Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones below.
Just imagine Game of Thrones with its wildly exciting storylines gracing your television every week with the kind of excitement you can't even get at Disneyland but without the gruesome death scenes.
No Joffrey drowning in poison as his skin turns blue. No eye gauging. No piles of bloodied bodies with their guts pouring out onto the dirt. It's the same show you've come to love, just minus the gory visuals. Would you still watch?
What Is Dead Cannot Die
A lot of the draw to shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead is their shock value. It's those moments when you are screaming in horror as your favorite character climbs the stairway to heaven, or the most vile villain takes his last breath as blood pours from his throat. I certainly don't wake up thinking "I'd like to see blood and guts today!" Nevertheless I am glued to my television for every gory second on Game of Thrones week after week. I. Can't. Look. Away. The payoff that comes from watching these gruesome deaths gives a satisfaction that keeps audiences — myself included — wanting more. If they cut it out, would I feel as enraptured by the show?
It's hard to say. Game of Thrones, on its own, is still on another level compared to everything else out there but has also come under fire for being overly gratuitous with gore and graphic violence. That hasn't kept the viewers away however, and while I'd like to say I would still watch without it, if I'm being truthful — I don't think I would . The Season 6 finale probably would not have reached over 8 million viewers without the expectation of the shocking, graphic deaths that awaited us. Audiences knew that when they tuned in they would see the end of their most loved — and hated —characters by abhorrent means.
Take the death of Ramsay Bolton, one of the most scathing characters in TV history. I can tell you without a doubt that I would not have been as pleased or impressed with the show if his death had not been so gruesome. Watching him torn limb from limb by the very dogs he used to murder so many gave me a satisfaction a less violent death couldn't accomplish.
I found myself screaming at the television and celebrating his violent demise. When the episode ended, I joined social media in declaring it the best episode of Game of Thrones yet. An episode full of impaled Wildlings desperately trying to hold their guts together and a helpless Walder Frey bleeding out as Arya grins in his face.
I was grinning too. The same went for the long awaited death of King Joffrey so many seasons ago. Oh, how good it felt to watch him foam from the mouth. I'm not a sociopath, I swear, I'm just a really big Game of Thrones fan like everyone else. Maybe we're all sociopaths.
The Need For Vengeance
Audiences, like the characters in Game of Thrones, have an insatiable need for vengeance. There is something to be said for these shows that make our favorite characters suffer and then reward our vigilance with the bloody graphic deaths of the one whose hand brought down the sword. But there is also something to be said about the grief of losing the good guys. Their undeserving horrific deaths draw us closer to show, invested in their loved ones seeking revenge. That's what started it all right? We've all been patiently waiting for vengeance for Ned Stark and for the Red Wedding. Much like the winter, we know it's coming.
Without the the gory visuals, it simply wouldn't be the same. Game of Thrones is built on their epic payoffs, and without them, the story and performances alone couldn't bring audiences back. Quentin Tarantino, who became one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood in partial thanks to gory death scenes, has made some pretty interesting points about violence in entertainment and why audiences are driven to it. When speaking at the British Academy of Film and Entertainment, he explained violence is a way to control the audience, saying:
"I feel like a conductor and the audience's feelings are my instruments. I will be like, 'Laugh, laugh, now be horrified.' When someone does that to me, I've had a good time at the movies."
Tarantino also credits the creation of the motion picture camera, and what it was intended for.
"That's why Thomas Edison created the motion picture camera — because violence is so good. It affects audiences in a big way. You know you're watching a movie."
There is validity in what Tarantino says. There are other shows on television whose stories are unique and actors are engaging, but even then audiences aren't feeling the same passion as they do for Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. It's in the numbers. Shows like The 100 on The CW try, and come as close as they can on a non-cable network, but the payoff isn't as powerful. Audiences are more engaged the more violent the death, the more blood that is shed.
More Blood, More Gore, More Fans
If there isn't enough blood or gore, then yes, Game of Thrones loses its spark. This has nothing to do with anything lacking within the show, but with the fact that violence is woven so intricately into the story, the show has no identity without it.
I didn't even start watching the show until Season 3, and you want to know why? Because everyone and their mother was on social media talking about the horrific scene of the Red Wedding. Then I thought: "I need to see this for myself." When I did, I realized I needed revenge, and I needed to continue watching to see it happen. I needed to see it through, and I needed it to be violent and bloody.