Gentle Mother, font of mercy,
Save our sons from war, we pray.
Stay the swords and stay the arrows,
Let them know a better day.
Gentle Mother, strength of women,
Help our daughters through this fray.
Soothe the wrath and tame the fury,
Teach us all a kinder way.
OK, it’s time: let’s talk about religion. (Bear with me: this might take a while.)
The history of faith in George R. R. Martin’s world is far more complicated than Game of Thrones has felt the need to explore, and I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive overview here. But I think it’s helpful before we begin this week to brush up on the three major religions currently at play in this world: the Old Gods, the New Gods, and the Lord of Light. (There are, for the record, other gods: Theon Greyjoy’s seafaring people, for example, worship a Drowned God, but that hasn’t come up very often. And Arya’s friends in Braavos claim that all these gods are actually the same god, the Many-Faced God, whose real name is Death.)
The “Old Gods” were the gods worshiped by the Children of the Forest (those magical wood sprites we met last year). The Old Gods were nature spirits, unnamed and innumerable, and their places of worship were outdoors, in Godswoods, areas of the forest surrounding a weirwood tree with a face carved into the bark. When the First Men came to Westeros, some 12,000 years ago, they warred with the Children at first, but eventually they made peace with them, adopted their gods, and fought side by side against the White Walkers. The Old Gods are still worshiped by the Northern ancestors of the First Men—like Ned Stark—and by pretty much everybody north of the Wall.
Some 6,000 years ago, however, Westeros was invaded by the Andals, who brought the Seven, or the “New Gods,” with them from across the Narrow Sea. The Andals never quite made it North, but for the rest of Westeros the Faith of the Seven became the prevailing religion. The Seven—Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Warrior, Smith, and Stranger—are the seven aspects or facets of God, worshiped as consubstantial in much the same way Christian faiths worship God as a trinity. Each of these seven avatars has his or her own sphere of influence—justice, mercy, innocence, wisdom, strength, creation, and death, respectively—and there are seven distinct heavens, and seven distinct hells. The Seven-Pointed Star—which adorns the Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing, and is carved into the foreheads of the Faith Militant—is the symbol of this religion.
The newest God on the block now, however, is R’hllor, the Lord of Light. This is the fire deity that Melisandre refers to as “the Red God,” or “the One True God,” and he has an evil counterpart with whom he exists in a state of eternal war. (I don’t know that the show has named this evil figure, but—and I really wish I’d thought to bring this up in my review of “Hardhome“—he is called “The Great Other.”)
As I’ve said, the history as laid out in Martin’s books is much more involved than I’ve made it sound, and it’s probably not that important for the series Game of Thrones. But there are a couple of things about all of this that I find interesting.
First, I think it’s important to note that it was the believers in the Old Gods—the First Men and the Children of the Forest—who defeated the White Walkers some eight thousand years ago. With a new war with the Walkers brewing, and with Brandon Stark off frolicking with the Children of the Forest, I think the faith of the Old Gods is going to become important to the end-game of Game of Thrones. It suggests, to me, that the worshipers of the Old Gods knew a few things that modern Westeros has largely, and dangerously, forgotten.
And I also think that the differences between the Old Gods and the New are important thematically for Game of Thrones. The evolution of faith in Westeros seems to be one of progressive narrowness and exclusion: it began with an infinite number of unnamed gods (the Old Gods), who were supplanted by seven named gods (the New Gods), who are now facing challenges from a duality of upstart deities (the Lord of Light and the Great Other).
We’ve talked a lot this season about the literal and figurative walls that separate people, and how divisions are at the root of all problems in Game of Thrones: divisions between people, family names, classes, genders, faiths, houses, nations. (“It’s all the choosing of sides that made everything so horrible,” Shireen said last week.) Westeros, when we first encountered it, was a very structured, segregated place, with strict rules and clear dividing lines between various categories of us and them. But it sounds like it wasn’t always like that: before the Andals came, with their New Gods, the First Men lived in peace with the Children, and there were numberless, nameless gods that people worshiped in harmony with nature through quiet contemplation. I don’t claim to be any kind of Westerosi theologian, but the Old Gods sound to me like a decidedly more egalitarian, holistic, peaceful lot, with way fewer things over which to fight. (“It’s your gods with all the rules,” Ned said, back in the pilot, to his Seven-worshiping wife.)
The Seven—the New Gods—are indeed of a different sort. Even in their very nature they represent division and segregation: they are seven different entities, each having dominion over different aspects of life. Each is represented by a different point on the Seven-Pointed Star, and each has his or her own book in the sacred text (also called The Seven-Pointed Star). Though supposedly part of a single godhead, each of the Seven is distinct, separate from the others. Unlike the Old Gods, who were worshiped in the open, the Seven are worshiped from behind closed walls, from churches that resemble fortresses, designed to keep the unworthy out. The structure of the church is formal, complex, and hierarchical. And—as we’ve seen from its resurgence this season under the Faith Militant—the Faith of the Seven is very strict, with unbreakable rules about who people should be and how they should behave.
