Game of Thrones: Nasty, Brutish, and Short

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(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.”

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36 thoughts on “Game of Thrones: Nasty, Brutish, and Short

  1. These doom and gloom fantasy stories are no more realistic than the ones about shining knights doing feats of daring do to rescute beautiful princes. By our standards, Medieval Europe or even most of the world at the time where not fun places to live. If I lived during the Medieval ages, I’d be a second-class citizen at best from the tip of Morrocco to the Indus River and from Scandivanian in the north to the Sahara in the south. Not an experience I’d like to live. Even our Catholic contingent would not have a particualr easy time if born in the wrong socio-economic class.

    Yet it wasn’t complete chaos. Most of the Kings and othe rulers in Europe liked things orderly. Its really tough for the commoners to farm and do their other jobs and fill your coffers with tax money if there is contanst fighting in the country side. Other parts of society also had interest in there being peace more than war for the most part. The Middle Ages were more violent than our times but a lot of this had to do with the fact that policing as we know it today was not possible back than. The courts did generally try to be more the distributors of arbitrary decisions.

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    • – I tend to side with this comment.

      – where you been, man?

      Tyrion’s speech, which Dinklage killed as usual but might have been a bit too on-the-nose (yet, still seemed like what would preoccupy Tyrion’s mind at that time) speaks to it – the idiot god (writer?), snuffing humans out one after another – a concept Hannibal has also explored (except Hannibal‘s ‘god’ isn’t an idiot; he’s an aesthete).

      On the flip side of why we come back to GoT week after week, is small mercies like, you know, a baby being spared. At least we get that much.

      On Fargo a couple weeks ago (a show I can’t really get into) one character tells a parable, the moral of which is basically “the man who tries to save the world will be destroyed”.

      To which another character responds, naively, and as we want our heroes to, with: “But…ya gotta TRY, don’t’cha?”

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      • Also: I’m pinning for the days when someone as ruthlessly precise and able as Tywin

        After Oberyn’s death, I told my wife, “Tywin Lannister got to be so old by never making speeches or explaining his plans before he kills you.”

        (Or better yet, has you killed at a remove).

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    • Yet it wasn’t complete chaos. Most of the Kings and othe rulers in Europe liked things orderly.

      Yes, but you’re talking about times when a king was relatively secure. Westeros is in a state of civil war, of the kind that caused Hobbes to write of the state of nature as a state of war, and to coin the words that title this article.

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      • At least for their commoners, not necessarily the commoners of other sides. The thing that gets me about Westeros is the complete disregard for commoners by the nobles. In our world, nobles might not have liked commoners and would have looked down upon them but they knew who grew their food, made their armors and weapons and more even if they exploited them ruthlessly.

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      • The historical documents that survive first hand about everything from the Danish invasions of England to the Hundred Years War suggest this isn’t the case. Rapacity is a common thread throughout humanity’s history of warfare.

        (Although to be fair, Hobbesian anarchy was something of a more distinctly early Modern sort that punctuated the Wars of Religion in Europe…that said, all the stuff about Henry V coveting only honor? Hogwash, his army systematically raped and looted its way through France…there’s a reason Jeanne D’Arc is still revered as a Saint in France and it’s not because Milla Jovich played her.)

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      • Lee, if you consider the books in more detail I think you will find that your analysis is off. We see commoners suffer enormously but the commoners we see suffering and a very specific group: almost all the most piteous commoner suffering occurs in the Riverlands. Historically that region has always been a terrible battleground possessing none of the natural defenses of the other regions. Additionally the region has grown rather populous as a result of the long (relative) peace of the Tagaryen dynasty. Finally the Riverlands lord is debilitated and his bannermen are rather disorganized being led initially by Edmure who is, suffice to say, a bit of a naif. Other than the Riverlands the only commoners we see suffering in any great numbers are the citizenry of Kings Landing which is, let’s face it, just one big city. The various lords do treat the suffering citizens we see in the books like crap; they’re not their citizens. In the Riverlands they’re enemy citizens and in Kings Landing they’re mostly rabble. We don’t see a particularily large amount of mass suffering in the Westerlands, Highgarden or even the North (though it starts getting worse in the North under Bolton’s none too gentle hand and during the Kraken invasion).

