Shame Bells, Dragons, Bodies: The Art of Suspended Justice and Season 6 of 'Game of Thrones'

Mark W. Pleiss

Game of Thrones offers a reality that's pleasurable to contemplate but terrifying to inhabit.

Game of Thrones

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Iain Glen, Maisie Williams
Network: HBO

In the months preceding Sunday's release of HBO's sixth season of Game of Thrones, fans have been left to contemplate two images: a body and a smirk.

The body belongs to Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who's last seen lying on frozen ground with blood seeping from his chest. He rose to power with courage, discipline, and a talent for organizing and leading conflicting societies toward a common goal, but now he’s dead -- or is he?

The smirk belongs to Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). The gesture is the focal point of the teaser image for the sixth season on HBO's website, which features the disembodied heads of the remaining lead characters. Unlike Snow, Cersei's a vile and abhorrent political leader only capable of destruction and self-preservation. She inherited her power, and has kept it through cruelty and cunning, but lacks the moral compass and compassion of visionary leaders like Snow.

The juxtaposition is tragic and ironic. Snow, the hero, gets a sword through the heart, while the incestuous Cersei Lannister -- who hasn't done a single decent thing in six seasons -- smirks at what will likely be a season of redemption.

Such injustice defines the show's signature appeal. Game of Thrones inverts the common procedures of television entertainment, wherein order and reason inevitably dominate chaos and irrationality. Unlike the happy or satisfactory resolutions common to crime shows, romances, and comedies, Game of Thrones projects a world in which good never truly conquers evil. In turn, the show invites audiences to contemplate their basest desire, and to yearn for the same brand of vengeance and bloodshed that the characters enact on a weekly basis.

Game of Thrones belongs to the world of fantasy, a category of entertainment that includes genres like horror and science fiction. Not only does fantasy exceed the limits of science and history with monsters, dragons, and time travel, but projects a dark and often nefarious reality where violence, disorder, and perversion are common. The unique contribution of Game of Thrones to the world of fantasy is the show's utter suspension of justice. The show unravels around sinister acts that demand vengeance, but satisfactory retribution is unusual, and when it does take place, it often appears late and is incommensurate with the transgression that was originally committed.

The first season gravitates around an injustice that initiates and defines the major story lines. The execution of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) puts an abrupt end to a much-desired utopic order, and consequently launches audiences into a reality without a moral compass. The unspoken but pervading question of the entire show, one might argue, is whether the death of Ned Stark will ever be avenged, and if order and justice -- the values he embodied -- will ever return.

Until then, these values only appear sporadically and in isolated occasions. No better example is the death of Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson). Perhaps even more morally bankrupt than his mother Cersei, Joffrey's a young but monstrous being with a penchant for harming animals and torturing humans. However, justice eventually comes to Joffrey when he's fed poison at a celebration and suffers a slow and painful death. His body adopts a bluish color, and he's left in a stiff and horrifying position, as though the venom has somehow externalized the evil within him.

Despite the much-deserved brutality of his final moments, there's something unsatisfying about Joffrey's death. Perhaps it is the spurious nature of desire -- we got what we wanted for several seasons in only a few seconds -- or maybe it's the haunting image of Joffrey's body, which becomes a mirror to our primal selves. We've wanted to see him die since he first murdered a dire wolf, but the unmoving body of a tortured adolescent reminds us of the reptilian desire for blood and vengeance that lurks within all of us.

Cersei gets a similar dose of justice in the closing hours of season five. She finally confronts an organization she can't bribe or intimidate, and is eventually cornered for her misdeeds. Unlike that of her son, Cersei's retribution is played out across several episodes in a murky dungeon where she lives on the floor, feeds off gruel, and laps water from crevices.

Her punishment climaxes in an unforgettable scene in which she's stripped naked and paraded through town. The lowly masses spit on her and call her insidious names, all to the rhythm of a high priestess ringing a hand and proclaiming the word "shame".

Unlike her son's retribution, hers isn't final. Cersei eventually reaches her allies, including a powerful knight who has been hired to protect her, and -- like she’s done several times -- we’re left to assume she'll again rise to power. For this reason, her smirk is significant. A central question in the upcoming season, it seems, is if the gesture is warranted, or if it’s the product of misplaced self-confidence.

The death of Jon Snow evokes different emotions. Our interest in this character is similar to that of Ned Stark. He offers not only the promise of leadership and unity, but also the only hope for overcoming an existential threat to every character and every civilization. His murder rehashes the trauma of Ned’s death, and it illuminates the comparative pettiness of the conflicts among the many societies.

Even in the face of mass extermination from the white walkers, humankind’s unable to look past their differences and unite. Snow's bleeding wounds suggest that ancient feuds weigh heavier than survival, which means everything that takes place in the show -- every journey, betrayal, and murder -- may inevitably prove unimportant. If the societies do not unite, the white walkers will annihilate them.

What's perhaps most terrifying about the show, other than the suspension of justice, is its heartless depiction of human life as a brutal, unimportant, and short piece of a larger cycle that is destined toward eventual self-annihilation. Such logic fascinates for its clear disavowal of the idea that human existence is in some way significant, and also provides the fantasy of showing what life would be like in a world without order. Game of Thrones effectively provides us with a reality that's pleasurable to contemplate but terrifying to inhabit.

Perhaps Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) said it best: "If you're looking for justice, you’ve come to the wrong place."

Mark Pleiss is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. He received a PhD in Spanish Literature from the University of Colorado-Boulder, and writes about topics that include crime fiction, parody, and the politics of monsters. He wrote feature stories for several newspapers in the Midwest before joining academia, and enjoys fusing his knowledge of theory with his love of popular culture.

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