Which was the most shocking death in Game of Thrones’ history?

Game of Thrones’ final season is nearly here and with it comes a host of predictions, not only for how everything will end but also for the smaller things: Who will betray whom, who will die and when, who will get married and have happy little babies, and who will ride off into the sunset like Shane.

You can read all my predictions in the link below. It’s a year and a half old, but it’s still mostly what I think will happen…

Theorizing the final season of Game of Thrones

Instead of looking ahead, let’s look back. If there’s one thing that has defined the show over the past decade it’s a willingness to shockingly and brutally murder fan favorite characters. And not only that, Game of Thrones has been willing to kill off characters we would have considered the “star” of the show up to a half-second before his or her death.

Personally, I think this reputation—while earned—is a bit overblown. When you look back on the show’s most notable deaths, it’s easy to explain them away or justify them from a writer’s perspective. So let’s consider some of Game of Thrones’ most famous deaths (note that we’re discussing things from a show-only perspective)…

Robert Baratheon was the first major death in the show (not counting Jon Arryn, who is dead as the story begins). When you kill a King it’s almost always a big deal (and this show does love killing Kings); Bobby B’s death was perhaps a surprise but from a storytelling perspective it was a logical thing to happen. We had reached a crossroads where either the King would learn his wife had betrayed him or…well that’s just it. There was no way he wasn’t going to learn it without dying, and him learning it would have effectively ended a major part of the story right at the beginning. He had to go.

Ned Stark’s death was the big Season One twist. Those unfamiliar with the books no doubt looked to him as the “star” of the show. He was very much the protagonist, and even while other plots relating to Daenerys or the Night’s Watch had little to do with him, the show still felt like his show. But really, when you look back on it, was it that big of a surprise? “Killing the mentor” is a plot device as old as time. Killing the parent(s) so that the children can be forced to mature has been a storytelling trope from the beginning of fantasy stories. If anything, the fact that the show convinced everyone he wouldn’t die is a testament to the great writing: It was so easy to envision him being sent to serve on the Wall with Jon, plotting his eventual revenge…only to have it all end so abruptly.

Khal Drogo and Viserys both had to die in order for Dany to fly solo. It was immediately obvious that Dany was the central character in the Essos storyline, and Viserys was such a sniveling, pompous, entitled jerk, it was only a matter of time before he was axed. Drogo’s death was maybe more surprising but not when you think of his story in relation to Robert B’s. Both had reached the point where their next step would be the end of the story: Either Drogo amasses his army and sails to Westeros or…he dies. This being the first season should have made it clear that he was not long for the world.

Robb Stark’s death was obviously a surprise, but more for the time and place of it all. We had conditioned ourselves into seeing the Young Wolf as the true successor to Ned Stark’s storyline, but in hindsight, it should have been obvious that he was dead meat: The moment he broke his vow and married another woman he sealed his fate. Storytelling 101: Actions have consequences.

Joffrey Baratheon was such an odious little toad it was only a matter of time before cosmic justice caught up with him. As with Robb, the timing might have been a surprise, but few watched him take his final pathetic breathes and thought “I didn’t see that coming.”

Tywin Lannister had a death that was sort of the bizarro-version of Ned’s. Eddard Stark needed to die so his children could evolve into the next phase of their characters. So too did Tywin. His death was the catalyst for Tyrion, Jaime, and especially Cersei taking their next steps. As incredible as he was (maybe the best-realized character in the series), he was holding too many other great players back.

Jon Snow is still dead in the books and his death there was not as big a shock as Robb’s or Ned’s; it’s pretty clear that Jon warged into his direwolf Ghost at the end of A Dance with Dragons. There’s no warging into Ghost in the show, but still, Jon’s death lacked the same oomph that Robb’s had a few years earlier. By the time we reached season five, it had become clear who the two main heroes were (Jon and Dany) and there weren’t any other obvious contenders (except maybe Jaime) like there were when Robb was killed. Jon’s death always seemed more like a “cliffhanger” than a “finale” and his almost-immediate resurrection only proved everyone right (personally I think George RR Martin will keep Jon dead for almost all of The Winds of Winter, just to better-sell the impact of his death). Most were just waiting for him to come back, whereas everyone moved on from Robb and Ned as soon the screen went black.

