Passing the Sentence: Public Execution as a Motif on Game of Thrones

“Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin walk into a bar. Everyone you love dies.” ***Spoilers up to the end of Season 5 of Game of Thrones***

Certainly, I’m not the first person to say that death is an important part of Game of Thrones, but the point still stands. Death, with all its pomp and circumstance, has undoubtedly contributed to Thrones’ success. Violently ripping a beloved character from the viewers is all part of the allure, a bittersweet pain, which makes Thrones one of the most popular shows on television. For many characters (Ned and Robb, Stannis, Joffrey, the Hound, etc. etc. etc.,) have death as the only logical end-game, as though every individual’s story is gradually barreling towards someone dying.

As much as Thrones has garnered success from being a well-written, well-performed, and a generally well-done show, it has attracted just as much negative publicity for its use of the two great taboos: sex and violence. And while certainly, such things can be difficult for certain viewers, it is necessary to acknowledge that all great conflicts in fiction come from these taboos.

Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest short-story writers of the 20th century, wrote about this in a commentary, fittingly called “A Reasonable Use of the Unreasonable.” She advocated the use of violence in her stories (which did have a lot of violence) by saying “We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is a bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. … It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially … Violence is a force which can be used for good and evil.” In short, the type of violence a character partakes works to reveal things about the nature of that character. For example, Ned does it when bound by honor, Tyrion only harms others when he feels his life is in danger (his final encounter with Tywin notwithstanding), Daenerys uses violence when her queenly duties call for it, and Ramsay, well, you know. Point is, a viewer can understand a great deal about a character by watching what kind of violence they are willing to commit.

Which brings me to the main part of this article: violence, specifically, public execution, is quite possibly the most interesting motif in the series. Some of the show’s most critical moments come from execution. The lawful (and sometimes unlawful) termination of certain characters is a vein that runs through the series, and thematically unites characters hundreds miles away. This notion became particularly relevant, as Season 5 hardly had a shortage of such executions.

“The Man Who Passes the Sentence”

Let’s start at the beginning. Season 1, Episode 1. It starts off with a Night’s Watchman deserting after encountering a white walker, leading to his execution. He is brought to Winterfell, where we have been watching the first season’s protagonist, the ever-honorable Eddard/Ned Stark. A horn is blown, and Ned is called to do is duty.

But it doesn’t stop at that, Ned insists that Bran, his seven-year-old son, come along to watch. This execution is notable because it is the first in the show. Ned has brought Bran, as well as his two older sons, Robb (Stark) and Jon Snow, to watch. It is clear that Ned intends for this to be a teaching moment. He even says to Bran, that it was his duty to execute the deserter, that “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Here, the viewers, just introduced to the show, can understand just how honorable Ned is.

This moment isn’t just characterization, or world-building, but both foreshadowing and a template for every execution involving a character born or raised in the North.

“Ser Ilyn!”

Sadly, this is the last person Ned has the pleasure of executing. Season 1’s penultimate episode has him sentenced to death by everyone’s favorite villain-tyrant-psychopath-boy-king, Joffrey.

Note: He is sentenced by Joffrey. Joffrey does not actually do the executing.Bring me his head

There is a notable contrast between the two executions, and the words that are said with them. “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” is said by an experienced leader, who takes accountability for his choices, rather than having someone else do them. Joffrey’s memorable execution quote is “Ser Ilyn, bring me his head!” These moments work to underline things we already know: Ned does what he has to, and Joffrey enjoys showing his power and the chaos that comes from the execution.

Ned’s Legacy

With the swinging of his sword, Ned teaches his sons, Robb and Jon, about honor and duty. After his death, we see both of Ned’s eldest sons perform notable executions.

First, there’s Robb and his attempt to deal with the discord in his army. Upon the murder of Tywin Lannister’s two nephews, Robb needs to execute Rickard Karstark, for what he deems as a betrayal. He knows that executing Rickard Karstark will cause unrest and lose him a sizable chunk of his army, those that are loyal to Karstark. He does it anyway.

Karstark has done a terrible thing, and Robb decides he must be punished for it. Robb does this in the midst of fighting a war to avenge his father’s death, and while one could argue that Robb does this solely in the name of his house, one almost feels that this war of vengeance is done in a grieving, cathartic, manner. Robb executes Karstark in an attempt to show his honor, as though the ghost of his father is watching him. Robb talks extensively about how much he admires his father, and Ned is essentially the perfect role model.

But the word “perfect” is a bit of a stretch, seeing as the honor of both of these men ultimately gets them killed, despite their intentions being best. Although these characters might do the right thing, their enemies don’t quite see it that way.

Which makes this transition easy. Jon Snow. Geez, this stuff writes itself.

In Season 5, Jon executes Janos Slynt, (a character in great need of come-uppance,) in what is quite possibly one of the show’s most satisfying death scenes. Jon’s use of execution differs from the way his father and half-brother use it because they use it to punish wrongdoers, whereas Jon executes Janos after he refuses to follow an order.

Given that this takes place during his first few days as Lord Commander, this can You know nothing Ser Janosbe described as a show of power, Jon makes an example out of Janos: The Night’s Watchmen will do as they are commanded. Jon is trying to prove that he means business to his men. It is with this moment that Jon actually becomes the Lord Commander.

And it’s almost fitting, that Jon, much like his father and his brother, is killed (in a faux-execution) by the people he was supposed to serve, for doing what he deemed right. (It should be specified that Ned is executed by the King’s “Justice,” rather than a faux-execution, and Robb loses the war with his honor.) There seems to be no other way for a Stark to die.

Execution, logically, could represent a loss of innocence, but one almost feels that execution for the Stark kids is a rite of passage. Robb had to do it to prove his honor, Jon had to do it to prove his will, if Bran ever becomes Lord of Winterfell, he’ll likely have to do it to defeat his enemies. But execution isn’t just for men, look at Arya. In the season five finale, she murders Meryn Trant, but as she views it, she does this justly, as vengeance for her friend, Syrio. Arya goes outside the law to bring justice to someone who would have never seen the King’s Justice.

As said earlier, various things about characters come through when they execute people. One of the series’ earlier executions involves Theon executing Ser Rodrik, a knight of Winterfell. Rodrik even references Ned’s words about passing the sentence, as one of the Ironborn was about to do Theon’s work for him. Rodrik has defied someone he thinks dishonorable, and Theon, in attempt to show power and prove himself to his father and the Ironborn, decides an execution is in order.

The execution itself is a particular point of interest here. Keeping in mind that Theon is trying to prove how powerful he is to the Northerners, it is notable that he can’t quite perform the execution: it takes him four swings of the sword and a kick for Rodrik’s head to come off.

Here, in an exceptionally violent moment, we see many character traits shining through; Rodrik’s bravery as he says his last words to both Bran and Theon, and Theon’s intense and savage desire to prove himself as hTheon tries ite shouts, chopping and kicking at Rodrik. Going back to O’Connor’s words mentioned earlier, Theon doesn’t use violence (or execution) for good or evil because he is neither a good or evil character. He’s torn between his father and his foster family at Winterfell, trying to decide to do stay true to his promise to Robb, or to prove himself to his father.

And there are plenty others that can be covered: Daenerys trying to bring order to Mereen, Stannis burning people at the stake, Brienne executing Stannis, and various others; showing a sense of justice and passion. One party deems that another has done wrong, and tries to do what is right. Execution, in the world of Game of Thrones/Ice and Fire, is a method of showing a character’s goals, moral code, and sense of what is just.

I think that there’s a lot to analyze here, but perhaps I’m just (*sunglasses*) losing my head.

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