Entertainment

What Can 'Game of Thrones' Do to Surprise Us?

After a Red Wedding, a Purple Wedding, and a Green Blast, the show has mostly lost the power to surprise through death. Instead, it's the living, or maybe even a happily ever after or two, that would surprise me.
June 27, 2016, 4:00am
Screengrab from 'Game of Thrones.' Courtesy of HBO

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

When Jon Snow was gasping for breath beneath a pile of corpses and panicking men, admit it—you thought he genuinely might die, and this time for keeps. That's because for the past six years, Game of Thrones has trained you to embrace the possibility of sudden death for any character, no matter how important, at any time. Of course, he didn't die. The Knights of the Vale, led by Sansa Stark and Littlefinger, came out of nowhere to save the day, a heroic rescue familiar—but none the less thrilling—to fans of epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings.

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As Game of Thrones heads into its final season, lots of people have died, and lots more are going to die. While sometimes the manner of the deaths may shock—or thrill—the show has, for me, mostly lost the power to surprise through death. Instead, it's the living, or maybe even a happily ever after or two, that would surprise me.

Take last night's season finale. Cersei's decision to blow up the Great Sept had been foreshadowed for many episodes, including via Bran's vision, Tyrion's conversation with Daenerys about her father, and Jaime's statement to Edmure that Cersei would "reduce cities to ash" for her children. The writers counted on us seeing the huge explosion coming, ratcheting up the tension with the drawn-out dressing scenes and classical score, and then boom. Lena Headey, who is only rivaled by Dinklage for the crown of the show's best actor, delivered her performance perfectly, drinking wine as the city burned. I have to admit I underestimated how fully she was going to embrace evil.

Still, even as she wrapped on her black armored villain's dress, killed countless enemies, and handed the Septa over to the zombified Ser Gregor for rape and torture, her machinations once again resulted in the loss of the thing she cared for the most. If she's going to be our final villain, she's one who we've never seen succeed. Cersei's ascension to the throne is likely to do little more than pave the way for patriarchal Westeros to swap a bad queen for a good one, as Daenerys sails home.

Ned Stark, Catelyn and Robb Stark, Joffrey, Tywin, Jon Snow—their deaths each came as a surprise because they didn't fit our expectations of how stories like this work.

This episode was unusual in so many ways. Instead of ending with the explosion and Tommen's fall, it opened with the long, world-changing sequences in King's Landing, then took us on a surprisingly quiet trip to the North, Meereen, Dorne, the Riverlands, and back in time to discover that R+L=J was true, after all. Tyrion and Daenerys form a tight bond, Arya reenacts her favorite scene from Titus Andronicus, and it's made clear that Lyanna Mormont (who, not coincidentally, is named for "L"), could be the biggest, if youngest badass in Westeros.

The show fundamentally changed in season six, moving from a dizzying set of narratives that thrived by subverting our expectations, to a more unified collection of three stories that follow the conventions—albeit brilliantly—of high fantasy. The rescuing army arrives at the nick of time. Arya and her would-be assassin plays Parkour in the streets of Braavos despite her nasty gut wounds, while none of the dozens of passersby intervene. Daenerys burned the Dothraki patriarchs alive and then the army magically submits to her, rather than, say, exacting horrific vengeance. Hodor's few minutes of heroic (if totally forced) sacrifice buys a teenage girl dragging a sled enough time to escape from a huge army of the undead long enough to be rescued by the just-in-time return of Bran's long-lost uncle. Don't get me wrong—I loved each one of these moments, but they're also a sign that Game of Thrones is operating under a whole new set of rules.

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Think back to the first few seasons, when Game of Thrones introduced us to the realities of Westeros-at-war, a world in which anyone, no matter how heroic, can be snuffed out at any time. Ned Stark, Catelyn and Robb Stark, Joffrey, Tywin, Jon Snow—their deaths each came as a surprise because they didn't fit our expectations of how stories like this work. Ned Stark was supposed to take the black and lead the fight against the monsters in the North. Catelyn and Robb were supposed to avenge their father. Tywin, the patriarch of the most powerful family on the show, got killed taking a shit. Someone important—a Stark or Tyrion maybe—was supposed to kill Joffrey in a scene of triumphant vengeance, much as we finally got with Ramsay last week. Instead, out of nowhere, he's poisoned and falls to the ground. We hated Joffrey, but we did not see that death coming.

The subversion of expected storylines is a major product of George R. R. Martin's brilliant appropriation of the history of the War of the Roses, a long-running civil war in late medieval England that indeed twisted and turned based on such sudden deaths. But from the very first chapter, and the first scene in the show, he surrounded that realpolitick storyline with two others—dragons and zombies. The zombie plot, like nearly all zombie plots, creates an implacable foe that can only be resisted by a united humanity. Alas, humans stay human, and so ignore the threat and fight among themselves for power. The dragon plotline, on the other hand, soars into the realm of high fantasy, with the hero's quest of discovery and self-discovery as Daenerys transforms herself from pawn to queen, gathering a collection of companions and advisers with diverse talents to support her along the way.

As we surge into the final episodes, three things have become clear. First, there aren't so many characters left to kill off and still have a story anyone cares about. Second, the zombie and dragon plots are both advancing quickly and there just aren't that many episodes left. The need to wrap up the big storylines is squeezing the brutal "realism" of the twisting, turning War of the Roses plot out of view. Third, Daenerys has Dorne, Tyrell, the Dothraki, the Ironborn, the Unsullied, three dragons, and the smartest guy in the kingdoms as her Hand. Against her, there's the Lannisters, who never do seem to pay off their debts, and maybe a King in the North, who's about to be overrun by zombies.

The writers of Game of Thrones have spent six years teaching us that "valar morghulis" means business—everyone will die, mostly long before they, or the viewers, are ready. We've learned our lesson well, "which is why reaction to Hodor's meaningful death was so emotional." Here was a death that was significant. Rickon's, too, may have left us screaming at the screen for him to zig-zag (come on, he's a terrified boy, he's not thinking clearly), but we understood what was going on. The same can be said for all those who fell in the temple. I expect many more death scenes like these to come.

What I don't know is this—who is going to live? Will they find ways to yank victory from the jaws of defeat? Will anyone live happily, if not ever after, at least for a day or two? Now, that would be a surprise.

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