HBO’s Game of Thrones

A Game of Feels: The Radical Empathy of Game of Thrones

One of the most compelling moments in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels (and the era-defining television show that bears the name of the first book) is not one of the author’s signature shocking deaths, displays of unrelenting cruelty, or visceral battles. Rather, it is a quiet moment of expanding empathy wherein the audience is forced to acknowledge the complexity of a character who had, up until that point, served only as a font of villainy.

The character in question is Jaime Lannister, handsome son of privilege, whose incestuous relationship with his twin sister, casual maiming of a ten-year-old, and general aura of arrogant self-satisfaction when it comes to his martial prowess paints him as something as close to the primary villain of the first two novels as Martin’s capacious and complicated series can muster. And yet, in book three, A Storm of Swords, Jaime Lannister, a surprise narrator after spending most of the previous book imprisoned, reveals to his traveling companion that the very act that earned him the nickname “Kingslayer” and gave him the reputation of being a man without honor is, in fact, the noblest thing he has done in his life. Martin reveals that Jaime Lannister saved hundreds of thousands of lives by slaying the king he was sworn to protect, murdering the Mad King in order to prevent him from giving the order to burn the capital city to the ground.

In many ways, that moment changed not only the arc of Jaime Lannister’s character, not only the course of the novel, but the entire thesis of Martin’s series.

Prior to that, Martin’s seeming priorities had been with exploring the lives of the abject, powerless, and underestimated. Jaime’s brother Tyrion, all but parroting the author, explains “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples and bastards and broken things.” Up until A Storm of Swords, the overwhelming majority of Martin’s narrators are people who were, by turns, loathed, pitied, or ignored by the vast majority of Westerosi society: women, children, bastard children, people with physical and cognitive disabilities, ethnic minorities, people who were too ugly, or fat, or queer, or frightened to be taken seriously by the world. Essentially, ASoIaF was an exercise in telling a story about power from the perspective of the powerless. By introducing Jaime Lannister as a narrator and forcing us to see not only his bleak future (wherein he reckons with his self-worth after the amputation of his sword hand), but his storied past as worthy of our consideration, Martin embarks on a bold new project: telling a story about political intrigue, bloody dynastic struggle, and personal power plays where no character is irrevocably beyond the reach of his readers’ empathy.

Five books and seven seasons into Martin’s narrative and HBO’s re-envisioning of it, we are given a story where no conflict occurs in which the reader feels truly, wholeheartedly on board with the outcome and the costs involved. We cheer Tyrion’s clever defeat of Stannis Baratheon at the Battle of the Blackwater, for example, while simultaneously being horrified by the deaths of Davos Seaworth’s sons as a direct result of Tyrion’s plan. This raises a number of thorny questions that are worth exploring here: how does Martin manage to make a narrative known for its uncompromising cruelty one in which there are so many characters with whom we can empathize? How can a television series faithfully render that cruelty visually and viscerally without further alienating viewers? What, precisely, are the limits of Martin’s project? Are there places where we as viewers and readers are no longer able to follow beloved characters?

Martin is relentless in his desire to humanize some of his most spectacularly unpleasant characters. A prime example is Theon, the ward of the Stark family and a character who, in the first two novels, exists primarily to underscore the perils of divided loyalty. While Martin is more than willing to explore the many nuances of what it means to be a political captive amidst a very nice family of captors, he also, in making Theon a narrator in A Clash of Kings, does not give the character much room to gain the sympathies of the reader. He sleeps with women he treats cruelly and gleefully abandons, turns on his beloved adopted brother for the sake of his cruel biological father, murders a number of beloved Stark family retainers when he captures their undefended castle, and seemingly dies having made poor leadership choices and having managed to inspire no loyalty.

Martin leaves Theon to an uncertain fate for the next two novels before bringing him back in A Dance With Dragons as the mutilated, traumatized manservant/pet of the sadistic Ramsay Bolton. At no point does Martin offer much in the way of an explanation for Theon’s previous behavior. His emotional abuse of his sex partners, betrayal of his family and friends, narcissism, and cowardice are all left intact. And this leaves the viewer with a thorny question: what does it take to redeem a thoroughly terrible person?

Screenshot: HBO

The TV series, with its necessary edits and need for visual storytelling, largely paints Theon’s redemption as the result of outsized physical torment. While the Theon of Martin’s novel is far more disfigured than Alfie Allen’s portrayal, the vast majority of Theon’s physical suffering is presented as nightmarish, half-remembered glimpses of captivity, all the more upsetting for their lack of specificity. When the show does attempt to give Theon a redemptive arc, it lays the groundwork somewhat crudely, having him soliloquize, early on in his captivity, “My real father lost his head at King’s Landing. I made a choice, and I chose wrong. And now I’ve burned everything down.”  From there on out, the Theon of the show is given carte blanche to redeem himself by rescuing members of the Stark family, supporting his sister and, improbably, by beating up an Ironborn sailor who challenges his authority.

