Warning: Massive Game of Thrones spoilers here. Don’t read unless you’re all caught up! So my first premise here is that I haven’t read the books. I’ve got to get that out of the way. I’m a novelist myself. I’m a big reader, but fantasy isn’t really my genre, and I don’t have a lot of time to tackle Martin’s Westeros tomes. But I’m also a huge television fan, and from everything I’ve heard, I’m very happy to be on the show-train as my first experience. Sometimes film does it better, sometimes just differently.
(Edit: I also want to clarify that many folks who have responded to my opinion present the argument that the big problem here that I worry over is all good because it’s “the way it was in the books!” And so I’m referring to D&D and Martin as “Martin and Co.” because, though it’s “canon”, the story can still go down a problematic route, no matter whether it’s a show decision or a book decision. I’m not taking issue with the show. I’m taking issue with the story)
Anyway though, I love the narrative. I love the way it’s honed very directly. It’s good tight storytelling. But that’s what I want to talk about today: storytelling. A week ago, I watched Jon Snow die before the credits rolled on the season five finale of Game of Thrones. GoT is a show fraught with controversy and the occasional misstep, but I love it. I think it’s rich and meaningful and smart. But the death of Jon Snow gave me some serious pause. If I were to look deeper, I’d probably realize I went through all the grief stages in about a week or something.
My first reaction was denial. Nope, I thought, he’s coming back. Right? He has to. He can’t be dead. I mean, nope. Just no. Then I read an interview with Kit Harrington that filled me with dread. Both Kit and the creators insist Snow is dead. Dead is dead.
In the week that has followed, a million posts have come to light calling for the resurrection of Jon Snow and the various clues that point toward it. From Lady Melissandre to the White Walkers to.. well, this whole article, really. But I want to approach this from a different angle.
Freaking out on Twitter, I announced that this was the first Game of Thrones death that (if it stands and there is no resurrection) makes me wonder if Thrones has finally lost the plot in favor of meaningless shocks. All the deaths before this, even the most shocking ones, were trimming the fat and honing the story. When you hone the story, you’re focusing in on the heart of the work: what’s moving toward the big end-game. It wasn’t Ned. It wasn’t Robb. It wasn’t Robert or Joffrey or Tywin. When I posted this, I was met with agreement, but also some jaded Thrones viewers who were now used to losing anyone and everyone on the show (“All GoT is about is Martin just killing off our favorites”), and some jaded Thrones readers who’d been chewing on this information for a year now (“…maybe Jon wasn’t as important as we thought”).
They defended it that, you know, one of the big Themes of GoT has been that people die. It’s a sort of a reality-based, dark world, where the hero doesn’t ride in on a white horse and save the day. There are few heroes, and many, many deaths. Just like real life, people don’t always reach their dreams, they don’t always fulfill the expectations people have for their lives. They make mistakes, and mistakes big enough to lead to coups.
And that’s a valid point. The deconstructionist in me wants to love it. The fantasy genre is filled with hero-stories about saving the day. It’s a defining characteristic of the genre, even. While there’s always exceptions to the rule, how cool that Martin and co. are subverting this tradition in such a shocking, public, and moving way? Build someone up, strip them down, remind them that life is a bitch.
Good theme. A cool way of illustrating it.. but… it still doesn’t sit right with me.
And that’s when I started to look at the value of art and storytelling. Here, we have this story, the Song of Ice and Fire. Fan theories have abounded, but in the same way as a writer, I feel around in the dark until I feel that one plot point that makes me say “holy shit, that’s it. That feels right. That looks right. That fits right. That’s what’s supposed to happen!” The R+L=J theory had that effect on me. It fit the story too perfectly. It gave weight and a central nature to the story. As half Stark (Winter) and half Targaryen (Fire), Jon Snow was literally the embodiment of the Song of Ice and Fire. The series is about winter meeting dragons, coming together in an epic clash amidst which people are both desperately trying to survive or take the Throne (or take their revenge, I suppose). So we’ve got these light and dark themes constantly shifting, constantly graying, amidst a very polarized backdrop. Maybe I’m biased because I love watching the themes of a story interplay and shift, but this theme, so intricately connected to the plot (I mean, it’s in the name), this is the story of Ice and Fire. It’s not the story of real world shocks. And Jon Snow, as the literal embodiment of this theme, I’d decided, was the main character. It’s a song about him as much as it’s a song about Whites and Dragons. It’s an intermixing of those themes in the characters and their decisions, which is crucial to this story because it’s so character driven at its heart.
