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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- 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.
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.
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?
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