By contrast, A Dance With Dragons takes a much more roundabout and, in my opinion, more convincing route to building empathy toward the wayward Greyjoy scion; Martin puts Theon in the exact same position as the reader. Much of Theon’s plot in that novel involves a return to Winterfell, the Stark family castle which has been sitting abandoned and in ruins since the end of the second book. Theon is the only Stark-adjacent character present during these proceedings. As the ruined castle is filled with strange faces and new characters come to celebrate Ramsay’s wedding, Theon is the only character that can compare the Winterfell-that-was with his current surroundings. In Theon’s assessment, “Winterfell was full of ghosts.”  That is likely the reader’s assessment as well, and Theon is made into a surrogate for the reader, bearing witness to and unable to alter the troubling misuse of a once-beloved space. Even in cases where Martin makes no apologies or excuse for his characters’ past behavior, he manages to force his readers into feeling empathy. The most vengeful readers of ASoIaF might have been cheering for Theon’s mutilation, but it is much harder to justify once they see him, and see through him, as their surrogate.

While the TV show has been forced by necessity to take an axe to many parts of Martin’s epic, impossible-to-completely-faithfully-adapt yarn, it has also, by virtue of its ability to explore the private lives of non-narrator characters, demonstrated its dedication to the same ever-widening gyre of empathy—deepening and expanding upon the foundation that Martin laid. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Cersei Lannister. Martin did eventually give us access to Cersei’s thoughts in his fourth entry in the series, A Feast for Crows, but the show has been dedicated to making the case for her complexity from the very start. In season one, episode five, Cersei and her husband, Robert Baratheon, two of the show’s more stubborn and intense characters, break into a surprising, vulnerable fit of laughter when the latter asks what holds the realm together and the former replies, “our marriage.”

Just after that, Cersei reveals that she had feelings for her husband even after a series of miscarriages drove a political wedge between them and ends by asking, “Was it ever possible for us? Was there ever a time? Ever a moment [to be happy with one another]?” When Robert tells her that there wasn’t, she looks sadly into her wine glass and answers her husband’s query about whether the knowledge makes her feel better or worse by retreating back behind her icy glare and saying, “It doesn’t make me feel anything.”

In addition to being one of the most stunning, devastating scenes of the season, it confirms the truth of Cersei’s miscarriages, which she had previously brought up to Catelyn Stark (after having been complicit in making the rival matriarch’s son a paraplegic). It retroactively lends real complexity to that earlier scene: Cersei, even at her most ruthless, in covering up her brother’s attempted murder of a child is still able to empathize with that same child’s grief-stricken mother.

The Cersei of Martin’s novels is often identified by her motherhood. She is, prior to being made a narrator, often paired and contrasted with Catelyn Stark, a dark reflection of Catelyn’s fierce, relentless love for her children. Where Catelyn (before her death and resurrection, the latter of which, tellingly, does not occur on the TV show) is most often defensively attempting to protect her children, organizing rescue missions for her daughters, trying to safeguard her sons with marriage-based alliances, Cersei is the aggressor, allowing Bran to be silenced lest his witnessing of her incestuous relationship with Jaime call her own children’s legitimacy into question. She also ruthlessly kills off her dead husband’s bastard children in order to grant legitimacy to her own; an act that the show rewrites to be the explicit order of her son, Joffrey—sparing her character any further dabbling in infanticide.

Screenshot: HBO

By contrast, the show expands Cersei’s role from “mother” to “woman.” She ends up speaking, not just for the impossibility of being a laudable mother in a patrilineal world, but for the impossibility of being a woman with any self-determination in a patriarchal rape culture. In another moment invented for the show, Oberyn Martell, one of Westeros’s few male, woke feminists, assures Cersei that “We don’t hurt little girls in [his kingdom of] Dorne.”

She responds with a line that’s produced endless memes and feverish hot takes across the internet: “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls.” This line may as well serve as a mantra for many of the show’s detractors who, rightly, point out the series’ preoccupation with the objectifying male gaze in its focus and presentation of female nudity as well as its propensity to use graphic rape as a transformational plot point for its male characters. But, from another perspective, it could be argued that this is also the show undercutting the male power fantasy that a viewer might mistake for the central point. And the show gives this line to Cersei—a character who spends much of her narrative arc ordering acts of repellant cruelty and steadily alienating her allies.

The show even goes so far as to make a meta point about the power of expanding empathy in the show’s sixth season, where troubled teen Arya Stark—who nightly whispers a prayer that includes a call for Cersei’s death—is forced to reckon with her own capacity for empathy when she watches a play that dramatizes the death of Cersei’s eldest son. This mirrors a pre-released chapter from Martin’s as-yet-unpublished The Winds of Winter. The difference seems to be that, in Martin’s prose, the content of the play is never explicitly stated, and hinted at only as a winking reference to careful readers, whereas the show’s handling of the material clearly marks Arya’s viewing as a powerful moment of identification that triggers her own traumatic memories of watching helplessly as her father was killed.

It is a stunning achievement, both in terms of the show and in the novels, that so much empathy can be generated alongside events that regularly feature acts of murder, rape, torture, and cruelty. If we are to take the moral philosophy of Richard Rorty to heart, it is the last of these that presents the most difficult hurdle in Martin’s ongoing project. Rorty famously believed that the complexities of moral philosophy could be more or less predicated on the notion that to act morally was to act without intentional cruelty.  Clearly, the worlds of ASoIaF and GoT do not operate on this most basic of principles. So how do we assess Martin’s view of who we can and cannot have empathy for?

