News and Notes

The 'Thrones' Effect

Is TV's high body count killing quality? Why your favorite characters keep dying. (Warning: Nothing but spoilers ahead!)

Image credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey on Game of Thrones

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.

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