In this sense, the Faith of the Seven is the perfect religion for the heavily structured, carefully segregated, deeply unfair society that Westeros was when Game of Thrones began. It is a religion of the walls and divisions and rules that keep people apart, that keep individuals locked into intransigent, hierarchical roles and ancient, irreconcilable enmities. The Faith of the Seven is, in short, a perfect representation of what needs to change in the Seven Kingdoms, if a more peaceful and just society is to be built. Two weeks ago, Dany described the structure of the Seven Kingdoms as a wheel, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we can see that wheel in the Seven-Pointed Star that is the symbol of the New Gods. Justice and mercy, war and death: as Dany said of the great families, they’re all just spokes on a wheel, never touching, this one on top one moment and that one on top the next, turning and turning and crushing those on the ground. The answer is not to stop the wheel; the answer is to break the wheel.
(And I do not think the answer is the stark, black-and-white duality of Melisandre’s religion. If Game of Thrones has taught us anything, it is that life is complicated: human beings are complex, and contradictory, and contain multitudes. Problems are never simple, answers are never clear, and no one is ever just one thing. No side in a conflict is wholly good or wholly bad, wholly right or wholly wrong: in fact, if we look closely enough, we see that there were never two sides at all, just a bunch of individuals, with differences and commonalities, on both sides of the arbitrary line we’ve drawn. It’s the choosing of sides that makes everything horrible.)
“Mother’s Mercy”—the fifth season finale of Game of Thrones—is all about the war between two aspects of the gods, two sides of human nature: the Father’s justice and the Mother’s mercy. It’s a familiar conflict, and many arguments this season have centered around variations of this division: do we choose strength over compassion? Forgiveness over revenge? Love over hate? Peace over war? These questions are at the very heart of Game of Thrones.
They are, in some ways, the wrong questions. There can be no strength without wisdom, no justice without mercy, no life without death. But they are necessary questions, for a society that has too long prioritized certain qualities over certain others. The ability to take life has been more important than the ability to grant life in the Seven Kingdoms; strength has been valued more than wisdom; anger and vengeance have been given free rein, while sympathy and compassion have taken a beating.
And it is, needless to say, no coincidence that these different aspects and qualities are framed as gendered: Westeros is a patriarchal society, and stereotypically male qualities—power, honor, strength—have been at the top of the wheel for far too long.
So, as we approach this final episode of the season, in which the Father’s justice is handed out ruthlessly in nearly every storyline, I think it’s helpful to the realize the extent to which this season was all about the Mother.
“I’m not your mother.” — Brienne, to Podrick, in “The Wars to Come“
Throughout this season—and indeed, throughout this series—we have seen people forced to make choices between justice and mercy. Daenerys was forced to execute Mossador in “The House of Black and White,” for example, despite the crowds of Meereen citizens pleading with her to show mercy. Jon Snow had to behead Janos Slynt in “High Sparrow,” despite his begging for mercy. In each of these cases—and many others we’ll discuss—these immediate decisions about individual lives reflected larger issues about how their governments and societies were going to operate, and how much compassion they were willing to show. And, in each of these cases—as in most cases—the Father’s justice won out over the Mother’s mercy.
It’s the same choice we see play out throughout “Mother’s Mercy.” Brienne of Tarth is not a mother, but she is on a mother’s mission: to find and protect the Stark girls as she promised Catelyn she would do. Sansa rejected her help in “The House of Black and White,” but Brienne doesn’t care: she has been maintaining a tireless vigil nonetheless, watching for the candle that would signal Sansa’s cry for help. In this, she is Catelyn Stark’s agent, and a mother’s love is absolute and unconditional: it’s always there, even when the child doesn’t think she wants it.
But Brienne is distracted from her compassionate mission by an older obligation of vengeance: the arrival of Stannis Baratheon. Ironically, she is not even breaking her vow to Catelyn Stark, for she built this very caveat into their verbal contract. “I could serve you if you would have me,” Brienne told Catelyn. “You have courage. Not battle courage, perhaps, but…a woman’s kind of courage. And I think that, when the time comes, you will not hold me back. Promise me that you will not hold me back from Stannis.”
