Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Game of Thrones’ Final Season: When Our Great Expectations are Illegitimate [spoilers]



What follows is a guest post by Sean T. Murphy. Those who haven’t finished the series should beware of spoilers below!

Legitimate Artistic Expectations

“Almost nothing [showrunners David] Benioff and [D.B.] Weiss do will be enough to please (or appease) everyone.” So says critic Tim Goodman in a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter. It became clearer by the week just how great everyone’s expectations were for the final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Anyone taking a quick peak at Twitter following any episode this season could see fans breathing more fiery criticism, and wreaking more havoc on the show than Drogon did on King’s Landing. On the one hand, this is not surprising. After waiting two years for the series finale, there was no stopping the heights to which our expectations were ascending (although you would have thought that the lackluster seventh season would have tempered them a bit). And yet, after it became clear that episodes were not meeting those expectations, I found myself less angry at the show, and more intrigued by the viewers’ responses. And so I started to think about what was going on, and whether or not these great expectations were legitimate. I had to ask: What is, in fact, legitimate to expect of art? And where lies the flaw when a work of art fails to meet expectations? Is it in us, or the work?

Of course, I can’t give all-encompassing responses to these questions in this short piece, and not least because I myself have only just started thinking about these issues. But I am going to take a stab at figuring out what makes an expectation of art legitimate, and apply this loose notion to the final season Game of Thrones. If you don’t like what I have to say, and want to stab me back one, two, maybe five times, then at least have the decency to have The Red Woman on speed-dial to bring me back.

Human beings expect innumerable things from art: entertainment, enlightenment, pleasure, escape, a glimpse at true beauty, you name it. Moreover, what someone expects of art will likely depend substantially on how they conceive of what art is, what its ends ought to be, and, most importantly, on the type of art in question. Additionally, you might think that our expectations of art should be thought to be analogous—if not reducible—to our expectations of artists. If you lean this way, then you can simply import the ordinary framework for thinking about expectations that human beings have of each other to the expectations that human beings have of art.

Art is brought about by the action of some agent, i.e., an artist. And just as we form expectations of ordinary agents and their actions, we can do the same of artists. Therefore, what we can expect of art might in some respects be analogous to what we can expect of other agents in our everyday interactions with them. But I don’t want to carry this analogy too far. Instead, I just want to point out that thinking about the issue this way can help zero in on the kind of expectation that people have of art. The expectation in question is a normative expectation. It is this normative element that talk of “legitimacy” is meant to capture. And just as only some of our expectations of others are legitimate, the same goes for art.

In his essay “Music Discomposed,” philosopher Stanley Cavell explains why thinking about art often bleeds into thinking about people. For Cavell, human beings treat artworks in a very “special way.” He continues: “we invest them with a value which normal people otherwise reserve only for other people—and with the same kind of scorn and outrage.” Cavell’s view here nicely captures the normative component of our expectations of art. We form such expectations because artworks “mean something to us, not just the way statements do, but the way people do.” I don’t know if Cavell was right in claiming that artworks carry meaning in the same way that people do (it is always right to reject any view that assimilates people to things), but I do think that something like this attitude is lurking behind the moral outrage people are directing at Game of Thrones (more on this in a moment).

And so you see, I am already worried that the issues my initial question raises are too multifarious for us to make any progress on. As happens in philosophy (and especially in the philosophy of art), it seems that to answer one question, you have to answer them all. But philosophy that paralyzes is no fun. So risks must be taken.

The risk I will take is to suggest this: an expectation of art is legitimate when it has some basis in the internal structure of the artwork itself. This means that something in the artwork’s structure makes it appropriate that its audience should form that expectation of the artwork. Let’s call this a legitimate artistic expectation. Briefly, by “internal structure” I mean the artistic elements that normally figure in the composition of artworks of a certain type. I like this way of looking at things for a few of reasons.

The first is that, in cases where our expectations have been frustrated, we know where to look to find out whether they were legitimate expectations of the artwork, namely, in the art itself. If the work supports our expectation(s), then it is legitimate. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t.

