Whether you are a fan of Game of Thrones or not, if you have watched television or have access to social media, you will have no doubt heard the biggest news of the series by now: Jon Snow Lives. Now, I won’t go so far as to say he is “alive” because, for all we know, he could just be a version of himself and we could just be watching The Walking Dead at The Wall.
Fake-outs are not a new idea, of course. For television networks, producers and the like, it is generally not a good idea to kill off a popular character, a.k.a the money-maker, the reason millions of fans tune in week after week. Storytellers like to use the death of a major character to drive a story forward, to give another character some motivation to do something other than maintaining a status quo. But if a character we all thought was dead and spent time and energy grieving for turns out to not be dead, should we still be happy about it? Let’s look at a couple of examples.
In the first Avengers movie, fan favourite (and definitely one of mine) Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) died at the hands of Asgardian baddie, Loki (played by the devilishly amazing Tom Hiddleston). Up to that point, our band of “supers” were like a bunch of quibbling schoolkids, not playing very nicely with each other. With Coulson’s death, our heroes suddenly found a reason to be their “super” selves, working for a common cause to avenge their friend’s death. No matter how many times I have seen this movie – and believe me, that number is considerable – the death scene still feels like a stab in my own heart. Except it hurts a little less now, knowing that Coulson was brought back to life by S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (hello there Samuel L. Jackson), thanks to the T.A.H.I.T.I program – I’ll save that explanation for another time.
A few years ago, I was writing weekly recaps on a TV show called Revenge. The entire premise of the show was about a young woman seeking revenge on the rich and powerful people who contributed to the wrongful conviction of her father for terrorism and murder. As she was only a young child at the time, she was sent to foster home after foster home, eventually landing in juvenile prison for setting fire to one of those homes. While she was in juvie, her father was rotting away in prison and ended up murdered by a fellow inmate. The off-screen death of the father was the key motivator. But then a few seasons in, the big “surprise” was that the father had not died after all! That was, to me, the point at which the show’s writers had run out of ideas for anything that could continue to move the story forward and I stopped watching, as did many others. The show lasted maybe another season before its eventual demise.
So, back to Jon Snow. Season 5 of GoT ended with our Lord Commander being stabbed Julius Caesar-style multiple times as the murderers chanted “for the Watch!” My reaction was “you can just take the *insert expletive here* Watch and shove it where the sun don’t shine!” Despite Snow bleeding out onscreen, loyal fans refused to believe that he is really dead. And according to my book-reader friends, author George R.R. Martin had left his fate sufficiently vague that you could never be sure if he was really dead.
Similarly, on The Walking Dead, another fan favourite – one of the “originals” – Glenn (played by Steven Yeun) was thought to have died early in Season 6 when he was trapped atop a dumpster with a fellow survivor, surrounded by angry walkers below and then toppled over and fell amongst the herd. We saw screams and intestines being ripped out and devoured by walkers. Months of debates later, including ardent fans who analysed the scene from every angle and some even re-enacting the scene to determine if it was possible for Glenn to have rolled himself out and under the dumpster and hid out until the walkers dispersed, it turned out the theory was correct and that Glenn had survived. Fans and critics were conflicted about how they were supposed to feel about the big fake-out.
Shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are notorious for mercilessly killing off popular characters. Cast members regularly joke about flipping through their scripts each week to check if they survive the episode. But as the years roll on, we, as audience members and fans, become more invested in these characters and their onscreen deaths would have much bigger impacts on the overall storytelling than killing off someone you had just met. My fellow TWD fans and I often joke about rioting and boycotting the show if they ever killed Daryl, or Rick, or Carl, or Carol, or Michonne, or Glenn, or poor pregnant Maggie…and the list grows. But would we really give up our weekly addiction? Fake-outs seem like a lazy way to get out of writer’s block at times but according to the latest reports, Jon Snow has the most screen time this season, so for now, I am just going to sit back and enjoy the ride.