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How ‘Game of Thrones’ Mastered the Art of the Death Scene

Our in-depth autopsy on the show’s most memorable, majestic and merciful acts of killing.

There is only one god, and his name is Death.” So said Syrio Forel, the late great swordsman who taught Arya Stark how to “dance” before meeting that many-faced god himself. If there’s one thing that can be said about Game of Thrones, it’s that the show is out to make you a believer in this fatalistic faith. The dog-eat-dog demise of Ramsay Bolton in this week’s “Battle of the Bastards” is just the latest in a seemingly endless chain of killings, one that’s earned the show a reputation for sanguine shock tactics. But there’s a method to the macabre madness of how the show kills, who it kills, and who does the killing. The variety of violence is both surprising and revealing, communicating much about the way of the world of Westeros.

The ur-death, of course, is Ned Stark’s. Some surprising passings had already taken place before the end of the first season — Viserys Targaryen, King Robert Baratheon, Sansa’s pet direwolf Lady. But when the executioner’s blade fell on Eddard’s noble neck, it decapitated our expectations as to what Game of Throneswas capable of doing. Slaughtering the star of the show, the actor with the most name recognition, the face on all the posters? This was Psycho‘s shower scene on the small screen. And then there was the series’ handling of this shocking event. Realising that the execution’s power lay in the idea, not the image, it kept the actual killing blow off-camera, letting Arya Stark’s devastated reaction and the startled flutter of birds taking wing bear silent witness to what we ourselves didn’t see. Our minds were more than capable of conjuring the horror on their own.

Though Ned’s beheading is undoubtedly the standout in this category, off-screen deaths, though less common than their on-screen counterparts, are a vital tool in the show’s lethal arsenal. Neither seen nor heard, they typically take place under very specific circumstances. Deaths intended to brew uncertainty are withheld from view as if to echo the characters’ confusion as to what happened, and what will happen next: Think of King Robert expiring unseen in his bed, Rickon Stark’s direwolf Shaggydog making his final appearance as an already severed head, or even Jon Arryn, the victim who started it all and whose murder set in motion the Stark-Lannister war (though it was Littlefinger’s doing all along).

And while Westeros may be no country for old men, those who die in service of an ideal are often (though far from always) granted the dignity of expiring away from prying eyes and ears. This season, Brynden “The Blackfish” Tully fell to Frey/Lannister forces, but we only hear about it in an after-action report to Jaime. Last year, Stannis Baratheon regained some of the honour he’d lost in his gruesome sacrifice of his own daughter by calmly accepting Brienne of Tarth’s death sentence; the fatal stroke was obscured by a cut to black. The Three-Eyed Raven was cut down by his nemesis, the Night King, in similar fashion. And Maester Aemon, the loveable blind advisor to the Night’s Watch, helped Jon Snow ascend to the role of Lord Commander, then died peacefully of very old age in the company of those he cared about — a fate half of this fantasy planet would probably kill for.

Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton in ‘Game of Thrones.’ Helen Sloan/HBO

By contrast, when the old guard is violently overthrown directly by new blood seeking to replace it, the killing gets placed squarely in the spotlight. This season featured four such coups in rapid succession: Ellaria Sand and her daughters stabbing, spearing, and seizing control of Dorne; Euron Greyjoy tossing his ageing brother Balon off a cliff; Daenerys Targaryen taking control of the Dothraki by burning their khals alive; and Ramsay Bolton’s murder of his own father to secure his hold on the North for good (or at least until Sansa let the dogs out). A look back over the course of the series bears out the pattern. Not one but two Lord Commanders of the Night’s Watch — Jeor Mormont and Jon Snow — were killed by mutineers. Dany oversaw the execution of her brother to become heir to the Iron Throne, and has killed countless Masters across Slaver’s Bay to end their inhumane system. Even Joffrey Baratheon’s poisoning counts when you consider its intended effect: allowing House Tyrell more direct control over the Seven Kingdoms. Any time a changeover of leadership is at stake, that switch usually takes place at swordpoint — firmly establishing the central role that violence plays in politics.

Unsurprisingly, the ugliest deaths are more often than not the consequence of one of the ugliest human desires: revenge. The Red Viper seeks it against House Lannister — and gets his skull smashed in graphic detail for his troubles. Tywin Lannister dies on the toilet thanks to a crossbow bolt from his bitter son Tyrion. Ros, the red-headed sex worker, was gruesomely St. Sebastian’d by Joffrey after discovering she was a spy. Ser Meryn Trant was butchered by Arya Stark so that she could cross him off her kill list. Myrcella Baratheon was poisoned to death by Ellaria Sand as payback. And just this past week, Ramsay Bolton was fed to his own dogs by Sansa Stark, the woman he raped and terrorised — the exact fate he’d previously subjected his step-mother and infant half-brother to. Even those who technically “survive” their revenge killings suffer a fate worse than death: Think of Khal Drogo, revived as a vegetable by a sorceress, or the Mountain, brought back as a hideous, mute monster when the Viper’s poison did its trick.

Which brings us to the Red Wedding. A pop-culture touchstone the instant it took place, this bloody on-screen slaughter of House Stark’s leadership — most notably King Robb, his mother Catelyn, his wife Talisa and their unborn child — was payback by crusty old Walder Frey for the insult he suffered when the Young Wolf broke his promise to marry a Frey daughter. It was the ultimate revenge killing, for the pettiest of reasons. But more importantly, it represented as great a shock to the storyline as Ned’s death did. Before that fateful night, we’d assumed that while Dany’s dragons and the White Walkers would wind up moving to centre stage at some point, the Stark/Lannister conflict would serve as a series throughline. Wrong. When Cat’s throat was cut, our understanding of what the show was about went with her. Suddenly the Lions were in charge, becoming the show’s ersatz protagonists simply by virtue of survival. A change that big required a massacre this graphic.

The same logic underlies the show’s most controversial and upsetting acts of violence: those against women and children. On this show, kings have ordered the murder of infants. Children have been sacrificed to White Walkers and the Red God. Peasant kids have been skinned, hanged, and burned just as a ruse, or devoured by the dragons their mother hoped would be humanity’s saviors. Young slaves have been crucified to send a message, young prisoners executed out of rage or simply for convenience. And from monsters like Joffrey and Ramsay to schemers like Littlefinger and Roose Bolton to ostensible heroes like Tyrion, women are treated like cattle: bargained for, bred with, and slaughtered at will.

It’s these deaths, whether they involve major players or minor characters, that are toughest to endure and most important to think about. Violence, like water, flows downhill, and inevitably drowns those most vulnerable to it. Depicting it in any other way would betray Game of Thrones‘ central contention that however you dress it up, power is seized by the sword, with all the carnage that entails.