There's a video that has been making the rounds on social media lately—you've almost certainly seen it by now—in which CIA agent Amaryllis Fox shares insights from 10 years of working undercover in counter-terrorism services. "If I've learned one lesson from my time in the CIA, it is this," she says. "Everyone believes they are the good guy."
It's a short video, with some simple but poignant insights about America's delusions of exceptionalism. Fox describes a debriefing with an Al Qaeda fighter:
He said all these movies that America makes, like Independence Day and Hunger Games and Star Wars, they're about a small, scrappy band of rebels who will do anything in their power, with the limited resources available to them, to expel an outside, technologically advanced invader. And what you don't realize, he said, is that, to the rest of the world, you are the Empire, and we are Luke and Han.
I thought of that video when I watched "No One," because I think this is a point that Mssrs. Martin, Benioff, and Weiss have been making on Game of Thrones from the beginning. I spend a fair amount of time discussing "heroes" and "villains" on this series, but the truth is that no one—"No One"—is really either. Fools like Ser Dontos might flatter themselves that they are romantic heroes, and psychopaths like Ramsay Bolton may relish in playing the role of villain, but most everyone else is just doing the best they can for reasons that seem, to them, completely justified. Everyone has a role to play in the story, but whether that role is "hero" or "villain" is largely a question of perspective. Everyone, after all, is the star of their own tale.
(This truth is built into George R.R. Martin's novels, which are narrated with alternating points-of-view. But the show has done an admirable job of preserving these individual perspectives and refusing to take narrative sides, to the extent that—in a conflict between characters—we often don't know for whom we should root. Who did you root for in the Battle of the Blackwater? Who was the villain and who was the hero when Brienne of Tarth battled The Hound?)
This complexity is one of the reasons I think Game of Thrones is worth more serious consideration than the average fantasy series. In a world that all too eagerly embraces simple answers and easy judgements, Game of Thrones insists on the complexity of motive, the unpredictability of consequences, and the authenticity of individual, subjective perspective. Part of its mission statement—in its plot, and in its narrative approach—is to counter othering, to break down lazy, dehumanizing designations, and to force us to see every character as a person, not as a trope or a type.
No one sees themself as a villain. No one thinks of themself as other. No one is just one thing. And no one knows, for sure, exactly who they are, or what they will be, or what role in the story they'll ultimately take.
"All of us have to believe that we're decent, don't we?" — Edmure Tully
It is Edmure Tully who lays this point out most directly in "No One." Edmure's own role in the story has been a minor one, and not a particularly honorable one: he has been a foolish military commander, a comically bad archer, a reluctant political groom, and a hostage. Even his uncle, the Blackfish, has written him off as expendable.
But it is worth remembering that Edmure is not a minor comic figure to Edmure, and he reminds us of that here, demonstrating depths of both pathos and perception. He has suffered the loss of almost his entire family, and he has been locked away for years from the child he fathered during his one night with his beautiful young wife. And Edmure refuses to be treated as a minor, expendable character in someone else's drama—though that's exactly how Jaime Lannister treats him, addressing him with the patronizing tones of privilege and primacy. Jaime clearly thinks of himself as the hero of his story, and of Edmure as just an inconsequential thing to be used or destroyed. But Edmure challenges that:
"Do you imagine yourself a decent person, is that it? After you've massacred my family, kept me in a cell for years, stolen our lands…You understand, on some level. You understand that you are an evil man…Tell me, I want to know, I truly do. How do you live with yourself? All of us have to believe that we're decent, don't we? You have to sleep at night. How do you tell yourself that you're decent, after everything that you've done?"
It's a good speech, and it comes at a significant time. I've been talking all season about Jaime's character, and whether the "arc" he traveled with Brienne of Tarth in Seasons Two and Three ever really amounted to anything in terms of character development. Jaime revealed himself to be a complex person while he was with Brienne, not just a preening villain. He even revealed how he sees himself as the hero of the infamous "Kingslayer" incident: the very act that defined him as a villain to the rest of the world is the one he considers his finest moment. (What was perhaps most interesting about this was that Jaime clearly cares, on some level, about whether he is good or bad, deep down.) In the beginning, we could see him as a villain, but then we got to know him, and it all became more complicated. (Intimacy is the death of othering, as we've seen throughout the series. Would Jon Snow have recognized the rights of the Wildlings if he hadn't spent quite so much time with Ygritte?)
