Brow Beat

Game of Thrones Taught Us to Want Death. Then It Changed the Rules.

Is it wrong to feel disappointed when too many people survive?

Jorah Mormont and Ghost ride into battle.
We had steeled ourselves for worse.
HBO

This post contains spoilers for Game of Thrones

At 8:04 EDT last night, 56 minutes before the third episode of the eighth season of Game of Thrones began, I got a text: “Hi would anyone like to speculate who is gonna die tonight on GOT. I have a list.” So did I. So did everyone else. The Battle of Winterfell was the long-awaited fight with the vast armies of the frozen undead, this was Game of Thrones, and obviously some people were going to die. Not just ancillary people, but substantial characters. Definitely Grey Worm. Probably Brienne. Perhaps Sam. Maybe even a Lannister.

And then, instead, they didn’t. All respect to the Mormont line and Dolorous Edd (aka the guy whose name I had to look up four times, no dis!), these were not the people you’d expect to die in an epic battle, one HBO has promoted like it was a luxury handbag, its value unrelated to anything like utility or aesthetics but rendered only in terms of effort and cash. We had steeled ourselves for worse, for the death of someone who would really make us cry—and it didn’t come.

I have seen this outcome described as fan service, but it is more singular than that. This was not what the audience wanted, exactly. We were busy cosplaying as Arya, running the death list over and over in our heads after all! (Grey Worm. Brienne. Jorah. Tyrion? Could it be Tyrion?) Fans have been running down clues about who would die like a maniac CSI squad hellbent on determining a particular form of zombie death. And then, instead, barely anything. It’s like craving spaghetti for dinner, and then your parents feed you an ice cream sundae instead. Thank you. I will eat that. It tastes … good? But why are you serving this to me?

In the beginning, Game of Thrones, following the lead of George R.R. Martin’s books, distinguished itself from other magical fantasy sagas with its attention to realistic detail, both tactile and tactical. Like HBO’s The Wire, Game of Thrones took a genre we were familiar with and refreshed it by wonking out. Armies of men with swords and spears would not just meet on battlefields. We would be let into the backroom dealings, the fumbling strategy sessions, the rancid, watery alleyways. Issues of winning and losing would jostle for space with questions like: How do you fund an army, how do you execute a war, how do you move a battalion across a sea, how do you rule, and above all how do you contend with the brutal accidents of brutal life?

But for all of its attention to the strategic details usually glossed over in legends about future kings, nothing indicated Game of Thrones’ difference from the fantasies that came before it like its willingness to do death—because there it broke not with just fantasy but nearly all fiction. From the moment that the heroic Ned Stark, decent yet unstrategic, found his head on a stake at the end of Season 1, Game of Thrones flouted a rule: Main characters don’t die. (A corollary: Main characters are on contract.) But on Game of Thrones, they did.

On TV, death (like, literal darkness and nipples) can be a cheap shorthand for depth, proof not of seriousness but of seriosity. Sometimes shows kill people not to demonstrate the awful, wasteful carnality of life, but to prove they are a show about this very thing, now voyeuristically rendered for your viewing enjoyment. Game of Thrones has done much of this—hundreds of extras who have died bloody, crunchy, grimy deaths over its many seasons—but it has also given us deaths that were more than just some sick thrill. In killing Ned, and Robb, and Joffrey, in constantly violating basic structural storytelling conventions—don’t kill your heroes or your villains (till the end)—it brought us closer to the thudding, juddering unfairness, the finality and randomness, the awful abruptness, even when expected, of real death.

And with these relatively early major character deaths, the audience became conditioned to expect more, and I don’t just mean in some Pavlovian way. (Game of Thrones on. Time to slobber for dead meat.) We became, like many of the surviving characters, cynical. We learned to check our hope. Life on Game of Thrones is nasty, brutal, and short. Good people die and being too good might actually kill you. Strategy plays its part but so do chance and cruelty. There goes the Red Viper and Margaery (who I still like so much I checked how to properly spell her ridiculously spelled name), and there goes Stannis, and there goes a little girl burned to death on a stake by an evil witch, who, actually, it turns out could kind of see the future a quarter of the time. Life is horrible.

But then, around when Jon Snow was stabbed to death and resurrected as a man with an important mission (but still no ability to make varied facial expressions), something new began to settle on Game of Thrones, a new feeling, a new flavor: untouchability. Jon Snow was inviolable. Was Dany? What about the Starks and Lannisters? This new vibe hung over the show, but it was hard to tell if it was really here to stay. It was late enough in the show’s run, these characters were beloved enough, that they needed a proper sendoff before death, right? OK, well, here was the Battle of Winterfell. A proper sendoff! We weren’t spoiled, but we all knew what was coming.

And then it didn’t. We in the audience, panting for death, may be creepy, we may be callous and bloodthirsty, but we seem to have learned the lesson of the show—that happy endings are for stories—better than the show has learned it itself. With each episode of the final season, Game of Thrones has painted itself further into a corner where the end will decide how good or bad the whole thing really was. Is this a show about a morally complicated, morally impossible world? Or is this just a fantasy wrapped in complicated, fetid clothing that it is now throwing off piece by piece, revealing it was basic all along: a quest for the good leader who will restore order to the land, a legend about how systemic evil can be defeated by one (really) badass girl.

There are, of course, three episodes left, and surely, deaths will come. (Definitely, still, a Lannister.) But whatever happens, we are squarely back inside a story where death is deployed not with the horrible casualness of life but with the care—and the restraints—of fiction. In acquiescing to this convention, the show has cast off what was most original and truthful about it: the way it illustrated death’s complete lack of cooperation with the wants of men. You do not really get to tell death “not today.” But on Game of Thrones, now you do.