Ramsey Bolton, meet Joffrey Baratheon.

Everyone in the Sept dying wasn’t really a shock since the show spent a whole slow-burn sequence building up to it. It was shocking in the method and in the number of bodies it claimed, but from a writer’s perspective, it felt like the Game of Thrones showrunners were clearing the deck of some characters they no longer had a use for, paving the way for the tighter, smaller-in-scope final two seasons. But still…what a sequence, right? The music is incredible.

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Littlefinger is arguably the most important villain in the whole Song of Ice and Fire. There’s good reason to believe he started Robert’s Rebellion by lying to Brandon Stark (Ned’s older brother), saying that Lyanna had been “abducted” by Rhaegar, when in fact they were lovers running off to elope. Littlefinger certainly is to blame for the War of the Five Kings because he was the one who told Lysa to poison her husband Jon Arryn, which brought Ned to King’s Landing to finish Jon’s investigation about the illegitimacy of Robert’s children. Littlefinger has been a scheming manipulator from before the start of the show. It was always just a matter of time before he was taken out, and while I think his death will be “bigger” in the books, it was hardly a surprise in the show when he finally got outwitted.

*****

So there you have the ten or so biggest and most shocking deaths in the show’s history (so far). All of them can be explained away as “not so shocking when you think about it…” except for one. There’s one more death that stands the test of time. There’s one more death that, every time I watch it, I shake my head in disbelief and sadness at the injustice of it all. One death breaks all the rules of Storytelling 101.

Oberyn Martell.

Oberyn Martell was a man on a mission of vengeance. What he sought was the cleanest, most honest, black-and-whitest kind of justice in the whole saga. Typically Game of Thrones has characters with shades of grey. The villains often have some trait or background that makes us, at least understand why they are so evil. Even Joffrey is a product of incest and terrible upbringing. Ramsey was an unloved bastard son of a man who got his jollies flaying men alive. Littlefinger was a scorned lover and a small man in a big man’s world.

And so on.

But Oberyn’s enemy was the Mountain. His was a grudge against a mammoth of a man who raped and murdered his sister and slaughtered her children. There is no honorable quality to the Mountain. There is no “other side” to consider. He’s depicted as the most black-and-white, simply-evil bad guy in all of Game of Thrones. More than any other, this should have been the most cut and dried of all fights in Game of Thrones.

Oberyn agreed to fight on behalf of Tyrion after the single greatest “dialogue” scene in the show’s history…

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Everything about this was so perfectly set up. Tyrion had already been in a similar situation in season one. He got out of it when Bronn fought as his Trial By Combat champion. Bronn fought and Bronn won, and Tyrion walked away smug and alive. That was just for jollies. This was serious. This had stakes.

Unlike Joffrey or Tywin or Littlefinger or everyone at the Sept of Baelor, Tyrion still had a story to tell. Oberyn was introduced earlier in the season in a big, “this guy’s important” sort of way; he seemed poised to have a multi-season arc. Meanwhile the Mountain hadn’t uttered more than three lines and had changed actors twice over. The writing was on the wall: Oberyn would get his revenge, Tyrion would go free, and a season would end with a little happiness for a change. A little justice. A little—

SWERVE!

If you watched this without knowing the books, this was the death that made you scream the loudest. Or maybe it’s just me. Even knowing what was coming, even after all these years and many rewatches, I still cry out “NO you idiot!” This was the death where Game of Thrones perfectly pulled the rug out from the viewer. No other death has been so…unfair. No other death has felt so needless. No other death has been so unsatisfactory.

I have a hunch, long after the show is ended and we look back on its legacy, the death of Oberyn Martell will remain Game of Thrones most shocking.

What do you think?

Let us know in the comments below!

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