Monday, June 15, 2015

Tragedy and the Gift of Death: How Game of Thrones Ended Season Five

Spectacles both violent and sexual; a world as fully imagined as Tolkien's; plot-lines as richly interwoven as a Celtic knot; a deep understanding of the compromised workings of power (and did I mention spectacles both violent and sexual)—there are plenty of things that draw people to HBO's Game of Thrones.  What really ropes me in, though, is the show's tragic sense of life, every bit as profound as what we see in the gritty realism of shows like The Wire or Treme.  And the final episode of season five risked a great deal by eschewing spectacle (the only battle took place off-screen) to deliver a meditation on the tragedy of human identity.

Tragedy, in the sense I mean it, is the conflict of ethical forces, in which choosing something good also means doing harm—and the ending of season five features a whole array of tragic situations, almost too many to synthesize, but let's start with events in the North.  Here, Brienne faces a classic tragic situation.  She stands watch over Winterfell, looking at the Old Tower for the light signaling that Sansa needs her, but is interrupted by Pod, bearing news that Stannis Baratheon is marching on Winterfell.  We see the agony in Brienne's eyes as she hesitates: should she keep watch for Sansa's signal, or chase down Stannis, the killer of the king she served?  It's a question that cuts to the core of who she is, a truly existential tragedy—because she has vowed to protect Sansa, and to avenge Renly's killer.  If she is true to one vow, she must betray the other, and this matters, because she lives by a code and she isn't just as good as her word: she is her word.  So who is she now? The guardian of Renly or of Sansa?  At the moment of truth, makes the painful choice of Renly, hunts down Stannis, and declares to him her identity and her mission.  Stannis is wonderfully written and played as a kind of stoic, and as one who chooses what he thinks of as right over what he wants, and he looks at Brienne with tired eyes and says "go on, do your duty," which she does by killing him.  He respects her code and commitment, and assents to it—but he doesn't know the tragedy of the situation, doesn't know that in killing him Brienne has betrayed her other vow, and missed Sansa's signal.  To claim her identity Brienne must kill (something we'll see again and again in this episode), but that isn't enough: her commitments conflict, and she can't be true to herself without also betraying herself.

Sansa, unaided by Brienne, faces a tragic choice of her own: to surrender her identity, everything that makes her her, or to risk death.  Caught while attempting to escape, she is told in no uncertain terms what will become of her in Winterfell: everything about her will be stripped away except her reproductive function.  Her self-respect, her identity, and perhaps even parts of her body, will be taken.  She will bear a son or two as heirs to the Bolton dynasty, and then even her womb will have no worth, and she—or whatever shred remains of her—will be annihilated.  She knows this, too, saying "if I am to die, let it be while there is still some of me left." The presence of Reek, the former Theon Grayjoy, makes the situation all too clear: he has been maimed, castrated, and psychologically destroyed to the point where he believes there is nothing left of him, that there is no Theon, only the slave called Reek.  It is seeing Sansa threatened with a similar fate that causes him to finally discover some small spark of his old identity, though, and he does what Brienne was unable to do: rescue Sansa.  But in choosing their identities—in choosing to be Theon and Sansa, rather than Reek and a nameless womb owned by the Boltons—they also must choose a probable death.  Trapped in the fortress when the troops return, they see no escape but a leap from the walls of Winterfell.  It is not certain that they have died, but it is possible, and it is a risk the characters knew they were taking.  Their tragedy was that they must choose identity or life, and they choose identity.  To be oneself, it seems, means to die.

Elsewhere in the north, the formula is reversed.  At the wall, the remaining members of the Night's Watch turn on Jon Snow for letting the Wildlings pass through the gates of the wall.  The Night's Watch has for centuries defined itself as the defenders of the North against the Wildlings, and Jon's embrace of those from beyond the wall is a threat to the only real identity these monkish warriors have left.  When they lead Jon outside and collectively kill him, they say, with each thrust of the knife, "for the Watch."  Even young Olly, to whom Jon was close, chooses his identity (as the last of his Wildling-slain family, as the youngest of the Watch) and in doing so must betray Jon.  We've seen him agonize between loyalties for several episodes, and now he must choose his group identity or his friend.  He choose the latter, and must kill to do it.

Meanwhile, far to the south, we see further variations on the tragic theme of identity and death.  The most notable moment in which someone claims their true identity takes place privately, belowdecks on a ship bound for King's Landing.  It is here that Jaimie Lannister confesses to Mycella that he is in fact her father, and she, saying that she knows, accepts him.  It seems for a moment like a rare moment in a show where identity seems to be tied to killing or dying, but only for a moment.  As private as the scene seems to be, it is as enmeshed in webs of clannish conflict as everything else in Game of Thrones: Mycella has been poisoned by the Dornishwoman Ellisandra, who, in order to remain true to herself and her love of Oberon, must kill Mycella as revenge against the Lannisters. There is no escape from the web of conflict, and even Mycella is caught in tragedy: to remain loyal to Oberon, she must betray (and kill) not only Mycella but her own prince, too, who had forbidden acts of revenge.

