Forgive, Fight and Fall: How those who perished in ‘The Long Night’ tied into the theme of forgiveness
The third episode of Game of Thrones, Season 8, is so drastically different from the first two you really have to take a breath and realign. Episodes 1 & 2 were such wholesome, near-positive outings that the 80-minute extravaganza of horror that was the Long Night seemed even more dreadful by comparison. Only some nameless Ironborn died on-screen in those first two episodes. Episode 3, The Long Night, featured thousands upon thousands dying (or dying a second time), and within them we lost some of our nearest, dearest, and oldest. A common theme that links not just these fallen characters, but the episodes themselves, is that of forgiveness.
In a world such as Westeros, where it as common to ruin someone’s life with either sword or said-word as it is to have breakfast forgiveness is going be fairly frequent or we’d have no one talking to each other. However, very rarely does forgiveness come voluntarily. To be honest, it’s more likely to be a side-effect of tolerance than anything else. I very much doubt Tyrion had forgiven Ellaria for poisoning Myrcella, or Brienne with Melisandre and the murder of Renly. It is a forced forgiveness in the interest of bettering a situation, not true, soul-given forgiveness. But what we have in Season 8, in most cases, is the actual act or something like it. What has happened after that effort is a fight, followed by a fall.
Episode 2 actually opens with a scene about anti-forgiveness. Jaime doesn’t want to be forgiven; not for battling Ned, not for killing Aerys, none of it. It was war and that makes it fair, says he. We know the true reason behind the Mad King’s murder, and that Jaime needs thanking not forgiving, but that is still not common knowledge. The speakers in this scene flirt with forgiveness in various ways throughout the episode. Daenerys might not forgive Jaime, but she doesn’t punish him. She soon deals with another Lannister brother and must be persuaded into forgetting his errors, while at the same time Jaime seeks out Bran’s forgiveness for his attempted murder all those years ago. Again, absolution isn’t actually given, more just pushed to the side. Later on we have Sandor Clegane giving his all to protect Arya Stark, the latest of steps he has taken on the path to redemption for past crimes. Given that these characters survived the battle of Winterfell, perhaps some will revisit this argument. But for some of our biggest characters that is no longer an option.
We begin with the outlier, for Eddison Tollett has always been such in Game of Thrones. Both in a literal sense (He spent most of his time on the Wall at the edge of the world) and the hypothetical. Edd was the one to consistently make jokes. He didn’t take the world too seriously, or at least was able to portray it that way. He continued being an outlier through to episode 3, as he’s the only character to perish who really had no connection to forgiveness. Edd died a hero’s death, by saving Sam Tarly, and in that was an outlier no more.
Lyanna Mormont shared a similar ‘glorious’ end, if you can call the death of a pre-teen girl glorious. Lady Mormont spent the battle commanding her soldiers, refusing to back down, insisting on maintaining the honour of her house. It was something she explained to her cousin Jorah in episode 2.
Unlike most in this essay, Lyanna was the one asked instead of the one asking. With Ser Jorah returning to the north after years and years away, Lyanna was faced with a man who dishonoured his name and father in for some southern girl. Considering the north is a place which values family higher than most others, and that Jeor spent his time serving the Watch while Lyanna’s mother died down south in the War of the Five Kings, Jorah’s return is a sore subject. It’s Lyanna who held Bear Island, dared to defy Stannis, and worked with Jon Snow to win back the north.
It makes matters worse when Jorah dares to suggest Lyanna would be better suited down in the crypts. In fairness to Jorah, he’s been gone years, and had no way to know how fierce his little cousin was. He found out soon enough, and forgiveness was not in Lyanna’s mind. But before leaving she did at least wish him well. Considering what Lyanna has had to put up with, a lot of it specifically because of Jorah, it was as much as he was going to get. Now that House Mormont is gone, Lyanna probably would have been glad she took the time to grant that small boon.
As for Jorah himself, he is the beginning of our characters who truly are truly interlinked to the theme of forgiveness. For Jorah the Andal, it’s been a part of his character from before we even met him. Back before he meets a young Daenerys Targaryen Jorah is already trying to find a way back home, whatever it takes to get it. In the interest of preciseness, Jorah sought a pardon, which is not exactly the same as forgiveness. That soon came though, when the young Khaleesi settled a place in his heart, Jorah ceased reporting to Varys about her, and began his long, long attempts to make up for what he had done. It included saving Daenerys’ life a few times, capturing Tyrion and returning to Meereen even at the risk of death. Ser Jorah found his forgiveness from Daenerys back in Season 6 and continued to serve her after. Which is what makes his Season 8 performance so interesting. For 7 seasons Daenerys has been his only focus. She, and her views towards him, were all he cared about. She maintains the lion’s share of his thoughts still, no doubt, but Ser Jorah seems to have grown since his brush with greyscale in the south and the dead in the north. For the first time, he has taken an interest in doing right by others not named Daenerys.
