Robert Tiemstra ‘16 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Game of Thrones, the acclaimed television series based on George R. R. Martin’s ongoing novel series, plays a lot like C-Span meets Gladiator. This article will contain SPOILERS, so if you are not caught up, you have been warned. The immediate (and steadily increasing) popularity of the series begs the question: why do we keep coming back? This show has become famous for the offhand murder of important characters. Because of this, speculation for the show’s upcoming episodes centers around a single question: who will die next?
You can browse any forum online and find countless fan theories extrapolating on who will make it through to the end of the series and who will snuff it before the opening credits roll at the top of the season. And after all this convoluted theorizing, it seems like the expiration date of each character in the series is utterly arbitrary. Or is it? Most assume that the main purpose of the high mortality rate is to establish stakes and the show’s gritty realism. “Valar Morghulis” is a common phrase repeated throughout the series, a Valyrian saying for “all men must die.”
But if the main character deaths in Game of Thrones were just a method for the writers to establish the stakes in the gritty fantasy world of Westeros, wouldn’t we have seen Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) die of food poisoning, or Jon Snow take an arrow to the knee and die of the infection? If realism is the goal here, wouldn’t we have seen Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) die from an STD by this point?
No, because George R. R. Martin is doing something far more subtle with the deaths of his main characters. Let’s put it this way: for a show with so many massive battle sequences, almost no important characters die in the thick of battle. What Martin is doing is marrying fantasy realism to classical Greek tragedy. A tragedy in traditional Greek theater is defined by a hero whose downfall is predicted by a single tragic flaw, which the Greek playwrights referred to as hamartia. Similarly, Martin’s main character deaths are not off-handed, dismissive gestures, but rather the consequences of story-based decisions that these characters make.
In the first season, Ned Stark (Sean Bean) is cast as our primary protagonist and point-of-view character for the series. His tragic flaw is his honor and trusting nature, which leads to him making some baffling tactical maneuvers, and land him a spot on the chopping block.
Ned’s son Robb (Richard Madden) takes after his father, but has a different tragic flaw: eros (passionate, irrational love), which overrides his common sense. These two deaths are shocking to the audience because the characters have been put in the roles of the classic hero in western literature, but their deaths wouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s looking at these stories for what they are: a series of classical tragedies hidden within grounded modern fantasy.
Even when Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) dies of an infected wound, his suffering and eventual coma are a result of his warrior’s ego. Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) dies because of his drunken lifestyle, Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) dies because of his strict parenting, and Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) falls because of a classic Greek flaw: hubris.
Go back through the seasons of Game of Thrones, and you can see a pattern emerge. Unlike, say, The Walking Dead, where death only ever serves to heighten the stakes, the most important characters in Westeros die exclusively because of the choices they make, making each new casualty essentially narrative suicide. In Oedipus the King, arguably the most famous of all the Greek tragedies, the titular character bemoans “the pain we inflict upon ourselves hurt most of all.” But where Oedipus has no choice in how his life ends up, because he is literally told his own downfall by the Oracle of Delphi, the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire have nothing but choices, all with potentially fatal consequences.
Let’s take a look at our two most recent examples in the season 5 finale: Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington). Jon Snow falls for a classic Stark narrative. As a man who’s lived with both the Wildlings and the Night’s Watch, he attempts to reconcile the two sides. This is what your classic fantasy hero would do, pursue the most honorable choice. His tragic flaw, which he realizes as he’s turned into the Lord Pincushion of the Night’s Watch, is he trusts his brothers to have the same standards of honor as him. He didn’t realize how deep prejudice cuts. This has been a thread linking the last five seasons at the Wall, as Jon has gone from being judged as a bastard, then as a Crow, then as a Wildling deserter, then as an idealist unfit to command.
In a slightly less heartbreaking example, the single-minded Stannis has followed the Red God for the last three seasons, since he was promised by Melisandre (Carice van Houten) that he had the god’s favor. Of all the characters in this series, he’s the only king who has been literally given his own destiny. He should have read the fine print, though—when the moment finally comes when he has to choose between abandoning all hope of taking Winterfell, and sacrificing his daughter to the Red God, he promptly gives up any faint chance he ever had of winning father of the year.
This decision is sadistic and insane, unless you consider Stannis’ perspective: this god has given him victory after victory, and as the last surviving king in Westeros of the original five from season two, he does in fact seem to be blessed by a higher power. But the one thing he doesn’t count on is how other people will see his decision. Stannis’ tragic flaw is that he doesn’t care what people think of him. And that blindspot is what ultimately fails him as half his army deserts him immediately after he hosts the most morbid family barbecue of all time. His tragic flaw actually works against Melisandre’s prophecies, rather than confirming them.
But there is one character who was outright told her fate in an Oedipal way: Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). In a flashback at the beginning of the fifth season, a young Cersei is told her fate as a mother of kings. By attempting to defy this prophecy, she systematically weakens her own social status to the point that she can be defeated by the Sparrows, who proceed to exploit her pride for her humiliation. Her death in this season is like Oedipus’—more symbolic than literal. Though in all fairness to Oedipus, her incest was not an accident.
But it doesn’t stop there, the theory that Westeros is a collection of Greek tragedies has broader connotations to the world itself. The world of Westeros lies under a sword of Damocles all its own—the White Walkers and the army of HBO extras they lead. And Westeros’ hamartia is that it is too focused on the revolving door of kings that it doesn’t appreciate the weight of its own mortality.
So for those of you worried Daenerys will be trampled by Dothraki in the first five minutes of season six, or that Tyrion will fall off a bridge when drunk, be comforted in the knowledge that if you’re looking close enough, you’ll see your favorite character’s death coming from miles away.