O Death, where is your stinger?
This weekend will begin with Avengers: Endgame and end with Game of Thrones S8:E3 (unofficially titled The Battle of Winterfell, which could end up being as good as we get from showrunners who can’t name things without George’s help).
It’s going to be an epic weekend like few in past or future entertainment, and it is going to be largely defined by death. Endgame will pick up after half of all life vanished into thin air, and even if that annihilation is undone it’s likely multiple icons of the MCU will perish for real before the end. Thrones prepared the way for this battle – unlike any in film or television history – with last week’s episode of grim battle prep, an all-timer in which the characters reckoned with impending doom. We, like the characters, know that many of them are not going to make it out alive.
This weekend will be a spectacle of violence and of death. We will watch, and watch with anticipation, not in spite of the deathly peril, but because of it. We will see characters we have spent years investing in be destroyed, for good this time. The deaths this weekend will write definitive chapters in the MCU and and in Game of Thrones, but it is possible these new gravestones will signal something about our attitudes towards death and its role in popular culture.
The pairing of Endgame and Thrones is not just about coincidental release dates. They are two of the last pieces of monoculture, dominating the last decade of film and television and sure to influence the 2020s as well. Over the years, they have given us hours of violent content, but while the nature of that violence is very different, the two have steadily bent towards the other until they have reached a somewhat common ground.
Every installment of the MCU is violent, and while some of the films (Civil War, for example) have reckoned with the cost of human life, much of the violence has centered on hordes of CG aliens, nameless footsoldiers of the villains dispatched in grand bloodless fashion. Death was reserved for the unnamed in cartoonish comic book struggles, and our heroes have rarely been in any real danger. However, these films have gradually taken on more weight, the comic book violence has become war violence, and named characters have perished. Mass death is not just a rearview regret – it’s a future guarantee. Character deaths are no longer unlikely – they’re expected. There is no “next movie” guarantee for all the characters, and we know some of them will ride into the valley of death never to return. We know this will be, for some, the end. You can bring the kids, but it’s a far cry from those days when our heroes could punch each other over and over without any real risk to their safety.
Thrones has also changed how it delivers violence. Character deaths were, post Baelor, expected, but often came at an unexpected time. While many conventional battles take place off screen, much of the violence in the early seasons is within the context of medieval-style war, not a MacGuffin-chasing space opera or friendly neighborhood bank heist. Resurrection has played a role in the show, but in reality good-byes felt final, and often left no time for a send-off. However, The Battle of Winterfell involves a combination of departures from past Thrones violence. For one, instead of pitting humanity against itself, it involves the nameless hordes of the dead, which two battles have previously – one was very successful because of its shocking arrival and kinetic force, the other unsuccessful because of its general silliness. Second, there is no surprise to it – we’ve known this is coming, which has only been the case with a few other battles in the show’s history, which were all (and this is the third point) battles within a conventional military engagement. And, fourth, the situation is so perilous now that we are prepared for any character to die. There’s not really any opportunity for a shocker here. We’re prepared.
And so while the one was once defined by The Avengers invasion of nameless Chitauri soldiers and the deathless internecine conflict of Civil War, and the other made its mark with the shocking character deaths at the Red Wedding and the grisly Battle of the Bastards, both have come to the brink of a long-expected conflict against big baddies bent on shaping the world to their will commanding magical powers and hordes of nameless footsoldiers. Both have prepared us to say farewell to important characters, draining the shock value by promising an end. Both conflicts are larger than life and, to some extent, silly. That’s not the right word, but consider that the MCU’s story of the struggle to save half the life in the universe involves battling a purple thicc-boi with a glove full of glowy pebbles and a team of people with stage names. Thrones traded in the intricacies of warring states, assassinations, and trials-by-combat for a battle literally between life and death as humans face off with a guy called the Night King who has never spoken a word and has an army of zombies – including a zombie dragon. Again, silly isn’t the right word, but both conflicts are theatrical and contrived to an extent while being deadly serious and inescapably grim.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating: Endgame might still feel more like a big dumb campy superhero movie than a gritty and somber tale of mortality, and Thrones might still deliver its spectacle in a familiarly visceral fashion that will cut a bloody swathe back into the less grandiose stakes of the final three episodes. There’s no mistaking which one is PG-13 and repeatedly names characters using Blank-Man portmanteaus.
But the similarities remain and, over the last decade, these two diametrically opposed pieces of monoculture have steadily bent towards one another until they have brought us to a place where we are prepared to watch violent conflicts of grand scale which guarantee to take away beloved characters forever.
What does this mean? I don’t know for certain, but there are many things it could mean, and these things are worth considering.
Both conflicts have become good guys versus bad guys featuring the ultimate team-ups. We can read this as a longing for unity, for people to set aside differences to face what really matters. Or this might suggest something about how, in “these divisive times,” we want to eliminate half the population Thanos-style before fixing the world the way we want to. We want to set aside petty squabbles to face existential threats, but do we actually view that threat as people with whom we disagree?
The threats, stakes, and solutions have simplified. Even if the details are confusing and convoluted, it’s as straightforward as “save the world.” Perhaps we’ve grown weary of nuanced discussions, complicated threats, underlying problems, and systemic issues while longing for the days when we allowed ourselves to think things were more black and white.
