When characters transcend reality they are reborn from fiction onto a plane of existence much like our own. I say like our own, because essentially, we have created it. The best characters are human in the minds of a collective—a collective that cheers their triumphs, mourns their failures, and lives moments of their lives like surrogate souls… Good characters are people, and we know them.
Then they die. Badly. And we ask, was it all for nought? More importantly, we ask, why do I like this show, where horrible things happen to people I care about?
Two televisions shows within the last several years can be considered cultural phenomenons. Incidentally, I’ve wanted to compare them both for a long time, because even though they’re different in terms of quality, they share an intensity few shows match. I’m talking about Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead.
These shows are by no means flawless (GoT is forever steeped in controversy, and TWD jumped the zombie around season 6 or so). But at different, and occasionally overlapping, points in time they were THE most talked about shows on TV. They consumed viewers, exploded the internet, and brought families together for the age old pastime of gathering around the light-box. The terrifying part? These are not happy shows. Characters we fell in love with met gruesome ends, and often. Happy endings were few and far between. Sounds depressing, yeah?
Two of the best podcasts on the shows (Walking Dead ‘Cast and House of Podcastia) often ask why we watch. Out of context, telling others about the events that transpire onscreen–and recommending watching them–seems an exercise in sadomasochism. Do we enjoy watching people suffer? Do we enjoy the pain their suffering causes us?
The answer is (god I hope) no. Yet, I will never forget Ned losing his head, the Red Wedding, Prince Oberyn’s eyes after he beats the Mountain… or Glenn meeting Lucile, Beth finding a bullet, and Laurie dying in her son’s arms.
Loss. Pain. These were people I knew. People I cared about. And yet I watched. More importantly, I kept watching because I. Love. These. Shows.
And (be still my heart) I am far from the only one! Since that’s the case, honestly, what the hell is wrong with us?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Tragedy as a genre existed at the genesis of entertainment. While I wouldn’t classify Walking Dead and GoT as tragedies per se, they certainly have very tragic elements. And tragedy is compelling. Tragedies allow us to feel things we don’t feel all the time, then to process these feelings on a scale weighted with relatively no consequence. The same can be said of horror—why, after all, would anyone choose to terrify themselves? Why do people go on roller coasters? People like interacting with their humanity.
We like to feel. Fear, sadness, anger, joy, surprise, humor, love. Not all at the same time, and not too much. If we’re going through a hard time, we’ll escape into comedy or light adventure, maybe some romance. If things are good, we might challenge ourselves with horror or tragedy, to remind us of the gravity our humanity entails.
Characters are the lynchpins, the mediums through which our hearts live and die. They are why we watch. Loving Game of Thrones or Walking Dead doesn’t make us sadomasochists, it makes us human. These shows are reflections of our world, the tragedies and triumphs—the loss, allow us to experience our humanity. The higher the stakes, the more we feel. The tragedies make the triumphs real.
What more do we want in life than to live it, to overcome, to share the good times and bad, with the people we know and love.
To perhaps learn why we are human at all. That’s why we watch, and why we’ll keep watching.