"I suppose this is it, then," Tyrion Lannister says, as he contemplates the ruins of Valyria. "This is what remains."
I'm not sure Game of Thrones has mentioned The Doom of Valyria before, though—with all the references to "Old Valyria"—we might well have wondered whatever happened to the fabled land of Dany's ancestors. This episode doesn't really give us an answer, and in truth George R. R. Martin's books don't provide much more information. What's important is that Valyria was the capital of the greatest empire in the history of this world, a land of science and culture and magic that prospered for thousands of years. Several hundred years before the events of Game of Thrones, however, the city of Valyria was destroyed by some unexplained cataclysmic event—a series of volcanic eruptions?—that more or less wiped out the Valyrian people, most of their secrets, and nearly all the dragons in the world. "For thousands of years the Valyrians were the best in the world at almost everything," Tyrion says here. "And then they weren't," Jorah responds.
I don't know how important the history of Valyria will become in Game of Thrones, but right now I'm not sure it matters: what matters is the knowledge that even the greatest of civilizations can crumble into ruins. The poem that Tyrion and Jorah recite chronicles two lovers who died in the Doom of Valyria. "They held each other close, then turned their backs upon the end," it begins. Like the plaster couples embracing eternally in the ruins of Pompeii, these anonymous lovers, immortalized in song, are almost all that remains of a thriving, glorious civilization of human beings. And they didn't really see what happened: they only had eyes for each other. "A city of a thousand years, and all that men had learned, the Doom consumed it all alike, and neither of them turned."
It's a lovely image, and it evokes one of the saddest, most profound lessons of Game of Thrones: life is ultimately a very small thing that happens on a very small scale. For all the focus on thrones and empires and dynasties, and all the concern about history and legacies and the future of nations, what really matters is just individual experiences, lived moment to moment. The most important event in the history of the world was just background noise to two people in love facing their deaths. In that terrible, historic moment, the only thing that mattered to them was the small comfort and solace they each found in another human being.
"I don't care what's sung about me when I'm dead," Jaime said last week. And when Bronn asked him how he wanted to die, his answer was immediate: "In the arms of the woman I love." Because that's what matters. The great deeds done, and the mighty battles won, and the greatest empires ever built: these will all eventually become nothing more than forgotten lines in a song, or dull historical entries in some dusty, unread tome. (This was the fate of House Reyne, which now exists only in a popular song, "The Rains of Castamere." Yes, now the rains weep o'er his halls, and not a soul to hear. This was the fate Jaime contemplated, in "Two Swords," when he looked at his nearly empty page in the history of the Kingsguard: his full, complicated life reduced to a few uninspired lines of dry, unemotional text.) A thousand agonized decisions, a million deeds large and small, a billion moments of a human life on earth, become nothing when viewed from the perspective of history. And yet any one of those tiny moments, when viewed from a human perspective, can be everything that matters.
"Kill the Boy" isn't directly about this idea, but I'm dwelling on it here because I think Game of Thrones in general is largely about this idea. There's a reason (beyond budgetary concerns) that the show doesn't spend a lot of time on battle scenes, for example. There's a reason the entire War of Five Kings happened with us having only the vaguest notion of which side won which battles, or who conquered what castle. Despite it's title, Game of Thrones is not terribly concerned with politics, and it's not at all interested in the war-game tallying of troop movements and territory changing hands. Those things are just backdrop: the show is concerned with the people, with the human moments in history that history itself tends to forget.
Since the War of Five Kings ended, it is more clear than ever that individual lives—and the states of individual souls—are what matter on Game of Thrones. What was true all along has become much more obvious now: that this isn't really a show about a historic clash of dynasties, so much as it's a show about a few scattered human beings doing the best they can with the lives they have. There are historic consequences to their decisions, but the stakes of the show are deeply personal.
History will remember, for example, that Eddard of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North, and Hand of the King, was executed for treason on such-and-such a date at the Sept of Baelor: a rich, long life reduced to just a few lines in a book. But we will remember the kind, decent, flawed, deeply human Ned Stark: the one who loved his friend Robert; the one who would do anything for his family; the one who always tried—and died trying—to do the right thing. We know that there were a thousand tiny decisions—made from love and honor and kindness and stupidity—that all contributed to his place in history. And we know that his final thoughts were probably not about the future of the kingdom, or the rivalry of Houses, or the wars his actions had started or stopped. Facing his doom, he almost certainly turned his back on all of that and thought only of the people he loved.
Because that, in the end, is what remains.
