Game of Thrones: Redemption

Posted: March 21, 2017 in Game of Thrones, Opinion, TV
Tags: , , , , ,

Do I even need to warn people about spoilers? This post will be talking about Game of Thrones; it’s in the title. Therefore you’re on notice if you’re behind on the show.

margaery

High Sparrow: Next week’s episode looks like it’s going to be amazing.
Margaery: Don’t say anything! I’m way behind.
High Sparrow: Seven forbid! I’ll not spoil you on the details. Would be a terrible sin.

The topic of this post will be redemption, specifically in HBO’s television series, Game of Thrones. (I guess it’ll be applicable as well to the source material, A Song of Ice and Fire.)  I’m not a literary scholar, I’m just a guy with a blog who writes way too much about this particular adaptation, so this won’t be a dense comparison of the general theme of redemption in various works of literature.

You’re welcome.

One of the hallmarks of the story of Game of Thrones is the depth and complexity of the many, many characters. It’s not a straightforward morality tale of good guys versus bad guys, but a symphony of conflicting motivations on all manner of spectra: ambition, honor, revenge, duty, and fear.

Often the reader will be presented with characters who have done “objectively wrong” things, and yet over time and often with additional insight into their motivations and backstory, a reader’s opinion of an otherwise villainous character might spin positively.

I’ve told the story before of how I threw the third book, A Storm of Swords, across the room where I was reading. Not because of the Red Wedding which is a typically cited reaction, but when Jaime Lannister lost a hand.

jaime-lannister (1)

I was angry because somehow I had become a Jaime Lannister supporter and it had happened so subtly. I was mad at myself for being manipulated into rooting for someone who pushed a child out of a tower window.

In my opinion, Jaime’s redemption arc is good writing and that’s even before we got to his confession to Brienne at the baths of Harrenhal, or when he saved her from a bear. (A bear! A bear! All covered in hair!)

Redemption is not always the endpoint in a character’s journey (unless they make some heroic and fatal sacrifice or something.) They might wander up and down some theoretical moral spectrum throughout. Jaime hit a reversal on his redemption arc when returning to King’s Landing, due to his complicated relationship with Cersei (some of that can be blamed on less-than-stellar execution from the show) and this just adds to the realism of the story.

Some characters have more painful and complicated character arcs, ones that almost feel like redemption stories. Almost, but not quite.

Theon Greyjoy comes to mind as someone who everyone wanted to die because of his betrayal of the Starks and his crimes in occupying Winterfell. People soon had a different reason to want him dead, as a merciful end to his miserable status as Reek.

Currently, Theon is serving his sister Yara (known as Asha in the books – I’ll never not say that) and it feels like through his suffering and contrition he’s earned something approaching redemption. The jury is kind of out on him.

I don’t think we’re necessarily rooting for a happy ending for Theon, but I think most people are rooting for a good ending to his story. I’d be happy for him to serve out his time at the Wall in penance, rather than being executed. But were he to be executed, I’d want the process to be respectful to his character (something I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted right after Season Two.)

Why am I talking so much about Theon? The fallen-from-grace Ironborn prince is partly responsible for me writing this post. Sit back and I’ll tell y’all a story of the time I saw red in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Most Irredeemable Character in Game of Thrones

Over two years ago my family and I were in Atlanta for Dragon*Con, one of the largest science fiction conventions on the East Coast. (It’s not as large as the San Diego Comic Con, but what is?) During our stay there, I went to a panel talking about Game of Thrones and that other fantasy juggernaut Lord of the Rings.

I was afraid that the panel would be some veiled geek-on-geek warfare about what property was better (we can enjoy both relatively congruently, you guys) but the purpose of the discussion panel was basically how each fantasy property handled various elements. Like religion, magic, heroic ideals, etc.

There was a specific comparison of Theon/Reek with Smeagol/Gollum, two characters who have a downward arc, who experience torturous suffering, and then who (in varying ways) have opportunities for redemption. This opened up a question for one of the panelists “Who in Game of Thrones is irredeemable?”

The panelist being asked thought for a moment and then responded (in her assessment) with the name of the signature irredeemable character in the story.

Sansa Stark.

shockedsansa

ME? WTF?

This answer did not make me happy.

To be fair about the context, this took place in the Fall of 2014 so Sansa’s horrible treatment by Ramsay Bolton hadn’t yet occurred. I’m not sure what the panelist’s opinion would be now but let’s get back to my story.

