The Most Upsetting Game of Thrones Death Was the Show Itself

And we couldn’t look away.

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

The story of Game of Thrones wrapped up last night with the most lavish display of narrative housekeeping in TV history: Jon Snow betrayed and knifed a power-mad Daenerys to prevent future mass murders; Tyrion successfully made the case for Bran to take the throne; Sansa was appointed head of her own kingdom; Arya sailed off on a boat to uncharted territory; and Jon was sent up North, exiled and neutered to appease Dany’s supporters.

But the show had already summed itself up a week earlier in “The Bells,” when the Hound and the Mountain fought to the death in the crumbling stairwell of the Red Keep, an action scene that doubled as a summary of all the impossible challenges the show has tried and often failed to overcome. The Mountain, a.k.a. Gregor Clegane, was poisoned in a duel in season four but continued to function thanks to Frankenstein-like medical experiments by Cersei’s adviser Qyburn. He returned to life as a putrefying goon who wasn’t really alive anymore, in any meaningful sense, but had to keep guarding Cersei and killing her enemies. The Mountain’s actions in his final scene — recognizing his brother Sandor, then disregarding Cersei’s orders by killing Qyburn and entering a combat to the death — indicated that he still had some agency. But in every other way, that gray-fleshed, red-eyed creature of obligation was not the person he’d once been.

Neither was the show that sent him to such a spectacular end. This image of two brothers, one living and one nearly undead, fighting to the death became a metatextual summing-up of Game of Thrones’ final seasons. As it entered its homestretch, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’s juggernaut of a fantasy became a gigantic entertainment revenant, shambling on despite having lost much of its original life force, along with George R.R. Martin’s source text, somewhere around season five.

Ironically, this eighth and final season was absolutely on-brand for the series, though surely not in the way its creators or its fans would’ve imagined. Regardless of whether you liked or disliked its individual episodes or story lines, Game of Thrones constantly set up audiences to expect, even want, a particular outcome, only to deliver the worst-case version of their fears. Game of Thrones itself got Red Wedding’d or Ned Starked — choose your comparison from the series; there are dozens of equally good choices available — as its devotees sat there every Sunday night wishing for something other than what the show intended to give them. More than a million grew so disenchanted that they signed a petition to remake all of season eight. This was a fantasy more ridiculous than anything in Westeros, a demand contrary to the spirit of popular storytelling itself (television is not a restaurant where you can send the food back), and had an almost endearing impotence, like those shots of the crowd that gathered to watch Ned Stark’s death in season one. This thing was happening, whether you wanted it or not.

The core of Game of Thrones’ appeal was always its comfort with horror and terror. In its earlier, stronger seasons, the series often felt more like an adaptation of an ancient text than anything modern. It ignored contemporary Western liberal notions of morally and politically acceptable storytelling (especially when it dealt with gender relations, racism, colonialism, and the white-savior complex, which approached Tarzan or Conan levels of cheerful obliviousness), but it was equally uninterested in giving the audience the neat and life-affirming closure that it seemed to want from all other fantasy and science-fiction franchises, whether it was Star Trek or Star Wars, Doctor Who or James Bond, Marvel or DC. On Game of Thrones, as in life itself, the rain of death fell on the just and unjust alike. There was an ominousness to the violence that would’ve seemed even more wanton and sadistic if the show hadn’t channeled that George R.R. Martin–esque feeling of events’ being subtly finessed by the whims of unseen gods. It was a 21st-century series in terms of its technology of production and distribution, but the sensibility was primeval. Watching it from week to week was the closest that modern Western viewers have gotten to the experience of reading the original Grimm fairy tales, where Jack the Giant Killer would cut open a giant’s stomach and replace it with a sack of hasty pudding, or folktales like the early French version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” where the girl climbs into bed with the wolf and is eaten. The end.

