You know the old adage: treat them mean to keep them keen? No show understands this cruel, devious approach to storytelling better than Game Of Thrones. It’s gained critical acclaim from its refusal to stick to the rules, for delighting in administering the most emotional gut-punches and for providing one of the bleakest hours of your week, 10 weeks a year. And we can’t get enough of it.
From its very first season GOT felt fresh, unusual and a bit punk; what other massive TV shows behead their main character after nine episodes? Ned Stark’s execution for treason, when actually he was the only person in King’s Landing desperate to do the right thing, was one of the most powerful moments in recent TV history. It said: actually, nobody on this show’s safe. Life sucks. Sometimes righteous people lose out to the bad guys. Deal with it.
But even after Ned’s head was stuck on a spike outside the Red Keep, a flicker of hope lingered. House Stark rose against the Lannisters and kicked off a civil war, led by Ned’s heir, the dashing Robb. Maybe this was a classic revenge tale instead? But no, the bleakness persisted. Robb, his mother Catelyn and the rest of the Stark supporters were brutally slaughtered in Season 3’s infamous ‘Red Wedding’, a massacre orchestrated by two smaller Northern houses who switched their allegiances for their own gain. The nine-minute assault, silent but for the slash of steel on flesh and the splatter of blood on stone, was a savage assault on the senses. Each groan, scream and plunge of a dagger into a belly said: things will only get worse, you were a f*cking idiot for holding out hope.
Tywin Lannister, instigator of the betrayal, sums up GOT’s proud lack of morals succinctly. “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner.” It’s cold hard logic, and it stings.
It’s not just that GOT delights in twists – though there are plenty – but it’s the show’s knack of emotionally manipulating us that makes it such a compelling, if regularly heartbreaking show. Sansa Stark’s physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her suitor, Prince Joffrey, was nothing short of terrifying. And when he choked to death at his own wedding (a moment that elicited guilty cheers in living rooms around the world), there was a brief sense of calm and respite, of the world righting itself. Last season, though, Sansa was wed to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, going straight from one hell to another. An episode ending with her being raped by her husband caused huge controversy for its uncompromising fug of despair, but when Sansa escaped her husband’s castle at the culmination of Season 5, that flame flickered again. It constantly asks for us to find humanity in the everyday cruelness of real life.
Nobody embodies the show’s torturous throttle of desolation better than Jon Snow, who, like his father, is repeatedly punished for trying to do the right thing. He’s a considerate leader, a smart tactician and a skilled swordsman who has put personal issues aside for the greater good. So obviously his subordinates lead him into a courtyard and stab him repeatedly until he bleeds out in the snow.
After Ned, and Robb, surely Jon was our hero. Sure, he was all-but landlocked up North, manning the gigantic Wall that protects the realm from the horrors of the frozen wastelands, but his mysterious parentage and his innate sense of justice suggested he had a bigger part to play in the wars to come.
It reminds us that the world is dark and twisted, that good people suffer
Considering this came after the battle at Hardhome, where Jon saw first-hand the true terror of the monstrous frozen army known as the White Walkers, this twist of fate is perhaps the most hopeless in the show’s history. Thousands of reanimated corpses who are nigh-on impossible to kill are descending on the Seven Kingdoms, and stopping them just got a whole lot harder.
Ultimately, that is GOT’s greatest gift: constantly reminding us the world is dark and twisted, that good people suffer while evil prospers. But going into Season 6, we can’t help but feel slightly hopeful. Because there’s nowhere else for GOT to go but up, towards redemption, whether it’s Daenerys Targaryen’s mission to reclaim the Iron Throne, or Tyrion’s thirst for revenge against those who wronged him, or the evidence suggesting Jon Snow might not be a corpse for very long. When asked about the curly-haired hero’s fate, George RR Martin said that, in his books, “Death is not necessarily permanent.” It’s not much to go on. But we’ve got to have faith. Right?