Before we get into this, let's insert the mandatory warning about this op-ed containing heavy spoilers for the second episode of Game of Thrones' sixth season and major events from The Good Wife. You've been warned.
Game of Thrones isn't the only show on television that has a problem with the way it handles, promotes and portrays death, but it is a major catalyst in a broken system.
Death used to be a major affair. It was symbolic, painful and momentous. The effects of having a character killed off, especially a major one, could be felt for the rest of the season, if not the rest of the show. The death of a character was mourned, by both others on the show and by the audience.
That's no longer the case.
Death on a dramatic series has become comically absurd, and in many ways, has more in common with daytime soap operas that exist on the agreement that we understand, accept and forgive their nonsensical storytelling. A man died in a car accident but reappeared at his brother's wedding to his ex-fiancee four years later? Not plausible or possible, but in the realm of daytime soap operas, pretty normal.
Death used to be a major affair
What we're seeing now is that style of storytelling seeping into dramatic narratives for one very important reason: We're bored by the commonality of death and its use as a safeguard to keep us intrigued.
I wrote previously about how showrunners, both on Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, misuse cliffhangers to keep audiences around and entice them to return at the dawn of a new season. One of the ways they do that is by teasing the death of a major character and then dangling the possibility in front of the audience, almost as if we're cats just waiting until we're sure we want what's being dangled before pouncing. But because death has become too mainstream, too overused or even too boring, the newest fad on television is to keep them alive. Or as we saw during last night's Game of Thrones episode, bring them back.
Last night, Game of Thrones fans were finally given the answer they've been waiting for since the end of last season: Was Jon Snow alive or dead? The showrunners said he was dead. Kit Harington, the actor who plays Snow, said he was dead. HBO said he was dead.
Well, turns out he's not. Obviously.
Although a post-Jon Snow world offers a stronger story arc with a more devastating emotional impact, there's no hook in that route. There's no reason for people to return to see what happens next. If this were Days of Our Lives, there'd be no wedding for him to show up at and shock people. That's the bottom line about this kind of narrative manipulation. It sacrifices the nobility and tragic nature of death to hold onto cheap shock value, which only diminishes the actual event.
Knowing this, the question is why are showrunners so fearful to kill off a character once and for all? It's not like Game of Thrones has major qualms with murder. Try to list the names of people killed over the past five seasons in under a minute, and it proves to be rather difficult. So why was it so difficult to kill off Jon Snow?
Finality is terrifying, especially when it comes to a character as universally loved as Jon Snow. If showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff were to respect the laws of the universe and have Snow killed off for good, there was no way they could bring him back and appease an audience. Finality means the death of continuation, and for a series as popular and financially successful as Game of Thrones, continuation is all that the network cares about. If Weiss and Benioff could find a way to kill off Snow, leading to major interest and investment from the audience, and then find a way to bring him back, appeasing those who pledged their allegiance to the character, it's a win-win.
Why was it so difficult to kill off Jon Snow?
Which is essentially what happened. To their credit, Jon Snow technically died. He was resurrected by Melisandre, but for argument's sake, his heart stopped beating and the blood in his veins ran cold. Because Game of Thrones exists in a world where sorcery and magic is incorporated, there's also a logical explanation for how he could be brought back from the dead. But, again, just because something can happen doesn't mean that it should.
What we're telling audiences with this new wave of storytelling is that even death — one of the most important, human and shared acts that we all experience — has lost all meaning. Why put in the effort to make a death meaningful when it can just be reversed a couple of episodes later? It's a cop-out, it's lazy and it cheapens the harrowing moment.
We can blame almost anything or anyone for the increase in deaths that we're seeing. There are too many shows on television, and writers have to find a way to compete for views. People have run out of ways to connect with an audience, and use a shared mourning experience to try and bring that connection back. Almost every plot device has been explored, so we're going back to what we know works. The list goes on, but that does nothing to address the issue that we're using and exploiting death.
Death should be respected. After traveling with these characters for so long, it should feel like you're losing a friend when they die. It's why the murder of Will Gardner in The Good Wife was as profound as it was. Will, a character that we became heavily invested in over the course of five years, was ripped from us. Unlike Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, which spent months teasing the outcome of their character's lives, we knew Will was dead and we were all deeply saddened over it.
Death is something most of us have experienced. Events like these don't just disrespect the audience watching the show, but they disrespect the emotional value of death itself. Death isn't something we toy with and toss aside because the person can just return in a couple of years if we decide we really miss them. Death is final. Death is the end of the road. There's no coming back from death, as much as we wish that there was.
We need to start respecting and honoring death again, because the most terrifying, inevitable and universal event we will all eventually experience on our own has become nothing more than a joke.