Game of Thrones asks: When does the desire for revenge go too far?
Now that Mad Men is over, I have some space freed up to talk about the last three episodes of Game of Thrones. Scott Kaufman has recapped last night’s shocking episode here, so I won’t be doing that, but I want to add a couple of thoughts about the themes of justice and revenge in that episode. It’s common for many viewers of GoT to think of the show as more escapist than most “prestige” TV, and its shocks are more akin to a horror movie’s than those of more elite, literary shows. Having read the books, I can see why it’s easy to dismiss the whole enterprise that way, since George R.R. Martin favors a pulpy, overblown prose style to a more literary one. But, I think, last night’s episode served as a reminder that there’s something deeper going on with this show, and while the themes might be harder to ascertain than, say, those on Mad Men, they are still important and fascinating.
The staging of the fight between Oberyn and the Mountain was masterful, if gruesome. It’ll be hard to work myself back up to watching it again, but I loved how the choreography telegraphed the theme. Prior to the fight, Ellaria expresses concern about the size of the Mountain, and Oberyn waves it off, saying that everyone is the same on their back. That’s a statement that will come back to haunt him, since it’s on his back that Gregor Clegane finally gets the upper hand over Oberyn and ends up killing him. That bit of irony there shows that this episode, like “The Rains of Castamere”, owes as much to classic tragedy as it does to more schlocky fare.
I loved watching people on Twitter lose their shit at Oberyn’s death, by the way. You definitely go into that fight expecting one kind of story—the story of the graceful underdog overcoming brute force with wits and skill—and end up with, you know, crushing beetles.
But what it actually was, I think, was a classic tragedy. Oberyn is a tragic hero: A man with a mission whose one fatal flaw, his obsessive drive to get revenge, results in his death. The fight scene’s choreography was so great in this, because it’s crystal clear that Oberyn has the upper hand. If he had finished Clegane the second Clegane hit the ground, Oberyn would still be alive and Tyrion would be free. Instead, Oberyn gives into the urge to run around, celebrating before he had successfully won, and, more importantly, keeping Clegane alive in order to extract a confession. The lesson is driven home, in the grossest way possible: If you hold out for total revenge, you’ll get none at all. Take what measure of justice you can and walk away. This desire to even all scores and to have every debt owed you paid will only be your ruin.
And really, would it even be possible to fully avenge what happened to Elia Martell? As Oberyn says, over and over again, she was raped, murdered, and had her children killed in front of her. There’s nothing in the world that can be done to make that right again. The Mountain needed killing, don’t get me wrong. Just as a preventive measure to stop future violence, if nothing else. But Oberyn let his need to have all wrongs righted overcome this more pressing and immediate concern.
Lest there be any doubt about where this was headed, the conversation between the Hound and Arya drove it home, with the Hound gently prodding and teasing her about her anger that she didn’t get to witness, much less participate in, Joffrey’s death. I love Arya as much as the next viewer, but let’s be clear here: Her all-consuming desire for revenge is a bad thing. Oberyn’s death should make that clear. His family has now lost yet another beloved member to the Mountain.
I’ve read A Storm of Swords, which seasons 3 and 4 are based on, so I have a little more context, but I think the show has done a really great job at laying out the theme of how brutality tends to compound itself. We’ve watched in these past two seasons as brutality wipes out some of the values of the people of Westeros, such as guest right, honor, and justice. Which is why it’s so critical to consider what’s going on in Meeren and whether or not Dany will learn the value of mercy. The only way to stop brutality is to stop perpetuating it, the show seems to argue. Oberyn should have killed the Mountain quickly, instead of brutally slicing him up in hopes of getting a confession. But if Oberyn, who is a clever and (we discover) compassionate man can’t seem to get that, what hope does anyone else have?