Finally, death matters again on Game of Thrones

In the last few seasons, death has become a little too cheap. "Dragonstone" lets us mourn.

The Hound buries the dead.
(Image credit: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO)

"Dragonstone" was an exceptional Game of Thrones episode for structural as well as plot reasons. We got Arya! The Revenge of the Red Wedding! Sansa! The Hound! The season 7 premiere addressed urgent questions left over from the season 6 finale, introduced a pleasing array of maps, and scripted the sorts of meaty both-strategic-and-emotional conversations Game of Thrones hasn't had time for in years. But the best thing about it might be that death matters again.

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Jaime! Thank you for saying this. We never did, and we should, and in "Dragonstone," we finally do.

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As I see it, there are three levels at which "Dragonstone" restores some of the eroded meaning and cost to death (which has, in the last couple of seasons, become just a little too cheap).

The White Walkers

For a while now, it's seemed to me that Game of Thrones has suffered from too much action and too little processing. There's a massive imbalance between huge battles and characters mourning. This gives the impression that events on the show — deaths especially — don't actually matter all that much. Now, it's true that the show has always depended on death to propel its plots, sometimes a little emptily. Robb Stark killed Rickard Karstark for killing the Lannister boys to punish the Lannisters for killing the Karstark son. That this forced the Starks back to the Freys — and lured them to the Red Wedding — was strategically important, certainly. But we're not staying up nights mourning the Lannister cousins, or the Karstark boy, or Rickard, let alone the other Game of Thrones casualties (which you can revisit in our handy illustrated Book of the Dead). These things happen, and honestly, at this point, even the Red Wedding deaths feel distant. Best not to think about it too much and move on.

But that glorious shot of the dead marching in Bran's vision shows just how unsustainable this approach to death is. Killing people doesn't actually mean you get to forget about them — even if they're not narratively that interesting. So the fact that these avalanches of deaths aren't final, that every single corpse seems capable of rising up as a wight and turning against the living, turns the forgotten dark matter of the show — its apparent indifference to its heaps of corpses — into its greatest existential threat.

There are plenty of ways in which the White Walkers lend themselves to metaphorical readings; they're obviously a figure for climate change (right down to the fact that no one believes in them until it's too late). But at a moment in American history in which we've slaughtered more than 2,000 civilians in Iraq and Syria in the last six months, an equally relevant parallel is terrorism — the kind of casual violence (especially against the innocent) by those in power that engenders violence in response. If you insist on reducing human life to its strategic value (and that's what killing civilians is), then the White Walkers amount to a massive tax on Game of Thrones' inhumanity. It turns out you're not done with your enemy just because you killed them, and if you fail to honor the heaps of forgotten dead, their numbers will grow. That's always been clear, but "Dragonstone" really drove it home. It may be true in politics that "in the game of thrones you win or you die." But the show is zooming out into a frame of reference where that callow little truism is just catastrophically wrong: Dying and winning have stopped being incompatible.


There's a welcome emotional dimension to death's newfound significance in "Dragonstone" too. We viewers tend to gauge a TV tragedy based on how much people mourn or react to it. This show used to model bereavement so well. Remember how affecting it was to watch Catelyn sit by Bran's side, heartbroken? He wasn't even dead, but those scenes conjured enough pathos to move us on Catelyn's behalf (and turn us against the Lannisters). Game of Thrones hasn't had time for many scenes in that vein, and it robs some otherwise tragic arcs of resonance. Have we seen Tyrion give Shae a second thought? Not really — and that's unfortunate. A lot of the intelligent emotion that once powered GOT has gone underground as everyone walks around traumatized and stunned (I'm looking at you, Jon Snow).

So let's heed Jaime's plea. Let's talk about Tommen and see where letting his death breathe a little gets us.

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Tommen was a bad king, no question. Still, I think his death should have been more than a punctuation mark in an episode about his mother, particularly since it was dripping with dramatic irony. Consider the following:

  • At Margaery's Atonement, Tommen announced that the Faith and the Crown were the "twin pillars on which the world rests." When Cersei blew up the Faith, it appears that Tommen took it upon himself to destroy the Crown. If anything Tommen says matters (and that's debatable), his death marked the moment when King's Landing went into literal freefall.
  • Cersei ended up being the threat to Tommen that she warned Tywin she'd protect him from: "Margaery will dig her claws in, you will dig your claws in, and you will fight over him like beasts until you rip him apart. I will burn our house to the ground before I let that happen." Cersei did both: ripped him apart and burned the house to the ground.
  • Jaime tried to kill the Starks' child by pushing him out a window. His youngest dies in much the same way.

Tommen's death should have resonated on a million interesting levels, but none of this delicious irony matters if the people whose karma has come due (I'm looking at you, Cersei and Jaime) aren't taking the trouble to notice it! My secret fear was that Tommen's death would go unmentioned and unmourned. After all, Cersei appears to have gone from learning of her last child's death to coolly taking over the throne. This is a woman whose defining trait is her ferocious love of her children. They're gone now. How did her transition to this ambitious queen who's over it and onto new projects work?

