Game of Thrones and the Death Effect
Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones Seasons 1-6 and Books 1-5
The world of Game of Thrones (GOT) has many religions, and with those religions come many gods. There are the Old Gods of the Children of the Forest, the Seven Who Are One, and the Lord of Light himself, R’hllor. Yet, after reading five books and watching six seasons, I cannot help but think that perhaps the late Syrio Forel was right. Perhaps, in the world of GOT “there is only one god, and His name is Death.”
From the way the show treats its characters, it truly seems that death rules this world. From the start of the show, the writers make it clear that death will play a massive role in the show and be an overarching theme throughout the series. The first two scenes alone are surrounded by it, with several members of the Night’s Watch being killed by White Walkers in the first few minutes followed by Eddard Stark executing a deserter of that same organization. One could even argue that it is the main character of the entire series, and that everyone from Tyrion to Daenerys is hopelessly trying to outrun it before it inevitably catches up with them.
These types of scenes, however, do not fully capture the role death plays in GOT. There are plenty of violent shows out there that kill off countless of redshirts (unimportant characters that die simply to move the plot along). Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, Daredevil, The Wire; death is prominent in these shows as well.
Rather, what makes death in GOT so special is that it does not just come for the redshirts but for everyone. Unlike most TV shows, GOT is not afraid to kill off their major characters. Look at who was killed in the first season alone: King Robert Baratheon, Viserys Targaryen, Khal Drogo. These were all major characters that played massive roles in the first season's story and death came for them all.
Yet, perhaps the defining moment for the show came in episode nine of season one when Lord Eddard Stark was executed in front of his two daughters. It was a truly shocking and unprecedented move. The main character, the one we invested the most time in, the one who represented all that was good and just in the world of GOT, the one who was not supposed to die, was decapitated before the first season even ended. The risks were huge from both a story and business standpoint. Would fans be able to handle a world where none of their favorite characters were truly safe? Would they be willing to invest their time in new characters now that the most important one was gone? Could the show survive financially without its biggest name actor and the constant turnover that comes with so much death?
Just mention the words “Game of Thrones” in a conversation and you will see that the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes. The fans loved it. The idea that anyone could die in a TV show was unprecedented. Normally, big character deaths were saved for season or series finales, and even in those only a few major characters would be killed. On GOT, no one was safe. With the death of Lord Stark, the show raised the stakes of their story to the highest level, creating an obsessive amount of interest among fans.
And so, for the last six years GOT has yielded its fans with some of the most shocking, heartbreaking, and satisfying deaths of any TV show: Renly Baratheon was stabbed in the heart by shadow demon, Tywin Lannister was shot by a crossbow by his son while sitting on the toilet, Joffrey Baratheon was poisoned at his own wedding. And then, of course, there was the Red Wedding, an event so drastic and infamous that it became part of the global pop culture canon the second it aired.
However, too much of a good thing can turn out to be quite harmful, and that is what I believe is happening to GOT. With the show killing off so many of its major characters so frequently, it is creating what I call the death effect. The theory of the death effect is that with the constant stream of deaths occurring on the show, they lose their emotional impact and essentially become meaningless.
In order to fully understand this, we have to understand the purpose of the death of a character on a TV show. When we watch a character on TV, we are watching their personal journey. We are given a person with specific traits and we watch to see if that person will change or stay the same. Will Oliver Queen conquer his demons or remain a killer (Arrow)? Will Don Draper become the man in the Kodiak commercial or continue his fake life (Mad Men)? Can Jack finally let go of his past or will he carry it as his penance forever (Lost)?
When a character dies, it is the end of that journey. It is a culmination of all their choices and actions into one final act. It is the moment when we, the audience, finally get to see if the character has truly changed or if they failed in their quest, whatever that may be. It should feel natural and inevitable, as if all their past choices could have only led them to this one moment. It also must be done by the right character at the right time, allowing the full emotional weight to be felt.
In the beginning of GOT, the writers did exactly that. Eddard Stark had to die. The world he lived in had no place for honor and goodness. His actions of trying to restore the true king to the throne and his constant trust of those that did not deserve it could not be greeted by anything except death. Another excellent example is the death of Tywin. His constant mistreatment of his son Tyrion and his refusal to give him an ounce of legitimacy made their final conversation all the more dramatic. Had Tywin given the respect and love his son had always craved, he may still be alive. That, however, would not have been true Tywin. He would rather die than help his son and so it was. All his previous actions and choices led to that moment and it was perfect.
In the last two years, however, the show has had less success creating these moments. Perhaps the most shocking death of the last two years comes from the season six finale, when Margery (along with Loras and Kevan) are killed by Cersei. This was a beautifully crafted scene with excellent writing, acting, and music (Light of the Seven still gives me chills). However, when it comes to emotional impact, it left me feeling rather empty. Margery’s choices and actions did not naturally lead her there. It did not feel inevitable, but rather like she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although her feud with Cersei technically led to her death, there was no closure in the two’s relationship. There was no final conversation, no major realization about their characters. The only thing it did was confirm that Cersei is still a terrible human being. It was a redshirt death, something a character like Margery did not deserve.
The same can be said of the death of Barristan Selmy in the middle of season five. His death at the hands of the faceless Sons of the Harpy says nothing about his character, a knight looking for redemption after failing to save the two kings he swore to protect. His choices did not lead him to that moment. It was not natural or inevitable. Like Margery, he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and deserved better.
I could go on and on with this list: Rickon Stark, Ramsay Bolton, Roose Bolton, Myrcella Baratheon, Doran Martell, Jojen Reed, and the Three-Eyed Raven all had poorly executed deaths and deserved better. These are all deaths that, while they moved the plot along, lacked any emotional depth. They were treated like redshirts, and for central characters like these, a redshirt death is unacceptable. That is not to say that every death in the last two seasons was poorly done. The death of Stannis Baratheon was handled perfectly as was Hodor’s.
As the show progresses, the writers seem more concerned with the short-term shock factor than with the long-term emotional factor, and that in turn is hurting the show. More and more it seems like GOT is focusing on the pageantry of the slaughter (a giant firebomb in a temple, death by dogs, having a head exploded) than the emotions and meanings surrounding it. This must come to an end, especially as we approach the end of the series and the inevitable death of Tyrion, Cersei, Jon, or Daenerys. It would be a shame and absolutely unacceptable to see one those characters die a redshirt death So, yes, while it is true that all men must die, that does not mean that they should not die well.