‘Game of Thrones’ and The Stakes of Raising The Dead

By  · Published on October 31st, 2014

“Hail Hydra.” (HBO)

It’s October, and we’re a little more than six months past the Season Four premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and therefore less than half a year away from the Season Five premiere. We just have to make it through Winter. Which is coming, the Stark meteorologists have assured us.

October is also the month terminated by the holiday of Halloween, with all the attendant ghosts stories, zombie hordes hunting brains (or candy ‐ one of those), and the appearance of other undead creatures too ornery to quietly stay dead. A fine time to talk about Game of Thrones. And resurrection.

Heads up, I’ll be talking Season Three details, so if you’re behind, Spoiler alert.

Game of Thrones is a fantasy, but in general magic isn’t heavily emphasized. Sure, we’ve seen a magical assassination and some Penn and Tellerstyle shenanigans from the Warlocks of Qarth, but usually swords are more reliable than spells.

That is, until Season Three, when the Hound’s sword only mostly killed Beric Dondarrion, who came back to life as he had six times before. Resurrected by badass priest Thoros of Myr.

Critics were quick to complain that if resurrection in Game of Thrones is possible, then the dramatic stakes are lost. Death, where is thy sting? and all that. This was particularly relevant for a show that two seasons before had highlighted the deadly serious stakes when Ned Stark, the literal poster boy for the series, had his life cut short.

But is the example of Beric Dondarrion’s resurrection really a negative game-changer for the story’s dramatic stakes? Game of Thrones wouldn’t be the first example of a fantasy epic that included a character’s death and return.

“He’s got a bad feeling about this…” (Warner Bros.)

Lord of the Leveling Up

In the first Lord of the Rings movie, the Fellowship of the Ring, all-around good guy wizard Gandalf the Grey appeared to sacrifice himself to rescue the adventuring party from a fiery, demonic Balrog.

This involved shattering a bridge the Balrog was attempting to cross, which dropped the flight-challenged winged monster into a crevasse. Sadly with Gandalf in tow also and presumed dead.

In The Two Towers, we discover that Gandalf was quite simply too badass to die. He used the falling Fallen-Maiar as a cushion (a pincushion, as he was stabbing it with his sword Glamdring on the way down.) He’d then chased the Balrog up through the mountain to the summit, powered up Glamdring with some handy lightning and killed the Valarauka.

Did I say too badass to die? I did but don’t believe me. Gandalf then died from his exertions. But wait! He apparently had earned enough XP (that would be “experience points” to any non-gamers reading this) from the Balrog’s death to warrant resurrection. Gandalf the Grey was dead, but Gandalf the White had arrived.

“A Bath and a New Wig were All that was Required!” (Warner Bros.)

Did the overall dramatic stakes change with Gandalf’s death and resurrection? Maybe. Certainly the emotional loss the Fellowship felt, although not misplaced, wouldn’t have the same impact on repeat viewings. But the stakes of the Free Peoples versus Sauron and his legions were essentially unchanged. The story was still all about the Ring being dropped into Mount Doom.

The scope of the resurrection was admittedly limited to Gandalf. He’s a wizard and he’s got divine backing. But we don’t know if that trick would work a second time. Watching the films, we could still worry about him dying again.

Scene: Valinor:

Valar #1: Oh, Gandalf the Grey died.
Valar #2: No worries, Saruman has vacated “the White” position; just level “Grey” up and issue him this robe.

Scene: Valinor, later:

Valar #1: Hey? Gandalf the White just died!
Valar #2: Really? That wasn’t in my script. We’re all out of new robes and colours. Tell him he’s now Gandalf the Ultraviolet, and his robe will be invisible and intangible.
Valar #2: There goes our PG rating.

I suppose we might have less investment emotionally in Gandalf if he could die and return, die and return.

I mean, Who would want that?


Doctor, Heal Thyself

Although, that’s pretty much what we get from The Doctor in BBC’s long running Doctor Who series.

The Doctor, a Timelord, upon death regenerates into a new body, often with a new personality. Look, we all understand that this was a clever way of enabling the television show to last 50 years (with a long hiatus preceding the 9th Doctor) but it absolutely should water down the dramatic stakes. Whenever the Doctor is put into a situation where death is a possible outcome, can we really be that invested?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that I am that invested, even though I know that the Doctor will regenerate. (There’s some debate on when the regeneration cycle will be terminal. Back in Ye Olde Dayes when I watched the Third and Fourth Doctors (*my* Doctors) it was a given that he’d be capped at 13 regenerations. I believe now that the regeneration limit has been lifted due to some consequence in one of the series I’ve missed (wife and I have jumped in on Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor) and that’s what I’m basing my opinions on. Whovians, feel free to school me.)

