NOW YOU KNOW: The old lady did it.
Yes, Lady Tyrell (Diana Rigg) conspired to poison King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) — or so we learned from Game of Thrones on April 27. Was this shocking news? Maybe to those who hadn’t read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of fantasy novels that inspired the HBO show. When a teenage boy starts bleeding from his eyeballs, you don’t often suspect that somebody’s granny spiked his wine. But the most surprising thing about the murder wasn’t the culprit. It was the realization that watching a main character die isn’t very shocking anymore.
Part of the problem was that we’d been waiting forever to see that evil moppet king suffer. Watching the life drain from his body, you could be forgiven for wondering, That’s it? But maybe we’ve also become desensitized to the death of a major player on TV. Back in season 1, when Thrones beheaded Ned Stark (Sean Bean) just as we were starting to love him in all of his cuddly-bearded, winter-anticipating glory, the twist was genuinely horrifying — and kind of thrilling. Killing off someone that crucial to the story meant breaking the rules of TV writing. Now it has become the rule. 2013 was famously brutal (R.I.P. Nicholas Brody and Matthew Crawley), and so far this year we’ve already lost Will (Josh Charles) on The Good Wife; Zoe (Kate Mara) — and probably Doug (Michael Kelly) — on House of Cards; Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and Lamar (Powers Boothe) on Nashville; James (Dan Bucatinsky) on Scandal; Moira (Susanna Thompson) on Arrow; Allison (Crystal Reed) on Teen Wolf; and practically everyone on The Walking Dead who wasn’t already dead. Bloodbaths have become so conflated with great drama that the creators of HBO’s True Detective recently found themselves having to explain why they didn’t kill off the show’s protagonists.
The Golden Age of Television was supposed to save us from gimmicks like this. The weekly format allowed personalities to change over time, creating relationships that grew deeper and more complicated with each episode. Now characters often don’t live long enough for that kind of depth. (And it’s hard to get invested in new shows, knowing that the characters might not be around for long.) Actors are partly to blame: Charles asked to get out of his Good Wife contract early, and Bucatinsky had already signed on to the NBC pilot Marry Me when James took a bullet. When big twists are motivated by career moves instead of advancing the story, no wonder these tragedies can feel empty.
Of course, unexpected deaths are an easy way to goose ratings, build social-media buzz, and even make a play for Emmy nominations. And when Twitter explodes following a fatal plot twist, it’s a cheap way to hold on to the idea of appointment television. But the reliance on such devices suggests it’s more important for shows to be unpredictable than smart or satisfying.
Death is universal and unavoidable — particularly in a TV landscape in which it seems like everyone works in a hospital, is scrambling in a postapocalyptic dystopia, or runs a crime ring. But the idea that life only means something when you’re reminded that it’s going to end (and soon) couldn’t be more false, especially when the best dramas create real profundity from the smallest moments. The Good Wife’s ”Hitting the Fan” episode, where the firm broke up, was much more gripping than Will’s demise. And think about Orange Is the New Black, where the most mundane moments are also the most emotional. Just watching Sophia (Laverne Cox) put on makeup can make a person break down. (It’s worth remembering that no drama made the subject of death feel richer than The Sopranos. The scenes of Tony by his pool watching the ducks fly away were sometimes more powerful statements about mortality than the ones where he was carrying a human head in a bowling bag.) As for Joffrey, well, if television has to fall prey to the Game of Thrones effect, at least Game of Thrones does it better than most. His death was a reminder that history is told by the victors, and you can never be too sure who’s winning, since the game is always shifting. So who will rise to power in his place? Who’s the next character who will have the rest of Westeros plotting against him? Whoever it is, he’d better keep an eye on his drink.