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      • “The thing that gets me about Westeros is the complete disregard for commoners by the nobles.”

        Not by the Starks. And as far as I can tell, not by the Tyrells, Martells, or pre-Lord of Light cult fratricide Baratheons.

        It’s really only the Freys and Boltons that are complete jerkoffs. And only the Riverlands and the post-Stark North that’s getting major pillage action.

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      • Not even by the Lannisters. The Westerlands are doing just fine.

        Historically [the Riverlands] has always been a terrible battleground possessing none of the natural defenses of the other regions.

        Excellent point. Pre-Conquest, the Riverlands were ruled by the Iron Islanders. The Targaryens drove them off and handed the area over to the Tullys, who had never been kings, had no tradition of defending an entire region, and had never developed the military skills for doing so (nor needed them until recently.)

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  2. “Your friend’s dead, and Meryn Trant’s not, ’cause Trant had armor. And a big fucking sword.” — Sandor Clegane.

    After the first book, I came to think that the whole Song of Ice and Fire is about how people react to trauma. GRRM fought in the Nam, didn’t he? And PTSD is sort of a signature issue for some combat vets. So, in order to show various characters reacting in various ways to trauma, they have to be traumatized first. And, in order to create the reader’s (or viewer’s) sympathy for that trauma and the responses the characters have, it helps the author to have the reader (or viewer) to fall in love with various characters before inflicting trauma on them.

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      • Cook County, eh? Perhaps he was traumatized by an epic car chase led by two brothers (on a mission from God – or in today’s parlance, terrorists), followed by hundreds of police, some Illinois Nazis, a woman with a bazooka, and an RV full of very angry rednecks, that caused untold damage to his city.

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  3. Oberyn died because he was obsessed with avenging prior wrongs. I thought the episode was particularly good at highlighting how people clinging to the past were in trouble. It might as well have been called “Adapt or Die.” The Ironborn believed they would be allowed to retreat if they surrendered because Theon/Reek convinced them that is how it is always done. Instead they ended up flayed and skewered. Bjorn clung to old alliances to the point of betraying the Khaleesi, and ended up banished. (He got off the easiest!). The Hound assumed old family ties would be the source of his reward for sticking with Arya, only to be thwarted by untimely death. And the Night Watch seems positioned to be destroyed because they won’t consider new tactics.

    Only Sansa Stark, of all people, seems to have learned to adapt to changing circumstances. Her regal and forbidding descent down the stairs was almost as exciting as Oberyn getting his head caved in.

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    • Sansa is a good deal more interesting on TV than she is in the books, where she’s usually terrified to the point of paralysis. Her deciding to start using her sex appeal and to portray herself as A Woman Who Could Still Be Queen was much more explicit, and aggressive, than she gets in the books.

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      • Yes the show has deviated enormously from the books on the subject of Sansa ever since she got to the Erie. She’s been accelerated in development immensely.
        I suspect part of this is the necessity of eliminating extraneous plot twists and an even larger part of this is that Sansa of the TV show is significantly older than Sansa in the books was.

        For me, since Sansa was oddly my favorite PoV character, this has been pure gravy.

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    • “Bjorn clung to old alliances to the point of betraying the Khaleesi, and ended up banished. (He got off the easiest!). ”

      I’m guessing you mean Ser Friendzone?

      This is good point, and goes both ways in this example. The Dragon Queen and her court could have used Jorah Mormont’s more recent service (and his deflection of the poison) as a mitigating factor against his previous activities, but did not, rather using the more inflexible code of honor they are all familiar with. (though it was tempered by mercy)

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      • Ha, I had not seen anything about the Friendzone meme before. Can’t figure out how Jorah became Bjorn since I wasn’t using auto-complete or -correct or anything. But I was in a big hurry.

        Daenerys has already done so much adapting that it is hard for me to fault her for reacting the way she did to Jorah’s betrayal. Someone somewhere commented that she could have made use of Jorah as a double-agent, if she had decided she could trust him now. I tend to think the Daenerys of just a few episodes ago — the one who slaughtered all the Masters — would have barbecued Jorah on a dragon spit, so banishing him but letting him live was a relative sign of maturity. Still, she is too beholden to the code you speak of.