I can think of some reasons for this continued investment. Often, the potential death of the Doctor would be as a result of a failure to stop whatever threat was underway. That’s fairly common in most television shows. But more importantly, the Doctor who dies and the Doctor who regenerates are different. Often very different. The memories of the previous regenerations are mostly there (sometimes a plot point relies on past memories being fuzzy) but the personality can wildly vary. A change in the Doctor might be very unwelcome to a viewer who had an emotional attachment to the old.

But the dramatic stakes haven’t changed. We know threats and evil (like Daleks) will exist. And to oppose them, there’s the Doctor. Not really the same Doctor, but a Doctor.

“Hey, She’s Died *Twice*” (Fox Television)

In Every Generation, a [HEROIC ARCHETYPE] is Born. And Eventually Dies. To Make Room for a New One.

In many ways, this is similar to the premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

If we think of the Doctor as more an occupation or title than a person, that ends up being very similar to the Slayer. A Slayer lives, fights evil, dies. A new Slayer is activated. Lives, fights evil, dies. A new Slayer is activated.

The Watchers Council, who should at least be vaguely interested in the welfare of the Slayer, mostly had no emotional investment whatsoever. There’s no need to bow to the demands of any particular Slayer, a new one was always on the horizon. Probably one more amenable to Watchers Council’s directions and control. So in a sense, the Slayer as a concept was constantly being resurrected. Without affecting the stakes. (And I’m not talking about Mister Pointy.)

Buffy was literally resurrected during the course of the show. (And not the more or less prosaic resuscitation done to bring her back to life from being drowned by the Master in Season One, I’m talking about the magical ritual the Scooby Gang undertook to bring the dead and decayed body of Buffy Summers back to life, and to restore into it her soul. A classic do-over.)

I’m not a fan of the sixth season of Buffy, in some ways I consider the first five seasons a complete story, with the following two seasons watering down the Buffy mythos. But I respect the resurrection story, not the clap-your-hands, make-it-happen execution that brought her back to life, but her depression from being yanked out of a state of bliss and put back into the painful burden-filled real world. That consequence was a fascinating story concept.

Bringing Buffy back to life raised the dramatic stakes, not lowered them.

Besides, Buffy wasn’t singular in being brought back from death. It was a show about vampires. In a way, a lot of characters came back.

The Good Vampires, the Bad Vampires, and the Ugly Vampires

Any show with vampires is going to eventually take a character we know and love (or at least know) and turn them into the undead.

There’s a fine line between the idea of damning a person from a vampire’s bite, or saving them from death. In general, the Buffy universe always equated undeath with damnation. A vampire was essentially a demon wearing the dead person’s skin, relating to the human world through the filter and lens of the dead person’s personality.

This may or may not be the same mechanism in HBO’s recently ended series True Blood, which vaguely attempted to explore the idea of vampires as a species openly co-existing with humans. True Blood was a guilty pleasure of mine, and I’m not trying to defend it, but it fits in with my general thesis. Occasionally, someone on the show would be on the brink of death, and to save them, they are turned into an asshole. I mean, a vampire.

Death is usually considered a negative, but coming back might be worse, especially if it’s a character one has investment in (or in the case of Tara, strong neutral feelings for.) The dramatic stakes aren’t lowered, but are raised as the protagonists are forced to deal with a very personal complication. In my experience, resurrections often fall into this mold. Rarely is the resurrection merely the removal of the deadly condition. But there are exceptions.

“Forever” (Warner Bros. TV)

Two Mysterious Exceptions

Last year, my daughter discovered the ABC show Resurrection, and declared it in her youthful wisdom “the Best Show Ever.” This year, my wife is making me watch Forever.

(I suspect she wanted my implicit approval of any improper thoughts she has towards Ioan Gruffud.)

Neither show is concerned about the possibility that raising the dead might lower dramatic stakes. On the contrary, the premises of the shows depend on resurrection, and a very clean type of resurrection where the resurrected are returned without evidence of mortal wounds or other ill-effects. (That we know of.)

