It’s official: The show is now darker than the books — or at least darker than the books have been so far. (This a spoiler-rich post, by the way.) Not since the Red Wedding has the show featured such a high body count of longtime characters, and not since the Red Wedding has that body count included a character thought to be a central hero of the novels (and series). Jon Snow’s fate – left somewhat ambiguous in the books — looks more clear-cut onscreen, and Kit Harrington’s post-show interviews seem to indicate that he’s truly done. If so, the show has either decisively departed from the books or it’s obliterated a host of fan theories. Those who believed that Jon Snow would be key to the final story arc are now hanging on to the slimmest reeds of hope.
Not only did the show deal with the assassination attempt on Jon Snow in a more pessimistic way than the books, it left Daenerys in a far more precarious position. In the books, she at least confronts the Dothraki with her dragon by her side (the only way I’d like to confront the Dothraki). In the movie, she’s alone — surrounded by virtually the entire horde.
I’m not going to recap the entire episode (the web is awash in Thrones recaps). Instead, I thought I’d share a bit why I appreciate the Thrones universe so much (both book and screen versions.) Putting aside for the moment the key artisitic elements of any good book or show — outstanding writing, plotting, and performances — George R.R. Martin’s relentless fidelity to the brutal moral logic of his world helps illustrate an important truth: Evil and savagery are horrific not simply on their own terms, but also because of their effect on the virtuous. In other words, evil renders virtue far more difficult. Ned Stark was an honorable man, but foolishly honorable — trusting the wrong people. Jon Snow was (is?) an honorable man, but he failed to win over his brothers. Too much blood had been spilled to so quickly pivot to embracing the “greater good.” Daenerys has long been idealistic (the “breaker of chains”) but has so far proved inadequate to the task of building a free state out of a slave society — and has been forced to be far more brutal than she hoped. Stannis had noble inclinations, but his “by any means necessary” faith in the rightness of his cause ultimately made him a monster.
The best fiction doesn’t just entertain, it makes us think — sometimes in ways even the author doesn’t expect or intend. The simplistic moral reading of Thrones is “people are bad” — or, to put it in Thronespeak, “The night is dark, and full of terrors.” The better reading is that virtue is harder than we imagine, requiring sometimes-terrible choices and previously unthinkable deeds. Anyone who’s spent time at war knows this. They know of a reality where every choice appears dark, but the darkest choice of all is retreat and defeat. They know the cost of foolish trust, and they understand the incredible difficulty of building something decent out of the ashes of something horrible. They also know that the highest price you can pay isn’t your life but your very soul.
Some of our citizens choose to ignore these moral realities, to live out our lives as distant from the “men in the arena” as possible. To the extent they think about such men, it’s to unthinkingly admire or to ignorantly judge. The result is fantasy thinking. If we pursue just the right policies, we can defeat jihadists without killing innocents, without alienating potential allies, and at an acceptable cost in blood and treasure. If our police have the right training, they can suppress crime politely, in the proper racial ratios, and in a manner that not only fully respects civil liberties but also builds community relationships. Fantasy thinking tells us that America can’t be exceptional because it’s never been perfect — indeed, that there was some way for America to embrace “social justice” from the start and yet still exist.
Yet in the real world, as in Westeros, the fantasies always yield to reality. Choices are difficult, even good men must sometimes be remorseless, and winter is coming.