[Spoilers for “Game of Thrones” Season 5 below. There are no spoilers for the “Game of Thrones” Season 6 premiere (because HBO would send the White Walkers after us).]
Television has never felt more like Westeros these days, because terrible things keep happening to people. Over the last two months, “The 100,” “The Walking Dead,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Empire” and other series have killed off beloved and prominent members of their ensembles, enraging fans along the way — especially minority and LGBQT fans, who were turning to these shows to see themselves represented on television, only to see themselves killed off.
TV’s never been short a body count, and that fact certainly applies to “Game of Thrones,” which ended Season 5 with a number of lead characters getting slaughtered. But here’s the key difference: “Game of Thrones’s” trail of bodies does include plenty of women and minorities. (And children. Oh boy, does this show love killing children.) But that body count does not exclusively apply to those diverse characters. “Game of Thrones” stands in sharp contrast to those other series for one specific reason — who it often chooses to kill, and whose stories it now emphasizes as a result.
The most notable death in the Season 5 finale was House Stark bastard and Night’s Watch brother Jon Snow, last seen bleeding out in the snow after many, many knives to the chest. According to press releases and footage from the Season 6 premiere, he is an ex-Jon Snow. That said, since the end of Season 5, there have been months and months of speculation that at times took on the tone you’d associate with those investigating the Kennedy assassination: “Here, look at these paparazzi shots from November 21, 2015! Jon Snow can’t be dead, because Kit Harington’s hair is still the same length!”
The freakout over Jon Snow hit a shocking fever pitch after the finale, but it’s not hard to figure out just why Jon Snow’s murder felt like such a huge deal in the “Game of Thrones” landscape. With his death, the show lost its last conventional straight white male protagonist.
I’m not trying to suggest that characters who aren’t able-bodied straight white men can’t be protagonists. Please, god, do not think that. But when you look at so much of television, the fact remains that many, many series, even ensemble shows, are structured around the presence of the straight white man, conventionally handsome and morally decent. It’s something so common, the only time you often notice it is because of its absence — and then the show becomes defined by that label, to some degree.
When “Game of Thrones” began, Sean Bean served as the show’s most obvious lead, the Tony Soprano or McNulty of Westeros. But Ned Stark’s famous Season 1 death made it clear that no one was safe, and the show has since proven to be inhospitable terrain for the “conventional” hero. Of the white men currently left, to the best of my estimation they’re either corrupt, over the age of 40, physically or mentally afflicted in some way or otherwise fall outside conventional standards of attractiveness (sorry, Samwell Tarly).
Frankly, getting rid of the obvious heroes frees the show up to find heroism in the less conventional. Daenerys has always arguably been a co-lead of the show (her journey easily one of the most delineated), and Tyrion’s been a fan favorite from the beginning, in large part due to how well-defined a character he was. There’s also Brienne of Tarth, arguably the show’s most badass warrior, as well as not-so-young-anymore Bran Stark — he might be unable to walk, but thanks to his Warg abilities, he might be able to fly. Figures like Davos, Podrick and other sidekick types have a chance to step up. Heck, even Jaime Lannister might be redeemable thanks to a new narrative — a once-great swordsman, brought low by his loss of a limb, and grieving the daughter he only just connected with.
Really, there are so many other fascinating and complex players in this world — a collection of oddballs and survivors whose stories are rich with intrigue. Meanwhile, the only really interesting Jon Snow scenes on “Game of Thrones” (to me, at least) were the epic battles and his tragic romance with Ygritte. Take a sword out of his hands and leave his clothes on, and I’d get impatient for the dragons to come back.
Per HBO’s restrictions on what press attending the premiere is allowed to mention, all we’ll say about the world of Season 6, as introduced in “The Red Woman,” is that it is the show we’ve enjoyed this whole time — blood and betrayal and battles tempered with humor and epic plotting and strong character work. There’s no sense of anything really missing. Instead, there is the sense that new players and underserved ones may be able to take the stage in a renewed way, truly creating one of TV’s most unique ensemble dramas.
“Game of Thrones,” as an epic fantasy tale, has its moments. But our investment, as it always is with great television, is with its characters. Season 6 is now primed to be as compelling as ever — and it doesn’t need any conventional heroes to do it.