Revenge is a dish best served cold. That old Klingon nugget comes to mind in reckoning Game of Thrones. In this mash up of medieval epics, folklore and English history, conceived by George R R Martin, we have been warned from Season 1 of the television adaptation of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire that “Winter is Coming”. It is going to be very, very cold, and with it will come all things bad. Many characters in the Game of Thrones universe are motivated by the frostiest feelings of revenge, feelings that eventually drain protagonists of the humanity they possessed at the start of their fictional journeys. Their motivations are pared down episode by episode to something glacial and inhuman, comparable only to the mythical nemesis from the series – the otherworldly White Walkers, who are preparing to rise against the living in the coming winter.
The desire for revenge consumes Arya Stark, played by Maisie Williams, by the end of Season 5. Revenge is also the motivating force in the life of Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister. She is willing to plot against anyone who dares to usurp her powers, including her brother Tyrion. Her vengeful manipulation sets in motion a series of events that leads to the murder of her ruthless father Tywin at the hands of Tyrion. Tywin had knowingly sentenced an innocent Tyrion to death at Cersei’s behest. Revenge or the need for it seems to be the primary emotion bringing back audiences season after season.
If veteran couch potatoes have learned anything from decades watching reality shows, the old tradition of good versus evil is done. Its place has been taken by the trope of the complex one, the not-so-good guy who survives till the end. Goodness has been re-branded as self-righteousness, which is dull, possibly smug and even boring. Boredom is the death knell of any good plot line. On television as we perceive it today, a character has to remain interesting, their goodness or badness is beside the point. Compelling, is what has kept the incestuous pair of Cersei and Jaime Lannister alive thus far in the five-season run of Game of Thrones. Stretching the trope leads to hideously diabolical pantomime villains like Ramsay Bolton who specialises in medieval torture. House Bolton even has a flayed man on its banner, known as a sigil in Game of Thrones.
Tame in comparison are the good ones like Robb Stark, Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark and his wife Catelyn Tully despatched early and in brutal fashion. But the good-guy deaths also provide great shock value. As the graphic deaths take place, every blood curdling detail laid bare before us, the audience wonders if a story line can go on without balancing elements like decency or altruism. It is almost as if the author himself was bored and wanted to do away with traditional concepts like righteousness from the classical chivalric romances, which were his inspiration, but prove to be straitjackets in a modern retelling. Although elements like goodness, honour and decency are fundamental to the plot and to civilisation.
This internal cynicism is woven into little Arya Stark and also the viewing audience witness to her father’s slaying in Season 1. Even as she is told that it was honour that did her father in, it is the audience that absorbs the misanthropy underlying that assertion. The Starks who die in rigorously violent fashion are also members of privileged nobility and in death they are robbed of the entitlement they were born into. Jon Snow is also a Stark, but as an illegitimate Stark offspring is perhaps spared the ignominy of a violent demise till Season 5. Not long after he earns a position of privilege at the Night’s Watch, he gets a Stark death to match his new status. The Starks unlike the cosseted Lannisters are sent on a gruesome journey stripped to the bone of everything they held dear, exposed to the cold cruelties of both human and natural worlds as in the case of Brandon Stark. It is an auguring of things to come. The remaining Starks who trek through hellish circumstances and are able to survive are being made battle-ready for coming events.
Ultimately, the shock and awe of the Stark deaths help in ratcheting up audience empathy towards House Stark. When strangers come up to members of the Stark family and whisper to them that “the North remembers”, these strangers are also representative of those who watch the action from beyond the LED screens. The ceaseless, brutal suffering endured by members of House Stark, whether Arya, Sansa, or even Theon Greyjoy, it is also our torment. The audiences finally receive a tiny measure of cathartic relief when psychopath and false King Joffrey Lannister is poisoned in Season 4, also when, true to the spirit of the Shakespearean appeal of Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister is hoisted by her own petard in Season 5.
As the executioner’s sword fell cruelly and unjustly on the neck of honour-bound Eddard Stark towards the end of Season 1, there was sneaking audience hope that he might have somehow survived as all we see is Ned’s own sword named ‘Ice’ swinging over his head, and nothing else. But all hopes are dashed in the very next episode. Ned Stark is well and truly dead, and his hostage daughter Sansa is asked by Joffrey to witness the spectacle of her father’s head up on a spike. In that same vein, audiences are waiting for Episode 1 of the latest Season 6, to know if Jon Snow of House Stark and Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch has survived multiple stabbings delivered by his own men.
If Game of Thrones is inspired by classic tales of knights and honour, all its protagonists aim to break the mould of the patriarchal legends that bind them. Whether it’s Jon Snow who because of the illegitimacy of his birth is relegated to the ice wall of the North to serve on the Night’s Watch, or Danaerys Targaryen who is sold to a tribal overlord by her brother in Season 1, or Arya Stark who is told she can never fight battles like her brothers and must live out her existence as a proper lady or Brienne of Tarth, who can never become a knight although she is better at it than most good knights as Jaime Lannister discovers in Season 3. When Brienne stumbles across Arya Stark in Season 4, it is a meeting of kindred souls, though neither of them know it yet.
Even the hated Cersei is resentful of her brother Jaime who is offered the authority she always craved on a silver platter, something she is denied because of her gender. Tyrion Lannister acted to perfection by the great Peter Dinklage also exemplifies this breakdown of conservative feudal ideals. He is a dwarf and loathed by the beautifully formed Lannisters. He cannot fight in armed combat like his brother Jaime, but uses his wit to save himself from sticky situations. Few among the feudal elite recognise that more than bravery in showy, futile combat the need of the hour is Tyrion’s unflagging humour, courage and political skill. There is perhaps an echo of the author himself in Tyrion’s personality.
In Daenerys Targaryen played by Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones diverges from its medieval Anglo-Saxon theme and departs to a place of mythical lore where fire-breathing dragons reside. Though the Targaryens have been deposed and the remaining heirs slain or exiled, Danaerys slowly becomes a symbol of new life and hope for some in Westeros. Having vanished from King’s Landing, the fiery Targaryens have become almost as mythical as the icy White Walkers. Can fire-loving Daenerys bring life if she returns where the frosty White Walkers are determined to be harbingers of death? The undead army raised by the White Walkers can be killed by fire. Danaerys, on the other hand, rose from from a funeral pyre at the conclusion of Season 1 unscathed, carrying her dragon hatchlings. At the moment she has more earthly things on her mind like getting to the iron throne and seeking revenge against the Lannisters who wiped out her whole family. But an even better match-up awaits if the ice-exuding White Walkers ever come face to face with the fire-breathing Targaryen dragons. This is after all a song of ice and fire.