Viewers of the show, like children listening to old fairy tales, got to the point where, going into each hour, they knew on some level that this story probably wouldn’t go the way they wanted it to, and that to enter its narrative space was to accept a certain amount of cruelty. This freed the writers to deliver massive, often unimaginably horrific shocks, like the death of Ned, the Red Wedding, the maiming of Jaime Lannister, the prolonged torture and eventual castration of Theon, and the innumerable mutilations, eviscerations, immolations, rapes, mass murders, and other atrocities. The absolute worst thing that could happen to a character often did happen, and at the worst possible moment. That was the source of the show’s narrative power and the key to its viselike hold on audiences, even during the lackluster recent years.

The show at its most disturbing was a perfect combination of that horror and terror, gussied up in the superficial trappings of European-styled sword-and-sorcery. The difference between horror and terror is subtle but easy to understand once you know what to look for: If terror is about fear of a violent physical death or damage to the flesh, horror is a more psychological or spiritual kind of distress. It’s about fearing the loss of sanity, of individual autonomy, or (a pre-Freud way of putting it) of the soul. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby are horror. Jaws is terror. The original Alien, a stalker movie set in a dark castle of a starship that was also a text about fear of rape and forced impregnation, was both. So is virtually the entire filmography of David Cronenberg. Game of Thrones lived at that intersection, swathed in gloom and gnawing on bones. The voluminous abuse Sansa suffered at the hands of others was terror, but the toll it took on her was horror. Ditto the unrelenting misery of Daenerys, who was abducted and raped in season one, undermined and betrayed throughout the series, and in the final seasons saw two of her “children” — who doubled as manifestations of her literally growing rage — taken from her. (The data trove justifying Dany’s actions in “The Bells” was filled to the brim over eight seasons; it was only the rushed and patchy storytelling at the end, with all the crazy-lady shorthand, that rankled.)

The entire show was unified, visually, by the reactions of characters who’d been forced to watch the absolute worst possible thing happen and were powerless to do anything but absorb it and try not to lose their minds. This was a recurring feature, practically a dramatic motif, from Sansa and Arya being physically restrained from trying to help their father as his head was lowered on the chopping block to Catelyn Stark realizing at the Red Wedding that there was no reason for a guest to be wearing chain mail and then screaming warnings after it was too late to warn anyone. These moments returned audiences to the emotional state of children watching Old Yeller or E.T. or Avengers: Infinity War, endlessly cycling from hope and trust to betrayal and fear and sorrow, then back again. It worked like a charm. A magic charm.

It wasn’t just the epic moments and shocking twists that made the series such a topic of conversation. It was also, perhaps primarily, the intricate sense of place Martin’s novels brought to the tale, which anchored the original run of the series and made it special enough to overcome (usually valid) complaints about misogyny, racial insensitivity, and other shortcomings. Game of Thrones was often compared in its early years to The Sopranos with dragons, but in totality, those first few seasons were probably closer to something like Mad Men or The Wire, in that they showed how individuals were shaped by their history and culture even as they exercised free will. To mangle the famous Casablanca line, in this crazy world, the problems of two little people, or even a royal bloodline, didn’t amount to a hill of beans. The definitive elaboration on this comparison can be found in an article by Zeynep Tufekci in Scientific American. Tufekci theorizes that Game of Thrones frustrated even devoted fans in its later years not just because it ran out of George R.R. Martin text to adapt (though that was a problem) but because it moved away from sociological storytelling, which focuses on whole institutions or civilizations and their relationship to their own histories — a thing the show often was brilliant at — to psychological storytelling that was mainly focused on the individual and treated the larger society as a mere backdrop for their progress through the world.

