To quote Madeleine Davies over at Jezebel, “Well, we’re talking about rape again.” Game of Thrones, in a scene I won’t be linking to, recently continued its trend of dispensing PTSD-inducing situations on already damaged characters by breaking with canon and having Sansa, Joffery’s formerly traumatized fiancée,marry one of the few even more depraved individuals in the show: Ramsey Bolton. Bolton proceeded to, from accounts I have read while taking a reflective hiatus from the show, rape his newly acquired bride.
The recent episode received a significant amount of condemnation from all sides of the media commentary spectrum. But this is the show that opened with an incestuous sex scene that resulted in the crippling of a young boy who was thrown off a tower for witnessing it. Sansa’s rape remained consistent with the graphically brutal expression of HBO’s version of George Martin’s fantasy series.
For those of us asking whether watching this show is compatible with living well, I would propose that the problem is neither that scene nor others like it. The problem with Game of Thrones is not that it showed a sympathetic character undergoing brutal assault and suffering. It’s that in Martin’s world, and more particularly in HBO’s incarnation of that world, the suffering of innocents doesn’t matter.
Martin, as David Lose noted at HuffPo, “refuses to allow religion to save the day.” Westeros is a “world where purity of heart—embodied, for instance, by Ned Stark—is not necessarily rewarded.” To borrow a phrase from St. John Paul, Martin’s world lacks an adequate anthropology that “tries to understand and interpret man in what is essentially human.” Game of Thrones, alternatively, teaches that ambition is our highest good, but “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” In Westeros, winning seems to mean destroying all others. Cersei’s extreme phrase indicates a disturbing truth about that world: Westeros is a land without hope.
Westeros is a land in which characters who adhere to virtue think that honor will protect them, but as Littlefinger tells Ned “all it does is weigh you down and make it hard for you to move.” When living for the acquisition of power is as good as life gets, acts of virtue, redemption, sacrifice, or hope are pointless.
In Game of Thrones, humanity is a sort of malignancy, but an understandable one—the game can only be won when the most base vices of human nature are used as a weapon against others. Those who propose a path of honor tend to either die like Ned Stark or suffer horribly. Even those who, like Theon Greyjoy, commit the evil of betrayal, are not punished in justice, but by further barbaric brutality. It is impossible to imagine the people of Westeros as a people of hope, because humanity left to its darkest desires is incapable of redeeming itself. This is a world where Sansa will continue to suffer so long as there remains others stronger than her. Ary, the youngest Stark girl, turned assassin with a death list, has learned this world’s lesson better than her sister has: in the end only the strong can win.
This is world where there are no “happy few.” This is a philosophy the Catholic faith must reject. We hold to hope even when we lose, knowing that “night shall be thrice night over you/ And heaven an iron cope,” as Chesterton wrote in “The Ballad of the White Horse.” Nevertheless, we do not have “joy without a cause/yea faith without a hope.” Being good has a purpose beyond winning; suffering an injustice is not simply a moral act—it is a redemptive one. Destroying hope destroys heroism. Game of Thrones offers us a slew of antagonists, with no yet-visible heros.
The citizens of HBO’s Westeros tell us nothing outside of their own interests is worth dying for. Others aren’t worth dying for; they are mostly worth killing. Virtue isn’t worth dying for; being virtuous is often an implicit death sentence. Most especially duty isn’t worth dying for; this is a world where we are told, “They’ll kill for that knighthood, but don’t ever think they’ll die for it.” People are worth killing, but the general cultural consensus, with only particular outliers, is that only ambition is worth dying for.
Christ’s redemptive act on the Cross, which in all appearances was a loss at the time, casts a radiance on all subsequent losses undertaken in that same Spirit, and allows humans who hear that Gospel to wonder if there might not be a game that transcends the ambition to power that human nature tempt us to place above all other goods.
The problem with Game of Thrones isn’t simply that it depicts in graphic detail the darkness that resides in people’s hearts. It is not that we just watched a traumatized 16-year-old girl get raped by her sociopathic now-husband. The problem is that Game of Thrones despairs that we do anything other than tend towards evil. Humans are capable of doing such acts, and worse—this is what HBO presents to us as our lot. However, we are not condemned to acting that way: we can, to quote the good Universal Doctor, “be drawn above the condition of our nature to a participation of the divine good.”
Cersi wasn’t quite right that you win or you die; all will die, and by her logic, all will lose. The question is whether humans are the sort of beings who might, as Chesterton writes in “White Horse,” despite all odds, follow Christ’s lead and “go singing to their shame.”