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EXCLUSIVE: 'Game of Thrones' Creator George R.R. Martin Addresses 'Lost' Feud and Finales

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 17th 2011 9:55PM
'Game of Thrones' author George R.R. Martin doesn't regret being a 'Lost' fan.

"I found the ending of 'Lost' unsatisfactory, but I'd still give the series overall high marks," Martin said in a recent email interview.

A week or two ago, when Martin's negative assessment of the 'Lost' finale lit up the Internet and prompted several responses from Damon Lindelof, one of the ABC show's co-creators, I dashed off a note to Martin asking him about the whole kerfuffle.

He was kind enough to reply just before the show debuted on HBO Sunday (my review of that first episode is here). The short answer: Martin enjoyed 'Lost,' up until the end. And at the risk of starting another Internet brouhaha, he added that he wasn't a fan of the ending of 'Battlestar Galactica' either.

A larger question, which he addressed at some length, was how much endings should matter in the final assessment of a TV show. It's a fascinating topic, I think, and a Q & A with Martin on that very subject is below.

Of course, I couldn't resist slipping in one other question about 'Game of Thrones.' That leads off this email dialogue.

By the way, it's worth noting that though positive and negative assessments of various finales are given below, there are no spoilers regarding plot or story information about any of the shows that come up in this post. Even if you haven't watched 'Lost,' 'BSG,' 'The Shield,' 'Babylon 5' or 'Gilmore Girls' (all of which are mentioned here), you're safe reading this piece.

Have you seen any episodes of 'Game of Thrones' yet? When we spoke in January, I don't think you had seen completed episodes yet. What do you think of what you've seen? Are you happy with it?
I saw episodes one and two at the screening in L.A. I loved them. The look of the show is amazing (especially on the big screen), and the acting and direction were both first rate, as good or better than anything else on television. (Of course, I'm prejudiced). I missed a few scenes and moments and grace notes from the novel that did not make it to the screen, sure, but the viewers won't... well, except for those fans who know the books even better than I do. Overall, I'm thrilled.

Do you regret having watched 'Lost'? Are you glad you stuck with the show all six seasons?
No, I certainly don't regret having watched 'Lost.' During the years it was on, [his wife] Parris and I never missed an episode. It was one of the shows that we most looked forward to seeing every week, and it certainly provided us with some great entertainment. The show had a fascinating cast of vivid and well-realized characters, and I enjoyed learning about their lives and secrets through the weekly flashbacks. (Sawyer and Hugo were my favorite characters, FWIW). The acting was first rate as well.

And the central mystery of the show -- the island itself -- was also fascinating, at least for the first few years. It became less so, for me at least, in the final couple of seasons, as riddles and enigmas and twists and turns and puzzles were piled on top of one another, and I began to think, "There is no way they are going to be able to pull all of this together." But we still watched. By then we were hooked. And even as I grew less interested in the central mystery, I remained heavily invested in the characters and their eventual fates.

Did the finale retroactively change your opinion of 'Lost'? Why?
By the time we reached the finale, I was still hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. I still think 'Lost' told a terrific story... a terrific story with a terrible ending.

If the payoff had been equal to the set-up, I'd rank 'Lost' among the very best series in the history of television. It didn't, so I can't. So in that sense, maybe the finale did change my opinion of the show.

It certainly made me less likely to go back and watch the series again. If 'Lost' had delivered an ending that tied everything together in some brilliant and unexpected but satisfying fashion, I would have been first in line to buy the boxed set of DVDs so I could go back and watch it again episode by episode, exclaiming with pleasure, "Aha, so that's what that meant," and, "Oho, now I see, I thought that meant X, but it really meant Y." Instead, I fear, watching the series over again would give me more frustration than pleasure, and I'd find myself muttering, "Well, that was never explained," and "Oho, that was a great puzzle that led nowhere," and "Hmmm, that was kind of arbitrary."

Admittedly, I've only watched the show once, as broadcast. Which makes me a casual viewer rather than a devoted fan, I suppose. I haven't made a study of it, haven't read any of the blogs or criticism, haven't subjected the older episodes to any kind of analysis. Maybe I need to do a rewatch. Maybe if I did I would see that I was wrong, that the eventual end was actually being hinted at and foreshadowed in the first season, that all the puzzles are explained if only I looked a little deeper. Maybe.

I have my doubts, though. Unlike Locke, I am not a man of faith. I am a man of skepticism.

Have you been following Damon Lindelof's reactions to your comments, which he's shared on his Twitter feed and in an EW piece? (In that piece, by the way, he expands on the reasons he replied to your 'Lost' criticisms, and also calls himself a fan of 'A Game of Thrones,' which he's reading now.) Do you to reply to any of the things that he's said? Are there things you want to rebut or discuss?
I was in Los Angeles when all this broke, and I do not travel with a computer, so I have only the most cursory awareness of these recent storms on the internet. Now that I am home again, I do intend to catch up... but given everything that's going on in my life just now, with the show and the book and all the rest, it may have to wait a while.