Brienne was contemptuous of Jaime when she met him, but came to see the good in him, as she tells him now. "You are a knight, Ser Jaime," she says. "I know there is honor in you." Though they are ostensibly on opposite sides of a conflict, the possibility that she might have to fight him is troubling to her. (It's troubling to us, too, because it's another battle in which we'd be emotionally invested in both combatants.) So she persuades him to try to take the castle without bloodshed, by allowing her to negotiate with the Blackfish. (Brienne fails, of course: the Blackfish, stubborn, and tired of fighting, and living his own story out to the end, seems determined to commit suicide by siege.)
But it is ironic that Jaime does manage to take the castle largely without bloodshed—and that he does so by behaving dishonorably.
What Jaime reveals here about his own self-awareness is important, and in line with one of the central themes of Game of Thrones. Roundaboutedly answering Edmure's question, Jaime expresses almost equal admiration for Catelyn and Cersei: they both, he explains, love(d) their children fiercely, and would do anything for them. "They'd do anything to protect their babies: start a war, burn cities to ash, free their worst enemies. The things we do for love."
The things we do for love: it's a callback, of course, to perhaps the most monstrous act of Jaime's own life, way back in the pilot, when he pushed little Brandon Stark from the top of a tower. But this line, and his admiration for Cat and Cersei, is also illustrative of how people like Jaime—and there are many like him in Game of Thrones—live their lives and define themselves: by defining a narrow sphere of people they care about, and doing their best for them while disregarding all others. Being a good person, to Jaime, means doing whatever he has to do for the few people he has decided to love—even if that means killing everyone else in the world.
"I love Cersei. You can laugh at that if you want, you can sneer, it doesn't matter. She needs me, and, to get back to her, I have to take Riverrun. I'll send for your baby boy, and I'll launch him into Riverrun with a catapult. Because you don't matter to me, Lord Edmure. Your son doesn't matter to me. The people in the castle don't matter to me. Only Cersei. And if I have to slaughter every Tully that ever lived to get back to her, that's what I'll do."
I said last week that Jaime and Cersei never seem to really change, and this is part of what I meant: Game of Thrones is largely about people expanding that sphere of concern, learning to recognize people outside their immediate family or clan as full, subjective, autonomous people with rights and worth. (I've dwelt on this many times before, so won't do so now: c.f. Dany, and Jon, and Tyrion, and pretty much everybody we like.) With very few exceptions—and Jaime's affinity for Brienne is one of them—Jaime and Cersei have never learned to do that. Way back in "Lord Snow" Jaime said he would kill "the whole bloody lot of them" until he and Cersei were the last people in the world—and his perspective has never really changed.
Does this make Jaime an evil man? Yes, probably: in fact, his kind of exclusive empathy may be the cardinal sin of Game of Thrones. (The Lannisters have never understood that they are the Empire, and everyone else is Luke and Han.) But how different is his perspective, really, from our own? Few of us would be willing to man a Toddler Trebuchet (one hopes), but don't most of us focus only on a narrow group of people we care about, and largely ignore injustices to the rest? Don't we recognize that it's impossible to love and help everyone in the world, and therefore define "being a good person" as doing what we can for the people we know? As Jaime says, Catelyn made bad choices, to protect her children. And Ned made a choice—it was his last choice, in fact—to screw over the entire kingdom so he could protect his own children. And haven't other characters—Jon and Tyrion come to mind—erred too much the other way, sacrificing the people they were supposed to love (Ygritte and Shae, respectively) in the name of some greater good?
I'm not defending Jaime, who has, it seems to me, largely ignored most of the lessons Game of Thrones argues are important. (His allowing Brienne to keep the sword, Oathkeeper, seems a tacit admission that she—not he—is a hero.) But it's easy to see how he has lived his life according to his own internal rules, and his own internal logic: his identity and self-image are tied up not in being a classical hero, perhaps, but in being a sort of romantic hero, dedicated to one woman. "So many vows," he once told Catelyn Stark:
"They make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Obey your father. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. But what if your father despises the king? What if the king massacres the innocent? It's too much. No matter what you do, you're forsaking one vow or another."
Finding it impossible to follow all the rules, Jaime seems to have ordered his life around one: to love Cersei fiercely, unconditionally, and to the exclusion of all others. This, to answer Edmure's question, is how he lives with himself.
(Say what you will about the tenets of Jaime Lannister, but at least it's an ethos.)
"I choose violence." — Cersei
Here's a funny thing: I think Jaime is a better person than Cersei, but I judge him far more harshly. Jaime has had choices that Cersei never had: he could have been anything. Cersei, on the other hand, was a woman, and basically had one road available to her. The best she could hope for was to become the most powerful wife and mother in Westeros, which is exactly what she achieved.
