Sunday night, Game of Thrones capped a ten-episode run in which the show seemed more brutal than ever, with countless characters subjected to fates worse than death (and often death, too). It’s enough to make you wonder if good things ever happen to good people. As gruesome as Game of Thrones gets, it often saves its most extravagant atrocities for the people who work hardest to avoid them. If even the Game’s most nobly intentioned players routinely die on the playing field, is there any reason to play by the rules at all?
Certainly, roads to Hell paved with good intentions are as easy to find in Game of Thrones as reanimated corpses at Hardhome. Tyrion Lannister did his best to mitigate the cruelty of his psychopathic nephew King Joffrey and wound up framed and sentenced to death for his murder. Daenerys Targaryen put aside her quest for the Iron Throne to emancipate the people of Slaver’s Bay and ignited an insurgency that forced her to flee on the back of a dragon. Brienne of Tarth swore to serve relatively decent sorts, like Renly Baratheon and Catelyn Stark, but couldn’t stop their murders, and she vowed to protect Cat’s daughters Arya and Sansa, only to be rejected by both. Their brother Robb broke a pledge to his weasel-y ally Walder Frey in order to marry his true love, Talisa, resulting in the Red Wedding slaughter of himself, his mom, his pregnant wife, and his entire army. Sunday night, his half-brother Jon Snow saw his humanitarian campaign to save the hated Wildlings from the far greater threat of the White Walkers lead to his own assassination. The Ur-example of all this, of course, is Ned Stark: He risked his own life to warn Cersei that he’d uncovered her crimes so that she and her kids could escape before her wrathful husband Robert killed them, but it’s Ned's own head that wound up rolling. Time and time again, the better angels of characters’ natures are precisely what caused them to give up the ghost. As Ser Jorah Mormont — who, by the way, contracted a fatal disease when he risked his life to save Tyrion’s — put it when discussing the defeat of Dany’s apparently benevolent big brother: “Rhaegar fought valiantly. Rhaegar fought nobly. And Rhaegar died.”
Does this make Game of Thrones a fundamentally nihilist series — a work where, when it comes to the evil that men do, resistance is futile? Seven hells, no.
For starters, that would only make sense if the Game players who cheated consistently came out on top, and that’s hardly been the case. Stannis Baratheon’s decision to burn his daughter to death led directly to the collapse of his army. Joffrey Baratheon’s career as the Mad King 2.0 came to an early end when he was poisoned to death at his own wedding by the family of the bride. Theon Greyjoy betrayed the Starks and conquered Winterfell, but wound up forsaken by both his biological and adoptive families and tortured into madness by the Bastard of Bolton. The Warlocks of Qarth and Good Masters of Astapor tried to fuel their dirty deeds with Dany’s dragons and got roasted for it. Nearly every name on Arya Stark’s hit list of murdering shitbags — from child-molesting Meryn Trant to Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane, arguably the biggest sociopath in the series (literally and metaphorically) and now a mindless zombie — has been crossed off, whether or not by her hand. Cersei Lannister brutalized and betrayed her way to the top of the Seven Kingdoms’ power structure, yet it was her own scheming that led to her downfall when she was arrested, imprisoned, and ritualistically humiliated by the very fanatics she’d empowered in the finale’s most excruciating scene. And what of Lord Eddard’s rival patriarch, Tywin Lannister? The archetypal avatar of ruthless realpolitik who orchestrated the Red Wedding and sentenced his own son to death wound up dead on the shitter, with his pants around his ankles and an arrow in his gut.
While it may look like any choice leads to a slit throat or squashed skull, this is in no way an argument that morality doesn’t matter. The constant cruelty of Game of Thrones’ world only increases the importance of doing good deeds while you still occupy it: If all men must die, as the saying goes, this makes the decision to do the right thing anyway all the more valuable. Jon Snow’s murder does not take away the lives he saved by rescuing as many Free Folk as he could from the army of the dead. Ned may have been foolish to trust Cersei to flee rather than fight, but if he’d guaranteed their deaths by narc'ing to Robert right away, he’d have been little better than she was. Tyrion’s brief reformist reign over King’s Landing likely saved hundreds of lives from the madness of King Joffrey before it ended, and now he has the chance to repeat the feat in Meereen. Dany’s drive to free the slaves of that city and its neighbors is perhaps the most complex political question the series poses — its white-savior overtones and occupier/liberator dynamic are uncomfortable to contemplate, and deliberately so — yet it’s hard to imagine that the world would be better off had she marched straight for Westeros on an ocean of fire and blood instead of literally ending the slave trade in one of its most entrenched enclaves.
In an attempt to justify the horror he’d perpetrated, Red Wedding planner Tywin Lannister said, “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner.” Put aside the fact that his RW casualty count is way off — his choice is a false one. The best people on Game of Thrones (best people, not best characters, though many viewers conflate the two) attempt to find a third way between wanton slaughter and amoral manipulation. Despite geek culture’s love of stories that celebrate the solving of problems with a heroic killing or two, violence is inherently evil, and a system based on its use is going to be ugly no matter what. Game of Thrones is frequently tragic because it recognizes this fact, and our heroes suffer and die accordingly. But their behavior before the blade strikes home makes all the difference.
So, if you need to describe the ethics of Game of Thrones in a single sentence, another quote comes to mind. It’s not from any high lord or hardened warrior — it’s from Hot Pie, Arya Stark’s husky friend from her earliest days on the run: “You cannot give up on the gravy.” When he says this to Brienne and her squire Pod after they stop for a bite at the inn where he works as a cook, he’s just describing his insistence on holding out for tasty ingredients in his war-torn bread-and-water world. But his culinary philosophy is a moral one as well. Kindness, decency, the attempt to make the lives of others freer and safer and more bearable than the existing system permits — there’s a reason your heart leaps every time someone on this show defies the odds and gives these qualities a try. Call it epic-fantasy existentialism: Winter is coming for everyone. What could possibly be more important than preserving whatever warmth you can?