tv What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Human Goodness
This article contains lots and lots and lots of spoilers.
“The things I do for love,” says Jaime Lannister in the very first episode of Game of Thrones, which aired on HBO back in 2011. Of course, as he utters these pretty words, he’s pushing a child out of a tower window.
That scene set the tone for the fantasy series, now in its eighth and final season. As the characters vie with each other for the Iron Throne—the symbol of ultimate power in the series—Game of Thrones has depicted countless killings, some horrible torture, and many different kinds of sexual violence. At numerous points, the series has suggested that no good deed goes unpunished.
For these reasons, for many people, Game of Thrones is unwatchable—but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming phenomenally popular all over the world. As its audience has grown, however, Game of Thrones has started to shift in an unexpected direction. There is still a great deal of evil in the not-so-merry old land of Westeros—and even fundamentally good men and women must do vicious things in order to survive. Nevertheless, as the series draws to a close, characters who seemed inherently villainous—like Jaime Lannister—are beginning to reveal long-hidden goodness.
It’s hard to say where the characters are going to end up by the series finale, but I, for one, am a sucker for stories in which decency and kindness are hard-won. Game of Thrones doesn’t just accidentally hint at goodness here and there; in fact, the show actively teaches through its character development that people can change for the better, and that qualities like generosity, gratitude, empathy, and forgiveness (for oneself and others) are the instruments of their evolution. Don’t believe me? Here are seven examples of human goodness from Game of Thrones.
1. Ned and Catelyn Stark raising Jon Snow
When we first meet Jon Snow, he’s the bastard son of Ned Stark—an outsider at Winterfell, destined to join the brothers of the Night’s Watch. Later, of course, Jon turns out to be much more than that: He’s in reality the child of Ned’s sister and Rhaegar Targaryen, and thus rightful heir to the Iron Throne. Ned brings Jon home as a bastard in order to protect him from certain death, and Ned doesn’t even tell his wife the secret.
This act reveals a great deal of goodness, albeit of an impure kind. There’s Ned’s love for his sister, certainly, and not a small amount of courage. More than that, though, we see how Ned’s wife Catelyn forgives him for what she is told is the result of an affair, and we see how the two of them build a good, mature marriage even in the wake of secrets, betrayals, and power struggles—rare in Westeros as in our real world. Though Catelyn is never able to accept Jon, when he gets sick as a child, she stays with him through the night and prays to the gods to let him live.
This story contains a moral ambiguity typical of Game of Thrones: Ned’s act of goodness is to tell a lie; Catelyn’s is to choose to see her husband’s basic goodness even after seeming infidelity, caring for a child whom she sees as a symbol of unfaithfulness. This doesn’t sound ideal, but Ned and Catelyn do not live in an ideal world, to say the least. Simply put, they make the best of a bad situation.
2. Ned and Jon supporting Arya Stark in becoming herself
In Westeros as in most of our world, women don’t have as many opportunities as men. When Ned’s young daughter Arya shows more interest in martial arts than, say, embroidery, everyone discourages her except for her father and supposedly bastard half-brother Jon. Jon gives her a sword she dubs Needle; Ned gets her lessons in sword-fighting. These are acts of rebellion for all three of them.
Again, there’s a moral ambiguity here: Arya wants to learn to kill, just like the men of her world. And kill she does, as she grows older—she ultimately becomes the most ruthless and effective mass murderer in a TV series where competition for that title is fierce. Along the way, she shows a rather incredible amount of perseverance, resourcefulness, and courage.
One of the things that makes Arya a hero—and not merely an assassin—is that she retains her humanity even after having experienced (and inflicted) brutal acts of violence and degradation. This becomes abundantly clear in the current season, as we see Arya reach out to Jon, her friend Gendry, her sister Sansa, and even the Hound, showing each of them compassion, kindness, and warmth. The forgiveness she shows for her former kidnapper Sandor Clegane is particularly striking: Arya recognizes that he has evolved and become a better man, and so she takes him off of her death list.
It’s hard to imagine Arya becoming this person without the foundational support of her father and brother. It’s a kind of attachment theory for warriors: Those early connections allow Arya to grow into a complex, resilient, powerful young woman. It’s their goodness to her that helps her to hold on to her own goodness when everything around her is bad.
3. Tyrion Lannister’s kindness toward the Stark siblings, especially Sansa
Tyrion is one of the moral pillars of Game of Thrones, which is darkly hilarious in light of the fact that he’s also a devious libertine who murders his own father and ex-lover. Again and again, Tyrion shows that he is, at the end of the day, a decent, if bitter, man. This is nowhere more apparent than in his behavior toward almost all of the children of Ned Stark.