When it comes to ending a large story like your 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book series or 'Lost,' who do you think the storyteller should aim to please -- him or herself, or the people who've been waiting for that ending? Do you think it's even possible to please the majority of the fans with the ending to a sprawling, multi-character tale like that? I guess I'm wondering, what are you going for with your 'ASoIaF' ending -- an ending that you think will please the majority of fans or the ending that will please you? Is a hybrid of those two things truly possible?
Well, I'm not going to reveal the ending of 'A Song of Ice and Fire,' obviously. But I do know what it will be, at least in broad strokes.

Have you ever had a debate with folks who (like me) enjoyed the 'Lost' ending? Do you just find that positive reaction inexplicable?
No, I haven't had that debate. To tell the truth, until this contretemps, I didn't know anyone who liked the 'Lost' ending. Mind you, I don't frequent 'Lost' discussion boards or blogs or fan groups, so my sample is limited to my own personal circle of friends and acquaintances, but of that group, those who were 'Lost' viewers all pretty much agreed with me, though some were rather more vehement about it.

As a huge fans of both 'Lost' and your books, I'm fascinated by this discussion, which I think is really valuable. Thanks advance for considering my questions.
I agree that the discussion is a valuable one, and raises some important issues, issues that transcend the particular case of 'Lost' or any "feud" between Damon Lindelof and myself.

For starts, there's the question as to whether a television show should even have an ending. As I sure you know, most have not. All series end eventually, but they don't have "endings," per se. They just stop. No renewal, no new episodes, your favorite show is no longer on the schedule... but it never ended.

Indeed, through the greater part of the long history of American network television, the networks have actively discouraged writers and producers from resolving their shows. Their preference was always for episodic shows, series that were essentially circular in nature, where the hero always ended up right back where he started. That allowed the networks to reshuffle the episodes and show them in any order they pleased (why they were always so eager to reshuffle the order I have never understood, but they were). I touched on some of this in the conference call that you were part of last Monday, you will recall.

Much of this has changed in recent years, of course. We're now getting more shows that feature an actual continuity, with episodes that need to be shown in a certain specific order to make sense. Shows that feature some central mystery that begs for solution, or some ongoing conflict that cries out for resolution. Such shows require an ending, whereas the older episodic model did not.

Which raises the interesting question (interesting to me, at least, and maybe to you as a critic) as to how a television show should be judged as a work of art. Do you judge each episode individually, as a stand-alone short story, or do you try to assess the series as a whole? Any series that goes on for more than a few weeks is going to have strong episodes and weak ones. With the old episodic model, most of us are judging the average quality of the series over time when we say this show was good, that one was bad. But I'm not sure that works with shows like 'Lost' or the new 'Battlestar Galactica' or 'Life on Mars' or 'The X-Files' or... well, pick your poison. Where the older shows were presenting us with a story a week, each story complete with its own ending, the new template is one long story told in weekly installments.

And a good story needs a good ending.

Or does it? Actually, I have mixed feelings on that issue. My friend and sometime collaborator, the brilliant young fantasist Daniel Abraham (I am copying him on this email, so he can jump in with his own two cents should I misrepresent his position) and I have been debating this issue for a couple of years now, as we argue about which of two major science fiction series was superior.

At the risk of starting another "feud," let me say that I was a huge fan of Ron Moore's revival of 'Battlestar Galactica' (though not of the original, which most of us in the SF community still call 'Battlestar Ponderosa'), but I hated the ending of that series even more than I hated the ending of 'Lost.' Daniel, meanwhile, prefers 'Babylon 5.' He argues that 'B5' delivered on all the promises it made the viewer, that it paid off in the end with a strong finale and a resolution in keeping with all that went before. Whereas 'Battlestar Galactica' started very strong, then seemed to lose its way.

But I still think 'Battlestar Galactica' (the new one) was a superior achievement. Yes, the ending was terrible (though, as a caveat, I am not sure that there is ANY way to resolve that premise in a way that I'd like, and god knows the way the new show ended was infinitely preferable to what happened with the original 'Battlestar Ponderosa')... but those great early episodes don't become any less great because later episodes sucked. The best episodes of 'BSG' are much stronger than any episodes of 'B5,' I would argue. I don't know that Daniel would disagree with that. But he still feels that, if you judge the two series as a whole, not episode by episode, 'B5' rates higher.

Daniel, did I get that right?

(And incidentally, Mo, I'd love to hear your take on our little debate).

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that, yes, I found the ending of 'Lost' unsatisfactory, but I'd still give the series overall high marks.

