What has changed, I think, is that tragedy has become pornography. Not literal pornography, of course, because very specific forms of gratuitous sexual titillation have been consistent throughout. Put some boobs on screen is one of the boxes each episode needs to check off, and consistently does. But what is the point of evoking terror and pity by hurting characters like Sansa or Cercei? Watching Ned, Catelyn, and Rob die was horrible not only because they were good people, but because we were watching the patriarchal fantasies of Good Kings dying with them. They represented something, the possibility of a return to the way things should be: the tragedy was coming to realize its impossibility. The Starks were the tragic heroes, because, from Ned on down, their heroic qualities were what doomed them, made their deaths inevitable. George R. R. Martin's innovation was to suggest that "Goodness" is a tragic flaw.
After writing three books in four years, Martin lost the plot; since the Red Wedding, basically, he's written two books in fifteen years, and they're a hot mess. He'd written himself into a corner, and it will be interesting to see if HBO can write him out of it. I suspect he's totally stuck, and here's why: one way to end the thing would be with the Return of the King (google "R+L=J" if you want to know how it could happen), which would make A Song of Ice and Fire into a tragedy with a happy ending. But a tragedy with a happy ending is not a tragedy, and this is Martin's dilemma: if the King returns, and all is well that ends well, then we have returned to the narrative that he so devilishly skewered in the first three books. If we watched a nightmarish horror, in which good guys finish last, we'll wake up to discover that it was all a dream: actually, good guys finish first!This is not only close to what my take of the show has been for a while, it actually neatly captures the reasons I felt so unmotivated to keep reading the books past the first one: it was clear that Martin was writing a crapsack world in which everyone sucks and no one deserves the throne, so why should I care who wins it? More importantly, in the background of this story, Martin was setting up an epic battle for survival between humanity and ice zombies, which would inevitably belie the cynicism of his main story by delivering a foretold hero to save the world--so why should I even respect him for being a cynic?
Bady's argument feels particularly apt at the end of this exhausting fifth season, in which the show seemed finally to have been snowed under by the sheer volume of the conversation about it. As if subliminally sensing that Game of Thrones had long since run out of anything to say, its commentators seemed determined to fill the void by saying everything possible about it--about its use of rape, about its gleeful embrace of violence against the innocent and helpless, about the odd but completely predictable phenomenon of an adaptation outpacing its source material, about the increasing tensions this is causing for fans of the books, and, inevitably, about what it means that we can't stop talking about Game of Thrones. Every Monday morning for two and a half months, twitter has been full of people ranting about the latest depravity to happen to a beloved character, people swearing off the show forever (until next week), and people mocking the first two groups for not noticing the kind of story they were watching. As someone who for years has been saying that Game of Thrones is little more than a well-made soap opera with no one worth rooting for except the servants and peasants, I ought to feel some sympathy with the latter group, but what I've mainly been feeling is overwhelmed, and increasingly unclear why I'm still watching the show. It's not that I don't like it anymore--I mainly watch to find out what happens next, and on that level the fifth season delivered a fair bit of progress--but that I'm increasingly feeling the pressure to be invested, either for or against, in something that surely doesn't deserve that investment.
This was my feeling yesterday afternoon. And then I watched the fifth season finale, "Mother's Mercy," and something really strange and unexpected happened--I found myself thinking about Game of Thrones as a story that was trying to make a point. To be clear, "Mother's Mercy" is not a very good episode. Even by the laxer standards on which we judge this show's premieres and finales, it is bitty and scattershot, barely giving any character their due in its rush to tie up all their stories. It's full of deaths and trauamtic events that barely get a chance to land because as soon as they've been established, the episode rushes off to the next one. In one particularly tone deaf example, the character of Sansa Stark is last seen jumping off the battlements of Winterfell. Common sense, and Sansa's behavior in the scene immediately before, in which she announces that she would rather die than submit to any more brutal mistreatment by her sadistic husband, Ramsay Bolton, would suggest that this is a suicide, but the scene isn't shot or treated like the final exit of a beloved, important character (and, of course, there has been no announcement that Sophie Turner has left the show). And yet it's impossible to imagine how Sansa could have survived. In a nutshell, this is the problem with all of "Mother's Mercy." In the guise of wrapping up this season's stories, it's actually setting up an endless number of cliffhangers for the next, but--partly because of their sheer number, partly because of poor execution--very few of these cliffhangers manage to create suspense. The season ends less with tension, and more with confusion.
And yet, looked at from another perspective, "Mother's Mercy" is a shockingly coherent hour of television. Much has been made of the truly epic number of main character deaths in this episode, but a more accurate way of putting it would be that these deaths are merely the outcome of its actual preoccupation, revenge. In almost every one of its subplots, the fifth season finale shows us charactes getting their longed-for revenge. And in every one of those stories, that revenge turns out to be futile, self-destructive, and pointless. Take, for example, Ellaria Sand, who in this episode finally achieves her season-long goal of killing Myrcella Lannister in revenge for the death of her lover, Oberyn Martell, at the hands of a Lannister knight. The futility of this gesture is baked into its very description--Ellaria has murdered an innocent child who had nothing to do with Oberyn's death (which was anyway as much of his own making's as anyone else's). In so doing, she's doomed herself, and probably also her daughters, to death or exile, and probably started a war between Dorne and King's Landing, while handing the Lannisters a valuable hostage in the form of Trystane Martell, Myrcella's oblivious fiancé. Even the murder weapon speaks to the madness one sinks to when plotting revenge--seemingly contrite, Ellaria kisses Myrcella goodbye while wearing poisoned lipstick, which, when we last see her, begins to take its effect on her as well. Ellaria has literally taken poison in the hopes that someone else will die, and though unlike Myrcella she has an antidote, the self-destructiveness inherent in that gesture speaks volumes.
