You know the drill: here’s my recap at Slant Magazine, let’s now talk about a different element. In this case, it’s the question of whether Game of Thrones is too relentlessly bleak for its own good. The answer: No. The problem is that people treat this show as a piece of slight entertainment, and in truth, if you’re trying to tune out the sight of a homeless parent leading their barefoot child through a crowded train car as he begs for money, wondering if he’s going to use that money for drugs, then you’re probably not going to be happy with an episode in which a father immolates his own daughter for the sake of his war campaign. You’re also probably not thinking about what it means that your outrage-o-meter is only set off by the death of a little girl or the rape of a woman, and not by the attempted murder of Bran in the first episode, the faked murder of Bran and Rickon in the second season, or the numerous other instances in which a child has been used as leverage–like Daenerys, Theon, and Myrcella. Even Ramsay was used as a tool from birth; likewise with the trio of Sand Snakes, whose idea of a “fun” time-passing game is a physical and psychological game of pain and reflexes.
Do you even realize that your internal moral calculator is busy assigning values to each of them, determining whether or not you might care if they died, all based on how long you’ve known them for, and whether or not they’ve done anything you disapproved of? Spoiled Joffrey deserved to die; kind-hearted Tommen does not. We ignore the parts that are too difficult to understand (because they conflict with our black-and-white calculations), forgetting that Stannis moved heaven and earth to save his daughter from the illness that should’ve claimed her life as a babe, and that while it devastates him to have to murder her, he sees no other choice in the matter. Shireen may not have known what she was offering when she promised to help him however she might, and Mance may have known exactly what he was getting when he rejected Stannis’s proposal, but is Shireen’s death not more just than Mance’s, however agonizing?
When the faceless gladiators in the pits of Meereen are dying, we could care less. Nobody’s considered how the other slavers will treat the young trainee whom Tyrion beat the snot out of a few episodes ago. It’s only when we see someone easily recognizable as “good” or “evil”–like Jorah–that we snap to attention. Be honest: when the Sons of the Harpy first started ambushing the Unsullied back in episode four, did anybody care until Grey Worm took off his helmet, or Ser Barristen entered the fray? Why should Stannis’s soldiers die in vain, freezing in the North, if there is magic that will allow them to triumph? (See our own analogous use of the atomic bomb to minimize our casualties in World War II.) We don’t want to talk about the moral relativism here, but just because we’ve gotten to know Shireen, that doesn’t mean she deserves to die any less than anybody else on the program. And that’s the message that viewers need to keep in their skulls; Game of Thrones is a bloody historical drama told through the perspective of the war’s victims. There are going to be constant casualties. If you want comic relief, watch a different program. This isn’t relentlessly bleak so much as true to form, and even the humor in this episode comes in the guise of violence (Bronn’s unexpected punishment and Prince Dorne’s witty rejoinder to him: “Perhaps some pudding instead?”).
So stop mewling and suggesting that Game of Thrones could do things differently, or that it doesn’t need to depict the rapes and murders, even if it knows enough to cut away from the shot of a pushed-down Sansa or a broiling Shireen, and how to linger on the sight of dead Wildlings like charbroiled Mance or gutted Karsi. These horrors exist, both in Westeros and the world that you’re trying to escape, and it’s always better to face them head-on and learn something from it: would you, too, not murder Shireen if you were absolutely convinced that unless you did so, the White Walkers would break the northern Wall and kill everyone, Shireen included, on the continent? Remember: Be honest.
It was really strange that the untrained Ramsay Bolton could have infiltrated Stannis’s defenses to such an extent as to be able to pinpoint and burn down all the food and siege weapons without alerting a single guard. I haven’t read the books, but I’m wagering that Melisandre had a little something to do with this. And if this really was her way of coaxing Stannis into doing the unthinkable, one wonders what exactly she–or rather, the Lord of Light–wants out of his campaign.