And if you speak to Damon Lindelof about all this, tell him he's in good company. I loved 'Citizen Kane' too, but Rosebud turning out to be the sled was stupid.

Daniel Abraham weighs in:
Yes, you did, but I'd point out that there are shows where each episode is built to stand alone, and in those cases I wouldn't care about the series finale any more than another episode. But things like 'B5' or 'Lost' or 'Battlestar Galactica' -- or 'Game of Thrones' -- are presented to the viewer as chapters in a longer story. If the viewer accepts that, they give you something -- specifically they put off narrative gratification in any individual episode with the expectation that it'll pay off later. If you don't keep your end of that deal, they (meaning I) feel cheated. I absolutely agree that the best 'BSG' episodes were miles above the best 'B5,' but that argument feels to me like saying "Yeah, the end of that novel was crap, but wasn't chapter eight nicely done?"

Mo's response:
In general, I think there's some merit to the idea that a television show with serialized or semi-serialized elements is obligated to wrap up or at least address the majority of those elements before calling it a day. But personally, I don't particularly mind if certain story threads aren't fully wrapped up. I think I've been conditioned to expect that, whether it's due to outside pressures on the showrunners or certain story lines just getting sidetracked for any number of reasons, there are going to be narrative digressions on any TV show. I try not to head into any drama finale (or final season) with a checklist of things that need to be addressed.

I also think I'm just one of those people to whom overall structure doesn't matter all that much. It matters, but it's certainly not in the forefront of my mind when I get to the night that a finale is going to air. Usually when that night finally comes for a show I care about, I'm in a sentimental frame of mind, and what truly matters to me is whether the characters get appropriate send-offs.

After spending years of my life with these people, I want them to be left in a place that feels, for lack of a better word, conclusion-y. Their fate doesn't necessarily have to be definitive -- it's certainly OK if their lives continue on after the final frame or the last page -- but I want the chapter of their lives that I followed to get an ending that feels appropriate, especially on an emotional level.

I was lucky, I think, in that I liked the finales of both 'Battlestar' and 'Lost.' Even though I enjoyed those final outings, I can't think of a show that did a better job with its last couple of episodes than 'The Shield.' The last two episodes were meticulously plotted, but more importantly, fitting in every emotional and thematic sense. They were rigorously written, amazingly acted and made me cry. And as George noted in a conference call the other day, the ending of 'Friday Night Lights' felt fitting in every way. I might have shed a tear or two when I left Dillon, Texas.

One show that flubbed its ending in almost every important way, in my view, is 'Gilmore Girls.' The show's creator left before the final season of 'GG' and the new person brought in to mop up during that last year just didn't have a good feel for the characters or their world, and after spending six seasons with the people of Star's Hollow, the final season was a trainwreck on a character level. A fairly decent series finale wasn't enough to remove the bad taste that the rest of that unfortunate season had left. Very little of what transpired was true to the vision I'd watched for the first six years of the show.

And that's really how I feel about endings -- that they should be envisioned and executed by the person or people originally responsible for the tale. That's what I said in this piece -- that if the writer who created the story feels good about the ending, there's a good chance I will to. Of course, that's not always the case. I wasn't a fan of the final chapter of Stephen King's 'The Dark Tower' series, for example, but I'd enjoyed the rest of it greatly, despite its flaws, so I just went with it. Stephen King had written himself into a corner, and at that point, I just gave a pass to what he presented as a solution to that problem.

I think endings are hard, and getting them right is damn near impossible. If the creator thinks a finale is fitting, and if I've mostly enjoyed the ride up until then, I can be pretty forgiving.

We'll see how I feel about the 'Game of Thrones' ending (on page and on screen) in several years. Let's reconvene this conversation then.

For my review of the first episode of 'Game of Thrones,' plus much more in the way of 'GoT' interviews and features, look here.

Folllow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Daniel Walker Cole

hmmmm well I would love to hear why you didn't like the BSG ending. I loved it myself but then I am somewhat a man of faith. I suppose if you are a complete atheist than the ending wouldn't work for you. I thought what it had to say about humanity, technology and such was very telling and possibly true. Tried to find a good place to post this on your blog but you don't seem to have commented about either lost or BSG there..

May 17 2011 at 3:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think this comment from George sums up "Lost" very well: "If the payoff had been equal to the set-up, I'd rank 'Lost' among the very best series in the history of television. It didn't..."

IMO, if the payoff had been even *remotely* equal to the set-up, 'Lost' would be considered among the very best series in the history of television. As it is, it turned out to be only a "good" series--one, unfortunately, that I have almost no interest in re-watching, even though I own all of the seasons on DVD. (My family re-watched many of the earlier episodes, prior to the last season.) The finale had *so* much potential, even right up to the last few acts; sadly, if fell flat on its face. Such a shame.

