‘Game of Thrones’ and the Moral Limits of Revenge

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Sunday’s Season 6 finale of Game of Thrones was nothing if not satisfying. “The Winds of Winter” sees Daenerys finally crossing the Narrow Sea to stake a claim to the Iron Throne; Jon Snow’s parentage is finally revealed, which doesn’t stop him from being anointed King of the North; and somehow Arya has finally managed to travel from Braavos back home to Westeros, where she gleefully avenges the murder of her family by feeding Walder Frey his own sons baked in a pie before slitting his throat. Apparently revenge is a dish best served in the form of your victim’s offspring.

When the season began, I complained that the show seemed to be stalling — that it was clearly setting up major conflicts to come but that the early episodes in and of themselves were just meh. “The Winds of Winter” certainly fulfilled the promise of those early, boring episodes in an action-packed 60-plus minutes. But the finale’s emphasis on the satisfaction of revenge left me feeling more than the usual Game of Thrones-induced queasiness.

In a stunning opening sequence, Cersei uses the Red Keep’s store of wildfire to blow up the sept with everyone inside: The High Sparrow and the rest of the Faith Militant, Margaery, Loras and Mace Tyrell, and a whole whack of bystanders. The slow, deliberate pacing of the scene —the juxtaposition of each character getting dressed for the momentous day; the suspense-building cuts between Lancel inching closer and closer to the green globules of wildfire and Margaery’s dawning realization that something’s not right — lent the opening an eerie sense of inevitable disaster.

Cersei may be an unequivocal villain, but for the past couple seasons the series has pitted her against an even more menacing figure in the form of the High Sparrow and his army of hardline religious fanatics. With Cersei, viewers can at the very least sympathize with a leader trying to preserve her power in a world that offers most women very little of it — not to mention a mother who’s now lost all of her children.

In the sixth episode of Season 6, Arya watches a troupe of performers reenact Joffrey’s wedding-slash-death. Unlike the rest of the goofy cast, the actress who plays Cersei is an affecting performer; when she leans over the actor who plays Joffrey, lamenting the death of her son, the crowd is rapt. Her feigned grief even wipes the grin off Arya’s face. “All hope is lost,” the actress moans. “All joy is gone. And there is no tomorrow.” The scene is a reminder that every death has meaning for someone.

In the morally complex world of Westeros, Cersei is easy to hate. But in the High Sparrow and the Faith Militant, Game of Thrones created a foe even more loathsome than Cersei. The Faith Militant are for the most part nameless, identical automatons with a severe and unforgiving moral code that leaves no room for individual desire or choice. It’s hard to imagine any of them weeping for anyone; they seem to lack basic human impulses like joy, desire, or fear. I doubt they’d even partake in a lemon cake.

Certainly Septa Unella wouldn’t. The rest of the High Sparrow’s followers died anonymous deaths, but the joyless, bell-ringing, shame-calling clergy member was treated to a special kind of agony courtesy of Cersei’s enforcer, Gregor Clegane. Apparently fans cheered the demise of Septa Unella, who is promised a slow, torturous death at the hands of Gregor; thankfully, the camera stays on the outside of her cell door, with only her spine-chilling scream to indicate her fate.

But this death and others like it that are meant to be satisfying conclusions to long-brewing conflicts left me empty. Arya — one of few characters that fans have unequivocally cheered on since the series began — unknowingly takes a page from Cersei’s book when she kills Walder Frey. “I said my face would be the last thing you saw before you died, remember?” Cersei tells Septa Unella before she brings in Gregor. “The last thing you’re ever going to see is a Stark smiling down on you as you die,” Arya promises Walder Frey before slitting his throat.

In the previous episode, Sansa orders Ramsay Bolton’s own dogs to devour their owner, grinning with pleasure as she walks away to the sounds of Ramsay’s flesh being torn from his bones. Again, viewers applauded the demise of this brutal man who had spent so many episodes torturing others — first Theon, then Sansa, with a few minor characters, like Osha, tossed in for good measure. Like Walder Frey and the Faith Militant, Ramsay was made out to be such an unabashed villain for so long that it wasn’t hard to get excited about his death.

Maybe I’m just feeling burned out by 2016 so far, but I’m not in the mood to get excited about anyone’s death. Cheering on the brutal, graphic murders of characters like Septa Unella, Walder Frey, the slave masters in Slaver’s Bay (now the Bay of Dragons, thanks to Daenerys) and even Ramsay Bolton feels somehow too easy — particularly when those deaths come at the hands of characters whom we’ve been conditioned to root for, like Arya and Dany. It reminds me of Breaking Bad fans who eagerly praised Walter White’s latest “badass” stunt even though the character was so clearly becoming a selfish, egomaniacal, violent man who put his whole family in danger.

I realize that a major point of Game of Thrones is to demonstrate how morally compromising it is to live in the world it depicts. But other shows do that, too, and they manage to remain on far more solid moral ground. Orange is the New Black is premised on the fact that almost every character has done something so bad as to warrant her imprisonment. And yet through flashbacks, the show demonstrates that these women aren’t evil — they’re just imperfect people, often in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even the prison guards are portrayed not as straight-up villains but as people under pressure who make mistakes.

The antagonist of Outlander, Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies) brutally rapes and tortures one of the show’s protagonists, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) in the first season. But so far, the show refuses to do to him what he did to Jamie. In the second season, Outlander deepens the character even more, revealing him to be a man with harmful impulses that even he knows he can’t control. That doesn’t mean he’s absolved of his crimes, but it makes it that much harder for the viewer to look at Black Jack and see a projection of society’s evils; instead, we see a flawed human being. And on The Americans , murder isn’t performed with glee but weary resignation, each death sapping the killers of their sense of humanity. The show makes the act of killing look not like awesome fun but awful work.

Of course, as a fantasy series, Game of Thrones exists in a different world than OITNB, Outlander, and The Americans. But as viewers, we’re all living in the same morally complicated world. Game of Thrones —a show that continually captures the attention of a record-breaking amount of viewers — is all too eager to pander to our fantasies of unchecked power.

It’s not that the show presents a world without consequences. But while other dramas never let us forget that a life is a life, Game of Thrones takes so much pleasure in punishing its characters it’s easy to forget they’re all human.