Nothing But Memory

People in the opening credits aren’t supposed to die.

It’s been interesting reading what people are saying online today about last night’s episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.  The episode, entitled “Baelor,” is the penultimate episode of Thrones‘ season, and featured the death of a major character. (Don’t worry: I’ll warn you before I spoil anything more than that.) Reactions are passionate and very mixed, ranging from “It was absolutely brilliant! This is the best show on TV!” to “I’ll never watch that show again and also, I’ve cancelled HBO.”

All this fuss about the death of a character brings to my mind Joss Whedon’s famous line about the writer’s duty to give the audience the story it needs, as opposed to the story it wants, or thinks it wants. Talking about how his fans’ reactions to his work affect him, Whedon said:

It always affects me. At the same time, I need to give them what they need, not what they want. They need to have their hearts broken. They need to see change. They hated Oz, and then they hated that he left. These things are inevitable. If people are freaking out, I’m good. If people are going, “Hmmm…well, that was fine,” I’m fucked. (Source.)

There’s no doubt here that Joss Whedon is a master at breaking fans’ hearts. I remember watching the first season of Angel and being absolutely devastated by Doyle’s death, so much so that I think I even stopped watching the show at that point. (I picked it up again during season three.) Doyle was in the opening credits, and was positioned as a main character on the show. He was featured in all the promotional material. He was given backstory. Most of all, he was a nice guy and the audience liked him. And then, in episode nine, he died. People were not happy: this article published at the time that sums up the reactions to Doyle’s death.

You could basically take that article, switch out “Doyle” for the name of the deceased Game of Thrones character, and get an accurate recap of the reactions to this most recent TV death. It seems that not much has changed in the 11 years since Joss Whedon killed off Doyle. (Sidenote: I can’t believe it’s been that long.) To paraphrase Zap2it’s TV Gal (Amy Amatangelo), you don’t kill people who are in the opening credits! It just isn’t done! TV Gal wrote this in reference to the shocking death of a major character in the first season of 24:

Didn’t they know the rules? People in the opening credits aren’t supposed to die. We now take it for granted that those who come in contact with Jack Bauer often don’t live to tell the tale. But in the show’s first season, it was a brave and risky move that proved no one is safe in Jack’s world and there would never be such a thing as job security on the popular FOX series. (Source.)

Looking at the anger the producers of Angel and Game of Thrones have faced over killing off major characters … well, yeah. Apparently axing an important and well-liked cast member is just about the bravest and riskiest thing a TV showrunner can do.

I understand being distraught and/or enraged about the death of a favourite character, but I’m no longer inclined to stop watching something just because a person I liked died, as I did back in the day with Angel. I don’t mind a little darkness in my stories. I don’t expect everyone to live happily ever after. Sometimes character death pushes a story forward in really fascinating ways. Angel (a different death), Six Feet Under, and Dexter come to mind. Having read the novel on which Game of Thrones is based, I know for sure that last night’s death was necessary.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! Behind the jump, the name of the character who died on last night’s Game of Thrones is revealed.

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” Cersei Lannister told Ned Stark a few episodes ago, and Ned Stark was terrible at playing the game of thrones. Cool character for sure — heroic, noble, decent … but it was those very qualities that made his death inevitable. He just didn’t have what it took to survive the political machinations in King’s Landing.

I certainly understand why people are frustrated by Ned’s death. Before the series started airing, I saw a lot of comments — I mean, a lot — from people who said Sean Bean was the main reason they were tuning in to the show. Of course, I knew these people were in for a big disappointment, and I have been wondering how they’d react. It’s no surprise that many of them are pissed off. Every indication from the first episode is that Ned is the hero of the story, the main character. It is the same in the book, and I was very shocked by his death when I read it. In fact, I think the book makes it even harder to accept: the execution happens in a chapter told from Arya’s point of view, and Arya looks away before the axe drops so she doesn’t actually see for certain that her father has died. I was in doubt for a few chapters, until the event was confirmed beyond a doubt.

But the fact is, George R. R. Martin has written a series where this kind of thing happens. Good isn’t necessarily going to triumph over evil every time. The guy we think is the hero dies. A lot of other people die. Horses die. Wolves die. Children get crippled. People who seem like allies turn out to be brutal enemies. The heroes do stupid things. The morally dubious characters do good things. It’s harsh.

And it’s awesome. Why should everything be simple, black and white? Isn’t dealing with shades of grey part of growing up? Back to Joss Whedon, who has Buffy learn this lesson in the episode “Lie to Me” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s second season:

Buffy: It’d be simpler if I could just hate him. I think he wanted me to. I think it made it easier for him to be the villain of the piece. Really he was just scared.

Giles: Yes, I suppose he was.

Buffy: Nothing’s ever simple anymore. I’m constantly trying to work it out. Who to love or hate. Who to trust. It’s just, like, the more I know, the more confused I get.

Giles: I believe that’s called growing up.

Buffy: I’d like to stop then, okay?

Giles: I know the feeling.

Buffy: Does it ever get easy?

Giles: You mean life?

Buffy: Yeah. Does it get easy?

Giles: What do you want me to say?

Buffy: Lie to me.

Giles: Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Buffy: Liar.

Whedon and Martin both subscribe to a storytelling philosophy that embraces the kind of complexity Buffy finds so difficult. I enjoy their take, but judging by the amount of rage directed at Martin’s story this morning, a lot of people feel more like his Sansa Stark, who looks for fairy tale endings and “true knights” in King’s Landing to try to escape the (not insignificant) difficulties of her everyday life. There’s nothing wrong with that — pure escapism definitely has a very entertaining place in the pop culture landscape — but Game of Thrones watchers need to adjust their expectations, because they’re not going to find a lot of easy outs here.

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