Second, this way of approaching the issue allows for diversity—maybe a kind of context-dependence—in what counts as a legitimate artistic expectation. Many expect of a stoner comedy that it provide cheap laughs. According to what I have said, this is a legitimate artistic expectation, since levity is a feature of most stoner comedies. However, suppose that someone expected that a stand-up set performed by one of the actors from such a comedy would provide cheap laughs too. Suppose they then went on to criticize the stand-up set when it did not provide cheap laughs. This expectation, and the resulting criticism, would not be legitimate; it has no basis in the comic’s stand-up set, neither present nor past.

Third, it nicely allows for us to distinguish between legitimate artistic and legitimate non-artistic expectations. The latter is an expectation that has no basis in the internal structure of the artwork itself, but does have some basis in social practices and conventions surrounding artworks of that type. An example of this sort would be expecting of this year’s Whitney Biennial that it show artworks from across the gender spectrum. This would be an expectation based in recent museum practice, not in any particular artwork itself. It could also be that any expectation directed at the artist, rather than the artwork itself, is also a legitimate, but non-artistic expectation.

I hope this way of thinking about what counts as a legitimate expectation of art has at least some ring of truth to it, even if not a very loud one just yet. But the only way to see if what I have been saying is any good is to turn to a particular case. So goodbye general framework, and hello White Walkers, dragons, revenge, deviant love, and claims to the throne!

The fact is that many fans and critics seem wildly dissatisfied with the way things shook out in this final season of Game of Thrones. A way to explain their dissatisfaction and its accompanying negative artistic evaluation is to say that things did not turn out as expected. The criticism that has followed in the wake of these frustrated expectations centers on flaws in the development of significant characters and questionable plot choices that many see as inconsistent with the show’s internal logic. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Daenerys and her actions in the penultimate episode “The Bells” (although the season finale can give “The Bells” a run for its money in terms of “huh?” moments).

Why would a character who has spent years liberating cities from tyranny, a character who locked away her own children for killing the innocent child of another, a character who promised to be a better ruler, go on to murder thousands of innocents within the walls of King’s Landing? These questions all take as their starting point the expectation, or—even stronger—the demand that things should have turned out differently for Dany. To see if this is a legitimate artistic expectation, we have to look at the work itself.

The narrative structure surrounding Dany’s development as a character gave us good grounds to expect that the way in which she claimed the throne would be in keeping with her prior principles, principles that were on display when, for instance, she took Meereen from the Masters. But it is also a part of her narrative that the benevolent choices that she made were undertaken as much in the name of self-interest as in the name of loving-kindness for subjugated peoples of the Seven Kingdoms. Nothing in the show’s internal structure, therefore, rules out the particular course of action she took in “The Bells.” Maureen Ryan, another critic at the Hollywood Reporter, acknowledges that many of Dany’s actions were often the product of strategic choices done in the name of self-interest, but goes on to suggest that this case is different. Since we are dealing with her final act, the act for which all the previous self-interested ones were undertaken, it does not make sense for her to secure the throne in such a ruthless way. But why should that be true? Well, perhaps because you think Dany would want there to be something left of the throne on which she will sit as ruler (though recall her vision from Season 2 of the throne room destroyed). Or you might think that she ought to be true to her word, and rule with love, not fear. On the surface, these look like good reasons for thinking she should have acted differently. More importantly, they are based in the internal structure of the artwork, and so the expectations they support are legitimate artistic expectations.

What if you expected Dany to secure the throne in the ruthless way that she did? I think this is an equally legitimate artistic expectation. In fact, despite the initial uproar, a good number of pieces have come out showing that Dany’s decision was adequately foregrounded. In her article in The Boston Globe, Jaclyn Reiss reminds us that Maester Aemon flat-out said, mournfully, of Dany: “A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing”; Lady Olenna told her to “Be a dragon”; and her best friend, Missandei, took her last breath to utter “Dracarys.”

What about expectations of other characters? Take Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth. There is a general complaint with the arcs of these characters. The audience expected Jaime to achieve full moral redemption. And yet we saw him leave Brienne crying in the rain and head back to die in Cersei’s arms. The show’s treatment of Brienne, meanwhile, belied several seasons’ worth of forming her into one of the show’s more honorable and strong-willed characters. This, of course, speaks to one of the show’s major flaws, namely its treatment of female characters. Brienne, who for several seasons defied classic gender tropes, was transformed into a helpless, love-drunk woman, thus thwarting the expectation that her character arc would be wrapped up in a way befitting her development throughout the show.

