Warning: spoilers for Game of Thrones, season 6, episode 8, “No One” follow…
Tonight's episode of Game of Thrones comes to us on the same weekend as a great tragedy: the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Fifty people were killed in a nightclub in Orlando by a gunman. It's impossible not to bring that knowledge into the viewing experience. For me, in any case.
Last week's “The Broken Man” brought us a guest appearance from the great Ian McShane, who delivered a speech that was, at it's core, a stunning indictment of war and brutality. As I mentioned previously, the monologue served to confront us, the audience, by highlighting the celebratory response that many of us have to some of the violence on the series. I certainly related with Arya and her gleeful smile as she watched the repellant King Joffrey “die” in that play.
“No One” opened with the theater troup's “Cersei” vowing vengeance for her son's passing as the crowd wildly cheers. If it we're Sansa or our Arya pledging to avenge the Starks we would likely fervently support their plan just as that audience did the Queen's. That is part of what makes this series as rich as it is. Though there are heroes and villains, as things move along, which one is which becomes more and more a matter of perspective.
The Hound cutting down the members of The Brotherhood who'd slaughtered the peaceful group he'd landed with brought with it mixed feelings. I was thirsty for that bloodshed at the close of last week's episode, but weren't his actions in total opposition to McShane's beliefs? In fact, isn't that act the exact opposite of what he'd want for the Hound?
When I fist heard Cersei utter the phrase “I choose violence” I felt a visceral sense of excitement. As she challenged the Sparrows one couldn't help but feel that they got what they deserved for being controlling, repressive, killers who do so in the name of God.
In fact, the dangers of religious fanaticism is one of the great themes of this season. Varys warns Tyrion that getting into bed with the followers of the Lord of Light is to put a knife to his own throat. And we've seen how Cersei has paid for believing she can control extremists, as it is now they who have her son, and her life, in their hands.
It was impossible to imagine feeling empathy for Cersei for the bulk of this series, but the Sparrows have somehow transformed her into a sympathetic character. It's easy to transfer the hate we once felt towards Jaime and Cersei to the Sparrows, or the Sons of the Harpy, or…But isn't wanting death in the name of what is righteous the very vicious cycle that Westeros has been circling forever?
As the Hound says, “Half the horrible sh**t in this world gets done for something larger than ourselves.”
I have to wonder if that's ultimately the point of the series. That as easy as it is to hate those who commit horrendous acts, we must know that we are also flawed and that there are hidden depths to those we see as little more than evil. It's true that there are some that are more ethical than others. Yet all imagine that it's their violence that is justified. “We all have to believe that we're decent, after all.”