Death Wish: When did death become the journey?

The end of April saw two of the biggest pop-culture entertainment events of the decade in one weekend, and something strange has become apparent through the other side of them: we have become obsessed with death.

SPOILERS follow for Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame, Breaking Bad & The Sopranos.

In the wake of arguably the biggest episode in Game of Thrones’ history, The Long Night, which saw the long-awaited, titanic battle between the living and the dead, a great deal of complaints flew around in the ether that we hadn’t seen enough major character meet the Lord of Light (or insert substitute maker). Why didn’t Jaime Lannister go down fighting? How come Sansa Stark wasn’t mauled alive in the crypts? Surely Sam Tarly would never have survived in the savage, undead melee? Fans and commentators seemed fixated on the outcome of the battle for Winterfell being significant loss, as opposed to victory or defeat for the collected good guys.

Equally, in the run up to Avengers: Endgame, Marvel’s culmination to the first decade of their cinematic universe, all bets were on one of two deaths: Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark or Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers. Both played by actors who publically stated they were done, both playing characters who have reached the logical end of their ten-year story arcs. In a narrative choice earned and logical, it’s Tony who takes the bullet (alright, gauntlet) and shuffles off to superhero immortality, but what was the state of conversation in the wake of this? That everyone saw this coming. Tony’s death was too predictable. For some, it even clouded the entire film. Endgame, to certain audience members, was about who died, who wouldn’t make it out into the next phase.

When did this become what long-form storytelling was about? Why is the death of characters we are so attached to the destination, the only destination, that matters?

For some fans of Game of Thrones, The Long Night felt like a missed opportunity. Todd Van Der Werff (quite convincingly) argues that the writers have gone soft in the show’s dotage, and that audience sympathy and care for the characters in the final seasons has overtaken George R R. Martin’s far more nihilistic disregard for his heroes. Thrones was, admittedly, a series built on the novelty and shock of character deaths; Sean Bean’s dispatch in The Pointy End, the penultimate episode of Season 1, remains to this day the most potent example, given Ned Stark was considered the protagonist (before people realised it was the most ensemble series in TV history). The so-called ‘Red Wedding’ of Season 3’s The Rains of Castamere again shockingly slaughtered numerous major Stark characters around since the beginning, while Season 4’s The Lion and the Rose and The Mountain and the Viper continued the trend that would culminate in Season 5 finale Mother’s Mercy with the apparent murder of Jon Snow, one of the two characters in Thrones who viewers had become most attached to.

It was interesting how people reacted to these deaths at the time. Though readers of Martin’s work already knew they were coming, many fans simply of Thrones the TV show were left stunned. The Red Wedding was all over social media. Joffrey’s awful demise had people cheering in the aisles, as later did Ramsey Bolton’s in Season 6’s The Winds of Winter, given they were perhaps the most pantomime hated villains in the show’s bleak, bloody history. Yet it was Jon’s ‘murder’ that captivated the most.

Though in the books we don’t yet know if Jon will be resurrected (given Martin ended his last book A Dance of Dragons) with his stabbing, it was a presumed given in Thrones, yet everyone involved played coy. Actor Kit Harington denied that Jon would be back in interviews, and media outlets still questioned whether he had left the show even with leaked photos showing him filming what would be Season 6’s epic Battle of the Bastards. Though Season 6 had an incredible amount of plot balls in play, there was only one thing on the mind of fans – was Jon Snow dead? And if not, how and why was he being resurrected? (The how turns out to be Melisandre’s magic and the why, well… that may never be *entirely* clear).

