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How Game of Thrones deals with the horrifying aftermath of war

Roose and Ramsay would like to welcome you back to Winterfell, Sansa Stark!
Roose and Ramsay would like to welcome you back to Winterfell, Sansa Stark!
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

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: We spent much of last week talking about how the characters Game of Thrones and the books it's based on are most invested in are the powerless characters living at the fringes of society. Those characters are best positioned to see how destructive the ruling status quo is to anybody not in power.

But here's a thing that "High Sparrow," one of my favorite Game of Thrones episodes in quite some time, drives home — the loss of the old status quo has also been unquestionably dire for too many of these people. All you need to do is see Theon (now Reek) lurching about at Winterfell to know how much everything has changed — and gotten much worse for many of these characters.

I was also thinking about this because I fell into watching that "Too Many Kings" video (the parody of Too Many Cooks featuring all eleventy hundred characters from this show) a few days ago.

Much of that video uses footage from the show's first season — which I haven't revisited in a while — and I was struck by how much everybody involved in this show has changed over the course of its production. Certainly, the kids have all grown up, but the early days of the show almost seem like some halcyon, bygone era at this point, even if they were mired in the mud.

Theon was someone who tried to overthrow the system he had existed within. Now, he had tremendously good reason to do so. He'd been held prisoner for most of his life. Yes, "being held prisoner" largely involved hanging around Winterfell and growing up among the Stark kids, but he was still a captive. When his father convinced him to take up arms on the side of his kinsmen, it was driven by how little Theon had ever had a place to feel like he was supposed to be.

Now, however, he's been tortured and broken, turned against himself and made into this shambling wreck of a human being. The punishment so outweighs the crime at this point that it could seem a little ridiculous — except that's how punishments tend to work in George R. R. Martin's milieu.

Say what you will about the awfulness of the status quo — and it was awful — but at least it provided a kind of system that kept a lot of people relatively safe from harm. Under the law, there were consequences for actions. After all, one of the first things we see in the series is Ned beheading a Night's Watch deserter. When Jon does roughly the same in this episode, it's because nearly everything is falling apart, and he needs to keep a tenuous grasp on control over the situation.

So even if this season isn't directly adapting A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, it's at least adapting the spirit of both books. Those two tomes are about searching (at least in a metaphorical sense) for a leader who can restore peace and prosperity to the Seven Kingdoms, and about the chaos that descends over a land in the wake of war.

Many fans of the series despise Feast for Crows for this very reason. In terms of visceral excitement, it contains the lowest number of big "events" of all the books. But I've always liked its willingness to force readers to confront the downside of all of the excitement in the first three books. It's a tour through a land that no longer resembles what it once was.

The TV series can't really do that. It lacks the budget, and I'm guessing the audience wouldn't be terribly patient with a long series of scenes where Brienne stares grimly out at a war-torn countryside, examining what has become of her country. But the show works in nods to this material here and there — and particularly in the case of someone like Theon, who has been ruined by what has become.

Yes, the old system was corrupt, and yes, it needed to be torn down to be replaced with whatever comes next. But any time something is torn down, precautions must be taken. Too few people in the Seven Kingdoms remembered that, and that's brought them to this point.

Read the recap. We'll have more thoughts later in the day.

Previous week's discussion

Next: Kelsey on the true hero, Margaery Tyrell