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As Game of Thrones departs from the books, it’s also teaching us how to understand them

"Home" clarified a key point about the power of faith.

You can do it, Mellie! Believe in yourself!
HBO

Every week throughout season six, a handful of Vox's writers will discuss the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Before you dig in, check out our recap of this episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. This week, we'll be hearing from culture editor Todd VanDerWerff, executive editor Matt Yglesias, culture writer Caroline Framke, foreign policy writer Zack Beauchamp, and politics writer Andrew Prokop. Come back throughout the week for more entries.

Matt Yglesias: To pile on a little about this Ramsay situation, what's frustrating about it to me is that I actually see the germ of an interesting idea in the Winterfell plot line. Game of Thrones is demonstrating that once you undermine a system of strict adherence to hereditary legitimacy with a system of might makes right, it is very difficult to restabilize the former.

What's more, since all of the available ideas about how to restore stability involve appeals to the hereditary principle, the new system becomes extraordinarily ghoulish. Roose must adopt a bastard son who is plainly unfit to rule, because he needs an heir. Sansa must be pressed into marriage because the Boltons require a Stark connection to cement their rule. Ramsay rightly sees the birth of a new (non-bastard) half-brother as an existential threat, as it opens the door to his father setting him aside. But due to the heredity principle, for him to be set aside he would have to be killed. So to guarantee his survival, he must kill his father — and also his infant half-brother.

The problem is that Ramsey is so fully established as a deranged sociopath that the logic of his actions carries no weight. And the show is so addicted to "shocking" moments that it devotes precious minutes of screen time to the gross dog stuff rather than to some kind of thematic juice.

By contrast, I really liked the point/counterpoint religion storylines between the High Sparrow in King's Landing and Melisandre up at the Wall.

To me, the way both the books and the show intermingle the concepts of religion and magic is fascinating. From what we've seen, the faith of the Old Gods is mixed with some real magic and the faith of the Red God can perform some truly fantastical feats. Meanwhile, the main religion of Westeros — the Faith of the Seven — seems to have no magic at all. But as we saw in Baelor's Sept, that doesn't mean the Faith has no power. Belief itself creates power by giving legitimacy to leaders, helping people cooperate, and delivering them from fear.

But up north, Melisandre is heading in the exact opposite direction.

The depiction of her as disconsolate and having lost faith in her connection with the Lord of Light is one of the first moments of season six that genuinely influences how we need to understand the books. Up until this point, there'd been a viable interpretation of Melisandre as a cynic or a con artist, but "Home" clarified that she's meant to be understood as a true believer who is genuinely distraught that her prophecy failed. Until, of course, Davos convinces her to worry less about religion and more about her own magical powers.

To me, one of the signature features of A Song of Ice and Fire is its deep skepticism of true believers. That conviction and sincerity are dangerous is an idea you rarely see in politics or popular culture, but it's a key theme of the books, and one that's translated well onto the small screen.

We started our journey with heroes like Ned and Robb Stark, who stood squarely for what was right. Then the spotlight passed to Stannis and Daenerys's crusade against slavery. In the end, though, that's all ended in tears. And it's looking more like any happy endings we find will come courtesy of pragmatists and survivors like Davos, Tyrion, and Varys. Jon and Daenerys will presumably take center stage again soon, but chastened by their current trials and perhaps a little more temperate in their future endeavors.

Read the recap, and come back for more discussion tomorrow.

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