Her reasoning was this: Sansa had betrayed her father by telling Cersei that Ned planned on leaving the capital, giving Cersei motivation and opportunity to foil the safe exit of the girls. Ned capitulated and agreed to confess to treason as a bargain to protect Sansa, whom he was told was a prisoner of the crown and therefore at risk.

Ned’s agreement brought him to the square of Baelor, where Joffrey unexpectedly ordered Lord Eddard’s beheading.

ned-baelor

This is all that viper Sansa’s doing!

So Sansa condemned Ned to death, essentially. And since Ned was dead and would be unable to forgive his tattle-tale daughter, there was nothing she would ever be able to do to redeem herself. QED.

This reasoning did not make me happy.

  • It laid the blame of Ned’s situation on Sansa, who was equally a victim of Lannister machinations. I’m not a fan of shifting blame from the root cause (Joffrey, Cersei, and arguably Ned himself) to a victim who had little actual influence on the situation.
  • Honestly, would things have been that much more different had Sansa not told Cersei? Plans were either already in motion, and Ned’s confiding in Cersei of his knowledge of the incest would be a much more relevant factor than Sansa’s information.
  • By the (fallacious) logic that condemns Sansa, I guess Bran Stark is really the irredeemable one. His rebellious disobedience in regards to climbing led not only to his fall but also to the assassination attempt, Cat’s trip south, Tyrion’s capture, Ned’s wounding, etc. And since Ned, Cat, Robb, Jory, and nearly half the fighting men in the North died, all thanks to Bran, he can’t apologize to them or get forgiveness. Irredeemable!

This is all that cheeky viper Bran’s doing!

  • The requirement of obtaining Ned’s forgiveness is particularly offensive to me, since it speaks of the poor opinion the panelist had for Ned. As if there is any doubt that Ned would not forgive Sansa. Ned set aside his honor to protect her. Forgiveness is implied.
  • There are certainly characters who have done much worse things than Sansa, and yet we see them on a path of redemption. I haven’t even mentioned child-murdering Sandor Clegane yet.

Years have passed and I’m a bit calmer now, but at the time I was pretty much in angry defend Sansa mode. (It’s not as necessary at present since Sansa has had some serious troubles which have garnered her sympathy, but also she has more agency with which to make her own decisions. She can be praised or criticized accordingly.)

Wait! (I hear you say) Was this post just a way to complain about one person’s offensive opinion about Game of Thrones? How dare you waste our time like that!

Yes, yes. That’s fair. But I think the concept of redemption can generate some worthwhile discussion beyond my complaining about “this person said so-and-so, harrumph.” Let’s see if I can redeem this post into something worthwhile.

Redemption on the Horizon

Season Six seemed to be heavily on the redemption plot bandwagon, with the re-introduced Sandor Clegane briefly finding a moral compass via a short-lived peaceful septon, who saved the Hound from Brienne-inflicted wounds.

Ser Jorah finally caught a break in his pursuit for validation from Daenerys Targaryen when she ordered him against crawling off to succumb to his greyscale, but to find a cure and then return to her service redeemed for his previous espionage and duplicity.

jorah

Dany: Ugh, don’t touch me, you freak.
Jorah: But, I won’t have greyscale until next season!
Dany: GROSS!

Even on-the-nose redemption plot elements were found in King’s Landing, where the High Septon had been pressuring Margaery and Loras Tyrell to renounce their sins to regain favor in the eyes of the Gods.

loras

Loras: I’m sorry I said all that trash about Iron Fist, critics, and fans!
High Sparrow: I know. But some good might come from this. We might get a Daughters of the Dragon series instead.
Loras: Wait! Weren’t you in Miss Saigon? J’accuse!

The Tyrell siblings’ stories of Faith-mandated redemption ended rather abruptly, but the other previously-mentioned characters on redemptive paths continue on, carrying the comfortable feeling of the series approaching an end-game. More and more of those stories will need to converge, with personal moments of satisfaction to either be achieved or remain dramatically just-out-of-reach.

Arya Stark’s obsession with murder might lead her along strange paths. Should she even be doing all these grisly killings? Will there be more to her story than just taking names off of a list?

Hey, here’s your chance to chime in. Anyone have thoughts on who on the show is in need of redemption, but who will never be redeemed?

baelish

Me: One person in this scene is irredeemable.
Baelish: I assume he’s talking about you.
Sansa: You haven’t been paying attention, have you?

