In the fourth-season premiere of Game of Thrones, Lord Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) gives his son Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) a new sword forged from the hardest steel. Jaime lifts and inspects it with the ease of a man who’s comfortable with weapons, but if you’ve been watching Thrones, you know that ease wasn’t easily won. Jaime is holding the sword in his left hand. His right, the hand he used to fight with, is gone, hacked off last season. Tywin explains that the comparatively small sword was made from a larger one—a concession to Jaime’s impairment. Jaime is eager to resume his post as the king’s chief bodyguard, but Tywin warns him, “You can’t serve in the Kingsguard with one hand.”
Jaime’s maiming was consistent with Thrones creator George R.R. Martin’s harsh worldview. This is, after all, a show that last season butchered an entire branch of a royal family during a wedding ceremony; a show on which characters that other programs might have kept alive and intact for years are regularly disfigured or murdered without warning. But Jaime is not the only one on TV’s injured-reserve list. Television is suddenly filled with recurring characters who’ve lost body parts and whose physical limitations are regularly addressed in the scripts. The Walking Dead had Hershel, the farmer whose zombie-bitten leg had to be amputated, and the malevolent Governor, who lost his right eye to a shard of glass and seemed to grow even meaner and more driven as a result. Mad Men has Ken Cosgrove, the account executive who has worn an eye patch since a hunting accident at the end of season six; in the seventh-season premiere, set mere months after the shooting, he’s high strung and short tempered, as people who’ve endured catastrophic injury often are. John Kennex (Karl Urban), the detective hero of the sci-fi drama Almost Human, lost a leg in the show’s pilot and gained a synthetic replacement, but still had to deal with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, much of it brought on by his belief that the new limb wasn’t truly a part of his body.
Jaime Lannister has a similar moment: When a designer fits him with a gold right hand and then admires his own craftsmanship, he snarls, “If you like it so much, you’re welcome to chop off your own hand and take it.” The loss dominated his story line last season, transforming an arrogant hotshot into a trauma victim teetering on the edge of suicide. It was sad to see such an energetic anti-hero deprived of the source of his prowess, but viewers knew this was how Game of Thrones operated—that we were many creative eons away from the time when cops or Old West deputies would get shot in the opening of an episode, crack a joke in the final scene after learning that the shooter had been sent to jail, then show up at work in the next episode to resume business as usual.
It’s not the fact of physical loss that’s new: TV has always made space for characters with disabilities, such as the title character of Ironside and Artie Abrams on Glee, both paraplegic. What’s new is the detail and duration with which personal catastrophes are portrayed and the fact that they often happen after the story is already in progress and become part of its fabric: a change that we as well as the characters have to get used to. It’s one thing to introduce a character who lives with a disability, as the disfigured sharpshooter Richard Harrow did on Boardwalk Empire and as Walt Jr. did on Breaking Bad; it’s quite another to introduce an intensely physical lead character, such as that same drama’s barrel-chested, backslapping DEA agent Hank Schrader, have him get shot midway through the show’s third season, and spend season four and half of season five dealing with the emotional and physical fallout.
One way to distinguish a merely entertaining show from a great one is to look at how it treats trauma. Does it have an elephant’s memory or selective amnesia? Are tragedies deployed cavalierly or with care? Does the show integrate the aftermath into its ongoing plotlines, altering the character’s personality and giving the misfortune the sober attention it would receive in life, or does it wave its hand and write it off with a “miraculous recovery”? This was an important aspect of post-Sopranos TV storytelling: Writers weren’t just on the lookout for shocks; they were attentive to aftershocks.
ER, the highest-rated drama of the mid-’90s, split the difference between the old and new ways. It boldly showed a major character, Paul McCrane’s Dr. “Rocket” Romano, losing his arm in a freakish helicopter accident, then failed to figure out what to do with him afterward. (He was later killed in a second chopper mishap.) For a show that already featured a dynamic lead character, Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), with hip dysplasia, it was a depressing creative failure; but it was par for the course in series TV, a mode that, until somewhat recently, wanted to challenge the characters, but not too much, and show them changing, but only a little. Shonda Rhimes’s hospital soap Grey’s Anatomy is part of the next wave of TV storytelling: It had a major character, Arizona (Jessica Capshaw), whose leg was amputated following a plane crash, and who sued the hospital for negligence and received a settlement and a seat on the board of directors; she’s still a major character. In modern TV, loss is real, and permanent. It doesn’t make the characters dramatically inconvenient and easily disposable; instead it challenges writers and viewers to think about what it means to live through traumatic change. By episode two of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, the gold-handed Jaime Lannister is still surly and impatient, and perhaps unrealistic about the prospect of re-creating his old life, but he’s not sitting by idle. We see him outdoors with a swordsman, training with the shorter, lighter sword in his left hand. He has to.
*This article appeared in the April 7, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.