Empathy can pull us in strange directions. When we see someone who has been wronged, we want justice for them. We want the people who have perpetrated that wrong to pay for their crimes. We share in the victim’s anger and root for their revenge. But show us someone suffering and we will empathize with them just as strongly. We pity the person in pain, and want their suffering to end.
What makes these impulses peculiar is that sometimes they conflict. Sometimes the person suffering is the same perpetrator of the original wrong, and yet we still feel for them in their anguish. Show us someone being broken, physically, mentally, or spiritually, and we cannot help but feel sorry for them, even if the ills they’re enduring are wholly deserved and well-earned.
To wit, Cersei Lannister has done terrible things. She was complicit in the murder of children. She schemed to have her own brother killed. She has intentionally put many in harm’s way or otherwise abdicated her moral responsibility to intervene when she could have saved lives or helped others. She deserved some measure of comeuppance. She deserved to pay for these sins. She deserved to be punished.
That’s why the moment when she was imprisoned by the High Sparrow felt so triumphant. Cersei was only at the Sept in the first place to thumb her nose at Margaery Tyrell and revel in the scheme to neutralize her would-be adversary by reviving the Faith Militant. Then, the tables triumphantly turned.
The High Sparrow confronted Cersei under the same religious laws she’d prodded him to enforce against Margaery and her brother. He raised accusations of adultery and incest against Cersei and locked her in the same prison where, moments earlier, she had been taunting her rival. Cersei was being hoisted by her own petard, finally having a taste of the medicine she had force-fed to so many others.
And yet, when she was trapped within that cell, enduring beatings and starvation, brought so low that she would lick water off the filthy stone floor for hydration, I felt sorry for her. Cersei was someone who needed to be brought low, as low as she had cut down those who had stood in her way. But seeing her in that state didn’t feel satisfying or righteous or enjoyable. It felt shameful to see a human being, even a fictional one, treated that way.
* * *
But Cersei’s worst indignity was yet to come. After finally confessing her sins to the High Septum, she was permitted to return to The Red Keep, but only after her “atonement.” Cersei was stripped nude, had her hair hacked off by rough-handed nuns, and was paraded in that state through the streets of King’s Landing. Every step she took was echoed by a ringing bell and a nun’s cry of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” The citizens of King’s Landing jeered at her. They hurled both invectives and garbage at their Queen Regent with no reluctance or restraint. They spat in her face and brandished their private parts in obscene taunts.
As Cersei made the long march to The Red Keep, her feet grew more and more bloodied. Her stoic visage crumbled within that hateful sea of humanity and humiliation. Her final, pained expression as she trudged toward safety revealed a woman who had been violated and broken. This did not feel like justice.
The reason it felt so hollow to see a villain receive this level of vitriol may simply be that Cersei was not punished for her true crimes. While incest and adultery are nothing to applaud, little of the antipathy Cersei has engendered from the Game of Thrones audience came from her sleeping with her cousin or breaking her vows to the lewd King Robert. Part of it may be that this punishment, even if earned, felt too ugly or too out of line with the charges against her.
But there’s more to it than that. When Cersei finally reached The Red Keep and broke down in tears, I pitied her. I pitied the character who had sewn so much hell for so many nobler people within Game of Thrones’s cruel setting. Because when she was made to suffer, she stood not as the ruthless, regal chess-master, but instead as nothing more than a beleaguered, debased human being, and it’s hard to see even the cruelest human being in pain.
I not only felt sorry for Cersei, but I wanted vengeance on her behalf as well. I wanted the reanimated Gregor Clegane to storm back beyond the walls of The Red Keep, charge through the jeering rabble, and pulverize the High Sparrow along with his band of fanatics.
But how crazy is that? How crazy is it to not only have sympathy for this character who has wrought no end of hell for the better souls of Westeros, but to want her suffering to be avenged? How crazy is it to be pleased to see Qyburn, that Mengele of a Maester, emerge and to hope that he sends his Frankenstein monster out for more blood? How crazy is it to want more “justice” after what I’d just witnessed?
And the irony is that if The Mountain really did tear through the crowd and crush the High Sparrow in as brutal a manner as when he killed Prince Oberyn, I suspect I would wish vengeance upon him as well. I expect that I would see such harshness and think it too far and too much, and hope that someone would, in turn, slay the reanimated brute. These sympathetic impulses would only lead me around in circles.
That’s the cycle of vengeance that plays out on the screen and in the hearts and minds of the audience of Game of Thrones. Each measure of revenge yields another. Each blow meant to end the cycle only refreshes it anew. Each time someone is avenged, a new person is aggrieved and sets out to take their cut. The people who watch this show, we of hot blood and bleeding hearts, want to see the scales of justice leveled and The Mother’s mercy shown in equal measure, and struggle to strike a balance between these two opposing forces.
* * *
These impulses within us perpetuate this cycle, both in worlds fictional and those that are all too terribly real. They are the same impulses that make us burn for justice to be brought to terrorists, the fiends who would seek to kill innocent people in the name of extremism, and yet leave us nonetheless aghast to learn that their American captors pureed food and forced them to consume it rectally.
