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Game of Thrones is a series about the needless weight of vengeance

Cersei (Lena Headey) is certainly driven by revenge.
Cersei (Lena Headey) is certainly driven by revenge.
HBO

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by culture writer Kelsey McKinney and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Todd VanDerWerff: It's interesting to hear you single out this episode as one about vengeance, Kelsey, because I had a similar thought but extended it slightly into a political arena. "The House of Black and White," I think, is about how unsatisfying compromise is, but how necessary.

One of the recurrent themes in Game of Thrones (and especially in the books it's based on) is the idea that getting revenge might feel good, but it only propagates more revenge. This is an old, old idea in fiction, but George R. R. Martin (and the writers who've turned his books into a TV series) get lots of mileage out of it.

Indeed, much of the backstory here is a complicated plot, driven by revenge, which causes resentments, which lead to further grudges, which lead to even more revenge. Even within the series itself, so much of the story spirals outward from that moment in an early episode when Catelyn Stark seized Tyrion Lannister because she suspected him of being behind the foiled murder plot against her son, Bran.

In many ways, Game of Thrones is explicitly about the fact that when human beings act rashly, it makes for great drama but works out poorly for them. The Starks, so driven by honor and their own ideals of justice, have mostly been stamped out, while the Lannisters are going through something similar, as they slowly turn on each other. Characters like Littlefinger and Varys exploit these weaknesses for information or personal gain, while others mostly stay out of the way.

But the problem is that when you become consumed by vengeance, it's hard to see anything else. That's a story that plays out in tiny form in the Dany storyline tonight, but it also plays out in symbolic form in the Arya storyline. She sits on the steps of the House of Black and White and repeats the names of those she will have her vengeance upon, over and over, through rain and sunshine. But the words eventually start to feel like dust. It's only when she rises and throws her coin in the water, thereby symbolically tossing aside her burden, that she can begin to progress.

Now, I don't think there's any way this series ends without Arya killing at least one or two of the people on her list, just as I don't think there's any way it ends without her being reunited with her family. But in her progression to the House of Black and White, there's something real and beautiful. In order to move forward in your life in any fashion, you have to be willing to let go of things that might be holding you back. We don't yet know everything that was holding Arya back, but something tells me that her new apprenticeship at Jaqen's side will reveal this to us.

Meanwhile, there's a character who pointedly refuses to play the vengeance game, and that's Jon Snow. Stannis tries to give him what he's always wanted — the name Stark — but he refuses it, in favor of his Night's Watch brethren. This series attaches a pronounced power to the idea of names, the idea that Jaqen doesn't actually have one, or that Jon gains some degree of power from refusing the name he's always wanted.

That's all in keeping with the rest of this story of breaking a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance. Building a lasting peace ultimately requires the hard, hard work of figuring out compromises everyone can live with and of getting everyone to set aside their central self for a little while, in order to come up with a consensus that benefits the most possible people. But that's not as immediate or as visceral as simply sticking a sword through somebody's throat, so we keep getting swords through throats.

Or, as Dany might put it, the law is the law. It's much easier to conquer than to rule, but it's in ruling that a leader truly makes her name.

Andrew, there was a lot of political maneuvering in this episode. Toward what end? And as a book reader (like me), how do you feel about the series so boldly striking out into its own territory?

Read the recap, and come back tomorrow for Andrew's opening thoughts.

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Next: Andrew on why burning people is easier than playing politics

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