GAME OF THRONES And The Perils Of Self-Betterment

This week’s Game of Thrones was one of the best of the whole series (I’d put it up there with the best of TV in the 21st century, tbh), and it was only possible because the show has lasted eight seasons. On paper the episode is a slow one, a bit of a stall before the big battle next week – billed as the biggest battle scene ever filmed for television – but in reality it was the beautiful payoff of eight seasons worth of story and character. What we got this week was an episode where almost all of our main characters showed us just how far they’ve come since the first episode (or their first appearance). 

When GOT started it seemed like it was a show that would be about deconstructing heroism and chivalry; Ned Stark’s death was the real battle cry for this, and the way that the bad guys won again and again hammered it home. The Stark children have either been killed – RIP Robb, and remember Rickon? – or become incredibly hardened to survive in this difficult world. Arya is a killer, Bran is a humorless mystic and Sansa is an iron lady who takes absolutely no shit. 

But there’s been another track happening – bad characters have, slowly but surely, been redeemed. In fact some of the show’s worst people – characters who, in the first season seemed absolutely like villains – have become some of the most honorable, decent and caring characters remaining. 

One of these is The Hound, who grew from a selfish, murderous jerk into a man who will fight – and maybe die next week – for others. I love that this week’s episode gave him a little time to reflect on his change with Arya; one of the great things about the growth of GOT’s scumbags is that the growth never happens on its own – each character is moved and changed by someone else. For The Hound it was little Arya, and I really liked seeing him be a little hurt when she didn’t realize that he had been fighting for her in the past. He’s a character who rarely gives anything of himself, always hiding behind bluster, bravado and brilliantly funny threats, and that small moment was beautiful and vulnerable. If the Starks have been growing harder to deal with these difficult times, The Hound is one of the people who have learned to grow softer in them. 

But for my money the best interaction when it comes to characters changing was a short, funny one between Jamie and Tyrion Lannister. We have lived through an era of Bad Man TV shows – from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad  – and Jamie is sort of the antithesis of that character. He began at his worst – a privileged jerk who is in love with his sister and will try and kill a little boy without thinking twice – and he has evolved into a true hero. Now, in season 8, when he tells Brienne that he wants to serve under her he shows what a true knight he has become. Listening to him list the requirements of knighthood:

“In the name of the Warrior, I charge you to be brave. 

In the name of the Father, I charge you to be just.

In the name of the Mother, I charge you to defend the innocent”

I couldn’t help but think how little he embodied those traits in season one and how much he embodies them now. After all, being cocky about your skills doesn’t make you brave – heading north with one hand and the awareness that you don’t have the moves you once had, that’s brave. He’s changed so much, and he’s changed in large part because of his relationship with Brienne. 

Tyrion, meanwhile, had what may be a harder arc. If Jamie began the series too full of himself to even notice that he was hurting other people, Tyrion was keenly aware of the pain everywhere around him. He had experienced so much of it himself, how could he not? But he chose to ignore it, and after a few feints at being a braver man (Battle of Blackwater) he eventually was consumed first by his family and then by his own hatred. It’s almost impossible to remember, but Tyrion strangled the love of his life before he killed his father – only one of those two murders gets brought up in this latest episode. Jamie hit his bottom and had Brienne help him find a new way for himself; Tyrion’s bottom lasted quite a while, took him across an ocean and required the Mother of Dragons to really be ended.

But those circumstances all led Tyrion to a place where he can no longer cavalierly exploit another human being. He’s seen too much suffering. He’s been a slave. He can’t go back to the whorehouses he once frequented because he has a very different vision of them.

So that brings us to this Jamie and Tyrion moment. They’re reminiscing about their first visit to Winterfell, and remembering who they were then highlights the differences in who they are now. Jamie asks Tyrion if he misses his old ways, and Tyrion sharply says, “Of course I do.” 

