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Game of Thrones: When “Shock” Stops Being Shocking

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Game of Thrones is in a bit of a bind.

It’s one of the most successful, talked about shows on TV, but it isn’t known for its intricate plot arcs or compelling characters. It’s famous for being shocking. And although this reputation gets people talking, it’s also destroying any integrity the show ever had.

Shock has to, by definition, be unexpected. If we expect a show to be shocking, we’re not shocked by it any more. So the series has to raise the stakes again and again, to be more and more extreme in order to keep shocking an audience that is anticipating that next big twist.

In season one, the supposed protagonist Ned Stark was beheaded in a not particularly grizzly but emotionally painful scene, and people were shocked. Killing the protagonist, instead of letting him survive at the last moment? What is this show?? In season two, the series raised the stakes by completely destroying Winterfell, the emotional home of the show and another thing that should have been untouchable. In season three, we had the Red Wedding, the unexpected gruesome deaths of many characters — and to ensure it felt much bigger than season one’s shock deaths, it threw in Robb Stark’s wife too. Not two, but three significant character deaths! Season four opened with Joffrey’s death, and had to climb from there. So by the time we got to season five, just killing Jon Snow and having Dany fly off on a dragon wasn’t enough. They had to do that and have extreme violence agaisnt Sansa and threaten other female characters and kill Shireen and have her father be the one who kills her and have her mother hang herself and have Brienne kill Stannis and, andand.

I can hardly imagine what will happen in season six to raise the stakes, now the series has gone beyond the books. But it is a major problem for the show’s consistency, as it goes for shock over sense. The entire point of “shock,” as I said, is that it’s unexpected. It’s not easy to completely surprise the audience with a twist, especially if they’re ready for them. So often the “twist” comes completely out of the left field, in order to maintain that shock potential, and character and plot arcs are abandoned. Ned Stark’s death was shocking, but it grew out of established character arcs. The death of Shireen was far more arbitrary, and Sansa’s traumatic season five didn’t make sense for her or for Littlefinger’s arcs. But it was more shocking that way, and shock is what gets people talking.

This also means that the show has to become more graphic, more gruesome, as it goes on. In the first season, Ned’s death was represented by a bunch of birds taking flight. By season five, we have a little girl burning to death, while the show lingers on her screams. It’s hard for the show to shock its audience now, so it escalates the horror of what it shows on screen. It’s no longer about giving the viewer an enjoyable experience, but about giving them as unenjoyable an experience as possible. Kill a character, but make it more bloody this time. Make it more meaningless. Make it more horrifying. More screams. More brutality. Rape some female characters, but put it as window dressing in the background, to show how awful and shocking this is. In order to get past the fact that the audience expects to be shocked, it pushes things beyond the buzz of “oh my god, I can’t believe that happened” to actively disturbing the audience. It aims to horrify, because that’s what happens when you take shock the extreme, and after five seasons, “extreme” is all they have left.

While in the beginning, the shock was a natural result of the twisting plot arcs, now the shock is the goal in itself, and the plot can no longer provide enough to support it. So the plot gets forgotten. It’s not about the story any more, or about the characters. It’s about that reputation. Shock the audience at all costs.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

8 thoughts on “Game of Thrones: When “Shock” Stops Being Shocking

  1. I’m unsure if I’m watching this series, but the showrunners have already annoyed me – apparently in a “radical shift” the female characters are really stepping up this series. IT WOULDN’T BE RADICAL IF YOU HAD ADAPTED IT PROPERLY TO BEGIN WITH. Also, given what Sansa’s ’empowerment’ last series entailed I shudder to think what lies ahead.

  2. There can be different types of shock. We, as audience, can be shocked and angry that the bad guys have hurt our favorite characters in a plot that flows logically and makes sense (e.g. Ned, RW, Oberyn), or we could be shocked and angry that the showrunners have destroyed our favorite characters, making them act like idiots, putting themselves or their loved ones in danger for no meaningful reason or killing their own family (Sansa and Littlefinger, Stannis and Shireen, and I can’t bear to talk about Dorne right now). Lately, it’s been more of the latter.

  3. Hi, I know you quit on this show and I understand why, but if you ever wanna watch an episode of this season, please watch ep 4. I loved it and I’d love to read your thoughts on it.

    1. All the Sansa stuff I’ve heard about this season is really tempting me to watch it. Maybe once the season ends and I know whether or not it’s going to a good place, I’ll marathon through it. :)

  4. I know what you mean, the show was too decadent at this point to make any sense.
    BUT
    I have to admit The Book of the Stranger gave me MUCH hope about the series. I´m not about to trust it just yet but it changes things. Maybe for the better?

  5. I don’t know. By all means catch up with the show once the season is over and see what you think of it, but I don’t feel that there’s a significant improvement with their female character arcs just yet.
    *SPOILERS*
    For one thing, in The Book of the Stranger, they dispose of Osha’s character in yet another scene that shows us Ramsay’s sadistic cruelty, because Lord knows we haven’t had enough of those. As for Sansa, I loved the scene with her and Brienne in Episode 1, but now it looks like she’s gone straight from supporting Theon’s arc to supporting Jon’s arc. That seems to be all the show can do with her nowadays, just shoehorn her into male characters’ plotlines. Littlefinger, Ramsay, Theon and Jon. She’s meant to be motivating Jon with her whole “Let’s take back Winterfell” thing, but I find it rings a little hollow since Sansa won’t be doing anything to help him do that, will she? Is she going to learn how to fight with a sword and step into the middle of the fray? Somehow, I think not. So then, it’s a little unfair of her to be urging Jon to take back Winterfell, and feels a little too much like she’s, yet again, just serving a male character’s arc rather than having her own.
    As for Dany, that scene in the Temple of the Dosh Khaleen at the end of the episode made very little sense. Sure, it was badass, but at the expense of plot and logic. Plus, we’ve seen it all before. It felt to me like the show writers were scared that Dany was getting unpopular with viewers, and said, “Quick, let’s have her do something badass again. It doesn’t have to make sense.” It’s like they don’t know what to do with her character unless she’s burning things to the ground with cool music playing in the background.
    Arya’s plotline’s good so far, but we’re not seeing a lot of it.

  6. Aaaand in The Door, we’re back to Sansa being easily manipulated by a man she should never ever trust again…

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