Valar Showghulis: all shows must die. Or so happened with Game of Thrones. Our podcast episode below analyzes this last season of Game of Thrones over some craft beer and laughs. We discuss how one of the greatest series in T.V. history failed us all, and how alternate endings (and actual good writing) could have saved it from such a poorly scripted fate. There was one scene that I thought was well done,though, and I decided to expand it into a more serious blog post. Read below for my full article on oaths, honor, and the one scene that the show definitely got right.
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The Game of Thrones finale is over, and between cable viewership and online streaming many records were set. Nearly 19.5 million people watched this season 8 finale, which beat the previous HBO record of 12 million for The Sopranos. Oh and by the way, if you have not yet watched the last season of Game of Thrones (or any other seasons for that matter) then consider this your one and only SPOILER ALERT.
Despite the insanely large viewership, the last season received a lot of criticism. Even the Game of Thrones cast could not hide their disappointment with how it ended. For the most part I agree with the negative reviews of the show. Starting with season 7 there was a noticeable change; the plots became less dense and the general feel was cheap. The approach was more cinematic and it lost touch with the complex dialogues and long term character development that made earlier seasons so compelling. Season 8 continued this trend; while the special effects got more and more impressive the writing got lazy. The dialogues became shorter and less complex. Plot threads were abandoned. Time became harder to track (it takes time to travel between Winterfell and Kings Landing…), and I could no longer identify with the internal struggles of the characters. Everything felt rushed and it seemed like they tried to cover up the lack of plot depth and character development with special effects. So yes, I believe that it was mostly a disappointment. This video does a good job of expanding on what made this last season so bad.
But there was one dialogue in the last episode that I thought was clearly the best scene in season 8. It connected all the way back to the first season and drew upon a theme that ran through the entire show. I’ll stop short of saying that it redeemed season 8, but it did remind me about why I originally connected with the show. The theme was that of oath taking and the delicate tension that exists between upholding your oaths and duties and deciding to break an oath for a greater good. I think that the tension between these two decisions cuts right to the core of what it means to be human. Among all the characters who struggled with this, Jon Snow was the most important. The dialogue between him and Tyrion in the final episode beautifully got right to bedrock of this problem. I will analyze this dialogue—along with some other dialogues from the early seasons—later in the post, but the dialogue can be justly summed up with two lines. Jon, upon fully feeling the difficulty of the decision ahead (should he kill his queen), remarks “Love is the death of duty”. Tyrion responded with “Sometimes duty is the death of love”.
Catelyn Stark: “You swore an oath to my father.”
Walder Frey: “Oh, yes. I said some words…”GOT Season 1 Episode 9
Although oaths are no longer treated like they were in medieval times, they are still a central part of modern life. Witnesses make an oath to tell the truth in court. Newly appointed government officials make oaths before taking office. Perhaps the most common type of oath is the marriage vows made during a wedding ceremony. An oath is a pledge and a promise. Witnesses are usually required in order to verify the oath. Deeply human words like honor, loyalty, and duty all intersect with the concept of an oath. To swear something is in essence an oath one takes that they are actually telling the truth (I swear it by the old Gods and the new). Oaths can also make use of a divine witness to guarantee the oath takers integrity and honesty. In the purest sense, a punishment for breaking an oath would not even have to exist because how could anybody ever break one? But of course oaths are broken. In our modern society divorce is probably the most common example of this. “Till death do us part” is the vow that only death can cause separation.
Countless oaths were taken in the Game of Thrones universe. Men of the Night’s Watch make lifetime oaths to guard the realms of men. They also vow to remain celibate. Men of the King’s Guard vow to protect their king no matter what. To bend the knee is to make a vow of loyalty towards an authority—as Jon Snow did to Queen Daenerys—for which the punishment of betrayal is death. Perhaps my favorite oath was the one made by Brienne of Tarth to Catelyn Stark. Brienne vowed to find and protect Sansa Stark, and she went through hell in order to do that. Even though Catelyn Stark was dead, Brienne’s own code of honor would not allow her to renege on that vow. She even names the Valyrian steel sword that Jaime Lannister gifts her “Oathkeeper” as a reminder of this vow. Sure it gave her purpose in the darkness of her life, but I’d like to believe that she kept the oath because she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she broke it. She is like Ned Stark in this regard. People like this understand deep down that without the promise and follow through of an oath, human interaction will simply fall apart.