This makes Jamie note that while he can never again be the Golden Lion of the Lannisters, Tyrion can easily find a prostitute and resume his old behaviors. “If only it were that easy,” Tyrion says. “The perils of self-betterment.”

That sentiment hit me like a thunderbolt. 

When you change you don’t necessarily leave behind all that you were. Sometimes you want to, and sometimes you look back at who you were and feel disgust or shame. But the farther you get from the circumstances that changed you, the clearer your vision of yourself gets. And the reality is that sometimes you find that you do miss the old behaviors, because even if they were bad, they were fun. 

But there comes a point where you just can’t engage in those behaviors anymore. It’s like changing your diet – at first you really wish you could have all those sweets, but after a few weeks candy is too sweet for you to even imagine eating. You just can’t go back to it.

(Until you do. What this episode doesn’t address, and likely the show will never address because who has the time, is that just as you can change yourself to be a better person, you can also regress from that betterment in record time)

All of a sudden the stuff that made you feel comforted or safe or important or funny or whatever are things you not only shouldn’t do anymore… you find that you can’t quite bring yourself to do them. Tyrion isn’t abstaining from prostitutes for political reasons but because he understands the women are being exploited (this is not my perspective on sex work, but rather an understanding of how the character sees the situation) and he just can’t have fun in that scenario anymore.

True self-betterment (a medieval-ish turn of phrase I like better than the modern self-improvement, which sounds like what you do to a house) results in certain doors becoming closed to you, and that’s not always easy. I miss some of my shitty old behaviors; they were fun. I had a good time often. But not only have I decided not to behave in those ways anymore, it’s actually unnatural for me to do so at this point. It’s barely even a choice – when I’m negative or unpleasant towards someone I IMMEDIATELY am aware of how I behaved, how it made them feel and how wrong it was. I tend to apologize quickly, not because it’s the right thing to do but because I feel shitty if I don’t. 

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen that presented in quite this way before. You kind of get it in A Clockwork Orange, where Alex’s old behaviors literally sicken him, but this is so much more nuanced and interesting. Tyrion is musing about that point in self-betterment where the ship starts to sail itself, where your brain is working differently, but your consciousness is still kind of catching up. He knows he’s changed, he sees the difference, but he also remembers his old self enough to feel like an observer caught between two states. 

Should Tyrion survive the coming Battle of Winterfell (and the end of the series) I imagine he’ll feel that way less and less. Those doors that get closed, you start to forget what it was like when they were open, and you end up putting furniture in front of them, or wallpapering over them. You eventually figure out new ways to feel comforted or safe or funny or important or whatever. After all, that’s what happens in your life anyway – it’s just that the self-aware nature of the whole self-betterment thing allows you to really feel the change, to really notice those old doors becoming inaccessible. 

There’s another truth about change that this episode holds, and it comes when Jamie and Bran have their moment. Jamie can’t quite understand why Bran didn’t throw him under the bus in the opening trial, and Bran explains that Jamie is needed for the fight to come. But Bran’s real reasoning is more complex: he wouldn’t be the Three-Eyed Raven without Jamie pushing him out the window. And Jamie wouldn’t be the heroic guy who is willing to die at Winterfell if he hadn’t pushed Bran out the window. Their bad experiences and actions led them to become the people they are today – the people they need to be today. 

This is the fundamental truth about self-betterment – nobody pursues it because they were doing great and wondered if they could be even better. Very often we’re forced into situations where the options are get better or get dead. This episode is full of characters – like Theon, or the disgraced knight Ser Jorah Mormont – who previously hit their lowest point and decided to build themselves up from there and are now perhaps braver and more heroic than they ever were before. 

So yeah, there’s a lot to be said about the cynical way Game of Thrones approaches the slow coarsening of the Starks, and the way it relishes the bad guys routing the good guys at every turn, but this episode proves that the show’s real arc is one of quiet redemption, of flawed and broken people making the hard choices required to get better – including the choice to willingly put themselves directly in death’s path.