The show therefore fails to meet a legitimate artistic expectation in the case of Brienne, and is artistically flawed for that reason. The case of Jaime is perhaps a bit more complicated. Earlier in the show, he says that he wants to die in the arms of the woman he loves, and, as it turned out, that woman was Cersei. And while it would’ve been nice to believe that he was heading back to King’s Landing to kill her, that hunch never had much support from the show itself. Jaime’s and Brienne’s narrative arcs, like Dany’s, reveal something interesting about our artistic expectations of narrative or temporally extended artworks. That the characters develop in some way is virtually always a legitimate artistic expectation. However, the more particular expectation that a character will develop one way, rather than another, is sometimes illegitimate. Usually these particular expectations are the ones being met or frustrated. So it would seem that our expectations can be directed at different levels of the artwork, and that their legitimacy depends on just what internal structural features makes them legitimate. There might be general legitimate artistic expectations of character development that are determined by genre that do not always count as legitimate when applied to a particular work of art.

Did Game of Thrones Owe the Audience Anything?

I am not sure if I have made my idea any clearer, but maybe that speaks to the messy territory we enter when we start asking normative questions about art. The thing is that, beyond certain very general expectations (like that an artwork will not be a fake, or that it will be “good”), we often do not even know what our expectations of art are until they have been frustrated. Why is that? I think it attests to our respect for the creative process, and for the work that results. Here again is something that makes Cavell’s thoughts, touched on above, seem right. We hold certain attitudes toward art that we otherwise only hold toward people. We respect and take artworks seriously, and we expect that the artworks (and the artists behind them) will respect and take us seriously in return.

It can therefore be especially frustrating when artworks do not return that respect. And here lies the problem with the final season of Game of Thrones. When art calls for our serious attention, it is appropriate to expect that it will in turn merit our attention by taking us seriously. But is this a legitimate artistic expectation? I hesitate to say it is, for two reasons. First, it would allow the audience to encroach too far onto the artist’s side of things; second, there is a lot of art that derives its artistic merit from the fact that it does not take the audience seriously (think of wonderful absurdist television, like The Eric Andre Show). But all this shows is that perhaps legitimate non-artistic expectations are the most important expectations that we have of art.

A.O. Scott, film critic for the New York Times, recently gave voice to this thought when, referring to the problems faced by the final season of Game of Thrones, he said that “fan service is surely the enemy of art.” If what Scott means is that during the creative process artists are under no obligation to consider the reasons the audience has for engaging with art, then perhaps he is right. Too much intermingling of this sort may in fact explain the backlash to the final season: Benioff and Weiss paid too much attention to what they thought the audience expected, and in the process failed to meet those very expectations! (Of course, it does not help that George R.R. Martin allegedly was supposed to have finished the books by now.) But there are other ways to understand what he means by “fan service.”

One of those ways is to think that art ought to take us—the audience—seriously, and that we often expect that it will. This is not the claim that art must serve us in the sense of giving us just what we want: far from it. It is the milder idea that art, when it is good, serves its fans’ desire for a meaningful intellectual activity. According to the view I am suggesting here, this would be a legitimate non-artistic expectation of art. But it is related to legitimate artistic expectations, since sometimes a legitimate artistic expectation can be thwarted in such a way that we feel like the artwork or artist is not taking us seriously. This sort of thing seemed to happen to many fans of Game of Thrones. Choices the writers and producers made to move the plot along were called out for lacking the subtlety of prior seasons. Some of them were just flat-out bad. (Dany went north in Season Seven just to give The Night King a dragon?) In this case, not only did they fail to meet a legitimate artistic expectation, but they also failed to meet an important non-artistic expectation. The show’s staff took us for dumb. So not all fan service is bad news.

Still, Scott does have a point. In its strongest form, his point is that you, entitled audience member, are not the end toward which art aims. (So much for Malcolm Budd’s theory of artistic value.) But this merits the immediate rejoinder: “What would art be without someone like me to engage with it?” I don’t know how to answer this. Maybe it is the right way to respond. However, it is not my intention to reprimand anybody for the expectations they had going into this finale season of Game of Thrones, nor to offer a total defense of the show (of course it could have been better). All I have tried to do is suggest a way for you to check to see whether your expectations were legitimate and relevant to the quality of the show itself. As it turns out, I don’t think many of them were. This does not mean that you were mistaken in having them. It just means that the show is not artistically flawed for failing to meet them.

