(Note: There will be spoilers for Game of Thrones up through last night’s episode in what follows.)
“If you want Justice, you’ve come to the wrong place,” warned lord Tyrion. But Prince Oberyn didn’t believe him, and neither did we. In retrospect, what surprises me isn’t that the Red Viper literally got his brains dashed in, splattered like raspberry marmalade across the sun soaked stones of King’s Landing, but that I ever believed they wouldn’t be, or that I cared about the outcome either way.
It is a terrible place where a rapist and human butcher like Ser Gregor Clegane can be called a Knight. This is the world Game of Thrones invites us to inhabit every Sunday night. That we do so willingly, and often with pleasure, is no less bizarre than the logic driving Tyrion’s cousin to twiddle away his days smashing beetles. We ostensibly know that there is no, or at least very little, justice to be found in Westeros, and yet we come back week in and week out, year after year, seeking small moral victories.
First we thought Ned Stark would bring us justice, but they put his head on a spike. Then we thought his son might, but they stabbed him, killed his mother, and impaled his unborn child. And then finally, a bit of relief came when Joffrey was poisoned. At long last some chickens finally came home to roost! But this moment of satisfaction also proved short-lived, integral as it was to Tyrion’s eventual death sentence.
Most stories are about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but Game of Thrones is about introducing false hope and convincing us that it’s anything but before brutally snuffing it out once we’d finally bought into it. And this is the appeal. Ned Stark’s untimely demise grew the show’s audience, as did the Red Wedding, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the show’s less beloved season 2 faltered in part because it lacked a shockingly memorable beat down of the righteous.
There is something genuinely terrifying about a world whose heroes can’t save it, but which keeps producing them anyway. What distinguishes Oberyn among Game of Throne’s more noble victims was the way he died. Though we spent so little time with him, he was no less charismatic than Ned and often more charming than Robb. But unlike those two, both of whom were passive witnesses to their own demise, Oberyn wasn’t executed by the state or stabbed in the back. He chose the arena and accepted the stakes.
Furthermore, he wasn’t simply killed: he was utterly destroyed. Heroic flaws aside, Oberyn did not succumb due to inferior skill, experience, or training. He was simply weaker. Caught off guard, but with ample time to struggle, the prince of Dorne could do nothing. All men must die, and indeed The Mountain won’t be making it out of this fight alive either, but he won’t have died first, a fact worth noting not least of all because of its repercussions for Tyrion. Even Batman only had his back broken, but perhaps if Bane really wanted Bruce Wayne to die of nihilism, he would have subjected him to seven straight seasons of Game of Thrones first.
There is something to seeing heroes not only fail, but be so primitively over powered. As wretched as feudal governance is in Westeros, in its absence this same outcome would no doubt have been achieved, only probably sooner and with less fanfare. One of the show’s other great strengths, in addition to inviting audiences to delude themselves, is to eventually bring them around to rooting for people and sides they never thought they could. I detested Jaime Lannister since the beginning, but in the aftermath of the Red Wedding I saw him as one of the last remaining obstacles to lord Tywin, and one of the few remaining reservoirs of inconsistent moral conscience who had any power to act on it. The show has a way of continually moving the goal posts when it comes to the “lesser of two evils,” such that even a one-handed rapist and would-be child killer like the King Slayer can seem like a basket worth putting one’s precious few remaining eggs in.
All of which makes me wonder if the threat mounting up North at the wall won’t bring enough horrors to make me root for the sociopaths running King’s Landing in time. The Murphy’s Law of Game of Thrones is this: if things can get worse, they will get worse. I doubt the seven kingdoms will be any more capable at repelling Mance Rayder’s army than Oberyn was at breaking Gregor’s grip. The only question left then is how long it will take before I’m pinning for the days when someone as ruthlessly precise and able as Tywin was still pulling the strings, and will be able to look back upon the current state of Westeros as the “good old days.”