By Max Bentovim
It is strange that Game of Thrones is so often singled out for its violence. Despite its pathbreaking willingness to embrace the demise of seemingly-central characters, Game of Thrones’ body count has never been terribly high, not when you compare it to horrifying and ultra-violent films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which bloodlessly depicts the genocide of billions. No, Game of Thrones is singled out for the frequency with which it depicts violent events, and the way it depicts them – bloody, painful, hard. To some extent, the argument against depicting violence in this way can be self-refuting; violence is this way, it’s just not often that popular culture forces us to confront it.
But this season of Game of Thrones has been different. More so, perhaps, than any of its predecessors, it has a consistent, well-explored theme, a theme that emerges less as a rebuttal of the show’s many critics as a natural outgrowth of its imperfect project of trying to honestly depict the experience of living in a violent society: the costs of living in that society. Using its characters (generally, though not exclusively, that society’s elite, a less-discussed challenge in how Game of Thrones chooses to subvert the conventions of its genre) as a metonym for the society they rule, this season has been an extended meditation on the ways people, individually and collectively, move forward after trauma, tragedy, and abuse.
By this point, almost all of the show’s characters have experienced physical and emotional violence that, despite the show’s best efforts, are difficult to imagine. Almost every character’s arc this season has been about the many ways people attempt to deal, or not deal, with the horrors in their past. Some withdraw; some rebuild; some lash out; some agonize; some simply don’t know. Some of those characters didn’t make it to tonight’s episode – Hodor, Brother Ray, Rickon, Olly, Leaf, Wun Wun – while others, most notably the Hound, are poised to transmute their pain into ever-more violence on an ongoing basis. Indeed, the show’s slow-building existential crisis – the White Walkers – was revealed this season as itself the product of one trauma inflicted as a misbegotten reaction to another. It is, in fact, the few characters on Game of Thrones who seem to feel no consequences from the terrible things they experience or inflict – Ramsay, the Faceless Men, Walder Frey – who most disturb and revolt us, and their stark contrast casts into relief that, in Westeros and Essos, to live is to experience agony; to be human is to reckon with that agony every day; to be good…well, we’re still figuring that out.
For a season that has too often felt prosaic, even at times perfunctory, its finale was elegy through and through. No more was that the case in its extended opening sequence. Beautifully and brilliantly shot and set to dire music, the “trial” of the highborn sinners wrapped up a complex and challenging plotline in a way true to its primary character. Cersei Lannister has never been a chess player, but her total embrace of her one comparative advantage – her cruelty – showed that even the best strategists can be defeated when an opponent chooses to play a different game, her coup carefully telegraphed throughout the season. The brutal payoff demonstrating the costs of her choices is one of the most purely sad moments on the whole run of the show; the icy coldness with which Cersei reaps those costs shows how a damaged human can lose their humanity altogether. And while any show would suffer the loss of Natalie Dormer and Jonathan Pryce, the episode’s conclusion – the ascent of the Mad Queen (alongside her thematically apropos henchman, the undead Mountain) – promises to reward the collapse of its many complex plotlines with a long-awaited collision between its key agonists. That collision finally brings the Dornish plot into the main thread, getting them where they need to be to roughly map to the book and a relief in what has certainly been one of the show’s worst-handled storylines. This season demonstrated increasing confidence as it progressed in making the story its own as it exceeded and diverged from the published material; this episode did so with exceptional panache that portends some great storytelling for the next season.
Events in the North also show characters bearing the costs of their hardest choices, some harder to defend than others, none of which clearly pointing to the world their makers desired. Davos’ furious revelation of Melisandre’s hand in Shireen’s fate has Jon Snow exiling the person to whom he very literally owes his every breath, and certainly questioning more than ever why he’s drawing them. Sansa, on the other hand, navigates between her half-brother and her chaotic evil savior, with Littlefinger more clearly than ever confessing his intent and desire; Sansa, however, leaves her intent and desire less clear than ever, even as the lords of the North supersede her claim to declare for a bastard. That on the heels of what may – or may not – be the closest we ever come to a revelation about that bastard’s heritage, the cut from a baby to a “bastard” tantalizingly close to explicit confirmation of one of the most passionately-held fandom predictions. Maybe Howland Reed will finally show up in season seven; maybe we’ll just have to believe.
Belief is something Sansa professes to have abandoned in this episode, but something Tyrion professes to have found. It’s hard not to cheer when Daenerys pins the hand on his tunic, but her profession to have felt nothing as she abandons a man who loves her as she rides to Westeros with dead-eyed dragons and vast army in tow should leave a sense of worry as to what she believes – and what she’ll do to pursue it. Nevertheless, as she leads the Iron Fleet (which seems strangely unnecessary now that it seems Varys can teleport) across the Narrow Sea, at least we can all cheer for Season Seven being all Westeros, all the time. We also bid farewell to Braavos this episode in stupendous fashion, as Walder Frey, shortly after an unsettling exchange with Jaime about their less-than-honorable commonalities, is dispatched by a returned and revanchist Arya, but not before she sends a shout-out to book-readers by feeding him Frey Pie.
If any character shed a beacon of hope on the dismal events of last night’s episode, it was Samwell Tarly. More than any other character, he has demonstrated at least the possibility that there is a path out of the darkness – in his case, a life of unceasing physical and emotional abuse from his own family – to the light. He embraces himself and his achievements, claiming his family’s heirloom for himself; he embraces the woman he loves and child, despite their status as Westerosi untouchables and themselves the victims of terrible trauma; and he accomplishes his task, arriving at a Citadel that, despite broadcasting the long-foretold arrival of winter to the Seven Kingdoms in seconds, seems vastly insulated from the events that drove Sam and Gilly here in the first place. Sam’s reward is entry into a place that, for him, is almost like Homer Simpson’s Land of Chocolate; the Citadel’s Library, a chamber of codices so vast even Sam would struggle to read them all in ten lifetimes. Perhaps somewhere in that almost-Borgesian library lays the salvation of Westeros and mankind; wouldn’t it be something if, after all the battles and magic and terrible costs seem to lay the burden of redemption on the shoulders of beautiful and hardened warriors and leaders, it was the plump, bookish outcast whose unwavering sense of moral and personal purpose was the keeper of the light that may yet dispel the long night ahead.