Why the hit show needs to destroy its darlings to stay believable—and great.
You don’t get to live forever just because you are a cute kid or the hero’s best friend or the hero,” Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin recently declared to The Guardian. This is used to make sure casualties go beyond “extras,” as Martin terms them. Game of Thrones in both the books and the series has reflected this view, offing impressive numbers of significant characters. (In particular, members of the Stark family have a knack for being slaughtered—oh, you Starks: so noble, so loving, so consistently stupid.)
It’s easier for Game of Thrones to kill off characters than it would be for most programs because it has a shitload of them.
Martin argues every writer needs to address death, particularly if they write about war. He’s absolutely correct: His work draws heavily on actual historical events. As a result, the cruelties he depicts are often all too real. Throw in disease and the dangers of childbirth and you get a global average lifespan of 31 as recently as 1900. Consequently, Game of Thrones is the rare program where death is a part of life that’s always nearby, particularly when kingdoms are actively trying to conquer each other.
Martin has further justified the bloodlust by declaring, “I love all my characters so it’s always hard to kill them but I know it has to be done. I tend to think I don’t kill them. The other characters kill ’em. I shift off all blame from myself.” (Meaning even Martin can’t control that bastard Ramsay Bolton.)
Yet I can’t help thinking Martin doth protest too much. To start, it’s easier for Game of Thrones to kill off characters than it would be for most programs because it has a shitload of them. As someone who enjoys the show but often forgets the names of people not played by Peter Dinklage, I’ve occasionally reacted to deaths with the relief of knowing I can now stop figuring out who the hell that person is.
Also, the title explicitly states that the book and show are not about any particular individual. It is about the endless quest for power itself. (Whereas The Sopranos announced pretty explicitly that this Tony guy is gonna be around awhile.) At its best moments, Game of Thrones genuinely captures the sweep of history, where even the mightiest king will soon enough be swept aside by usurpers or their own mortality. And the game continues.
As someone who enjoys the show but often forgets the names of people not played by Peter Dinklage, I’ve occasionally reacted to deaths with the relief of knowing I can now stop figuring out who the hell that person is.
As viewers, however, we don’t connect emotionally with meditations on the nature of history. We like characters. Clearly Game of Thrones has a handful of breakout stars and damned if they’re going away. I’m a huge fan of Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, but there’s been at least one moment in the series where it would have made a lot more sense to me if he had died than survived. And I’ll be vague enough to avoid spoilers, but while I accept that the Games world is in many ways different from our own—like everyone else, I’m a sucker for a good dragon—using magic to bring back a beloved actor is only slightly less cheesy than City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold revealing Jack Palance had an identical twin brother named Duke.
The game in Game of Thrones is never truly won. The person on top today may be marched nude through the streets tomorrow. This is scary for audiences, but also exciting because of the promise of new struggles and new characters, every bit as charming and dreamy and bloodthirsty as the ones we lost.
That said, no one likes giving up something that works, particularly in the TV business. (And Game of Thrones sure continues to work from a ratings standpoint.) Martin has already announced the novels have officially fallen behind the show, and therefore the worlds of the book and the series will continue to diverge. I have no doubt HBO’s Game will continue to offer death, cruelty and naked people until the very end, but I do worry about them being willing to pull a full Ned Stark and knock away a character who appeared to be an essential pillar of the entire program.
One of the most pointless scenes in film history occurs in The Matrix 2: The Rematrixing. (I refuse to look up the actual title.) How do you top Neo’s fight with Agent Smith from the first film? By having him fight dozens of Agent Smiths! It quickly becomes clear there are two problems: deeply unconvincing CGI and nothing’s at stake. The original brawl was life or death. This time, the Smiths can’t hurt Neo, but he can’t really hurt them either, so when he flies away—and no, they do not explain why he didn’t just fly off in the first place—we’re in a spot no different from where we started.
This is the risk of TV: It’s very easy to give people more of what they apparently want until what they liked in the first place is completely lost. I hope Game of Thrones’ showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss continue to adhere to Martin’s advice not to “cheat” by making key characters untouchable. This isn’t to say that anyone definitely can’t survive—there’s yet to be a war where everyone involved didn’t make it—but to ensure the show never loses sight of the dangers and realities of a world where Tyrion can call his troops into battle by announcing, “Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!”
Also, please do not magically bring back Sean Bean.