Revenge and its bitter fruit on Game of Thrones
A theme that emerges for me on HBO’s Game of Thrones (and George RR Martin’s books) is revenge and its bitter fruit.
Warning: The next couple of paragraphs contain Game of Thrones spoilers. If you’ve not watched the series or read the books, go do that now.
When we first meet Arya Stark in the HBO series, she is a plucky, pre-teen Northern lady of the court. Unlike her courtly big sister, Sansa, Arya prefers swordplay and archery to sewing and needlepoint. A series of traitorous political murders and an unjust war leave the Stark girls orphaned.
Sansa becomes a hapless pawn, first betrothed to a sadistic prince and later married to an even more sadistic lord. Arya becomes a homeless fugitive traveling through a dangerous and violent medieval hellscape. Every night as Arya lays her head down, she lists the names of those who have wronged her and her family. She faithfully tends the ember of righteous rage and stokes her burning desire for revenge.
The HBO series is an epic lasting 6 seasons of 10 episodes each with two more seasons to come. In Season 5, as Arya coldly gouges out the eyes and slits the throat of Sir Meryn Trant, we have to remind ourselves — what was it he did again? Oh, yes, he was the one who killed Arya’s beloved sword-fighting instructor, Syrio, in Season 1. Some in the audience might have felt satisfaction watching Arya take her bloody revenge. I saw the moment as evidence that Arya’s singular focus on revenge had compromised her humanity.
In Season 6 when Sansa takes revenge on her sadistic “husband” Lord Ramsay Bolton, his horrifying crimes of rape, murder and torture are all too easy to recall. A smile touches Sansa’s lips and her eyes flash as she turns to watch Ramsay’s own hounds tear him to pieces. Ramsay’s last words ring eerily true — “You can’t kill me. I’m part of you, now.”
Game of Thrones features gory violence, gratuitous sex and nudity and a nihilistic view of the human condition. Insofaras we can find an important message in a fictional medieval world that includes zombies and dragons, we might find one in these two characters. The audience was set up to want revenge for Arya and Sansa. When revenge finally comes for the Stark girls, its ugliness and evil influence is made plain.
As we anticipate Seasons 7 and 8, I wonder if I will be rooting for the Starks — or will they be just like all of the other corrupt houses of Westeros?