That time has come, and Brienne is not held back: she abandons her vigil over Sansa and thus misses the very cry for help she’d been waiting for. It is hard to fault her for this—she is true to her word, and it is disastrously improbable timing—but nonetheless she ends up choosing vengeance over mercy, anger over kindness, the path of the Father over the mission of the Mother. It’s a theme we’ve seen play out over and over in Game of Thrones, when issues of honor and justice supersede those of sympathy and compassion. The late Maester Aemon told us long ago that love is the death of duty, but the converse is also true: duty can be the death of love.
“Go on, do your duty.” — Stannis Baratheon
Stannis Baratheon is all about duty, carried out joylessly from a sense of obligation. (Remember that Stannis, ironically, never even wanted to be king. “I never asked for this,” he said once. “No more than I asked to be king. We do not choose our destinies. But we must do our duty, no? Great or small we must do our duty.”) He is all about justice, handed out evenly and with complete impartiality. (He made Davos a knight for being a hero, and cut off his fingers for being a smuggler. “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad the good,” he said.)
Stern and fair, the impartial passer of judgement: Stannis is practically the personification of the Father. As such, the ways of the Mother are almost completely foreign to him: the conflict between justice and mercy has never been any conflict at all for him, as he proved when he ruthlessly had his little brother murdered. Stannis, in fact, has virtually no emotions of any kind, and so no capacity for sympathy or compassion. (“I didn’t love him,” he protested of his brother Robert, the first time we met him.)
And even earlier this season, when he was at his most human with Shireen, he did not speak of love, but talked more of his connection to her as one of duty: “Everyone advised me to send you off the ruins of Valyria, to live out your short life among the Stone Men,” he told her. “I told them to go to hell…Because you do not belong across the world with the bloody Stone Men. You are the Princess Shireen of House Baratheon, and you are my daughter.” It seemed a very sweet scene at the time—and I do think Stannis had some small but genuine affection for her—but in retrospect it reminds me of Tywin Lannister bragging that he didn’t drown Tyrion at birth. In each case, the connection was more one of duty—the strict obligations of a shared family name—than one of love.
And of course Stannis, personification of the Father’s judgement, had no real relationship with Selyse, the actual mother of his child. In considering the issue of motherhood on Game of Thrones—and it’s a complicated one—Selyse is an interesting case, defined almost entirely by her failures as a mother. She failed to give Stannis a son—building a terrifying shrine to her own inadequacy—and virtually all we’ve known of her as a character is that she seemed to lack any maternal feelings for the one living child she did have.
It’s hard to think of another woman in the Seven Kingdoms who could have made Stannis seem, in comparison, like the loving parent, but Selyse managed it in most of her appearances. And yet last week, when push came to shove, she proved that she was a mother after all: it was she, not Stannis, who broke down at the sight of their child’s suffering. It was she who tried—too late—to save Shireen, and it was Stannis who held firm and sacrificed their child on the altar of his precious cause. Stannis knows himself to be the rightful king, and all that matters is that he wins the Iron Throne: that is what duty and honor and justice demand, no matter the sacrifice.
Stannis rejected the Mother’s mercy, and sided instead the perverse mockery of motherhood that is Melisandre, a woman who—literally—births only darkness. This decision was ultimately the doom of the Baratheons. Selyse couldn’t live with what they had done, and Stannis grossly overestimated how much a sense of duty and justice would motivate men to follow him: half his soldiers left him when they saw what a loveless thing he really was. From that moment, even Melisandre knows their cause is lost, and Stannis’s entire campaign for the throne turns into a cautionary tale about the dangers of a commitment to justice that is utterly divorced from compassion.
“Go on, do your duty,” Stannis says to Brienne at the end, and it is both fitting and ironic. Stannis has always been about duty, at the expense of everything else, and that is exactly the unforgivable crime that cost him everything.
“Ramsay needs you. Though I suppose he doesn’t need all of you.” — Myranda, to Sansa
Thinking about not just this episode, but the entire season, in terms of motherhood, brings our conversation naturally back to Sansa Stark, and the subject of rape.
We discussed the prevalence of rape in the world of Game of Thrones in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” but it occurred to me this week that rape—in fact, nearly every form of violence or oppression directed at women in this world—is largely about motherhood. Marriages in Westeros are mostly political transactions: they are treaties made flesh, the woman’s body is the binding contract, and a child of rape is the signature that seals the deal. (Tywin Lannister, for example, practically ordered Tyrion to rape Sansa, in order to produce an heir that would legitimize the marriage and secure the Lannisters’ political hold over the North.) And we’ve also seen (with the Dothraki, for example) that, just as in real life, rape is a common weapon of conquest in this world. (A phenomenon that—as Amnesty International points out—is less about “spoils of war” or sexual gratification, and more about “a way for attackers to perpetuate their social control and redraw ethnic boundaries.”)
