Warning: This blog post contains BIG spoilers for both Star Trek: Into Darkness and Game of Thrones Season 3 Episode 9: The Rains of Castamere. Also contains spoilers for season one of Game of Thrones and the second and third films in the original Star Trek film series (albeit spoilers for movies that have been around for decades, but still).
The reaction to Episode 9 of Game of Thrones has been all over the Internet lately, and for good reason. As those of us who read the books have been anticipating for some time, the episode featured the infamous “Red Wedding,” scene where Robb and Catelyn Stark, two of the show’s most beloved characters, are unexpectedly executed. The scene in both the show and the books is shocking, and the creators of the TV show added additional horror to the scene by also brutally murdering Robb’s pregnant wife (who survives in the book). Fan reactions have ranged from witty repartee to invective filled rants against HBO, George R.R. Martin (the books’ author), and show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Several fans’ tweets and comments demonstrated a frightening loss of perspective (one particular fan called the episode “Worse than 9/11”), one that has sparked both parody (particularly by readers of Martin’s books who have long waited for their friends to catch up with them) and an honest conversation about the function of death in fantasy in general and particularly in Thrones.
Popular George R.R. Martin meme
In a behind the scenes look at the episode, Benioff and Weiss each spoke articulately about how the show differs from not only other fantasy but from other genres including superhero movies. I’m paraphrasing Benioff a bit here (watch the full video below), but the insight struck me both as a fan of the show and as a human being who has experienced personal loss and the death of loved ones. “This is the rare fantasy that shows just like in real life, that the best of us sometimes don’t make to the end, don’t make it to old age…the sense that the most beloved characters might not make it to the next episode.” Both writers go on to remind fans that this is the show that killed Ned Stark, the beloved central character, in the show’s first season. In contrast to movies like The Avengers where you know none of the leads will die because the sequel is already on the books for 2015 (with the exception of Agent Coulson who gets his own resurrection in the upcoming television show Agents of S.H.E.I.LD.), Thrones presents a fantasy that reads a little closer to reality. A world where bad things happen to good people, where people die randomly and in unexpected ways, where there is no dichotomy of light and dark or good and evil but simply flawed humans making decisions and facing the consequences.
Superheroes aside, the summer entertainment that for me provided the starkest (no pun intended) contrast to the dark fantasy of Game of Thrones was J.J. Abrams’ blockbuster sequel to 2009’s Star Trek. Into Darkness, the film’s subtitle lets us know right away that we are in for act two, for The Empire Strikes Back, basically, that things are about to get real. And real they get. Or do they? The emotional core of the film hinges on a scene where Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) sacrifices himself to save his ship and her crew. In a reversed homage to that giant of Trek films, Wrath of Khan, Spock stands on one side of a glass door watching his friend die of radiation poisoning. The scene is emotional and even provoked a few tears, mostly thanks to Zachary Quinto’s fantastic performance. I myself had that holy @#$% reaction that Thrones fans are (or should be) accustomed to by now: respect for Abrams for evading the predictable Hollywood ending combined with a despair at the loss of our hero, the apparent moral center of the film’s universe.
A darker Trek? Source: AP.
As a sequel to a film where the screenwriters invented a new timeline to avoid being tied down by the Trek cannon, it should have come as no surprise to me that other rules of our own universe don’t apply—in this case, death being, so to speak, the final frontier. One barely has time to mourn for Kirk or root for Spock to avenge his death before we find out that SURPRISE! Injecting him with magic blood from the film’s super villain can save Kirk. It’s a deus ex machina that requires a major leap of faith from the viewer, and this in a genre where resurrection is an everyday occurrence. At least the original Trek films waited until the next film (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), to reveal to the audience that Spock isn’t quite as dead as we initially thought. But none of this seems to matter because Kirk lives! Cue the standard hospital bedside scene: bright lighting, gallows humor (“You were barely dead,” quips Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy), Spock declaring his undying friendship, etc. Bromance is alive and well, just like our hero.
It’s easy to write this ending off as typical blockbuster fare, unless, like me, you’re left with the question of what Kirk’s sacrifice really means when it comes with no consequences. What emotional weight does Kirk (or any character) hold when they triumph consistently, when the final scene of Into Darkness, like its predecessor, finds the whole family together ready for the next adventure? Admittedly, this scene makes us feel good—comforted knowing that we will see these familiar characters again in a year or two. However, the film’s payoff also brings up more troubling questions. In this age of terrorism and war, in the wake of the Aurora shooting and Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombings, how are fans to accept that in most franchises the hero never dies? Kirk’s fate is especially significant in a film that is dedicated to post 9/11 veterans, those who know firsthand the cost of sacrifice. Yes, it’s just a movie, but what about those who have actually lost a loved one in a random, horrible, tragic way? Are they comforted by the escape into a universe that operates on kinder and fairer principles? Or do they prefer a show like Game of Thrones? Should entertainment provide an escape from death and tragedy, or should it, like all art, cause us to reflect more deeply on our own lives? As Mr. Martin himself said in an interview, “If somebody dies and you just go get more popcorn, it’s a superficial experience isn’t it?”
In a broad sense, Thrones is our world on a smaller scale where battles are fought with daggers, not bombs, where the instruments of death are arrows and swords, not semi-automatic weapons, where the choices we make for love or in the pursuit of power have consequences. In the interview, Benioff and Weiss go on to remind us that at the end of most films, the hero is still standing. Spiderman is always alive and raring for the next sequel. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where children aren’t necessarily safe in the hallways of an elementary school, where loved ones are taken from us too young by cancer or heart disease, or acts of violence. But it’s that reality, that chance that we could, at any minute, lose everything that gives weight and meaning to our lives, our decisions, and our actions. “It’s the kind of thing that hammers home that everybody’s life is precious and precarious. When you can’t take for granted that a character you love on the show is going to be around forever, it makes you pay more attention to them,” says Weiss in a recent interview. How should we treat our loved ones when we don’t know how much time we have left with them? What are we willing to sacrifice for our beliefs or for the people we love when we know that our choices have consequences? How should our artists and our media, deal with the reality of death? I certainly don’t have the answer, but as a student of culture I find it a conversation worth having.