Game of Thrones and Television’s Long History of Cheating Death

The “surprise” return of a major character in the HBO show’s sixth season won’t hurt the future of small-screen storytelling.


The end of Game of Thrones’s first season did something truly audacious in the world of television: It killed the show’s main character, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), and it did so in a way that made it clear he wasn’t coming back. Book readers might have known it was coming, but in its first year Game of Thrones still had the real capacity to surprise the majority of its viewers. When Ned lost his head in the closing seconds of the episode “Baelor,” there was no argument that he could be put back together again. But when Jon Snow was stabbed to death in the most recent season finale, the opposite was true: Thrones wasn’t subverting audience expectations, but playing into a long tradition of cliffhanger “deaths” on TV.

His resurrection on Sunday wasn’t some comic-book copout, but a predictable move with a long history of success in many TV genres, from fantasy to daytime soap. When Ned died, Game of Thrones was sending a clear signal to viewers that no character was safe, an idea later reinforced over the years with the losses of popular characters like Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, Tywin Lannister, and Stannis Baratheon. Jon Snow snapping back to life so quickly would seem to refute that sense of danger, but Game of Thrones made the right choice. Senselessly killing off Jon so late in the series wouldn’t have made much narrative sense, but offing him and bringing him back is exactly the kind of buzzy trick that many a hit show in its later years has pulled off successfully. If Buffy can die and come back to life, why can’t Jon Snow?

Buffy Summers’s death, at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth season, might be the perfect analogue for Jon’s brief demise. In “The Gift,” Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) sacrificed her life to save the world, leaving the show on a cliffhanger as it went into a tumultuous off-season in which it ended up switching networks from The WB to UPN. There was never any real expectation that the show’s titular character would stay dead for very long, but the trauma of her resurrection was the dramatic grounding for the following year’s stories, and speculation over just how it would happen kept fans chattering over the summer as the show’s producers dealt with TV network politics. Buffy was a fantasy show, but one that had hard and fast rules about characters coming back to life—indeed, a failed attempt to bring back her deceased mother (which produced an unseen but still horrifying zombie) was the plot of a season five episode.

Ned, Robb, Tywin, and countless other Game of Thrones characters might be gone forever, but there was plenty of justification within the show’s narrative for characters coming back from the dead. In season three, viewers met Beric Dondarrion, a warrior who had been magically revived six times, apparently using the same magic that brought Jon back. He had been changed by the experience, and Jon may well be too—that’s part of the fun of a fantasy show, exploring and dramatizing the eerie and unknowable. When the author and New York columnist Mark Harris criticized Jon’s return as part of a larger trend in “comic-book culture” invading TV, it felt like a strange comparison: After all, it’s not just Buffy who’s sprung back to life on the small screen over the years.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation was assimilated into the Borg (a fate worse than death) and freed the following season, an experience that irrevocably changed him. Bobby Ewing of the nighttime soap classic Dallas was famously killed off and then brought back with the twist that the previous season without him in it had just been a dream (TV was undoubtedly stranger in the 1980s). More recently, Colin Farrell took a shotgun blast to the chest in True Detective, woke up in purgatory, then sputtered back to life; The Walking Dead’s Glenn was “eaten alive” by zombies, but later proved to be just fine, though that particular fake-out prompted a slew of fan outrage. Perhaps best of all was Justin Theroux’s loopy trip in and out of the afterlife, a magical hotel with a hell of a karaoke bar, in The Leftovers’s incredible episode “International Assassin.”

Of course, it’s easy to go too far. Shows like Buffy and The Leftovers earned their resurrections by having them serve as the focal point of an entire season’s worth of storytelling. The Walking Dead earned jeers because Glenn’s “death” seemed to exist only to stoke gossip and fan speculation, a trick the show pulled again in its season finale. If Jon Snow returns an unchanged man, his death a mere blip, the entire endeavor will seem pointless—but considering Thrones’s history with this sort of magic, that’s unlikely.

In comic books, superheroes and villains almost never stay dead: It’s a side effect of telling stories about the same characters for decade after decade. Spider-Man might watch the Green Goblin perish, but 10 years later, a new writer could have an interesting idea for a Green Goblin story—so why keep him dead? That mentality has transferred over to the Marvel film franchise—there’s really no value in writing anyone off for good if the audience likes them—but it’s not the same as the game that Thrones’s producers and publicists played with the press about Jon Snow this year.

Yes, the actor Kit Harrington had to “lie” about his death, even though the ruse was fairly obvious, to maintain some semblance of a cliffhanger. In the days of Dallas or Star Trek, this would have amounted to a few newspaper interviews, but the Game of Thrones online rumor mill is a massive click-economy unto itself, and Harington’s coy comments reverberated through it relentlessly during the show’s 10-month break. The show’s creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss also insisted that Snow was dead, perhaps partly to give the author George R.R. Martin a chance to resolve the cliffhanger himself in his writing (book six of his Song of Ice and Fire series remains unpublished despite some hope to the contrary during the show’s break). But television has played such ruses time and time again—the trickery has just gotten more sophisticated. Just be thankful Jon Snow didn’t wake up thinking all of last year was just a vision he had in the shower.