Plenty of TV shows explore death in varying forms. Dexter examines the idea somewhat lustily, while House finds death at the opposite side of the chessboard playing a thrilling game against the doctors. War shows like Band of Brothers are in love with the idea of the noble death, whereas most CSI derivatives are happy to use death as a plot-instigator, like Dorothy’s tornado. Most shows use threats of death as an act raiser, which we never take seriously unless it’s sweeps week or someone’s contract is up.
And how sad is that? Death can be many things to many people but “mundane” should never be one of them.
As we push into this new “Golden Age of Television” we’ve seen more and more artists fleeing the commercialized prison that is Hollywood film to explore this brave new world of complex adult television. Sex tends to be at the top of their minds, followed by topics like politics (House of Cards), gender (Girls and Transparent) and institutional dysfunction (The Wire, and maybe Gotham if we’re being generous). Most of these shows feature death in some form or another, but in its portrayal of Death the Force of Nature rather than Death the Lead-In to the Commercial Break, Game of Thrones is unique.
Way back when a man named Tolkien first planted his flag on the shores of High Fantasy, it was an accepted fact that genre fiction existed for escapism and not much else. Michael Moorcock said Lord of the Rings is essentially just Winnie the Pooh with swords. He wasn’t wrong. Tolkien was a staunch romantic, a WWI veteran who needed to write a story about how you can come home from war and find your cozy little Hobbit hole much the same as you left it. Millions of readers have journeyed with Frodo and Sam through the hell of Mordor and rejoiced as they made their way back to their Hundred Acre Wood.
Enter a portly New Englander named George R. R. Martin, a man who dared to blaspheme at the temple of Tolkien and get away with it. Old GRRM cut his teeth in his early days as a TV screenwriter working on shows like Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast, so he knows thrill and drama in a way Tolkien, with his stuffed animal characters, never could. It was the natural thing for Game of Thrones to hit TV screens, giving a big, loving middle finger to everything we thought we knew about what fantasy television is and could be, as well as offering an insight into death that’s sorely lacking in pop culture.
If you’re even slightly aware of Game of Thrones, you know Martin’s a bit kill-happy. He’s a big fan of the Sopranos-style sudden execution (though to be fair he was doing it back in 1992). It’s easy to view this little authorial quirk as a cheap way to thin out an extremely overstuffed cast but that’s simply not fair. More so than maybe any other writer working in TV right now, Martin understands death is not just a narrative device, but a presence, an actual force of nature that acts on us all.
In Game of Thrones, death is tragic, sudden, karmic and thrilling, yes, but death is also inconvenient.
Death doesn’t come for us in the Tolkien way, peacefully in bed years after the war has ended, or in the Band of Brothers way, in the tear-soaked arms of a comrade on the battlefield. Death does not wrestle with us like in House because with death there is no contest.
Death sneaks up on us in the form of a phone call on a Tuesday morning telling you your Great Aunt Fanny slipped in the shower. Oh, you have a final exam tomorrow? Try not to get tears on the Scantron slip. You’ve got rent due? Here’s hoping you can still afford that after the plane ticket home for the funeral. You didn’t get to say goodbye? Join the club. Now please try to find something you can wear that’s black and isn’t your sweatpants.
Game of Thrones teaches us that death does not come at the appropriate time.
No one on Game embodies this more than Ned Stark, a character so gritty, white, and male that he became the first season’s main character by default. Thanks to a fantastic performance by Sean Bean, Ned wore a lifetime of melancholy in every wrinkle on his face. He found himself embroiled in some juicy castle intrigues involving incest and political corruption that he seemed almost divinely ordained to overcome. You don’t kill off James Bond halfway through the movie; to all outward appearances, Ned Stark seemed to have the same Protagonist-Grade Character Shield.
And then the internet shat itself when Sean Bean did what he does best and died an ignoble onscreen death, executed publicly by Joffrey, a character who could best be described as the lovechild of Jeffrey Dahmer and Draco Malfoy. “That’s not supposed to happen!” wailed the audience, urgently rewinding their TiVo’s to see if a giant eagle was going to swoop in and carry him away to Narnia. Nope. Ned Stark, our boilerplate white male protagonist, a character with every advantage up to and including top billing, bit the big one out of nowhere, his intrigues unsolved and his story arc not even close to complete.
The devious Lannisters still sat the Iron Throne. Jon Snow’s mother remained an enigma. Daughters Arya and Sansa continued to be in peril. It all became academic with one stroke of a sword.
It’s this intentional placement of character deaths before the “appropriate” moments that makes Martin such a brilliant writer. We feel the loss of Ned Stark all the more because of his works left unfinished. He was supposed to break his shackles, pull a sword out of his ass, and cleave into Joffrey’s smugly grinning head right at the shock blond hairline. But that never happened, and the good works Ned could and should have done hang over season two like a ghost. The absence of our hero makes us feel confused and strangely empty. You might recognize these as emotions you would actually feel after losing a loving one.
The specter of what was “supposed” to happen is a powerful one. Lesser writers let it guide them. Martin understands death is immune to “supposed to”.
In Game of Thrones as in life, death does not wait for sweeps week.
John Keefe is an author, actor, editor and playwright operating out of Chicago, Illinois. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, he now works as a featured author for websites such as The Editing Room, JayIsGames.com, and The Six Thirty, as well as a writer and performer for The Group Project, a Pilsen-based theater troupe.