"I'm sorry I don't know things." — Gilly
"Kill the Boy" is an unusual episode of Game of Thrones, in that it has a longer attention span than most entries in the series. (In general, I think Season Five so far has tried to give us deeper cuts of selected storylines in each episode, rather than juggling all the various characters at once.) Here, for example, Arya does not appear, and neither do Cersei and Jaime; other supporting characters like Margaery, Varys, Littlefinger, and everyone in Dorne are also kept off-screen. With only a passing glance at Brienne and Pod, and a fairly brief (if very significant) sequence with Tyrion and Jorah, "Kill the Boy" takes the rare opportunity to spend most of its time on at just three locales: the Wall, Winterfell, and Meereen.
The episode gets its title from Maester Aemon's advice to Jon Snow. "Kill the boy, and let the man be born," the old man says. In my review of the aptly named Season Four finale "The Children," I discussed how one of the show's subjects is childhood's end: the moment when the old order fades and a new generation ascends to power. At this point in the series, then, Aemon's advice is both timely and wise.
Being an adult means making hard choices, and doing the right thing even when it's hard, unpleasant, or unpopular. That's a theme that appears in both Jon's and Dany's storylines this week, as both of them face decisions that put the greater good ahead of the wishes of their people, and even ahead of their own desires. (In a less immediate sense, it's the theme of Sansa's entire storyline right now, as she finds herself having to grow up too fast, and doing a lot of things she doesn't want to do among people she doesn't want to be among.) "You'll find little joy in your command," old Maester Aemon tells Jon, and that might as well serve as a disillusioning warning to this entire generation: being in power, being the decision-maker, being an adult, kind of sucks.
The other recurring theme running throughout "Kill the Boy" is apologies, and by extension the question of forgiveness. This, too, is a part of becoming an adult: coming to terms with the past and learning to move forward in constructive ways. As this new generation inherits the world, they must reckon with the crimes and grudges and mistakes of the past, and try not to let them poison the future.
So, throughout "Kill the Boy," people are constantly apologizing. Some of the apologies are small and fleeting. "I'm sorry I don't know more things," Gilly says to Sam, thinking he is put off by her lack of learning. "I apologize for before," Tyrion says to Jorah, of his taunting last week. "My mouth sometimes runs away from me." Theon apologizes to Ramsay for keeping his encounter with Sansa a secret, and Ramsay—in a mock benediction—forgives him.
But these are tiny, personal moments: there are bigger crimes to forgive. Lord Commander Jon Snow has centuries of hostility and resentment to contend with if he is going to ensure the survival of the Night's Watch, the Wildlings, and possibly the entire human race. The White Walkers are coming, and they'll kill the Wildlings first: when they do, they'll add those victims to their numbers and become a larger and more unstoppable force than ever. The logical thing is to bring the Wildlings south of the wall, and find a way to live and work with them, not against them. "Men, women, and children will die by the thousands if we do nothing," he tells his men.
But can either side forgive the other and learn to work together? "You are not my enemy, and I am not yours," Jon says to Tormund Giantsbane. "You sure seemed like my enemy when you were killing my friends," Tormund responds. And the brothers of the Night's Watch are no more forgiving. "We've been fighting for thousands of years," Alliser Throne says. "They've slaughtered villages, they've slaughtered our brothers." ("And we've slaughtered theirs," Jon counters.) The enmity is historical, but it's also deeply personal: the Wildings killed Jon's friends Pip and Grenn; the Wildlings—including Ygritte—murdered young Olly's family and everyone he knew. "I can't forget that," Dolorous Ed says, speaking for much of the Watch. "I can't forgive it."
But the cyclical nature of violence, hatred, and oppression is another of Game of Thrones' recurring themes, and this season is dealing with the fact that the cycles have to be broken if anything is going to change. Change begins with forgiveness, and being an adult means apologizing when you're wrong. Jon's speech to Tormund, for example, is an extraordinary apology, an acknowledgement of millenia of dehumanization and oppression. "For 8,000 years the Night's Watch has sworn an oath to be the shield that guards the realms of men," Jon tells the Wilding. "And for 8,000 years we've fallen short of that oath. You belong to the realms of men. All of you."
Even on this level, however, forgiveness—like hatred—is a personal thing: agreements and treaties can be made between empires, but it ultimately all comes down to individuals. "You're coming with me," Tormund tells Jon, of the mission to convince the Wildlings. "They need to hear it from you."
"It takes courage to admit fear, and to admit a mistake. I came here to tell you that I was wrong." — Dany
Like Jon, Dany is a leader of the new generation, trying to find a way to break the cycles of the past and create a better, more just world than the one that has existed for thousands of years. Like the ancient enmity that exists between the Wildings and the Night's Watch, the rift that exists between the former slaves and former masters of Meereen seems all but irreparable.