So what we see is rape used as a weapon and a political strategy, and women treated as nothing but reproductive objects: their entire value is to produce children as a means to power. So it is about “motherhood,” but it is a reduction of what being a mother really means: in terms of our Seven Gods, it is a subjugation of the Mother by the Father and Warrior, an appropriation of Her power over fertility and a denial of the other aspects of the Mother like kindness and mercy.
It’s a point Myranda makes this week to Sansa in the starkest of terms. “Ramsay needs you,” Myranda taunts. “Though I suppose he doesn’t need all of you: just the parts he’ll use to make his heir. Until you’ve given him a boy or two, and he’s finished using them. Then he’s got incredible plans for those parts.” To Ramsay—himself the product of rape—Sansa is not even a person, just a famous name and a collection of strategically useful biological functions. We’ve talked about this kind of objectification throughout Game of Thrones—the refusal to see people as individuals with subjectivity and agency—and Sansa here decides that she would rather die than be reduced to an object.
Sansa’s arc this season has been, to some extent, a decision about who she was going to be. She could have become Cersei, who is one of the most influential mother-figures in her life. That is who Littlefinger—a man who owns and brokers women as commodities—wanted and urged her to become. The question facing Sansa all season has been whether she would accept that role, or whether she would channel the strength and goodness of her actual mother, Catelyn Stark. She symbolically rejected her mother in the beginning of the season—refusing the help of Catelyn’s agent Brienne—but she has slowly been channeling Catelyn’s strength. (Returning to her natural red hair color was a step in that direction.) Ultimately, Sansa makes the decision to reject the hellish, dehumanizing role she has been given and reach out to her mother, to the Mother, for assistance, by lighting the candle. She does not have to become Cersei. She does not have to live in this place of cruelty and subjugation. She does not have to surrender everything good within herself.
“If I’m going to die, let it happen while there’s still some of me left,” she says, and—with Theon’s help—she leaps over the walls of Winterfell to an uncertain freedom.
“The Mother is merciful. It’s her you should thank.” — The High Sparrow, to Cersei
This appropriation and subjugation of the Mother’s power by the Father is a theme that runs throughout Cersei’s storyline as well.
If you think about it, the political function of motherhood has been at the root of Cersei’s problems her entire life: like many a Westerosi bride, she was sold by her father to someone she didn’t know for political reasons, to secure a treaty and consolidate the power of men. But she rejected entirely her one perceived function, refusing to separate the fertility aspect of the Mother from the other qualities of love and compassion and mercy: there was no love between her and Robert, and she would not have his children. She instead chose the only man from whom she had ever received real love and tenderness, her brother Jaime, and it was with him that she had her children.
(“They’re all Jaime’s,” Ned said to her once. “Thank the Gods,” she replied, happy to have children that were born of love, not hate. It’s a theme that is repeated this week when Jaime tries to confess the truth to Myrcella, only to discover she already knows and doesn’t mind at all. “I’m glad,” Myrcella says, with what look to be her last words. “I’m glad you’re my father.” She is glad, one suspects, to be the child of two people who actually cared about each other.)
Cersei is a villain in many ways, but she is also a victim of a system that has tried to reduce her to her politically useful parts all her life. (“I am Queen Regent, not some broodmare!” she protested to her father, when he threatened to marry her off again, this time to Loras.) She has fought within that system, as best as she was able, to maintain the only power she had: that of a mother. We talked earlier this season about the way the attacks on her power came in a denigration of her title, “Queen Mother,” and we heard her proclaim in “The Gift” that everything she does is as a mother. “I would do anything for you,” she told Tommen. “Anything to keep you from harm. I would burn cities to the ground. You are all that matters, you, and your sister, from the moment you came into this world.”
So we can criticize Cersei’s ethics—and God knows I have—but we can’t deny that she is as fierce and protective a mother as any in Game of Thrones. And we should recognize that the attacks against her are an attack on her rights of motherhood, and a punishment for refusing to cede those rights to representatives of the Father. “There are those that say that your children are not fathered by King Robert, that they are bastards born of incest and adultery,” the High Sparrow accuses her. The need to control motherhood is the entire reason that adultery is such a terrible crime in this world: in a world where fathering a child is primarily a means to political power, adultery threatens the very foundations of the patriarchal power structure. (Sexual agency, in general, is one of the only powers with which women can strike back at the system. “Tears aren’t a woman’s only weapon,” she told Sansa once. “The best one’s between your legs.”)
