When Character Deaths (and Revivals) Work — and When They Don’t

'Game of Thrones' Jon Snow Alive-Dead
Courtesy HBO

Welcome to the club, Jon Snow and “Game of Thrones” — the club “Supernatural” has been running for years.

I refer, of course, to the “we killed off one of our lead characters — but wait! No we didn’t!” club (note to club secretary — we need to think of a better name).

It’s a phenomenon that is happening much more commonly on high-profile shows as genre entertainment has worked its way into the very heart of the TV industry. Back when Buffy Summers was brought back from the dead, that kind of program was very much on the cult fringes. Re-animation just did not happen on the most important shows of the day; nobody ever expected zombie Mrs. Landringham to turn up on “The West Wing,” for example. (In the time it took to write that sentence, a TV executive just commissioned “Zombie West Wing,” which, to be clear, I’d absolutely watch).

The point is, what used to be a fringe occurrence is now a commonplace event on TV, but not everyone knows how to deploy such a shock. For one thing, acting as if a show has never pulled off this unprecedented event is a bit rich, considering soaps and a whole host of solidly crafted supernatural-flavored programs do this kind of thing on the regular.

So it’s not an original move, but that’s fine — if a return to the living is executed in a way that gets the audience more invested in a character’s dilemmas and quests, it can be terrific. The best example of that is Dean’s death at the end of season three of “Supernatural” and his subsequent revival in season four by the angel Castiel. It is known.

If, on the other hand, a “death” leads to an orgy of artificially-induced media speculation and the move ultimately comes off as tiresome and more than a little manipulative, that is … not great.

The list is too long to get into here, but dozens of shows have done this kind of thing well: “Supernatural” has killed off various key characters so many times that they should really issue punch cards at this point (on your fifth return from death, you get a free latte). But returns from the afterlife or something like it can also be found on everything from “Penny Dreadful” to “American Horror Story” (where would we be without these priceless GIFs, I ask you?).

In fact, this go-to move is part of what makes genre fare so addictive and necessary; it lets us work out our feelings about death, grief and suffering without necessarily taking a beloved character or story off the table completely. Whether we’re talking about horror, supernatural, fantasy fare or science fiction, I’ve always defined genre entertainment as the place where death is often not necessarily the end — it can just be the kicker to an epically bad day.

When a death followed by a return to life creates deeper and more delicious moral and emotional challenges, not just for the returnee, but for those who loved him or her, well, that’s the gold standard. If you have any doubt about that, just watch the first episode of “The Returned,” when a young girl who’d died in a bus accident walked through her family’s front door, uninjured, oblivious to her accident and intent on making a sandwich. The look on her mother’s face — an unnameable mixture of joy and terror — is one of the most indelible moments of the past few years of television.

As that show and others have proved, timing is everything with a return from the dead. “The Walking Dead” “killed” and then weeks later revealed that Glenn was actually alive, which is yet another time that a high-profile show appeared to be milking a “death” for off-screen coverage and not for on-screen impact. There’s only so many times a show can play that card before audiences become truly cynical about all deaths and their attendant emotions, and that, in turn, can lead to the death of true suspense. If we think storytellers are just playing with us, why would we stay invested?

“Game of Thrones” went even further by subjecting us to a year of speculation that felt as though it lasted a decade. I jokingly suggested a week ago that I’d pay for an app that erased the name “Jon Snow” from all my social media accounts, but here’s the thing: I was not really joking.

To clarify, it was not a mistake for “Game of Thrones” to kill off Jon Snow; certainly the show set a precedent years ago for well-intentioned characters meeting untimely and brutal ends. “Home” was also an episode in which a newborn baby was ripped apart by dogs, so … that’s where this show lives. It would have been weird if someone as noble and morally upright as Jon Snow hadn’t been stabbed to death, honestly.

