Game of Thrones and the Unexpected Virtue of Goodness

Sandor Clegane has returned, and he’s stumbled across the thing that holds HBO’s fantasy world together.


Even if you don’t watch Game of Thrones, you probably know some things about it. Namely, that it is very violent, full of sex and nudity, and prone to killing off main characters. And these things are true to some degree.

Fans have also come to know and love the complicated morality of the series. It is not so simple as good versus evil – each character has their own motivations that play into the decisions that must be made in complex situations. This would stand in contrast to many other popular works of fantasy, such as The Lord of the Rings.

This is much of the reputation and eventual legacy of Thrones – the show that went where no other show dared to go, showing the naked bodies and the bloody violence, killing the main characters, prospering the sadists, muddying the waters of morality, and changing the bounds of the fantasy genre forever. It won critical acclaim and a massive following all while offending sensibilities.

Simply put, it’s the brilliantly made show that is built on a lot of badness.

But nothing is really that simple in Game of Thrones. In a world where lives deemed lesser are so easily snuffed out, there is a special care given to cripples, bastards, and broken things.[1] A ruling class is manipulated by a couple of former commoners. While women are often used as items in sexual barter and treated as inferior, many women assert themselves as the most formidable adversaries in the world. Explicit sexual acts are often depicted, but the romantic relationships always prove to be based in something greater than the bedroom. Families are malleable, political entities, but family loyalty carries more weight than anything, and the entire show is largely based on the fate of a single family.

This show, which has become famous for sex, violence, and moral ambiguity, is bound together by an irreproachable sense of goodness.

Consider the fate of Oberyn Martell. His shocking, gruesome, over-the-top death at the hands (literally) of Gregor Clegane is one of the best examples of the series’ penchant for violence, surprise, and the triumph of evil over good. However, for me, the bloody trial-by-combat is overshadowed by what happens before, when Oberyn tells Tyrion that he will fight for him. Their discussion in Tyrion’s cell is an affirmation of the value of all human life, a rallying cry for justice, and an act of great courage. Quite unexpectedly, the morally ambiguous Oberyn provides us with one of the greatest moments of goodness that for me will always overrule what followed.[2]

I only entered George R. R. Martin’s world a couple months ago and began a binge-watch on the recommendation of a friend. I did so with a sense of trepidation, knowing the reputation the show had gained for its shocking violence. And, as I progressed through the seasons, I remember time and again feeling a sense of hopelessness, a feeling of doom. Is there no place safe in Westeros? Can evil be defeated? Who can be trusted? Who are the true heroes? So often I found myself despairing in a world ruled by the sword. All the good that was ever accomplished could so easily be undone. As the followers of the Lord of Light preach: The night is dark and full of terrors.

But it is precisely because the night is dark and full of terrors that the goodness becomes the glue that holds this show together. Not just in the obvious places, like Ned Stark’s honor, Daenerys’ mission to liberate Slaver’s Bay, and Jon Snow’s sacrifice, but in the smaller things as well: Catelynn’s love for her children, Jor’s leadership of the Watch, Davos’ kindness to Shireen (and vise versa), Podric’s loyalty, the Hound’s protection of Arya, and the list continues. In fact, the more the show goes on, the more it appears that it is not so much the case that there are so few true heroes as there are so few true villains – take for instance the way goodness has taken hold in Jaime and the Hound.

The events of the ongoing sixth season have continued to reveal this, but perhaps never so starkly as in the most recent episode, “The Broken Man.” We are introduced to Ray, a spiritual leader who admits to Sandor that he doesn’t know which gods are the real gods, or which ones exist at all, or if they’re all the same thing. “Oh there’s plenty of pious sons of bitches who think they know the word of god or gods. I don’t…What matters, I believe, is that there’s something greater than us.”[E] This scene, besides being a compelling addition to the intriguing aspect of religion in the show, indicates something about why Sandor has left the Hound persona behind as well as why goodness continues to persist in face of the successes of evil.

But then, immediately after this conversation, we are taken back to King’s Landing where another religious leader, the High Sparrow, is having a conversation with Queen Margaery. Margaery is reading the Book of the Seven, and the High Sparrow tells her that “There are some who know every verse of the sacred text, but don’t have a drop of the Mother’s mercy in their blood, and savages who can’t read at all who understand the Father’s wisdom.” Interesting insight from a man who demands fanatical devotion to the teachings of the new gods, and strikingly similar to Ray’s words.

It’s become obvious that something exists greater than humans in Game of Thrones, even if no ones knows for sure which religion is the right one. But, as fascinating as the religious component is, I think what these scenes reveal that is most remarkable is the way in which the moral compass of this fantasy world is oriented by goodness. Even if murder, theft, and rape are commonplace, even if the strong take from the weak, so many of the characters in this world are endowed with an innate sense of goodness. It’s a dark world, but it makes the persistent acts of goodness that much greater. Ray doesn’t think that Sandor’s transformation from a brutal warrior to a quiet woodsman is a freak occurrence – Ray sees this as the way the world is supposed to work. He sees what the High Sparrow recognizes in the illiterate savages. It’s a knowledge that badness is not the way to survive in this world.

