Game of Thrones’ poison or the heroes’ deaths in contemporary series, by Clara Piraud

Spoiler alert: this article contains key elements from all five seasons of Game of Thrones, as well as House, How I Met Your Mother, and Medium.

NB: This article only reflects my own impressions. It is mainly based on my own sensibility and subjectivity and is a series of personal reflections (although it could be of interest to other people) rather than a truly systematic and scientific study.

A lot of things could be said about Game of Thrones, be it about its extreme violence or sexposition, a concept which was created for this very series, or about the paradoxical reactions it provokes (many episodes shock the viewers – you only have to look at the reactions on the Internet after each episode to realize it – but the ratings and the number of downloads keep increasing). But it is on another element that I would like to focus, namely the perversion of the concept of the hero, and more particularly the banalization of his death, a phenomenon which is not limited to this series but is intensified in it.

Traditionally, the hero is an edifying character, a role model whose conduct is meant to be inspiring, is supposed to encourage the spectator or the reader to do virtuous actions by imitating him, at least in some of his aspects. One thinks of mythological heroes (Ulysses, Achilles…) or medieval ones (Arthur, Lancelot…), but also of more recent ones: an example in pop culture is that of Harry Potter who corresponds to the type of the traditional hero because of his courage, loyalty, and solidarity. These heroes are not indestructible or even perfectly virtuous (one might think here of the incestuous relationship between Arthur and his sister Morgan), but they have a certain grandeur, a nobleness of character. They may sometimes die (Achilles through his heel, Arthur against Mordred…), but it is with great élan, and in their deaths they still show bravery.

There is nothing of the sort in Game of Thrones. It is difficult to name only one hero or even a few heroes, since the characters are extremely numerous, but this is not the issue: some characters do indeed stand out and attract the viewers’ sympathy. But this sympathy is severely tested as early as in the first episode of the first season, in the last scene in which Bran is pushed from the top of the tower, even though he appeared to be a key character in the episode. And this sets the tone for the whole series in which the characters to whom one has become attached are always at risk of dying, and most often in a quick, bloody and rather undistinguished way. Noble and virtuous actions (by this I mean actions that correspond, in a way, to the values of chivalry, in a context embedded in Realpolitk in which personal interests prevail) lead to moving and quite grotty deaths. That is the case for Ned Stark, the hero of the first season, who tries to have King Robert’s last wishes enforced and ends up beheaded by order of a nasty kinglet assisted by his vain mother. This is true for Jon Snow as well: in the latest episode he ends up being stabbed by his own companions for helping the Wildlings, their enemies, and for arguing that this people is just as human as they. These deaths are quite far from those of epic narratives, in which the heroes succeed in edifying the audience through and beyond their passing away: on the contrary, the brave heroes in this series have a rather miserable demise and are subjected to the vices of their own associates. So much has already been written about the Red Wedding that it seems almost pointless to speak about it, but it is in line with the afore-mentioned events. In my view, what is even more serious than the lack of moral edification in these deaths, is that they demoralize the viewer. He or she has invested some characters with emotions (which is very often the purpose of fiction), and they are cruelly taken away from him. For one should not forget that behind this violent world an author and scenarists are hidden who decide to kill the characters (although it should be acknowledged that Game of Thrones succeeds quite well in making us believe that those characters had to die, but that is another debate).

This tendency to kill key characters is obvious in Game of Thrones, but it is also frequent in series that are nowhere near as dark and bloody, but that are fond of making characters die gratuitously (I mean by this deaths which are not necessary to the scenario – and such necessity, if it exists, could be debated). Screenwriters go particularly wild in the series finales: House’s takes the lovable Wilson away from us (after having made us believe through a pathetic masquerade that House himself had passed away), Medium’s has Joe die in a plane crash (I guess that given that the series was on the skids the screenwriters wanted to do something spectacular in killing off one of the nicest characters)… But the award of the most demoralizing death most likely goes to How I Met Your Mother in which, in the space of a few seconds, through a couple of banal sentences uttered by Ted, the long-awaited character who had managed to conquer us with only a few appearances is suddenly killed off. When these deaths are successful (that is to say when one believes in them, when one forgets that they are those of fictional characters and are arbitrarily decided by screenwriters), they create a deep feeling of horror in the viewer, for a character in whose existence one believed and whom one ended up liking is given a very sudden death.

Once this shock has passed, it is possible to think about it in a more appeased way: why kill those characters? Why do everything to have us get attached to some heroes, or simply to make us play along, before making them die? One possibility is the obligations of the cast members (although this does not apply to Game of Thrones since it is not based on the actors’ schedules but on George R. R. Martin’s novels), a concern for realism (“it is a violent world, the characters cannot be spared in virtue of their goodness”), or the need for a grandiose finale to make an indelible impression. But why should it involve death? Why kill the character played by the actor who wishes to leave the series? Why end a series with the death of one of its main characters? Obviously, the cause cannot be explained by the effect. It cannot be said that the purpose is indeed to demoralize the viewers. But it must be noted that this is the consequence: one cries, one is shocked, angry even. And the message that seems to come out of this is: nothing is certain, you love them, you believe they are strong, well, see, they may die at every moment, just like that, stabbings, accidents and even unfortunate happenstances are all common in this world. Let’s not forget that a work of fiction always conveys a message, even when it is not the primary purpose of the author. And, in one way or another, this particular message structures the audience, finds its way to the viewers’ minds and fashions them. Do we really want to be fed with fear and horror, and to always be scared of seeing our loved ones suddenly disappear? These series instill this poison in us, through the heartbreaks caused in us by each and every one of these sudden, unexpected, stupid and trivial deaths.

 I would like to thank Emilie Georges for helping me translate my article into English.

Clara Piraud

Copyright © 2015 Clara Piraud – Tous droits réservés

See : French Version