Game of Thrones Has a Shock Value Problem
Welcome to Thrones month! In anticipation of the Season 7 finale on Sunday August 27, let’s explore the weirdness of Westeros with one piece (almost) every day! Spoilers through the episode "Beyond the Wall".
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One of the defining elements of any television series is shock. Even shows like comedies occasionally lean on shock to generate their laughs. For more serious shows, that lean is quite heavy – they are called 'dramas' after all. It's almost the entirety of the foundation of a show like Black Mirror, where the absurd is normalized for an hour straight. It's carefully placed in a show like Breaking Bad, which interrupts long scenes of character development to remind you that anything can happen. It's almost required in a show like The People vs. OJ Simpson, where the end result is already known and moments of tension have to be manufactured despite it. Thrones, however, drips of an overabundance of shock.
It's incredible that a show in its seventh season has carried such a following, a following that will likely persist and grow into its eighth and final one. Even Breaking Bad knew that it was firmly in the driver's seat when it pulled the plug five seasons in. Shows like House and Dexter were accused of being formulaic, victims of network television that pumped out over twenty episodes a season. But Thrones pushes onward, a beneficiary of the many characters from which it can carefully extract story, before ultimately leaving them for dead – its signature and preferred plot-advancing mechanism.
Yet despite its overwhelming efforts to reign its viewers even closer to the screen every Sunday night, Thrones' final nine might be prone to a bit of a shock value problem.
There are high stakes in Westeros. Every house fights for its own survival, surrounded by enemies. Yet the stakes were dramatically heightened midway through the show's run, when we were introduced to the Night's King – first in the Walkers' chilling march at the end of season 2, and then at their even more chilling assault on Hardhome in season 5. If we know that there's an (apparently) evil force of nature whose death march is imminent, what does it matter where the rest of the plotlines go? It's a testament to the accumulated shock value that the Walkers' ultimate victory is actually within the realm of possibility, that the good guys don't win in the end. Jon summarizes it best when preaching, "The same thing is coming for all of us. There’s only one war that matters: the great war, and it is here." It's that sentiment which allows for a general apathy of what Cersei or Littlefinger's next plans are, because, who cares? It's really hard to stay invested in Arya's assassin school or the Sand Snakes' weird plans or even Jon's new hairstyle when we know it has little impact on the endgame.
One of the worst (remaining) characters on the show was its first major victim: Bran Stark. He's infuriating, not simply because he doesn't know that the appropriate phrasing of 'I watched my sister get raped' is to actually say nothing at all. It's because he lowers those very stakes we spent so long building. He's essentially a living, walking (well, not really) plot hole because he knows everything, which would probably include things like where all of Cersei's troops are, and more importantly, how to defeat the white walkers. That is, he would completely invalidate Sam Tarly's plotline and Euron Greyjoy's existence. It's somewhat hacky to have a character with this level of power, which is a different kind of hacky than Daenerys having three dragons at her disposal. We saw that one dragon is pretty much all she needs to destroy an entire army, but surefire victory is held back by things like her own character's stupidity (whereas Bran's aloofness isn't quite the same hindrance). Besides, his entire arc can be summarized as going in a straight line, gaining a superpower, and turning around and going back (not too dissimilar to the plot of Mad Max, or even this scene narrated by Lena Headey from 300: Rise of an Empire).
The highest shock-point that Thrones occasionally reaches for is death, so much so that they created a graphic art series to celebrate who died each episode. After eight episodes, the decapitation of Ned Stark came as a blow. Three seasons in, the massacre of Robb Stark and company was still quite surprising. Through six seasons, and the unceremonious end of Margeary and Loras Tyrell still managed to raise our eyebrows. But as their roster of characters has dwindled, so have their options. With so few important characters remaining, they don't have the ability to play the death card quite as often as they'd like, as we're a little more comfortable in saying "that character can't die… yet." As we saw Drogon falling through the air after being struck by Qyburn's genius bigass crossbow, we had no doubt that Dany would survive the battle. As we watched Arya come home, we didn't believe for a second that she wouldn't get there.
This of course ties in exceptionally with the resurrection of Jon Snow, not simply because it was obvious that Jon was coming back, but rather with respect to the concept of resurrection altogether. The reason death works so well is because of its finality, its status as a point of no return. Reversing the action invalidates that premise, makes us question whether death is so serious, or even worth mourning. It was kind of glossed over that Lord Beric Dondarrion has been resurrected six times by Thoros of Myr, but that seems to be a pretty fucking big deal, especially because Thoros is a red priest just like Melisandre, who performed Jon's resurrection. This leads us to believe that the red god R'hollor is the only deity who's shown any semblance of actual magical power, despite the fact that we don't really know how this power works (something about king's blood) and what caveats it comes with (having only one testicle). It's not that anyone is holding out for the return of Ned Stark to the living, but it would be nice if the crypts in Westeros were one place with a sense of integrity.
Unless it was Dickon. The shock must go on.