After Brandon Stark is crippled, the brilliant polymath Tyrion designs a saddle that will allow him to ride a horse. “I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things,” he explains. This unforced benevolence extends to Jon Snow, as the two become very unlikely allies in some truly horrendous situations. “Never forget what you are,” says Tyrion to Jon about being an outcast. “The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”
But Tyrion’s greatest compassion is reserved for the teenaged Sansa Stark. When the two are forced to marry, Sansa is horrified: Tyrion, in the eyes of their society, is an ugly dwarf, and he’s a member of the family that killed her father. Tyrion understands and sadly accepts her horror and, even in the face of it, does his utmost to make the nightmare of her life as bearable as possible, largely by leaving her alone, occasionally by protecting her. He also becomes a covert mentor to Sansa, trying to help her survive and preserve her integrity in an environment bent on destroying her body and soul.
After their sham marriage ends, Tyrion and Sansa are separated for many years. When they meet again this season, it’s as equals. “Many underestimated you,” he tells her. “Most of them are dead now.” Thanks in part to him, Sansa no longer needs Tyrion’s kindness. Instead, she gets his respect.
4. Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen bridging differences with their enemies
“You know nothing, Jon Snow.” This is the line Ygritte of the Free Folk notoriously tosses in face of everyone’s favorite bastard. And it’s true that Jon Snow is not the sharpest knife in Westeros. There is, however, one thing he knows that the other characters can’t seem to get through their heads: None of them will survive if they don’t cooperate.
It’s this insight, more than his heritage, that makes Jon king material. From his humble beginnings at Winterfell to fighting at Hardhome to bending the knee for Daenerys, Jon never stops putting the welfare of others ahead of his own.
When he meets the Free Folk north of the wall, it’s as their enemy—chief among them the fierce, bushy-bearded Tormund. Many twists and turns follow, and over time, incredibly, Jon wins Tormund’s trust and forges an alliance with the Free Folk against the White Walkers. This effort gets him killed, literally—his fellow “crows” stab him to death for the crimes of seeing the big picture and trying to transcend differences. Magic brings him back to life, but Jon has a new mission: warning the rest of Westeros about the coming zombie apocalypse.
“The Long Night is coming and the dead come with it,” he says. “No clan can stop them. The Free Folk can’t stop them, the Night’s Watch can’t stop them, and all the southern kings can’t stop them! Only together. All of us.”
Daenerys Targaryen follows a similar path as she rises to power, though she is far more charismatic, ruthless, and manipulative than Jon. Through a combination of inspiration and conquest, she manages to do something quite tricky in their divided world: She builds a multinational fighting force based on ideals, rather than loyalty to one family. When the two finally meet, they become natural allies against the White Walkers. But after the zombies are defeated, as we head for the final episode, Jon’s selflessness seems to be on a collision course with her single-minded pursuit of the Iron Throne.
There are probably some lessons in their stories for contemporary Americans, who chase selfish interests and exaggerate small differences in the face of global crises that threaten us all, like climate change and economic inequality. In some cases, Jon and Daenerys overcome differences and competing interests through persuasion and identifying common goals. In others, they simply kill those who won’t get with the program.
It’s hard to say how applicable this fantasy might be to our world, but one thing seems true to me: We could use more leaders like Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, who at least try to bring people together instead of tearing them apart.
5. Everything about Samwell Tarly
Sam’s not much of a fighter, which in Westeros is disgraceful for a man. Sent to the Night’s Watch by his cruel father, Sam flunks his training—but with the help of Jon Snow finds a gentler role at Castle Black. From that point onward, Sam becomes one of the most important characters in Game of Thrones purely through the force of his intelligence and decency.
Samwell Tarly: the secret hero of Game of Thrones.
It’s Sam who is observant enough to spot the coming of the White Walkers, and who does the homework necessary to defeat them—a far more crucial contribution to every character’s survival than waving a sword. Sam rescues Gilly and her baby, gradually assumes responsibility for their welfare, and with them forms a family based entirely on love—an uncommon event in Westeros. Sam also repeatedly tends to the dying, a role normally reserved for women in his world.
Sam’s story culminates in season seven, as he studies at the Citadel. Though desperate battles are the hallmark of Game of Thrones, the series does a superb job (at least for nerds like me) of capturing why a man like Sam would be thrilled to be in this center of learning and knowledge. That’s why we understand what’s at stake when Sam decides to break the Citadel rules—and thus risk expulsion—to more deeply investigate the White Walkers and also to save the life of the terminally diseased Jorah Mormont.
Without Samwell Tarly, Game of Thrones would be a very different story; his thoughtfulness subtly alters every scene he’s in. This was on display when most of the primary characters stood together to plan their final battle with the White Walkers. As the warriors debate tactics, it’s Sam who reminds them what’s on the line: “That’s what death is, isn’t it? Forgetting. Being forgotten. If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore. We’re just animals.”
6. The twin redemptions of Theon and Jorah
These are two very different characters who barely interact with each other—and yet they walk parallel paths.
Sansa hugs Theon in Game of Thrones.
When we first meet Jorah, he’s a disgraced slave-dealer who tries to get back in good graces with King’s Landing by spying on Daenerys Targaryen.