In these shows, the dramatic stakes are not related to a character’s invulnerability, but to the mystery that underlies their unexplained tenacious survival.

Of interest to me, Michelle Fairley, the deceased matriarch of the Stark family from Game of Thrones is now part of the cast on Resurrection, playing a deceased matriarch. Of interest because it brings me back to that show and Beric Dondarrion, with one eye but many lives.

Revenant Evil

There are many examples of shows surviving the resurrection of characters without it becoming a cancer for the dramatic stakes and the quality of investment expected from the audience. (If you don’t believe me, re-read everything up above.) Of course, this isn’t true of every television show. Bobby Ewing coming back from the dead was crazy, because he had never been dead. It had all been a dream.

Seriously, I think Time Travel should have been introduced into the Dallas storyline continuity before dropping that bomb.

But, the issue with Bobby Ewing wasn’t so much that his death had been retconned into a dream, but that there’d been a full season (including a season of Knott’s Landing) that had just been invalidated. That was the problem, the wasted time in watching storylines that could not have any bearing on the reality of the story. (Some people make that claim about the final season of Lost. Those people are wrong.) It made for an inconsistent and incoherent story.

“I AM Changed! And Not Just Because I was Recast from Season One!” (HBO)

In regards to the coherence of Beric Dondarrion and his resurrection, magical revivification might not necessarily be commonplace in the setting of Game of Thrones, but it isn’t necessarily inconsistently done (albeit because we have such a small dataset to work from.)

All we can say is that Thoros of Myr has had surprising success in reviving Lord Beric, on several occasions, from mortal wounds. Heavy emphasis on surprising. Melisandre of Asshai, the only other power-wielding devotee of the Lord of Light, was quite shocked when told of Thoros’ unexpected talent. And she’s hardly ever surprised, right Maester Cressen?

There’s a common thread in shows that allow for resurrection, those who return are different. Often different for the worse. Lord Beric does not seem unchanged by his experiences during the time in-between resurrections, and he gives the impression of becoming less and less of the man he was.

So, are the stakes lowered in Game of Thrones, now that resurrection is on the table? I really don’t see why that’s the conclusion. Death might have lost its sting, but often the new life picks up that missing burden. More often than not, it’s a fate to be avoided.

As always, I’m happy to hear opposing opinions.

Hey, since I’m on a Game of Thrones topic, there’s an ancillary matter vaguely related to the above, which I’d like to talk about. But it’s spoilery from Book Three and beyond. I hate spoiling people, so if you’re not up to date, please stop reading. (I doubt you need much encouragement to stop reading this Wall of Text.)

Spoilers begin, after this gentle warning from the late, lamented Oberyn Martell.

(courtesy of VanityFair.com)

Now it’s time for the article that I really wanted to write. All that stuff above is mostly a smokescreen.

It’s the Halloween-month, and we’re used to the dead returning, scaring the crap out of the living at this bleak time. So when are we going to see Lady Stoneheart show up on Game of Thrones, to start wreaking some well-deserved judgment on the Freys? (And hopefully, eventually, some Boltons, yo?)

Lady Stoneheart is Late, and is the Cat Out of the Bag?

Okay fellow book readers (and possibly spoiler-loving non-readers), since the Red Wedding, we’ve been waiting to see Catelyn Stark be pulled from a river and revived when Beric Dondarrion gives her a kiss of life that Thoros refuses to apply. A kiss that ends Lord Beric’s half-life existence forever and gives birth to the vengeful living cadaver, Lady Stoneheart.

Some were hoping that her return would be the shocking last scene of Season Three (and therefore were extra-aggravated with the somewhat less than inspiring rock-concert crowd-surfing of Daenerys as the final shot.)

The end of Season Four, which largely coincided with the end of A Storm of Swords (whose epilogue introduced the scary revenant of Catelyn Stark), seemed the perfect place to introduce Scary Stark. Some were expecting that Podrick and Brienne’s story from the books would be truncated to sync up with Lady Stoneheart’s first introduction to the viewing audience in an extra-horrifying finale.

But no, instead the finale continued the momentum that had been carried through the fourth season, that bad things were now happening to the “bad guys” (kinda), and good things were now happening to the “good guys”. (Kinda.)

