Deprived of Tragedy: Romeo and Juliet, Game of Thrones, and the Audacity of Hope

I've discovered a new form of self-harm, which involves watching old clips of tv shows I used to love. It put me in a funk, and not the uptown kind. The worst depression came from this clip:

For those of you who never watched Game of Thrones (don't), the woman in armor is Brienne of Tarth, an incredibly brave and loyal warrior who is often mocked for being ugly and mannish. She's often dreamed of being a knight, but never thought it would actually happen. The man who knights her is Ser Jaime Lannister, a celebrated swordsman who has a long, complex, unconsummated relationship with her. These characters are preparing to defend Winterfell from the white walkers, ice zombies who can raise the dead and make them fight the living. It seems likely that everyone in that room is going to die horrible, violent deaths, and the dead will probably win. But for this one moment, Brienne became a knight, something she wants to be more than anything, thanks to the man she loves more than anyone.

Later episodes of the show undercut much of the pathos of this moment. Everyone in the room survives, even though they were often surrounded by dozens or hundreds of zombies. (Earlier seasons established that just one zombie could take six or seven men to kill, but no matter.) The zombies are defeated in one episode, and an apocalyptic threat gets relegated to a B-plot that ends without changing anything. Jaime and Brienne's relationship, spiritually consummated in this scene, ends like a bad Tinder hookup. The show makes many illogical leaps in space, time, and regeneration that other people have covered better and at greater length.

Despite all this, it's still a touching moment. It's sad, in part, because it represents the lost potential of the show, of a great tragedy that the audience was denied. By tragedy, I don't just mean “something sad that happened.” I mean a tragedy that flows naturally from the story, the characters, and the plot.

A tragedy is often a payoff from numerous setups that happen much earlier in the story. In Romeo and Juliet, the ultimate tragedy is set up over the course of the play, making the final scene that much more affecting. If Romeo and Juliet died out of nowhere, or if it ended with Romeo ditching Juliet and going on vacation, the play wouldn't have nearly the same impact.

A tragedy often includes an element of hope. Not all tragedies include this element–I don't think it's a necessary one–but they're often weaker without it. Consider how some tragedies, or semi-tragedies, end:

  • Romeo and Juliet: Though Romeo and Juliet are dead, their families have agreed to put aside their feud.
  • City Lights: Though the Tramp is still a tramp, and probably will be until he dies, the young woman he loves has her eyesight and a much better job. That's only possible because of him. When she finally sees him, she realizes everything he did for her. Even if they won't end up together, which they probably won't, the tramp can go to his grave knowing that he changed the life of the woman he loves.
  • Harold and Maude: Maude kills herself, leaving Harold alone. Angry and devastated, Harold takes his car out for one last ride–and escapes before the car crashes, creating yet another false suicide like he's done so many times before. This time, he's not expressing despair, but grabbing hold of life. He can go and love some more–maybe not today, but tomorrow.
  • Moulin Rouge!: Though Satine is dead, Christian's love for her, and her love for him, will live on forever, in eternity and in the novel Christian has written about their love. And in you, because you just watched the story.
  • Wit: Vivian dies, having realized some of her mistakes in life, and gets up, after death, to walk toward “a little light” and go on to the next stage.

It's a great sin to deprive your audience of a tragedy. They want it. They need it. Go open a newspaper, for God's sake, if you need to ask why. People need to cry. Give them something safe to cry about. You don't ever want them to feel stupid for caring.

Going over this reminds me of something Goethe once wrote. I don’t have the exact quote, so I’ll have to paraphrase. He wrote that anyone can take something beautiful and make it ugly, but it takes special care and attention to take something ugly and reveal the beauty inside. To take a wilted flower and show the beautiful fresh flower that it used to be. To show the hopeful, beautiful child inside a defeated, bitter person. Uglifying something beautiful might be shocking, but it's the easy way out. Don't take the easy way out. Don't take the easy way out. Give them something beautiful.

In Other News

I don't know how much pathos is in my upcoming serial, Wolf Cursed, but I hope it's at least acceptable. This is my take on the alpha/beta/omegaverse, fated/rejected mates, and everything that goes with it. I don't think I'll return to this genre once I'm finished with this, because it's not where my heart lies. However, I have enjoyed spending time with Red Volkov, Hannah Jordan, Alessandro D'Avalos, and all the other characters in the series. I'll have some character portraits and a sneak preview ready for you soon.

To be honest, this book has been a struggle to write. It's going to be on the Kindle Store for a few days before I take it down for some major edits. If you're interested in the story, get it now. You can get the second episode for free by signing up for my mailing list below:

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Right now I'm working on the audiobook for The Rose Kiss with the very talented Victoria McCabe. I'm coming perilously close to burnout, and I'm not sure what the next step is. And the pandemic has been taking a psychological toll, even though I'm vaccinated with a booster. I hope you'll bear with me in this difficult season, so we can find out what happens to these characters together. That's why I write. I want to see what happens…


Feature photo by Arash Payam on Unsplash.