We see it in ‘Winterfell’, when Jorah brings Daenerys to meet Samwell Tarly, the man who cured his greyscale down at the citadel. Obviously, the intention had been for Sam to receive some kind of reward or recognition. That nearly happened, until it became clear that Daenerys had burnt Sam’s brother and father alive. Not a good result, but let’s focus on Jorah’s intentions instead.
As mentioned above, Jorah turned his attentions to the far bigger issue of his family, a problem that far predates Sam or even Daenerys. This was the turning point of his whole life, a decision that removed him from his home, his inheritance, his duty and his family. He never recovered any of them, never even saw a hint until now. All that’s left is his little cousin. House Mormont is all but gone, and the realisation surely haunts Jorah. We saw it when he finally heard of his father’s death from Tyrion in Season 5. Jeor Mormont was Lord Commander on the Night’s Watch, what bigger embodiment of duty is there? The fact that his son abandoned or corrupted his own duty is an emotional scar felt from the frozen north to the Dothraki sea. Still, Jorah did what he can, what little is available to him now, to make up for it and protect Lyanna Mormont. Again, not great results, but good intentions.
But perhaps his previous attempt with Sam did have a positive result after all, for he is soon presented with the Tarly sword, Heartsbane. Upon Sam’s insistence Jorah be the one to wield it, Jorah tells us he will use it to ‘protect the realms of men.’ There are several things of note here. Firstly, this is a family Valyrian steel sword, one that has been inherited. Jorah was supposed to have Longclaw, but as discussed with Jon in Season 7 he lost that right. Now he finally has one again, and that means something. Secondly, his words. Taken straight from the Night’s Watch handbook. Jorah has a sword, now he has the duty. His father lead the institution formed to protect the world from the threat of the White Walkers. Now Jorah is going to lead the actual defences against that very attack. He is taking up his father’s mantle, repaying him for the mistakes of the past, and living up to his family name. There might be no one left to forgive him in this respect, but I believe Jorah might have forgiven himself.
Then there is a final act. After the heroic charge and the fighting on the walls, Jorah repeats his most favourite of activities: saving Daenerys. One last time he does it, fending off hordes of dead, slashing them apart with Heartsbane. He does so even when hope is gone, and when life is leaving him too, just long enough for Daenerys to live. There can be no question now, with Jorah’s blood leaking into the snow, he has repaid his sins.
The act of self-sacrifice is so common among these characters, especially those we place in the upper echelons of ‘herodom’, that it can be lost as a tool for seeking forgiveness, or repayment for something a person has done. These two traits bring us, tragically, to Theon Greyjoy.
There is an incredibly strong argument to be made that Theon’s arc is the greatest of them all. From loyal friend to Robb Stark, to traitor seeking glory, to home-stealer and child-killer to a man so horribly tortured it completely reversed a fandom’s feeling towards him. And from broken, pathetic half-human to redemptive saviour, to a still-damaged brother, and finally, back to a man of Winterfell. Some of the strongest moments of the entire series lie at Theon (And Alfie Allen’s) door. Burning the letter to Robb when he chooses Greyjoy over Stark; the moment he utters “Reek…My name is Reek”; the jump from the Winterfell walls; the inaction at Yara’s capture; and his return to Sansa Stark. Theon is a boy searching for family, approval, and a home. His desperate power grab and slow losing of control had him hated- He took Winterfell, murdered Rodrik and completely corrupted Robb’s campaign in the south. Directly or indirectly, he laid more disaster at the Stark door than anyone not named Lannister.
His path back was somehow even darker. It began with his conclusion “My real father died in King’s Landing”, but took so much longer than that. So brutal and visual was his breaking that many forgot his past crimes and began to support him again. Except Theon himself. He kept those crimes with him, bound for all time. Even after he managed to break out of his psychosis and help save Sansa, he found himself unworthy as he told his sister on the way to Meereen. Further validation was needed, first from Jon, then from the Ironborn, then from his sister. Yara’s rescue was over in a matter of minutes, but his freeing from that debt allowed Theon to pay his largest.
When Sansa walks into the room to find Theon in Winterfell, it is one of the most emotional scenes of the season, bringing more than a few fans to tears. It is worth reminding that Theon had a chance to walk away here. He could have gone back with Yara to hold the Iron Islands, could have gone anywhere in the world really. He didn’t have to go a fight the dead. He didn’t have to return to the castle where he ruined his own life, where he endured extreme mental and emotional torture. But he did. For the Starks.
“I want to fight for Winterfell, Lady Sansa. If you’ll have me.”
