A few weeks ago, I happened to stumble upon a (fake) letter written by George R.R. Martin, addressing deaths in the Game of Thrones TV series and in the original book series. To quote directly from the letter,“Has there ever been a writer as cruel and murderous as I? Allow me to pose this question to you: How many of you have heard of William GODDAMN Shakespeare?… Ever read Hamlet? You know who survives Hamlet? Like two people TOTAL.” Ignoring the humorous rage of the (alleged) author of the letter, ‘Martin’ has a point. Both the book series and now the TV show have gained notoriety for some of the most brutal and violent death scenes we have seen: Ned Stark’s beheading, Joffrey choking to death thanks to the Strangler, Oberyn Martell’s head being crushed and exploding like a watermelon, and I would rather not recount the Red Wedding.
In fact, I would not be exaggerating when I said that, after watching both the Red Wedding and Viper vs Mountain fight scene, I sat there, with my laptop in front of me, unmoving and deeply shocked for the better part of half an hour. And yet, after giving it thought, it made sense. Not just because death is a natural occurrence in any world, but also because these deaths had a purpose, and were coming. Ned Stark, Oberyn and Robb Stark all represented hope, and through their death the stark (pun intended) reality of this world and of the game of thrones became real and meaningful. Joffrey, though a tyrant many of us wished to see suffer, caused us pain because in his dying moments he made us remember he was still a human who made mistakes and was mortal, like all of us. To quote the letter again, “the deaths in my works aren’t random-for-shock-purposes-only type deaths – they all have clear purposes within the drama of the story, and are only dealt out when absolutely necessary.”
And therein lies another crucial point about death in fiction in general: it helps remove innocence and make a world or a universe real to us; it makes tough choices and conflict meaningful. It proves we must all suffer, and nothing can be perfect. How many of us mourned over Fred Weasley, over Wash in Serenity, over Phil Coulson? Their deaths mean we won’t see these characters any more; it means that our heroes as well as us must confront that there isn’t always a happy ending and that we must live knowing that. Even the Doctor, who when he is dying can change his body, still perishes in a way. Or, as the Tenth Doctor put it once, “Even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away. And I’m dead.” Even when he changes, we forever lose one incarnation of a character we have come to love.
I point out Doctor Who because the show has recently shown us what can happen if we remove death, and what the effects of death are in fiction. When the show came back in 2005, it did so by introducing a giant change to the show’s mythos: during the (unseen) Great Last Time War, the Doctor had to kill all of the Daleks (his arch-nemeses) and all other Time Lords (his own species) to save every other species. For the man whom fans always held as the bringer of good and the peacemaker, such an act of double xenocide gave us a hurting and broken hero that we could identify with; after all, even he had to make a tough choice where there was no going back. And yet, during the 50th Anniversary, Steven Moffat (the showrunner who has a panache to never really kill characters or just bring them back to life constantly), brought all of the Time Lords back, as they hadn’t actually been killed (the explanation is a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey, so just bear with me). In fact, as a great article by Sarah Siegel on this subject explains, “All of the amazing episodes in which the Doctor, overcome with grief, spoke about the tragic necessity of his decision are rendered meaningless… when you have no death, when nothing truly has weight or scale, when decisions don’t stick and nobody feels the consequences… it’s hard to care about anything. The stakes on the show feel so low at this point that a once addictive program is unengaging, dull and hollow. Even the 50th special had no real gravitas because we were basically watching a plot be un-done, rather than made.” While I love that the Doctor has been redeemed, it really changes our dynamic with a character that, before, we cared more about. Going back to the letter, even deaths in Shakespeare’s works have an impact and meaning that not only helps to propel the story forward, but also truly adds weight to the stakes.
To borrow from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, death in fiction serves a two-fold purpose: while we can suffer and feel pain after a character’s death in a Dionysian stupor (as many self-proclaimed fans have oft expressed in conventions or Tumblr posts), the Apollonian rationality of these deaths lets us accept and find meaning in those deaths. We learn to better deal with the world by examining phenomena like death through fiction: our very own veil of Maya (Nietzsche). Remove death, and not only do we then miss out on having passionate emotions about death, but we have no chance to make rational sense of death. If fiction allows us to touch the fire that is death and examine it without getting burned, we must accept and appreciate the importance of meaningful death in fiction.
While the likes of Whedon and Martin may perhaps revel in taking from us beloved characters, we must ultimately thank these authors, because if we didn’t have any endings, we would never have any beginnings either.
Bridgman, Andrew. “George R.R. Martin’s Open Letter About the Deaths in Game of
Thrones.” Dorkly. Connected Ventures, 5 June 2014. Web. 22 June 2014. <http://www.dorkly.com/post/63864/george-rr-martins-open-letter-about-the-deaths-in-game-of-thrones>.
Davies, Russell T. “The End of Time Part One.” Doctor Who. BBC. 25 Dec. 2009.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Excerpts from The Birth of Tragedy.” The Birth of Tragedy.
N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2014. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.stjohns-chs.org%2Fenglish%2Ffate_tragedy%2Fbirth%2520of%2520tragedy.html>.
Siegel, Sarah. “What Steven Moffat Doesn’t Understand About Grief, And Why It’s
Killing Doctor Who.” Tea Leaves and Dog Ears. WordPress, 27 Nov. 2013. Web. 22 June 2014. <http%3A%2F%2Ftealeavesdogears.wordpress.com%2F2013%2F11%2F27%2Fsteven-moffat-doesnt-understand-grief-and-its-killing-doctor-who%2F>.