Cersei confesses to the High Sparrow her adultery with Lancel in order to get out of her cell, but she does not confess her relationship with her brother or the secret of her children’s parentage. She will not trade her love for her freedom; she will not give up her children; she will not yield to these terrible men her rights and authority as a mother. And she is right not to do so, for we see what “the Mother’s mercy” is worth when it is appropriated by men: it becomes just another way to shame and control women. Cersei is stripped bare—objectified, reduced to her “parts”—and forced to walk through the streets of King’s Landing while she is abused in grossly sexual terms. (They call her “whore.” They call her “cunt.”) “The Mother is merciful,” the High Sparrow has told her, but this is a cruel parody of mercy as interpreted through the harsh, judgmental, subjugating eyes of the Father.
Cersei endures it, however—and Lena Headey is fabulous throughout this extraordinarily difficult scene—because she is a mother: she has held onto that part of herself, and it provides her strength and dignity to sustain her on the long, terrible walk back to her child.
But what will she become now? For as much as Cersei has been a victim of a divisive and unjust system, she has also been one of its beneficiaries and perpetuators: her tragedy is that she has fought for her own value, and those of her children, while denying the value of everyone else in the world. (“The more people you love, the weaker you are,” she told Sansa once. “Love no one but your children. On that front, a mother has no choice.” And Jaime reminds us of that this week as well: “Have you ever known your mother to like anyone aside from her children?” he asks Myrcella.)
Cersei is a fierce mother, but narrowly, selfishly. The spirit of the Mother requires more than that: it requires a capacity for mercy that stems from the recognition that we are all family. Cersei has never had that, and it’s vital that we realize that her failures on this front have now cost her two of her three children: in trying to protect her children to the exclusion of all others, she has made the world a crueler place, and the cruelty she helped foster has now claimed some of the only people she managed to care about at all. At this point, it is unclear whether that lesson—and her recent ordeal—is likely to change her for the better or the worse.
“A good mother never gives up on her children.” — Daenerys Targaryen, in “Kill the Boy“
In the Seven Kingdoms what we have mostly seen is the subjugation of the Mother by the Father: adherence to justice, honor, rights, and the law have created a male-dominated power structure in which feminine values—love, mercy, compassion—are squeezed out, and feminine power is almost non-existent. For a true attempt at a balanced marriage between the Father’s justice and the Mother’s mercy, we have to look across the Narrow Sea to the reign of Daenerys Targaryen.
If Cersei’s flaw is that she is incapable of feeling a mother’s love for anyone alive except her biological children, Dany’s story, in some ways, is the opposite: the death of her biological child marked the moment when she became a more universal mother and assumed the responsibility of caring for the inhabitants of the larger world. In fact, in terms of the overall theme of Game of Thrones—which I’ve argued is largely about the conflict between strength and compassion—the death of Dany and Drogo’s child is a key moment. Their son, Rhaego, was supposed the be “The Stallion Who Mounts the World”; it was a prophecy of conquest and subjugation, couched in the language of rape. We don’t know if Mirri Maz Durr was a mother herself, but as a midwife and healer she can certainly be seen as a representative of the Mother. She was also, of course, a survivor and avenger of rape, and so there is a way in which her terrible act of thwarting the prophecy was ultimately a blow for mercy and compassion. (“Now he will burn no cities,” she said, of Dany’s son. “Now his khalasar will trample no nations into dust.”)
Dany lost her son, and she lost her husband: she loved them both, but one was a rapist and conqueror, and the other was destined to be worse. It was the removal of these male elements from Dany’s life that allowed her to tap into her feminine power. She was no longer a literal mother—limited like Cersei to loving only her immediate family—but she was now the Mother of Dragons, and was on the path to becoming mhysa to Meereen, and all of Slaver’s Bay, and—if she has her way—to the entire known world.
And her story this season has been all about her struggle to fulfill that role, and how the old, male-dominated system has resisted her power. The Sons of the Harpy are the agents of that old system of strict class distinctions and human cruelty, and they will not accept Dany’s role as Mother of Meereen. (“She doesn’t belong here,” one of them said in “The House of Black and White.” “And no matter how many of you traitors call her mhysa, she will never be your mother.”) As I’ve mentioned, the harpy—the old symbol of the city of Meereen—is a female creature, one that depicts women as vengeful monsters. So the Sons of the Harpy can be seen to represent both a denigration of women—the word has come to mean “bitch” in our own culture—and an attempt to corrupt Dany into becoming a monster herself. (Tearing down the statue of the Harpy was the very first thing we saw Dany’s forces do this season, but the very first thing the Sons of the Harpy did was kill the Unsullied, White Rat, who oversaw the toppling of that idol.)
It had not occurred to me before now, but—to the extent that we see the overall conflict between strength and compassion as a conflict between male and female power—it’s interesting that the Unsullied are, quite literally, unmanned. They are fierce warriors, but they have been symbolically removed from the male side of the equation to become extensions of Dany’s female power. (Varys—another of Dany’s devotees—has also been castrated.)
