WARNING: This story has spoilers based on last night’s episode of Game of Thrones Season 8, Episode 5 “Bells.”
When Daenerys Targaryen rose from nothing to be a queen in the East, many people cheered. We saw the character suffer brutally at the hands of men, including her own brother. When we saw her exact revenge, over and over, on people who wronged and betrayed her, it was easy to root for her. She had good intentions, she was a decent young girl who suffered, and the people she fought against were evil. They were rapists, they were slave masters, they were murderers. When her evil brother, who had threatened to stab her in the belly, was brutally murdered in front of her eyes, we understood why she was so cold in that moment. Viserys deserved it. We agreed with her.
When we saw the brutality that Cersei inflicted on people, we didn’t have much context of her as a young girl. We only saw the aftermath, the bitter woman in a loveless marriage, who choose incest with her brother in a world of limited options. Her manipulations and choices were, in her view, justified because of the betrayals she suffered. She loved her children, and raised a monstrous boy in Joffrey. Her other children were kind-hearted, and died anyway, one by poison, the other by suicide after helping empower a religious pogrom in King’s Landing. We despised her choices, no one really deserved the punishments she was delivering. We disagreed with her.
When Jon Snow was sent to spy on the wildlings and ultimately betray them, by relaying the plans of the King Beyond the Wall back to the Night’s Watch, we watched him suffer. We saw his terrible choices, and we understood how much it hurt him to make those choices. Jon Snow knew that the Wildlings were coming North not to invade, but to flee the dread death that was creeping against them. When he chose to side with the Night’s Watch, and help slaughter those people coming to kill his people, we understood it. We understood why he was so willing to betray people and kill former friends. Even those people he fought against came to understand his choices. We agreed that, yes, Jon was killing only the right people.
When Jon Snow was fighting the Battle of the Bastards, and his little brother Rickon was murdered in front of him, he lost control. He charged into battle, breaking the plan that his men had made, and people followed him into death. If he’d waited, if he’d been able to hold his passions, the Knights of the Vale could’ve arrived to help, and the outcome of the battle might’ve been fewer dead on all sides. Instead, he got a lot of his men killed, but thankfully he also killed Ramsay Bolton, another evil person who got what he deserved. We agreed that, yes, Jon again only killed the right people.
When Catelyn Stark kidnapped Tyrion Lannister, based on the word of a man who had been secretly in love with her, who would ultimately be the source of the betrayal and madness that plunged the 7 kingdoms back into war after the rickety peace of Robert’s Rebellion, we understood her choice, one that she was led to by manipulation. She helped start a war, one that her family gladly fought, and the tactics of her and her family helped lead to her husband’s death. Ultimately, she was killed in a horrific fashion. We watched Robb Stark murder his own men for betrayal, and we understood those choices, because he was killing the right people. We agreed with their choices, because ultimately, the Starks were killing only the right people, and when their enemies murdered them at a wedding instead of on a battlefield, we disagreed and got angry. The wrong people had been killed.
Arya, during her training as a Faceless Man, had a moment where she realized she was killing the wrong person. She didn’t want to murder Lady Crane, because she was a decent person. She had no qualms about killing Ser Meryn Trant, and neither did the audience, because he was a monstrous child molester who killed her friend, Syrio Forel and betrayed her father. Her training required her to not make choices about who lived and died, and when she chose to avoid murdering someone she felt didn’t deserve it, she was punished. Eventually, she learns to make her own choices, and abandons the life of an assassin. She wants to be someone who decides who lives and dies. Whenever she killed someone, she only killed the right people, and we agreed with her. She only killed the right people. She had become a worshipper of death itself, but rather than let the Night King give people the gift of death, she chose life. She ultimately killed the Night King, the ultimate evil, the symbol of death.
Arya ultimately regresses. Her friend, Sandor Clegane, can’t celebrate the victory against death itself. He’s a hollowed out man, who can only live for his vengeance. The Hound was a man who murdered many people, including a child, on the orders of other men, and was incapable of really much of anything else. He goes south, back to King’s Landing, to take his revenge and die. Arya goes with him, making the same choice. When she returned to Westeros, killing Cersei was her goal. She was headed to King’s Landing when she first arrived, and only went home when her true self, the one who loved her family and her brother Jon, reawakened and she went back home. That choice, to go North and be with people she loved, saved the world from the ultimate darkness. And that choice was prompted by a simple act of kindness from her friend, Hot Pie, who gave her homemade bread. Hot Pie’s action wasn’t the act of a Monarch or Lord. He made a simple act of common decency, a choice that ultimately helped save the world.
