When I first started watching Game of Thrones, a friend who had read the Song Of Ice and Fire novels warned me: "Don't get too attached to anyone." Over the first few seasons it proved to be wiser counsel than anything from even Tyrion Lannister. Beloved characters were struck down as frequently as deserving villains, marking #GameOfThrones as something truly different for prestige television.
The big, shocking moments of the early years still resonate with fans, particularly Ned Stark's beheading at the hands of Joffrey, the infamous "Red Wedding" and Oberyn Martell's death at the hands (thumbs?) of The Mountain. However, with the show having breezed past the narrative of George R.R. Martin's novels, the fate of the ensemble show's main characters is under threat less and less.
'Beyond The Wall' Illustrates The Problem
Though Episode 6 of Season 7, "Beyond The Wall" was in many ways a thrilling episode, it also perfectly illustrated the problem of a lack of peril in the show nowadays. Whereas once you could go in to any episode or battle not knowing who will live or die by the time the credits roll — is that still the case?
Although the Westerosi version of the Magnificent Seven crossed beyond the Wall into the realm of the deadly White Walkers in the episode, did anyone watching seriously believe any of the main characters would meeting their maker?
When following the books, Game Of Thrones was unafraid to ditch Ned Stark (played by Sean Bean, the show's biggest star at that point) and fan favorite/all-around good guy Robb Stark, but with the show writers now working alone (presumably with some overall direction from Martin) they seem much more reluctant to kill their darlings.
Even when surrounded by White Walkers and undead wights, there was no chance that it could be a last stand for Jon Snow (or Jorah, Tormund, the Hound, or even Gendry). Sure, Thoros of Myr met his end, but he was a minor character who has been missing from the narrative for long periods. Other than that, a couple of nameless tagalongs (presumably wildlings) met their doom.
This has become a recurring theme lately. In "The Spoils of War," it looked like Daenerys's devastating loot train attack could spell the end for Jaime Lannister and/or Bronn, yet both survived against the odds (even though Jaime sank into water in heavy armor). The trick was repeated in "Beyond The Wall," which saw Jon Snow sink beneath icy water, covered in heavy furs, only to resurface. If that was unlikely, he was then saved again by a deus ex machina in the form of his uncle Benjen "Coldhands" Stark, another minor character who very likely met his (offscreen) doom in Jon's place.
Death Is Not The End
It is understandable that co-creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are keen to keep all their major pieces in play on the Westeros chess board heading into the final season. Why risk losing someone key like Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen or Tyrion Lannister (and potentially a whole chunk of fans who love them) with another season still to come?
However, the risks could be outweighed by the potential positives. There are fan theories galore about how Game Of Thrones will go out, but Benioff and Weiss could throw everyone for a loop. Death, even of a beloved character, does not have to be a negative. Death is not the end (just ask Beric Dondarrion). Instead, it can spark something new and exciting.
Season 6 ended with Cersei Lannister on the Iron Throne, having masterminded the explosion of the Great Sept of Baelor, killing off rivals like Margaery Tyrell and the High Sparrow (and inadvertently her own son, King Tommen) — another moment like that would leave fans on the edges of their seats for a year. However, imagine the freedom and excitement of a post-Jon, or post-Dany Game Of Thrones; the fight for the Iron Throne would really be blown wide open (y'know, like the Sept was).
Many people are expecting an ending with Jon Dany or both ruling the seven kingdoms in a firm but fair manner. Yet, if Game Of Thrones has taught us anything over the years, it's that the good, the noble and the fair don't always triumph.
Game Of Thrones was always amazing at subverting expectations and genre tropes. To get back to that, the show needs to learn the value of letting go of characters, even those we love. If all our favorites survive until the end, it really will feel like Game Of Thrones has lost its edge.