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The Catch-22 of the New, Safe GAME OF THRONES

The Catch-22 of the New, Safe GAME OF THRONES

For six seasons we’ve watched people break their fast, travel long roads and narrow seas, and get brutally murdered on Game of Thrones. The show captured the attention spans of millions by delivering a fantasy saga marked by the surprising deaths of its main characters. Those deaths meant that no character was ever safe, but now in its 7th (and penultimate) season, the show has had to leave that dangerous nature behind in exchange for a satisfying, standard conclusion.

At least, that seems to be the catch-22 facing showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff. The violent world in George R.R. Martin’s books successfully set up savior figures and major favorites for the Seven Kingdoms only to lop off their heads, slit their throats, and stab them to death at weddings, but that cycle isn’t tenable if you want someone important that the audience cares about to still be around when the last page gets turned. In order to end, the show had to sacrifice one of its most interesting elements.

And it has. What was the last shocking death of an important figure on the show?

It’s arguable that it was Cersei’s destruction of the Sept of Baelor and Tommen’s consequent suicide at the end of season six, but Margery and company always felt like they were playing house in the Red Keep. Minor, temporary foes for Cersei. Same goes for the High Sparrow. The scope of the murder was astonishing, but the more shocking turn of events would have been Cersei’s death at the hands of the religious order.

Another option is Hodor’s death in season six, but while almost incomparably sad (R.I.P. Shireen), Hodor was never more than a tertiary character and sled-puller.

Instead, I’d argue that Jon Snow’s short-lived death at the end of season five marked the end of the show’s initial mode of operation. The move made it official: a core character could come back from the grave. Sorry, Ned. Sorry, Robb. The rules didn’t change in time for you. You’ve gotta have a Red Woman handy.

That protective watch over Jon Snow makes it feel as though he’s now completely safe from the chopping block—something his counterpart Daenerys has been for several seasons. Ditto Cersei and Jaime and Tyrion. Game of Thrones now seems wholly uninterested in dropping our jaws by dropping main characters. If Jon Snow dies (again), it will almost assuredly be in some classically noble way. Where the show made a name for itself spitting on the traditional fantasy trope of the Chosen Ones—by setting them up only to knock them down—it’s now reverting back to those exact genre roots, complete with prophecies to fulfill.

As if to prove that safety status, the show refused to kill Jaime in “Spoils of War” even as others got roasted, then pulled him and his solid metal hand (and armor!) from the depths of a river at the opening of “Eastwatch.” The show wouldn’t even kill Bronn, who awkwardly dove, not once, but twice out of the way of Drogon’s hundred-man-at-a-time burning breath.

When Bronn is safe, who’s truly in danger?

The shift from non-traditional to safely traditional is understandable because, after season five, there simply wasn’t enough time to replace more core characters with new ones and hope we’d care enough about them in the same way we cared when Snow graduated from the minor leagues to the head of the Night’s Watch. Unfortunately, we’ve lost so many interesting characters (close to 100 named) that we’re left with a grab bag that is sometimes far less compelling than Catelyn Stark or Oberyn Martell.

With only two episodes left this season, and eight total before the end of the series itself, the deaths are now custodial. The Tarlys refuse to bend the knee. Lady Olenna drinks her well-earned poison. Ramsay Bolton feeds his dogs.

What’s equally admirable and frustrating is that the shift makes thematic sense. The show—once brutish, nasty, and long—is changing alongside the socio-political revolution Jon and Daenerys want for the people. They want Westeros to be a place of peace that could play host to a Ned Starkian kind of justice and trust. If the show began in earnest with his death, it’s possible for the show to end with a new world where he never would have been killed. Cynicism defeated in a 7-season arc. It had to grow up sometime.

Shedding its renegade murder of beloved main characters and tropes in its final seasons, Game of Thrones has shifted its sights to see if mankind can unite against a supernatural power. Ostensibly, it also wants to test whether peace can last long after that. Or maybe we’ll simply get a Happily Ever After from a show that used to scream, “Life isn’t fair!” while the band played The Rains of Castamere.

This season has still proven fantastically entertaining (Battle dragons! Cersei unleashed! Reunion tours! Teleportation!), but the series has, as an act of necessity, lost something special. Hopefully it still has some surprises up its sleeve.

What do you think?

Images: HBO

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