Television

What It’s Like to Write a Finale Your Fans Hate

Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore has some advice for the writers of Game of Thrones.

Top: Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. Bottom: the cast of Battlestar Galactica.
What’s it like to work on something for years and write an ending that has people calling for your head?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO and NBCUniversal, Inc.

Game of Thrones climaxes with Tyrion Lannister talking the lords of Westeros into making the most consequential decision of the entire series. Is it the right one? Not even Tyrion can say for certain: “Ask me again in 10 years.”

It’s been 10 years since the final episode of a beloved genre series whose conclusion enraged some of its most ardent fans. A few months later, i09 modestly asked “Did Battlestar Galactica Have The Worst Ending In Science Fiction History?” (For once, Betteridge’s Law did not apply.) Time has been kinder to Battlestar’s ending, but it’s still bitterly divisive. What’s it like to work on something for years and write an ending that has people calling for your head? We asked Ronald D. Moore, Battlestar’s showrunner and the writer of the fateful finale, how it sits with him a decade later, and whether he has any words to help Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss weather the storm.

Slate: Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said that when the finale aired, they planned to be “very drunk and very far from the internet.” Where were you for the Battlestar Galactica finale?

Ronald D. Moore: I think I was just at home. I mean when the Battlestar finale aired, Twitter was probably around but it wasn’t really a thing, is my recollection. It seemed like social media was just starting to happen. So I was reading fan sites and blogs, just kind of watching, seeing what the general audience reaction was. I mean, I did three finales because I wrote the Next Generation finale and then I was involved in the Deep Space Nine finale—I was on the writing staff. All three of those were very different times in terms of audience reaction and participation and when you got feedback, so they were all very distinct moments. But Battlestar was the first time that I was watching people reacting in more or less real time. It wasn’t like Twitter where it was minute by minute and you were getting that kind of real-time reaction, but within an hour, within a half-hour, you were starting to see people respond. People would log in at commercial breaks to maybe post something on a forum here and there.

So Battlestar was not your first rodeo. Do you still hold your breath until you find out what people think? What’s going through your mind?

Pretty much. I always felt like you just wait and see what the audience says. You pull back the curtain and you present the show, whatever it is, and you hope they applaud and you hope that they laugh at all the right moments and you hope that they cry in the moments that you want them to cry. There’s opening night, and you wait to see what really happens.

I binged all of Battlestar not long after the show ended, and I didn’t read anything about it until afterward. So I watched the finale and thought it was great, and it wasn’t until I went online afterward that I realized how angry some people were about it. Did you know that people would react so strongly?

Pretty much. We were tracking what various fans and fan sites were saying about the series in general, and right from the beginning, there was always controversy about the show within the fan community. There was a dedicated group of people that hated the fact that we were rebooting the original and never got on board, so it was sort of baked into the cake.

I was always of the opinion that you try to keep all that out of the writers’ room as much as possible. I said many times, “This isn’t a democracy.” We’re not taking a vote on what fans want or think or care about. But we were all aware, going into the final season, that some people were going to love it and some people were going to hate it. You just had to shrug and say, “Who cares?” We’re doing what we think is our best work, and that’s really our only charge—to try to service the characters and bring conclusion to the story in the way that we think is most satisfying.

When you started to see the reactions go in both directions, were you surprised at some of the vehemence there?

I was surprised a little bit with the vehemence of it. I was a Star Trek fan before I joined Star Trek, so I had been around fandom for a very long time, and there was always a certain viciousness within the fan circles. Only the true believers can be vicious. There’s always part of fandom that thinks, “We know better than the people that run the show!” You’re always hopeful, so when the finale came out, you want everyone to love it. Even though part of your rational brain goes, “Yeah, some people ain’t gonna like this,” when they don’t, and they’re really angry about it, it does hurt. It’s hard not to feel it. But, you know, I still look at the piece, or I did at the time and went, “I love it. I think it’s great. And I don’t care if they’re angry about it.”

Is there something about genre fandom in particular that nourishes those extreme reactions? One of the first pieces that came up when I searched for online reactions was a blog post calling Battlestar’s finale “the worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction.” Which is almost a compliment.

We’re No. 1! Yeah, I don’t know what it is about genre. You could say that genre fandom is the biggest fandom, and maybe that’s the root of a lot of it. I’m not sure what the fandom is for Law and Order or NCIS. I’m sure there is one, but for genre it’s definitely something people care about so passionately, and it’s very personal. You go to conventions, or you go to fan gatherings, and people really love these characters from all these shows. And they take it very personally, they see themselves in it. They have their fantasies, their wish-fulfillments wrapped up in it, and when it goes sideways for them, and it goes to places that upset them, they take it very, very personally, and they get very passionate about it.

In fandom, there are some people who express their love through hate. When I was at Star Trek, I remember being online, in the early days, like AOL, and there was a fan who was writing a review of one of the episodes I had written. It started off by saying, “I’ve watched this episode three times, and it gets worse every time I watch it.” I’m like, OK! You are a fan, and you love this, but you express it through this angsty rage. And that too is part of being a fan—“I hate Star Wars and I’ve seen them all 12 times!” That’s just part of your particular psychology, and probably you’re expressing your devotion to this piece.

So have you followed the reactions to the Game of Thrones finale?

