“There is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man.” – Varys, A Game of Thrones (novel)
Let’s talk about justice. Namely, the fact that it does not exist. It’s a construct. If I smack you across the face the scales of justice aren’t all of a sudden out of balance and the universe isn’t going to rework events so that I somehow get punished. The only way some form of “justice” is served is if people I am among think I deserve a punishment. It’s no different in Westeros and George R. R. Martin certainly loves to show us that.
First, it’s worth noting that Game of Thrones’ episodes aren’t episodes in the usual sense. Few of them begin and end a story or even a theme. The show’s story and themes flow from hour to hour. One hour won’t be about “selling out” in the way that an episode of Mad Men might be. What makes this intriguing is that it’s difficult to analyze a single episode of Game of Thrones without heavily relying on what’s come before. In this sense, talking about the show is more like talking about a book (which is rather appropriate). I say this because “And Now His Watch Is Ended” deals with the idea of justice for most of its run but it’s impossible to discuss it without bringing up Ned Stark, our former protagonist, who was the epitome of a just man. Ned’s death showed both the audience and the characters that there’s no hand of justice coming from above; shit happens and you either deal with it or get run over. Poor Ned Stark believed that everyone had the same moral code as him, as if it was in everyone’s DNA, and we saw where that got him.
Yet tonight we saw Beric Dondarrion, a man who still believes in Ned Stark’s moral code but unlike Ned, Beric is aware that he lives in a world that does not follow it. Unlike most others in Westeros, Beric neither gives up nor allows himself to be corrupted; he fights back. It’s appropriate that Arya is in the scene with him as of all the characters in the show, it is perhaps her that is most similar to Ned Stark although there is darkness in her, too, as she mutters the names of each person responsible for her father’s death every night. Is it justice she seeks or something else?
Beric’s target is Sandor Clegane, the Hound. The Hound is an appropriate target as he has long shown a total lack of care for the wellbeing of those around him. It’s not only that Clegane is unjust; it’s also that he plain doesn’t give a shit about anyone else. When reminded of his killing of Mycah, the butcher’s boy, the Hound remarks, “He was a bleeder” and that he only did what Joffrey commanded. This doesn’t satisfy Arya and it doesn’t satisfy Beric. In their view a person is responsible for his or her actions. So what if Joffrey told the Hound to kill Mycah? The Hound could have not done it or at least have done it in a more merciful fashion. But the Hound doesn’t see things in terms of morality. He only sees weakness and ways to snuff it out.
Despite the cutthroat world the show has, Beric and the Starks are not the only characters interested in justice. Stannis Baratheon (who isn’t in tonight’s episode, sadly) was considered a fair man by Ned Stark (it is he that Varys speaks about in the quote at the top) although Melisandre may have tainted him too much by this point. Daenarys Targaryen is as just as Stannis at his best but also more forgiving. In one of Game of Thrones’ most powerful, and just plain awesome, moments Daenarys has her dragon burn alive the leader of the enslaved soldiers as she tells the soldiers to kill their slave masters. We like Daenarys and in moments like this it’s tough to argue against her, or someone like her, being the leader. She has the conscience and the smarts for leadership and has the humility, for now, to learn from her mistakes. Daenarys is interested in revenge but she is also interested in what is right from the people of Essos and Westeros. However, it is more than possible that her quest for power will overtake her moral code, just as it did with Stannis. Can we still call her just in such a case?
In a quieter, but no less powerful, scene we see another key player who is interested in justice: Varys. Back in season one he told Ned Stark that he was one of the few people in King’s Landing who truly served the realm and its people. Not surprisingly, Varys liked Ned even though he knew Ned would never get anywhere. Ned’s sense of morality matched Varys’ as Ned, too, wanted to serve the realm; Varys was just more practical.
Yet the scene with Varys tonight, a chilling one that featured outstanding music by Ramin Djawadi, shows that his feelings for justice may be too tainted by vengeance. He has had UPSed to his chambers a box with a barely alive sorcerer in it. The sorcerer castrated Varys when he was younger so Varys’ loathing of him is more than understandable but there’s something vile about Varys having him stuffed away in the dark. He practically cackles over the man as he stands above the box. It’s not justice that Varys is interested in here.
What decency that remains in Westeros has begun to turn to rot as winter comes. There is so much corruption in the land and so few people willing or able to do anything about it that even those who wish to take a stand are stained and slowly being drawn deeper and deeper into the mud. Is it that hard to imagine that Daenarys could one day be like Tywin Lannister, dismissing even those closest to her as she methodically went about the business of handling a brutal, senseless war? Is it impossible that Arya will become as angry and dissatisfied as Stannis? I’m not so sure it is. Unless more people being to stand against the corruption then even those who are most just will fall to ruin.
Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.