did it again: Killing off a beloved character in a horrible act of violence. This time it was the adorable Shireen Baratheon at the hands of her father Stannis, who sacrificed her to the god R’hllor in exchange for a victory in the upcoming battle of Winterfell. And even though the show does this to us over and over again—the death of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding, the death of Oberyn Martell—we in the audience are continually shocked every time a beloved character suddenly dies. Social media explodes in disbelief, even outrage, at the way the show signaled that something really bad was going to happen and then went ahead and allowed that bad thing to happen. We expect a daring rescue at the last minute.
Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the
kills people off for shock value, as Margaret Lyons did at
this week. “The show loves wondering
…,” she wrote, wondering why the show can’t “balance brutality with hope.” Or, if you’re feeling more generous, you could argue that
’s brutality is a necessary answer to the Pollyannaish tendencies in the rest of the fantasy genre. This is how George R.R. Martin himself sees it, explaining that
is “reacting to a lot of fantasy fiction,” which he calls “Disneyland Middle Ages.”
is in part a rebuttal to traditional fantasy fiction, I’d argue that it’s become clear—after five books in
and five seasons of the TV series—that Martin and showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are actually playing with a format that isn’t so revolutionary at all: They’re reviving and updating the classical tragedy as a narrative form.
In a traditional tragedy, there should be a growing sense of dread as events converge. The hero is generally invested with some specific “tragic flaw” that leads to his downfall. He should make some terrible decision that the audience can see, in retrospect, was the point of no return that leads to ruin.
is the story of Shireen and Stannis. Shireen’s murder has raised complaints from critics who protest that it was out-of-character for Stannis. But the plot might as well be based on the ancient Greek tragedy “Iphigenia in Aulis,” by Euripides. Every beat of the Greek myth is the same as Stannis’s story: The troops are stuck and starving and the general, Agamemnon, must sacrifice his own daughter to turn the fates to their favor. The mother begging for mercy, the disapproving second-in-command who can do nothing to stop it, the daughter who says she will do whatever it takes to help—it’s all a clear echo.
In fact, many of the “shocking” deaths on the show, if you look back at the events that precipitated them, fit the model of classical tragedy. The story of Robb Stark and the Red Wedding is reminiscent of
: A handsome, charismatic royal sets out to avenge his father’s death, but because of poor decisions made for deeply sympathetic reasons, he meets a gory end. In the case of Hamlet, his sense of honor causes him to delay killing the king, seeking to collect more evidence of guilt before acting. In Robb’s case, a marriage made out of love instead of duty is what catalyzes the final, lethal chain of events. Even the staging of the Red Wedding feels a bit like the finale of
: A great man is brought into a culture that feels foreign to him, so that he can take a leadership role within it. A manipulative villain, with Littlefinger taking the place of Iago, ingratiates himself to our hero, pretending to be his friend while actually undermining him. The villain is jealous of the hero’s nobility, and decides to twist the hero’s fundamental decency—and the naiveté that comes with being trusting—into a weapon with which to destroy him.
as well. If Oberyn had acted with haste instead of trying to squeeze a confession out of Gregor Clegane, he could have saved the day. It’s exactly what drives the arc of classic tragedy—the sense that there was some decision the hero could have made to avert disaster, but for reasons of fate or personality, he was incapable of doing the very thing he needed to do to save himself.
There’s not a lot of truly tragic storytelling in modern TV and movies. We are trained to expect, especially when it comes to action-packed fantasy and sci-fi stories, that just when things look bleakest for our heroes, they will perform some amazing feat and save the day at the last possible minute. That is the plot of
, every DC and Marvel superhero movie, and nearly every B-list thriller on the market. As the Dothraki might say,
gives us plenty of fist pump moments: Bronn saving Tyrion in a trial by combat, Stannis saving The Wall from the wildling army, the deus ex Tywin that prevented the sack of Blackwater in season two, Daenerys flying away on the back of Drogon. But many of
best moments are its bleakest—the ones that show us how noble-minded people with the best intentions can still defeat themselves. And even as the series seems to blow up narrative expectations, it’s still playing by its own set of conventions and rules. They’re just not the rules we’re used to.
