Brow Beat

The Myth of the Endgame

How a misunderstanding about chess seduced Avengers, Game of Thrones, and our culture.

Photo collage of Donald Trump, Riverdale, Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame, and a chess king piece.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images, Gearstd/iStock/Getty Images Plus, HBO, and CW.

“We will survive whatever you have planned because weareendgame,” Camila Mendes declares in an ad for the latest season of Riverdale. She plays Veronica on the show, and in this clip she’s telling someone that no matter what obstacles come her way, her relationship with Archie will endure. This is weird for a couple of reasons: 1) Isn’t the whole thing in the Archie comics that he’s locked in a perpetual love triangle with both Betty and Veronica? And 2) since when did fictional characters start referring to their own “endgame”?

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Veronica and Archie are hardly the only endgame around here. With Avengers: Endgame hitting theaters this week and poised to break all kinds of box-office records, Game of Thrones hurtling toward its own endgame, a Taylor Swift song prominently featuring the concept (“I wanna be your end game,” the singer croons on, what else, “End Game,” off her album Reputation), and near-constant discussion of various politicos’ endgames or lack thereof, what are all these games, and why do they all seem to be ending?

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Before Game of Thrones and company, there was the game of chess, which is where endgame originates. In chess (and bridge, too), the endgame is the all-important last stage of the game—but not because it’s a time for particularly stunning moves, counter to endgame’s more colloquial connotation. “There’s a bit of a discrepancy in how that word is often used in general writing and in chess,” said Matt Gaffney, a crossword puzzle constructor who has written about chess for Slate. “There’s three parts to a chess game, generally speaking: the opening, you’re getting the pieces from their starting position out to the center of the board; the middle game, which is kind of the big battle, where all the pieces conflict; and then the endgame is when there’re not that many pieces left on the board.” It’s pretty simple: The endgame is just … the end of the game. (This is why “Endgame” also makes for such a well-named closing number in the ABBA-soundtracked musical Chess.)

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Gaffney surmised that endgame’s colloquial use—“It has the connotation of ‘I’ve thought everything out, and this is my endgame’ ”—comes not from chess but a stereotype of chess. People imagine the chess master who is planning out move 75 on move 3, and while there are a few famous opening strategies that work sort of like that, chess players mostly aren’t masterminds who devise their every move a dozen or more steps in advance. And yet this endgame is the one that’s taken hold lately in mass culture.

As the Avengers series, Riverdale, and Game of Thrones attest, endgame gets thrown around frequently when we talk about movies and shows. In articles and online discussions, writers and fans alike are keen to talk about a property’s “endgame”: Before the Game of Thrones premiere this year, the Ringer ran a series of columns whose purpose was “digging through … loose ends, looking at why they matter and how they could affect the endgame as we count down to Thrones’ long-awaited conclusion.” Read generously, the subtitle of Avengers: Endgame cleverly acknowledges and nods to the current vogue for endgames among fans while also signaling that this movie will be the end of the series. (Kind of. More on that later.)

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So is endgame now just a fancier way of saying end? Perhaps, but the uptick in this usage follows the trend of twisty and complicated narratives that has bloomed in the age of Peak TV and Peak Podcast and Peak Marvel. Why would a creator merely end his project when he can have a whole endgame? Many now aim for endings that can elegantly wrap up not just the main plot but several mysterious loose ends you didn’t even know needed a bow. It’s no longer just “Will they or won’t they?” but “What were the numbers, and what about the polar bears, and did that one kid have special powers, and how does it all fit together?” This is partly a consequence of the ever-popular puzzle-box TV show format, in which mysteries like this can animate much of a show’s plot. As Slate’s Willa Paskin once put it, it’s no longer good enough to “just watch a show. Now you have to solve it.”

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Television executives dream of the kind of online chatter and speculation a show like Game of Thrones inspires, and many entertainment properties now seem reverse-engineered to encourage internet sleuthing and Reddit threads full of clue-spotting and theories. And when cracking a show’s mystery becomes more fun than the show itself—as has been true of Game of Thrones at its worst, but also could easily be said of many other puzzle-box properties—sometimes viewers keep tuning in anyway because they’re invested in the so-called endgame. They want to see where this is all going. As far as I can tell, this almost never pans out the way fans want it to. Remember Lost? True Detective Season 1? But people remain enthralled by the idea that there’s some grand plan guiding the universe, the details of which will be revealed eventually.

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Elsewhere in pop culture fandom, endgame has an even more specific meaning that has to do with shipping. To ship, in fandom-ese, is to support and root for a relationship between certain characters, even if that relationship hasn’t ever been hinted at as a possibility. So if we take the Riverdale example, a fan might ship the Veronica/Archie pairing on the show (known as “Varchie,” naturally). Endgame shipping, then, is espousing the view that a certain pairing is inevitable as well as destined to be permanent. Endgame, despite sounding more like a military tactic than a romantic forecast, signals that a couple is practically unbreakable—or, to use another fan term, OTP (one true pairing). This language of fandom has become so pervasive that these terms needn’t apply to only fictional characters: One can also ship real-life pairings or declare that a real relationship is “endgame.” (This is what Taylor Swift does when she sings that she wants to be somebody’s “end game” in her song of the same name.) This is the context of that Riverdale line: As a teenager, Veronica is presumably familiar with all these internet-y concepts. And perhaps it’s a shoutout to fans, too: Varchie lovers can cheer at their favorite character talking about their favorite relationship in the same terms they would use.

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There’s a whiff of insider-speak to the political uses of endgame, too, though here they’re a more time-honored tradition. Like optics, it’s one of those buzzwords, beloved by pundits, that implies its users are smarter than everyone else, because they see another level that most people don’t in political machinations. In meme parlance, you may ask “Why?” but ah, an intellectual asks, “What’s the endgame?” It’s fun, and can even be hopeful, to speculate there’s a hidden agenda or vast conspiracy afoot when the awful truth might be that there’s no good explanation for a lot of what happens in life or politics beyond the obvious. Wouldn’t it be satisfying in a way if, say, Donald Trump, had an endgame that would bring sense to all his administration’s fumbling and cruelty? Because if there’s no endgame and if there’s no three-dimensional chess being played, what then?

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And that brings us to our, uh, conclusion. The concept of the endgame may also be appealing because it promises an actual end. There will be an end to an administration that feels infinite, praise be, and in the case of the Avengers movie, hallelujah, there will be an end to a series that has prior to this one spanned 21 films. But the thing is, there won’t be. As Amanda Hess wrote in the New York Times last fall, nothing ends anymore. Intellectual property ensures that characters and stories continue indefinitely. Though Avengers: Endgame is expected to mark the end of Marvel’s Infinity Saga and the departure of a few major stars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will live on; it will merely transition to a new phase that promises to bring a sequel to Black Panther, a sequel to Doctor Strange, and, well, a never-ending fount of Marvel movies to guarantee that the studio is never not capitalizing on its IP. It’s exhausting. Game of Thrones, too, will not actually end: There are already several spinoffs in the works. George R.R. Martin, the writer of the books on which the show is based, has also famously had trouble bringing the story to a close. With every end denied, postponed, or rebooted, the prospect of any genuine, bona fide ending becomes all the more tantalizing. Endgame is a reassuring word for precarious times, but it’s just another way of imposing narrative on a world that makes no sense.

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