The ethics of caring in Game of Thrones

“Law must, like the other parts of the culture, be understood in its historical context and within ‘the political, social and economic conditions, which have given it form and shape.’ (Sandra Berns, Concise Jurisprudence, Federation Press, Sydney 1993, p. 120) If we look at the parts of society as inter-linking … we do see that our ‘public’ institutions continue to be dominated by males and we further comprehend that there are gender differences in personality traits and roles. It is evidence that law may, in fact, not reflect women’s experiences – instead seeing and treating women ‘the way men see and treat women,’ (Catharine MacKinnon, “Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State: Towards a Feminist Jurisprudence,” (1983) 8 Signs 685) which has been described as irrational, illogical, emotional and erratic. (Ngaire Naffine, ‘Sexing the Object of Law,” in M Thornton (ed.) Public and Private: Feminist Legal Debates, OUP, Melbourne 1995, pp 18-39.)”

Women and the Law in Australia, ed. Patricia Easteal, LexisNexis Butterworths 2010 Sydney.

A while ago, a post on /r/asoiaf caught my eye: it noted that the biggest difference between the books and the show was that ultimately, the big lessons of the books are missed by the show. Instead of showing us that Sansa learns from the cruelty and machinations of Cersei and Littlefinger, and resolves to never be like that, Show!Sansa is all about becoming a blend of Cersei and LF – the Queen in the North who is ruthless as well as strong. Tywin Lannister is still considered to the show to be A Great Man, rather than a cruel tyrant whose legacy is a stinking, rotting corpse and a pile of horse manure in the throne room.

Fundamentally, the showrunners’ biggest flaw in GOT was in missing the nuance and ethics of care at the heart of the books. We’re supposed to cheer on Jon and Sansa as they grow into leaders who care for the people they rule. We’re supposed to side eye Dany when she talks about care but then burns people alive. We’re supposed to feel deeply uncomfortable as Tyrion goes dark. We’re supposed to see Cersei as a tragic victim of misogyny but a horrendously cruel woman who has brought her own misery upon herself. We’re supposed to cheer on Jaime’s redemption but also remember that he is still (as at AFFC/ADWD) leading the Lannister armies to enforce the broken cruelty his father subjected the Riverlands to in the first arc of the books.

Short term gain and Big Impressive Water Cooler Moments are not what ASOIAF is about, and nowhere was that more starkly confirmed than in Season 8. Yes, I am grateful that for 8 seasons, a fantasy show was The Biggest TV Show In The World. But jeez I wish they’d actually adapted ASOIAF, instead of coming up with their idea of Game of Thrones…

People who are dissatisfied with the conclusions being drawn in the final season of the show are dissatisfied because the ‘answers’ are not sufficiently complex, or emotionally satisfying, or pay off long running book themes (like Jenny’s Song, Rhaegar and Lyanna etc.) I was so excited when I saw Jenny’s Song get a proper run in the show, and then…. nothing happened. The fact that Jon was Rhaegar’s son meant nothing at all. He didn’t even finish the Others. No one cared (but Dany, who went paranoid) that he could have a claim to the Iron Throne. Ultimately, it didn’t matter, except to give Kit Harington lots of scenes where he looked as confused as book fans watching the show.

R+L being married in the show is a great example:

  • It makes no sense, legally, from the world GRRM has developed
  • It provides a cute moment on screen, and an easy way to make Jon a legit Aegon Targaryen
  • But the show axed fAegon/Young Griff’s plot and is not introducing a Dany v Jon showdown in its place – why? Why not just use the book storyline? Because less named characters are ‘easier’??
  • Ultimately, it adds nothing to the show. As Rhaegar’s son, bastard or legitimate, Jon is always a threat to fAegon and Dany. More importantly though, he is a STARK, and he’s leading the fight against the Others in the North. If he makes it to the Iron Throne (and that’s a big if) it will be as a reward for saving the world from the Others, and being the most competent leader on the field – a culmination of learning the hard way throughout the books. He tried to lead the Night’s Watch and failed. He tried to live up to Ned Stark’s legacy, but failed to communicate his plans to the rest of the Night’s Watch.
    • The Watch itself is a microcosm of the Seven Kingdoms – they’ve forgotten who the true enemy is, and what they’re really fighting for. The North Remembers more than just the Red Wedding.

Another example: making Cersei the ultimate Big Bad that must be defeated. That makes no sense. The essence of Cersei’s characterisation in the books is that she thinks she’s an amazing leader, a Queen who should be a King, but she’s not. Everything Show Cersei has done should have decimated her power:

  • blowing up the Sept of Baelor should have led to the surviving nobility rejecting her claim as Queen, and the smallfolk to riot constantly.
    • cf: Rhaenyra and the storming of the Dragonpit.
    • Maegor and the Poor Fellows.
    • Aegon V and the nobles.
  • Openly admitting and brazenly celebrating the fact that her children came from her TWIN BROTHER.
  • And so on… nothing that Show Cersei did made any sense by the end. Jaime didn’t even fulfil the Valonquar prophecy… they just let the Red Keep crash down on them.

Let’s not even discuss Euron. Yikes.

Part of the problem with GOT is that they are trying to create a simple Good v Evil story in a complex world, and they fundamentally do not understand the ethics of caring. GRRM may not necessarily completely understand the ethics of care either, but he’s aiming for complexity at least.

Ethics of Care

The ethics of care, or feminist ethics, has been developed since the 1970s, as a way of explaining an ethical approach that incorporates how people and roles that have been considered traditionally “feminine” approach decision making and prioritisation. In particular, it provides an alternative to liberal ‘justice’ theories of ethics

Here’s a good explainer. This goes into more depth. Also here.

In the books, GRRM has used his characterisation to demonstrate different ethical approaches.

