tv characters fatesSunday night, viewers had a choice: Watch Game of Thrones," or watch Don Draper and a host of other characters find some measure of tidy fulfillment on the series finale of "Mad Men." Viewers seemed dissatisfied with both, judging by how they proceeded to set the Internet ablaze.

The outrage over Sansa's rape (with new husband Ramsay Bolton forcing himself on her while making her erstwhile stepbrother Theon Greyjoy watch) stems not just from the fact that the show's writers gave Sansa the fate meted out to another character in the books, or even that the violence was especially lurid or graphic. (Indeed, by "Game of Thrones" standards, the scene was fairly brief and discreet.) Rather, it was that Sansa has been a fan favorite, a decent person who's witnessed many ghastly events and lost several family members, but who herself had been spared the kinds of horrors routinely visited on other characters, especially female characters -- until now. Viewers somehow thought Sansa would be immune from such torments, though real life doesn't work that way and neither does thoughtfully-crafted TV. "Game of Thrones" seldom plays that way but instead routinely pulls the rug out from under the characters and from under fans who expect it to honor narrative conventions.

As for "Mad Men," the much-debated ending, which saw Don Draper find enlightenment and ambiguous self-realization at an Esalen-like California retreat, viewers felt ambivalent. Did Don -- a character whom Jon Hamm made likable and alluring, but who also spent seven seasons behaving self-destructively, treating those who loved him with cruel callousness, and leaving those who depended on him in the lurch -- deserve his redemption? For that matter, did Pete or Roger, two characters who were often even bigger cads than Don? Did they deserve fulfillment more than Joan, who, as always, was forced to choose between love and career? And on the other end of the spectrum, were we supposed to find Betty's lung cancer a comeuppance for her years of maternal coldness, or were we now supposed to feel sorry for her or see her as a trouper, defiantly puffing a cigarette in the face of the abyss? As with "Game of Thrones," "Mad Men" also routinely sabotaged expectations, so much so that, when some characters ended up happy, we didn't buy it, and when others did not, we were disappointed.

In a way, the age of antihero TV has ruined us. We want our favorite characters to be happy because we find them charismatic and charming (which is why we've invested so many hours of our lives following them in the first place). But we also want them to suffer because karma (or, in literary terms, poetic justice) demands it. Think of lovable-but-lethal mob boss Tony Soprano (on the series where "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner cut his teeth) and how many "Sopranos" fans were disappointed that the series cut to black without showing for certain whether Tony got whacked (and punished for all his crimes) or found happiness with his family over a plate of onion rings. Think of Atlantic City crime boss Nucky Thompson on "Boardwalk Empire" (a show created by former "Sopranos" writer Terence Winter, who must have learned from the fan complaints over the "Sopranos" finale), who did get whacked, in the series' final seconds, which turned out to be an abrupt and unsatisfying moment. Or think of meth kingpin and doting dad Walter White, the "Breaking Bad" protagonist who is about the only recent antihero protagonist who managed to pull off both the violent death his crimes merited and the redemption that still-sympathetic fans wanted for him.

No one on "Mad Men" merited violent retribution, but a lot of viewers wanted or at least expected Don Draper to die. He seemed congenitally unable to find for himself the happiness he easily sold to others, and he'd hit what seemed to be rock bottom, bounce back, and then find an even deeper bottom. During Sunday's finale, he seemed paralyzed with despair and cut off from the world. The show could have ended there, with Don's implied suicide, and it would have felt awful but appropriate. Instead, Don had a breakthrough in the last minutes of the series, and his sudden happiness seemed suspect and too neat. Whether the ambiguous final seconds indicated he's be pursuing hippie bliss in California or returning to work for the giant New York ad agency that had swallowed his firm and find creative fulfillment by creating that classic Coke commercial, his happiness seemed bound to be short-lived. Had he really learned enough about himself from his empathetic response to poor Leonard that we could be sure Don wouldn't sabotage himself again?

The truth is, as much as we may have yearned to see Don find a happy ending, it was more satisfying to watch him suffer. Not because he deserved it but because it made for better drama. And the same is true of Sansa and the rest of the "Game of Thrones" characters. Yes, the suffering that George R.R. Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss visit upon them is extreme, but that's the kind of world Westeros is.

Maybe a better question than "Why do characters we like have to suffer?" would be, "Why do we find their suffering entertaining?" After all, "Game of Thrones" has shown characters suffering through presentation that's more agonizingly drawn out, to the point where the viewer feels implicated in the character's torture. (Think of all that Ramsay has done to poor Theon, including castration.) The Sansa scene, too, for all its relative brevity and discretion, was also excruciating for many fans to watch. And yet, "Game of Thrones" serves up this sort of thing to us every week as entertainment. A few weeks ago, it looked like we were going to have to watch Mance Rayder get burned alive until Jon Snow spared him (and us) his misery by shooting him with an arrow.

Do we enjoy watching suffering meted out to the deserving and undeserving alike because we're sadists, because we find violence cathartic? Maybe. But maybe we've been conditioned -- not just by television, but by our culture in general, by religion, and by history -- to believe that suffering has a moral purpose, a lesson to teach.

And maybe that's the way to respond to scenes like Sansa's rape, to hope that it shapes her character in a way that will pay off later. That's placing an awful lot of trust in Benioff and Weiss, but the alternative is to think that Sansa's anguish is for naught. Pain ultimately led to some measure of enlightenment for all the "Mad Men" characters, whether we rooted for them to find it or not; maybe it'll do the same for Sansa, Tyrion, Jon Snow, Daenerys, and other "Game of Thrones" fan favorites.

Perhaps the lesson here, in drama as in life, is to take everything that happens as a character-building experience, whether it's deserved or not. As Clint Eastwood's William Munny says in "Unforgiven," "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."