Thrones and the Nature of Forgiveness

SPOILER, and again I cannot stress this enough, Warning!

Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, which we now know is called a Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (real, actual tears, my friends) began, as many people had speculated after Jaime Lannister’s arrival at the end of the premiere, with a trial… of sorts. Jaime, standing unbound but disarmed, listening intently to Dany’s opening statement.

Past that’s long since past is brought up anew, reminding us all of the Kingslayer moniker that Jaime has worked so hard to shed, internally if not to the world at large. Eventually, and succintly, Bran weighs in, the party that would appear to be most aggrieved. Sansa, who for the briefest of moments agrees with her new Queen is swayed by the wonderful words of the GOAT. Brienne, while not denying any of the past misdeeds of Jaime, essentially proclaims that she knows the man that Jaime is now, fully aware of the man that he used to be.

Jaime, shockingly free of all snark and comebacks, offers only a defense of doing what he did for his house and his family. The things he did for love. On the heels of his separation from Cersei and riding north towards of a host of sworn enemies, this is the cruelest truth to profess. An “I understand now that I was wrong, but I still wouldn’t change what I did” if ever there was one.

Jaime is given back his sword and after a legit stare down by Grey Worm, is also presented with the wonderful opportunity to die with the rest of the people of Winterfell. In less than 10 minutes, in a sequence that surely would’ve lasted much longer in earlier seasons, Jaime is absolved. It’s not clean and he’s not brought in with open arms but he is forgiven his past transgressions nonetheless.

We’ve seen both mercy and punishment doled out in a variety of ways across the run of Game of Thrones. The first episode has the honorable Ned Stark behead a man that ran away from the same dead who now march on Winterfell. That man, who admittedly abandoned the Night’s Watch and broke his brotherly vows, wasn’t so different from some of the people who now inhabit Winterfell.

Value is given to a man who stands and fights, which isn’t a wild proposition in Westeros but sets an interesting precedent. There have been plenty of cowards in the show, early Samwell Tarly chief most among them, that have avoided any kind of real punishment. Janos Slynt didn’t get the sword for hiding in the larder, he got beheaded for having the gal to ignore his Lord Commander.

Jaime killed a king, (the Mad King, so most people were cool with it) his cousin (which again didn’t really seem to be that big of a deal) and fathered three (four?) children with his sister who was then Queen to Robert Baratheon. He, and Tyrion, are also made to answer every crime the Lannisters have brought down upon the realm, crimes that have disproportionately affected the Starks.

But he’s willing to swing a sword, willing to fight for the living, so he’s forgiven.

Having this alone as a representation of forgiveness in this episode might be enough to give me pause. Having Theon openly welcomed back into Winterfell with open arms by Sansa, weeping in his arms, is another thing entirely.

Theon Greyjoy, who sacked and burned Winterfell, who turned on his brother Robb (now and always) and all the Starks, who appeared to burn Bran and Rickon, who helped the Boltons take the North, who sold out Sansa to Ramsay. And, to be fair, the same Theon Greyjoy who helped Sansa escape Ramsay and fought alongside Brienne and Pod to get her to Jon and the Night’s Watch.

I’ve been a staunch no redemption for Theon person since Season Two, an entirely petty take. I felt that him needing to constantly try to make amends was enough of a characterization for him, and that him never receiving outright forgiveness was just fine. He’s done truly despicable things, and has deserved the ramifications of his actions. Trying to keep perspective of the various traumas visited upon him throughout his life, during the show and before we ever meet him is difficult when judged against his heinous acts. Particularly when, in his most personal moments, he clearly knows what he’s doing wrong.

But he’s in Winterfell now, willing to swing a sword, ready to fight for the living, so he’s forgiven.

One of the wonderful things about stories, particularly ones where interpersonal relationships are as important as set-pieces, is that you have your own biases built from experiencing the story organically. Characterization can also be colored by how other characters feel about the people in question. Plenty of people have every reason in the world to hate Jaime Lannister, to not take him at his word, and to want him dead. But we trust Brienne, and so does everyone in Winterfell, and so on her word, forgiveness.

That same generalized hatred can be said of Theon, even more so being that he was a ward of the Starks and saw Ned Stark as his real father, which puts into even more extreme contrast the severity of his transgressions. And of all the people who should loathe Theon based on the past, Sansa should be the least able to let the past go. And yet, she embraces Theon with as much love as any of her blood siblings, so Theon too is forgiven.

There’s a clear utilitarian aspect of forgiveness at play here. The army of the dead has one true enemy; the living. Any living person that’s willing to take up arms will be welcomed. This is almost like a new Night’s Watch, where everyone’s past is let go, as long as your swear to protect the realms of men. Clearly this is less regimented, less binding, but the principal is close enough.

What’s more interesting from a story telling standpoint is the compassion on display. What makes Jaime Lannister such a beloved character for so many across the fandom is his growth. That while his character is assaulted by those who only know the bullet points, the people who know him most intimately see a man changed. Bran, again with all the reason in the world to hate Jaime, takes his Three Eyed Raven meta nonsense to the next level by telling Jaime if he hadn’t pushed Bran from the window, Jaime would still be the same man he was.

So in Theon’s less heralded but arguably more transformative character arc, we see him now, back in his true home, defending his true family and forgiven. Sansa embraces him as kin. Sansa Stark, who has gone through as much a transformation as almost any other character in GoT, who has endured as much hardship and torture as Theon, with less agency and more fortitude, spends what may be her last night in this world chatting over a bowl of Davos’ finest onion soup with Theon Greyjoy. If she can forgive him, no one is beyond redemption.

It’s easy to read the exoneration of Jaime and Theon by Brienne and Sansa respectively, as love. And it is, in my estimation. General storytelling tropes and the extreme talent of all the actors playing the characters listed that reads as a deep affection however could be mistaken for romantic love. I think to boil it down to something so basic would take away the self determination on display by so many characters throughout this episode. Ultimately, I think for these people, the compassion necessary to see redemption and bestow forgiveness upon those that at one point may have not deserved it is a love worthy of a story that has built an empire on subverting expectation.