Quitting the Game: How killing TV characters can kill your audience

Image: HBO

About this time two years ago I would have been counting down the days. I would have spent the off-time watching YouTube videos on lore and rumors and speculation about what could happen next. I like millions of others would have been partaking in what had become an annual tradition: re-watching a lengthening marathon of every Game of Thrones season in anticipation of the newest one. And when the time finally came, and the countdown ended, I would have eagerly devoured the premiere like the Thenns on human flesh, going back for seconds immediately after the credits rolled.

But suddenly, two years ago, all that anticipation stopped. The Game was over for me. I quit watching Walking Dead soon after, another show I’d become enthralled with. Walked away, so to speak. The weekly agony of an ever-lasting parade of increasing cruelty ending in a sudden and senseless death was no longer enjoyable. I was done. I haven’t seen a single episode since, nor watched any videos, read any rumors, and I barely even read the statuses of Facebook friends who somehow haven’t yet gone numb. By killing the few returning characters they had left, these shows killed my interest. They may, in fact, also kill television and part of our humanity.

(Massive Spoiler Warning: It should be said that in this piece I will be discussing character deaths from: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and a few other shows which have ended – specifically Breaking Bad, and the greatest show ever, The Wire. Episodes of Futurama, Scrubs, and Newhart are also cited, and The Sopranos, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men and Dexter are mentioned only in passing. So consider this your warning. It would be possible to discuss this topic without mentioning any examples, but that would lead to vague writing. Vague writing, like spoilers, should be avoided.)

Part 1 – Why We Kill

Even through the innumerable horrors of the last several seasons, the most important, and most shocking, death in the history of Game of Thrones remains Ned Stark in season one. Although he wasn’t the first seemingly important character to bite it (I believe that distinction goes to Daenerys’s brother, the guy who died so long ago that even his sister has forgotten his name), the fact that Sean Bean was one of the only actors recognized by most viewers at the start of the show made him feel like the obvious star for the series. For those of us who never read the book there was no chance he would actually die. A last-second rescue, a cut to black with the blade still falling (only to pick up the next season with the aforementioned last-second rescue), a suddenly distraction or confession, even Ned abruptly waking up next to Susanne Pleshette was more likely than Ned actually dying.

Yet he did.

Still the most important death in ‘Game of Thrones.’
Image: HBO

Ned’s death and those of Robert Baratheon and Kahl Drogo served to establish the idea that no one is safe the world of Game of Thrones, or as the common catch phrase goes: Every man must die. The same is true of The Walking Dead where first season characters like Shane, Dale, Laurie, and Andrea are all years gone. Such events are designed to create tension and unpredictability. Whereas most television shows save character deaths for season finales and sweeps week, back when that was a thing, these two shows, and increasing more, can drop a character anywhere, anytime they choose. Knowing that at any moment a normal conversation can turn into a throat slashing or an easy stroll can be overrun by zombies (fine, “walkers”) is meant to create a sense of tension that’s been absent for most of television history. It gave these two shows, most notably, a sense of freshness and danger that isn’t present in others.

Season two, how many are left?
Image: AMC

Even shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica where literally anything could happen or The Wire and Breaking Bad which used sudden bursts of violence to off major characters didn’t pile bodies as high or spontaneously. There was of course tension but more in the how will Jack and Kate react to this or will Omar finally get caught variety rather than the which character is going to die next and how type of tension. In this way, a show like Walking Dead may keep people watching more through morbidity than intrigue. We already know there will never been an answer to why the zombie (fine, walker) outbreak started, but what we don’t know is which if any of the survivors are going to be executed by the Hunters. It’s this tension, this wondering of what will happen next, which producers believe keeps us watching. The idea that someone could die at any moment makes every scene feel vital, and knowing that every such moment will be immediately reacted to and likely spoiled on social media requires fans to watch the shows live rather than delayed on their satellite service, on Netflix or HBO Go, or through some other means (it’s no big revelation to point out that Game of Thrones is the most pirated show on television) where they can skip the commercials or the subscription fee to witness the latest murder.

Part II – Why We Watch

A common belief for television shows, movies, and even literature is that the main character needs to be likeable. Even a traditional villain like Tony Soprano has some admirable, relatable or humorous trait that makes us as viewers or readers want to spend time with and invest in this character. Cynically speaking the main reason television shows want to have such characters is so to hook the viewers in for what will hopefully be a long run during which they can increase advertising or subscription revenue. Naratively speaking this investment is what makes the events of the story have impact on those who witness it. Going back to the most important death in Game of Thrones, if we don’t care about Ned Stark and see him as a heroic figure than his death at the end of the first season and the idea that the antagonists have won has no impact. If we feel about him as we do Daenerys’s feeble, sexist, disposable brother then elder Stark’s beheading wouldn’t be a landmark in the series. Ned would have been another of the now distant deaths of the first season. The need for investment is true for all forms of drama and why having a likable character is seen as so essential that the instances of a truly irredeemable lead are rare enough that the first which springs to mind dates back to the 1600’s with Shakespeare’s MacBeth.