May 16 2011 at 3:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As I was reading your article and about endings I did think about the Dark Tower series and was pleasantly surprised you mentioned it at the end. I think for Science Fiction many writers choose a trilogy concept so that they can plan an ending and move towards that end.

R. A. Salvatore's Drizzt series has so many books but I feel he ended each set of stories with a feeling of conclusion. That this part of the character's life-telling is done. Everyone knows that there are more adventures for a character living hundreds of years but we can look forward to the next series to come.

With a series where we aren't sure how many books are going into the series, it can be frustrating as a reader. The Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind was a good series where we were not sure how many books there were going to be but I think he knew exactly.

King's Dark Tower series ended just like expected because he did put himself in a corner and it was the only way he could end it. I was severely disappointed in it because I knew the ending before I got there.

April 19 2011 at 11:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Honestly, I've got little interest in re-litigating 'Daybreak' one more time -- I liked it, with reservations. Martin thinks it sucked, blowed and peed on the rug. We're not going to change the other's mind.

But I find it interesting that Martin hated the ending but seems pretty relaxed with the first season -- which, to be blunt, required epic suspension of disbelief to get past some narrative logic holes you could drive the Death Star through. Did anyone believe The Fleet just happened to trip over the legendary home of humanity, really? That Laura Roslin's "drug-fuelled visions of prophecy" just happened to be disturbingly accurate?

April 18 2011 at 6:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The thing about BSG's ending is that when you had wrapped yourself up in the show for 4 years, and finally got to the ending, you initially think that it is a crap ending. I thought this too, at the time. But for as much as RDM (Ron Moore) said that they didn't plan everything out in advance, the story ties itself together exceptionally well, from beginning to end. If you go back and watch the show all the way through again, keeping in mind aspects of the first season, and having it fresh in your mind once you get to the end of Season 4 (as well as watching the TV Movies like "The Plan", and "Razor", as well as the Webisodes like "Face of the Enemy"), then it makes a whole lot of sense and it really does flow very well.

Yes, there is the intervention of a higher power (or race of highly evolved superbeings), but it's not like you've been blindsided with some kind of Deus Ex Machina. They bring in the agents of the higher power in like the second episode, so you can't blame the writers if you blew it out of proportion into some technologically driven conspiracy that couldn't possibly involve a godlike being. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and whereas you may wish for something more, it is only a testament to the writing capability of those working on the show to show you the truth first thing, and then fooling you into thinking it's not the truth. BSG gets a bad rap for supposedly having a "crap ending" but all in all it's a show that's had one of the best through-lines and delivered exceptional story for a long time now.

April 18 2011 at 5:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hey, spoiler alert on Citizen Kane, please! Just kidding, this was a great read. Ironically, I think this discussion about endings could never be fully resolved. All three made great points. It's all subjective of course. Different people value different aspects of their stories. You can't please everyone, so I think creators/authors deserve to at least satisfy themselves.

On another note, as someone who constantly defends Lost, I would argue that most people who complain about the ending haven't watched the series over since it ended. I've twice watched it through completely since buying the DVD set and still noticed new things I hadn't previously. It makes for a very interesting rewatch when you keep the final season in mind.

April 17 2011 at 11:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Brandon11's comment

Why should they? If you dislike/hate something why would you bother to rewatch it? Every show you watch over and over again will reveal new things. Is it so hard to accept that for some people the Lost finale was simple a bad example of how you end things. If other fans like it than there lucky but there is always a fifty-fifty chance that you either like or dislike the finale of your favorite show. A series finale is special because it's the end of the creator's storyline, the reason why they told the story in the first place. It's the episode where you ask yourself if you would start watching the show again, knowing what you know after the finale. And for me, it's a big No. Nobody has a list of things which should be answered while watching a finale but at least I'm thinking about whether the answer was worth the wait and did leave me with a satisfying feeling. Endings are hard and the same as the creator cannot please everyone, not everybody will be able to like it. Lost's main problem is not only which questions they picked to answer but also they way they did it.

April 18 2011 at 12:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Claudia's comment

Well I guess it all comes down to how much significance an individual viewer puts upon the finale. To you, those final 2 and half hours determined the quality of the entire series. To me, it's unfair to negate 100+ hours because of the ending. Those different points of view are expressed in the article. But to be perfectly cliche, "it's about the journey, not the destination".

You're right that the finale had its shortcomings. I didn't love it when I first saw it, either. It still wouldn't make my top ten Lost episodes, but it definitely became more appropriate to me over time. And when I say I noticed new things, I meant that the show did hint at the final season/episode and explained more than my memory gave it credit for. In my eyes, there are no lingering mysteries of importance.

April 18 2011 at 3:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

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