And so we have two directions stemming from the end of season/book five. Jon Snow is dead, or Jon Snow will come back. If he’s dead… great? I guess that’s the priority theme. Pulling the rug out from under people. But there’s something about storytelling that I balk at here. And that’s that I live in the real world. I know people die when it’s least expected/preferred. I know nobody really grows up to be the hero. I know that real life is flat and bland and only as romantic as we restructure our perspective on it. And yeah, there’s Literature that’s all about these themes. It’s all about taking whatever your angle is (depressing or otherwise) on the Real World and putting that into a painful artistic fiction. And I know that that’s sort of the defining characteristic of the Literature genre so upheld by academics over “genre” fiction. But that’s not really what I think Thrones is about. This show has always been about the conclusion. Whether happy or sad or triumphant or a letdown, it’s telling one complete story that has a beginning, middle, and (hopefully epic) end.
The Real World doesn’t have an End — capital E — Where we all look around at eachother and nod with satisfaction and go sit in a room for the rest of eternity because We’ve Done It. We’ve ended. That’s death, and as we’ve already established, death in the real world is random and painful and rarely tied up with a bow.
And so I worry that if the Real World is Martin and co.’s theme here, the ending that’s been such a direction for this entire series won’t really be an ending. In fact, if the Real World really is a theme, well, let’s Simpsons and Soap Opera this shit up, let’s let Thrones run for thirty seasons, because life will always go on past each end.
But I take a step back. I have to question myself. I’ve trusted Martin and co. this far, why not trust them some more? Frankly: I do. I’m gonna still hit season six with excitement and curiosity, but a wariness now.
Another step back: it’s Martin’s story. He’s not under any obligation to write it how I want — how I think it should go. The same way he’s not my bitch, I’m also not entitled to a Great Story That I Like. I’m only entitled to the story that he is writing.
But, as a reader, I am entitled to an opinion about whether or not it’s any good. That’s where the buck stops with writers, is that readers get the final say. As a writer myself, I’ve accepted that. I might think my first novel is the best thing I’ll ever write, and it may never get more than the 15 amazon reviews it’s got. I accept that. That’s what sharing your art is. So, I’ve got to say, if Jon Snow is dead (like, dead dead), I’m not sure that was the best move. Maybe it works out. Maybe it’s brilliant and satisfying…
But, in the wake of all the resurrection brainstorms from people, we’ve got two options really: resurrection by White Walkers, or resurrection by Lady Melissandre. Which is to say, resurrection by fire or ice. And holy shit, how brilliant! Suddenly I’ve come around to this death plot point because THEMES! Kill the boy, let the man be born! Jon is already Ice and Fire, but holy shit, if he’s resurrected by one of the two (or both?), he’s even further the LITERAL manifestation of these themes. How does that carry out? Is he some leader of the Whites? Is he corrupted by them or the Lord of Light? (shoot, even corruption is better than death. Though I’d miss good-hearted Jon Snow, this is a show about grays between good and evil, and it’s Jon’s story… just let him have a story). All of these questions, as they directly pertain to fire and/or ice are a seriously richly thematic sandbox to work with. And it’s a sandbox that is furthering the plot in a possibly BIG way toward the final showdown between the ice and fire that we’re all so excited about in season 7! (or eight I guess, but please no more than that, HBO!) And having a character embody those themes rather than just having characters caught up in those themes… well that’s good writing.
But the alternative? The real world sucks. Just go and enjoy Dani and Tyrion while you’ve got a chance. Maybe Arya and Bran will do something cool. Maybe they won’t. The world’s a crummy place, after all.
That’s our big overarching narrative theme? That’s depressing (and this coming from a guy who LOVES depressing — seriously, The Road, amazing piece of literature).
But I want a good meaty story. Unhappy ending? Sure. Kill Dany and Jon and Tyrion as they reach the throne. Put a White Walker on it. Or zombie Joffrey. I don’t care. Just get our people where they need to go, or better yet, crop your story to the right people’s stories. Tell those stories. Don’t blue ball us at the expense of great theme. Play with those themes in big, character-driven ways, as you have to this point. Bring it together and then end it how you like. But… I mean, actually bring it together.
Jon killed at the end of season five as the Walkers descend, by his own grouchy Night’s Watch, and poof. That’s that? Our Theme Personified made a misstep and now he’s done? Somebody else takes up the mantle of White Walker Herald and things just go on? Just, no…
We need our big crazy titular themes. We need our heroic face of Winter.
Our Winter needs Snow.
Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, the short story collection Into a Sky Below, Forever, and the forthcoming Amarricages. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy, went on to work with the GHI team, and now lectures across America and leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. He’s also a portrait photographer and conceputal artist based in Northern Colorado. Follow him on Twitter: @KarlPfeiffer