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Game of Thrones is getting too dark and full of terrors

Theon Greyjoy, who's currently known as "Reek."
Theon Greyjoy, who's currently known as "Reek."
HBO

Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, we'll be hearing from deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, executive editor Matthew Yglesias, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and culture editor Todd VanDerWerff. Come back throughout the week for entries.

Zack Beauchamp: My first reaction to watching this week's episode was simple, emotional, and visceral: Ramsay has to die. I imagine I wasn't alone.

Yet I'm not sure he will — and that's actually a big problem. Game of Thrones is obsessed with its own darkness, delighted with letting evil go unpunished. And that's getting in the way of good storytelling.

We can trace the issue back to two of the show's best moments: Ned's execution in season one and the Red Wedding in season three. What made them so genius was the way they upended expectations — in this kind of story, the heroes aren't supposed to die. The noble-but-doomed cause is never actually doomed.

But now, as viewers, we're jaded. We expect Game of Thrones to be an exercise in Murphy's law. The triumph of evil, or at least amorality, isn't shocking. Instead, it's mostly exhausting.

I'm worried, though, that showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss haven't picked up on this. Ramsay has spent the past few seasons being Nazi-level cruel, and he's only come up in the world. The growing dissent at the Wall looks bad for Jon. Ser Barristan died, and Daenerys must now sort out a brutal insurgency with no exit plan and no (obedient) dragons. Jorah has greyscale. Littlefinger (eww) is ascendant.

In short, things look really grim.

And if they keep getting worse, there's nothing to stop Game of Thrones from becoming the simple inverse of a boring morality tale. The series is famous for its moral ambiguity, for illustrating that purity can have terrible consequences and that ruthless pragmatism is sometimes the best way to get ahead. And that's interesting! But in narrative terms, "everything is terrible" is just as boring and predictable as "everything is awesome."

The show hasn't fallen into this trap quite yet. Take Dorne — which, Matt, you brought up in your last post. So far, I've really enjoyed our trips there. Jaime and Bronn's bromance is a wonder. Prince Doran's seemingly more humane approach to power ("we do not mutilate little girls for vengeance") actually gives us someone new to like, especially if gender roles in the show's Dorne resemble those in the books. Even the color palette, with its bright greens in the Water Gardens and sunny sands in the desert, paints a happy contrast to the dourness up north. There's potential in Dorne, even if right now the developments there feel pretty irrelevant to the rest of the narrative.

Game of Thrones has proven that it can do happy, or something like it, pretty well. One of my favorite arcs on the show so far is Tyrion's rise to power in King's Landing, just before the Battle of the Blackwater. At the time, Tyrion was a ruthless bastard and nobody's idea of a conventional hero. But he was genuinely trying to make things better, and it was damn entertaining to watch him succeed — if only temporarily.

Now, part of the reason that worked is that Tyrion is such a great character (and Peter Dinklage such a great actor). But at this point, the show is full of great characters. Who wouldn't want to see Sansa manipulate her way to power in the North, rather than remain a victim? Is Jon more interesting as a third act in the Ned-and-Robb Stark play, or as someone who actually learned the lessons of his family's failure? And why, oh why, does Daenerys need to be separated from her dragons again?

If I sound frustrated, it's because I am, a little. Game of Thrones still a great show, but it's at risk of getting too dark for its own good — a problem that, incidentally, ruined the last two of George R. R. Martin's books. Luckily, the show is now so radically different from its source material that we can only hope things end up differently.

Todd, do you think I'm onto something here? Or am I overreacting to one deeply painful episode?

Read the recap. Come back soon for more discussion.

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