Philippa Georgiou Michael Burnham

Photo via Dalia Naber/CBS Interactive (Used with permission)

TV shows are still learning the wrong lesson from ‘Game of Thrones’

After the first two episodes, can 'Star Trek: Discovery' achieve the emotional weight it needs?


Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 26, 2017   Updated on May 22, 2021, 4:19 pm CDT

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery.

On a Sunday night more than six years ago, a little show on HBO called Game of Thrones—years away from becoming the global powerhouse it is today—pulled the rug from under our feet and did what some believed to be the unthinkable.

Fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, of course, knew for some time that Ned Stark wouldn’t be able to escape the nearly impossible situation before him as he approached the Great Sept of Baelor like so many other characters had done in similarly sticky situations. He couldn’t return home to Winterfell in disgrace and live out his days on the Wall with his bastard son Jon Snow. Even falsely confessing to crimes, only the second lie the audience would see the honest Ned Stark tell, couldn’t save him from execution by his own Valyrian steel sword.

It stunned and gutted audiences as some believed that if a show could just kill off its main character anyone could die next. No one is safe. But Ned is not quickly forgotten as the repercussions of his death are still being felt nearly 60 episodes later. In the season 7 finale, one of the conspirators behind his death finally met his grisly end at the hand of Ned’s two daughters, while two other characters pieced together the secret Ned took to the grave.

As it turned out, Ned was never really the main character of Game of Thrones. Its two heroes remained safe and, aside from a stabbing and a resurrection, immune from permanent death for seven seasons. The lesson that other TV shows took from Game of Thrones—anyone can be killed on their TV shows too!—have failed because they have characters who can’t (or won’t be killed) or because their deaths never had the the kind of emotional fallout that Ned’s did back in 2011.

While certainly not the first show to cite Game of Thrones as inspiration, Star Trek: Discovery became one of many to acknowledge it. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly from June that was recirculated ahead of the series premiere, showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg revealed that major characters could be killed on their show.

Game of Thrones changed television,” Berg said at the time. “They almost made it difficult to fall in love with people because you didn’t know if they were going to be taken away from you. That show’s had an influence on all TV dramas that have come after it.”

TV has sure felt like it’s become much bloodier since the days of Ned Stark. We can point to the many, many deaths on Game of Thrones, which included an even more traumatizing event for fans two seasons later. The Walking Dead, one of the other hugely popular genre shows to debut in the last decade, has so much death in seven seasons that The Talking Dead does a weekly “In Memoriam” for everyone who died on the show (and not just the zombies). TV death—whether it’s on broadcast TV, cable, premium channels, or on streaming services—is everywhere.

Except there’s a big problem. It’s not actually true that anyone can be killed, even on Game of Thrones. Some characters are untouchable, while others have died for no reason other than to keep audiences guessing, resulting in complaints and controversy instead of dramatic tension.

The cast and crew of The Walking Dead claimed that “no one is safe on that show” and Robert Kirkman said that “we want you to feel like anyone can go at any time,” but it’s been a long time since the show actually succeeded in that way. Even at the peak of “Who will Negan kill?” theorizing that extended over a six-month hiatus, fans never really believed that Rick Grimes, Carl Grimes, or Daryl Dixon were ever in danger of meeting the business end of a barbed wire baseball bat.

With those three out of the running, we had characters we barely knew and beloved secondary characters. That only left few real possibilities of who could die, and the eventual victims—Abraham and Glenn—were on that short list. Instead of focusing on the emotional fallout, particularly for Maggie or Sasha, the season 7 premiere instead relished in psychologically torturing Rick Grimes (and in turn the audience) for most of the episode.

Although it had more to do with outside forces, Sasha’s death later in the season didn’t work on an emotional level either. According to Sonequa Martin-Green, she finished The Walking Dead before she was cast in Star Trek: Discovery, but her casting announcement in the latter made her death in the former feel inevitable.

Even on Game of Thrones, death hasn’t always been as powerful of a tool this season. The most recent season was often polarizing for fans as they complained about the warping of time and the low stakes it suddenly seemed to have in the face of a suicide mission. While Thoros of Myr’s death had ramifications for the resurrected Beric Dondarrion (and by proxy Jon Snow), some wanted to see other characters get caught in the crossfire.

Early on, Game of Thrones‘ huge ensemble cast and sprawling plot obscured our view of who was (and wasn’t) expendable—so everyone felt vulnerable. With so many characters now eliminated, it’s easier to guess. Game of Thrones has started to kill off characters—some who had been around for several seasons—who won’t have a role to play in the show’s end game, while others survive conditions that would kill almost anyone else for the sake of the plot. For a show that’s garnered such a reputation for its many, many deaths, it really says something when the two biggest character deaths this season were Littlefinger and a CGI dragon.

Shows can have untouchable characters alongside high stakes; it’s tricky but it can be done. (Just look at Better Call Saul.) But that’s not what happens most of the time. Some shows want to tout the idea that any character can be killed, except when a few characters inevitably can’t die, it becomes awkwardly obvious to the audience. Many fans didn’t believe Jon Snow would stay dead after he was killed in a mutiny, but by the time he ventured north to capture a wight, many eyerolled his super-human ability to survive hypothermia after plunging into a frozen lake. Glenn’s earlier death fake-out irritated fans who felt that he had become untouchable—something that Rick, Carl, and Daryl certainly have become. And often on both shows, the deaths—the Red Wedding being an exception—haven’t had anywhere near the impact that Ned Stark’s did for the people who knew him.

Harberts made a point to say that death wouldn’t be “treated gratuitously” on Discovery when it does occur. And to be sure, we’ve only seen two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery so far so it’s hard to tell if Discovery will fall into the same traps as other genre shows. But we’ve already lost two characters whose deaths will surely have huge ramifications on the rest of the season: Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) and the Klingon leader T’Kuvma (Chris Obi).

What’s vital now is how well Georgiou and T’Kuvma are posthumously realized, and whether they’ll continue to significantly impact the story—or if they’ll just remain shadows in the minds of the survivors.

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*First Published: Sep 26, 2017, 6:00 am CDT