Almost as much as the TV series itself, I enjoy James Poniewozik‘s write-ups after each episode airs, on Time.com. He catches things I miss, even after reading most of the books.
A major theme Poniewozik notes is that the series examines to what extent a person should be ruled by law and honor. He notes a key sequence in the Aerie, when Bronn fights for Tyrion’s life and kills his opponent, throwing him through the Moon Door to his death.
Lysa Arryn, outraged at the outcome, scolds Bronn for his street brawling: “You don’t fight with honor!” “No,” Bronn deadpans, indicating the knight he just chucked out the Moon Door. “He did.”
It’s a funny line, but there’s much packed in it. First, there’s another affirmation of Thrones’ pragmatism, which is echoed in the other storylines in the series. Battles go to the best fighter, not the most righteous. It’s not to cynically say that nice guys finish last—I don’t think Thrones is making an argument against morality—but rather that being single-mindedly rigid and tied to formal codes is an encumbrance. The poor knight who dies trying to seal Tyrion’s guilt, fighting in full armor against a lightly guarded man, is a metaphor. He thinks he is protected by his armor; in fact, he is burdened by it.
Likewise, Ned is encumbered by his rigid adherence to honor and law. Watching Sunday night’s episode, I couldn’t help thinking how much misery could have been avoided in Westeros if Ned had simply taken Littlefinger’s offer of an alliance and grabbed the throne from the Lannisters. Ned and Littlefinger would have made a good ruling team. Littlefinger might never have betrayed Ned, as long as Littlefinger saw the continued partnership as being to his advantage.
But, no, Ned believed Robert’s brother was the rightful heir to the throne. However, as several people pointed out to Ned, the Baratheons themselves had no right to the throne; they stole it from the Targaryens.
And the Targaryens probably stole it from someone else. I know more about medieval and ancient history now than I did when I read the original books. Royal succession in premodern times was a matter of raw power winning out, and then figuring out a legal justification afterwards.
This has been a constant theme in HBO’s best series: The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, and especially Deadwood: How should a person live, and how should government function, in a society where rule of law has failed (or, in the case of Deadwood, has not yet developed)? A person in that situation has to find a balance between whatever law exists, a moral code, and self-interest. The Sopranos began with Tony trying to live within the gangster code and with signs that he might become a lawful and reformed person; by the end of the series he had abandoned the gangster code, conscious, and law, and lived entirely for himself. In The Wire, we see law and personal power run amok. In Rome we see rule of law usurped (by Julius Caesar) and then re-established through violence (by Octavian). And in Deadwood we see a society existing before laws are formed, and struggling to develop them. Pity Deadwood ended when the story was only half-told.
Another thing that HBO’s series have in common: Swearing and boobies. Poniewozik correctly identifies a story device in Game of Thrones that’s already gotten old: A male character delivers a long background explanation while having sex with a prostitute. Or, in the case of last this week’s episode, watching two prostitutes get it on with each other. Enough already — let’s find other ways to deliver backstory and show us boobies. Thank you.