To Die Will Be an Awfully Big Adventure

Spoilers for Game of Thrones. And early ’90s Superman comics, I guess.

Death in stories is important. Or at least, it should be.

Coming from comics, we’re used to death being a revolving door. Heroes and villains die frequently and eventually return. It’s part of the tapestry that makes superhero comics what they are. The impact of these deaths, when done well, is a source of great drama and character exploration. Their purpose is to reinvigorate the ongoing stories with a new status quo and open up new paths of storytelling. Likewise when the same characters return.

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The most well-known example — and the best, I would argue — would be the death of Superman. By 1992 Superman had become sort of passe, an optimistic character in a pessimistic world. In an era of things like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Superman had become almost anachronistic. The public’s wants seemed to be shifting, and this was reflected in Hollywood as much as in comics. 1987 delivered the ill-conceived and repugnant Superman IV: The Quest for Peace — an abysmal flop — while the grittier Dark Knight found smashing success in Tim Burton’s Batman only two years later. The era of the morally upstanding hero was done, it seemed, and the ’90s ushered in the era of the anti-heroes and grim avengers. More brooding, more bullets, more blood.

Death_of_Superman_TPB-160In a response to the shifting landscape, DC Comics opted to kill Superman in a grand battle with Doomsday, courtesy of the childhood-defining Superman (1987) #75, told entirely in splash pages by Dan Jurgens. The basic idea seemed to be: if people think Superman isn’t relevant, let’s take him away and show them why they’re wrong. Of course, the issue drove the public comic-crazy. It sold millions and is arguably responsible for the crash of the speculator market that would come later in the decade. People went nuts for it, newspapers ran obituaries, it made the national news… people cared about Superman, but it took his death to make them realize it. His death said something about who he was and what he meant to people.

DC kept the character out of his line of monthly titles for about a year and showed how Metropolis and the DC Universe at large responded to his absence. They introduced new characters that would go on to become beloved staples of the DCU — most notably Kon-El/Superboy (Connor Kent) and Steel (John Henry Irons). It allowed them to show why Superman was needed both within the DCU and in our real-world popular culture.

The reason I enjoy death in superhero comics is that because it’s a revolving door, the stakes can never really be “defeat the villain or die,” because that’s boring, right? If we know they can come back from the dead, then big deal. Die and come back and continue the fight. This makes creators stretch their imaginations and seek out stories that have stakes beyond life and death, find the paths to stories that wouldn’t exist without a character dying and/or resurrecting. When characters die, it should be important and in service to telling the most interesting story possible.

But that’s death at its finest; the flip side is death as a gimmick. Comics certainly don’t lack meaningless deaths. Death can be used as an easy way of creating the illusion of drama or worse, in an attempt at shock value, killing the “good guys” without really changing the stakes. It’s all subjective, of course, but I find it interesting that Game of Thrones, a TV show that is adamant about using death as a plot device, so consistently puts shock value over story and character.

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I don’t read the books — I read the first installment and didn’t care to continue — but regardless of the intention or long game, I can’t deny that I’ve become numb towards any and all of the characters on this show. I imagine it’s different for fans of the books. Naturally, they’d bring more to the table and read into things far more than TV-only viewers. Much in the same way as I might watch the Harry Potter movies projecting my knowledge and devotion on screen despite many things not making it into the film, so too might a Song of Ice and Fire fan watch a death on Game of Thrones with the full impact of their fan attachment behind them. And that’s fantastic, but as merely a viewer, the show does little to make me feel anything or even get excited about the implications.

Ned’s death in season one was a shock and truly a blow; it raised the stakes in a big way for the Stark children and Westeros in general, but the show’s constant need to be abrasive has grown quite tiresome, beginning with the Red Wedding and continuing right on through the end of the most recent season. I don’t care anymore when a character dies; I feel nothing for them, and the show isn’t affected by it in any significant way other than water cooler talk and endless actor interviews about their exit from the show. The only thing I feel is annoyance that the show would try to pull the same shenanigans its been pulling for seasons upon seasons. Compare this to something like The Sopranos, where death was treated with respect and consequence, and it’s even more maddening how dismissive Game of Thrones is toward the subject and its viewers.

There are a few exceptions to this, but even then, the aftermath is disappointing. Ygritte’s death was powerful in the moment, though woefully unexplored after the fact. How did that affect Jon Snow? How did it change his perception of what it means to love and be loved? We don’t know, because the show didn’t care to explore it all that much. Now that he’s dead, we’ll never know and so it doesn’t matter. Oberyn’s death was particularly brutal because of Pedro Pascal’s pure likability, but the storyline that it led to — Jaime and Bronn in Dorne this season — ultimately resulted in little more than the presumed death of yet another character that we’d hardly seen until a few episodes previous.

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Even if I don’t feel for the characters themselves, the hope would be that plot-wise the show would find a more interesting direction with the character gone — the Superman’s death scenario — but even there it has proven disappointing, save, again, for Ned’s death and the end of particular bad guys — Joffrey and Tywin spring to mind. Joffrey’s death set some things in motion with Tommen and Margaery (despite being disappointingly unresolved in Season 5) and Tywin’s death allowed Tyrion some independence from his family, not to mention a means to an end of finally bringing the two separate stories of Westeros and Daenerys together at last.

