If you’re a fan of shows like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, you’ve become accustomed to death. You can’t swing a Valyrian steel sword week after week without striking a character and murdering them. It used to be that minor characters, and sometimes very minor characters (i.e.-Redshirt in Star Trek), were the only ones at risk of biting it. Usually that was so your main characters could be motivated to move forth in the exposition/rising action to unlock the achievement of being the hero. These days, however, are much different. The stakes are higher and no one is safe. It does make for some exciting entertainment, but it also leaves you wondering if it’s really essential to the art of storytelling, or it’s just a reflection of our society.
Accessing news isn’t difficult these days. You can tune into numerous 24-hour cable news networks, or access countless outlets on your laptop, tablet, or smartphones. It’s more than likely that most of what you read contains death. It could be a local shooting, or unrest and war in Syria, etc. We are bombarded with constant reminders of our own fragility and mortality. So, why do we sit in front of our flat screens every week to be entertained by watching people die?
Just as death is a part of life, it is just as much a part of our art and entertainment. As I mentioned before, a character dying motivates other characters, it drives the plot, and it makes things seem dire and the circumstances, grave. For us, witnessing a character’s death can connect us with the show, movie, or book. It makes us grieve and sympathize with the characters, and now (more than ever) it makes us wonder: who’s next?
As a warning I am about to enter spoiler territory, so please…read with caution. If you haven’t watched, or read, Game of Thrones: STOP READING NOW.
Ned Stark’s death at the conclusion of Season One of HBO’s Game of Thrones was shocking. This was a primary character that we had followed through an entire season. He was noble and he was (for many) their tie to the show. In a world of back stabbers, and political plotting, Ned was the good guy. Well, his head was chopped off and it left many wondering WHY?! Ned’s death was necessary. It was trigger, a catalyst that caused ripples throughout Westeros and beyond. His death, although unexpected and devastating was essential to the story. However, as you continue to watch the show, many more die. Before long you’re fearful that no one is guarded from the exectuioners blade. But does that affect how you connect with the characters and the story?
I think so.
You always can rely on the good guy/girl. He/she/they will triumph over evil and in the end, be it alive or dead, the side of the right will be victorious. In our current entertainment landscape, not so much. So, why should we care? Why dedicate an hour of our lives every week when we don’t know if our favorite characters are going to make it? I think it comes down to the bigger picture. Dramas are no longer driven by characters, they’re driven by story. Yes, characters (OBVIOUSLY) are essential, but it’s not about whether Character A or B dies, it’s about moving forward. It’s also because there’s Characters C-F, and so forth. You’re seeing more characters. Think about the abundance of characters on hit series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. We live in the age of the ensemble, where rarely does a show revolve around just one or two characters. Sure, there’s your central ones (Rick Grimes), but we no longer bet the house on just one horse in the race. No one is safe, but there’s always a baton to be passed. Forgive me for the sport racing analogies.
With all things, however, there reaches a saturation point. I’m not certain when ours will come, but we may be close. Again, SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES…if you have not watched Season Five, Episode 9 “The Dance of Dragons DO NOT READ.
This week, Shireen’s death was devastating and hard to watch. Was it essential to moving the plot? I say no. Especially since it was not done that way in the source material, so why is it needed in this adaptation? Such as we witnessed with what happened to Sansa Stark, I sadly feel that sensationalism and exploitation, the “shock factor”, are winning the battle over quality of writing. We live in a culture driven by internet buzz, and I’m sure that the writers room wants folks like me writing about their show. They want bloggers to dissect their decisions. They want hashtags to go to the top of the trending list. I suppose that makes me part of the problem. I am an accessory to the current wave of character deaths, and for that I am sorry. As they say “Valar Morghulis”, or for those of who do not speak High Valyrian, “All men must die.”
Comment below and tell me what you think.