In a kind of mirror-image reversal, we find that just as Jaime is confessing his incestuous relationship with Cersei to Mycella, Cersei is denying it.  Interrogated by the Grand Sparrow, she confesses to lesser sins, but will not betray her sexual love for her brother.  She has betrayed a part of herself, in that she says she has repented of her infidelity with Lancel when in fact she does not feel any real sense of sin, but it is a minor part of herself—and so it is fitting that she doesn't face actual death, but a kind of symbolic death, her hair shorn, her body stripped naked and paraded through the city.  It is meant to be a kind of symbolic sacrifice, a death of her old sinful identity and a chance for her to be reborn in terms that the (deeply unappealing) Faith Militant sees as redeemed.  It doesn't work, of course: after she returns to the Red Keep, she vows revenge.  A new, hidden-faced knight (The Mountain resurrected as a kind of Frankenstein's monster) will be the tool of her revenge.  This works in a couple of ways. Firstly, it is fitting that a kind of Frankenstein's monster will be Cersei's means of revenge against the Faith Militant, since the Faith Militant, in its modern incarnation, is her own out-of-control creation, her own Frankenstein's monter. More importantly, it shows that to reassert one's identity one must embrace violence or even kill—something we've seen with the Watch, and in a way with Sansa and Theon, and with Ellisandra of Dorn, and with Brienne.  Respect for life and respect for one's own identity don't seem to be compatible in the tragic world of Game of Thrones

Is there, one wonders, any release from tragedy?  Is there any way to be true to oneself without being enmeshed in webs of violence and death? These questions get addressed most directly in Arya Stark's storyline, and in her relationship with the Faceless Men.  The Faceless Men serve the Many-Faced God, a kind of deity of merciful death.  They assist in the suicide of the hopeless, and they themselves renounce identity, saying that they are no one and changing their faces at will.  Arya, who has trained to learn their ways, wavers when she sees one of the men who betrayed her family, and on whom she has vowed revenge.  Against the instructions of the Faceless Men, she uses the shape-shifting skills she's learned from them to get close to him, then kills him.  The killing is an assertion of her identity—"Do you know who I am?" she asks, as she prepares to slit his throat, "I'm Arya Stark."  For her, as for so many others in the episode, to claim her identity means to kill.  We feel for her, and most of us will root for her: she has been wronged, she has been plucky and strong and heroic and focused and admirable, she has been a survivor.  But she has to choose between respect for life and respect for her own identity: she can't have both.  Game of Thrones is drenched in blood because everyone who tries to be true to himself or herself must kill. Unless there's a way out.  And this escape from the cycle of clan violence is exactly what the ascetic cult of the Faceless Men proposes.

When the Faceless Men confront Arya about what she has done, they say she must be punished, and offer her a vial of poison.  Just as it seems she must drink it, though, the man who has offered it to her, her mentor, drinks it instead.  At first this seems to be a Christ-like act, a taking on of someone else's sins and sacrificing oneself in their stead.  But it turns out to be much more: when Arya touches the face of the dead man, she pulls it away, revealing another face, then another, then another. Finally, she sees her own face.  What does this mean? It seems to be an indication that the Faceless Men don't just renounce their individual identity and shift faces: they believe in a fundamental unity of all living things, in a great Identity larger than any individual identity, and in which we all partake. That is why their god has no individual name, and why he has many faces.  That is why they have no names.  They renounce individual identity and individual ego, and see death not as a means to preserve themselves, assert their identities, or avenge those who have wronged them, but as an escpae from self-identity, as a kind of gift or deliverance from the tragic world where to be someone in particular is to kill.  If there is a transcendence of the tragic sense of life, in Game of Thrones, it is in the renunciations of the Faceless Men.  And Arya, struck blind at the moment when this becomes clear, is likely to remain blind until she understands.

Or perhaps that last statement of mine is a bit too credulous about the Faceless Men.  On the one hand, there's a lot to indicate that we're meant to take their position seriously.  The man Arya kills is clearly an odious person: he tortures little girls in order to feel big and powerful.  But the show asks us to question whether this is all that different from what Arya does when she kills him to affirm her own identity as a Stark.  Certainly he's bad, and the girls are innocent, but both he and Arya are violent, and violent in the service of their own sense of self.  We're reminded of the similarity of the two by the image of blindness: before she kills the man, Arya stabs his eyes out as punishment; later, the Faceless Men make Arya blind for her sins.  On the other hand, there are reasons to wonder whether we're meant to take the asceticism of the Faceless Men as the moral center of Game of Thrones.

The richly imagined nature of the fictional world of Game of Thrones gives us the opportunity to historicize the ethos of the Faceless Men.  They are a cult of Braavos and, although the history of Braavos is only hinted at in the HBO version of Game of Thrones, we do get to know that the city was founded by slaves escaping from the destruction of the Valyria.  Their ethos is entirely different from that of the aristocratic one we see in the houses of Westeros, with its clan-pride sense of honor, and and it can be interpreted as what Nietzsche would have called a slave morality.  The idea of renunciation, in this view, makes sense for those whose lives and individual identities are primarily matters of suffering.  The truth of renunciation, the truth of Faceless Men, in this view, isn't truth in an absolute sense, but truth of a historically contingent kind: truth that makes sense for certain people in certain circumstances. And if Arya had acted upon it, we can only imagine the kind of monstrosities the man she killed would have committed, not only with the girls he had with him, but with others.  Moreover, the kind of stripping of identity that the Faith Militant forces onto Cersei is also a kind of renunciation, a shedding of identity in preparation for a rebirth, and it is presented as a violence forced upon her.  She's certainly a person capable of great wickedness, but it's hard not to see the Faith Militant as having violated her here: in Game of Thrones, even the ethos of renunciation can become a weapon used against the unwilling, a version of Ramsay Bolton's sadistic destruction of others—and even the humility of someone like the Grand Sparrow can become a higher form of egotism.  Is there a way out of the blood-drenched cycle of ego, attachment, and pride in identity? If so, it is a way every bit as vulnerable to corruption as everything else in the tragic world in which Game of Thrones strands us.