[SPOILERS for all seasons of Game of Thrones below. You have been warned.]
It’s an undeniable fact that Game of Thrones has changed after nearly a decade on television; I can’t help feeling, however, that I belong to a small minority that believes it’s actually improved with age. Don’t get me wrong: I love the grounded, moody, and relentlessly dark tone of the earlier seasons, but the show’s gradual shift towards more traditional fantasy tropes has only elevated it in my estimation. In the beginning, the ostensible heroes were unwaveringly ethical, chivalrous, and virtuous—and were constantly outmaneuvered by their more brutal and pragmatic foes. The Starks suffered in the name of “honor,” while the devious and conniving Lannisters and Boltons thrived.
As time wore on, though, it slowly became clear that the villains’ short-term victories would not guarantee long-lasting prosperity. The Starks were able to earn the support of steadfast allies because, at the very least, people knew them to be loyal and trustworthy. Houses Lannister and Bolton, meanwhile, fell into decline thanks to their reputations for betrayal and subterfuge. The message rings loud and clear: matters of morality are rarely straightforward.
“A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”, the second episode of the eighth season, basically condenses this premise down to its purest form. The main storyline revolves around Ser Jaime Lannister—who, as the opening flashback is keen to remind viewers, defenestrated a ten-year-old child in his introductory appearance—attempting to offer his aid to former enemies that are less than pleased to receive it. Nevertheless, necessity is a great resolver of conflicts, and as Jon Snow bluntly notes, they’ll need every able-bodied man they can get in the looming battle against the Night King’s undead army. Thus, the maimed and humbled knight lives another day, left to meditate on the sins of his past as he looks ahead towards an uncertain future.
The various subplots likewise touch upon these interlinked themes of redemption and forgiveness. Theon Greyjoy, whose betrayal of the Starks resulted in much death and hardship, returns to defend the stronghold he once overthrew in its hour of greatest need. Jorah Mormont, a former spy and saboteur in Daenerys Targaryen’s camp, encourages his khaleesi to forgive Tyrion Lannister’s recent errors in judgment, knowing well the value of owning one’s mistakes and learning from them. Even Arya Stark sharing a quiet drink with Sandor Clegane represents a poignant (albeit brief) moment of reconciliation.
And then there’s The Mother of Dragons herself. When we first encountered her, Daenerys was vulnerable, frightened, a mere pawn in a much grander war for dominance. But fate intervened on her behalf: quite unexpectedly, she became a champion of the oppressed, freeing slaves and stamping out tyranny—unquestionably worthy causes that won her near-universal adoration. Now that she’s within spitting distance of the Iron Throne, however, it’s become increasingly obvious that she covets power for its own sake (see: immolating any man that refuses to submit to her), sincerely believing it to be her birthright. Her reaction to Jon’s revelation of his true heritage is evidence enough of her overinflated sense of self-entitlement: she immediately views him as a threat to her claim, never considering the notion that he might not desire the crown.
It’s an effective subversion, a reversal that only serves to reinforce the rule: matters of morality are rarely straightforward.
“The things we do for love,” indeed.