By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
6:29 PM EDT, June 7, 2013
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.
Audiences had an intense reaction to the death of Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) in the final episode of Season 3 of “M*A*S*H,” which aired in March 1975.
“M*A*S*H” creator Larry Gelbert said Blake’s death was necessary to remind viewers of the reality of the Korean War, which served as the setting for the series. Such a sense of verisimilitude or other dramatic considerations are often behind such deaths.
But not always. Kutner died, the network said, because the actor who played him wanted to leave the series to go to work for President Barack Obama.
And sometimes it seems characters die for the greater honor and glory of trying to score a ratings spike for a struggling series, as many believed was the case with Rosalind Shays (Diana Muldaur) falling down an elevator shaft in 1991 on “L.A. Law.”
In the case of Robb Stark and his family, the producers are constrained to some extent by the George R. R. Martin books on which the series is based — books that they know many audience members have read.
“This was an event that was not only from the books, but it was one of the primary reasons that we wanted to make the show,” D.B. Weiss, executive producer, says in an HBO video interview about last week’s episode.
“Getting to the Red Wedding was a major milestone for us and a sense of trepidation,” he adds. “I remember how it felt to have this thing happen in a book I was reading and not be able to believe what I was reading. We felt a tremendous responsibility to do justice to it.”
As for the impact: “At this point, I definitely feel like the world of this show has announced itself as a world like our world, where these horrible things do happen to good people,” Weiss says. “And the heroes you want to see come out on top and triumph don’t always come out on top and triumph.”
That’s the sense of injustice — both on the screen and in their own lives — that Brody says some of his patients were talking about last week.
Brad Sachs, a Columbia psychologist, says he heard some of the same things last week from his patients who follow the show.
“There are several dimensions, but one of the most prevalent clearly is a sense of the reality that the universe has a certain randomness, a chaos, to it and justice does not always prevail,” he says.
“Every individual carries within some sense of justice or morality, and when that gets violated directly in our lives or indirectly through encounters with media or literature, we feel very deeply that sense of violation, and that’s what I heard from patients in reaction to this show,” he adds.
Brody says he himself felt the pain of the good and righteous Robb Stark dying the way he did last Sunday. But it was not enough to keep him from the rest of his normal Sunday night TV viewing.
“One of the problems I’ve also had with the ‘Game of Thrones’ is that right after it ends, I watch ‘Mad Men,’” he says. “And I wish somebody would come and shoot all those characters. They’re totally horrible. Only one or two of them are of any value to the human race. But they don’t get shot or anything … while Robb Stark and his family get slaughtered.”
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