The latter was of secondary interest in Martin’s novels. Without the books, Weiss and Benioff and their actors were still capable of striking and even deeply moving character moments (this season’s second episode, which was built around quiet conversations, was filled with them). But this wasn’t the dramatic third rail that made Game of Thrones electrifying. The shift to individual-focused storytelling made the show feel less assured and less special. Characterization was increasingly subordinated not just to plot twists but to spectacle and GIF-able moments. It inflicted great damage on audience goodwill in the final season, particularly when Game of Thrones sidelined or undermined many of its female characters (was it necessary to have so many of them sobbing in close-up over men, and in Brienne’s case, devoting her final scene to writing Jaime’s biography?) and staged moments that were viscerally exciting (Jaime’s duel with Euron Greyjoy) but seemed bizarre if you thought about them for more than a few seconds. There were still remnants of its sociological storytellingthe big battle scenes became even more important than they’d been originally, fireworks displays built into every season. But not necessarily because they flowed inevitably from the politics and personalities of Westeros — because, like the various flavors of ultraviolence, they were what Game of Thrones was known for doing, and therefore had to be done.

The one constant that kept the show vital (and controversial) was its interest in horror and terror. This is key to the logic of fairy tales and so-called “moral tales,” where people’s worst fears are realized and their most egregious missteps punished, seemingly by the cosmos, either out of a sense of cosmic or supernatural justice or merely because the universe is indifferent to what individuals want. It was displayed on a grand scale two times this season: first and rather unsteadily in “The Long Night,” and with terrifying assurance in “The Bells,” a spectacle of civic ruin and mass murder that variously evoked Hiroshima, 9/11, the Holocaust, and the conventional aerial firebombings that have been characteristic of post–World War II life from Dresden and Cambodia to Kosovo and Aleppo.

These jolts of horror, whether focused on individual or collective agony, were an artistic through-line linking the post-Martin version of the series to its original incarnation. But the narrative infrastructure that used to grow organically out of Martin’s concern with societies and their leaders fell away, and what was left was a bottom-line-driven imperative to be Game of Thrones™, with the characters serving as pegs around which pyrotechnic and melodramatic flights of fancy could be woven. A Hiroshima- or 9/11-level atrocity was well within the narrative bandwidth of this series, where rulers regularly did awful things for ignoble, often irrational reasons and civilians suffered and died as a result. Dany repeatedly said that she wanted the throne, was perfectly willing to burn her enemies and their societies to the ground to get it, and would settle for being feared if love was not an option. When viewers argued about whether this was something Dany would or could do — and whether her rapid descent into genocidal rage affirmed the series’ arguable misogyny and played into stereotypes that critic Mo Ryan summed up as “bitches are crazy” — it spoke to a failure of process that had affected the structural integrity of the art.

When the aftershocks of the finale fade and we get a bit of distance from the whole thing, it will become apparent that Game of Thrones itself unwittingly became the victim of an ironic and agonizingly protracted Game of Thrones ending. The show had all the money in the world and could’ve taken a lot more time in production — and demanded a lot more of the audience’s time — than it did, and that might’ve corrected some of the problems that plagued it during its second half. Even at the end, the series still had its moments — in spite of all its problems, “The Bells” is astounding at the level of filmmaking and acting. But like The West Wing after Aaron Sorkin’s departure and Seinfeld after Larry David’s, something was off so profoundly that you could see how hard the series was trying to pretend it hadn’t really lost anything. You could feel the struggle, and the insecurity emanating from that struggle, even if you still enjoyed the series as a spectacle of horror and terror, a war film, or a soap opera. It had become the kind of show that felt comfortable retroactively explaining everything about Dany’s decision to roast King’s Landing by having two men recap her life story and argue about whether her actions were defensible (a sensitively acted scene, but essentially a Reddit thread come to life). The kind of show that would have a dragon make like the supercomputer at the end of WarGames (“The only winning move is not to play”). The kind of show that would have Samwell Tarly present what looked suspiciously like a tell-all memoir written in quill pen, titled A Song of Ice and Fire.

The upshot is a meta-death as disturbing as any the series has given us. Ned Stark is losing his head again, there’s blood on the floor of the reception hall, Jaime’s hand is coming off. But it’s sadder somehow, because it’s more like a real-world death, where the person you love gradually turns into something you no longer recognize, and nothing — not rationalizations, not petitions, not science, not faith — can stop it. But we had to watch.

The Most Upsetting Game of Thrones Death Was the Show Itself