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Deathwatch

It is the morning of Monday, April the 29th, 2019. If you’re able to read this – congratulations! You’re still alive! You, Gentle Reader, are a proud survivor of the epic pop culture slaughterfest that was this past weekend!

In the event that you’re not a geek (and why not? All the cool kids are uncool these days), this past weekend saw the release of Avengers: Endgame in movie theaters, and the airing of the "The Long Night" episode of Game of Thrones on HBO. The former, of course, is the biggest movie in all of human history, the culmination of an eleven-year cycle of films and the end of an epic struggle against a villain who we last saw exterminating half of all life in the universe. (Year-old spoiler alert, I guess.) The latter is a climactic episode in the most violent fantasy series of all time, portraying the long-awaited Battle of Winterfell, in which an army of the undead which is also out to exterminate all life (I’m sensing a theme here) engages in final battle against our plucky band of heroes. Between these two, we watched as no fewer than eight beloved characters, who we’ve been following and rooting for over the course of the past decade, died before our very eyes.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you which characters they were. You might not have had a chance to watch yet, and I’m not about to ruin anything for you. Besides, by now there are hundreds, nay thousands, of reviews and think pieces about these stories, and anything I might have to add would be redundant. (Especially since you could always, y’know, watch them yourself and make up your own mind.) No, what I want to talk about is the reaction of the audience to all of this. Not only to the stories themselves, but to the literal years of build up to them. To the sickening inevitability, after all these years of violence, of watching the deaths of characters we’ve come to care for as if they were real people.

Giddy, gleeful anticipation.

It wasn’t always like this. Main characters almost never died on television series. (And yes, the Marvel movies are movies, but in their long-form serialization they hew close enough to television that I feel comfortable discussing them in that context here.) That’s not how television worked – the model was always a stable cast of characters who we could follow on weekly adventures that didn’t deviate too drastically from week to week, so the crucial element of comfort was always there. When character deaths did occur, usually the result of off-screen contract disputes, they were shocking, and traumatic, and they hurt – just ask any of us old folks who still can quote Radar’s news about Henry Blake’s plane. And a large part of what made them shocking was the sense that they violated the comforting model we’d come to depend on.

That all started to change when The Sopranos debuted, ushering in this long era of pop culture that gets called by such names as “Peak TV” or “The Second Golden Age.” It was a show about mobsters, so naturally, main characters died. It wouldn’t have made any sense if they didn’t – in order to be true to the milieu, these violent characters had to commit and suffer violence. Tony Soprano’s fundamental discomfort was the entire point of the show, so audience comfort went right out the window.

Or did it?

A few years later, LOST upped the ante even further by making character deaths a fundamental part of the show’s dramatic structure. After all, setting the series on a Magical Mystery Island meant that killing off characters had nothing to do with verisimilitude or concessions to realism. It did, however establish the dramatic stakes. And it fueled the show’s addictive nature, as we kept hoping that whenever somebody met a tragic fate, it somehow brought us closer to solving the show’s mysteries. (Still waiting on that, by the way.)

Now, these were shows of genuine quality and artistry, made by people who cared about them and saw the violence as a means to an end – a way of expanding the medium, the vocabulary of storytelling. Trouble is, not everybody out there in the audience cared about the artistry – they just grooved on all the violence. And those “quality” shows shared broadcast space with reality gameshows and trash talk shows, and a hundred terrible copycats, extreme fighting and robot fighting and extreme robot fighting, all of which stoked bloodlust for the sake of bloodlust. And slowly but surely – well, really, not so slowly – that lust became addiction.

I mean, it’s not like violence is anything new – our entertainments have come with a fictional body count ever since Sophocles. The question is always the purpose to which that fictional violence is put. And here we are now, in a world of entertainment that exists for the express purpose of letting us watch characters die. That entertainment can still be high-quality – most would argue that this weekend’s bloodbaths were as high-quality as it gets – but it’s still part of the bread and circuses we’re given as inhabitants of this crumbling empire.

So please, let’s use this Monday as Mondays are typically used, to recover from the weekend’s excesses. Mourn the fictional fallen, celebrate the heroes who took down the archvillains this week – and then, please, come back to us here in the land of the living. Reality could use the attention.

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