Arya faces that choice again, and her friend Sandor wakes up the real person inside of her. Arya, realizing she was surrounded by death, thanks her friend, then witnesses mass destruction and death on a scale unprecedented, even worse than the death she saw in Winterfell fighting ultimate evil. A woman and her child, clutching a small white horse, save her life and help her keep going. Arya tries to help them, and ultimately, both the woman and her child are burned alive. Arya, after surviving another explosion, wakes up to see the burned body of the little girl, clutching the horse figure, and then a pale horse appears and Arya rides it out of the city. If Arya still worshipped death, seeing so much of it would’ve brought her joy. She doesn’t worship death anymore. She sees what it is. She killed a form of death itself. And yet, fire can be just as deadly as ice, as the ashes of people fall everywhere like snow. We understand her, because clearly, the wrong people were killed this time.
This is an old way of looking at the world, this idea that it’s filled with people who deserve to live and deserve to die. It’s an old idea, like monarchy itself, or even notions of the importance of personal honor. Ned Stark was a representation of that kind of honor, a man who lived by his word and was honest and true to it, and who valued his own honor above all else. He made honest choices, and did his part to ignite the war of the 5 kings, and get himself and a large portion of his family killed. We later learn that honorable Ned Stark was perhaps not as honorable as we thought, when we see the younger version of him in battle at the Tower of Joy, and learn that the stories of his heroics were simply tales told by the winners of a war. Ned didn’t fight honorably, he lived.
And through that life, he made one crucial choice to betray his own code, and lie to protect the life of his nephew. This lie saved the life of Jon Snow, albeit plunging the child into a life of misery. His wife never forgave Ned Stark, and hated Jon Snow, and Ned Stark took his choice to stay silent to the grave. Jon Snow was Ned Stark’s son, and when faced with a similar choice to stay silent, was unable to do so. Jon Snow could’ve stayed silent, or done as his father Ned had done, when Queen Cersei asked him to bend the knee. His personal honor wouldn’t allow him to do it, so he refused, setting the stage for a later war. Maybe Cersei would’ve betrayed everyone anyway, but had Jon simply lied in that moment, maybe the politics would’ve united the peoples against the real threat. Maybe fighting together against real evil would’ve brought people together. But Jon Snow chose his honor above all else in that moment.
It’s the same choice he keeps making. His honor bound him to tell Sansa and Arya that he was Aegon Targaryn, rightful heir to Westeros. At least, that’s what he told himself. He knows that his identity will create a desire in people for him to be king. Multiple people on the show, from Varys to Tyrion, say the same thing, that other people may want him to be king once they know who he is. Dany is fully aware of this, and begs Jon not to tell anyone. When faced with honoring his Queen’s choice, or his own honor, he chooses his honor, knowing the consequences. Perhaps he’s living in denial. But for someone who claims he doesn’t want to be king, he’s certainly making choices that lead him to that place. He could’ve refused the title King of the North. He could’ve chosen to keep his mouth shut about his identity, and asked Bran and Sam to be sworn to secrecy, just as Ned did to save his life. Instead, he tells Sansa and Arya. He asks them both to be sworn to secrecy. Arya complies. Sansa doesn’t, and immediately breaks her promise to Jon.
Sansa, in her own way oblivious to the effect her choices can have on other people, thinks small, about her own family, and about the chess game politics of the interpersonal relationships of Westeros. She thinks like Littlefinger, then chooses to tell Tyrion. Who tells Varys. Which then sets off a chain of betrayals and murders. Dany could’ve scouted, and waited, before attacking King’s Landing, but she goes back to her original plan of sacking the city. When she landed in Westeros, Tyrion talked her out of directly attacking the city. Olenna Tyrell advised Dany not to listen to men, and to simply be a dragon; arguably this is her way of saying go back to her original plan. Embittered, Olenna only had death and revenge on her mind, up until the end. Joffrey was a monster, but what if Olenna had let him live. Would Margery have lived? In the end, she played a part in the ultimate destruction that Cersei unleashed. Each character is a crucible of their own choices, but these endless selfish, petty, revenge-minded choices that so many of the characters make have ripple effects, which hurt so many people beyond.
