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Monday, June 10, 2013

Why Weep for Theon?

After watching last night's season finale of "Game of Thrones," I started to wonder about my own moral compass--my ideas about right and wrong and about what constitutes "just" punishment.  For one thing--

(DIGRESSION: Should I say "spoiler alert"?  Probably not necessary.  If you watch "GoT," this is old news, and, if you don't you probably don't care anyway.  In fact, you might as well check back tomorrow for whatever I decide to blather about then.  Or perhaps I can interest you in this post about pandas? EOD)

For one thing, I could never have imagined that I would experience such a cathartic sense of joy--such a fist-pump worthy feeling of euphoria over a little girl repeatedly stabbing a man in the neck.  Yes, the man had it coming, and, yes, the little girl in question, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) has more than earned the right to inflict payback on those who have wronged her and her family.  But what does it say about my sense of morality that I (and, I suspect, tens of thousands of viewers across the country) let out a silent (or not so silent) cheer at this moment when a child has irrevocably embarked down a path of bloody vengeance. 

(DIGRESSION: I ASSUME this is merely a starting point:

The Hound (Rory McCann): Is that the first man you've killed?

Arya: Yes.  The first man.

Emphasis in the original!  The "YES!!!" heard 'round the world! We're not good people! EOD)

But then there are the more complicated emotions around another character, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), who literally spent the entire season being tortured ever-more horrifically at the hands of a mysterious psychopath whose identity we only learned last night: crucified, beaten, broken, and ultimately castrated.  So, of course, by the end, we feel bad for Theon--but should we?  True, his suffering seems disproportionate punishment for any crime we could think of.  I mean, it's not like he betrayed his family and murdered helpless old men, women, and children!  Except. . . that's exactly what he did.  So maybe he deserves whatever is happening to him?

One of the great qualities of "GoT" is its absence of black and white characters.  There are no unambiguously good or bad people.  Except King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), perhaps, who is truly irredeemable, but even he has the somewhat mitigating factor of being (A) a child and (B) the poster child for the dangers of inbreeding.  Even the ostensible main villain--Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance)-- inspires admiration because of his obvious intelligence and the fact that his primary motivation is to advance his family's well-being--albeit through war, murder, and treachery: He's basically Walter White without the knowledge of chemistry and the porkpie hat. 

Because we cannot easily categorize people into good or bad, we also cannot draw easy conclusions about what constitutes right and wrong: Murder for the sake of revenge is good; torture for the sake of punishment is bad.  Or maybe not.  The complexity of the characters leads a viewer to question his own sympathies--his own desires.  I have no idea who, ultimately, will win the "game of thrones," and for the sake of a "satisfying" narrative conclusion, I don't even know who should win.  What would the "happy ending" be?  Is one even possible?  In a fictional landscape devoid of clear heroes and villains, where the quest for power is the overriding concern, a consistent set of morals--a desire to be the "good guy"-seems an unaffordable luxury.  The one group of people in the story who have displayed  any concern with acting "ethically" are the Starks--a concern that so far, consistently, has just gotten them killed.

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