There are plenty of things about Game of Thrones that I love — implied resurrections via unnatural means, superhero style, is one of them — but its insistence on constructing its “big moments” around “shocking” deaths rather than interesting character moments or legitimate plot twists has become uninspired and unfulfilling. One could argue that a big death is a plot twist, and it certainly can be (again, see Ned Stark) but given that they’ve been adhering to this formula for all five seasons now, its become predictable instead of thrilling. As a viewer, I’ve become tone deaf, immune, and Jon Snow’s death is just one more to add to the pile for now. While they may — and I hope they do — prove me wrong, the show’s track record doesn’t fill me with much optimism.

Game of Thrones doesn’t seem to respect death as a powerful device and it’s made the show feel stagnant despite the frequent turnover of cast members. A death should say something about the character it touches, in comics, in TV, or otherwise. Game of Thrones’ lack of follow through often makes it feel like it’s simply killing for sport.

Although, one reader-theory says Jon Snow could take over Ghost’s body or whatever, and if that’s the case, I’m on board.

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37 Comments

Filed under blog, tv

37 responses to “To Die Will Be an Awfully Big Adventure

  1. I don’t know anything about GoT, but comics and other properties have been important to me in handling the death of characters. I wrote about it a while ago (http://www.amberunmasked.com/how-to-fan/) when a pro creator said something flippant like “it’s just comics” and “are we new to comics?” How the people behind the scenes understand the fan/viewer/reader appeal doesn’t feel like it’s given much though except in cases to sensationalize, like Superman and Captain America. I get hurt as a fan thinking those editors & creators care that little for our feelings that they create these stunts. Fictional characters mean a lot to people. If they didn’t, that would mean for thousands of years of written and oral entertainment, we have failed as a society of storytellers.

  2. i’m inspired…comics rock but aint there supposed to be a comic strip for Jesus even for the upcoming generation to get to know the source of our strength

  3. writerwriterwriter

    I’ve got to agree with you. I had little to no emotional reaction to Jon Snow’s death, and I couldn’t put my finger on why until I read this. You’ve got it spot on, death is so common in this show it’s become a staple and it’s getting a little boring. Don’t get me wrong, I think Game of Thrones is great but it’s getting a bit stale. I’m excited to see where Jon Snow’s absence takes the story though, I hope it’s something exciting.

  4. When a story has had a long life, writers will fear that it’s becoming stale or boring. They will often kill main characters in an attempt to shock the audience. On the other hand, I personally don’t care if a protagonist lives or dies as long as the story is satisfying…

  5. Thanks for the spoilers!

  6. Yes, to refresh the affection you got to die in the real world.

  7. In GOT, until you see the heads rolling off from the bodies, the significant characters are very much alive . Jon Snow will be very much alive. He is the only one who can stop the white walkers as per prophecy the offspring of fire(Rhaegar Targaryen )and Ice(Lyanna Stark) can kill a White Walker! Not sure if the Red witch will bring him back to life or will he lives in Ghost’s body. I am sticking to the first option. I can’t wait for season 6 already!!

  8. Kate

    My response was disbelief. There have been so many “shocking” deaths that they are no longer shocking. I argued for a solid 30 minutes with my friends as to why Jon Snow was not truly dead.

    The death of Shireen was at least monumental: Stannis has made a dark decision, passed the point of no return, and lost our respect he earned this season. But then to lose him in the next episode?!? Not buying it. I think he’s still alive, too. That suspicious cutaway right before Brienne’s death swing….? He’s not dead, no way, no how.

    They’ve reached an odd moment in TV history: at this point, there is no existing book content to draw from. George RR Martin is collaborating with the writers as they move forward. There were a lot of storylines left alone in the last 3-4 episodes (Margaery? Bran? HODOR?!?), so I’m hopeful they’ll get more attention next season.

    We all know this show is famous for its shocking deaths. At least it’s not a Shonda Rhimes show. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I think that’s what was most frustrating for me, is the complete absence of characters that were present in the front half of the season — Littlefinger, Tommen, and Margaery disappeared, and Brienne only showed up when convenient.

      Agree with you on Stannis, too.

  9. stevensteelauthor

    Wait, whaaaat? Jon Snow is dead?! Like, dead, DEAD?? ๐Ÿ˜ณ๐Ÿ˜ณ๐Ÿ˜ณ

  10. Couldn’t agree more! You bring very solid points to the discussion on the last deaths (for lack of better word) on Game of Thrones. All deaths have significantly lost its value to me, in the series! It’s like they kill for sport, because it’s expected of the show, etc. To me, it’s a waste of a good character; as you said: so many stories that could be more meaningful and show a lot more about them.
    Well, let’s wait and see what S06 brings us!!
    Thanks for the awesome post ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. I enjoyed your read, it was well written and kept me going. I would only like to say a different point of view. I agree, Neds death was shocking and plot changing, and yes some of the deaths are a brush off the shoulder. But I do not believe that the point of the deaths are FOR shock factor. Although yes, I had a moment when Jon Snow died, and I will believe to the end that he is still alive inside ghost, I feel as if the collective deaths of the characters can represent the reality of the world. People live, People die. Not every death is recognized, very few deaths have shock factor. This isn’t supposed to be a superhero comic, the story of Game of Thrones is not about one person, or even one family, It is snaps of random people’s lives and the struggle everyone faces; but set in a mid-evil fantasy land where killing is kind of normalized (and the dragon thing). I think in a sadistic way the message is that EVERYONE is struggling on their own path, and the world is sometimes random and cruel to all of us. Being alive is precious so appreciate it. You never know when someones gonna cut off your head.

