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This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Killing off a major character on a television series always is a big deal, but rarely has the backlash seemed so fiery as after the “Red Wedding” massacre on Game of Thrones on June 2, when Robb Stark, his pregnant wife, Talisa, and his mother, Catelyn, brutally were offed before the screen went black.
And lots of fans went black with rage, saying they would cancel HBO, proclaiming they’d never watch the show again and threatening George R.R. Martin, upon whose books the series is based, and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Which is to say, everyone overreacted.
If you’re looking for happy endings, Game of Thrones is not the place to find them. It’s not like there weren’t massive hints at many points that the whole of Martin’s tale leaves everyone vulnerable and very likely dead. If you want a series that never changes, watch The Simpsons.
The cynical might see this sort of cast-list housecleaning as Emmy bait, a way to inject importance into a show or character by painting liberally with the tragedy brush. But killing main characters is absolutely essential to great drama.
Case in point: The greatest TV drama in history, The Wire, killed off “bad guys,” who nonetheless were extremely popular among the fan base, in Stringer Bell and Omar. The Sopranos killed off Christopher. Giancarlo Esposito and Jared Harris earned their first Emmy nominations in 2012 after their characters were killed on Breaking Bad and Mad Men, respectively. And when Justified whacked Mags Bennett, Margo Martindale walked off with a statuette in 2011.
If a series undermines viewers’ emotional inertia by planting the idea that anyone can go at any time, then the drama stays vibrant and compelling. One of the better TV shockers came in the first-season finale of 24 when Teri Bauer, Jack’s wife, was killed when all seemed safe — and the series never was better.
While tech advances like Twitter can magnify pop-culture news and TV twists, so too can being ultra-informed ruin other deaths. For example, it was clear from reports that Dan Stevens wanted out of Downton Abbey, so having his character, Matthew, die in a car crash seemed too easy and cheap.
But in the case of Game of Thrones, just like The Walking Dead, readers of the books and graphic novels know what’s coming before viewers do. Can TV writers depart from original books and change stories to keep all parties off-balance? Sure. But mostly they opt for more minor tweaks (like keeping Dale around longer on Walking Dead) than departing from a core story.
Of course, Game of Thrones now has everyone’s attention (if they had thought Ned’s beheading in season one was some type of lark). Anyone can go — at any time. Will that knowledge lead voters to reward the show with more non-crafts Emmys than a supporting actor trophy (which Peter Dinklage won in 2011)? Perhaps; perhaps not.
Brilliant dramas need to be fearless. They must avoid malaise and predictability. It’s fine to be upset by shocking character deaths, but if that’s a deal-breaker, then you’re probably watching the wrong show for you.
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