The Long Game
Note: Spoilers follow for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.
Last week, while writing about the season finale of Hannibal, I laid out a pet theory about television shows that have a tendency to kill off their lead characters:
When it comes to predicting who lives and who dies, I’d like to think that [Bryan] Fuller will follow Lecter’s own rule: “The world is more interesting with you in it.” I feel the same way about Game of Thrones, which isn’t shy about killing off its leads, but only if the dramatic weight gained by one bloody incident offsets the loss from the character’s absence. If you’re fun to watch, you’re more likely to make it.
In other words, when someone dies, there’s always a tradeoff involved, and a smart show will only eliminate a protagonist if the short-term benefit outweighs the long-term cost of no longer having that character around. This rule doesn’t really work for a show like The Vampire Diaries, which finds myriad ways of resurrecting its key players, but until recently, it did a decent job of explaining events on Game of Thrones. The characters who died tended to be either figureheads who were more interesting in what they represented than in their actions within the story; initially compelling players who had been increasingly sidelined; or ostensible leads who weren’t all that engaging in the first place. And I felt confident that if a character—or actor—was actively enriching the show by his or her presence, the series wouldn’t lightly throw it away.
Well, so much for that theory. (In financial terms, the model worked fine when tested against past data, but fell apart outside my historical sample.) If last night’s episode was especially shocking, even for a show that seems designed to regularly break its viewers’ hearts, it’s partially because of the ways in which the series has diverged unexpectedly from the books. To hear readers tell it, Oberyn doesn’t seem to have been a particularly memorable character on the page, but Pedro Pascal’s performance has been one of the small delights of an often meandering season, and his departure feels like a real loss in a way that previous fatalities have not. Another series, after seeing what it had on the screen, might have revised the storyline accordingly—it wouldn’t be the first time that a character was granted a stay of execution because of the charisma a performer brought to the part—but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been cruelly faithful to Martin’s overall vision. There really wasn’t any way to keep Oberyn around, and it’s in the collision between what the show was slowly discovering on its own and the brutal necessities of its source material that makes the outcome so painful.
I’m not really complaining here: it’s that very tension between the unpredictable nature of television and the demands of the text that makes this show special. Still, Oberyn’s death bothered me beyond any reasonable measure, and I don’t think it’s entirely because I’d grown so attached to the character—or because his demise was so graphic. (You know when a show has set a new standard for violence when I start to long nostalgically for Hannibal‘s more aestheticized form of bloodshed.) Game of Thrones is a good show that I’m glad to have the chance to watch, but there’s also a sense in which it uses its virtuoso moments of gore and reversal to cover up the lack of momentum elsewhere. A lot of the fourth season has felt like it was stalling for time: events at Castle Black and across the Narrow Sea have been stuck in a holding pattern, with much talk and declamation leaving the characters more or less exactly where they were before, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that they’re playing for time. For all her power, Daenerys can’t go anywhere or do much of anything yet because we still have four more books of material to cover, and the result has turned one of my favorite characters from the early days of the series into something dangerously resembling a bore.
In retrospect, I think it may have been a mistake to divide the third novel across two seasons: it buys Martin more time to finish the books, but it leads to a lot of thumbs twiddling between the squishing of heads. To its credit, Game of Thrones has always nailed the big moments, and I’m eagerly looking forward to next week’s episode, which, if the pattern from previous seasons is any indication, should be a real barnburner. Over the long term, though, the show needs to find a more sustainable rhythm if episodes like “The Mountain and the Viper” are going to play like the dramatic culminations they are, rather than another instance of Martin and company jerking the audience around. This may require even more radical departures from the structure the books have imposed, and even a willingness to drop certain plot threads altogether—while building up the rest—until the time comes to integrate them again into the main story. This isn’t a radical notion; serialized television drops and picks up characters all the time, and the space it gains allows the show to develop its heart more fully. Game of Thrones spends an inordinate amount of time, even now, reminding us that certain characters exist, when that space might have been better spent showing characters like Oberyn simply existing, if only until they depart from the stage for good.