By: Adam Proteau Special to the Star | Photo MACALL B. POLAY / HBO
Decades ago, you could watch a show safe in the knowledge the actors starring in it would be key cogs for years and years, but you’ll get no such guarantee these days. That’s because TV has entered the age of sudden death. And the wildly successful Game of Thrones (Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO) has paved the way by swinging the meanest scythe, killing off characters with no regard for the audience’s affection (or malice, as the case may be).
As we’re seeing in the first episodes of its fourth season, Game of Thrones isn’t shying away from its reputation as the medium’s bloodiest production: it’s ramping up the body count. In seasons 1 through 3, fans had to wait until closer to the finales for the untimely ends of characters; this year, we’re just three episodes in and there’s already been a jaw-dropping death, with rank villain King Joffrey murdered by an unknown poisoner.
It wasn’t long ago the death of a character on a hit series meant one of two things: an actor’s contract demands were sufficiently exorbitant to offend the producers and get them written off the show; or an actor actually had died and their role wasn’t recast.
The predictability of most series was wonderful for a star looking to lock into a multi-year, multimillion contract but significantly lowered the stakes of the plot.
“As a reader, or as a viewer of television and film, I always like unexpected things,” Martin told Conan O’Brien last June. “We’ve all seen the movies where the hero is in trouble. He’s surrounded by 20 people, but you know he’s gonna get away ’cause he’s the hero. You don’t really feel any fear for him.”
You definitely feel fear watching Game of Thrones. Series producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have cultivated an aura of constant dread and, after last season’s infamous “Red Wedding” and this season’s “Purple Wedding,” viewers are justified in worrying about the future of anyone onscreen. But the increasing appeal of Game of Thrones and its method of doing dramatic business has caused other series to follow its approach.
The new direction of the modern drama is a nod to the bleak world we inhabit: a world where we don’t have to leave the house to learn gruesome details about sudden and awful events that change the lives of humans in an instant. The Disneyfied happy ending works for kids but rings hollow for the rest of us.
Game of Thrones has demonstrated we can have dramatic TV fantasies without them being preposterously fantastic. It has raised the bar for televised tension and rendered obsolete the traditional limits of what a series could do.
If audiences are asked to believe anything is possible, the least storytellers owe us is a demonstration it’s true. Game of Thrones recognized and embraced that notion, and TV drama is eternally better, if not safer, for it.