Tony Soprano, captivating protagonist, horrible human being.
Image: HBO

There have of course been villains as lead or major characters throughout the history of television, and increasingly so in the last several years with criminals (the aforementioned Tony Soprano), thugs (Omar Little), murderers (Dexter Morgan) and drug dealers (Walter White) being the central figures of some of the most acclaimed shows in recent memory. But whether it be through circumstance, personality, or just being the lesser of two evils these characters are always given a redeemable trait which brings the audience closer to them. They may be evil, but we still care about them. We are invested.

This investment is what makes us as viewers tense up when even a traditional good guy like Hank Schrader threatens to catch our protagonist. In reality, or as close to reality as a show can get, the entire American southwest and probably much of northern Mexico would be better off if Heisenberg were caught but because we know of Walt’s battle with cancer and his support of Skylar and Walt Jr. we root for him to continue cranking out the blue meth that’s likely caused spikes of violence for the unseen people in the region. It’s this same investment which kept us watching when Walt descended entirely into villainy, when he famously became the danger. That’s the brilliance of a show like Breaking Bad, we spend so much time watching Walt struggle as a science teacher just trying to take care of his family that we’re still loathe to call him the villain even when’s a millionaire turning out product just to keep his ego up. Eventually Walt himself became so bad that the only bigger bad were neo-Nazis who murdered his brother-in-law.

Seeing Walter White’s entire transition is what makes ‘Breaking Bad’ great.
Image: AMC

Now imagine if Walt started as the villain. Or if he began the season as a teacher, became Scarface halfway through, and died in the thirteenth episode. Would his story have anywhere near the emotional resonance? Imagine if Bodie Broadus started The Wire as a corner boss for the Stanfield Crew instead of an intelligent kid driven to a low-level position in the Pit. Would there be any impact when Poot tells Detective McNulty that he, the officer whose respect for Bodie grew over four seasons, got him killed? No. We need to see these characters grow and change, we need to witness – not hear about – their individual problems and circumstances in order for their fate to have any meaning. That’s why, despite all the horrible things that characters like Walt and Bodie may do, or all the horrible things that happen to Thrones and Dead characters, we continue watching. Even the most surprising or mind-bending plot twists don’t matter if the characters aren’t engaging.

The Pit crew of ‘The Wire’: Poot, Bodie, D’Angelo, Wallace.
You may recognize one of these actors from ‘Walking Dead’ and another from ‘Black Panther.’
Image: HBO

These two shows are unique among the above mentioned examples in that they also establish worlds which we as viewers can explore. Yet exploration itself is meaningless if we don’t see it through the point of view of a character we are emotionally attached to. The prison and Woodbury of Walking Dead’s third season become important and ominous locations because of how Rick and the other survivors react to them. The interest we feel for the varying locations through Westeros, Essos, and the Wall are all directly related to our interest in the characters at that location. This is even moreso the case for Walking Dead as despite the newness of a location we already know there will be no further information about the world. Game of Thrones has the question of how much more magic or what new geological and architectural wonders may come, yet, once again, these are only wonders if the characters demonstrate that wonder to us. And if we don’t make the characters’ emotion our own, then that wonder is lost.

This is why we agonize over seeing Carl put a bullet in his mother or Catelyn Stark scream over her slain son. We invest. We care.

Until we don’t.

Part III – Why We Quit

For me that point came with a pair of fake outs.

Didn’t buy it for… well didn’t buy it the next morning.
Image: HBO

I’m not sure I can speak for anyone else but after four seasons of child-murder, rape, torture, cannibalism, flaying, dismemberment, and other generally nasty behaviors I’d come to the conclusion that there were a handful of Game of Thrones characters (Jon Snow, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister) whom I still cared about enough that if anything happened to them I would consider quitting. These were the characters that when I thought about it, really analyzed just how many other sympathetic characters had already suffered needlessly gruesome deaths, I genuinely didn’t want to see bad things happen to. Thus immediately after season five ended with Jon being repeatedly stabbed and apparently dying at the hands of his Night Watch brothers, I was done. Of course, all evidence indicated that he’d return, particularly that Melisandre had just arrived at the Wall, but return to what? Knowing the show, more suffering and eventually an even more prolonged and cruel death. Why would I want to see this? What’s more, why would I spend a year waiting between seasons only to view material that forced itself into even grander levels of disgust?

