“What kind of king do you want to be?”
“I don’t know — the good kind?”
— Talisa (Oona Chaplin) and Robb Stark (Richard Madden), “The Prince of Winterfell”
In “Baelor,” the penultimate episode of season one, “Game of Thrones” made a startling statement when it brought Ned Stark (Sean Bean) up in chains in front of an angry crowd at King’s Landing to face accusations of trying to overthrow new ruler Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). Ned was in the right — Joffrey is not the legitimate heir to the kingdom — and as an honorable man and a loving father concerned with doing the just thing, he was also the closest thing the series had to a protagonist. In order to protect his daughters, he confessed to treason anyway, swearing fealty to the young, vicious king as part of a deal that seemed poised to have him sent away into exile in the north, where he’d join his illegitimate son Jon Snow (Kit Harington), regroup and come back slightly tarnished but with an army of Night’s Watch allies at his back.
But he didn’t. Instead, he died, beheaded in front of his children, taking with him any standard expectations about where the story would go and its apparent moral center. It was a moment all the more shocking for being found in a genre known for straightforward delineations of good and evil and for tales of likely or unlikely heroes battling for the salvation of the kingdom, the princess, et cetera. In the stroke of a sword, “Game of Thrones” set itself apart from those stories and made it evident, if it wasn’t already, that it was no “Lord of the Rings.”
And in its second season, the George R. R. Martin-based series has been even clearer that honor and propriety are qualities more conveniently applied as polish to events after they take place, and that underneath the flowery talk these are tribes brutally skirmishing for supremacy. The lesson seen in Ned Stark’s execution is that the qualities that make a good leader in this world aren’t necessarily the ones that make a good man or woman.
But as a TV series, does “Game of Thrones” suffer for not having a hero? It has some great characters, including obvious MVP Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) but post-Ned, there’s not one to latch onto as either incapable of uncomfortable actions or sure to survive to whatever end Martin will eventually unveil. It’s hardly the first show to feature a large ensemble (“Deadwood” and “The Wire” used sprawling casts to their advantage and didn’t seem scattered) nor the first to avoid any clear “good guy” (“The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” have both pushed this idea to the forefront), but it may be the first to force audiences to think about just how much any outcome to the struggles it portray will come with a price. While “Game of Thrones” is awfully compelling television, it does feel less emotionally impactful for being about factions rather than personal journeys, but it’s becoming clear that that’s part of the show’s vision. It’s as much chess match as drama, and with each move toward victory come potential losses.
“It’s a good thing I am what I am,” Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) said in last week’s episode. “I’d be useless at anything else.” What he is is a killing machine, a masterful fighter — no strategist, no politician, but possessed of more self-awareness than the somber Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), with whom he’s been verbally dueling. In the rigid medieval-style world of Westeros, people are born with many options, and it’s rare to end up in a role for which you’re actually suited.
This is the argument Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) offered to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) as an explanation for his loyalty in “The Ghost of Harrenhal” — “Someone who can rule and should rule — centuries come and go without someone like that coming into the world.” “Game of Thrones” offers a vision of what it’s like to be beholden to whomever has either seized or inherited a throne, and how honor is used to bind others to that person’s power and keep him (or her) in place. When Jaime mocks Catelyn’s talk of his oathbreaking by pointing out he’s been sworn to follow contradictory rules, he actually makes more sense than she does, pointing out how much these systems of fealty are there to maintain the current power structure under their gloss of being about righteousness.
Even Jaime’s moniker of “Kingslayer” and his reputation of being someone who slaughtered the person he was dedicated to protecting, is a complicated one. For all that people use it to sneer at him, he’s being maligned for murdering a mad, brutal ruler who was driving his kingdom to ruin. Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) was a ward of the Starks, but he was really their hostage and a way to keep his once rebellious family in check. Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) talks of her love for her fiancé Joffrey even as he orders her beaten and talks of how he killed her father, because maintaining a facade of being a devoted soon-to-be-spouse allows her more safety in her place as a pawn to be used against her brother Robb. These fanciful terms hardly reflect the rough reality we see on screen. The idea of a hero hardly makes sense in a story in which the practical seem the best suited for survival.
Who should be in power in “Game of Thrones”? Probably Tyrion, though as the character would likely be first to admit, that will never happen. The people hate him, his ferocious sister Cersei (Lena Headey) doesn’t trust him and he has not a friend in the world who wouldn’t betray him for the right amount of money. Daenerys, whose story still floats alone on a separate continent from the rest of the action, is the safer bet, though while she’s come a long way, she still has a lot to learn as potential ruler of the masses. To root for her to succeed is to wish death on many other characters we may have grown fond of, as her goal is to roll into Westeros with her dragons and kill the usurpers who she sees as having taken her rightful throne. Maybe that’s why “Game of Thrones” is better off without a hero; it would be unbearable with one. As Cersei advises, “the more people you love, the weaker you are,” and getting attached to anyone on this series seems an invitation to feel bad when his or her head ends up on a pike.