George R.R. Martin once said in response to why he doesn’t read fan theories:
“If you’ve planned your book that the butler did it and then you read on the Internet someone has figured out that the butler did it and you suddenly change in midstream and it was the chambermaid who did it then you screw up the whole book…you’ve got these little clues that you planted. Now they’re dead ends and you have to introduce other clues and you’re retconning and it’s a mess.”
It’s ironic the show that would ultimately inspire the trend of subverting expectations yet also failing miserably at it in the final stretch of the series finale would be George R.R. Martin’s most beloved property Game of Thrones. Ned Stark’s surprising death in season one essentially paved the way for Hollywood to believe that subverting audience’s expectations was the quintessential way to engage the modern audience.
However, what Hollywood and now, thanks to The Last of Us Part II, AAA games have failed to grasp is that there is an art to subverting expectations and, at the end of the day, writing a good story should come first. The reason why Ned Stark’s death is so powerful is a subversion of the genre, yes, but it also makes perfect sense within the context of the story. Ned made a grave error by essentially telling too many people what his plan was before he could execute it, therefore, he was captured and subsequently killed for it. From a narrative standpoint, it works.
Whereas now, large media companies seem to possess the single goal of subverting audience’s expectations for the sake of a quick shock only to have their stories ultimately make no sense and leave its audiences feeling empty. What’s even sadder is as the likes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Game of Thrones, and The Last of Us Part II become some of the most controversial stories in recent memory, their behind the scenes footage often suggests far more competent storytelling.
Take Game of Thrones’ final season for instance, which saw beloved character Daenerys Targaryen make the seemingly out of character decision to burn all of King’s Landing after the city surrendered. There is now supposedly new evidence, including the script that was submitted to The Writers Guild Foundation that suggests the original ending saw Daenerys’ attacks being much more mild only to cause a chain reaction of wildfire that Cersei had placed throughout the city. In this edited scene, it is the wildfire that kills most of the civilians, not Daenerys, which was a fan theory that had been circulating ever since Cersei blew up the sept. Unfortunately, we are unable to verify this information as the WGA is currently closed due to COVID-19 but we can confirm the episode in question is currently at the archives.
If this is true, Cersei was clearly destined to be the new Mad Queen and not Daenerys. But we have to subvert expectations so let’s make Daenerys burn a city and then give a Nazi speech because no one will expect that to happen.
The infuriating component to all of this is the creators then try to pass it off as if this was their intention all along. When the initial backlash of the final season began pouring in, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss insisted that the Mad Queen Daenerys storyline was endgame from the very beginning. Now we have proof that this was a lie. In attempting to make themselves appear superior to its audience, they now come off as complete and utter jokes.
But it is starting to appear as if big media feels entitled to creating stories with inconsistency issues for the sake of subverting expectations. The press revolving around the latest debacle The Last of Us Part II has been, honestly, quite alarming. The Last of Us Part II isn’t controversial because of its diverse cast like Sony wants you to believe (although there are certainly some bigoted people out there who beg to differ). It’s controversial because the way it chooses to tell a mediocre story of revenge is poorly executed.
As we mentioned in our review for the game, the success of the story relies heavily on whether or not gamers can empathize with the character Abby. If the audience doesn’t develop this empathy, the story and its messaging falls apart with the player feeling empty. This is because Abby not only kills a beloved character from the series only an hour into the game but also because we don’t get to see Ellie extract her revenge on Abby at the very end, which is what the game was seemingly building up to. Director Neil Druckmann has stated that this game is not meant to be “fun”. And that would be all well and fine if it was clear this wasn’t how Sony wanted players to feel about the game, going so far as to contact the reviewer from Vice and uncharacteristically express that the negative review did not seem “fair”. Not to mention, in an interview with indiewire, Druckmann confirmed that for fifty percent of the development of the game, Ellie was supposed to kill Abby at the very end. It’s almost as if those criticising the game had some valid points when they said the ending did not match the tone.
This isn’t the least of Naughty Dog’s crimes when handling the infamous leaks that came with this game. There’s so much more to cover from doctoring footage, to filing lawsuit claims on Youtube for anyone who discussed the leaks, to a restrictive embargo placed on anyone who received a pre-release copy of the game. It’s as if audiences weren’t allowed to have a negative opinion of the game.
The question now becomes whether or not The Last of Us Part II will be the final nail in the coffin for this trope to die in mainstream media. Has Hollywood learned its lesson? Well, the good news is, there’s some ray of hope, even if very small.
One of the works that arguably began audiences questioning whether or not they wanted their expectations subverted anymore was The Last Jedi directed by Rian Johnson. And while he was like most creators claiming superiority for every decision he made regarding the film over the inferior audience that doesn’t know any better, he does seem to have learned from his mistakes. His most recent film Knives Out is a perfect example of subverting expectations the right way. It’s very clear that when writing this story, Rian Johnson knew who the murderer was and planted the necessary seeds so that the audience is surprised when they discover who it is yet it by no means feels out of place or unearned. It’s gems like these that can lead us to believe that Hollywood will either learn its lesson or find a new fad to extort for all its worth.
Much like how mainstream media found the Inception sound in trailers to be impactful and have now since placed it in almost every trailer since then, subverting expectations is a new toy that Hollywood gets to play with. But audiences are catching on to big studios’ games. The Last of Us Part II has since been, according to Sony, the fastest selling platform exclusive. Now more than ever is the time to speak with our wallets, to tell Hollywood and AAA games we’re not interested in plot twists that make little to no sense for the sake of directors stroking their egos and congratulating themselves on how clever they are. Because if we don’t we’re just going to have to get used to seeing our beloved properties receive unjust endings while hoping for something better.
Are you becoming tired of seeing the subverting expectations trope? Let us know in the comments below or send us your thoughts on Twitter!