Tonight is the highly anticipated premiere of “Game of Thrones” season 8, which has been a great topic of conversation over the last few days (weeks, months). From a storytelling standpoint, “Game of Thrones” has become a stand-in example for a number of categories, perhaps the most common among them being brutal TV shows with merciless rates of character death.
“Game of Thrones” is unforgiving, and that’s something those of us who watch the show seem to love about it. All these recent conversations about season 8 have carried a similar trend of excitement that verges on betting: Who will live? Who will die? It’s gotten me thinking about why this is something we care about so much in fiction, and how many different forms death can take and roles it can fulfill in a fictional setting. Is character death a fun plot twist, or the exciting climax of an action-filled scene? Is it a beautiful send off to a beloved character? Is it grueling and horrifying? Is it cheap, or is it dark and serious, something meant to truly affect us on a deep emotional level and propel us to think about our lives?
The through-the-roof total of different deaths so far in “Game of Thrones” makes it the perfect case study for exploring these questions because really, death isn’t one of these things; it’s all, or any, of them. So, in the spirit of the season, here is a list of the wonderful possibilities of death in fiction, and why, in spite of their awfulness, they appeal so deeply to audiences and draw us back in again and again.
*Major spoilers ahead*
This is by and large the biggest reason, and the one we probably care about the least. Did anyone really shed a tear when Robert Baratheon got attacked by that boar, or when Jojen Reed was killed by a wight in season 4? I only even remember those because I looked up a list of “Game of Thrones” deaths before writing this.
But they moved the plot forward, which was nice. If Robert hadn’t died, we never would have gotten to see his awful son Joffrey as king, and then where would we have been?
Advancing another character’s development
We all remember Khal Drogo, but from the beginning, he was clearly only there as one rung in Daenerys Targaryen’s long ladder to world domination. His death was an example of one less important character being offed in order to aid in the development of a much more significant character, by moving her along to the next stage of her journey.
“Game of Thrones” has a lot of examples of this — Shae is another one. Her’s is an interesting case compared to Drogo, in that their likeability progressed in opposite directions leading up to their deaths. Drogo started out as a complete villain, assaulting Daenerys in the first episode, but leading up to his death, the show took care to show the two of them bonding so that his eventual death felt like more of a personal sacrifice or milestone for Daenerys. Shae, on the other hand, was very sympathetic and likeable during her early relationship with Tyrion Lannister. The decision later to have her betray Tyrion later on feels like a primer to make her death more favorable and digestible, in addition to a spur motivating Tyrion to move on.
Keeping the energy up
This might sound callous, but on the other hand, there’s a reason the Red Wedding is still one of the most talked-about events of the show, coming up on five seasons later. A big part of watching the show is exactly that: We like the excitement of tuning into an episode and not having any idea what to expect, knowing that anything could happen.
We like getting our hearts broken
Why else would Ygritte have to go like that? There’s no other explanation.
Genuine emotional consequences
Death is really heavy. There’s no way around it, and it can’t always be a box to check off or a wild, out-of-nowhere thrill. One of the first genuinely memorable deaths was that of Ned Stark: It wasn’t the first death in the show, but it established the overarching precedent of “Game of Thrones” that no one is safe. It remains one of the show’s most powerful moments, and there was no fanfare, no extra or unnecessary drama. It was cold and surprising and relatively quiet. At its core, this is where the emotional investment of the show comes from: We see characters go through very real suffering and loss, like the rest of the Stark family, and we want to know that they’ll make it out of it at the end.
Of course, on the other hand, we also want to see the tables turn.
Sometimes deaths are just satisfying
Joffrey Baratheon being poisoned at his wedding! Ramsay Bolton being eaten alive by his own dogs! Arya Stark killing Walder Frey, and later Littlefinger! It’s almost hard to remember a time when one character killing another by pouring hot gold over their head would have felt completely out of nowhere, but Viserys’s demise in season 1 was only the first in a long line of characters who just plain needed to die. Sometimes that’s what we need out of fiction — when we sign on for all of its darkness and gruesome horror, we’re going in with the hope that eventually that darkness will work in our favor.