This is particularly true since the proponents of the old order have now struck a very personal blow against Dany's new regime: they have severely wounded Grey Worm, killed a number of the Unsullied, and murdered Ser Barristan Selmy. "Barristan the Bold, they called him," Dany tells Hizdahr zo Loraq bitterly. "He crossed a continent to serve me. He was a loyal friend. And he died in an alley, butchered by cowards who hide behind masks."
Like the men of the Night's Watch, Daario Naharis doesn't believe in mercy. "Clean the city out," is his advice: kill them all. And Dany, at first, is not in a forgiving mood. "I prefer your earlier suggestion," she says to Daario. "Round up the leaders of Meereen's great families and bring them to me." Her arrests begin with Hizdahr himself, and Dany takes all the former slave owners down into the catacombs to meet her dragons.
I confess, I kind of love Dany when she's in this mood: she is confident, she is forceful, she is utterly terrifying. She's the grown-up now, and she's willing to do whatever needs to be done. "Children," she says, speaking of both her dragons and her people. "Some say I should give up on them. But a good mother never gives up on her children. She disciplines them if she must, but she does not give up on them." She has one of the slave masters pushed forward, a scapegoat fed to the living symbols of her power and wrath.
But here is where we see that all those small, human things that history tends to overlook—kindness and decency and fleeting human contact—have a greater influence on the course of events than they're ever given credit for. Dany doesn't just want to be a good ruler, she wants to be a good person, and she sees the connections between these two things. Daario wants Dany to kill all the former masters. But "Barristan counseled mercy," Dany tells Missandei. "Right up until the morning he died." Ser Barristan's kind example influences her, but it is the former slave Missandei —who does not even think she is worthy of giving advice—who tells Dany what she needs to hear. What Missandei says is basically what Aemon said to Jon: kill the girl within—the one who needs approval from advisers—and be the woman who knows right from wrong:
"I can only tell you what I have seen, your grace. I have seen you listen to your counselors. I have seen you lean on their experience when your own was lacking, and weigh the choices they put before you. And I have seen you ignore your counselors because there was a better choice, one that only you could see."
Dany does find a better choice, one—like Jon's—that tries to bridge centuries of mistrust and resentment. And, as with Jon's choice, it begins with an apology. "It takes courage to admit fear, and to admit a mistake," she tells Hizdahr in his cell. "I came here to tell you that I was wrong. I was wrong, and you were right, about tradition, about bringing the people of this city together." She will re-open the fighting pits—a concession to the "traditions" of Meereen—but she will not reinstate any form of slavery. "Slavery will never return to Meereen, not while I'm alive." And, as with Jon Snow's mission to earn the trust of the Wildlings, gestures of peace and forgiveness must be personal: Hizdahr, groveling before her, thinks she has come to kill him, but she has something far more conciliatory in mind. "And, in order to forge a lasting bond with the Meerenese people, I will marry the leader of an ancient family," she says. "Thankfully, a suitor is already on his knees."
"An apology doesn't mean anything if you're not looking the person in the eye." — Ramsay Bolton
And then, sometimes, apologies are meaningless, and reconciliation is impossible.
What's happening at Winterfell is almost a parody of what's happening in the rest of "Kill the Boy." Elsewhere in the episode olive branches are being offered, former enemies are coming together, and weddings are planned to ensure the peace: all of these things are happening in Winterfell as well, but there is no sincerity on any side. Jon's recognition of the Wildlings is a sign of his humanity; Dany's concessions to the slave masters are an effort to avoid further bloodshed; but the Boltons don't recognize humanity, and they have little interest in peace.
And Sansa is among these people, a cat among the pigeons. "It must be difficult for you, being in a strange place," Roose's wife Walda (Elizabeth Webster) says to Sansa. Walda is trying to be kind, but the irony is too much for Lady Stark. "This isn't a strange place," Sansa says. "This is my home. It's the people who are strange."
Yes, Ramsay agrees, they are very strange, and to prove it he stages a ridiculous mockery of a peace-offering. He makes "Reek"—the former Theon Greyjoy—"apologize" to Sansa. "Apologize to Lady Sansa for what you did," he says. "Apologize for murdering her two brothers." Reek—who, though he didn't actually murder her brothers—mutters a pathetic, shameful "I'm sorry." There are some things, however, you just can't apologize for. There are some wounds that can't be healed, and some crimes that can't be forgiven. Sansa can't accept his apology any more than she could drink to Ramsay's toast to calling them all "a family." The Wildlings may belong to the realms of men, and the people of Meereen may come together, but the Starks and the Boltons can never be a family.