“No Way to Escape” A fatal fire at a Chinese nursing home reveals how inadequate care for the elderly really is. Can anything be done? Zhao Han
Rubio Wants to Cut Safety Nets, but He Wouldn’t Have Survived His Own Bad Finances Without a Billionaire’s Help
How a Few Days in 1947 Turned India and Pakistan Into Sworn Enemies
One Thing About the NSA That Should Still Worry Us
Is Hillary Clinton Dooming Real Election Reform?
Time for a New Suitcase: Airlines Want to Make Your Carry-On Bag Even Smaller Alison Griswold
Do the Poor Make More Rational Financial Decisions Than the Wealthy?
What to Do When Ransomware Takes Your Computer Hostage
Finally, a Major Hotel Chain Will Let You Watch Netflix on Its TVs
Here’s How Much Spotify Pays the World’s Biggest Music Stars
I Tried the “Warby Parker of Mattresses.” It’s Spongy but Worth It.
A Year After Insulting Women, Lululemon Is Selling Tons of Workout Gear to Men
The Government Created a Monster in Corinthian Colleges. Now We’re Paying for Its Damage.
Michigan Legislature Passes Bills Allowing Adoption Agencies to Turn Away Gay Couples Mark Joseph Stern
Franklin Graham Boycotts Gay-Friendly Bank, Moves to Bank That Hosted Gay Pride Fundraiser
The World’s Largest Book Will Break Your Back
What Should You Do When You Unintentionally Misgender a Trans Person? (Video.)
Could the Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Be Considered Terrorism?
Here Is the Ad That Caused Franklin Graham to Call for a Boycott of All Gay-Friendly Businesses
Domestic Violence Is As Serious a Problem on Campus As Sexual Assault Amanda Marcotte
How Did Dying Your Hair Gray Become the Height of Fashion?
If Someone Has to Change Names Upon Marriage, Why Not the Husband?
Caitlyn Jenner Isn’t Fodder for Your Academic Feminist Squabble
The “Most Influential Books We’ve Read” Bonus Segment David, John, and Emily discuss their favorite life-changing books. Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz
How John Dickerson Turns a Hotel Room Into an Office
Which Republican Presidential Candidate Is the Most Macho?
Dahlia Lithwick Previews the Supreme Court Decisions Headed Our Way Soon: A Podcast Transcript
How Iggy Azalea Can Save Her Career Adam Sternbergh
Scary Movie Fans Rejoice! AMC Plans to Launch a Horror-Only Streaming Service.
Ethan Hawke and Emma Watson Battle Satan (Maybe) in the Trailer for
Bryce Dallas Howard Sings a Musical PSA: “I Am Not Jessica Chastain”
An Algorithm Is Picking Out the Most Inventive Paintings of All Time Lily Hay Newman
The Most Boneheaded, Racist, and Sexist Comments From Nobel Laureates
Netizen Report: U.K. Contemplates “Snoopers Charter”
Elon Musk Is Already Driving His Tesla on Autopilot. Would You?
When All It Takes to Be Booted From a Tech Conference Is Being a “Distraction,” We Have a Problem
The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Trolls Who Threatened Silk Road Judge
Why Don’t We Kill Every Last Mosquito on Earth?
Time-Lapse Video from a Soyuz Capsule Docking with the Space Station
Who Did It Better? Matthew Dellavedova. We are all witnesses. A.J. McCarthy
Team Australia Blogger Says USA Stinks after Aussies Lose 3–1 to Stinky USA
Hope Solo Leads U.S. to Impressive World Cup Win
World Cup Jerkwatch: Hope Solo Is an Abrasive, Ayn Rand–Loving Reality Star Wannabe
Who Needs Kyrie Irving? Cavs Win Game 2 OT Thriller.
The Many Faces of Living With Debt in America
Stop Pouring Your Chickpea Liquid Down the Drain. It’s a Magical Ingredient.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback Threatens to Defund Judiciary if It Rules Against Him
Should Apologize for the Awful Op-Ed It Just Ran on Student Loans
Finding Female Spirituality With Poland’s Witches, Druids, and Whisperers