In Story, Robert McKee presents what he calls the Principle of Antagonism:
A protagonist and the story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.
This isn’t about the protagonist having a compelling antagonist, but rather about the depth of antagonism against the protagonist’s central values. If a character seeks wealth, then the story is as compelling as the forces pushing him away from that and towards poverty. If they seek love and family, then it’s the forces driving them towards isolation.
At the core of the principle is that antagonism isn’t binary. McKee describes four states a value can be in, the Positive, Contradictory, Contrary, and Negation of the Negation. To simplify the terms though, I’ll call these the Positive, Negative, Middle, and Hell. Think of the hell scenario as the monkey’s paw perversion of the central value; it has the superficial markings of victory, but is a fate worse than death.
If a character seeks romantic love, the positive outcome is going to be a typical rom-com romantic ending. The middle ground might be not “getting the girl,” but strengthening important friendships. The negative ending is isolation from the object of affection. Hell is a loveless, unfaithful marriage. In a detective story, the positive is bringing the bad guy to justice, the negative is the bad guy escaping, hell is a bigger bad using a fall guy and ending up with even greater power, and the middle ground is the True Detective Season 1 “the dark has more territory, but the light is winning” outcome.
For a story to be fully engaging, we need to see each of these states in play — they won’t all necessarily come to pass during the story, but the audience needs to be able to understand what each of these outcomes would be like. When we look at the central values in A Song of Ice and Fire, we can then break out the four states of that value and see how as an audience we’re cognizant of what those would be like — and should we ever underestimate Hell, we’re given it in full force. For ASOIAF, three core values are Justice, Life, and Family.
While ASOIAF is short on dispensing justice, we’re never really left doubting what justice would look like. Let’s take the question of Robert’s succession. In the positive outcome, Ned would have taken Joffrey and Cersei into custody, protected them, installed Stannis on the throne (with a guarantee to at least protect Cersei’s children, though perhaps not her for her treason against Robert), and Renly serving as Hand and softening Stannis’s reign.
The middle ground is Joffrey is king and Cersei holding sway, but their worst impulses checked by Tyrion, Tywin, Kevan, and the other non-psychopaths at court. The wrong person sits on the throne, but the realm is in truth ruled by a competent council.
The negative outcome is one where Joffrey is not only on the throne, but where his commands are obeyed and go unchecked. It’s a reign where he no longer needs to say “I am the king.”
Hell is Stannis winning against Joffrey at King’s Landing, defeating the Lannister forces, and then turning his army to destroy Robb, naming him traitor and usurper.
Jon Snow’s been beating this drum since Craster’s Keep: the real war in ASOIAF is between the living and the dead. Melisandre has the same message, and (show) Syrio tells us there is only one god, the god of death to whom we say “Not today.”
Positive: The maximum number of people not only live, but have (to borrow from Band of Brothers) long and happy lives in peace.
Middle: The Battle for the Dawn is won, and the realm returns to peace, but with significant losses. The realm survives, broken, but ready to be rebuilt as the new spring comes. Call it “bittersweet.”
Negative: The Battle for the Dawn is lost, and the realm turns into a land of perpetual living death.
Hell: The Battle for the Dawn is won, but Daenerys turns mad queen and reigns through fire and blood. All the victories paid for with the deaths of good and brave soldiers reap only more death. The wheel is stronger than ever.
The Stark family being split when Ned goes South, Jon Snow finding a new brotherhood, Cersei’s love for Jaime and her children, and even Daenerys with her dragons, the series has always had family at its core. Looking at the Starks specifically though during the War of the Five Kings, we can see all the different possibilities:
Positive: The Lannisters accept Robb’s peace terms (after some more bargaining, of course), Sansa is returned home and with peace restored, Arya makes it back as well. Catelyn gets to watch Bran riding Dancer, and when she learns about Jon’s role in getting the saddle made she stops being so horrible to him the few times he’s able to visit.
Middle: Robb and Catelyn die at the Twins, but Arya, Sansa, Bran, Rickon and Jon live on and are reunited, though only briefly before moving on.
Negative: They all either die or are scattered to the wind, never seeing each other again, never knowing what happened to anyone else, and not even knowing who is alive or dead.
Hell: Some of the surviving Starks are reunited, only to then betray each other. Or, quite possibly, Arya learns that the Brotherhood Without Banners is lead by Catelyn under the name Lady Stoneheart. She finally gets reunited with her mother only to then learn she’s an empty, vengeful shell of the woman who’d raised her (and Arya is prevented from ending LSH). (Show) Sansa’s return to Winterfell is a hell outcome.
It Can’t Always Be Hell
While the hell option is certainly one of the things that makes ASOIAF stand out as being particularly brutal, all hell all the time gets really monotonous. Even Doom needs to spend time on Mars and Earth. It’s enjoyable to have your emotional muscles stretched by being given events beyond what you thought possible (hey, the Bolton Northmen are retaking Winterfell!), but too much and it becomes one-note.
While no one is really expecting a happy ending to the series, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that one of the central values the series is concerned with will find its way to a positive outcome. Perhaps justice wins out the day, but at a high cost in life and personal sacrifice. Similar to the end of Lord of the Rings (and I ain’t talking about Aragorn’s tax policies):
I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.
The value of peace in LotR hits the positive state, but the value of friendship lands at a bittersweet middle, and the sense of wonder and exploration and magic is actually at a negative as the Elves leave Middle Earth, the Ents have no sign of the Entwives, and the Fourth Age is one of peace, but not of magic.
So What Happened With The Show?
I believe one of the weaknesses in the final season was that too many of the outcomes were a forgone conclusion to the point where our minds don’t dwell on the other possibilities. The Night King will be defeated, either in episode 3 or 4, though we don’t know exactly how or how great (or insignificant) the losses will be — we expect a positive or middle outcome. Dany will defeat Cersei but be killed by Jon afterwards — we expect Jon and Dany will both go through hell.
The issue is not just that we’ve seen the ending, but that the show (largely because of pacing, I suspect) doesn’t invite us to truly contemplate a full range of outcomes. By comparison, the novels are rich with possibility, even when we know what’s going to happen. These possibilities are baked into the text and the character’s thoughts. Will Joffrey reign, and if so, will he be checked by Tyrion as acting Hand? What if the war ends and Sansa is ransomed, but Arya remains missing? Will Daenerys decide that Slaver’s Bay is her true home and kingdom?
In A Clash of Kings, when Stannis commands Davos to smuggle Melisandre into Storm’s End, they discuss the nature of the future, and the fact that Melisandre has seen multiple conflicting ends:
Stand before the nightfire and you’ll see for yourself. The flames shift and dance, never still. The shadows grow tall and short, and every man casts a dozen. Some are fainter than others, that’s all. Well, men cast their shadows across the future as well. One shadow or many. Melisandre sees them all.
The novels are so keenly engaging because we’re asked to think about the many different futures that may come about. The show ended with a more fatalistic view, to borrow from Dead Poets Society, it was less “every many casts a dozen shadows” and more “‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”