Why Jon Snow\'ing became a thing -- and why it\'s time to do better.
I still remember sitting on my parents’ couch when Buffy Summers was killed during the Season 5 finale of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” I remember the way my stomach hurt all night and into the next day; I remember holding back tears. Most of all, I remember my anxiety-ridden brain repeating “she will come back. She
to come back” all night long, in a vain attempt to calm myself to sleep so I could show up to school in one piece the next day.
I also remember where I was sitting and what my eyes did (roll) when Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) “died” on “The Walking Dead” this past October. Yes, that’s mostly because it was only two months ago, but something tells me Glenn’s not-quite-demise will live on in my brain 14 years from now as well — not because the moment was particularly powerful, or even effective storytelling, but because this officially marked the moment when I stopped believing in death on television.
Actually, I take it back — that’s not fair to Kit Harington’s Bastard of Winterfell, who surely had nothing to do with the decision of “The Walking Dead” to pull a fake-out with Glenn. But when “Game of Thrones” ended its fifth season with Snow bleeding out in the… well, snow… then spent its first few off-months having its actors, directors, and producers — and even the top HBO brass themselves — telling the press repeatedly that he was off the show for good, even when Harington was spotted multiple times filming Season 6 on the show’s Belfast set, it became clear that HBO had a problem.
Jon Snow’ing had officially become a verb, and it meant lying to an audience that knew better.
Harington, with his Jon Snow haircut, filming in Belfast all summer? Why were the people behind the show shutting down fan theories about wargs and Melisandre, when we knew that these were completely logical and downright probable ideas, given the series’ (and the book series it was based on) already well-established mythology? And, perhaps most importantly, were they relying on the fate of this one character to pull us in for Season 6, when we’ve been in love with the show’s immersive universe since 2010?
It was bizarre, it was frustrating, and it opened up some legitimate questions about blockbuster shows in the era of Peak TV: are they relying way too much on death to keep viewers tuned in? And once they’ve killed off too many red shirts (characters who’s sole purpose for existence is to be killed off), does that leave Jon Snow’ing as their only option, if they want to recreate the emotional stakes from some of their earlier seasons?
I strongly believe that TV can do better than that — and two episodes before its finale, with “Hardhome,” “Game of Thrones” reminded us that it
better than that, and can deliver a whopper of an episode without seriously harming a series regular. But after that finale (and its aftermath), I’m worried that my favorite shows are going to start teasing us with death fake-outs “Vampire Diaries”-style for every midseason and regular-season finale, just for the sake of giving us those damn feels.
A quick Twitter search for “Jon Snow” on the night of Glenn’s not-quite demise — the character was shown screaming, dead-center in a hoard of zombies, as guts that were seemingly his were torn out from a chest that was, again, seemingly his — revealed that I’m not alone. Other viewers are growing cynical with television’s need to off characters on the reg, especially when they make it fairly obvious that they’re not going to actually go through with their decision to kill off said character.
Plain and simple, it’s just not a great way to endear an audience, especially an audience that now has dozens of other shows they could be watching.
We haven’t gotten to see how the Jon Snow situation will play out in the ratings — presumably, they will still be massive, at least in the first couple of weeks — but “The Walking Dead” slipped 9% in its target demo two weeks after Glenn’s “death,” as they continued not to reveal the character’s fate. (Viewership for “Talking Dead,” however, rose — which is a pretty solid indicator that some of the audience was more interested in talking about Dead Glenn than about anything else that was happening on the show. Yikes.)
Basically, creating a scenario where the “is he or isn’t he” conversation around a character’s death is more important than actual storytelling — again, especially when we all know that
— is not-so-great news for everyone involved. Jon Snow’ing isn’t a whole lot of fun for the fans, who are being lied to by the shows they love; for the creators, who are potentially being forced to do the talking-down by networks who think that fandoms love death and cliffhangers; or for the actors — Steve Yuen was barred from social media and basically leaving his Atlanta apartment in those few weeks of “Walking Dead” hell, and poor Harington spent his Belfast summer having to apologize to fans for not being allowed to take photos. (The dead don’t show up in pictures, after all.)
Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t ever give a character a near-death experience (or, on a supernatural show like “Buffy” or “Game of Thrones,” a back-from-the-dead experience). We obviously haven’t seen Season 6 of “Game of Thrones” yet, and there’s a very good chance that Jon’s death will have rich, lasting consequences that add to his story.
The problem is that shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Walking Dead” are relying too heavily on Big Moments like death to keep their audiences interested, and that these shows need to find ways to move the narrative past those humps without pulling massive fake-outs.
Again — I’m not saying that a near-death experience can’t have merit. It’s just that, if you plan to bring a beloved actor back, you maybe shouldn’t spend weeks or months at a time teasing an audience that is smart enough to figure out that you’re pulling their leg. And you
shouldn’t rely on a Jon Snow cliffhanger alone to keep us interested. Just this past year, Lena Headey’s Cersei just had her best season yet, and Arya (Maisie Williams) went freakin’ blind. We’re already on board!
If that wasn’t enough, mere weeks after The Glenn Thing, “The Leftovers” did a back-from-the-dead episode — without resorting to tricks to manipulate its audience; without marketing it as the CANNOT MISS moment of the season. The series fake-killed its leading man, Kevin (Justin Theroux), resulting in one of the most bizarrely wonderful episodes of television this year. (Let’s just say it involved a hotel-set purgatory, International Assassins, and throwing children down a well.)
It held dramatic weight, fit with the tone of the show, and — most importantly — did not ask its audience to ride a cliffhanger wave, in a cheap attempt to get them to
things. The end of his “death” episode made it clear that Kevin was currently dead, but a mysterious and spiritual character dragging his body away also let us know immediately that there would be more to this story.
(ASIDE: The best part of “Leftovers” happening so close to Glenn is that showrunner Damon Lindelof called out “Walking Dead,” hard. “You will see Kevin, or parts of Kevin, possibly memories of Kevin, Kevin’s jogging pants, maybe another character named Kevin, an adolescent game entitled ’Seven Minutes in Kevin,’ and/or, but not necessarily literally, the ACTUAL Kevin, again. And soon. #GlennLives,” he sent Hitfix’s Alan Sepinwall in a statement, clearly mocking “Walking Dead” showrunner Scott Gimple’s quotes from weeks before.
So, yes, there are still some genre shows out there that are handling brushes with death in fresh and interesting ways; ways that have more to do with growth of characters than knee-jerk reactions from viewers.
The test now will be to wait and see whether or not blockbuster shows like “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” — and the many smaller shows that wish they could pull the numbers of “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones” — listen to their aggrieved audiences and change their ways, or if they keep on relying on death to keep things interesting.
They’ll undoubtedly have many opportunities in the very near future — they’ve been teasing a body in a grave on “Arrow,” for example, and “Walking Dead” might very soon find a main character in the path of a spiky bat. It will be very unfortunate for the owner of the brain that gets splattered by said bat, but if these shows want to gain our trust back, they’ll either have to
kill these characters for the sake of some real storytelling, or just find new and exciting ways to challenge them that don’t necessarily involve death.
Either way, being cynical is just no fun.