After 7 hours on 2 trains, 2 hours waiting in a transfer station and 2 hours driving, my wife and I got home around 1am after a two-week vacation. The first thing we did when we woke up 6 hours later was wipe the bleariness from our eyes. The second thing we did was watch the season finale of Game of Thrones. Somehow we’d managed to remain unspoiled.
This article isn’t exactly about Game of Thrones, and it definitely won’t spoil it, because it’s about a larger concept – an insidious, inevitable spoiler that comes with the territory of being a fan of just about any show with life-or-death stakes.
Because casting notices and contracts have become normalized as part of our pop culture awareness diet, dying and staying dead are nearly impossible to pull off as a surprise.
I used to think that it was the price I had to pay for writing about movies and television – that my professional need to be ahead of the curve and have the right information was always going to slightly dent the side of my personality that got into this purely as a fan. That may have been true a few years ago, but now, even in an environment where most responsible news/opinion outlets are striving to keep spoilers out of headlines, our algorithm-led stream of entermation (“entertainment information” (what? “infotainment” was already taken)) ensures that we’ll know minutes after Actor McActor renews his contract.
Thus, we’ll know before a season even starts shooting whether Actor McActor will be back (read: alive). As someone who gets paid to write about movies and TV, it’s a trade I understand and accept, but I can’t imagine how this kind of thing casually floating in the ether affects people who simply want to enjoy a story. What used to be fodder solely for trades and business magazines is now broadcast to a general audience.
In the case of the character who maybe, probably, most definitely, but not definitively died on the last episode of Game of Thrones, there’s an especially rich comicality because the character’s death/not death/undeath has been dissected and debated for four years since it happened in George R.R. Martin’s last Song of Ice and Fire book. The way the production shot the moment didn’t help solidify an answer (why would they?), and Game of Thrones takes place in a universe where death isn’t permanent anyway, so the show has set themselves up for a two-fold shock: the first being the murder of yet another character we didn’t want to see killed; the second being the revelation of how lasting that death will be. For those in the know, the actor in question has already repeatedly claimed that he won’t be coming back to the show next season.
The reason he even had to comment on it is that fans are obsessives, especially about shows with larger universes, characters we love and big questions. Asking if he was “dead dead” was the first item on every entertainment journalist’s notepad.
It’s also possible that he had to lie because 1) people are capable of not telling the truth and 2) revealing that he was, in fact, signed on for the next season would instantly discredit the emotional value of the scene where we watched him die. It’s one thing to mess with your audience (GoT does it constantly), but telling them they felt something for no reason is another thing altogether. Like being squirted in the face with seltzer water after being stabbed through the lung. Like if Larry Hagman had told viewers, “Don’t worry. It’s not real,” the day after J.R. got shot.
The GoT actor stating that he won’t be back offers a clear answer, but it’s a clear answer that lines up with the show’s proven ethos of killing all sorts of characters forever. It also reinforces that the scene was meaningful and not simply another cheap, emotive shortcut.
This would be a television-only spoiler problem, but it’s something Marvel has run into before with its absurdly publicized contracts combined with its absurdly overused story method of fake-deathing major characters. Nick Fury can’t die, we think; he just signed up for 5 more movies. It’s something that cinematic universes and franchise fans will have to deal with for the foreseeable future, too.
A few television shows have pulled off surprise deaths in recent years – The Good Wife is a standout – but as for Game of Thrones, it feels strange that we’re going to continue to question and debate and wring out every tiny clue from fuzzy screenshots only to be given the right answer when a contract gets signed, and not, as it should be, when we see it for ourselves on screen.