On Sunday night, Game of Thrones did it again: Killing off a beloved character in a horrible act of violence. This time it was the adorable Shireen Baratheon at the hands of her father Stannis, who sacrificed her to the god R’hllor in exchange for a victory in the upcoming battle of Winterfell. And even though the show does this to us over and over again—the death of Ned Stark, the Red Wedding, the death of Oberyn Martell—we in the audience are continually shocked every time a beloved character suddenly dies. Social media explodes in disbelief, even outrage, at the way the show signaled that something really bad was going to happen and then went ahead and allowed that bad thing to happen. We expect a daring rescue at the last minute.
It’s tempting to argue that Game of Thrones kills people off for shock value, as Margaret Lyons did at Vulture this week. “The show loves wondering how bad … or how far … or how much …,” she wrote, wondering why the show can’t “balance brutality with hope.” Or, if you’re feeling more generous, you could argue that Game of Thrones’s brutality is a necessary answer to the Pollyannaish tendencies in the rest of the fantasy genre. This is how George R.R. Martin himself sees it, explaining that Game of Thrones is “reacting to a lot of fantasy fiction,” which he calls “Disneyland Middle Ages.”
But while Game of Thrones is in part a rebuttal to traditional fantasy fiction, I’d argue that it’s become clear—after five books in A Song of Ice and Fire and five seasons of the TV series—that Martin and showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are actually playing with a format that isn’t so revolutionary at all: They’re reviving and updating the classical tragedy as a narrative form.
In a traditional tragedy, there should be a growing sense of dread as events converge. The hero is generally invested with some specific “tragic flaw” that leads to his downfall. He should make some terrible decision that the audience can see, in retrospect, was the point of no return that leads to ruin.
The most obvious example from Game of Thrones is the story of Shireen and Stannis. Shireen’s murder has raised complaints from critics who protest that it was out-of-character for Stannis. But the plot might as well be based on the ancient Greek tragedy “Iphigenia in Aulis,” by Euripides. Every beat of the Greek myth is the same as Stannis’s story: The troops are stuck and starving and the general, Agamemnon, must sacrifice his own daughter to turn the fates to their favor. The mother begging for mercy, the disapproving second-in-command who can do nothing to stop it, the daughter who says she will do whatever it takes to help—it’s all a clear echo.
In fact, many of the “shocking” deaths on the show, if you look back at the events that precipitated them, fit the model of classical tragedy. The story of Robb Stark and the Red Wedding is reminiscent of Hamlet: A handsome, charismatic royal sets out to avenge his father’s death, but because of poor decisions made for deeply sympathetic reasons, he meets a gory end. In the case of Hamlet, his sense of honor causes him to delay killing the king, seeking to collect more evidence of guilt before acting. In Robb’s case, a marriage made out of love instead of duty is what catalyzes the final, lethal chain of events. Even the staging of the Red Wedding feels a bit like the finale of Hamlet: A banquet, a swordfight, a dead mother.
Ned Stark’s story is lifted right out of the pages of Othello: A great man is brought into a culture that feels foreign to him, so that he can take a leadership role within it. A manipulative villain, with Littlefinger taking the place of Iago, ingratiates himself to our hero, pretending to be his friend while actually undermining him. The villain is jealous of the hero’s nobility, and decides to twist the hero’s fundamental decency—and the naiveté that comes with being trusting—into a weapon with which to destroy him.
Oberyn Martell’s story is informed by Hamlet as well. If Oberyn had acted with haste instead of trying to squeeze a confession out of Gregor Clegane, he could have saved the day. It’s exactly what drives the arc of classic tragedy—the sense that there was some decision the hero could have made to avert disaster, but for reasons of fate or personality, he was incapable of doing the very thing he needed to do to save himself.
There’s not a lot of truly tragic storytelling in modern TV and movies. We are trained to expect, especially when it comes to action-packed fantasy and sci-fi stories, that just when things look bleakest for our heroes, they will perform some amazing feat and save the day at the last possible minute. That is the plot of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, every DC and Marvel superhero movie, and nearly every B-list thriller on the market. As the Dothraki might say, it is known that the heroes emerge triumphant.
Game of Thrones gives us plenty of fist pump moments: Bronn saving Tyrion in a trial by combat, Stannis saving The Wall from the wildling army, the deus ex Tywin that prevented the sack of Blackwater in season two, Daenerys flying away on the back of Drogon. But many of Game of Thrones’ best moments are its bleakest—the ones that show us how noble-minded people with the best intentions can still defeat themselves. And even as the series seems to blow up narrative expectations, it’s still playing by its own set of conventions and rules. They’re just not the rules we’re used to.