Five Lessons I Learned from Game of Thrones

Zak Breckenridge re-watches every single gory hour



Warning: spoilers abound.

SOME WEEKS AGO, I watched the teaser trailer for the upcoming sixth season of Game of Thrones. For reasons probably clearer to HBO’s marketing department than myself, pretty soon I was re-watching the earlier seasons. Removed from the thrill of each plot twist and gory death, I’ve become aware of the long (spooky, clanking) chains of cause and effect that run through the show. With this wide view of which actions have which consequences in Westeros, Game of Thrones now looks like a sprawling morality play. Here, then, are some of the show’s lessons (moral and otherwise).

1. If You Have a Moral Center, Some Supernatural Firepower Helps
This is a very important lesson. The show operates within a world in which sweet-talking, violence, betrayal, and sadism are all dependable ways to advance your position. (Trump’s The Art of the Deal would seem to be a sacred text.) Characters who display recognizable forms of honor, honesty, and loyalty tend to lose their heads one way or the other. The first time you learn this is when Joffrey (a teenaged coward and sadist who also happens to be the king) executes Ned Stark (an all-around decent guy) after Ned’s false confession to treason. Ned and his family are lone avatars of honor, and his death is an education in the brutal, dragon-eat-dog logic of this world. Honor not only doesn’t save him; it kills him. 

One character with strong morals who’s still alive is Daenerys Targaryen, an exiled queen with probably the only legitimate claim to the throne. She's lucky enough, though, to back up her rigid principles with weapons of mass destruction: giant, winged, fire-breathing lizards. In a world where decency is naivety, and cruelty, strategy, the show’s literary “realism” can start to resemble the Realism of International Relations: each nation for itself, may the biggest nukes win.

2. Women Have to Work Overtime to Wrest Power
Game of Thrones takes place in an explicitly patriarchal society. Land and titles pass from father to son. Rape is less crime than pervasive inevitability. This means that some of the most moving plot lines have to do with women’s attempts to acquire power. (Which is not to say the show speaks with one voice: its feminism is supplemented with plenty of gratuitous nudity.) The show's mothers are frequently heartbroken by their inability to protect their sons from the violence of the world. One of my favorite women who has succeeded in laying claim to substantial power is the young Margery Tyrell, already on her third marriage to a king. When asked whether she wants to be a queen, in an early season, she responds, “No, I want to be the queen.” In almost all her scenes, she deploys smiles, kind words, generosity, and the promise and withdrawal of sex to influence the men and women around her. Because of her gender and family position, she can’t use classic brute force to get what she wants, but she makes a lot of her meager hand of political cards.

The Lady Melisandre, the red-caped fire witch, is another example of a woman who angles to acquire power. The jury is still out on whether her intentions are pure or if she just gets off on corrupting men (her choice for who would be the next king of Westeros turned out to be dead wrong), but it’s not unusual to find her rubbing her bare body on powerful men, stoking their egos like sacrificial fires, and waxing poetic about the forces of Light and Darkness.

3. If You Have to Decapitate Someone, Be Man Enough to Do It With One Stroke
In the show’s first episode Ned Stark says, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” before performing a pretty dour execution. His sword is huge, sure, a textbook symbol for the obvious. But it’s also an early signal to the viewer of his honor and narrative respectability. Later, when his son, Robb Stark, has to execute one of his commanders for killing two young prisoners, it’s the same sword and same clean stroke. So when Theon Greyjoy, a bitter, ineffective character who was raised with the Starks, takes over Winterfell, the Starks’ home, while his adoptive family is away fighting a war, his difficulty in executing Ser Rodrik (a minor but likable character) is a strong signal of cowardice and moral impotence. During the execution the camera looks up at Theon as he swings once, twice, thrice, four times, his face spattered with blood, and his expression, that of a cornered weasel. He finally kicks Roderik’s head off his shoulders. The message is clear: morality needs to be propped up by masculine power, and even good guys go violent. To slip into a Freudian idiom, even the benevolent father needs to retain the power to castrate, and an inability to perform castration is a sign that you yourself might be castrated.

His sword is huge, sure, a textbook symbol for the obvious. But it’s also an early signal to the viewer of his honor and narrative respectability.

4. The Price of Betrayal is Sometimes Castration and the Bit-by-Bit Destruction of Your Identity
It may seem excessive to take two lessons from Theon Greyjoy—and a sign of the show's preoccupation with male genitals, both literal and symbolic—but his situation reveals a lot about the show’s moral logic. After being rejected by his father, betraying his adoptive family, pretending to kill two of his adoptive brothers, and taking too long to decapitate someone, he spends pretty much the entire third season being tortured by Ramsey Snow (the show’s scariest sadist now that King Joffrey, 70s-rock-star-like, has vomited himself to death). Early in the season Ramsey cuts off Theon’s man-bits and mails them to Theon’s father (who, side note, remains unmoved). Through lengthy sequences of physical and mental torture, Ramsey transforms Theon into a groveling, shifty, kennel-dwelling creature named Reek. Does the punishment fit Theon’s crimes? In a moment when our country is not above detaining and torturing people without trial, Theon’s plot-line challenges the viewer to consider the distinction between those we dislike and those we consider below human dignity. While Theon's actions doubtless led to this abject state, the show asks if there’s any justice in such gratuitous, limitless punishment.

5. Falling in Love is a Reliable Way to Get Betrayed and Gruesomely Murdered
This is really the most important lesson from Westeros. I’ve now seen the infamous Red Wedding scene, in which several of the shows most sympathetic characters are massacred, twice and it was only on second viewing I saw the development of the romance between Robb Stark and his (very pretty) wife Talisa Maegyr in its shadow. It’s probably the most convincing and touching romance in the whole show, but the lesson is clear: love takes Robb’s mind away from real-world politics, leaving them easy targets for slaughter. A commander whom he later executes (for, I swear, unrelated reasons) tells Robb a few episodes before the massacre: “You lost this war the moment you married her.” And rude as the comment is, he seems absolutely right in retrospect. 

The other brutal reminder of this is Tyrion’s betrayal in court by his former lover, Shay. We learn in an early episode that Tyrion has fallen in love with a “whore” (the show's language, not mine) before: a no-no in the court. And it’s his lover’s false testimony that eventually convicts him of a plot to kill the king. But if this penchant for sex workers is a crime, it’s a crime of love unbound by the strictures of class. To be sure, it may just be a sign of the show's endemic sadism, but it’s also one of the show's most emotionally powerful tropes: in Westeros, social strictures pretty much always triumph over the sweet, gooey aspects of our humanity. Love liberated from social and family obligations is a powerful, real desire, one that is never fully granted in Game of Thrones.

With the debut of the show’s sixth season, I'm sure we can expect more gory deaths, ecstatic moans, and clear-eyed moral instruction.


ZAK BRECKENRIDGE's work has recently appeared in Partisan and Post-Road Magazine and is forthcoming in Colloquium Magazine. He lives in Chicago and edits the music blog Floodplain Press.

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