The Unconventional Cruelty of Game of Thrones

Why you should care

Because whether you love it or can’t bear to watch, you can’t deny its power.  

Game of Thrones makes an art out of audience heartbreak. For every scene of just plain awesomeness — say, the Targaryen princess Dany soaring over the fighting pits on her dragon Drogon’s back — the audience knows the show will exact its own version of the iron price: a gut-wrenching, unspeakably awful sequence that leaves you rocking back and forth on the couch saying, “Maybe it’s just a dream.” Except Game of Thrones doesn’t do fake-outs.

Much of the credit, of course, goes to George R.R. Martin, who created this unforgiving world in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. But showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have a gift for taking scenes that could not possibly get more devastating and then, somehow, making them more devastating. Take the beheading of hero Ned Stark. Martin’s book shows it to us through another character’s eyes, but in the TV episode, the camera stays with Ned, and you see him look for his daughters in the crowd during his final seconds. In the soul-annihilating Red Wedding, you don’t think the book’s body count could get any higher; the TV show adds Ned’s son’s pregnant wife to the mix. The showrunners even invent crazy horrible scenes that aren’t in the books, like last season’s burning alive of the teenage Princess Shireen, which I watched screaming through a crack in my fingers.  

The other night I rewatched the pilot, interested to remember the tone of the show when it began, or maybe to see more than one Stark sibling on-screen at the same time without feeling like I was violating the laws of the universe. And I’m going to make an insane statement here: After five years of did-that-just-happen gut punches, the pilot felt like the most devastating episode of all.

Viewers have probably forgotten that there used to be that many Starks alive. I actually started weeping.

There’s Ned’s daughter Sansa, complaining about living in the uncivilized North before she had better things to complain about, like being engaged to the psychopath who kills her father, or marrying another psychopath who makes the first one seem like a nice guy. There’s the Stark kids practicing archery together and laughing. Laughing! You can count six male Starks under the same roof. Viewers have probably forgotten that there used to be that many Starks alive. I actually started weeping.

Of course, there are also signs that all is not well. A murder has been covered up. The heir to the throne is a rotten little coward. The final scene shows the queen’s brother shoving a 10-year-old kid out a window. This isn’t an episode of Friends.  But it still hews to a recognizable dramatic structure — good guys and bad guys, dark scenes and happy ones. You assume the Starks will go through a lot of painful awfulness, maybe one of the more dispensable kids won’t make it, but at the end they will triumph.

Not really.

People fell in love with Martin’s books because he completely upended the fantasy rules. Central heroes weren’t safe. You loved Ned and Robb Stark, but their moral code (Ned won’t kill the traitorous queen Cersei; Robb marries the woman he loves instead of honoring his alliance to the Freys) leads them into strategic error and gets them killed. It’s not just those deaths that make the books so different. It’s that acting righteously is sometimes the wrong choice.

To take that philosophy to TV, where character is king, is even bolder. Of course, TV is littered with antiheroes, but in brilliant shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, the deaths of beloved characters are usually the consequence of the choices they make; they have a kind of moral logic. Not so in Game of Thrones, where being moral seems to cut your lifespan in half. 

Sometimes the deaths just feel perverse, as if the more heroic someone is, the more awful their end. (Certainly that’s the case for Prince Oberyn, the Red Viper; the Season 4 fan favorite fights his sister’s murderer in single combat, almost wins and then gets his eyes gouged out, which, let me tell you, is worse on the screen than on the page. Especially since Oberyn is played by the talented Pedro Pascal, who happens to be very easy on the eyes.) And note: Being coldly strategic can’t always save you. The amoral Lannister family patriarch Tywin, one of Thrones’ most skillful strategists who ruthlessly puts his family’s interests first, dies on the privy, murdered by his own son.

But most of the time, the deaths are earned. It’s a testament to how committed both Martin and the showrunners are to a vision of medieval bleakness that, five years after the pilot, we have arrived at such a different world. “Subtle” is not a word often used to describe the show, but it actually is — between the battles and beheadings and skull crushings and immolations are brilliant scenes of people talking to each other in rooms, slowly trying to put their interests ahead.

As Season 6 opens, one of the characters I’m rooting for most is Jaime Lannister. He’s the guy who shoved a little boy out the window.


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