And it’s not wrong for the show to bring him back; again, “Game of Thrones” has established that revivals are possible in this magic-tinged universe (and it has also strongly implied that meddling in matters of life and death often comes with a terrible cost). No, what bothers me about the Jon Snow death and revival is that it all took a very long year to play out. No revival in the world could ever possibly live up to the hype that we’ve all had to tolerate since Jon bled out in the snow so long ago.

In the spirit of genre storytelling, let’s envision an alternate timeline: Jon Snow is killed late in the show’s previous season, or early in the sixth season. He is then brought back to life a couple of episodes later by Melisandre, but within the season in question, so we only have to deal with a couple of weeks of speculation, not a full year of it. And mind you, I am not hating on speculation itself — I love falling down “what if” rabbit holes when my imagination has been inspired by an adventurous and risk-taking program.

But all the “Game of Thrones” Jon Snow hype rang hollow because it’s hard to find anyone who truly believed the character would never come back, so all the denials of the actors and showrunners and everyone else associated with the drama were just so much empty froth. Yes, “Game of Thrones” folks can resort to a technicality — they said in interviews that Jon was dead because he had in fact stopped breathing, he had kicked the bucket, shuffled off the mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. He was an ex-Lord Commander.

But that’s hair-splitting. What is dead may never die, but it’s not death if it’s temporary. It was all but impossible to avoid the conclusion he was coming back, especially given that Kit Harington and his lovely curls were spotted in Belfast when the show resumed shooting last year. In the end, we were all forced to participate in this empty exercise in which the powers that be pretended Jon Snow was gone from “Game of Thrones” and some of us politely pretended to believe them (when we weren’t trying to ignore the whole sideshow, that is).

I guess the yearlong delay between his death and revival is understandable, given that no one ever writes about “Game of Thrones” and the struggling show was just desperate to get a little coverage. [Pause for laughter]

At this point, the show’s producers may well think the past year of repetitive questions has been a big pain in the behind, but it’s a pain of their own making. If Jon’s death and revival had occurred all in one season, no one would have had to endure the endless, largely pointless conjecture, and maybe his revival would have had more of an impact. You know, within the show itself

As it was, Jon Snow’s revival scene ended up feeling anti-climactic. Did anyone really think that “Game of Thrones” would spend two episodes giving pride of place to Jon Snow’s untouched dead body for no reason? Did anyone really think “Game of Thrones” would then show Melisandre bathing his body for several minutes, all to have him not wake up again? Of course not. But what if she had done that a week or two after he’d died? What if his death had felt organic and poignant, rather than endlessly delayed?

As it was, the best moments of “Home” did not revolve around Jon’s revival, and they weren’t the series of murders that by now seem somewhat rote on the show. “Game of Thrones,” for all its flaws, remains fascinating for what it tells us about characters that are grappling with life in novel and challenging ways. This is a world in which characters have often felt torn by competing loyalties, but the most compelling moments of this season depict the drama’s most fully realized characters creating new and intriguing alliances for themselves. The old order has fallen apart, and they’re making entirely new lives, based on their own desires, circumstances and needs.

Many of these men and women are tougher, smarter and more chastened, which is an interesting combination. Even the high-born characters no longer possess the swagger of those who are convinced their cause is just; Stannis thought that, and he’s dead. The High Sparrow is convinced he’s right, but he’s a strangely affable madman. In a world where certainties are hard to find, let alone hold on to, the show’s most interesting characters are more savvy, more tired and more willing to take chances that could lead to death, rather than live in a world that has no sustainable meaning for them. 

Sansa and Brienne in the forest, talking over old times; Tyrion’s face filling with wonder as he touched the scaly hide of a dragon; Davos telling Melisandre that her whole mission in life may not have been a mistake; Arya ferociously deciding to commit to her new life — these are the moments that linger, not the expected event that we all saw coming. The unexamined life is not worth living, but the overly scrutinized death (or non-death) is futility itself. 

So, Jon Snow, I’m glad you’re back among the living. Things are challenging in Westeros just now. Make all this folderol worthwhile, please. What you do in life had better be more interesting than the mechanics of your return.