Let me end by not ignoring the dragon in the room. The show’s final season had many flaws. As I already noted above, one of its biggest is the poor treatment of its female characters. Again, take Dany. After her death we are left to consider whether she did what she did because she was forever stricken by mental illness (something hardly foregrounded). And then add to that the show’s deplorable final verdict on a woman’s pursuit of political power. Certainly the show should come under criticism for these decisions. What I have tried to do here is show, however, that not every normative expectation of art is a legitimate artistic expectation. Many of them will be legitimate, but non-artistic. Of course, that leaves it open for an artwork to be deemed bad for failing to meet non-artistic expectations. But to see why would take me deep into the weeds of the ethical criticism of art—not some place I can venture today.
Notes on the Contributor:
Sean T. Murphy is a PhD. candidate at Indiana University Bloomington. He specializes in 19th century German philosophy (especially Schopenhauer), ethics, and aesthetics. His research in aesthetics is focused on the philosophy of literature, artistic cognitivism, and aesthetic normativity.


  1. I tweeted the following immediately after the show: “By the way, the devolution from an embattled throne forged magically from the swords of conquered enemies to a prototype wooden wheel chair seating an emasculated visionary is at least a politically interesting statement, even if achieved oligarchically.”

    I would simply add, after five or six seasons of complicated interweaving plotlines, the writers reduced the whole series to a Hollywood-style romance tragedy. It’s as if a historical novelist ended a WW2 saga by focusing on the doomed Hitler/Eva Braun relationship. That is not the center. It betrays, as you say, the legitimate artistic expectations set up by the show itself.

  2. Thank you for an interesting perspective. Conceptually, I think you’re spot on; I think the concept of legitimate (non-)artistic expectations offers handles to approach a lot of what is going on when art fails to meet expectations. And I think that analysis is particularly relevant in the case of series, which are essentially extended in time – and thus leave ample opportunity for thwarted expectations. But the example (GoT) is poorly chosen.

    As Tyrion would be able to explain to you, stories matter. And the maker of the story in this instance (GRRM) is not the same as the maker of the series (B&W), a fact which you brush over way too quickly. GRRM is a great storyteller. B&W… are not. Especially the earlier seasons (which kept close to GRRM’s story) were great, because they presented a complex story on the unpredictability and intractability of social processes – and also because it seemed to completely ignore the viewers’ expectations, especially where these were formed by Hollywood storytelling. As the series progressed however, the story line became more and more detached from A song of ice and fire, blending or eliminating characters and events. This was understandable, because to do justice to the entire story would presumably have cost too much time and money, and would furthermore probably require too much of the audience in keeping up with all the different characters. But it did come at a cost. A lot of the complexity that made the earlier seasons interesting was diminished. Once the series surpassed the books, this effect was, again understandably, but regrettably, exacerbated. And this simply ruined the story. You mention Dany, and Jamie. But what about Varys, the master of whisperers, having served all kinds of psychopathic kings and always keeping his cards close, but now suddenly throwing all caution in the wind? Or Arya, who after seasons of seeking revenge is suddenly convinced by a paternalising speech by the Hound that there are downsides to that approach? Greyworm, a dedicated warrior who knows no fear, who is standing there like a sulking child when it is decided that Bran should be the king, and should decide what happens next, thus trampling all over the remembrance of his Queen? Yara, who sits there, practically nodding agreement when Sansa announces that the North will secede? The list goes on… And none of it makes any sense. That is, the outcomes of all these storylines are fine. I could imagine a story where Dany would snap and turn out to be a genocidal maniac, etc. But this simply wasn’t it: the series didn’t bring the story where it was supposed to end.

    Which brings me to my point, that the sloppy way in which B&W worked towards an end that could have been *artistically* worthwhile is a form of artistic destruction: there will not be another opportunity like this to make a series out of this particular story for many years to come and as a consequence an intriguing and beautiful story was spoiled. It is not quite as bad as the Buddhas of Banyam (insert winking emoticon or some such), but it is a form of artistic destruction, in my view. Maybe comparable to the discontinuation of Carnivale.

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