But why? The answer seems obvious, of course, but it's also an interesting question for Game of Thrones overall. With all of these characters trying to reconcile the rifts of the past in order to forge a healthier future, which crimes shouldn't be forgotten? Which sins are unforgivable? Which characters are truly irredeemable? (It's a question that crosses over into other storylines that don't feature this week: the Sand Snakes and their quest for vengeance against the Lannisters; Arya's endless litany of people she wants to kill; Tyrion's commission of patricide, and his murder—less justifiable—of Shae.)
Ramsay, I'd argue, inadvertently gives us a clue about where Game of Thrones stands on this issue: "Look at her, Reek," he says. "An apology doesn't mean anything if you're not looking the person in the eye." Apologies need to be personal; apologies need to be sincere; most importantly, apologies need to come from seeing the other person, from recognizing their humanity and your own relation to them. Theon's apology may, in fact, mean something, because Theon—now—recognizes his own crimes and the pain he caused. Theon Greyjoy may, in fact, be redeemable. ("You shouldn't be here," he says, when he first sees Sansa: it's not an admonition, but a warning: he knows that these people are capable of, and he doesn't want to see her hurt.)
But Theon's apology means nothing in terms of the Boltons' crimes, because they are not the ones apologizing: they, in fact, don't feel guilty at all for actually murdering Sansa's family. "There," Ramsay says, after Reek has finished. "Over and done with. Doesn't everyone feel better? I do. That was getting very tense." But of course nothing is over and done with, and no one feels better—least of all Sansa Stark.
The murder of her family at the Red Wedding is, ultimately, unforgivable. "Explain to me," Tywin asked Tyrion in "Mhysa," "why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner?” But it is more noble, and Tywin was irredeemable precisely because he—like the Boltons—didn't know that: he found it all too easy to disregard questions of humanity, and decency, and personal obligation, for the cold practicality of a military victory.
Which is what, I think, brings us back full circle to the conversation with which we began: the value of human experience on Game of Thrones. Tywin's evil scheme—executed by Roose Bolton—took the long view of history: what mattered was winning the war, and it didn't matter how that was accomplished. History will record that, on such-and-such a date, the Lannisters won the War of Five Kings through the Massacre at the Twins. But history will not remember Catelyn Stark's soul-wrenching grief, or the terrible look in Arya Stark's eyes, or the heartbreaking sadness of Robb and Talisa deciding to name their baby Eddard just before the Doom consumed them. Those things are what matter, to anyone human: those are the things that remain, like the lovers in the song, remembered long after the empire they died in is a pile of forgotten ruins.
The Boltons, for now, have their empire, and dynasty, and their place in the history books. But empires fall, and dynasties fail, and people will remember their inhumanity, even if history forgets.
The North remembers, and so do we, and no apology can make us forgive them.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits:
- OK, if Westeros were a democracy, Dany would still have my vote for ruler. But Stannis Baratheon earns my love and respect every time he reminds someone of the difference between less and fewer. Let's give him a permanent position on the Small Council as the Master of Grammar.
- I love how Dany's legend is spreading across the world. "Forces rise against her from within and without, but she refuses to leave until the freedom of the former slaves is secure," says the report Sam reads to Maester Aemon. ("She sounds like quite a woman," Sam adds, and he's not wrong.)
- As I mentioned, one of the things the Doom of Valyria wiped out was nearly the entire population of dragons. In this context, then, Drogon's appearance over the ruined city can be seen as a sign of hope and rebirth.
- I didn't get around to talking about them, but those Stone Men were fairly creepy, and the fight scene was well executed. It did seem improbable that both Jorah and Tyrion would get out of it without being touched, and, in fact, Jorah didn't: he has the grayscale. More relevant to the themes of the episode, however, was how Tyrion and Jorah began, ever so slightly, to bond, to find shared interests, and an affinity, and perhaps even a little forgiveness. (That they began to do this because they both knew the poem about the lovers was a nice touch: never underestimate the value of a thorough grounding in the Humanities.)
- At some point we should probably consider whether monsters on Game of Thrones are born or made: Ramsay Bolton is an evil, irredeemable little fuck, but it's probably not entirely his fault: he never had much of a chance. He's the product of Roose Bolton raping a peasant woman beneath the tree where he hanged her husband. "I nearly had the child thrown in the river," Roose says. "But then I looked at you, and I saw then what I see now: you are my son." Like that's a good thing?
- There's another echo of the overall theme this week in Stannis's conversation with Sam. Stannis knows Sam's father, Randyll Tarly. "Fine soldier, your father," Stannis says, and Sam stands there saying nothing: history no doubt will remember Randyll Tarly as a fine soldier, but Sam knows him as a cruel and loveless man.
- And of course, there's an echo of those lovers from Valyria in the sweetest scene this episode has to offer: two "unimportant" people, Missandei and Grey Worm, finding love amidst the Doom.