IF you plan to start watching “Game of Thrones” but have not yet seen any episode nor read the books, please know, dear reader, that this essay is somewhat dark and full of spoilers.
I wanted to write about heroism, considering tomorrow’s holiday, but more urgent questions surfaced, like whether Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen might tumble into each other’s arms in tomorrow’s season finale. They shouldn’t, in my opinion. But this show’s producers are so happy to indulge their fans’ whims that you never know what Jon and Dany might end up doing. He has gazed into her bright eyes and seen her grief. She has seen him vulnerable and shirtless. They have exchanged looks so charged, they risked melting our TV screens. A match is inevitable.
Or is it?
GoT, especially in its earlier seasons, mesmerizes because of the effort to craft characters that are not one-dimensional. It is a show without obvious heroes or easy choices. Together, Jon and Daenerys might defeat the undead hordes marching toward Westeros, but they would improve their chances vastly if they strike an alliance with Cersei, the queen from House Lannister. Would you align yourself with a murderer, if it meant saving other people’s lives?
Since the beginning, Cersei has remained one of the show’s strongest characters. She is as ruthless as she is driven, the kind of person to whom incest and murder are minor obstacles on the way to power. It was Cersei who set in motion the events that killed Eddard “Ned” Stark, a loyal man who wanted nothing in life but to keep his family safe and to serve his king well. He failed at both and lost his head. “When you play the game of thrones,” Cersei told Ned in the show’s first season, “you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Maybe this is one reason behind GoT’s appeal. It lets us watch individuals and dynasties pursue power, often brutally, without having to suffer their pursuit’s consequences. We may even feel like cheering for them, as we did when Daenerys ordered her dragon to torch her enemies. “Game of Thrones” entertains us with spectacles that involve flaming swords, time travel, at least one zombie polar bear, and dragons, when our real-life enigmas are too grim to contemplate. For instance, what do we make of it when children die in the hands of those we thought would keep them safe, and yet most of our friends and kin stay silent? Is this a situation that allows for a middle ground?
One of my favorite lines from “Game of Thrones” belonged to Jaime Lannister, Cersei’s protector, lover, and brother. He was on the verge of poisoning one of Cersei’s most formidable enemies, Queen Olenna of House Tyrell, when the queen warned him that no good would come out of his devotion to Cersei. (Because, you know, she is devious, ruthless, and murderous.) Jaime responded, “When people live in peace in the world she has built, do you really think they will wring their hands over how she built it?”
That moment took my breath away. (Confession: the actor who plays Jaime Lannister, the superb Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, tends to have that effect on a lot of women.) But I thought about what his character said and how current the warning felt. Few heroes survive the “Game of Thrones” because too much is asked of them. One had to hold a door even if it meant getting stabbed and clawed to death, because it was the only way his friends could survive. Everyday heroism seems so much easier—standing up to those who do wrong or being an ally to those who are defenseless—yet so few find the courage to do it.
(On Twitter: @isoldeamante)