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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.