Countless oaths were also broken over the course of the series. Mance Raydar was a member of the Night’s Watch and broke his oath to live among the free folk (Wildlings) and eventually become the King Beyond the Wall. Jon Snow also broke his oath to the Night’s Watch for the Wildlings. Robb Stark broke an oath to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters, and we all know how that ended for him (and literally almost everyone at the red wedding). Even the very first episode of the series highlights the importance of oaths and the consequences of breaking them; Ned Stark must execute Will, a deserter of the Night’s Watch. He does this in front of his children as a life lesson to show the difficulties of leadership and the consequences of breaking an oath. Of course we know that Will was deserting his post after his encounter with the White Walkers, but at the time nobody believed him. After the execution, Ned tells Bran that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword”.
So if oath breaking was common, then one would expect that at least the punishment for it would be strictly upheld. Either the oath is followed completely and honestly, or the punishment for breaking it, often death in this world, is enforced. This would be the purist concept of an oath, but is it too simple? In a world where everything is constantly changing, including people, should we expect the conditions of an oath to be upheld no matter what? What if the person that you made an oath too has changed so drastically that they are no longer that person? But then again what if you are just using this line of reasoning as an excuse to moralize your desire to break an oath?
There is a tension here, and it reminds me of a dichotomy known as the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. This concept goes back as far as the Bible, and shows that a person can obey the literal words of a law while ignoring the intent of those who wrote it. Without a balance of both sides, deliberate misinterpretation of an oath or a law becomes too easy. You can deceive both yourself and others in this way. You can’t rely on the spirit of the law for every decision because the world is too complicated for that much flexibility. And if you ignore the spirit and only follow the literal meaning of the law, there will also be mistakes. The letter of the law acts as a heuristic, a rule of thumb, that tells us exactly what to do in the chaos of real world decisions. But by definition, heuristics ignore some of the details of each individual situation. The letter of the law should be followed, but sometimes the spirit of the law should override that. This would be the deliberate, wise, and acceptable way to break an oath. The wisdom is in knowing when it is right to do that.
Some oaths in Game of Thrones are just not taken seriously though. Let’s use the oath for the Night’s Watch as an example. Even though it includes celibacy (“I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children”), many members frequented a brothel in a town called Mole’s Town immediately south of the wall. Even if the literal letter of the oath didn’t include specifics, visiting a brothel seems to violate the spirit of the oath. Even Jon snow, clearly one of the most honest and honorable characters in the show, ended up breaking his vows when he hooked up with the wildling Ygritte. Although Jon did technically break his oath, his reasoning was more honorable than going to a brothel—he was in love with Ygritte. But we opened with the quote “Love is the death of duty”. This line, originally by Maester Aemon, indicates that it is not so much the literal act of sex that breaks a man’s vow to the Night’s Watch (although sex can obviously cause one to father children). Instead it is falling in love that will truly tempt a man away from his duty. Either way, why weren’t the members of the Night’s Watch punished for breaking their vows? Well Master Aemon, in the first episode of season four, says “If we beheaded every ranger who lay with a girl, the Wall would be manned by headless men.” Was it always this way and humans are just incapable of controlling themselves? Perhaps it’s been far too long since the men of the Night’s Watch have been tested, and the peaceful times have created weakness. G. Michael Hopf captures this sentiment in his post apocalyptic novel Those Who Remain: “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.”
Oaths can sound simple and clean in principle, but they often get messy when applied to the real world. Learning when to uphold an oath and when to break one became a theme for Jon Snow. His long character arc over the series captured his growing wisdom in this area. His first influence was of course Ned Stark, and Ned probably imparted the deepest and wisest sense of duty and honor into Jon. But Maester Aemon was also crucial to Jon’s growth as a character. This dialogue between Jon and Maester Aemon, one which is called back to in the very last episode, is particularly important. It beautifully captures the complication of oaths, honor, duty, and love. For me it serves as an underlying theme of the entire series. It occurs in the 9th episode of season 1 as Jon considers leaving the Night’s Watch to avenge his father’s death and join his families fight against the Lannisters.
