When King Joffrey ordered Ser Ilyn to bring him Eddard Stark's head on the steps of the Great Sept of Baelor back in Season 1, Game Of Thrones killed off its ostensible lead, cementing itself as a show known for its willingness to kill off major characters brutally and often. It wasn't the first to do so, and it won't be the last, but through seven seasons, Thrones has become synonymous with death thanks to scenes so infamous they've earned their own titles (the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, etc.). So why did so few characters die in Game Of Thrones Season 7, which many fans predicted would be its most deadly season yet?
First, let's recap who did die. Season 7's actual body count was not exactly low, thanks to its numerous large-scale battle sequences; but the number of named characters who kicked the bucket was surprisingly scant. The season kicked off with Arya poisoning the entirety of House Frey — although the only important member of that family, Red Wedding conspirator Walder Frey, had already been killed in the Season 6 finale. All three Sand Snakes suffered ignominious fates, two (Obara and Nymeria) at the hands of Euron and one (Tyene) at the hands of Cersei — but they were quite possibly the least popular characters in the entire history of Thrones.
Olenna Tyrell got perhaps the best death scene of the season — but even though she was a delightful supporting presence on the show, she was never going to be integral to the story's endgame. Randyll and Dickon Tarly were roasted alive — but they existed purely to be cannon fodder for Dany's invasion anyway. Thoros of Myr and Benjen Stark both perished in the battle beyond the Wall — but they were third-string players at best, whose deaths had minimal emotional or narrative impact. Petyr Baelish's executions at the hands of Sansa and Arya Stark was undoubtedly the most major departure of the season — but even Littlefinger, like Olenna, had arguably outlived his usefulness in a series that's quickly collapsing into a Great War between the living and the dead.
Interestingly, Season 7's two biggest "deaths" in terms of impact belonged to characters that weren't even human: an animal (Viserion the dragon, slain by the Night King and resurrected as a wight) and an inanimate object (the Wall, toppled after a thousand years by the reanimated Viserion). What about all the dire predictions that Jaime Lannister would die in Season 7? Or Cersei? Or Sansa? Or even characters as major as Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen?
"Game Of Thrones Really Needs To Start Killing Off Its Heroes Again," reads one blunt headline on Vanity Fair, summing up the disappointment some viewers feel regarding Season 7's relatively small death toll. Most of these arguments against the show's sudden "toothlessness" (as that article puts it) center around the idea of "stakes," and how by not killing any major characters during the Loot Train Attack or the Frozen Lake Battle, the show is losing its mojo and cheapening the drama.
I call shenanigans. To this day, many viewers consider Season 2's "Blackwater" to be the high-water mark of the series, still the best Game Of Thrones episode to date. Not a single major character died during the Battle of the Blackwater. Was that battle low stakes? Was it "toothless"? The thing is, a battle without deaths only feels "cheap" afterwards because it didn't satisfy the bloodlust that Thrones has conditioned in its viewers over the past seven years. But in the moment, without knowing what the outcome will be yet, it still feels remarkably high-stakes.
Weren't you convinced that Bronn was about to be dragon food while he was aiming at Drogon during the Loot Train Attack? Didn't you think that Tormund was done for when all those wights swarmed him during the Frozen Lake Attack? You're lying if you answered "no" to either of those questions, since they were two of the most intense moments of the entire season, featuring two characters who felt expendable at this point in the story. The fact that they didn't die doesn't change the emotions that you felt during the moment; in fact, it's encouraging for how the writers have chosen to tell the story moving forward.
If they had wanted, Game of Thrones easily could have killed both Bronn and Tormund during those battles. They could have offed a number of other disposable supporting characters this season as well: Jorah, Beric, Grey Worm, Theon, Yara, Podrick, Brienne, Varys, Melisandre… Any one of them conceivably could have kicked the bucket this season for dramatic effect without fundamentally damaging the story the writers want to tell.
The fact that they didn't — the fact that the writers chose not to kill off characters simply in the name of "raising the stakes" — should be applauded, not scoffed at. They showed that they can still create tension simply by putting beloved characters in peril, without resorting to deaths for their "shock value" alone. Presumably this will allow Game of Thrones to craft ends for the characters that are appropriate and emotionally resonant to their arcs, rather than simply existing to create a temporary spike in the audience's adrenaline.
"But that's not how Game Of Thrones works!" you might argue. "Characters die randomly and horribly, that's the whole point." Well, yes and no. While many of the most memorable deaths have felt abrupt in the moment, they always make sense in retrospect as fitting end to that character's journey: Ned undone by his own stubborn nobility, Robb paying the price for breaking a vow, Oberyn consumed by his own vengeance, etc. Author George R.R. Martin gets a lot of praise for his "realism"… but, ultimately, "realism" is still a genre that has to adhere to certain narrative constraints. It wouldn't make narrative sense for Daenerys to die of dysentery while wandering through the Red Waste, before she's even reached Westeros — just like it wouldn't make narrative sense for Jaime Lannister to drown in a river before he's had his final reckoning with Cersei.
Season 7's lack of carnage is an indication of the writers prioritizing character ahead of plot and spectacle — in a season during which they were accused often (and not always wrongly) of doing the exact opposite. The fact that so many viewers feel let down by the low body count says more about the audience's appetite for blood and guts than it does about the show's storytelling. To be fair, that's an appetite that Thrones itself has helped instill in its own audience over the past six seasons; but that doesn't mean we should criticize the show for trying to curb its worst impulses towards gratuitous violence. Indeed, the show's newfound restraint should be admired, when it would have been so easy for Benioff and Weiss to head into the penultimate season with metaphorical guns blazing.
And hey — if you're still disappointed, the lack of major deaths in Season 7 probably means even more bodies will fall in Season 8.