Maybe this all suggests that popular culture can only ever move towards the center. It seems inevitable, in hindsight, that the MCU would have to insist on being more serious. While Thrones became a phenomenon through subversion not fit for kids or passive viewing, it has moved closer to the form and content of more popular big-budget fare. It’s possible there is a moderation which entices all popular culture, even if this middle ground sometimes ends up pleasing very few people.
We clearly still have a bloodlust in our entertainment, as high body counts in popular films and television is commonplace. But it seems we prefer less blood and gore and for the violence to involve a lot of non-humans. Yeah, okay, last season’s Loot Train was pretty violent and yeah Scarlet Witch threw Proxima Midnight into a flying paper shredder, but I sense that this weekend will be less explicit. Next month we get the third John Wick film, and that popular franchise is a good example of our violent tastes. There is a lot of killing, and a fair amount of blood, but there is something artful and not cruel about it that lets it be aesthetic rather than upsetting.
But the point that might be most unique to this particular cultural event of a weekend concerns what I brought up first: the deaths of beloved characters. What does this unique moment, in which we expectantly await farewells, say about our connection to characters, stories, and, indeed, death in the popular imagination? I’m not sure you can ask any of those questions and expect a short or simple answer, but let’s kick them around a bit. At first glance, it might appear we’ve come to certain point of maturity, where we’ve accepted that stories do come to an end, and that part of that involves saying goodbye to characters, and sometimes that goodbye is on account of death. Thrones’ threat of death has become culturally tolerable, and the safety of superhero movies has become outdated. So many of the world’s great stories, from the Iliad to Hamlet to The Silmarillion, are marked by death, and maybe now our most popular stories have embraced that and we’ve embraced them for it.
But maybe not. Maybe the particular way in which death arrives this weekend indicates that we are only ready to face death when we can do it on our own terms. And maybe we’re tricking ourselves into believing that this is what it’s like to tell mature stories of mortality.
I know some people are going to be a wreck when one or more of the iconic Avengers dies. They’ve been watching Tony Stark and Steve Rogers for years, and seeing them perish will be tough. But they’re ready for it. They’re already expecting the worst. They’ll be ready for the grief. And you can be sure that those deaths will be for something – they’ll make sense within a narrative, they’ll happen in a heroic manner, and there will be time for a final word. It will be about as easy as that sort of thing can be.
It will be tough to see the deaths of supporting characters like Jorah, and truly upsetting to see the demise of a main character like Arya, but nothing next week will compare to the moment Joffrey turned and said “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head!” or the moment the Mountain took his hands and did that to Oberyn. We’re ready this time. And, again, any of these deaths will mean something, as our heroes will die in defense of human life itself.
These will be emotional, cathartic viewing experiences, and ones that will give us a view of death from a safe distance. And, afterwards, we will talk with one another about death and dying and our reaction to it all, forgetting that we knew this was all going to happen, that we were prepared. We’ll have fooled ourselves into thinking we really reckoned with death.
This fits right into the rest of our culture and our attitudes to permanent cancellation. Our entertainment is dominated by preexisting intellectual properties which are self-sustaining content machines. There will be more Marvel movies. There will be Thrones spin-offs. We can always re-boot a franchise, or find a way to undo the canon. We can resurrect characters. We can keep characters around even after their actor dies. We can just go back and make prequels if we miss anyone that much. Yes this all describes Star Wars.
We resent things being taken away from us. Fans start petitions to save shows or bring them back, and they flip out when seemingly unwarranted deaths occur, sometimes demanding a way back for the character.
And while we recoil from the sting of death and the pain of goodbyes in our popular entertainment, we remain stricken with fear by our own mortality and our own impermanence. As much as ever, we remain obsessed with finding ways to prolong our lives, and sudden, unexpected loss of life confounds us every time. As the planet faces existential threats, many people live terrified by the prospect of irreversible environmental collapse, while many others insist that any dangers will just work themselves out. Religious, racial/ethnic, and other minorities live in fear of erasure and annihilation, while majorities rage against what they see as an erosion of their traditional way of life. Millennials, pushed to be exceptional, burn themselves out trying to make a name for themselves, to be remembered, to leave their unique mark on the world. The old, as always, face the prospect of death while watching the world pass them by. Our own reality is in keeping with what Varys told Tyrion in the first episode of this season: “Respect is how the young keep us at a distance, so we don’t remind them of an unpleasant truth…. Nothing lasts.”
And perhaps I need say nothing more of what this weekend means. We will see death at a safe distance, one that does not make us actually confront the unpleasant truth that nothing lasts. We will tell ourselves it is an unprecedented few days of character loss, but much less will truly end than we believe.
This forms a nice symmetry with the NFL Draft (also this weekend), which is all about eternally springing optimism and a savage insistence on youth and newness. So who should the Cardinals take at number one? Lol jk this just ain’t that kind of blog no more so you’ll need to move along if you’re looking for that kind of content.
Well, anyway, we’ll see if this blog holds up on the other side of the weekend. Have fun – this really is a rare moment in culture. I wish you good fortune in the wars to come. Valar Morghulis.
Forth now, and fear no darkness. But Fear the Deer.
Soli Deo Gloria