The goodness of Game of Thrones is twofold, in that while the fantasy world is held together by goodness, so too is its fan following. As much as viewers might revel in the show’s edginess as well as its moral complexities, I believe we are all bound to the hope of goodness even if winter is coming. It’s driven much of the discussion and reaction to this season’s events, such as our desperate hope for Jon Snow’s resurrection and our universal depression over Hodor’s fate. This is not quite like other smash-hit series with their anti-heroes (The SopranosBreaking BadThe WireMad Men), in which we might hold out in the hope of goodness but also, more often than not, gleefully follow bad people into their precarious situations. Even if we might appreciate the Machiavellian ruling of Tywin, the vicious cunning of Cersei, the moral disinterest of Bronn, and the spooky dealings of Jaqen, we still abhor the likes of Joffrey and Ramsay and instead venerate the goodness of Jon and Daenerys.

Both within the realm of the story and in our viewership, a sense of direction is still provided mainly by one character – Ned Stark. Even though he was executed near the end of the first season, Ned’s impact on the series cannot be understated. At the most basic level, the story largely hinges on his remaining family members, as has been the case for most of the series, and even just recently his brother Benjen has been re-introduced (and you can bet his deceased sister is going to prove vital, too). His decisions in the first season and ultimately his death precipitated the events that followed. Of course, much the same could be said of Tywin, but it’s the legacy of Ned Stark that carry the day. The Starks are good people because they were raised by a good man. In his day, even his enemies knew him to be full of honor, and years later his honor is remembered, such as in this last episode when Sansa reminded Lord Glover of his house’s commitment to Ned. Everyone who knew him was changed for the better – whatever strength is left in Theon Grayjoy is due to his adopted father, Ned, not his biological father.

It is not insignificant that one of the series’ first scenes is Ned executing the supposed deserter. It is a moment for him to remind his sons of an important lesson in honorable ruling, and as the show continues three of those sons will face a situation in which they hold to Ned’s teaching.[3]

Even before all this, whatever Ned decided to do at the Tower of Joy (there is much speculation) might be the key to the entire series (if the theories of Jon’s parentage are true). By the looks of things, Ned’s decision to bring home Jon and claim that he is his bastard is an important and honorable decision, made all the more so because supposedly fathering a bastard is the one mark against Ned’s honor.

But Ned is not just a moral standard and teacher for the characters of Game of Thrones – he is our teacher, too. Ned is the “main” character in the first season, and as we are introduced to the wild and violent land of Westeros, Ned is the one who protects us from danger, shows us the way to goodness, and instructs us in the way things should be. We stand by his sons as Ned executes the deserter. We see the game of thrones through his eyes. And, as he sits in prison, doomed to die on account of his honorable actions, Ned teaches us the way to face death when he says to Varys, “You think my life is some precious thing to me?” Just as the Stark children are the product of Ned’s parenting, so too is our viewership forever impacted by the honorable Lord of Winterfell.[4]

The place of goodness in Game of Thrones, the goodness taught to us by Ned Stark, prompts a discussion on the nature of the fantasy genre, a discussion to which I cannot now give fair treatment, but must mention. It has been assumed that Thrones, both the show and the novels upon which they are based, are a fresh take on some of the tropes of fantasy. Thrones, like most modern fantasy, is vitally indebted to the work of Tolkien. Tolkien, like the other writers in his coterie, believed that goodness should triumph over evil in works of fantasy. Writing in a time when meaning and morality were under assault in art and literature, Tolkien believed that moral order should still rule the day – that there should be good and evil, and that good should ultimately prevail. While Thrones has, no doubt, modified this trait, I believe it has quite clearly failed to totally break the mold. If even this unprecedented story cannot escape the captivating struggle of good and evil in fantasy, what does that say about the genre? Is it even possible to write a good fantasy in which goodness does not underlie all the death and destruction? But let me say that in no way does this diminish the accomplishment of Thrones – rather, it makes the goodness that much greater.

Just as goodness has driven the show thus far, so too will it dictate the manner in which it will eventually end. Simply put, the show cannot reach its finale until the story is resolved, and resolved in a manner in which goodness ultimately prevails. Think about it – could this show really end with the Night King conquering the North, or with Littlefinger on the Iron Throne, or with Ramsay Bolton still alive, or with Cersei winning? No. It can’t. Daenerys has to win, Bran must succeed, Jon must live, Tyrion must rule – these are the resolutions to the show’s ongoing plotlines. And that all means that goodness will persist, even if evil seems so overwhelming. Just as it seems that, surely, there is a reason for Jon’s resurrection, Sandor’s redemption, Tyrion’s survival, just as there seems to be a clear destiny for Daenerys and Bran, there is a greater force that rules the hearts and minds of viewers and the pens of writers.

Perhaps, despite all of the evil, Game of Thrones will be television’s greatest triumph of goodness.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


Footnotes (New!) Click on the note to return to the text.

1 As Tyrion phrases it.
2 It might be my most favorite scene in the entire show. People might be put off initially by Oberyn’s desire for sex and violence, and may be unsure of whether or not he is a good guy or bad guy. I think this scene decides that.
3 Theon, Robb, and Jon all eventually execute men whom they sentence to death because of Ned’s lesson.
4 Ironically, the story that bucked the rules and killed off its main protagonist has never been able to escape the shadow cast by that character. But it’s a good kind of shadow.
E I realized after publishing this that I left out another important statement from Ray pertaining to goodness. He says to his followers later: “All I can do with the time I’ve got left is bring a little goodness into the world. That’s all any of us can do, isn’t it?”