We’re approaching a weird weekend of pop culture grief. Thursday, April 25th, marks the release of Avengers: Endgame, the follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War, in which literally half the universe died. Just a few days later, on Sunday, April 28th, the latest episode of Game of Thrones will send the majority of the show’s surviving cast into an epic battle with the undead horde of White Walkers sweeping down from beyond the Wall. Both Endgame and Game of Thrones have something unusual in common: they’re installments of long-running, immensely popular franchises where the audience widely expects they’re about to see their favorite characters die.
That’s rare in a cultural environment that thrives on endless sequels, prequels, spinoffs, and reboots, and the expectations that all of the most popular characters will be endlessly available for new stories. It’s particularly rare in the fantasy and superhero genre, which tends to be about escapism, power fantasies, and wish-fulfillment. Usually, in films and TV, heroes fight hard-won battles and win. Sometimes, they lose love interests or sidekicks, and once in a great while, they die at the end of their stories. But this weekend feels like an unprecedented cultural watershed. Two different major franchises are passing the torch on to other series, shows, and stars. Both franchises are implicitly promising that major characters will die. No one in fandom is entirely sure what to expect. Two Verge writers talk the moment out together.
Note: No specific plot points from either Avengers: Endgame or Game of Thrones are discussed here, and we don’t get into “who’s going to die” speculation. This is just a conversation about an unprecedented era in fandom culture.
Tasha: So we have to start with the obvious thing, here, Julia. I don’t fundamentally care who dies in Avengers: Endgame because I’m too conscious that any deaths in that franchise are going to be entirely mercenary and contract-driven: Marvel can’t keep extremely expensive actors like Robert Downey Jr. on the payroll forever, but they can transition to new stories. I mean, I was moved and horrified by the end of Infinity War, even knowing many of those deaths have to be taken back, and I’m sure I’ll be moved watching Endgame, if the predictions are true and a bunch of our legacy Marvel Cinematic Universe characters give up their lives in the cause. But any grief will be pretty short-lived because I know it’s all ultimately about the paycheck. I understand your big concern isn’t who might die, but the idea that not enough heroes might die?
Julia: That might sound irrational, but I remember Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry was set up to sacrifice his life in the fight against Voldemort. And he did! It was devastating and beautiful and heartbreaking! But then he came back, so what’s the point? Any emotional significance is gone. I’m worried that Captain America will sacrifice his life in Endgame and it’ll suck, but then everyone else will just continue living. It’s anticlimactic. It’ll be a pretty boring war if we only lose one hero. I love my Avengers family — and my Sad Boys in Desperate Need of Hugs — but I’m worried that all of this build-up won’t go anywhere, and I’ll just leave the theater disappointed and resentful.
Tasha: Do you have the same concerns about Game of Thrones? Because that’s the opposite case for me. A lot of people are complaining that once showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss ran out of George R.R. Martin books to adapt for the show, the story went from unconventional “anyone can die” mayhem to a much more predictable fantasy where we’re likely to lose some peripheral characters, but not the core favorites. Are you going to feel like it was a big anticlimactic cheat if we walk away from this story with all of the heroes alive? Because I’m dreading the body count on Game of Thrones. This show is over in a few episodes — they don’t need to cut anyone loose for sheer contractual purposes. No one who dies at this point has to die strictly for outside factors. At this point, it’s all just about torturing the audience, and I’m tired of being tortured by Game of Thrones. But are you holding out for a bloodbath there, too?