Is forgiveness a requirement for redemption? Or can someone be redeemed by actions that no one will ever know? Qhorin Half-Hand once gave Jon the breakdown about service to the Night’s Watch. That any ranger might end up dying and no one being the wiser. And that was just fine.

Feel free to discuss in the comments. After all, we have months and months to wait until Season Seven starts up. What else do we have going on?


(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)

Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.)

I make no claim to the images, but some claims to the text. So there.

If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2017 Some Rights Reserved

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Comments
  1. forthejokes says:

    I would have been SO MAD at that panel. Sure, Sansa was annoying in book/season 1, but she was young, and I’m sure I was annoying at that age too. Also given her age, it’s doubtful that she had any idea that the consequences for telling Cersei would lead to her father’s death. One of the themes of the first book is how out of depth the Starks are in King’s Landing, and that includes Sansa. She fit in, but she didn’t know the consequences. Not to mention Cersei had no idea that she couldn’t control her son, and you get a dead Ned. I have a lot of Sansa opinions, as you probably know.

    On the theme of redemption, the scene that changed my mind about Cersei (who is awful, but very damaged) was in season 3 when Tywin told her that she was going to marry Loras. The look on her face as she realises she’s going to have to be married AGAIN was heartbreaking. It’s not quite redemption, but it’s a reminder that she still has scars from that first marriage.

    Liked by 2 people

    • We share the same opinions regarding Sansa.

      Thank you for describing that Cersei moment. I get what you are talking about. (I appreciate people speaking up for Cersei, she’s awful but we should recognize her pains, some are relatable.)

      Thanks for the comment, as always.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. writingjems says:

    I would have been outraged too at the declaration of Sansa being irredeemable. Actually, that may be true, but only because there’s nothing to redeem. Sansa made mistakes of innocence and youth, not deliberate maneuvers like Jorah’s dealings or Theon’s betrayal or Jaime’s attempted murder. She needed to learn maturity, not earn forgiveness.

    But anyway, good post. Redemption is always an interesting concept in fiction, and one I intend to write a blog on myself this week. To me, no character is irredeemable as long as they are capable of remorse. That’s what sets characters like Jorah, Theon, and Jaime apart from guys like Walder Frey, Joffrey, Ramsay, or Roose Bolton. The former always had the capability for, and later show, remorse, whereas the latter group is irredeemable because they couldn’t feel a need for redemption or see their actions as wrong in any way.

    Cersei is a fascinating example, because up until this point we’ve seen her vulnerability and remorses and ways in which things might have gone differently for her. With no children left to ground her and the clear death of all conscience in the wake of the Green Trial, I think Cersei has crossed the line into irredeemable. As much as I want to hate her for killing Margaery and the Tyrells (my favorite house), she’s too fascinating and complex a character not to want to keep watching.

    It’ll be interesting to see where the redemptive paths take the others. At best, I foresee bittersweet endings for most of them, but that usually makes the arc more poignant. Deciding to do good isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. Karma usually extracts a price.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s interesting how many comments here are mentioning Sansa’s youth, because that’s exactly how I feel about her. She was a spoiled, selfish brat who was kinda boy-crazy.

    But thinking about characters like Sansa and Theon, I don’t believe it’s just the fact that they suffer (like it’s the universe’s punishment) that makes them redeemable. Not that you said that of course, it’s just interesting how often that seems to be the act of redemption. I still don’t like Theon much because if he hadn’t been so terribly tortured, would he have changed? It’s cool that he’s supporting his sister now, but I need to see more from him.

    As for Sansa, I think her growing up and going through all kinds of experiences has made her redeemable, Ramsay aside. She sees through the bullshit so much better now, and I just hope her heart is in the right place. To be honest, I can see her going down a dark path in the future. She’s always been one of those characters where her experiences will either make her rise above it all to be incredibly wise… or create a master manipulator who knows exactly how to get her way. (That’s kind of how she was when she was younger, she just did all the wrong things to get her way back then.)

    Anyway, you could also argue that Cersei’s walk of shame — and the whole experience leading up to it — was some sort of redemption. But really people talk about her love for her children as her redeeming feature. (And I suppose because the walk of shame was to get out of the situation, she didn’t repent). So I like that it’s something in her character that people root for, and not a situation she goes through.