Daario Naharis, on the other hand, is very male, and pushes Dany towards the path of the Father and the Warrior: he believes in strength and justice, counsels the uses of force and violence, and urges Dany to be merciless. At each moment when Dany makes a decision that conflicts with the path of the Mother—reopening the fighting pits, or executing Mossador—she is following Daario’s influence.
And it is Daario who actually swings the blade that executes the former slave Mossador, a moment that begins to weaken Dany’s maternal role in Meereen. The crowd is calling her mhysa, and they are calling for mercy, but Dany denies them the Mother’s Mercy and chooses the path of the Father instead. Instantly, the people turn on her, the calls of mother turning into the sound of hissing.
But a mother’s love is unconditional. “A good mother never gives up on her children,” Dany says in “Kill the Boy,” as she chastises the former Masters of Meereen with a display of force. Again, Daario Naharis counsels her to gather and kill all the former masters, but Dany—following the counsel of her female advisor, Missandei—finds another way to attempt to secure the peace. She agrees to marry Hizdahr zo Loraq, and makes the concession to reopen the fighting pits. It is not a perfect solution—political marriages and senseless violence are representative of everything she has been fighting against—but it is a more conciliatory, compassionate approach to problem-solving. (It doesn’t work, of course: the old male power structure is not in the habit of making any concessions at all, and so all hell breaks lose in Meereen.)
Dany’s challenge all along has been to find a balance between strength and compassion, between the Father’s justice and the Mother’s mercy. What is unique about her reign, however, is that she alone among the rulers of this world prioritizes the Mother over the Father. Violence and cruelty still exist around the edges in Meereen, just as mercy and compassion still exist around the edges in Westeros. But Daenerys alone has reversed the balance so that, for once, the Mother’s mercy is the dominant principle. It’s important, I think, that Daario does not end up in charge of Meereen in Dany’s absence, a development that might have undone all the good Dany had accomplished. Daario and Jorah—the two manly men, the two warriors—are off to search for Dany, and a kinder, gentler triumvirate of Tyrion, Missandei, and Grey Worm are left to carry on her more civilized, merciful work, with the help of Varys the Eunuch. The spirit of the Mother will still reign in Meereen.
Meanwhile, Dany herself is in the wilderness, alone with her dragon: her wounded child, he is both the symbol of her strength as a mother and the thing she must protect and care for. And Dany finds herself surrounded by a Dothraki horde: after everything she has been through, she finds herself cast back into the place where she began. However, I suspect this will turn out to be less of a regression of her character growth and more of an illustration of it. Part of Dany’s problems as a leader has been that she still lacks confidence: she has always had advisers and influencers pushing her in one direction or the other. Now, for the first time since we met her, she is truly alone, and will have to draw on her own good judgement and considerable resources. It may not be easy, but it may be the final test of fire she must undergo in order to truly become the ruler—the mother—that the world needs.
“I’m asking you to think about your children now.” — Jon Snow, in “Hardhome“
And obviously, the path of the Mother—the choice of mercy, and the capacity for compassion—is not just for women.
In retrospect, this entire season of Game of Thrones has been far more cohesive than was readily apparent from individual episodes. In Meereen, in King’s Landing, and at The Wall, we’ve seen the same phenomenon play out: all the events of the previous four seasons have weakened the old power structures, and created an opening for change. For the first time, there is the possibility of a kinder, gentler world.
But, in all three storylines, we’ve learned that change does not come so easily: just as in real life, there is always at least one step backwards for every two steps forward. Radical change breeds fanatics, fundamentalists, reactionary extremists who are so frightened of losing their place in the old world order that they’ll do anything to thwart the new one. “It’s easy to confuse what is with what ought to be,” Tyrion said last week, to one of those fundamentalists. “Especially when what is has worked out in your favor.”
The people fighting for what ought to be will always face opposition from those with a vested interest in what is. Dany has fought for a kinder, more egalitarian society in Meereen, but she faces revolution from the people who benefited most from cruelty and class warfare. In King’s Landing—though Cersei is our point-of-view character—it is actually Tommen and Margaery who might have changed things for the better: Tommen has a kind heart, and Margaery has a genuine concern for the poor. (At least, I think it’s genuine. Even if it’s not, she has an approach to power that believes earning the love of the people is essential, so she and Tommen would have been a much kinder and more merciful King and Queen than their predecessors ever dreamed of being.) But now—in part because Cersei resisted the change Tommen and Margaery promised—King’s Landing has fallen under the control of religious fanatics who claim to be acting out of the Mother’s mercy, but who have actually subjugated that idea under a stern and compassionless patriarchal fundamentalism.