Maester Aemon : Tell me, did you ever wonder why the men of the Night's Watch take no wives and father no children?
Jon Snow : No.
Maester Aemon : So they will not love. Love is the death of duty. If the day should ever come when your lord father was forced to choose between honor on the one hand and those he loves on the other, what would he do?
Jon Snow : He... He would do whatever was right. No matter what.
Maester Aemon : Then Lord Stark is one man in 10,000. Most of us are not so strong. What is honor compared to a woman's love? And what is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms? Or a brother's smile?
Jon Snow : Sam told you.
Maester Aemon : We're all human. Oh, we all do our duty when there's no cost to it. Honor comes easy then. Yet sooner or later in every man's life there comes a day when it's not easy. A day when he must choose.
Jon Snow : And this is my day? Is that what you are saying?
Maester Aemon : Oh, it hurts, boy, Oh, yes. I know.
Jon Snow : You do not know! No one knows. I may be a bastard, but he is my father and Robb is my brother!
Maester Aemon : [chuckles] The gods were cruel when they saw fit to test my vows. They waited till I was old. What could I do when the ravens brought news from the South? The ruin of my House, the death of my family? I was helpless, blind, frail. But when I heard they had killed my brother's son, and his poor son, and the children. Even the little children!
Jon Snow : Who are you?
Maester Aemon : My father was Maekar, the First of his Name. My brother Aegon reigned after him, when I had refused the throne, and he was followed by his son Aerys, whom they called the Mad King.
Jon Snow : You're Aemon Targaryen.
Maester Aemon : I am a master of the Citadel, bound in service to Castle Black and the Night's Watch. I will not tell you... to stay or go. You must make that choice yourself, and live with it for the rest of your days. As I have.
There is so much wisdom coming from Maester Aemon in this scene. Jon Snow is stuck. Should he break his vow or ignore the family he loves in order to uphold his duty? Which one is more honorable? When asked what his father (of course he’s actually part of the Targaryen family tree) Lord Stark would do in this situation, Jon remarks “He would do whatever was right”. Ned Stark was a deeply honorable man, but he is rare. He is also dead. Jon can’t know for sure what his father would do. The wisdom of Maester Aemon can’t even tell Jon what to do; it can only assure Jon that he is right to be struggling with this. There is in fact no clean way out. But in the end the decision rests with Jon, and he must live with whatever he chooses. It is not even clear if Maester Aemon regrets the decision he made long ago to uphold his duty to the Night’s Watch, but he cannot change the past. The true lesson is that ultimately the moral responsibility rests with each individual. Love and duty are two primitives that come with the ticket of being human. When they are not conflicting, decisions are easy and the oaths can be easily upheld. But when they do conflict, every person must make that choice for themselves and live with it.
Jaime Lannister and Honor
Jaime Lannister’s ending was one of the biggest disappointments of this last season. He had such great character development throughout the show and I feel as though they threw that away. But in earlier seasons he had some great contributions to this theme of oaths, honor, and loyalty. At the beginning of the series— not least because he pushed Bran out of a window — my interpretation was that he had no honor. He seemed like a nihilistic person who considered oaths and vows to be empty words. I think this was the case, but as the show progressed we began to understand that there was more going on under the surface. He wasn’t always like that, and his nihilism towards oaths came from his failure to figure out what was right in the past. When Catelyn Stark accuses him of having no honor in season 2, he responds with this:
“So many vows. They make you swear and swear… Defend the king, obey the king, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your father despises the king? What if the king massacres the innocent? It’s too much. No matter what you do you’re forsaking one vow or another.”GOT Season 2 Episode 7
Jaime is not Jon Snow or Ned Stark; I can’t imagine Jon or Ned choosing nihilism because of the difficulty of keeping oaths. But at least we began to understand Jaime more. When we first met Brienne of Tarth, she was clearly more honorable than Jaime. While she would stand by her king no matter what, Jaime’s nickname was “kingslayer” because of the fact that he betrayed his oath to the Kingsguard by killing Aerys II Targaryen. At first, Brienne assumed he was a monster because of this. But Brienne’s interpretation was overly simple and naïve. She had her own moment of growth in the 5th episode of season 3 when she confronted Jaime about killing his king (the bath scene…). Jaime explains how the king had gone mad and wanted to murder millions of innocent people. He then asks Brienne this: “Tell me, if your precious Renly commanded you to kill your own father and stand by while thousands of men, women, and children burned alive, would you have done it? Would you have kept your oath then?” Did Jaime really break an oath? And if he did, was it the honorable thing to do?
