deep dives

Game of Thrones Makes It Possible to Miss the Worst Characters and Despise the Best

I don’t know why it took me four seasons to realize that the main melody of the Game of Thrones theme syncs up perfectly with “Don’t get/Too attached to/Anyone.” But it does. If those were the official lyrics they would be perfect, because George R.R. Martin and his HBO adapters have a penchant for killing characters, and because no matter how complicated or outright nasty those characters are, when they die, you find yourself missing them. Why? Not just because you spent a lot of time with them, and in TV drama, an investment of time often translates into an investment of emotion. It’s also because, without stinting on the double-crossing and bloodshed and general badassery, the show is committed to writing main characters about whom you cannot feel exclusively one way. As you watch even ruthless, crude, or vicious characters interact with each other in deftly written scenes, you come to understand their points of view and appreciate their personalities. On Cheers, Frasier Crane once asked Cliff Clavin, “What color is the sky in your world?” Good dramas actually think about how to answer that, and on Game of Thrones, I’m sure that every major character could respond with his or her own finely chosen color. 

I’m nearly always sorry to see Game of Thrones characters go — except, of course, for the cackling sadists who are just there to brutalize others and make the viewer squirm—  and we’ve lost a lot of them over the last couple of seasons. The ninth and tenth episodes of season four were a sustained harvest of blood. The RIP list includes, among others, Ygritte, the Hound, Shae, and Tywin Lannister. None seemed like mere cannon fodder, because as they were dying (usually at another character’s hands, or in another character’s arms) you weren’t entirely sure how to feel about them. On Game of Thrones, a character’s dying breath often unsettles reactions you thought were settled.

The best example is King Joffrey, arguably the biggest death in a season filled with them. He was a horrible, horrible, horrible human being, but I suspect that if you were the product of a semi-secret incestuous union and had been spoiled rotten and then handed absolute power over a kingdom, you might not be a wise and merciful ruler, either. And that close-up of of Joffrey’s face as he died from poison managed the nearly impossible feat of making me feel (almost) sorry for the (figurative and literal) son of a bitch, if only because the fear and helplessness he displayed in that final moment reminded us that he was, in fact, just a stupid-ass kid, the sum total of his conditioning and privilege and maybe some messed-up genetics as well. The apple and the family tree.

It’s become fashionable in some quarters to bash Game of Thrones as J.R.R. Tolkien with boobies — or as a “soap opera,” a term that once had a very specific meaning but now describes any serialized drama one doesn’t like or approve of — but during a good week, the show digs much deeper than either of those negative comparisons suggest. It reminds me more of the Godfather films, as well as bloody-sexy-nasty Godfather-inspired historical dramas like Queen Margot and Elizabeth. Which isn’t to say it’s super-deep art — the Godfather movies weren’t deep, either, if we’re being honest about it — but that, like its antecedents, it has a certain cruel honesty, and it makes things harder on the audience, at least in terms of rooting interest, than it probably needs to. Even the characters coded as “good,” or as people you’re supposed to identify with, do or are party to horrendous things.

I still don’t know how I feel about Ygritte, who died in Jon Snow’s arms during the battle of the Wall last week, shot dead by a boy whose village she helped slaughter. I know I didn’t hate her or cheer her death. She was so one-note angry, so impetuous and insecure, such a braggart, often treacherous, but you were always aware of why that was. She was a woman in a man’s profession, and almost certainly more merciful and decent than warrior culture and military tactics allowed her to show. Maybe that’s why she spared Gilly’s infant son and then hesitated before shooting her ex-lover Jon? As Tormund said later, Ygritte loved Jon; you could hear it in her voice when she talked about killing him, and she more or less confessed this as she died. I liked her, and I didn’t like her, and I’m going to miss her.

Similarly, Tyrion Lannister’s murder of his ex-lover, the prostitute Shae, in his father’s bed made me wonder if I could ever fully embrace this character again. Yes, Shae testified against him in his trial, but only after he spurned her and committed himself to his arranged marriage with Sansa. I can’t judge either character too harshly considering what they were both up against. They truly loved each other, but the stars (and Tywin and the show’s sexist, quasi-feudal society) were aligned against them. I wanted to think Tyrion was too kindhearted to do what he did to Shae, but a stint on death row tends to harden a person, as does being falsely testified against, and — well, I could list all the mitigating circumstances, but we’d be here all day, because Game of Thrones is all mitigating circumstances. (Shae offered Tyrion a chance to run away with her, and he declined; she probably thought in retrospect that if Tyrion had said yes to her when he had the chance, none of the legal intrigue of season four would’ve happened.)

The act of patricide that finished off Tyrion’s story — murdering his own father with two crossbow bolts as the old man sat on the loo — was just as fraught. It might not have happened if Tyrion hadn’t just come from impulse-killing one of the great loves of his life, a woman who later betrayed him, and who wouldn’t have betrayed him if he hadn’t betrayed her first. As written by Martin and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and as played by Charles Dance, Tywin was theoretically as hissable as Joffrey or another cruelly powerful character. And yet you couldn’t entirely hate him because you understood his point of view: In his mind, he was just doing what he had to do to keep the family and its recently-cobbled-together empire from collapsing. He was protecting the family, just as Cersei said in that same episode that she was protecting the family. (Very Godfather; invoke the Family as a pretext for everything.) Complicating the death still further were the circumstances of Tywin’s death and his final moments. Despite being caught in just about the most vulnerable and undignified position a character can be caught in, he somehow projected invulnerability and dignity. You can’t help admiring a character who can do that even if he’s a scheming, murderous old man. And there was something in his voice and eyes (Dance’s voice and eyes, really) that suggested he’d struggled with his animosity, perhaps outright bloodlust, toward Tyrion. I believe he loved his son even though he fantasized of killing him. His wife died giving birth to the boy. The whole situation is, as they say, complicated

I was most affected by the Hound’s death, for a couple of reasons. One is that it demonstrated that Arya Stark had learned the harsh lessons of survival that the Hound taught her: that’s why she sat there stony-faced as he bled out following his duel with Brienne of Tarth, and that’s why she walked off by herself at the end, not even pausing to mercy-kill the poor bastard. But there’s another, somewhat more mysterious source of that scene’s power: It encapsulates the mixed emotions we feel toward people who have raised or protected us without necessarily being good people. The warrior was essentially an adoptive parent or guardian, and a brutal one at that. He taught Arya a number of useful skills (some of them lethal) but never really softened. At the end he was confessing to horrendous acts of violence and a rape fantasy. Although he’d suffered greatly in his own life — his monologue about how he got those scars was more devastating than any of Don Draper’s whorehouse flashbacks — I don’t think it’s fair to say the character was incapable of really loving another person. He was: The love just came out strangled and pitiful, camouflaged as something else. Although he probably never realized it, he became a parent to Arya — maybe not an objectively good one, but as good as he could have been, and without ever thinking, Here I am being a parental figure. Of course, the entire time she was basically his captive or his property. What should one feel, exactly? Does it have to be one thing?

“You remember where the heart is?” he asked her.

How Are We Supposed to Feel About Tyrion Now?