Tuesday, June 28, 2016

No, the 'Bad Guys' Don't Always Win the Game of Thrones

One of the best aspects of Game of Thrones and the book series it's based on is how you never really know who could die.

Early on it was clear to both show fans and book readers that Martin's epic story wasn't going to follow the normal formulas we've come to expect from TV or fantasy novels.

Characters that would be the untouchable hero of any other story, not only lose their struggles but lose them hard.

The noble father, Ned Stark, gets decapitated. His hot blooded son Robb, an unmatched warrior, tries to avenge him. In the hands of a lesser author, the Young Wolf would get his justice. He would have hardships, he would face seemingly insurmountable odds, but he would win.

Not so in Westeros.

Instead, Robb's one-time allies turn on him. He, his mother and his army are slain at a wedding. His enemies triumph.

The 'good guys', those characters that act out of a sense of honor, altruism or who value the better angels of human nature, rarely seem to come out alive or on top in Martin's world. It's those self-interested characters willing or eager to kill, maim and betray anyone, that prevail.

Or so many fans believe.

I used to be in that camp. The camp of 'the worst characters always win'.

Now I think that's an oversimplification.

Yes, the characters we know and love (Ned, Robb, Jon, Tyrion) never seemed to truly get ahead.

They get shat on by the author but so do the characters we hate or love to hate.

The genius of the show and the books is not that the 'good guys' are doomed to fail simply because they do what they think is moral. It's that all the characters rise and fall based on the repercussions of their actions.

By the third book (and season) it seems that the Lannisters have won the Game of Thrones. The Machiavellian Tywin and his family have triumphed. Their rivals are dead or spent. They should be able to rest easy.

Yet just as they reach the height of their power, the Lannisters are brought low by the choices they've made.

King Joffrey's petulance and sadism gets him poisoned by The Queen of Thorns and Little Finger. Tywin, the seemingly unbeatable political juggernaut, is done in by the son who he mistreated for being a dwarf. Cersei, blinded by her fear of the Tyrells and her overconfidence, underestimates the High Sparrow and she is swept from power.

Then we have (maybe) the most hated families in the Seven Kingdoms: the Freys and the Boltons.

After murdering Robb and gaining the favor of the Lannisters, these two factions also seem to have made it. For almost three seasons (and two books) neither house seemed to face much in the way of justice for massacring so many.

Seeing Ramsay Bolton, possibly the most rabidly sadistic character ever created, continue to climb the ladder of success was especially infuriating.

Yet if the Starks' greatest weakness is their sense of nobility and honor, the Bolton's penchant for unrestrained fear and brutality is theirs.

The Red Wedding and Ramsay's bloody excesses, alienate the people the Bolton's are supposed to rule. In the show, Ramsay's abuse of Sansa drives her into an alliance with Jon Snow and they overthrow him. In the books, the Bolton's betrayal leads to a Great Conspiracy against them led by the Mandelrys.

The Freys don't fair much better. They are targets for the Brotherhood without Banners and don't have the respect of the people of the Riverlands. Both in the books and on the show, the Starks do get revenge (though they've gotten more of it in the show).

None of this means that characters like Jon will necessarily triumph when the last episode or the final book comes out. Martin has made it pretty clear the story will end on a bittersweet note.

What's also clear though, especially with Season 6 having wrapped up, is that being the cruelest, meanest, most conniving a-hole in the realm can be a handicap as well as an advantage.

You may get to the top but the one who wins power and stays in power strikes a balance between ruthlessness and compassion (cough, cough Daenerys).

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