Where’s the satisfaction? The problem with death in Game of Thrones

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It’s not just our heroes in constant danger of getting the chop, but the hiss-worthy villains as well.

No character is safe. Anyone can die at any moment, no matter how important they seem to be to the overall story – this has fast become one of the trademarks of Game of Thrones. But as the key deaths pile up, and more and more story arcs are beheaded, stabbed and crushed to a premature end, is the shock factor moulding into frustration rather than pleasure, and are viewers running out of characters to emotionally invest in?

In the aftermath of the Red Wedding, viewers could eventually move on, hopefully. Sadly, the hero killing didn’t stop there

In the first season, viewers were taught a harsh lesson – that this was a series unafraid of killing off its protagonists. Jolly King Robert, Khal Drogo and ultimate ‘good guy’, and the man all viewers were surely rooting for, Lord Eddard Stark, were all dead before the final episode. Ned Stark’s death was the real shocker, and surely in its wake, the rest of the Starks were safe, and would get their just revenge in time. And then the Red Wedding happened. Robb Stark, his lovely pregnant wife Talisa, and his honest, feisty mother, Lady Catelyn, were all savagely killed off, all at once.

If Ned Stark’s death didn’t shock certain viewers, then the Red Wedding undoubtedly must have. The Starks are arguably the series’ central family, and most definitely the ‘good guys’, the noble Northerners. Yet, by the end of season three, they were all but diminished, the remaining few children scattered and alone. Obviously these key character deaths must be attributed to George R R Martin, who wrote the books, but in the case of the Red Wedding, the show’s writers actually amped up the drama and shock, since Robb Stark played a much more substantial role in the series than in the books.

Usually this works the other way around. Books are ‘Hollywoodised’ for the screen, big or small, so obviously this could be viewed as a refreshing change. In the aftermath of the Red Wedding, once viewers’ hearts had been ripped out by what they’d witnessed, they could eventually move on, hopefully, and attempt to find new heroes, and new hope to believe in. Sadly, the hero killing didn’t stop there either, and is certainly far from over.

game of thrones viper vs mountain

One of the latest ‘good guys’ to meet an early end was Prince Oberyn, who joined the series for the recent fourth Season. He provided a new warrior hero for viewers to root for and engage with, entering the game with mystery and intrigue, a powerful revenge plot in tow, providing an unlikely, last ally for everyone’s favourite ‘imp’, Tyrion Lannister. But it seems anyone was foolish to think Oberyn might actually defeat the Mountain and live. And the fact he got so close makes it all the more frustrating. If only the cocky prince had done a little more stabbing and shut his damn mouth. But his need for revenge was too strong, and like many Game of Thrones heroes that came before him, he’s dead.

Too many characters are dying before their stories can play out, and the stories left in the wake of these deaths are unsatisfying

It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Sansa Stark fall through the moon door in episode eight, and it is now more than plausible that Bran will soon simply die of the flu or something, just to really irk any Stark fans still hoping for a Northern comeback. Amidst all the key deaths, this has been the greatest change to the series as a whole, whereby the element of death no longer holds the power it once did. The shock factor in death is all but completely gone. So if viewers are expecting death at every turn, then where’s the intrigue, the suspense and the emotional drive?

Furthermore, the few heroes left are seemingly trudging through their story arcs, going nowhere exciting anywhere fast. Jon Snow’s story picked up after last week’s thrilling episode set solely at the wall, and events involving him continue to play a crucial role in the fate of Westeros, which is vital for his status as hero. But what about the rest of them? Bran is heading up North, to do…something. While Arya is also going…North. Daenerys has finally stopped walking, and for all the hours of desert travel she’s undertaken you’d think something exciting would have occurred, yet her story arc has been neither interesting nor satisfying in the last two seasons. She’s moving from city to city, growing arrogant and stale all at once, moaning about slaves and dragons.

Daenerys’s story plummeted after Drogo’s death. The Dothraki were interesting, and Drogo was a fearsome warrior, one viewers could root for, despite his slightly savage ways. Since his death, Daenerys is sounding more and more like a spoilt little girl, surrounded by a bunch of washed-up exiles who all just want to get into that little blue dress. Main characters dying is all well and good, as long as their stories feel complete. The fear is that too many characters are dying before viewers have a chance to see their stories play out, and the stories left in the wake of these deaths are unsatisfying.

Read more on GoT: Do Martin’s books ruin the HBO experience?

game of thrones daenerys

This rings even truer with the villains on Game of Thrones. Few characters inspired as much hate as crazy King Joffrey, and this hate was as much a driving force for the series as the love anyone had for any of the heroes. But then Joffrey also died, at a wedding. Only it wasn’t the satisfying death it should have been, seeing someone so foul to the core of their soul just lay down and die. Joffrey’s death provided yet more disappointment, as another key character, and driving force of the overall narrative, was killed off before his story had a chance to play out.

There are other ways of achieving change, without the need to kill characters that viewers have invested in and grown to love

Diminishing heroes, and now diminishing villains as well. Who do viewers direct their hate towards now? Walder Frey? Ramsay Snow/Bolton? While those characters have done plenty wrong, it will take time for anyone to grow into the villain that Joffrey was, especially since he was the king, and therefore central to all that occurs in the series. Lord Walder didn’t even appear in season four, and the Boltons are fighting over what has become a very uninteresting North in the absence of any Starks.

Littlefinger, Joffrey’s killer himself, has arguably stepped into the role of ‘greatest villain’ after three seasons spent scheming in the shadows, hiding his true desire, the Iron Throne. Though we have seen little of his grand plan thus far, we can only hope that, as more of it revealed, we will start to view him with the same savage hate and intrigue with which we viewed Joffrey. That is of course unless Littlefinger is taken out early in season five, which obviously, as with anyone, would be no surprise at all. In a way, Game of Thrones is realistic – as within real life, anyone can die at any moment. However, TV series like Game of Thrones are there to provide escape from reality.

Clearly killing off key characters keeps people guessing, and changes the stakes around, providing fresh dynamics and uncharted scenarios and situations, so it is evident why George R R Martin and the series writers would choose this approach. But there are other ways of achieving change, without the need to kill characters that viewers have invested in and grown to love. Game of Thrones is a success as it is, with the characters that exist, and while character death can be interesting (to a point), too much of it will result in no intrigue, and no emotional investment. We’ll be left with a slew of new, unknown characters we are yet to care about, who walk about with Death by their side, waiting to bring down the scythe. And who would want to watch that?

 

Read more on GoT: Why we still care about HBO’s “manipulative” show

 

All images: HBO

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