All this season, we’ve seen characters all seeking revenge on others for crimes, both great and small. The idea of finally paying back those who’ve slighted and hurt and killed the ones that were closest to them or the ones who dared to believe they could hurt you ran throughout much of the actions of the characters. As this episode finally began, we could take stock of how this has unfolded for them and for those around them this season:
Revenge was all Ygritte thought of this season. She spent her entire journey desperate for a confrontation with the lover that broke her heart, Jon Snow. She threatened everyone around her if they got in the way of her vengeance. And when she was at last presented with her kill shot, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Her need to avenge herself at conflicts with the love her heart still felt. Instead, it is her that died during the Battle of Castle Black as the Night’s Watch held the wildlings off for the moment. Jon Snow loses a lover as he loses friends close to him – unable to bridge the divide of hate between wildlings and the Night’s Watch.
Looking for a permanent resolution to the siege, Jon heads into the camp of Mance Rayder to treat with the King-Beyond-the-Wall – and to strike him if the opportunity arose. Mance senses that, but still gives Jon the chance to hang himself by his words and his actions. That is, until an army arrives and overwhelms his. That army is the one Stannis Baratheon raised with the help of the funds provided by the Iron Bank of Braavos. They help break Mance’s siege and capture him and the other wildling leaders. What happens to the Night’s Watch now that one of the five kings has arrived? And why was Melisandre looking so intently at Jon? He ends his journey by burning his lover’s corpse in her North – the North that is wild and free and does not bend to kings or their witches. The North that is full of old magic and full of old demons, which are still coming.
Danaerys had moved all throughout the season in a quest to free the slaves of Meereen and exact revenge on the Slave Masters who’d dared anger her by crucifying 163 slave children as a warning to her. Once she gained her revenge, she tried to learn how to be a fair and just ruler – to prepare herself for the role once she takes the Seven Kingdoms back. In her quest for revenge on the Slave Masters and need to prove herself, she’s forgotten about the care the people she was freeing and how they had come to depend on their old roles. What’s worse is that she has ignored the care that she needed to have with her dragons. So they have roamed the countryside, pillaging and burning as they went. Last time, it was a flock of goats they killed. This time, it’s a child that pays the price for Dany’s forgetfulness. Unable to do anything else, she chains her dragons and leaves them in the dark; feral beasts from whom she draws so much of her identity, but she cannot control nor trust anymore.
Prince Oberyn Martell came seeking revenge for the brutal rape and murder of his sister and her children. While he managed to fatally injure her killer, Ser Gregor Clegane, with manticore venom, he also got a crushed skull for his work. His need for validation of the decades of hatred resulted in his death – and the death sentence for Tyrion Lannister. In order to fight the venom, Cersei Lannister turns to Qyburn, the banished maester that helped save Jaime’s life. Despite Grand Maester Pycelle’s protestations, Cersei allows Qyburn to use the nefarious knowledge he’s gained to “save” Ser Gregor. But just what kind of man will Ser Gregor be? It doesn’t seem like that matters to Cersei or Qyburn. So maybe Prince Oberyn got the revenge he was after.
Cersei gets her revenge, of a sorts. She manages to twist the mind of her father, Tywin, into renouncing her arranged marriage to Loras Tyrell. And she does it by pulling the proud wool from his eyes and showing him the truth: his children have been lovers. The child who sits on the Iron Throne – his legacy – is borne of their incest. If that truth is revealed, the Lannisters’ rule of the Seven Kingdoms would come crashing down. For her silence, she breaks her betrothal to Loras and is able to freely resume her romantic relationship with her brother, Jaime.
It will be them against the world now, because even though Cersei has spent every moment since Joffrey was murdered at his wedding on her schemes for revenge against Tyrion, Jaime could never believe that. So, with new purpose, he frees his little brother and bids him farewell. But Tyrion – arguably the noblest of House Lannister – cannot simply run into the night. He has to confront the man who betrayed him and sentenced him to die. He has to confront his father, Lord Tywin. And what he finds in the Tower of the Hand finally pushes him over the edge.
To be fair, both Shae and Tywin had reason to feel aggrieved by Tyrion. Shae had loved Tyrion at one point, but he had broken her heart when he sent her away – the tragedy of it all is that she never understood it was her love that forced him to do so. So she sought to pay him back by betraying him and ensuring his guilty verdict during his trial. Tywin, whose hatred for his dwarf son is incredible, was glad to find another way to wound him and ensure that guilty verdict. His call for trial by combat, however, denied them both their bit of vengeance.