Didn’t buy it for… you know what? No longer care.
Image: AMC

This is exactly what happened with the fake out which caused me to quit The Walking Dead only a couple of months later. After six seasons there were a few characters on Dead who were as close to being immortal as possible, at least until the last season (hell, even Omar and Walt died in the last seasons of their shows). Rick is safe, although he’ll probably die in one of the last few episodes or if the ratings tank. Carl, for some unknown reason, is safe. Daryl is safe simply because his death would take the show with him. The only other characters remaining from the first season – Carol and Glenn – were never safe, but after six years, we wanted them to be. Then came the infamous bumpster fake-out where Walking Dead purposefully left Glenn’s fate unknown. Again, I was done. This time however, it didn’t matter whether the character was dead or not. If he was dead, well, that’s an anti-climatic end for one of the few decent people remaining in, apparently, the whole world. If he isn’t, well… suffering… cruel death. And that’s exactly what happened as after a year of waiting season six opened with Negan bashing Glenn’s skull in with a baseball bat in what I can only assume is grotesque detail. Of course, as this was known by comics readers, the Walking Dead decided to further victimize its loyal viewers by making Abraham’s murder the opening act to Glenn’s, thus diminishing the former’s fate and nullifying the fake-out of the latter. What was gained? Yet another instance that any character can die at any time. Yay. What was lost? Well, me, and while I’m still not sure I can speak for anyone else there must have been at least a few other viewers who decided to stop watching the weekly display of misery that the show had become.

The result of the “every man must die” mentality is that eventually each new character introduced becomes little more than an animated meat sack, not unlike the “walkers” the two shows have in common. Oberyn Martell of Game of Thrones season four is a prime example of this. The build-up online was that he was a new, major character. The build-up on screen was that Oberyn was one of the fiercest fighters in the world. Then, after just under twenty-nine minutes of screen time stretched across six hours of television, this admittedly cool character with a neat accent and some skill with a spear had his head crushed in his very first fight. Sure, we hear about this family, but we don’t see them until the next season. We learn about his plot for vengeance against the Lannisters, but he never acts on it. That’s not a major new character. That’s not one of the fiercest fighters in the world. That’s a (pun intended) crushing disappointment. Before we are even given a chance to become emotionally tied to Oberyn his brain is smeared over the palms of the Mountain, another character that after four seasons and three actors we have no emotional investment in. In the end the introduction of any new character – Brienne of Tarth, Daario Naharis, Missandei, Shireen Baratheon, the Sand Snakes, anyone at all – begins a whole new type of countdown. We may not know when that countdown will end, and we may not know the specifics, but we know it’ll be bloody and painful and likely, given that every new death has to top all those previous, even more grotesque and cruel. What’s the point of investing in a character when we know they’re made only to suffer and, once that suffering seems to finally subside, die?

Oberyn has less than twenty-nine minutes of total screen time in ‘Game of Thrones.’
Image: HBO

The pattern is even worse for Walking Dead as not only are the characters doomed, but every new location is as well. After the farm, the prison, Woodbury and the Terminal the pattern of survivors wander, survivors find place to stay, place to stay has some even more disgusting situation hidden within in, place is overrun by zombies (yeah, I know, walkers), survivors are split up, survivors wander has gotten to the point where… well… where is the point? Further, unlike Game of Thrones which at least promises that its plotlines will be resolved in the end, there is no such promise for Walking Dead. It just keeps going. Like a zombie… walker, whatever. Even after all its life has been drained and it’s barely anything but a mindless husk. It just keeps going, with only the promise of more and more brutal character deaths to sustain it. That’s not entertainment, unless we account for the fact that even snuff films have enough of an audience that such materials are still made, but it’s definitely not anything that I feel compelled to watch. If the show’s own premise makes it impossible to actually care about what happens, then why would I want to see what happens? This effect is only compounded by the fact that both Game of Thrones and Walking Dead seem to punish anyone who shows even the slightest hint of decency while a rapist like Jaime Lannister gets sympathetic treatment. I get it, life doesn’t reward altruism, we have plenty of instances in real life to prove this (and we are presently living in the darkest timeline where empty narcissism trumps merit), I don’t need have this beaten into my skull by television every week.

Worse yet, the success of these two shows set a horrible precedent for others. It’s been clear for decades that television shows copy each other. The successes of X-Files, Lost, Mad Men, Sopranos, and now Thrones and Dead have all launched imitators. These shows typically take the most obvious elements – aliens, mysteries, the 60’s, crime, fantasy, zomb- walkers – and plaster them on screen. Put together with a growing trend of callousness not only in television but also in movies, partially a result of Quentin Tarantino and other purveyors of casual violence, and producers increasingly view bold entertainment as that which massacres characters any time for no good reason. There is already an argument to be made that both Thrones and especially Dead place narrative second to character deaths, but do we really need shows that put killing its (temporary) cast ahead of story? How long until plot just becomes a reason to drop another body?