Up until Season Four, book readers had previously been pretty good about keeping the cards close to their chain-mailed chests. Pretty much no one breathed a word about Ned Stark’s execution, or Robb’s bad time at the Tully-Frey reception, or the surprising and messy conclusion to the Battle of the (Fourth) Century (post-Targaryen conquest): the Mountain and the Viper. But foiled expectations were met with loud observations.

Episode Nine ended with Jon walking to negotiate with Mance Rayder:

The Internet response: WHERE THE HELL IS STANNIS?

The Internet’s second response: What? Is Stannis going to show up and save the day?

Episode Ten ended with Arya sailing off to Braavos, and no sign, not even a hint, of Catelyn’s resurrection:


The Internet’s second response: WHO? We better Google this!

Following the end of the finale, there were a fair amount of articles written, some better than others at keeping a lid on spoilery details, about Lady Stoneheart’s omission. I know there were show watchers who pieced together the secret that Catelyn Stark rises from the dead in the books.

It might still happen. There has been negative press (by that I mean, reports in the media that imply Lady Stoneheart will not be in the future storylines) but I haven’t read anything conclusive. And really, even if Weiss and Benioff held a press conference and swore that they were cutting Lady Stoneheart from the series, I’m not so sure I’d take them at face value. The only narrative from the show-runners that I’m interested in is what’s presented on the show. If you ask too many questions of show-runners (*cough cough* Cuse and Lindeloff *cough cough*) their vague answers are going to feed confirmation-biased expectations. And that path leads to disappointment.

Let’s just take it as a given that I believe we’ll be seeing a risen Catelyn Stark. I don’t even require Michelle Fairley to reprise the role of Catelyn Stark immediately. Catelyn in the books is described as messed up, and she doesn’t speak (at least not in Book Three’s epilogue.) Another actress could fill that role with the help of prosthetics.

Early in Season Four’s airing, a blog I follow had a very interesting photo of actress Lu Corfield, reported to be a new addition to the cast for the season:


Corfield (on the right) bears a close resemblance to Michelle Fairley (on the left, obviously.) Anabloggin originally thought that Lu might be a stand-in for Fairley as the silent, sepulchral Stoneheart, but she ended up playing a minor role as the Madame of the Mole’s Town brothel instead.

But… she really does look a lot like Fairley to me… I’m just saying.

The fact is that enough information had been leaked to tip off show-watchers, who now have a notion about Cat’s return in the books. A buddy of mine is a show watcher, and he was not happy to hear the rumor of Catelyn back from the dead. His complaint was exactly what I was hearing when Beric Dondarrion could not be killed by the Hound.

If someone could return from the dead, Cat’s death at the Red Wedding was meaningless. And the more articles people like my friend read, saying that Lady Stoneheart is being cut from the story and why that’s a good thing for the story’s overall dramatic stakes, the more that opinion gets reinforced.


Except what’s pulled out of the river and brought back to life, isn’t really Catelyn Stark. It’s a monster. And that makes Catelyn’s demise pretty meaningful.

If Catelyn doesn’t come back, then her long simmering feud with Jon Snow is meaningless. Brienne of Tarth’s story is meaningless. Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr’s storylines are meaningless (and I can’t imagine a universe that would deflate the importance of Thoros of Myr, the Chuck Norris of Westeros.)

A dead Catelyn ends the possibility of meaning to those stories. But an undead Catelyn ignites the spark of possibilities. It’s too early to rule anything out about what is going on in Book Five, with Brienne leading Jaime into a Stoneheart trap. (We all think that, right?) There’s a huge mess of different storylines, and there’s going to be pressure to start having storylines intersect.

Catelyn Stark is a lynchpin linking Jaime and Brienne to Stannis and Ramsay Snow, Jon Snow and Arya. It makes no sense to say that the story would be better off without her, or to say that the dramatic stakes have been reduced now that a living character has been transformed into an unpredictable creature.

Anyway, I’m fine with us not seeing Lady Stoneheart in Season Five either. But I really want to see some Freys swinging from trees during the next season to at least set things up for the future.

Podrick: M’lady, there’s another hanged man, wearing Frey colours. That’s the fifth this week.
Brienne: What of it, Pod? I’m a Tarth, and you’re a pain. We have nothing to fear from people with grudges against the Freys.
Podrick: Really? I was sensing a rise in the local dramatic stakes.
Brienne: You’re an idiot.

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