Fighting for Winterfell (read: Robb) was what Theon always should have done. Finally, through some of the very worst Game of Thrones has to offer, Theon had made it back to a place where he can do that. More specifically, he is asking Sansa, the girl who helped him, and the girl he helped, for permission. To be granted that honour is a monumental gift to Theon. He knows the mistakes he made can likely never be repaid, but this is the most he is ever going to be able to do for that mission. Still, that is not enough. Sansa was there when Theon was Ramsay’s pet, but his Winterfell crimes extend far beyond. So now Theon turns to Bran, the little boy whose life he ruined. Theon took Winterfell from Bran, took Ser Rodrik from him. His actions killed Maester Luwin, got Winterfell burned and sent Bran on a perilous journey above the Wall, to say nothing of the two innocents he murdered in place of Bran and Rickon. In this, we find his greatest, most unsalvageable crime. What else can Theon do, except pledge to protect Bran now, finally, in place of when he should have done before? Again, he asks Bran for permission, and is thankfully accepted.
Protect him he does. Unleashing his forgotten archery skills Theon stands under a swirling dragon fight and the sounds of undead wave. Lesser men would have run, but Theon has a vow that he needs to keep. Even when the arrows run out, his men are dead around him, and the wights are flowing from the trees, Theon stands his ground. He gives everything he has to save Bran, killing wight after wight, again and again, until he finds himself staring at the Night King.
Let us not undersell this moment. Theon, for all the fear he knows, has never seen a wight. So to see a group of White Walkers, and the Night King too, would have been absurdly terrifying. Still, he does not run. He stands his ground, and for that he is repaid by Bran.
“You’re a good man. Thank you.”
Such simple words have a profound effect on Theon. Since Season 2 he has known, without doubt, that he is not a good man. He was one of the worst men. But now his long journey can finally be completed. Because it is Bran telling him that he is finally good again. And not only that, but that he is home. Home and family are all Theon ever wanted. It is no surprise, having been ripped from his own at the age of ten. He’s suspected for some time that Winterfell and the Starks were his all along. But to have it laid out for him so clearly…it is one of the best arc conclusions we could have possibly asked for.
Yet Theon still has crimes in his ledger, and Bran still needs protecting. So Theon does it one last time in his final act. He charges at a literal god of death, knowing full well the outcome. It could be said Theon wanted to die in this manner, wanted to die for Bran, as there’s really no better death for him. Perhaps that is true. Either way it ends with Theon bleeding out in the godswood of his true father, in front of his true brother, and leaves enough time for the White Walker threat to be ended entirely. Theon’s arc was more far-reaching than basically any other. He has needed so much forgiveness, for so long, that to see him gain it and then go out in a final charge, all within seconds of each other, was very difficult to watch. I think we can safely say Theon was the greatest death of our heroes and the most deserved also.
Theon’s crimes were many, but one of the most obvious was the killing and burning of two innocent miller’s boys. The burning of a child happens to be the worst crime of another character who met their end: Melisandre, the Red Woman.
Fire is so intrinsic to Mel’s character that she often seems to be a walking flame herself. Fitting then, that so much of her final episode centred around that ability, the embodiment of her Red God, and what it meant for the fight against the dead. Theoretically, Melisandre is more linked to this fight than any other person. She is the one who first started speaking of it. She is the one who told Stannis Baratheon to go north and prepare for it. She is the one who told Jon Snow to ready himself after Stannis fell. The one to bring Jon back once he died as well. The (apparently) all-knowing Melisandre has been prepping for this battle since she entered the fray, but between here and there she’s done things so wicked that she more than earned the title of witch.
The waters muddy when you add red though, for Melisandre would tell you that none of these things were crimes. How can they be, in service of the Lord of Light? She birthed a baby of shadow and killed a king. She burnt people alive on Dragonstone. She let a maester poison himself in his attempt to bring her down. She kidnapped a young Gendry before setting leaches on him and would have done far more if not for Davos Seaworth. But undoubtedly her greatest crime came far to the north, in Stannis’ campaign for Winterfell, when she convinced the man to burn his own daughter alive.
Now, she was not alone in this. Father and mother stood and watched, but that does not absolve her. Shireen, the sweetest little girl, died screaming. What’s more not only did it not help Stannis, it actively contributed to half his army deserting him in disgust. Seeing how the wind was blowing, Melisandre did the same, abandoning her own cause in the hour of greatest need. This began the battle with her own demons. Was all she had seen a lie? Was her entire life of work wasted? The knife began to twist shortly after Jon Snow fell. Melisandre was at her lowest point…questioning the power and existence of her god…until Jon woke. Since then she’s managed to stay pretty much crime-free, but that does not demolish those that she did before. It bears thinking about these are just the crimes we know about; what came in those hundreds of years before Stannis is a mystery, and possible a dark one.