Theon grew up a hostage of the Stark family. This gives him the love of the Starks and spares him the harsh upbringing he might have had on the Iron Islands, but leaves him emotionally displaced, between two homes. Later, Theon commits horrible atrocities against the Starks in order to show his loyalty to his dysfunctional family of origin.
Both Jorah and Theon suffer terribly for their sins. Theon falls into the hands of the psychopathic Ramsay Bolton and is then ill-treated by his own father and uncle. Jorah endures exile and a disfiguring, deadly illness (later cured by Sam at the Citadel). They both suffer intense self-hatred.
What rescues them from themselves? In both cases, it’s their connection to others: Theon’s to Sansa, Jorah’s to Daenerys. Their paths to redemption involve violence, yes. But what I remember most are the quiet moments Theon shares with Sansa on the eve of battle, and the devotion in Jorah’s eyes as he delivers blunt advice to Daenerys. They both might have started out selfish, but they don’t die that way. Their miseries and redemptions make their lives among the most meaningful in the series.
7. Brienne calling forth what’s best in Jamie Lannister
Jaime Lannister has a nickname: Kingslayer. This he earned by stabbing the “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen in the back, for reasons that the rest of the country regard as opportunistic. In the first two seasons, his unscrupulous reputation seems well-deserved, as we see Jaime murder his way through Westeros.
Things begin to change in season three, when Jaime becomes a captive of the mighty Brienne. It’s difficult to say why, exactly, Jaime comes to like and respect Brienne. It’s possible that he senses in her a similarly isolated soul; perhaps he recognizes qualities to which he once aspired. In any event, when Brienne is threatened with rape, Jaime saves her—and loses his sword-hand in the process.
This is a turning point for a character who had been completely unsympathetic. Later, in calmer circumstances, a weakened Jaime reveals to Brienne the real reason he killed the Mad King: to save everyone in King’s Landing. When she calls him Kingslayer, for the first time he says, “Jaime…my name’s Jaime.”
The transformation that follows is dramatic and moving, as Jaime seems to slowly, in fits and starts, re-discover the conscience he may have once possessed, often goaded by Brienne.
In the first episodes of the current season, Jaime tries to repair some of the damage he’s caused. He apologizes to Brandon Stark, the boy he once tried to kill, who is now a young man gifted with mystical powers. “I’m sorry for what I did to you,” says Jaime. “I’m not that person anymore.” Brandon brushes the apology aside. It’s not really for him, anyway—it’s Jaime who must forgive himself.
That night, in one of the most poignant scenes of the entire series, Jaime knights Lady Brienne, fulfilling a dream she denies she had. That act of generosity is matched by another of humility, when the once-arrogant Jaime volunteers to serve under Brienne’s command in the battle against the White Walkers. There’s real respect and love in these scenes, marking how far his character has come.
However, in the episode that aired just before this article appeared, we discover that Jaime’s change is not yet complete. “You’re a good man,” Brienne tells him. This is his reply:
You think I’m a good man. I pushed a boy out of a tower window, crippled him for life… I strangled my cousin with my own hands… I would have murdered every man, woman, and child in Riverrun for Cersei. She’s hateful, and so am I.
It’s hard to argue with Jaime—he’s done terrible things and he hasn’t yet earned forgiveness and redemption, the way Theon and Jorah earned theirs. It’s right that he—and we—must feel the weight of his misdeeds. What will happen to Jaime by the end of the series? That question is one of the reasons we keep watching Game of Thrones.
There are many beautiful moments of goodness that I haven’t explored. I only alluded to the Hound’s journey from thug to hero. I haven’t discussed how Davos carves a stag for Shireen and Shireen teaches Davos how to read. It’s worth mentioning Hot Pie baking dire-wolf bread for Arya and Sansa saving Ser Dontos and Talisa’s work as a combat medic. Lord Mormont and Lady Mormont and Qhorin Halfhand and Podrick and Tommen and many others show empathy, compassion, fairness, and self-sacrifice. And then there’s poor Hodor. I can’t bear to talk about him.
While it’s easy enough to focus on the horrors in Game of Thrones, we need to count all these moments of goodness, too. This is a skill the show can teach us, if we’re open to learning it. If we can see the goodness in the show’s nightmarish fantasy, then perhaps we’ll get better at spotting the goodness in our own daily reality. Winter will always come, that’s for sure—but so will the rest of the seasons.
Thanks to Heather Bryant, Chris Crass, Stephen Hoffman, Maggie Overfelt Valentine, Valerie Frankel, Blake Overbay, Rona Fernandez, Camille Campbell, and Mike Romero, for helping me think this through on Facebook.
About the Author
Jeremy Adam Smith edits the GGSC’s online magazine, Greater Good. He is also the author or coeditor of four books, including The Daddy Shift, Are We Born Racist?, and The Compassionate Instinct. Before joining the GGSC, Jeremy was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter!
The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.
DONATE TO SUPPORT THE GREATER GOOD SCIENCE CENTER