By PJ Grisar
WARNING: Here there be Spoilers!
On last Sunday’s Game of Thrones, Jon Snow gasped his way out of cryo-sleep after a year of everyone from Kit Harrington on down insisting he was certified worm food. Few were surprised at the revival; many predicted the means by which he’d be revived. Fans are outfoxing creators. We’re skeptical of such pronouncements as any good post-Lost-finale-Gate viewership should be. But what in seven hells is happening to the state of storytelling when the storytellers are losing control of their narrative right to surprise? Is this new? And is it healthy?
Maybe the first truly modern model of fandom followed a deerstalker-ed investigator out of 221B Baker Street. Holmesians formed social clubs like the Baker Street Irregulars, wrote letters to the fictitious sleuth and even produced some of the first fan fiction. The last innovation—beautifully chronicled in Michael Chabon’s essay ‘Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes’—came to be when Holmes died and the stories stopped. Dr. Doyle killed him off in The Final Problem, tossing him from the Reichanbach Falls after a clinch with his arch nemesis Moriarty. The obsequies took the form of a lot of angry or pleading letters flying through the Scottish doctor’s mail slot. Even though there’s much deducing endemic to the Sherlock scene, people weren’t asking Doyle “Could it be true?” They were asking, as Davos did to Melisandre last Sunday, “Can you bring him back?”
Doyle—eventually—did. But that wasn’t the plan. He preferred to work on other projects like the Sir Nigel historical novels, viewing Holmes as something of a potboiler (much the esteem in which Holmes regards Watson’s accounts of their adventures). It’s probably the best-documented early modern case of a writer buckling to pressure from his votaries—the first is likely Shakespeare writing more material for Falstaff because Queen Elizabeth liked him.
Jump cut many years and we have the birth pangs of the internet to the tune of the X-Files theme. In the TV age, through the echo chambers of chat rooms, the voice of viewership was amplified. Creators of serial media now had to reckon with feedback in something close to real time. The zeitgeist was being typed out and the same impulse that brought Holmes back from the dead succeeded in bringing entire properties back into rotation (Family Guy, Community, etc). With this new vociferousness, fans were not content to merely talk about what happened last week. Keen-eyed spectators set their sights on what was coming next month, year or even years.
A new sport was made of hypothesizing about our favorite characters. The water cooler landed virtual real estate and so did the schoolyard. Spoiler culture came to be when a keystroke could let the Crookshanks out of the bag for how Harry Potter wrapped. Tony Soprano’s fate was debated in step with the resurgence of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. Most lamentably, Lost-o-philes generated interesting ideas about the nature of the island, only to be naysaid by the creative forces, who then went out of their way to resist those ideas and, in the process, trip over Walter and his dog and choke on a black smoke monster before being mauled by an existential Polar Bear who demanded a more sufficient explanation for his presence in a tropical clime. The island was probably purgatory until some fan said it was. All signs pointed to it, and when millions read those signs correctly, Lindeloff and Co. spun them on their posts like a cartoon rabbit trying to hoodwink a hunter. The result was undoing all their work.
A Song of Ice and Fire scribe, George R.R. Martin, for all his devotees has vowed to keep to his road map. But with the show outpacing his books and social media mushrooming with fan theories, is it possible for him to stick to his guns and not lose something of the element of surprise?
Say what you will about Martin’s sloth-like pace, he is working in a space of visibility few writers have ever had. Not only is he contending with the forum of the internet, he has the unprecedented factor of a concurrent and ongoing TV tie-in with his books and over twenty years in print in which readers could strip-mine his material for clues. He is needing to ward off tons of credible, interesting suppositions about his world—many of them satisfying and rich with poetic justice and a few of them likely right-on-the money. The tactic of denial in the face of these conclusions makes more sense than an admission before the work is ready to make its reveals.
Thrones showrunners Benioff and Weiss for their part are doing the same thing and, if previews for this Sunday’s episode are any indication, they may in fact prove or disprove a long held theory about our favorite Lazarus Lord Commander. So what is a little White Walker lie? Will people be upset if their ideas are right and if the breadcrumbs they’ve picked up make for a whole loaf? They shouldn’t be, it’s just good storytelling if they do—though it shouldn’t be consumed half-baked.