The major difference for the Red Woman is that she’s not asking for forgiveness. Or more than that, she just knows it isn’t important. Placating her own feelings of guilt, if they exist, is not as important as the role she has to play. She has spoken about everyone’s role in the final battle since season 2, and now we have been able to see what she meant, including for herself. So we do know she was right, she did have a role or duty. This is what she’s used as justification all the way through. Its why Renly had to die, why she threw the leaches on the flames, and why she burned Shireen. Through all of it she showed no remorse…except that last one. Killing Shireen was enough to make even the greatest ‘the ends justify the means’ supporter doubt herself.
So perhaps she didn’t seek it from an individual person. She was never going to go to Davos and ask. We can debate whether this was because she didn’t care, or because she knew she would get her comeuppance soon enough. I side with the latter. Melisandre rides out of the darkness, moments before battle, and provides us with some of the most beautiful moments of battle. The lighting of the Dothraki was exhilarating, sure, but it paled in comparison to her second act. When Melisandre is trying to light the trench we can see her insecurities sneak back in. Despite having just lit a hundred thousand arakhs on fire she is still doubting…the dead are getting closer…the wood isn’t flaming…they are going to die.
Then whoosh, up it goes. We are gifted with one of the most mesmerising shots of the battle as the fire is reflected in Melisandre’s eyes. Not only confirmation for us (again) that her lord really does exist, but confirmation for her that she was right. She did need to be here, she did need to do those things, to buy the forces time, to have everything go as it did.
And one final task. No fire this time. Not even any light. In a dark room in the middle of Winterfell she waited for Arya Stark and her saviours and told Arya exactly what she needed to do. For all the flames and theatrics, this was the one. This was her moment. And it changed everything.
Now to the end, which says more about Melisandre than any of these acts do. Finally confirmed in her powers, finally proven right, Mel doesn’t even wait two moments. The second the battle finishes she walks out of the Winterfell gate, past poor Ser Davos, removes her necklace and out into the snows. She gets a few steps before her true self is revealed. Then one more. And that is it.
It is this death which lends more to her character than any other. She doesn’t hang around. She doesn’t even give a final word to Davos. The second the battle is over she walks out and dies. It tells us that the duty was all there ever was for Melisandre. She wasn’t full of it. She wasn’t out to gain anything. In many ways she was the most honest person on this show. She did what she did because she believed she had to. Once it was done, she did nothing more, nothing at all. It was just the duty. Melisandre, for my money, spent years trapped by this knowledge and this pull. Once she was free, she didn’t waste a second.
But I also feel it has another angle. No, I don’t think Melisandre felt any remorse for Renly, or perhaps the people she burned. After all, she’s just been proven right in it all. But I think she regretted what happened with Stannis and above all I believe the killing of Shireen haunted her. It is one thing to know something is right, or useful, but another to believe that thing is good. Melisandre knew herself to be a kind of evil, and was willing to take that burden on for the good of the realm. A part of her, I argue, knew she had to pay for it, hence her line “There is no need to execute me, Ser Davos. I’ll be dead by sunrise.” Though it was likely a release for her to finally die, I believe there is an element of Melisandre knowing that one day she will pay for all her crimes, and that day had come.
So three very different types then. Ser Jorah had decades old scars he was slowly trying to make up for. Theon’s were much more recent and far more acute. His was an actual violence with very little blurred lines, but still he sought it actively. Melisandre can’t be said to have sought it, but was definitely aware of it, and perhaps found it with herself with the role she played.
On the surface, Westeros is a world of brutal lines. ‘You have done that to me, so now I will kill you.’ ‘You have insulted my honour so now I will do this or that’. It is a medieval society still concerned with things other than logic or best practice in many situations. But to look closer we know this is a world about as far from black & white as you can get. Everything is complex, everything is layered, and the theme of forgiveness displays that more than anything. It shows us that even child-killers can somehow walk a winding path back to the light. It talks very closely to George RR Martin opinion on there being no such thing as absolute evil. And it shows off the arcs of these characters. Not straight or simple, but progress, from one thing to another.
The battle for the dawn was the ultimate end. These characters could have been punished before or could have stopped seeking altogether. Instead they kept fighting, right up to the most important fight there is, and each of them saved another. Jorah protected his queen. Theon his brother. Melisandre countless people who will never know her, and one little girl who had her own visit to the dark side.
Forgiveness can be given begrudgingly, freely, or falsely. But what is far more interesting is those who are asking, or at least needing of it. Our fallen friends are three of those exact people, and in my estimation, and hopefully that of the surviving characters, it was more than earned.