We look on in horror when people respond to cruelty with more cruelty. That’s why it’s hard to look at Arya Stark in the same light after she kills Meryn Trant. Trant is as deserving of having his life snuffed out as any character on the show. At Joffrey’s direction, he visited any number of cruelties upon Sansa Stark without hesitation. The finale of the show’s fifth season shows him preparing to have sex with little girls but only after beating them. If anyone deserves the pointy end of Arya’s blade, it’s him.
And yet, when Arya stabs his eyes out, when she gags his throat, when she jabs him again and again with her short, blunt knife and lets him linger in the blood and misery, it’s not triumphant or vindicating. It’s ghastly. Arya lets Trant wallow in agony, and she revels in her satisfaction in that moment. She proudly reveals to him her true identity as he’s overtaken by paroxysms of pain, and she then slowly cuts his throat. I never felt sorry for Trant exactly, but I was repulsed by Arya’s cruelty to him.
Arya has been one of the most likable characters in Game of Thrones. She was brash and spunky and had a righteous cause to pursue. But each kill seemed to darken her soul a bit. Watching her butcher a man, seeing what she’d become after her brush with the Comedian-esque nihilism of The Hound and her instruction in “The Assassin’s Guide to Buddhism” at the House of Black and White, makes it hard to stand behind her.
Revenge can change a person. It can bring them down to the level of those they would wreak vengeance upon. That’s why even when we feel the burning anger for those who have been wronged, we feel that hesitation and revulsion when otherwise worthy warriors like Arya take their revenge in such harsh terms. But that is part of the price of the cycle of vengeance as well — the otherwise decent folks who get caught up in the spokes of that wheel and become something else.
* * *
Jon Snow tried to stop that wheel. When he journeyed to Hardhome to persuade the Wildlings to come south of the wall, he spoke of how many men of the Night’s Watch had been killed at the hands of the Free Folk, and how the Wildlings in turn held as many grudges against The Crows for the deaths of their countrymen. But he told them that there was blood on everyone’s hands; there were justified vendettas on both sides that may as well cancel each other out. They needed to wipe the slate clean to allow each side move forward, to stitch together some uneasy peace in the face of a greater threat. Jon saw the futility of the feuds borne out of that cycle, both petty and legitimate, when holding onto them would only hurt the people on both sides of The Wall.
And for this forward-thinking attempt to set aside old grudges, he was murdered by his own men, who saw themselves as delivering vengeance on behalf of The Watch itself for Jon’s “betrayal”. In the feudal world of Game of Thrones, the tribal alignments are deeply ingrained. In the eyes of Alliser Thorne and his compatriots, the brave men of The Night’s Watch must defend Westeros against the villainous Wildlings; that is how it has always been, and that is how it should always be. A traditionalist like Thorne is unable or unwilling to let that go. He cannot see the Free Folk shuffling into Castle Black as anything but a stain on all that he and those who have joined his brotherhood stand for.
But the last blade buried in Jon’s breast belonged to Olly, one of the saddest victims and perpetrators within Game of Thrones’s cycle of vengeance. Olly drives his knife into Jon Snow with a justification far more earned and understandable than that of any of the other members of Thorne’s brood. He has good reason to be excused for not seeing the big picture and refusing to let go of his grudge.
Because Olly saw The Wildlings slaughter his friends and family without compunction or remorse. Because he and his parents were civilians, whose only crime was standing between the Free Folk and The Wall, and everyone Olly loved met a brutal end for it. Because he’d seen firsthand the terror and cruelty that the Wildlings were capable of, and he had every right not to understand why any righteous man would break bread with them.
And because we are human beings, with that mercurial sense of empathy, we can both pity the well-intentioned man trying to mend the old ways and taking a knife between the ribs for the effort, and also understand the traumatized young boy whose little fingers are wrapped around the handle.
* * *
Game of Thrones is far too complex and expansive in scope to be boiled down to a single theme. It continually explores questions like the nature of a good ruler, the contours of devotion and ambition, and the meaning of a name or a title or a family. But it’s also a show about the costs of the struggle it depicts, about the way violence begets violence, revenge begets revenge, and seeking recompense inevitably creates more debts.
It tells a story where plans are set in motion, where goals both noble and wicked take shape, and where all the good intentions and horrifying schemes of Westeros become intertwined and feed on each other and spiral out of control. In the process, innocents suffer; good men and women are sullied by actions taken in the name of justice, and even villains receive our sympathies in a world with too many moving parts and too many sharp edges.
Much has been made of the miseries in which Game of Thrones traffics. While the series is no stranger to gratuitousness, what makes the show’s most terrible moments more than just the sum of their awful parts is the way that each one is bound in that cycle. Game of Thrones is a show about the price paid for revenge, for ambition, for honor, for every conniving plot and high-minded ideal and moment of blind indifference. And it’s about the consequences and futility of the never-ending quests for vengeance it depicts.
At its best, Game of Thrones makes us feel all sides of that vengeance: the righteous anger of those who have been betrayed, the sad pity of those who have lost their lives or loved ones unjustly, the pathos of those being punished even when they deserve it, the revulsion at the butchers who exact their vengeance, and the unfortunate fate of those who are understandably, regrettably, caught up in that cycle.
The wheel rolls on; a few well-meaning souls struggle to stop it, and we feel the costs imparted, to victims and perpetrators alike, as it continues to turn.