Or take the episode's final scene, in which the erstwhile, quietly heroic Jon Snow is murdered by his fellow Night's Watch members, in revenge for his choice to bring their mortal enemies the Wildlings past the Wall. Aside from the fact that Jon has for some time been one of the few truly positive characters left on the show, and that the ringleader of this betrayal, Alliser Thorne, is a petty, mean-spirited man motivated as much by political jealousy as genuine conviction (he was heavily favored to be named as the new Lord Commander of the Night's Watch before Jon swooped in and got the job), this is an extraordinarily foolish, destructive act. Jon is one of the few people on Westeros to understand that the real threat to the kingdom isn't its civil wars, but the coming army of ice zombies. Allying with the Wildlings was absolutely the right move--it gives the Night's Watch a much-needed increase in numbers, and denies the White Walkers, who can resurrect the dead and make them fight on their side, their own increase. By killing the only Night's Watch member the Wildlings trusted, Thorne may have doomed the Watch--and much of Westeros--to a fate worse than death.
But if Myrcella and Jon's deaths are events the audience can be trusted to root against, what about acts of revenge we've been fervently rooting for? For several seasons, Arya Stark has been keeping a list of people who have hurt her or her loved ones, and whom she intends to kill. In "Mother's Mercy" she gets the chance to cross off one of those names, Meryn Trant, who killed her beloved fencing master Syrio Forel. Trant is an all-around terrible person--he beat and stripped Sansa on Joffrey's orders, and Arya is able to get to him because of his fondness for raping young girls--and yet when Arya returns from killing him to the House of Black and White, where she has been training to become a faceless assassin, she's chastised and punished. To be sure, the Many-Faced God's philosophy doesn't bear much scrutiny--Arya killing her own target out of her own thirst for revenge is bad, but killing the target assigned to her by the Faceless Men, who were commissioned by a supplicant on their own quest for vengeance, is good--but there's no question that what Arya does to Trant is more destructive to her than to him. She doesn't just kill him (as she has already done to other names on her list); she butchers him, torturing him while she explains exactly why he deserves to die at her hand. It's certainly a more horrible death than the quick poisoning intended by the Faceless Men for the swindling insurance agent who was Arya's actual target, and the fact that she's able to deal it out so calmly suggests that she's on her way to becoming a far greater monster than Trant ever was. When Arya's story ends with her receiving some supernatural punishment that includes losing her sight, it's hard not to feel that this is what's best for everyone.
Or take Cersei Lannister. Unlike Arya, Cersei has never been someone the audience was meant to root for. She's a bad person who has done terrible things--strictly speaking, the entire war that has consumed Westeros for five seasons is of her own making, as she killed her husband rather than allow him to find out that their children were actually her brother's--and she makes truly terrible decisions. The predicament she finds herself in in "Mother's Mercy"--imprisoned by the fanatical religious sect the Faith Militant, who have accused her, quite rightly, of adultery, incest, and murder--is her own fault, since she empowered the Faith in the first place, in a misguided, thoughtless power play against her new daughter-in-law Margaery Tyrell (whose fate, as of the end of the season, remains unknown). So if anyone wants revenge against Cersei, it's probably the audience, who have been waiting for her comeuppance for years. And yet when that punishment arrives, it's horrible. Shaved and stripped naked, forced to walk through the streets of King's Landing while the commoners (who, again, have every reason to hate her) pelt her with rotten vegetables and manure and shout obscenities at her, Cersei, who has never been less than entirely human even when doing and saying the most appalling things, is heartbreakingly sympathetic, the camera remaining fixed on her face as she tries, and fails, to endure her ordeal with dignity. The punishment she receives says more about the sadism and judgmental glee of the people who force her to endure it than it does about Cersei, and, unsurprisingly, its effect is not to make Cersei contrite or reflective, but to confirm her in her belief that everyone is against her, and that she's right to resort to violence and cruelty to get her own way. The audience may have been wishing for Cersei to get what she deserves for as long as they've been wishing for Arya to kick ass and take names, but in both cases, getting what we want tastes like ashes.
(Having said all that, we might also stop to consider how blatantly sexualized Cersei's punishment is. We might consider the fact that at the same time that she's being punished for her crimes, her brother Jaime, who committed all the same crimes as her and also raped her, is receiving forgiveness and acceptance from his daughter-by-incest Myrcella. True, the scene ends with Myrcella dying in Jaime's arms, which can be taken as a punishment, but then we might consider that while Cersei's punishment is humilating, Jaime's is grandly tragic--and, more importantly, does not actually happen to him but to a woman he cares about. And we might consider how typical this is of this episode in general, in which, for example, Theon Greyjoy finally breaks the hold that the sadistic Ramsay Bolton has on him--by killing Ramsay's slightly less sadistic and certainly less powerful girlfriend Myranda.)
