'Game of Thrones' enters the therapist's office

When fictional characters die, real-life viewers mourn

  • Robb Stark (Richard Madden) with his dead wife Talisa (Oona Chaplin) from the "Red Wedding" episode of Game of Thrones. Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO
Robb Stark (Richard Madden) with his dead wife Talisa (Oona… (HELEN SLOAN / HBO )
June 07, 2013|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

Forget the water cooler — or any other public space like social media or the Internet.

When a TV show strikes the kind of psychic chords that HBO’s “Game of Thrones” did last week with its blood-drenched Red Wedding sequence, the morning-after conversation is just as likely to find its way into the very private realm of a therapist’s office.

That’s what happened at the Potomac practice of psychiatrist Dr. Michael Brody, anyway.

“All season with this show, I start hearing about it from my patients on Monday,” Brody says. “With some male patients, all I hear about is the blonde [Daenerys Targaryen played by Emilia Clarke] and her dragons and how she’s the best. … And with some of the women, it’s all Robb Stark. They love Robb Stark.”

But last week, after Stark (Richard Madden) was slaughtered alongside his mother, his pregnant wife and his direwolf (think oversized but loyal wolf) in this sprawling mythic saga, it was a little different, according to Brody.

“The feelings of the patients were darker,” he says. “It was, ‘How could this happen? This is wrong.’ The general themes of what they were feeling were injustice and the randomness of death. It reminded me of some of the reactions patients shared to the deaths of certain characters on ‘The Wire.’ Killing off characters this time of year isn’t new. But this one was really something.”

Real people reacting strongly to the deaths of fictional TV characters is not new. It reaches back at least to a 1975 season of “M*A*S*H.” And in recent years, social media have allowed us to publicly mourn those departed characters who found their way into our psyches.

But rarely is the depth of that emotion validated or explored in the larger society as it might in a therapist’s office, where we presumably talk about what really matters in our lives. Understanding why last week’s violent deaths in “Game of Thrones” mattered enough to find its way into those private conversations tells us something not only about ourselves but the role media have to play in our lives.

The penultimate episode of the series, which ends Season 3 at 9 tonight on HBO, is considered by some to be the most violent sequence in the history of series television. That’s debatable.

In more than two decades of writing about the medium, I have never been more personally affected — actually physically sickened and depressed — by a scene than the one in Season 3 of “The Sopranos” that showed a coke-crazed Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) beat a dancer to death in the parking lot of the Bada-Bing club. The young woman was carrying his child, and it seemed as if you could hear her bones crunching under the force of his fists.

The Red Wedding bloodbath in last week’s “Game of Thrones” episode commenced with Robb Stark’s wife being stabbed in her womb. As the good king from the north kneels over and tries to comfort her, his hands run red with the blood of his wife and unborn child.

Brody’s right: It is “really something.”

But in its own way, the death of Omar (Michael K. Williams) was really something, too, in “The Wire.” For all his fierce code of honor or the fear he inspired throughout the neighborhood, Omar dies at the hands of a kid with a gun in a corner grocery store.

“Just the randomness of it with that kid killing Omar, the good-bad guy that way — that’s what troubled some of my younger patients,” says Brody, chair of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “It’s the randomness of death they’re talking about.”

The reaction by fans was equally intense when Dr. Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn) committed suicide on the Fox series “House” in 2009.

I wondered in a piece I wrote at the time if social media were changing the way we mourn TV characters to whom we have become deeply connected — making it more public and communal if nothing else.

The production company that made “House” posted an online memorial that included an obituary and video tribute with music composed by series star Hugh Laurie. Network publicists and series producers created a Facebook page that allowed fans to leave messages — as well as read messages from Kutner's colleagues.

Within the first three days after Kutner’s TV death, more than 25,000 fans had left messages at the site. With many of them self-identifying as teens and people in their 20s, I wondered how many of those young fans were experiencing emotions as intense as they would if a real-life friend died.

Folks were, of course, bonding with TV characters before Facebook.

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