I do feel sorry for Cersei—though not as sorry as Cersei feels for herself. All she has ever had was her associative identity, the indirect power she wielded from her position as Tywin's daughter, Robert's Wife, and the mother of Joffrey and Tommen. And what we have seen over the last five seasons is that identity stripped away, piece by piece. We saw her lose her husband, her father, and two of her children. We saw her influence over the king(s) diminished, her title of "queen" downgraded to "queen mother," her reputation besmirched, and her place on the high council taken away. This week, she suffers yet another indignity, as her Uncle Kevan refuses her a place beside her one remaining child, informing her that her place is "in the gallery, with the other ladies of the court."
Cersei is the successful product of the (sexist, classist) system in which she was raised: she did everything she was supposed to do, and she became the ultimate example of what she was allowed to be. And it has only made her miserable. How can we not feel a little sorry for Cersei? How can we not recognize that she feels like she's been wronged, robbed, refused everything that was promised? It does not require a dizzying leap of empathy to see things from her perspective, and to understand that everything she does feels—to her—completely justified.
("No One" actually opens with a paean to Cersei's perspective: the first thing we see is Lady Crane, delivering the revised version of Cersei's monologue that Arya suggested. Cersei's grief and righteous fury are not the whole story of who Cersei is—the weeping audience is not getting the full picture, of course—but neither is it a lie. It's just a shifting of Cersei's most genuine and human facets to the light, and a reminder that even the most monstrous characters have their sympathetic sides.)
None of that makes her a good person, of course. (She has had moments of clarity when she seemed to acknowledge that she isn't, though I suspect she would say that goodness is a luxury a woman in her position can not afford.) And it all leads her to do some terrible things, and to make some horrible choices. She makes one this week, trying to cling to the tattered remnants of her power and authority: she refuses to go see the High Sparrow, demanding that he come see her at the Red Keep. It's a tiny, petty thing, but Cersei's entire life has been a fight over tiny, petty things, and she has few left on which to stake her claim. She doesn't want to give this one up, and so uses it as an excuse to exercise some of her increasingly diminishing power. "I choose violence," she says, when Lancel warns her violence might ensue—and so Cersei has the FrankenMountain rip off one of the Faith Militants' heads.
It affords her a brief moment of satisfaction, but the longer-term consequences are a disaster for her: after this display of physical prowess, the Faith and the Crown have decided that maybe "trials by combat" are a bad idea. Cersei will face a regular trial, before a jury of septons: at such a tribunal, her guilt is almost a foregone conclusion.
(And what, I wonder, is this "rumor" Qyburn has confirmed? It has been striking me lately, in our discussion of the breakdown of the old system and the building of something new, that Cersei is the old system: she is its creation, its personification, its product. She is the embodiment of everything that was wrong with Westeros when Game of Thrones began: all the inequalities of power, class, and gender are contained within her. And so I wonder if King's Landing's fate won't ultimately be tied to hers: her downfall, if it comes, may also be the city's downfall. What if the "rumor" of which Qyburn speaks is that the Mad King's secret stockpiles of wildfire—the ones Jaime prevented him from lighting—are still there? If Cersei is going to lose control of King's Landing completely, I can see her wanting to burn the whole thing down around her.)
"You can still help a lot more than you've harmed, Clegane." — Beric Dondarrion
Come to think of it, Sandor Clegane may be the exception to the rule that no one thinks of himself as a bad person. If you asked him, I suspect that's exactly what he'd say he is.
The problem is, we're not sure we believe him anymore.
Since his own brother burned him as a child, Clegane has had a very brutal view of the world, and of his own role within it. "The world is built by killers," he once told Sansa Stark, and many times he has said that that's all he is himself. ("Does it give you joy to scare people?" Sansa asked him, on another occasion. "No, it gives me joy to kill people," he said. "Killing's the sweetest thing there is.")
Clegane's problem, in fact, may be the opposite of the one we're discussing: he would find it almost impossible to think of himself as a hero. (There's a reason he has always steadfastly refused to be called Ser Clegane.) But we have seen potential in him: we've seen the softer side of the Hound. As I discussed last week, he cared for Sansa, and he cared for Arya, and he tried to protect them both with no selfish agenda of his own. And we've seen the wounded, surprisingly tender child inside the seemingly monstrous man.
At the root of the issue this week is the question of what narratives we tell ourselves about who we are. Sandor has told himself one story about himself his entire life, a story that made him suited for the merciless and violent world he has known since he was a little boy. And he spent most of his life in service of others—Joffrey, most notably—who confirmed his visions of the world and of himself.
Now, however, he's on his own, and it may be time to consider a new narrative. Last week Brother Ray told him it was never too late to decide to do good in the world. Brother Ray then got murdered, of course, which did seem to confirm Sandor's understanding of how the world works. But Sandor's mission of revenge this week is interesting. It is driven by anger and hatred, of course. ("Hate's as good a thing as any to keep a person going," he told Arya once. "Better than most.")