I can imagine some answers to that, and the nearest thing to an in-show explanation is her remark to Jaime — following Myrcella's death — that her children were the only thing preventing her from being a monster. Fair enough. It still would have been interesting to watch Cersei's grief at Tommen transform into that cold empty rage.

If Jaime doesn't exactly correct the show's tendency to fast-forward through these episodes of bereavement, he at least addresses it. That goes a long way toward making our characters' behavior understandable. We get it: Cersei refuses to engage. She will not talk to Jaime about Tommen, and Lena Headey does a fine job conveying that this particular well of feeling has gone dry. Again, I'm not 100 percent sold on this depiction on Cersei's ex-motherhood — I'd have guessed losing her last child and ceasing to be a mother at all would have been a bigger shock — but Game of Thrones has a hard time staying on the "sad" side of the "sadness/anger" divide. (Remember Arya telling Lady Crane that her Cersei was too weepy; the anger was missing? I guess she was right — the show trusts Arya's emotional logic.)

It's a relief, then, to see Jaime feeling just plain sad for Tommen. He calls him their "baby boy." That's a big deal. Jaime rarely speaks tenderly. In fact, the last time he used the phrase "baby boy" was when he told Edmure — in that dark and unconvincing speech about his love for Cersei — that he'd send for Edmure's "baby boy" and launch him into Riverrun with a catapult.

That, again, is kind of a productive echo if you connect it to the ways Tommen's death rhymes Jaime's attempted murder of Bran. These conversations aren't just talk; they're the meat of the show. If we pause to process Tommen's death for a moment, it teaches us that Jaime's threats boomerang against him.

That conversation between Cersei and Jaime also helps us gauge Jaime's feelings about his kids, which haven't been particularly accessible. (He was never allowed to be their dad after all, for one thing. For another, Joffrey was so unlovable that Jaime and Cersei's mourning culminated in the much-discussed rape). Tommen wasn't Joffrey, so how did Jaime feel about him? I've spent a year wondering how much of Jaime's love for Cersei is habit, and it hadn't even occurred to me to wonder how he'd act on hearing of his last child's death. It's useful to see that; useful, too, to know that he and Cersei couldn't be more emotionally distant from each other as they separately process their child's death. Or refuse to.

This is the kind of thing death does when it's processed: It clarifies relationships. It changes people. It amplifies stakes. This is what I mean about death mattering again.

Historical Memory

But there's a third development in "Dragonstone" that makes death matter: Arya and Archmaester Ebrose both present themselves as vehicles for historical memory. For a long time, "The North remembers!" has been less a motto than a dark, dark joke. They don't remember. Neither does anyone else. And that's sort of understandable: Again, at least in the last couple of seasons, death on Game of Thrones has tended to produce more amnesia than remembrance. So for Arya to avenge the Red Wedding — which happened so long ago it barely registers in the current political calculus — is both to resurrect the motto (which she does) and to remind us that the arc of history is a lot longer than the seasons we've been watching. Archmaester Ebrose makes a similar point:

"We are the world's memory, Samwell Tarly," says the archmaester. "Without us, men would be little better than dogs."

As they weigh a man's heart and liver, the archmaester's point is that the world always seems to be ending. A single person's attention span can't easily accommodate stakes that are bigger than the specific moment in which they live. That's why history matters; it lends meaning to the events and lost causes of the past.

And yes, okay, he's clearly wrong — we're obviously meant to understand that Sam's concerns about the White Walkers are legitimate, and that the archmaester's complacent certainty that the Wall will hold because it always has is going to get him in trouble. But both announcements work to remind us that the arcs of these stories are much, much longer than we're given to understand.

You don't get to forget. That's the lesson the Hound learns when he stumbles on the corpses of the farmer and his daughter whose deaths he casually foretold. They didn't matter then — there was no time to process then — but they do now, and he tries to pray for them in the words they once used. It's a redemptive act, and not just for the Hound. I'm betting most viewers didn't remember that farmer and his daughter (here's the scene in case you need a refresher, as I did). This reminder that they lived, and died horribly, is of a piece with the work "Dragonstone" did to remind everyone that these endless wars have costs we've long been encouraged to ignore. As the Hound learns to see more deeply, a pointless, forgotten death acquires meaning. I don't know if that means there will be one less wight in the wars to come, but it feels like a victory that he bore witness. Death only matters if someone watches — and processes, and tells the story.

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Lili Loofbourow

Lili Loofbourow is the culture critic at She's also a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books and an editor for Beyond Criticism, a Bloomsbury Academic series dedicated to formally experimental criticism. Her writing has appeared in a variety of venues including The Guardian, Salon, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Slate.