Julia: I think Game of Thrones is going to be a massacre. I don’t think many of them will be left standing beyond Daenerys or Jon or whoever finally takes on the Iron Throne. Game of Thrones feels different from Avengers: Endgame, or even Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker because Game of Thrones relies on body counts for gasps. And I want all of my Game of Thrones favorites to die, too! This conversation is making me appear like an ice-cold sadist who’s rooting for everyone’s painful demise, but that’s not true. I care so much about these characters that I need their journeys to mean something. I can live beyond their endings through fan fiction and Tumblr memorial posts, but they deserve a chance at a proper send-off. (That’s why I’m writing this while sitting on the floor of an AMC during a 22-movie Marvel marathon leading up to Avengers: Endgame.) These characters deserve a final send-off worthy of us, as viewers. We need to sacrifice our own comfort to respect their journeys. I guess that leads me to wonder, Tasha, what is the just end for these characters in your mind? Is it death for all or something else?
Tasha: As far as Game of Thrones goes, my problem is that I’ve always believed in George R.R. Martin as a sentimental closet romantic who wants his victories messy, Pyrrhic, hard-earned, and bittersweet. (Look at the end of the first Dunk & Egg novella, The Hedge Knight, for an example of a death that actually made me sob while reading a book.) I’m tired of the endless death fake-outs in his books, to the point where any chapter that ends with someone seemingly dying now just makes me roll my eyes, confident they’ll be back later. (I called it on Brienne not actually dying at the end of A Feast For Crows, for instance, and I can’t understand why anyone still falls for these tricks.) But when people die in his books, I accept those deaths as emotionally powerful, meaningful, and usually dramatically appropriate.
I just don’t see the same respect for the characters in showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. They’ve proved time and time again that they don’t respect — or, in many cases, understand — these characters, and they’re driven by shock value more than narrative balance. If they kill off my favorites, I expect those deaths are going to feel arbitrary, manipulative, and cheap. I’m dreading the moments when they kill Brienne just to make her recent knighting feel more ironic and hollow, kill Tyrion because they don’t seem to like him and they’ve never known what to do with a really smart character, or kill any number of other people solely to dominate next-day water cooler conversation. It’s not that I don’t want these characters to die; it’s that I don’t want them to die just because Benioff and Weiss think the core of Martin’s work is protagonist death. What’s a meaningful end for a Martin character? Anything that makes a good story. What’s a meaningful end for a Benioff / Weiss character? Something that doesn't feel like it’s mostly designed to score brutality points.
Julia: That’s a good point! There’s a difference between a meaningful death and scouring for a sense of depth to creative work by just killing off popular characters. Benioff and Weiss can’t seem to differentiate between the two. Part of me is hoping this final battle — or battles? — will feature more of the latter. Their whole lives have led up to this point. There’s been so much drama, their deaths should actually mean something. I mean, hopefully. Who knows anymore? Did I mention this MCU marathon has made any form of cohesive thought impossible?
Tasha: I can’t wait until you get to the end of that journey. We can talk about MCU deaths in more detail next week. But, abstractly speaking: with the MCU, I’m fine with literally anyone dying. I just don’t think it’ll take because these are comic book movies, and resurrections and reboots are part and parcel of comic book movies. Anyone who dies in Endgame can come back if the money’s right and the fandom wants it enough. (Maybe that’ll happen in more prequels and side stories. Maybe in the What If universe.) But here’s my question: why do you feel death is a just, final, meaningful end for fantasy characters when both of these universes embrace resurrection and revivals and can take back death any time they want? Are there any characters in either franchise you couldn’t bear to see die?
Julia: There’s a quote from the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, a mediocre movie about a fantastic character, where she says: “Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered, your time is short. You’d think after all this time, I’d be ready. But look at me — stretching one moment out into a thousand.” That’s how I feel about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I literally just sat through about 50 hours of Marvel movies, and I’m still not ready for this to end. I want to continue dragging out each hour because I don’t want this journey to end. But it has to — because finality is what makes this whole 11-year journey special. It’s true, Tasha, that any of these characters could come back. But I don’t think they should — and I think Kevin Feige, the overseer of the universe, gets that, too.
