August 13, 2017
‘Game of Thrones’ and the Perfection of Surprise Without Death
It’s all about the execution.
For a show that killed off one of its central characters at the end of season 1, it seemed as if the story was limitless in what it could do and that no character at any point in time was ever safe. This continued throughout the years when The Red Wedding occurred in season 3, The Purple Wedding in season 4, Oberyn and Ygrittes’ deaths in season 4, and most recently the explosion of the Sept in season 6. In the most recent episode, however, titled “The Spoils of War” each of our major characters made it out alive (assuming Jamie survives) even though it contained one of the greatest battles on Game of Thrones yet. Ultimately, it was Daenerys vs. Jamie, Drogon vs. Bronn. So going into the battle we figured they all just had to make it out, right? But knowing in the back of our minds that none of them could really die did not make it any less worrisome to watch, which speaks to the brilliance of the show over all.
When describing Game of Thrones to a friend or co-worker who hasn’t seen it, usually the first thing that comes to mind is to prepare them for all of the many deaths they will have to endure when they do get around to watching it. Although putting it this way sounds as if the show kills major characters randomly for the purpose of shock value, which when you look a little deeper, is actually not really true most of the time. Major deaths usually have some long-lasting consequences that follow. That’s the whole point.
Ned’s death in season 1, though abrupt and surprising, nonetheless advanced the story. If he hadn’t died, Rob would have never gone to war officially with the Lannisters, Arya would not have been taken from King’s Landing as she was, and Sansa would not have been so influenced by Littlefinger and Cersei.
Both the red and purple weddings were also key in setting off a long chain of events, especially where characters like Arya and Tyrion are concerned. And Oberyn’s death especially was significant in pushing Tyrion to kill Shae, his father, and head off to Essos practically in exile, where he comes across Jorah and eventually Dany. The explosion of the Sept also gave us dark, Mad-King Cersei, who suddenly had little to no remaining redeeming qualities, and whose sole purpose is now to rule over Westeros and get revenge on her enemies.
However, no matter how surprising or sudden, or gruesome the death, they felt either necessary or at the very least like they served some kind of purpose.
Therefore, had any of the main characters in this episode been knocked off the board completely, the episode just would not have felt as great as it was. And it’s not necessarily so much about Game of Thrones giving us what we want emotionally as it was about giving the story what it needs. No one could die because they still have so much more from their roles to fulfill. Let’s break this down a little further.
We will find out on Sunday night whether or not our last moments with Jaime on screen involved watching him courageously riding after Dany and Drogon, hoping to end the war and then falling into the river just before Drogon’s fire could reach him. Although it seems a little silly for that to be the way Jaime Lannister goes out. Besides, Game of Thrones still really needs to have a Tyrion/Jaime reunion before it can ever give any type of closure to those two characters. Especially now that Jaime knows for certain that Tyrion did not kill Joffrey. Why have Olenna confess last week if that confession was never going to make it anywhere outside of those Highgarden walls? Also, this one is still in speculation and is a popular theory amongst many fans, but Jaime is definitely a candidate for the role of Cersei’s killer. According to Maggy the Frogs’ prophecy in the books, Cersei will be killed by the Valonqar, which is High Valyrian for “little brother.” This was an aspect of Cersei’s fortune telling experience that was left out of the show in season 5 but could still be relevant to the plot in some form if Jaime or Tyrion were to actually kill her. This article from Bustle does a deeper dive into why the show may be setting up for Valonqar to actually be Tyrion after all, which would be even more prominent should Jaime actually drown in that river. But if he survives, then he is at the top of the list for the job, and in that case, extra points for such poetic storytelling. And even if Jaime is not the one to kill Cersei, him finally coming to his senses regarding her monstrosity feels like it would be an essential character moment. Something he cannot die without having done. All in all, Jaime Lannister dying in “The Spoils of War” would leave a lot left unsaid and unfinished.
Dany’s essential survival, for the time being, should be pretty clear at this point. Between herself and Jon Snow, she is a possible “prince who was promised.” And not only this, but boy does she have a lot left to do even without this prophecy weighing on her. Staying in Essos for 6 seasons really didn’t get her too far in terms of her overall goal to conquer and rule Westeros and bring peace to the world. In a group article done by the Film School Rejects team last month, I made the argument as to why Daenerys deserves to survive, which I will not fully reiterate here, but long story short, the lengthy build-up over the past years would seem ultimately meaningless if she was to die when everything was just getting started. So her death at this point in the story would not serve to really advance anything. It would actually wipe out a large portion of the story. She and Jon Snow also still have a lot to work out amongst themselves including but not limited to romantic feelings, family relations, cave paintings and all. And I know we want to see all of that business play out.
Dany’s three dragons, like the White Walkers and the Wights, are not characters so much as they are plot devices. But very important plot devices they are. We all figure the dragons will have a large role to play in the war for Westeros and in the war against the White Walkers. In this episode, we saw the damage a dragon could do in war. Our Neil Miller does an excellent breakdown of why this episode worked so well, including a section on how the episode portrayed the seriousness of dragon destruction. Also, the dragons in Game of Thrones are meant to represent strength and the renewal of magic in the world. Therefore to kill off the strongest dragon in his first real battle scenario would truly discredit those themes of the story.
Ok, Bronn is probably the character with the least stakes in this entire situation in comparison to the previous three named, but he is definitely a fan favorite and that goes a long way to getting audiences on board with storytelling choices. Also, while it may not be completely necessary for any sort of official wrap-ups, a Bronn and Tyrion reunion is one that has been much awaited for a long while and looks like it will finally be happening soon. It also seems that Bronn had some kind of change of heart near the end, what with leaving his gold and risking his life against a dragon, especially if we find he is the one who saved Jaime from Drogon. So perhaps a certain sell-sword is finally opening his eyes to the significance of life beyond riches. And if something can make Bronn forget about castles and gold and be truly afraid for a second, that should be very telling of how much more serious this war is really going to get.
Moreover, going into this battle, it’s clear it was one meant for us to weigh the scope of the war and the consequences it will bring rather than mourn a death for anyone that we are specifically attached to. While no one truly significant died (again, assuming Jamie survives) the fact that it still both worried and excited us as it did is telling of how the show has enraptured us over the years and is still able to keep us on our feet, even without major deaths. Years and years of creating such an unsafe world is what aided this episode in feeling like it did. The books do an excellent job of this, but seeing it translate to television is truly significant because in TV there are the obstacles of dealing with the temptation to either please or protect the audience to keep them watching weekly. But even the Stark reunion scenes felt emotionally satisfying in part because of all the teased reunions there have been over the past 6 seasons. If there is one thing Game of Thrones will forever be known for, is that years of patience, near misses, character development, and shocking heart breaks, can and do pay off well in the long-run, if executed brilliantly, just as “The Spoils of War” did.