So finding Shae in his father’s bed, calling out his father’s name, breaks Tyrion and he gives in to his hate. He fights and claws and chokes the life out of the woman he loves. Then, he arms himself and pays a visit to his father where he can do nothing against him – the toilet. Tywin tries to talk himself out of it, but Tyrion is having none of it. And when he hears his father call the woman he loved – the woman he just killed – a whore, he snaps and shoots him dead. Lord Tywin Lannister, Hand of the King for three different kings, Warden of the West, Shield of Lannisport, Lord of Casterly Rock and the richest, most powerful man in Westeros dies in the toilet at the hands of the man whom he has spent his entire life hating. Tyrion meanwhile has finally avenged a lifetime of hate, resentfulness and abuse by his father. But what now for him? The loathing of Lord Tywin is what defined him for so long. Questions for the future as he hides in a box bound for who knows where with an unlikely watcher – Varys the Spider – to keep him company.
The other character who has spent her entire season devoted to the idea of revenge is young Arya Stark. Every night she recites her list of names for all the people that have wronged her and her family and her friends. A list that includes names like Lord Tywin, Queen Cersei and The Hound, Sandor Clegane, who has been watching over her while trying to sell her off to whatever family she has left. It would appear their fortunes are changed when Brienne and Podrick run into them, but years of misery have left Arya with little trust and Sandor is not about to turn her over to someone sporting Lannister arms. Their fight is brutal and vicious and, in the middle of it, Arya vanishes.
When the dust settles, the Hound lies beaten and bloody. He cannot continue and he cannot help himself towards finidng any help. Arya is presented with the chance to exact her vengeance on the man who killed her friend, Mycah. But she does not. Not even as the Hound throws every insult at her does she move. She takes his gold and leaves him there to probably die. But why? Why not do to Sandor what she did to Polliver? She instead books passage to Braavos with the iron coin Jaqen H’qar gave her when he helped her. Perhaps she’s learning that revenge is a cycle that cannot be ended and is choosing a different path. A chance to be something new and different from what Westeros had planned for her.
A similar situation presents herself to her long-lost brother, Brandon. One of the old magical creatures has been calling to Bran since the moment he was thrown from the towers of Winterfell. A three-eyed raven, leading him ever onwards and northwards. For what reason, he does not know, but he hopes it’s to find a way to walk again. They at last reach its location and are immediately set upon by dead wights obeying the same dark power of the White Walkers. Aware that this would all happen, Jojen Reed still pushed onward and it costs him his life. The rest take the rescue provided by a creature of myth and legend: one of the Children of the Forest. Creatures who lived and ruled all of Westeros before the First Men arrived. Creatures no one has seen for thousands of years. She leads Bran and the rest to an old man, living in the heart of a great tree. This old man reveals himself to be the raven that has been calling Brandon and Jojen and all. A strange old man who tells Bran that he has watched over him, over Jojen, over all of Westeros for a long time. Then he promises Bran that, though he will never walk again, he will fly. But for what purpose? To what end?
The game of thrones is one of great and terrible powers moving back and forth. Of kings and mighty lords choosing the fates of nations and armies crashing against one another to decide it all. And this is true. But it’s the smaller, individual decisions that carry the greatest weight. Arya had every reason to hate The Hound and avenge all those he had butchered, but she chose to let him live. Tywin and Cersei had no reason to hate Tyrion and yet they conspired to kill him. By their actions, one lives and two die. How many more will live because of the selflessness of Jojen Reed and of Samwell Tarly? How many will fall to the greed of Petyr Baelish, the madness of Ramsay Bolton and the hunger of Margaery Tyrell? Who can be spared the failures of Jorah Mormont or the innocence of Brienne of Tarth?
The great game of thrones is about the mighty, but the mighty are just as human – just as prone to human errors and mistakes – as anyone else. They can love and hate and be honorable and corrupt. And they can covet vengeance like anyone else. But if you’re not careful, your own individual quest for revenge can be the destruction of your own self, but lead to the destruction of many others. After all, will the Dornish just let this latest death of their own go without a fight? Will the wildlings allow the death of so many of theirs go unanswered? Will House Lannister not seek to wreak vengeance on all those who helped Lord Tywin’s murderer?
When you seek revenge, dig two graves first. And many more will be dug before it’s all said and done.