    But if I had to choose one irredeemable character, it would absolutely be Baelish. I hate that guy. He is the most manipulative jerk in the whole of Game of Thrones and I would LOVE to see some crazy build-up to his scheming that leads to his ultimate downfall. It would be interesting (and so satisfying) to see his face when all of his plans come crumbling down around him…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree that punishment isn’t enough for redemption, but I guess it helps in accruing sympathy, but that’s really only if we can relate to the character. Or if there is some remorse. I think that plays in with Cersei, where we had some sympathy for her from her walk, as well as when she gets the news of Myrcella dying. But she kind of doubles down on being cruel in her triumph, and loses Tommen.

      I don’t know if Cersei will have a chance to be relateable enough for redemption.

      Hey, we are 100% on the same team when it comes to Littlefinger. I don’t want him to come around to the point where I root for him. I just want him to fail spectacularly.

      Thank you again for the great feedback

      Liked by 1 person

      • Haha when I saw that picture of Sansa and Littlefinger with the caption I was hoping you felt the same about him!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I do feel the same way! But I have a shocking confession. Next week’s post will include a defense of Littlefinger.

          I will provide no further context at this time.

          Like

          • Ugh. I can’t even imagine what that defense could be. You have me hooked now though!

            Liked by 1 person

          • Yeah, that comment about Sansa is infuriating for all the reasons you outline. She was young, immature, impulsive and in a bad situation. I don’t think it serves as a major “call for redemption.” Part of the charm of ASOIAF is how small, seemingly insignificant behaviors, views, misunderstandings, and actions ripple out to create monumental problems for everyone and the kingdom as a whole.
            I also don’t think characters (villains) need to engender empathy or stir a need for redemption. Really, all I ask for ANY character is “be entertaining.” And on that front, Littlefinger delivers. I love seeing his smug scheming (and waffling accent). Nobody wants Hans Gruber to be godparent to their children, but you certainly want him on your screen.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. erinb9 says:

    Funny, I thought I was the only one who didn’t like Sansa! Apparently, it’s me and that guy…

    My reasons are different, though. I don’t think she could foreseeably understand how her actions would lead to Ned’s death, so I don’t entirely blame her.

    No… my problem is that she’s a vain, self-centered, immature fool. She LOVED Joffrey at the start, got off on being powerful and getting to bully people with him. She didn’t care about the butcher’s boy and betrayed her sister during the Joffrey argument, before grovelling to get back into Joffrey’s good graces.

    She only turns against Joffrey after he murders her father and almost literally rubs her face in it. So, she’s unable to empathize much with other people and only cares about whatever evil is happening to her. She’s also horrible to Tyrion, unable to appreciate his decency mostly because he’s a dwarf and she finds it embarrassing (unlike Littlefinger, who’s cute. Great judge of character, this one).

    None of this justifies all of the horrible abuses she suffers, of course. I just don’t believe that her great suffering, in and of itself, makes her a hero. Not as long as she remains mostly shallow and self-serving, at least.

    But unredeemable? I don’t know. She may turn around, but i can’t help thinking it would only be dramatic from playing against her initial crappiness.

    Ramsey is the worst, least redeemable character. I don’t think anything would’ve made him a better person, had he lived.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ramsay is the most irredeemable character, and I have no clue how anyone could say Sansa, and 11/13 year old girl is entirely irredeemable. I’d be livid that someone on a panel had done so little research/critical thinking. Though even with Ramsay, he was created arguable by his father or at least allowed to get away with heinous depravities. I could write an emigre dissertation on Ramsay Snow/Bolton that wood turn into a nature/nurture debate. I could only see him “redeemed” on death, but I could be conflating that with vengeance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, before he got killed off, I thought it would be an interesting dilemma if the North needed the Bolton alliance to help out against the Others. Like all the squabbling had to be put aside. It would be so maddening if Ramsay did something not wildly monstrous. (Because even monsters might be okay with fighting against literal monsters.) I’m not suggesting this as a means to redeem Ramsay, who pretty much had to die to satisfy me at all, it would just be one of those interesting Game of Thrones moments of “The Others vs the Boltons… NO! I can’t root for Ramsay in this…”

      Liked by 1 person

      • That would’ve been ingenious on the show’s part to be honest. If they had an Other invasion when Ramsay and Roose were still in charge. I would’ve loved to have seen the utter incongruence of needing to root for Ramsay. This is going to sound so book snobbish, but I don’t think the show would be that sophisticated unfortunately. I could DEFINITELY see Martin doing that in his books though. Force you to root for the most reprehensible monster he’s ever created against OTHER (pun intended) reprehensible monsters who still very well have a sympathetic cause. Ugh Martin! I’m already the defender of villainy, and you’re one upping and challenging me *grumble*

        Liked by 1 person

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