It is worth noting that Martin’s world contains a large number of what we laypeople might diagnose as sociopaths. From the mad kings Aerys II Targaryen and Joffrey Baratheon, who are given unfortunate influence because of their position, to those who have risen high because of their lack of empathy like Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane and Vargo Hoat (called “Locke” in the TV series), to those who have been so systematically poorly educated, abused, or smothered by their upbringing that they never had the chance to develop a sense of empathy like Ramsay Bolton and Robert Arryn (Robin Arryn in the TV series), the list of characters who have tenuous to non-existent relationships with basic empathy abound. It is striking that, in the case of most of these characters, Martin and the showrunners have been clear in their commitment to providing us with reasons for their irredeemability. We may not empathize (or even sympathize) with Ramsay Bolton… but we are told that his overwhelming cruelty is the partial product of his father’s attempts to make him so by dangling the legitimization of his bastardy over his head, forcing us to consider him as a sort of Jon Snow gone horribly wrong. Similarly, if we can’t precisely muster any sorrow for the death of Joffrey, we do grieve for his mourning parents. The show especially offers us a moment of terrible internal conflict when he chokes, crying, in his mother’s arms in an intense close-up, daring viewers to not feel at least some quiet pang of pity. Martin’s sociopaths are almost always portrayed as forces of nature rather than personalities. They are storms of violence that descend upon hapless characters, and we are rarely given moments of moustache-twirling clarity where we both understand that they are monstrous and simultaneously understand that they have free agency and forethought in their actions.

If Martin has a cardinal rule about where our empathy cannot follow, it does not lie with those capable of cruelty. Rather it lies with those who, in a clear-thinking way, use the cruelty of others to achieve their ends. Roose Bolton, Ramsay’s father, is one of the few truly, uncomplicatedly irredeemable characters in the series, and his villainy stems entirely from his willingness to use his son as a weapon of terror against his enemies. Similarly, while Martin and, especially, the show’s portrayal by Charles Dance, are willing to extend some humanity to ruthless patriarch Tywin Lannister, his primary role as villain is often explicitly tied to his tactical decision to deploy his “mad dogs,” monstrous bannermen and mercenaries, to keep others in line.

Screenshot: HBO

Even in cases where the show and books diverge, the moral line remains the same. The show’s version of Littlefinger, played with finger-tenting, melodramatic glee by Aidan Gillen, is far less subtle and somewhat less sympathetic than his book counterpart. The show gives Littlefinger his bravura moment to revel in villainy in a season three episode where he proclaims, “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. […] Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”  This speech is given over a montage of images that reveal, among other things, how he used Joffrey’s fetish for violence to dispose of sex-worker-turned-spy, Ros, foiling his rival’s attempts to gain influence in the court. The principle remains the same: the most unforgivable sin is the knowing and calculated exploitation of someone else’s cruelty.

The narrative even goes so far as to suggest (at least in the lore of the show) that the ultimate antagonist, the undead Night King, is a press-ganged living weapon created, in desperation, by the environmental stewardship-minded Children of the Forest. The big bad being nothing more than the tragically overclocked remnant of an extinct race’s last-ditch effort to save humanity from itself feels like the most George R.R. Martin-ish of plot points. The Night King must be destroyed, but he truly can’t help himself.

In looking at the almost comically long list of Martin’s characters, particularly those we are invited to connect with, it is almost more surprising that we do not question our empathy for some of the “heroic” figures more regularly, given the morally gray scenarios, compromises, and behaviors that Martin writes for them. I have gone this far speaking mostly about characters that generally play a more villainous role. We have not even touched on fan favorites like Tyrion Lannister, who murders his former lover in a fit of rage at her betrayal, or Jon Snow, whose loyalty to the Night’s Watch involves his complicity in luring his lover south of the Wall where she is killed by his compatriots, or Arya Stark, who—especially in the show—stares out from an expressionless mask, killing dozens without question, or Daenerys Targaryen, the ostensible, projected winner of the titular game, who regularly tortures her enemies then burns them alive all while deputizing violent strangers and avaricious mercenaries to oversee the cities she has liberated. The world of Game of Thrones offers so many characters, from so many different backgrounds, for readers to feel sympathy for, live vicariously through, and otherwise identify with that the list above is one comprised of characters we mostly don’t even argue over.

As we anticipate the final season later this month, it is worth understanding that the show is one that has carefully taken inspiration from its source material to create impossible situations where no resolution can feel uncomplicatedly triumphant. Every moment of satisfying revenge or conquest is also potentially a moment of complete devastation for a character we feel a great deal of empathy for. With the cast whittled down to a respectable number, almost none of whom can be written off as irredeemably bad, I find myself watching with a kind of dread for any possible outcome. Any ascension to Martin’s most uncomfortable of chairs necessitates the loss—likely the violent and cruel loss—of characters we have spent nine years (or, in some cases, twenty-three years) coming to love.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary

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