The tension between conflicting loyalties and the difficulty of deciding what is honorable leads many people to become nihilistic towards the whole concept of honor. Jaime became disengaged and decided to essentially follow no code at all. But he grows and reengages with honor throughout the series. The real test of honor, I think, is how easily one can part with their oaths. We’ve already acknowledged that oaths need to be broken sometimes, but they should not be broken lightly. There should be a pain and struggle in making such a decision. But to never break an oath would be Jaime Lannister continuing to serve the mad king and hence failing to protect the innocent. What was so great about the relationship between Jaime and Brienne was that they both helped each other grow. Brienne learned to adopt a higher and personal moral code instead of blindly following her oaths. And Jaime abandoned his nihilism (except for the stupid ending) and reengaged with the world to try and reclaim his honor.
Jon and Tyrion: The Best Scene
This backdrop all leads to what I considered to be the best scene from season 8. Tyrion is imprisoned and Jon goes to visit him. The implication is that Tyrion will eventually be executed for his betrayal of Queen Daenerys. It is worth taking a quiet ten minutes to mindfully watch this scene again. It is a long ten-minute dialogue that harkens back to the in-depth dialogues from the early seasons— something that was mostly missing from these last two seasons. Tyrion is asking Jon to kill the queen. Tyrion understands how hard it is for Jon to break an oath. Jon has honor, and as we said honorable people don’t break oaths lightly. You can see the pain and struggle in Jon’s face as he even considers what Tyrion is asking. Jon resists at first, but you can see he has a moment of reversal when Tyrion asks him “Would you have done it…would you have burned the city down?”. And to add to the weight of all of this Jon also loves the queen.
Tyrion: “Love is more powerful than reason. We all know that. Look at my brother.”
Jon: “Love is the death of duty.”
Tyrion: "You just come up with that?"
Jon: "Maester Aemon said it a long time ago."
Tyrion: “Sometimes duty is the death of love.”
All the way back in season 1, as he debated abandoning the Night’s Watch for his family, Jon struggled with this same tension. The realization that he is in the same situation hits him when he quotes Master Aemon. If there was an obvious answer than he wouldn’t have to struggle to find out what is right. Yet part of him already knows what is right. Tyrion reminds Jon that his true duty is guarding the realms of men. When Maester Aemon asks Jon how Ned Stark would choose between honor and love, Jon answers with “He would do whatever was right…no matter what”. Tyrion goes on to tell Jon “It’s a terrible thing I’m asking…it’s also the right thing”.
This struggle between upholding and breaking oaths, between duty and love, is the underlying theme of the entire series. After Ned Stark died, Jon Snow became the heroic character who struggled with this balance to figure out what was right. He messed up many times but that didn’t stop him from continuing to struggle. The last two seasons in general felt like an outline instead of a fully realized story, but this particular scene was beautiful and deep. My podcast co-host Joe remarked to me that, even with a full ten seasons in which the writers did justice to the ending, this scene could remain exactly how it was. Jon remained torn about what to do until he actually confronted the queen, and it became clear that she was lost in her righteousness. He didn’t want to kill her, but he had to.
The lesson of the show, one that Ned Stark, Jon Snow, Maester Aemon, and many others lived out, is that we must as individuals adopt our own code of honor and follow that. If Jon Snow did not break his oath and kill Queen Daenerys, it would signal that killing millions of innocent lives does not break his code of honor. And who knows how many more innocent lives would be killed in the queen’s totalitarian pursuit of a utopia. It should never be easy to break an oath, but sometimes you have to. Oaths should be made very carefully and broken even more carefully. And as Master Aemon said, “You must make that choice for yourself, and live with it for the rest of your days, as I have”.
Thanks for reading/listening! -Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast
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