The most powerful statement that "Mother's Mercy" makes about the futility of revenge comes from the most honorable, sympathetic character in the series, and from an act that no one--in or out of the show--will take as cruel or unjust. The stalwart knight Brienne has spent the fifth season staking out Winterfell, waiting for a sign of trouble from Sansa. In the opening scenes of the episode, she's disturbed from her watch by the news that Stannis Baratheon--whom she has sworn to kill in revenge for his murder of his brother, a kind and decent man whom she loved and swore allegiance to--is marching on Winterfell. Stannis comes to "Mother's Mercy" as one of the most hated characters on the show, having sacrificed his sweet, affectionate daughter Shireen to the fire god R'hllor in the previous episode in exchange for favorable weather. The unsurprising result of this is that half of Stannis's men desert (and his wife Selyse takes her own life), turning his planned siege of Winterfell into a rout. By the time Brienne gets to him, he's defeated in body and spirit and calmly accepting of death. Brienne, meanwhile, isn't cruel or sadistic. She gives Stannis a quick death and explains why she's killing him, to which his only response is that she is doing her duty. Of all the many deaths on this show or in this episode, this is probably the most just and the most kind.
And yet, because Brienne chooses to pursue vengeance, she misses it when Sansa is finally able to call for help, lighting a candle in the window of Winterfell's tallest tower as Brienne instructed her to. To be sure, this is more than a little silly and over-literal: has Brienne been standing watch on the same spot for all the weeks of the fifth season? How short a span does Sansa's candle burn, anyway? But there's no escaping the very simple message: by choosing revenge, Brienne abandons her duty to Sansa and leaves her without a protector. Brienne kills Stannis with the sword she named Oathkeeper, given to her by Jaime as a symbol of her oath to Catelyn Stark to protect her daughters, and of Jaime's own quest for redemption (which, to be fair, Brienne embodies far more than he does). By choosing revenge, even on someone who truly deserves it and who even welcomes death, Brienne breaks her oath to both Catelyn and Jamie, and, however unwillingly, dishonors herself.
As Bady writes, the first three seasons of Game of Thrones have a single, simple, perhaps simplistic message--that the righteous do not triumph simply because they are righteous; that goodness, far from being a path to success and power, is actually an impediment to them. And, as he writes, the next two seasons of the show suffered because once that message had been well and truly hammered home with the Red Wedding, there was nowhere for the story to go except to nihilistically repeat it. "Mother's Mercy" suggests that there is actually somewhere to go from this point. The natural response to learning that goodness leads to suffering is to hope for comeuppance--for the good guys to become powerful enough to punish their oppressors, and for the bad guys to get what's coming to them. What "Mother's Mercy" tells us is that this, too, is not a good philosophy of life. That revenge, even if it's deserved and dispassionate, is an evil that blows back on the people who deliver it, perpetuating and increasing the amount of suffering in the world rather than achieving justice.
To be clear, I'm not saying that Game of Thrones is suddenly a good or meaningful show--it's still a well-made but overrated soap opera about unpleasant people whose main appeal is finding out what happens next. But I find it terribly exciting that, years after I'd given up hope of ever seeing such a thing again, the show is actually trying to say something. That what it's saying happens to be a hard but important truth, rather than the juvenile glibness of "goodness is a weakness," is just more icing on the cake.
That said, it is worth noting that the answer the show gives to the futility of vengeance is the same answer it gave to the vulnerability of the good. Or rather, the same person. Daenerys Targaryen is one of the few characters on the show who does not spend "Mother's Mercy" committing or experiencing vengeance. Having fled the city of Mereen, which she conquered in the fourth season, on the back of one of her dragons, she finds herself captured by Dothraki raiders. For any other woman on the show, this would herald a lot of attempted (or completed) rape. For Daenerys, it probably means she'll be in charge of the khalasar by the second episode of season six. The rules have never seemed to apply to Daenerys, not because she's a particularly good leader or politician--her reign in Mereen was marked by toppling the existing, evil power structure and customs and offering nothing to replace them, which unsurprisingly led to resentment and eventually rebellion; it's almost a relief when the episode ends with the more pragmatic, politically savvy Tyrion and Varys taking over the city, even if this represents one female white savior being replaced by two male ones. No, Daenerys is special because that's how she's been written. Becuase her role in the story means that she doesn't face the same moral hazards as the other characters. She can experience trauma and humiliation without becoming embittered or damaged. She can take revenge without losing her soul. She can embrace power without being corrupted. In the end, we come back to the problem Bady identifies--Game of Thrones, and Martin before it, try to tell a story in which real stakes and consequences are injected into a fantasy world, but in the end it's all in the service of the return of the queen. Perhaps the example of "Mother's Mercy" means that this story has more life in it yet, but, as much as this episode surprised me, that seems like too much to hope for.