To your question about characters who I couldn’t bear to see die: all of them! I haven’t even seen Endgame yet, but I’m tearing up just thinking about saying goodbye to any of my special boys and girls and aliens and gods and rocks. (I really want Korg to come back.) I am prepared to cry from beginning to end and be emotionally devastated. I feel like I’ve been preparing for this since I was 16 years old when I first fell in love with Iron Man. Tasha, do you feel prepared? How have you prepared for all of this? Are you ready to say goodbye to your faves in Game of Thrones, Endgame, and even looking down the line, Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker?
Tasha: What an interesting question. I think I prepare for possible emotional devastation in fiction by reminding myself that it’s literally my job to help make sense of it all. So I can maintain a little distance from any writer’s attempt to rip out my heart by looking at the reasoning behind it (contracts! MCU Phase Four plans!) and figuring out how we’re going to analyze it (lengthy conversations with other writers like this one!).
Of course, I know that whatever happens either in Endgame or Game of Thrones, we’re going to collectively process the hell out of it as a culture. We’re going to be thinking and talking and writing and social media-ing and memeing about it together. If you feel overwhelming emotions about characters you grew up with dying, you’re going to have the world’s biggest online group therapy session to help you get through it. Does that help? Or does it make those emotions feel less personal and specific and satisfying? As a critic and an Extremely Online media person, do you worry that you’re going to wring all the catharsis and meaning out of these stories by reexperiencing them collectively and virtually for the next month or two?
Julia: Last year, after Infinity War, I spent months collectively mourning the fallen by going through a repetitive, Very Online process: I wept on Tumblr, I read alternative stories on the fan fiction site Archive of Our Own, and I watched tribute videos on YouTube. I dealt with my sadness the only way I knew how: by leaning into it with the comfort of strangers around the world who were going through the exact same thing. Part of what makes Game of Thrones and Endgame so incredibly special is the period when they entered our lives. We get to experience Game of Thrones together every week on Sunday night, and then spend the following week checking in on each other’s theories or hunkering down in a subreddit and feeling everything together. Endgame is going to be like that, but even more so.
Maybe I’m just a masochist (as seen by my participation in a 60-hour marathon and my desire to see all of these characters I adore die), but I revel in the shared grief we experience together. The internet — and fandom-at-large — helped form my fandom. Now, it helps guide my grief. Tasha, I’m curious: do you think we’ll ever have something like this kind of pop culture zeitgeist again? This current moment — between Game of Thrones, Endgame, and even Rise of the Skywalker — feels unique. It almost feels like the last shared prominent event. What comes next?
Tasha: Ehh, I’m of two minds about that. First off, this moment does feel unique and thrilling. As a payoff for 10 years of focused, planned, increasingly ambitious buildup, Avengers: Endgame is unprecedented in the history of cinema. The advance box office, the advance conversation, and the sheer online mania all reflect that, and so does the ramped-up, adrenalized feeling of seeing it in the theater. Game of Thrones isn’t at that level, but the hunger for content and conversation about it online is pretty staggering. These do feel like watershed moments for American culture.
But like any resetting of cultural expectations, they’re also setting a new standard that other projects are going to have to reach for. What comes next? Attempts to top this, obviously. Studios now have a billion-dollar template for how to make fan franchises tailored specifically to everything their audience desires. They’re going to keep trying to build their worlds bigger and more intense and more exciting, and we’re always going to want the next thrill and the next collective conversation about it. We want to experience excitement, and we want to share it. That’s not going to change, no matter who dies this week. The ways we consume and share culture are evolving, and this is just part of the change — our franchises flirting with real consequences for characters. I don’t care who dies in Avengers: Endgame. But I care a lot about entering a future where death might be more regularly on the table for heroes, as studios reach for the next barrier to break and the next and the one after that.
In that sense, I’m with you all the way. I want heroes to die in these franchises after all — not because I need their deaths to feel like their stories are meaningful, but because we’ve all grown up in an environment where we always knew the heroes were going to win. I’m up for a big body count and a daring new era in fandom storytelling. If it shakes up the status quo and makes for more unpredictable stories, let the heads roll.