Watching Dany ride her dragon and burn a city to the ground, as she said she wanted to do, as she had done so many times before, felt disconcerting to a lot of viewers. She was no longer killing the right people. The Stark soldiers were also no longer killing the right people. The Unsullied and the Dothraki killed their enemies, and Dany’s composite army became unified in their bloodlust, pillaging, raping, and looting the city. The choice felt like a betrayal of her character.
From my perspective, while I wish a different story was being told, and that the writer’s made different choices, it doesn’t seem like a betrayal of her character at all. The only difference between the people she killed this time, and the people she’s killed in the past, is the judgement of the audience. We don’t feel like she would kill people who didn’t deserve it. But to her, perhaps the people of the city did deserve to die. They didn’t abandon the city. They didn’t rise up against the Lannisters. They weren’t cheering for an end to tyranny. They seemed to be willing to live their lives. They seemed willing to continue to follow Cersei, her enemy. The people of King’s Landing had, like so many others, betrayed her. What were their lives? What made them any different than the people she’d killed before?
I think this all gets to something crucial about the story, and the question of violence itself. An American audience, many audiences, will accept murder, as long as the ‘right’ people are being murdered. And when we clearly see ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in people, when the right people die, it means evil people. This is a common trope in our pop culture, especially in Fantasy literature. There’s one notable exception, though, in fantasy literature best embodied by the character of Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.” Frodo Baggins in a moment of self pity says, “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance.” Gandalf then famously replies …
‘Pity? It’s a pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.
This idea is uncommon in our stories.
In the ‘Game of Thrones’ story, both the novel series (A Song of Fire and Ice) and the TV show version, this idea is woven throughout the tapestry of the events and choices we witness. No character says this directly, but this idea is an action everywhere. If Jaime Lannister hadn’t shoved Bran out of the window, and done his part to start the war of the 5 Kings, Bran never would’ve become the 3 Eyed Raven, and Arya never would’ve become the person who could destroy the supernatural death weapon personified in the Night King. If Arya had chosen to keep The Hound on her list, and kill him when he was suffering after being defeated by Brianne of Tarth, he would’ve have been unavailable later to twice save her life. Sandor never would’ve been able to help the raiding party, either, and save the lives of those people.
Arya has shown the capacity to enact the wisdom of mercy. And when she hasn’t chosen it, people have suffered, including herself. She’s one of the few characters who can also see beyond her own concerns. Not even Jon is as wise as his younger sister; as much as people love and adore him, it’s also clear he makes selfish choices that can impact thousands of people and get them killed.
So, while I wish the story would’ve gone in a different direction, Dany’s choice to kill people she saw as her enemies doesn’t seem out of character to me. It seems like that’s a choice that many of the characters on the show chose to make. It’s one that the audience who watches it also is willing to accept, as long as the audience feels that the ‘right’ people are being killed. I also don’t think her choice shows that women can’t rule wisely in Westeros. Frankly, none of the monarchs in Westeros, from Robert Baratheon to Joffrey to Tonmen to Cersei to anyone, seems particularly good at looking out for the welfare of the small people. Varys, for all of his talk about serving the little people of the realm, was willing to help tyrants butcher people for the ‘right’ reasons, arguably his own survival. His choice, for example, to betray Dany for ‘moral’ reasons didn’t stop the destruction of King’s Landing, or spare anyone. Rather, he did his part to light the fire that got the very people he claimed to want to help get killed. What if he had chosen silence? Would he have lived? Could he have worked on an escape plan? Could he have gotten his little birds to convince people to move out of the city, through the tunnels? Varys made his own version of Ned Stark’s honorable choice, and like Ned Stark, he died and contributed to the death of thousands of people.
Had Ned Stark never sent his message to Stannis Baratheon, perhaps he never would’ve gone to war. Perhaps he never would’ve led two disastrous campaigns against King’s Landing and Winterfell. Perhaps he never would’ve given himself a reason to burn his own daughter, Shireen Baratheon, to death. Ned Stark’s honorable choice was foolish, as noted by Varys, and was the kind of choice an honorable, noble monarch would make.
If anything, all of this illustrates clearly that absolute monarchs and tyrants can be deadly to people, no matter their intentions. A benevolent tyrant is still a tyrant. All Kings and Queens are mad, not just the Cersei Lannisters and Daenerys Targaryns of the world, but the Robert Baratheons, the Joffreys, even the Tonmens, all of them are destructive, because their unchecked choices have impacts that reach far beyond them, with as many unintended deaths and consequences as purposeful ones.
And also reminds us that, perhaps, the problem is never whether we’re killing the ‘right’ people, but whether we should be killing anyone at all in the first place.