A little bit, yes. I watched and scanned through the media recaps and reactions. It was sort of predictable. I thought, going into it, people were going to hate it. They were just primed to freak out about it in various ways—and primed to enjoy the fact that they were angry about it. So none of it surprised me. Personally, I thought it was great. And you can quote me. I was very satisfied as a viewer. I thought it was the perfect ending to all those characters and I thought that it made sense in the arc of what they had been doing. When you’re doing a finale for a show, you’re thinking about it at least a year previous. At the minimum, the final season is dominated by the thought about what’s the endgame, how are we moving characters and story to get to this particular endpoint? Nothing that happened in the finale of Game of Thrones was not thought out, was not discussed, was not part of George Martin’s universe. It was all very carefully laid out, and it felt to me like it was all consistent with pretty much everything they had been doing.

There’s that moment in the first episode of Season 8 where Jon and Dany kiss and her dragon gives them this weird look, which people made fun of at the time. But having seen the finale, you realize that specific shot was there to sell the moment when Drogon sees Dany dead in Jon’s arms and decides not to burn him alive.

Those things were all definitely thought out. When they were in the editing room, they made sure to include that shot because they knew where the story was going later.

One of the distinctions that’s come up a lot is the difference between having an ending that’s set in advance, which was the case with Game of Thrones, and one that evolves as you go, which is how most TV shows work. With Battlestar, some of the major elements, like which of the main characters were secretly Cylons, were things you decided as they happened and not things you planned out in advance. Was that an advantage?

Yeah, it was. That is the difference between doing an adaptation and doing an original. We had that freedom in the writers’ room with Battlestar. Going into the final season and all the way to the breaking of and the rewriting of the finale, we literally could do whatever we wanted. The great advantage is that, if a better idea comes along, you can grab it, you can seize it and go, “Oh my God, I never thought about that until today, and thank God I did. Let’s do this.” That’s huge. The disadvantage is that then that can seem arbitrary or could that suddenly jerk story that wasn’t laid out carefully.

You mentioned that Battlestar ended just as social media was starting to take off. Now you’re working on Outlander, which also has a very engaged fanbase with an attachment to the books you’re adapting. Has that culture of online reaction changed in the last 10 years?

It certainly has gotten bigger. It’s almost pointless to try and understand it now, because there’s literally thousands and thousands of messages, and thousands of arguments. How can you really take it in? And even if I could digest them, it’s still a fraction of the larger audience, so what am I really doing here? An episode will air, you read the initial responses on Twitter, and it can be a decent barometer of whether people generally thought it was good or bad. But that’s about as far it goes in terms of its value, to me. I just feel like it’s a little more damaging than it is helpful.

I try to keep that out of my writers’ offices as much as possible—don’t start a pitch or a conversation in the story room by saying, “I was reading this fan reaction on Twitter where the fans don’t like this, or the fans do like that.” Again, it’s not a democracy. I don’t give a shit. Like, what do we think is the best? We’re being paid to use our creative instincts and our creative ideas. We’re not being paid to do a survey and try to marry our material to what we think the Twitterverse is interested in. I’ve gotten to a place where I really just hold it at bay.

That reaction is so immediate and can be so loud, and people have an expectation that they’ll be heard. But you’re dealing in most cases with material that was written and shot a year before it airs. There’s this weird sense of “Well, we’ve been complaining about this all week. Why didn’t you do something about it?”

I was over in post-production just yesterday on the show I’m working on now, and somebody said, “Someone posted this whole thing about how there’s a theory out there in fandom that that shot of Jon Snow petting Ghost in the finale was something they put in because people were so upset that the week before he didn’t pet the dog. So they must’ve scrambled and gotten visual effects and put that shot in just to satisfy people.” Which is so insane. If you know anything about television production, there’s not even the remotest chance that that’s true. But people don’t realize how long it takes to do these things, and the effort, and the planning. When they’re talking about an episode online, we’re working on the next season’s stuff. We’re a full year ahead of them. There’s no way anything they say can influence anything that they’re watching.

David Nutter, who directed the episode in which Jon just gave Ghost a goodbye nod, did what in retrospect was a masterful job of playing dumb when he was asked about it. “Well, CG’s too expensive and we spent all our money on the giant so that’s all he got.”

That’s pretty funny.

TV used to be a largely episode medium, where even on dramas the characters would rarely change. But home video and streaming have made binge-watching more like the norm. Do you think because so much stuff is consumed not over a period of weeks and years but sometimes months and hours, finales are more important than they used to be?

I think in some ways because there’s more attention brought to them. Because, you put your finger on it, it is a move toward more serialized storytelling. There is an expectation that there will be a finale, an ending, something that brings together all the plot threads and gives closure to the characters. And that wasn’t the expectation before. For most of television’s history, shows just kind of ended. There wasn’t really a big send-off. You might have a finale to like, M*A*S*H, which was an extraordinary show in its day, but it was because it was extraordinary that it got a finale. Now, if you’re not a show that just gets canceled out of nowhere—which certainly happens a lot, probably with most shows—but if you’ve got a decent run and the word goes out that we’re ending the show next year, there’s absolutely an expectation that, “Oh, well, you’re going to have to wrap all this stuff up, and I want to know what their last scene’s going to be, and what’s the big goodbye?”

Let me end with this. If they have sobered up and come near the internet, do you have any words for David Benioff and Dan Weiss at this point?

Just keep your head up. I think they created and produced one of the greatest television shows of all time. And that will be the hallmark of the achievement. I think grousing about the finale will fade, and as time goes on, people will go back and see the show for the first time, years from now who have never experienced it, and I don’t think they’re going to think, “Oh my God that’s not the ending I wanted.” I think they’ll go, “Oh, well, that makes sense.” I think it will satisfy people. As a writer and a creator, that’s really all that you want. You just want to satisfy the audience, and you want to feel like we did our very best and we stuck the landing, as they say. And I think they did. I think they did a really good job.