency of it and the inseparability of good and evil in that. At the beginning of our story is the act of Chief killing Tory and destroying a fragile peace, just like at the beginning of the Cylon civil war was an act of violence by the Cylon rebels not by Cavil and co. Then there is a statement about the role of the divine in the story, which is the speech of Baltar in CIC, which completely negates the idea that it is the Cylon God as such that is the divine force. The divine is a force of nature beyond good and evil and beyond any name that humans or Cylons want to use to describe their belief in this force. Starbuck's resurrection and disappearance/ ascension isn't explained because it can't be. It is not for human or Cylon to be able to see the divine directly or understand its workings because its essence in the story is its unknowability: only the hybrids can see the turns of the divine through the universe and the price of what they see is their madness or separation. Many people may not have liked these structural answers, but they were answers and they were as much part of the finale as the character endings.

April 06 2011 at 4:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Helen Thompson's comment

Here, Here!

April 06 2011 at 5:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Exactly! I wonder if most of the "MooreRon, you suck" crowd would have been more happy with 'Daybreak' if Head Gaius and Head Six had arrived in a glowing chandalier with Q from Star Trek, and announced "We are the Beings of Light! Ta-da!" Personally, I'm more offended by the SF trope of omnipotent magic aliens who can reset everything with, quite literally, a snap of their fingers.

Also, I was rather amused by those people who called b.s. on Daybreak, but season one (you know, the one where Laura Roslin's drug trips are disturbingly accurate and they just happen to trip over Kobol, the legendary home of mankind) is the best thing ever.

Rant over.

April 07 2011 at 3:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'd argue that it's not all about structure, nor is it all about character. There is some structural elements involved in the characters, because they are the vehicles through which the story is told. There are also character elements in the structure, because everything the characters do takes place inside of a story. A good story ticks all of the boxes: interesting characters, witty dialogue, dramatic situations, and mystery. Lost was not successful because it had interesting characters. It was successful because it had interesting characters, placed in a mysterious situation, that kept you guessing. Guessing about where the story (structure) was going to take you, and guessing about what the characters reactions to those events would be. To have a finale which focused on only one of the things that made the show work, is to have a finale that is going to disappoint people. Even if you enjoyed the ending, an ending which worked in ALL of the ways that the early seasons did would have been that much better.

I think the real mistake was season 5, not season 6. By the time you are in the final "act", by most storytelling standards I've heard of, you are not supposed to be introducing new information. The final stand of the characters, you should know exactly what is possible, and all of your interest should be on whether the characters can use that knowledge to win, or whether the weight that is on their shoulders crushes them in tragedy. Season 6 of Lost was an EPIC failure because season 5 didn't lay a good foundation for it. Half of the season was spent spewing out a bunch of things that we should have already knew, while the rest was spent giving us new questions that didn't all make sense.

So when the end finally comes, the storytelling method leaves us as viewers juggling whether we should be caring about the characters anymore, because the structure has stopped making sense. A story that doesn't make sense makes us question whether the characters are real or not. It cheapens even the impact the ending could have from a character perspective. In order to enjoy it, we have to ignore all the hand-waving the writers are doing and just focus on the actors we like. I got some enjoyment out of some of those final moments, but it was cheapened by the absurdity of everything. I didn't hate the ending, but with a better foundation, with a season 4 or 5 actually written with an ending in mind, or at least paced better, Lost could have been SO much better.

April 06 2011 at 3:37 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to saluk64007's comment

So well said. I don't agree with all the details, but the gist of it I do. If you don't understand or buy into what is happening to the characters--you don't know the stakes--then you don't have as great a catharsis. In my case, for example, I was so busy trying to figure out what is the plug and the light and the water (and why could some people go into the cave and live while others died while others turned into smoke monsters?) that it distracted from the point: save the island to save the world--and possibly the afterlife. I like to think and be challenged while I watch TV and I appreciate ambiguity, but there was so much left open for the last episode that it was amazing it was as good as it was. While I enjoyed aspects of Seasons 5 and 6 I just feel like they spent too much time trying to mystify and mislead us, that we didn't get the buildup this story deserved.

April 06 2011 at 7:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The difference is, we'll never see the end of Ice and Fire because George takes too long to write one book. Each time he writes a book, he says he is adding another. So a 3 book series turns to 5, then 6. This will never end.

And I loved the Lost ending.

April 06 2011 at 2:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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