  12. geminibec17

    You never know ๐Ÿ™‚ a lot of rumours are going around that he will be resurrected in the next season. Great post!!

  13. Death is dark. Death is mysterious! What’s on the other side? This question will forever haunt us. This probably is the reason why ‘death’ per se is curiouly dark and attractive. It is the ultimate happenning that shakes us. I do agree it is used far too often in game of thrones and as a gimmick in case of comics. But i see it as a new start.

  14. to die would be an awfully great adventure is peter pan.

  15. Kill Your Doubt

    Well put

  16. V

    I agree with you completely. Ned’s death in the first season was both shocking and great storytelling- it took the story in a completely new direction. Many of the deaths since then have been for shock value without any meaning to the broader ploot (as well as some other events I don’t care to argue about on this forum). The problem with killing so many characters is that I really don’t care what happens in the story as much any more.

  17. I feel like I’m some kind of “half ass” fan because I haven’t read the books! However, it is nice to know that people feel the same way about all the deaths as I do. At a point, you just accept that every character you love or get attached to in some way is gonna die. You become desensitized to it really. When Ned Stark died, I’m not to proud to admit that I cried, but by the time Jon Snow is murdered I’m kind like, “Really? I guess I should have seen that coming.” It’s a love/hate relationship. But no matter how much I hate on it, I know that I will be counting the days until the next season premiers!

  18. nerdlovewords

    An ardent fan of the show, I see nothing unusual. The shock factor is now completely gone. Wonder what ace up their sleeves are, now that Jon Snow is supposedly bumped off. Good write-up. Hope to read more of your work ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. IN DEED ITS TRUE.why die now?maybe later!!!

  20. I’m not sure you intended to, but you made me wonder about something interesting.

    It wouldn’t take much digging to figure out I’m a really active Christian. With that out of the way I’ve often wondered why people are so numb to the message of afterlife. It might very well have to do with what they’re taught in the comic books, novels, TV shows, movies and so on and so on.

    There have been murders committed by young man who did nothing but play violent video games.

    I think you’re on to something a little larger than you thought.

  21. Love loved love this but was slightly disappointed at the misleading title… Expected a Peter Pan post

  22. I think real life interjected with Jon Snow’s death on Game Of Thrones. I seen him in an interview and thought he was a bit of a dick. I wasn’t as disappointed as I was others, to see him die. Of course, on the show, anyone’s death after Ned’s death was always going to pale somewhat.

    It is interesting how we are becoming de-sensitised to death, or more precisely: murder. In comics it’s merely a step before some kind of rebirth and grand revenge story. On Game Of Thrones it’s become just another thing to expect.

    The books, as always, made a better job of it, however and I urge everyone to read the books.

  23. amieegeetza

    Reblogged this on amieegeetza and commented:
    Interesting-

  24. I loved your post and I totally agree. I love to get attached to characters like they’re real people but with thrones, I don’t let myself do that because my favorite characters will prlly die (see Jon snow, rob stark, oberyn, kahl drogo). hopefully now that they’ve caught up to the books, they can make some changes to how the story is playing out and make it not so redundant.

  25. absolutely right when you said that there have been so many deaths. I dont even care who is dead and who lives on. The story used to be intricate now its not so complex, they were really low in terms of the quality of the plot in season 5

  26. The Unlighted View

    Well All I Say is “WINTER is COMING” :p

  27. Hmmm yeah I definitely think that death helps keep a story interesting… As a writer myself I have plans to kill off a character of mine in my novel, after getting the reader heavily emotionally invested in them, as a way to develop other characters. You have a very good writing style btw, you’ve earnt a follow ๐Ÿ™‚ if you want to check out my stories and have the time they’re on my blog (www.kasimskorner.wordpress.com) Keep blogging ๐Ÿ™‚

  28. Tom

    As said above โ€“ I knew something felt sour about the finale, and now I know what it is! I think the show is starting to rely on viewers having read the books, especially in the last season. Of course, every year, new viewers will have read the books in preparation, but it doesn’t excuse the incredibly slow buildup of S05 for what was ultimately a predictable (though painful) payoff. Knowing/looking forward to what’s coming doesn’t mean I’ll sit through nine hours of Thrones just to see Jon bleeding out.

  29. really nice post, good job.

  30. Good commentary, but you should blame George R.R. Martin for all the seemingly gratuitous deaths, not the show’s writers. They can’t keep alive someone Martin has already killed off. I’ve read ahead–and get similarly tired of all the people being killed off.

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