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  4. I disagree Ethan, Oberyn Martel was not killed because he was weaker or less skilled. Oberyn was killed by his hate. Small spoilers:

    Oberyn, an infamous poisoner, coated his spear blade in a deadly but horrifically slow and baleful poison. In a world possessed of substances like The Strangler you can be certain that the Viper of Dorne could have applied a poison to his blade that would have utterly debilitated and quickly slain even The Mountain. Note, also, that Oberyn’s skill was sufficient to lay the Mountain out on his back exposed to any finishing move the Prince cold have chosen to apply. Oberyn did not; he wished a confession, he also wished for his enemy to die slowly in terrific agony. He achieved both of these goals at the cost of his own life as the mortally poisoned, but still in the short term deadly, Mountain crushed his head.

    I don’t think the GoT world is particularly dark; I’m no historian but it seems to me that the horrors wracking Westeros could be quite typically expected in the battlegrounds of any civil war riven medieval state. It seems horrific only in that Martin insists on forcing us, the readers, to confront it instead of glossing it over with the fog of war. In that he does a considerable service.

    And in their adaptation GoT is some damn fine television. I am beginning to wonder both A) if this may be a case where the adaptation ends up superior to the books and B) if it’ll be a series that ends up finishing before its inspirational books are finished being written.

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    • – As I say above, Oberyn got what he came for. He was never Tyrion’s friend, Tyrion was a means to an end.

      Oberyn got his confession, The Mountain dies in agony, and Oberyn’s own death additionally buys the death of one of Tywin’s sons.

      It was a cost he was willing to pay.

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      • I dunno, I never got the impression from the books or from the show that Oberyn was willing to die, especially since he was probably well aware that leaving Tyrion alive would vex Tywin far more than killing him would. Tywins expression when he sentenced Tyrion to death was very much “well at least there’s a cherry on top of this turd sunday, I get to off the dwarf.”

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      • I haven’t read that far in the books yet, and I am sure all else equal Oberyn would have preferred to live, but I can certainly see him taking more risks than need be in trying to extract a confession from The Mountain, knowing that whoever wins, a Lannister loses.

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    • : “I am beginning to wonder…if it’ll be a series that ends up finishing before its inspirational books are finished being written.”

      A quite valid concern, and one that the showrunners and others have been discussing in recent interviews. Particularly for some of the Stark children, their storylines are approaching a point where they will run out of source material quite soon — possibly next season. And the child actors aren’t getting any younger.

      Supposedly, Martin has given the showrunners the broad outlines of how he envisions the larger story arcs resolving, but I think it would be suboptimal for the series to outpace the books.

      Martin needs to finish the sixth book already. (But then, it is said, every time fans ask Martin to hurry up on the books, he kills another direwolf.)

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  5. So if we’re gona talk ‘trial by combat’ shop, I think Oberyn’s biggest mistake was not having a more thorough game plan.

    If I were to Monday morning quarterback this, which I am about to, I’d say you cripple all four major extremities before trying to extract the confession. Soooo, note to self, if I ever improbably best a man twice my size and two feet taller in mortal combat, maybe sever a few more of those tendons before bowing to the crowd.

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    • Also, I think they’ve mostly discredited the whole “don’t have sex the night before the big game” theory, but Oberyn seemed determined to test that theory to the max, with every boy and girl at the brothel.

      Dude’s legs were probably tired, maybe it slowed him down.

      Probably not a problem many of us would have, though.

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    • It was very much hate and passion that killed him. The battle was excellent TV but as the books tell it Oberyn was far far more emotionally charged in the books than his actor portrayed. The battle was also considerably more drawn out with the Mountain being worn down gradually by a series of wounds to his joints/extremeties as Oberyn could quite literally not wound the Mountain on his torso because his spear simply could not penetrate Clegane’s armor.

      IIRC Oberyn was either standing near the mountain or was attempting a showboat finishing manuver when he got killed and I think screaming his sisters name was a major part of that. The Prince was simply not fighting with a clear head and his passion very obviously got the better of him. He could have killed The Mountain the same way that he defeated him; by keeping his distance and poking him, but he needed more than that to satisfy the fury that had been festering in him for decades.

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    • I’d say you cripple all four major extremities before trying to extract the confession

      “the first thing you lose will be your feet, below the ankles, then your hands at the wrists. Next, your nose.”

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