A rapist is never a hero. Never.
Image: HBO

Part IV – Why We Need to Care

Now, I’m sure there will be some who read this piece (at least I hope there are some who read this piece) and think this is nothing more than a crybaby whining that his favorite characters were killed. I don’t believe this is so. Many of my favorite characters in movies and television end up dead. In my own work as a writer I’ve had many characters die (I even once told an editor that I’d introduce more characters so there would be more to kill). When handled well the death of even a minor character introduced for one or two episodes and who may never speak can be devastating. Watch the “My Old Lady” episode of Scrubs or “Jurassic Bark” episode of Futurama. Part of the impact of these two instances is that they’re shows which didn’t typically feature death as a prevailing theme. Still, in the right hands, death, as means as it is to say, is an incredibly powerful storytelling tool. Just look at Ned Stark back when he was still visible within the pile of bodies.

Likely the saddest death in the history of television.
Image: 20th Century Fox

In the introduction to this piece I mentioned The Wire as the greatest show ever made, and this distinction carries to how it kills its characters. The Wire’s version of Baltimore, also called Bodymore, is dangerous and many characters both minor and major die. It can be fast and sudden and it can be slow and extended. It can be shocking and it can be predictable. The show can take several episodes to pull the trigger and yet, when the shot is finally fired, it’s still unexpected. Even the show’s most abrupt and jarring murder serves a narrative and allegorical theme. It was in fact such a shock that rather than a Facebook post spoiling it for me it was an AP headline. The reason for this isn’t just because comparatively fewer characters are killed in The Wire than in Game of Thrones or Walking Dead thus not allowing the same numbing the latter two create, but also because we are given time to care about these characters, even the crooked cops and the drug dealers, and are shown the consequences of their actions. Death in television needs to have weight. Without weight death just becomes another gimmick, like a live episode, a wedding, or a celebrity cameo. When I was still doing my yearly Game of Thrones marathon I’d more often remember episodes by who dies in it than by any story or character developments. When I was still watching Walking Dead an episode in which a character didn’t die was an episode where nothing happened.

By the time Game of Thrones ended its fourth season it had already killed 133 named characters, which makes it impossible to feel anything for all but maybe a handful, and even that handful (the Starks among them) are soon buried under the pile yet to come. Meanwhile Walking Dead was so blatant in discarding characters that through its first four seasons the running joke was that anytime a black male was introduced the current one (usually played by a Wire actor) would soon die. By the time I’d stopped watching it was nearly impossible for a single large skirmish to happen without a character being killed. Rather than being unpredictable, it became routine.

Still one of television’s greatest characters.
Image: HBO

A common argument for such high body count shows is that they’re portraying dangerous worlds where life is cheap and uncertain. The sad truth is that our own real world is dangerous, and our own lives are cheap and uncertain. The United States has thirty-nine murders due to gun violence alone every day. Some of these might have the build-up of a television death and some might be random shootings. This figure doesn’t account for gun suicides, non-gun related deaths, or deaths outside of the United States. Westeros and Walker Country are nothing compared to our world. Yet when hearing about someone dying, a named character so to speak, we as people are still affected by it. This is a very good thing. It means we have not yet become numb to what happens to others. It means that we aren’t as callous as these shows or Tarantino and Kingsmen want us to be. It means that we can still care. We are still human.

It’s our ability to feel for characters that makes Ned Stark and Glenn Rhee important to us and why we don’t want to see other characters – Jon and Daryl, Arya and Michonne, Tyrion and Maggie – suffer the same fate. It’s also why, in worlds where we are constantly reminded that every man must die and where each new location only introduces yet further depths of depravity, we seek to numb ourselves to the fate of new characters. It’s easier for us as people to keep those we know will eventually leave us at a distance than risk the pain which follows attachment. We numb ourselves for protection but we shouldn’t have to numb ourselves for entertainment.

Image: AMC

Personally, I’d rather spend my limited time and attention on shows where I am encouraged to invest in the characters rather than punished for caring. I don’t enjoy seeing the few Game of Thrones or Walking Dead characters still worth watching go through even more torment only to have them either turn evil and then be slain for their evil or remain good and be tortured for their morals. In this case, the only way to save the characters we’ve invested in is to stop watching.

Thus, I decided to quit.

And from where I stand, all the agony viewers go through every week, is hilarious.

The pencil isn’t the only thing that’s pointless.
Image: AMC, via Pinterest

It should be stated that I do plan to marathon the last three seasons of Game of Thrones once the series is over, thereby finishing the story, but without having to wait.

Walking Dead, however, I don’t care.

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.