By Manik Sharma May. 21, 2019
Game of Thrones has painted perhaps the glummest picture of love ever conceived in popular culture. Love does not last or make us better persons. Instead, it corrupts, handicaps, and burdens as much as any other responsibility in the world.
In the last episode of Game of Thrones, a typically brooding Jon Snow tells Daenerys’ prisoner Tyrion about something Maestor Aemon told him years ago: “Love is the death of duty.” As Snow contemplated the choices before him, GoT came full circle in elevating what it has always believed human nature pivots on — love. The show, though it has always been pitched as a fight for the Iron Throne, and is popularly perceived as the battle to get to it, has always been about love on some level. Beneath its instruments of war, murder, betrayal, and violence, GoT’s doomed view of love may yet become its most radical contribution to popular culture.
Those left standing when GoT ended were largely loveless, or had at least seen heartbreak. Tyrion had murdered a woman he fell for and had been disillusioned by the other. Brienne made peace with the fact that Jaime wanted to die alongside his sister Cersei more than grow old by her side. Greyworm’s sense of loss after Missandei’s death turned into uncharacteristic bloodlust. Over the course of eight seasons, characters like Littlefinger and Ellaria have surrendered their better judgement to the vagaries of passion, only to come out shorthanded in a tryst with fate and reason. With the exception of the circumstantially put-together Sam and Gilly, men and women in Westeros have survived battlefields better than they have crawled out of the testing fires of love.
We perceive love to be a virtue that transforms and, in most cases, improves our personalities. But GoT could not possibly be a vehicle for such a rose-tinted notion. Just as much as the show waged war on safe choices in popular storytelling, it also challenged the idea that love provides a steady dose of morality, which cleanses the soul. Tyrion grows disillusioned with the emotion, after he witnesses a woman he adores for her socialism turn into a genocidal tyrant. Jorah Mormont, another of Daenerys’ lovers died saving her, and for what? One could call it nuance if this weren’t such a prevalent trend across character arcs. But in its entirety, as if it’s the platform the series is raised on, the show believed that love is doomed, cursed perhaps to relive a truth that discredits its own inflated sense of existence.
“The more people you love, the weaker you are,” Cersei once told Sansa. On a show where characters spend their lives plotting ways to turn on one another and acquire greater power, the most impactful betrayal on GoT is of the luxurious idea that love draws from humans their best selves. When push came to shove, Jon became a killer of monarchs like Jaime, and Jamie became Jon, a man bafflingly committed to promises. Jaime clearly wasn’t empowered, neither was Jon.
I know it’s the spectacle, the many deaths, and the many shocks for which GoT will be remembered. After all, they were creative risks that paid off in the long run. Subversively, however, the show has painted perhaps the glummest picture of love ever conceived in popular culture. No one survived whole, not least the idea that love lasts or works principally toward a collective morality. Instead, it corrupts, handicaps, and burdens as much as any other responsibility in the world. It may be harsh critique of something that popular culture has put up on a pedestal, but it is the closest we have to a practical understanding. GoT may have left us with memorable characters and moments but it has also left us with a rather unflattering portrayal of love that fits the modern age; expressed best by Jamie’s hopelessly prophetic words that started the whole journey: “The things I do for love.” Never forget what Game of Thrones did.