But it's also driven—whether he'd admit it or not—by friendship—"They killed a friend of mine"—and by a sense of justice. (These are both new things for Sandor Clegane.) He wants to torture the renegade members of the Brotherhood when he finds them. ("There was a time I would have killed all seven of you, just to gut these three," he tells Beric and company.) But he settles for seeing them executed, without torture.
And, when he sits down to break bread with Beric and Thoros of Myr, he actually entertains their suggestion that he might become a completely different sort of person than he's ever been before. Their words echo Ray's: "You can still help a lot more than you've harmed, Clegane," Beric tells him. "It's not too late for you."
"A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I am going home." — Arya
Finally, we come to No One herself, Arya Stark.
I don't have a lot to say about this segment this week, as most of it is taken up with a thrilling (if highly implausible) chase scene. (It was fun enough that I didn't particularly mind the implausibility. I do mind how bad the Waif seems to be at her job, however: surely the whole point of the Faceless Men is for them to be sneaky, not to rampage through the streets like a T-1000?)
I did appreciate the subtle echo of the theme in how this chase scene plays out. Like everything else, it's all a matter of perspective: the Waif clearly believes she is controlling this situation, chasing Arya through Braavos and finally cornering her in a dark room. But the Waif has misunderstood who the star of this story is, and misunderstood the subject-object relationship. She has not been driving Arya anywhere: she has been lured by Arya, drawn into a trap by a carefully placed trail of blood.
And the entire arc of Arya's time in Braavos—which comes to an end here—is on-point as well. Arya, like her spiritual sibling the Hound, has spent a lot of time trying to convince herself she's someone she's not: someone hard, someone cruel, someone as brutal and heartless as the world she's encountered. And she felt justified in everything she did, and everything she thought she would have to do: she has been wronged, and she has carried her list of wrongdoers with her for years, acquiring power and awaiting the opportunity to find justice and revenge. She told herself a story in which she would become—and feel good about becoming—a certain kind of person.
But when it came right down to it, she was lying to herself. "All of us have to believe that we're decent," Edmure says elsewhere in this episode, and Arya couldn't believe it: there was no math by which killing Lady Crane could be justified. "You understand, on some level," Edmure says to Jaime. "You understand that you are an evil man." Arya, on some level, understands that she is not an evil woman. Whatever else she becomes, she needs to be the good guy, and if she had compromised her essential decency any further, she wouldn't be good.
She doesn't end up saving Lady Crane, anymore than Sandor Clegane saved Brother Ray. Nor does she become a pacifist, anymore than Clegane will. But both of them have been touched by kindness, and forced to consider the stories they've been telling themselves about themselves. They've both come to understand that they have choices to make, about who they are, and what they do, and whether they are going to be a force for good or evil in the world. They've come to understand—as Jaime and Cersei never will—that whatever monstrosities they have suffered do not justify becoming monsters themselves.
Ultimately, you have to decide what kind of person you're going to be, and settle on a narrative that lets you look at yourself in the mirror. Otherwise, you're no one.
She is not no one. She is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and she is going home.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- I skipped over the disaster unfolding in Meereen this week, though Grey Worm and Missandei getting drunk and telling jokes were so painfully adorable I could hardly stand it. There is a thin thematic tie-in, I suppose, in that Tyrion really thought he was the hero of this situation: he's preening proudly about his brilliant accomplishments, right up until the moment a fleet of slavers sails into the harbor. ("No more talking from you," Grey Worm snaps at him. "Your talking gave us this.") Fortunately, Mommy's come home just in time, and she looks pissed.
- Adorable, also, is the real affection that has developed between Varys and Tyrion. I said a long time ago that what Tyrion really wants out of life is friends, and he has some now. I hope he gets to open that vineyard someday, and serve each of his closest friends a glass of "The Imp's Delight."
- I want Sandor Clegane at my death-bed. "Those are your last words? 'Fuck you?' Come on, you can do better…You're shit at dying, you know that?"
- The scenes with Lady Crane had a special poignancy: since she left Winterfell, Arya has had father-figure after father-figure, but this is the first time she's known the tenderness of a (surrogate) mother's love.
- What the hell is west of Westeros?
- Apologies again—hopefully for the final time this season—on the extreme lateness of this post. (I fell badly behind, and then ended up writing these last two posts very quickly: if they're even less coherent than usual, that's why.) I am going to give myself a couple of hours of rest, and then give "The Battle of the Bastards" my full and undivided attention.