Robert is very direct and doesn’t give a fig for consequences. He does what he thinks is right, but his decisions about based around strength, conquest, and what will bring him the greatest personal gain in the fastest time.

Ned desperately wants to uphold the Arryn code of honour he learned (ironically, alongside Robert in the Vale as boys) but also has to be The Stark in Winterfell. He knows he has to make tough decisions, that have a utilitarian effect – in the North, the old men go out into the winter to die, knowing that their sacrifice will mean more food to go around to their grandchildren, so the North survives winter. Ned let Catelyn stew over her ‘betrayal’ for years, because it meant that no one poked around into the fact that Lyanna mysteriously died in Dorne after being kidnapped and raped (according to Robert’s recasting of history) for months. In order to keep his promise to Lyanna, that her baby would be safe, he had to risk his marriage, by telling Catelyn that he almost immediately after the wedding, cheated on her with some nameless woman, and cared as much for his bastard son as he did for the trueborn heir she presented to him after the war. He has to lie to care. It is crucial that Robert doesn’t realise that Jon is Rhaegar’s son, born to Lyanna… ‘dragonspawn’ that Robert would kill without question.

Stannis tries to do what is right and just, but almost universally ballses it up at every turn. He says the prayers, he does the things Melisandre asks him to do, but he doesn’t really believe it. He stews over past insults from his brothers, instead of trying to help the Baratheon family stay strong. Imagine a version of ASOIAF where Stannis finds out with Jon Arryn that Robert’s “children” with Cersei are incestuous bastards – but he works with Renly, Jon then Ned to achieve a peaceful arrest of Cersei and Jaime, a humane direction of Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen to orders of service instead of death, and a new wife for Robert. (Assuming Robert didn’t drunkenly get himself killed before the wedding…) Stannis could have played politics with the Tyrells and Renly, and still ended up being Robert’s heir again and (assuming that Robert’s demise at the tusks of a boar was just as likely to occur with or without Cersei’s plotting and Lancel feeding the king strong wine?) ultimately succeeded his brother. A stable transition of power, not ripping the Seven Kingdoms apart. Then we’d only have the plots dealing with the Others in the North and Dany in the east. But that doesn’t happen: because Stannis is too selfish, fundamentally, to put his attempts at saving the kingdom above his selfish desire to be respected and liked.

Catelyn cares for her children. She also is vengeful when she needs to be. Stripped of her caring essentials, Catelyn rises from her death as Lady Stoneheart. Arya is unknowingly following her mother’s footsteps to becoming a merciless creature of death, while in the Vale, Sansa is learning how to compartmentalise abuse and play along with your abuser to reduce the risk of violence to herself in the short term.

All of these people, whether playing the game of thrones, or just trying to survive, are complex. When GRRM is at his best, he’s tapping into the ethics of care: pointing out that when people prioritise relationships and value care, things work out better. When you’re selfish or overly consumed with honour, duty, yourself, your family…. it all goes wobbly. What makes the Starklings survive, ultimately, is that Ned and Cat taught them from a young age to care and try to be do the best for everyone.

But that’s really not what the show did…

At every turn, the show sneered at and dismissed the ethics of care. Sansa gets lines about “I may be a slow learner, but I learn eventually” and tries to undermine her brother/cousin Jon as Lady of Winterfell, in seeming jealous competition with Dany.

Robb is a doomed twit in love, who selfishly broke a marriage contract, instead of being a confused young man, trying to be honourable like his father before him and marrying the noble girl whose virginity he took.

Tywin, the butcher of the Westerlands, somehow becomes a strategic genius, who can openly threaten the Queen of Thorns with ending her family line (because Loras is the heir instead of the third son… why?) instead of diplomatically building bridges to end conflict – and we’re supposed to think this is “good leadership” instead of petty nonsense.

Ellaria Sand, who in the books begs and pleads for peace lest all her daughters die in some stupid quest for vengeance, becomes the woman who stabs the Prince of Dorne and implements a bloody coup… which is short lived and inexplicably overturned.

It makes for “good tv” apparently.

The scenes and episodes that stand out the most are not these big moments of masculine violence and egotistical grandstanding. The moments which rightfully garnered the most praise are the quieter moments, which illustrate the ethics of care…

  • Yara/Asha Greyjoy telling Theon “don’t die so far from the sea, little brother” in a last ditch attempt to stop him from trying to keep Winterfell, a venture she knows is doomed to fail badly.
  • Jaime opening up to Brienne about the barbarity and frightening intention to blow up King’s Landing shown by Aerys II at the end of Robert’s Rebellion.
  • Cersei and Robert wondering how long their mutual hatred can keep the peace of the Seven Kingdoms together. (A rare instance of the showrunners understanding what makes ASOIAF work well.)
  • Catelyn grieving her children and blaming herself, thinking that she has brought about her family’s ruin by refusing to love “a motherless boy” (again – an instance of the show beautifully filling in a gap in the books).
  • Stannis telling Davos why he is the best Hand of the King imaginable, because he holds his King to uphold the justice for all people, not just the rich and noble.
  • Lady Brienne of Tarth – A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.
  • Podrick singing Jenny’s Song as the armies at Winterfell get ready to fight the army of the dead.

All the things that worked well are rooted in this complex dynamic of trying to find the best ethical approach that allows the character making the decision to find a way to care about the people around them – and making those decisions in the face of rules and laws and ethical principles centred around egoism, justice, more masculine defined “reason and logic” than the more feminine defined ‘instinct and care’.

Honestly, I think that failing to understand that this was the core of the Song of Ice and Fire is where the show made its biggest mistakes. I don’t need big flashy battle sequences. I need complex characterisation with outcomes that make sense, and show me the struggles of the characters to try and find a balance between doing what is right and doing what is easy.

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