As we gird ourselves for the return of Game of Thrones, recover from the joyless collisions of Batman and Superman, and persevere through the deaths of pretty much every lesbian on television, it’s time to pause and ask ourselves—why is pop culture so dark right now? And more importantly, is there any value in this unending dash toward being the Darkest and the Edgiest of all?
The easy answer is, of course, to lay the blame at George R. R. Martin and the copious bloodletting which reverberates throughout A Song of Ice and Fire. HBO generated a hit with his story when they put it on TV, and everyone else is trying to imitate him. If they got ratings with Ned Stark’s head on a pike, then goddamn it, the rest of us are going to keep putting heads on pikes until we get an Entertainment Weekly cover of our own.
Violence, death, and despair add a level of gravitas, which is clearly being craved in the newly-prestigious realms of television and superhero movies. But it’s increasingly little more than meaningless trend-following, with story and character sacrificed to appeal to some marketing executive’s belief of what audiences want. It’s destructive and it needs to end.
Look, death is capable of evoking deep emotional responses, and I’m glad that creators are comfortable going into the shadows of our minds. But like any other emotional art, that reaction has to be earned—it’s not difficult to make me sad, but it’s a real challenge to make me happy that you made me sad.
You want to feel sad? Get a tissue and watch this:
Yep. Six seconds, no dialog, no characters, not even any humans. Just a raccoon separated from his treat. I know. Oh, cheer up, he gets more:
Stories teach us empathy, and people who like stories get awfully good at it. Sometimes too good—we have these hair-triggers which give empathetic reactions to events which don’t really have larger meaning:
Connecting meaning and emotion gives us catharsis. Separating them breeds resentment—we’re being tricked into caring, and made to feel stupid for having the exact emotional reaction the author is creating. It’s insulting. I’m still pissed at Jeff Winger for making me sad about that stupid pencil.
In his (partial) defense, George R. R. Martin leans toward catharsis. The shock and horror that accompanies Ned’s death is, in fact, well-earned. His murder upsets comforting narrative conventions, and reverberates through the rest of the series. It’s surprising, and it’s a narrative twist, but it means more than that. Nobody is giggling at you for being upset by it; rather, you’re encouraged to dig deeper into just what this death means for the world. Martin doesn’t use the moment to blandly prove that Anyone Can Die; he uses it to show the anarchy that results in the aftermath of such transgressions of the moral order. It works because it does more than tell us that murder is scary. I already knew that!
Meanwhile, when A Song of Ice and Fire came to HBO, this commitment to catharsis was dropped altogether, most egregiously in the brutal rape of Sansa Stark by Ramsey Bolton in Season 5. The scene stands for nothing other than the assertion that rape is upsetting—something that we all (hopefully) knew without the input of Benioff and Weiss. The scene punishes the viewer for caring about Sansa Stark at all, and the show scoffs at your pain with bland claims at historical realism: on the commentary track, writer Bryan Cogman claims, “we made the decision to not shy away from what would realistically would [sic] happen on that wedding night with these two characters.” It’s trauma for the sake of trauma.
The result of this, then, is rage at Joffrey for killing Ned Stark, but rage at HBO for the rape of Sansa Stark. The plea of “why are you doing this to Ned?” is replaced with “why are you doing this to me?” When we’re robbed of the meaning of our emotional responses, we’re left with anger at the creators who elicited them. You can’t be proud that you made me feel bad; all you had to do was snap a pencil.
This all squanders the very real opportunities presented by audiences willing to follow art to darker and darker places. The world is, after all, an unhappy place, and this is a moment when people are unusually fearful about the future. It’s important to confront the reality that happy endings are never guaranteed, and that our societies are faced with choices where every outcome risks real harm to real people.
It’s not absurd to fear Superman and be discomfited by what he would mean for the world. But those reactions need to be earned by something more than spectacle, some hook to make Bruce Wayne’s thinking clear and relatable. Accidental and random deaths can have real emotional echoes—as long as the writers aren’t distracted by inflicting shock and horror on viewers and allow time to grieve, to panic, and to heal. Nobody is still impressed by the simple willingness to show death.
So by all means: be dark. Take us to uncomfortable places. Let us feel negative emotions. But do it with more purpose than a raccoon at the county fair.