In the Night’s Watch, it is Jon Snow who is the face of progress: he is the reformer who believes the Father’s justice must be balanced with the Mother’s mercy. From the very first episode of this season, we have heard him sing the song of compassion and conciliation. “Some of the Night’s Watch feel you have too much affection for the Wildlings,” Davos observed to him, in “The Wars to Come.” “They were born on the wrong side of the wall,” Jon replied. “That doesn’t make them monsters.” At the end of that episode, Jon made a bold, decisive, and dangerous choice between justice and mercy, defying Stannis’s orders and ending the suffering of Mance Rayder with an arrow. (“His arrow was mercy,” Tormund later said of this act, in “Hardhome.”)
Jon had no such mercy for Janos Slynt, as we’ve mentioned, but then again Janos Slynt scarcely deserved mercy: again, it is not about always choosing the Mother over the Father, but about finding the right balance between the two. (Ned Stark—whom I’ve described as the Christ figure in Game of Thrones—was not above executing a man who deserved it either.)
But the central conflict for Jon Snow this season has been about knowing when to choose mercy in a world that is addicted to justice. The climax of Season Four was “The Watchers on the Wall,” and that terrible battle between the Watch and the Wildlings has become just the latest crime that neither side is willing to forgive. In “Kill the Boy,” Jon has the argument with the Night’s Watch: “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 points out in response. Both sides have valid complaints, after thousands of years of war, so the demand for justice—which too often translates into a need for vengeance—is a self-perpetuating cycle that—like Dany’s wheel—has to be broken.
In “Hardhome,” Jon has to make the same argument to the Wildlings. “I’m not asking you to forget your dead,” he said. “I’ll never forget mine…but I’m asking you to think about your children now. They’ll never have children of their own if we don’t band together.” The Father’s path of justice does not lead where they need to go to survive: and so Jon assumes the voice of the Mother. (It’s worth mentioning—though I wouldn’t want to make too much of it—that Jon Snow is often feminized by people around him. “You were a maid,” Ygritte joked, after their first coupling. “Who’s this little girl?” Craster once asked. He also told Jon,”You’re prettier than half my daughters,” a joke Tormund repeats almost word for word in “Hardhome.”) Though a great warrior, Jon’s goodness and capacity for compassion mark him as a slightly feminine presence in this male-dominated world.
And it’s no coincidence that the most important Wildling he has to win over in “Hardhome”—in order to broker peace between these two warring peoples—is a mother. Karsi—whom we see putting her own children on a ship, and who later dies because she cannot bring herself to fight children—is the one who realizes that there are more important things than constantly weighing sin against sin on the scales of justice. The murderous and raping Thenns reject Jon’s message of mercy, but Karsi, the mother, accepts it.
But the old ways don’t die easily in Westeros: the Father has been on top of the wheel for too long, and the Mother has been too long ignored. The men of the Night’s Watch don’t care about mercy, they care about justice: to them, Jon Snow is betraying everything they stand for, and dishonoring all the men who have fought and died for thousands of years. In my discussion of “Hardhome,” I talked about the White Walkers as the great Others, the thing outside of humanity that unites humanity into one common family. But most of the men at Castle Black have not seen the Others: unlike Jon Snow and the Wildlings, their worldview has not yet been realigned. They are still living by the old code of the Father’s justice, and Jon has violated it. “For the Watch,” each of them says, as they slide their daggers into Jon Snow, and they undoubtedly believe they are doing it for the Watch. Like Brienne did, like Stannis did, like the High Sparrow did, they are doing exactly what justice demands. They are doing what men must do, no more, no less.
Male power versus female power, vengeance versus mercy, strength versus compassion: I have dwelt on variations of these same themes throughout my posts on Game of Thrones this season, for I am absolutely convinced, finally, that this is what the entire series is really about. When the series began, the Seven Kingdoms were a place in which men ruled everything: strength was all-important, divisions between peoples were clear defined, and qualities that bring people together—like mercy, compassion, sympathy, and kindness—were viewed as weaknesses. (“The more people you love, the weaker you are,” Cersei said. “Love is the death of duty,” Maester Aemon said. Joffrey executed Ned Stark, rejecting the pleas of mercy from Cersei and Sansa because they had “the soft hearts of women.” Just last week, Thorne said, “You have a good heart, Jon Snow. And it will get us all killed.”)
But it is the denial of the gentler, more conciliatory human qualities—the female qualities, if you will—that have nearly torn the Seven Kingdoms apart, and now threaten to destroy humanity altogether. The Father’s justice is important, but it is nothing without the Mother’s mercy. Poor Shireen Baratheon, in her final lesson to her father, told him about the war that broke out between two Targaryen siblings that came to be known as the Dance of Dragons. It was a war, significantly, between brother and sister: male and female, each jockeying for the throne. Which should we choose? “I wouldn’t choose,” Shireen said. “The choosing of sides is what made everything so horrible.”