In some sense this fixation with the Grim Reaper fits the world of Game of Thrones. Martin’s saga is a world without conventional happy endings, in which characters must face the bleakness of loss before (in the TV show at least) the justice of reconstitution. Arya Stark—now of course the slayer of the Night King, the undead vanguard of the army of the deceased—has an entire character arc revolving around Death. She witnesses the slaughter of much of her family, becomes an assassin, trains with the shadowy Faceless Men who worship a literal God of Death, and ultimately fulfills an ancient prophecy in which she destroys the physical incarnation of Death at the end of the world. That the Night King would die—handily taking his entire army with him—was never in question: everyone simply always wondered who would wield the final blow, and for a long time assumed it would be Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen. There had been expectation surrounding death here but this differs from our obsession with the demise of our protagonists.

We haven’t always been this driven by the end of a journey resting on the ultimate fate of whether characters will live or die. David Chase’s choice to end The Sopranos with an open question as to whether Tony lives or dies (thanks to his infamous cut to black) may have given The Sopranos a level of ambiguous immortality but viewers didn’t watch for six seasons to see whether Tony Soprano would live or die. The same is true of Walter White on Breaking Bad, despite the very fact he begins the show dying of cancer, which serves as his trigger down the long road to becoming a meth drug dealing kingpin; Walt’s journey was so addictive because viewers wanted to see if he would become an out and out super villain, be caught by those around him in his secret life, and ultimately get away with it – whether he lived or died was ultimately incidental, and it doesn’t entirely serve as the point of series finale Felina either. Walt may probably die but the payoff lies in him admitting, as he does to his wife Skyler, that everything he did, he did because he *enjoyed it*. That’s the point of the journey.

Has the point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first era been whether Tony or Cap lived or died in the final battle with Thanos? Is Game of Thrones *really* about whether Jon Snow lives or dies in saving the world? My argument would be no for both of these current, era-ending examples.

While the MCU has constructed a long and winding road to the confrontation with Thanos, and last year’s Infinity War brought the death of characters front and centre in the cliffhanging climax, the saga ultimately has always been about the construction of the Avengers on some level as a dysfunctional family in which Tony Stark finds a point of redemption for his innovations causing almost as much harm as good (as epitomised in Age of Ultron) and Steve Rogers finding his way back to the woman he loves after saving the life of his best friend.

If Endgame failed on an emotional level, it was in not paying off the reunion of friendship between Tony and Steve, who over the course of several films had steadily seen their core union—the heart of the Avengers—decay thanks to personal revelations and differing ideologies. Endgame fails in this regard, as focused as it is on particularly Tony’s heroic sacrifice, but though Tony may die, though Black Widow may die (in a shock twist that utterly falls down on an emotional level), Endgame and the end of this saga is not about who dies. It’s about what they created. It’s about that core bond. It’s what forged the myriad, interconnected MCU on screen, and its what we will see develop and reconstitute as Marvel enters an entire new ongoing narrative.

Game of Thrones, equally, has always been about memory and the power of family, particularly the Starks of the north. Family has faced adversity (see the Starks), or has been twisted into a monstrous form (see the Lannisters), over the course of this show, but as Season 8 displays, nothing is ever entirely forgotten. Memory is central to revelation, which in itself is central to what Westeros will look like after the game is won. Memory, as encapsulated by Bran Stark, was the target of the Night King – he wanted to exterminate the power of the past, of history, of truth. It was memory, that truth, which made Jon Snow aware of his true parentage, which in itself could be the reason he was revived from the dead. Memory, history, truth – these are all key to the future of the Iron Throne and if, as many suspect, it will not exist by the end of the story.

By remembering the past, and learning from its mistakes, the people of Westeros will learn to forge a new world without the destructive hegemony of ultimate rule. The point of Game of Thrones is not who will live to sit on the Iron Throne – it will be the dissolution of the structures which facilitate an Iron Throne in the first place. The wheel of time, of history, will be—as Daenerys promised—broken.

We will know if this prediction is true in two short weeks but the point remains that as an audience, we have prioritised the literal end of character’s lives in our fiction rather than embrace what their journeys signify. Sagas such as the MCU, or GoT, are bigger than these characters living or dying. What should we say to this obsession with Death?

Not today.

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