Game of Thrones: When Shock Stops Being Shocking
Game of Thrones is in a bit of a bind.
It’s one of the most successful, talked about shows on TV, but it isn’t known for its intricate plot arcs or compelling characters. It’s famous for being shocking. And although this reputation gets people talking, it’s also destroying any integrity the show ever had.
Shock has to, by definition, be unexpected. If we expect a show to be shocking, we’re not shocked by it any more. So the series has to raise the stakes again and again, to be more and more extreme in order to keep shocking an audience that is anticipating that next big twist.
In season one, the supposed protagonist Ned Stark was beheaded in a not particularly grizzly but emotionally painful scene, and people were shocked. Killing the protagonist, instead of letting him survive at the last moment? What is this show?? In season two, the series raised the stakes by completely destroying Winterfell, the emotional home of the show and another thing that should have been untouchable. In season three, we had the Red Wedding, the unexpected gruesome deaths of many characters — and to ensure it felt much bigger than season one’s shock deaths, it threw in Robb Stark’s wife too. Not two, but three significant character deaths! Season four opened with Joffrey’s death, and had to climb from there. So by the time we got to season five, just killing Jon Snow and having Dany fly off on a dragon wasn’t enough. They had to do that and have extreme violence agaisnt Sansa and threaten other female characters and kill Shireen and have her father be the one who kills her and have her mother hang herself and have Brienne kill Stannis and, and, and.
I can hardly imagine what will happen in season six to raise the stakes, now the series has gone beyond the books. But it is a major problem for the show’s consistency, as it goes for shock over sense. The entire point of “shock,” as I said, is that it’s unexpected. It’s not easy to completely surprise the audience with a twist, especially if they’re ready for them. So often the “twist” comes completely out of the left field, in order to maintain that shock potential, and character and plot arcs are abandoned. Ned Stark’s death was shocking, but it grew out of established character arcs. The death of Shireen was far more arbitrary, and Sansa’s traumatic season five didn’t make sense for her or for Littlefinger’s arcs. But it was more shocking that way, and shock is what gets people talking.
This also means that the show has to become more graphic, more gruesome, as it goes on. In the first season, Ned’s death was represented by a bunch of birds taking flight. By season five, we have a little girl burning to death, while the show lingers on her screams. It’s hard for the show to shock its audience now, so it escalates the horror of what it shows on screen. It’s no longer about giving the viewer an enjoyable experience, but about giving them as unenjoyable an experience as possible. Kill a character, but make it more bloody this time. Make it more meaningless. Make it more horrifying. More screams. More brutality. Rape some female characters, but put it as window dressing in the background, to show how awful and shocking this is. In order to get past the fact that the audience expects to be shocked, it pushes things beyond the buzz of “oh my god, I can’t believe that happened” to actively disturbing the audience. It aims to horrify, because that’s what happens when you take shock the extreme, and after five seasons, “extreme” is all they have left.
While in the beginning, the shock was a natural result of the twisting plot arcs, now the shock is the goal in itself, and the plot can no longer provide enough to support it. So the plot gets forgotten. It’s not about the story any more, or about the characters. It’s about that reputation. Shock the audience at all costs.