I do not, for the record, believe Jon Snow is really dead, or—if he is—that he will stay dead. What I believe is that Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryan—ice and fire, male and female—are the two heroes of this story. They are flawed but fundamentally decent people who—though they have never met—are inextricably joined by daring to imagine a better world. It is not as simple as saying that they represent the Father and the Mother, respectively, for no one is ever just one thing. They each care about justice, and they each care about mercy. They both have battle courage, and they both have a woman’s kind of courage. They make mistakes, but both of them have good hearts, and they share a capacity to care not just for themselves and their immediate families, but for everyone, rich or poor, male or female, strong or weak. From opposite corners of the map they have both been working for common causes: to break the wheel, to tear down the walls, to bring former enemies together and achieve both justice and mercy. Neither has succeeded yet, but I’m absolutely certain they’re both going to be necessary. Choosing is what makes everything horrible, and I don’t believe for a moment the story is going to choose between them.
Because, if this season has taught us anything, it’s that changing the world is not easy, and no one can do it alone.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Not for the first time, but for the last time this season, I apologize for the lateness of this post. It was partially due to real-life events interfering with my schedule, and it was partially due to the fact that this post kept meandering in different and unwieldy directions, and expanded frustratingly as I wrote it. (At the moment, it’s the longest post I’ve written so far on Game of Thrones. I could take another week to try to tighten it up, but I have a fear it would only grow longer.)
- And, in this very lengthy post, I nevertheless skipped over Arya’s storyline, which is just as thematically relevant as everything else. She, too, makes a choice to pursue her selfish agenda of revenge instead of doing the errand of mercy Jaqen had assigned her. (Yes, I realize it’s a stretch to call assassination “mercy,” but—as I discussed briefly last week—the work of the Faceless Men does seem to be largely about mercy.) Few of us will be sorry to see Meryn Trant go, but I nonetheless find it sad and troubling—not triumphant—to see Arya surrender to vengeful, violent fury. I think we are misreading the show if we think Arya’s embrace of anger and cruelty is a good thing. And Jaqen clearly doesn’t approve of it either: his punishment is to take away her sight. This season has largely been about recognizing commonalities between people, and I think it’s significant that the next step in Arya’s education is for her to lose the ability to see differences.
- I also skipped another important mother in the mix: Ellaria Sand. Ellaria, too, chooses “justice” over mercy, enacting her terrible revenge on Cersei by (apparently) killing the innocent Myrcella. Meanwhile, the person in Dorne really following the path of the Mother is Prince Doran, who is trying desperately to keep his people out of war.
- We don’t actually know if any of these people are dead, do we? Myrcella, Stannis, Sansa, Theon, and Jon Snow could all be dead, but any of them might surprise us. (As I’ve said, I don’t think Jon will stay dead: he’s too important, and Melisandre’s timely arrival at Castle Black seems a little too timely. I think Stannis is dead, and I hope so, as I like how his story ended. Myrcella probably is dead, barring an improbable transfusion of Bronn’s antidote-carrying blood. Sansa and Theon are almost certainly not dead, even though it’s ridiculous if that fall didn’t kill them.)
- Best line in the episode? Jon’s line to Sam, on discovering he has slept with Gilly: “I’m glad the end of the world is working out well for someone.” Worst line in the episode? Tyene’s absolutely cringeworthy farewell to Bronn: “You want a good girl, but you need a bad pussy.”
- Overall, I’ve had a lot of quibbles with this season, though I did find it—as I’ve said—much more coherent than it appeared. My biggest complaint has to do with pacing: for the first time since this series began, it feels like the storytelling is getting rushed and sloppy in places. (The two biggest examples for me are the Dorne storyline and the Faith Militant’s rise to power. I also think the smouldering resentment of the Night’s Watch towards Jon Snow could have played out over a longer period to be really effective.) At a guess, I suspect this has to do with the extraordinarily difficult—and wholly unprecedented—position showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff are in. George R.R. Martin can take a couple of decades to finish telling his story in his books, but D&D can’t wait for him: they may have as few as two more seasons to tell it on-screen. I can easily imagine—and forgive—that they are looking at a monstrous map in front of them and beginning to panic a bit about how they’re possibly going to hit all the major points of interest along the way.
- And that’s it for another season of Game of Thrones, which is the highlight of my reviewing year in every way. I am gratified that so many of you have been willing to read along with my incredibly long-winded explorations and speculations about this series, and I’m very grateful for all the (invariably kind and thought-provoking) comments I’ve received here and by email. I hope you’ll all check out some of my other reviews, and I hope to see you all back next year.