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Mental Health

Beyond the Trauma: What Game of Thrones Has Taught Me

August 30, 2017

It finally happened. As of last Sunday, August 27th, Game of Thrones’ Season 7 finale has caterwauled through our screens and through our collective hearts.

There’s nothing more rewarding for a fan than seeing our favorite characters rise from the ashes, and the final episode(s) of what many have called the show’s best season yet did not disappoint.

What is it about this trope of rising from adversity­­­­ that garners such strong feelings of connection for the Game of Thrones fandom? Why do we get so much more from a series framed in strength earned through suffering than one whose characters begin strong? Or better yet, one whose characters haven’t been through sheer hell and back to get to where they are, as has become Game of Thrones’ signature design?

Warning: spoilers ahead.

The key players in our beloved series are undoubtedly some of the strongest characters portrayed in modern television, male and female alike. (How many other stories can boast not one but several matriarchs vying for ultimate power?) But as consistently as we see characters beating the odds with incredible strength, we also see the unparalleled trauma that forces this strength in the first place. The rare characters who demonstrate strength from the outset of their storyline are few and far between (think: Catleyn Stark, Brienne of Tarth, Jon Snow– but more on that in a moment). Far more frequently, it is only after experiencing powerlessness that these people strike us as powerful.

If this isn’t sounding familiar, it might be helpful to examine a few examples.

  • Sansa, who began as an insufferable, naive tween, becomes doubly compelling to us in the later seasons only after she has suffered.
  • Cersei’s Walk of Atonement in Season 6 humanizes her to us, arguably for the first time. While a case could be made that she has hurt in episodes prior, it is only after witnessing this misery that we as viewers even consider being on her side.
  • In being sold to and raped by the Dothraki horde, not to mention the loss of her husband, baby, and future, Daenerys Targaryen literally rises from the ashes to find her power.

Why are the ones who have been through suffering so much more numerous and captivating – if not more inveterate – than the ones who are inherently strong from the get-go?

Justifying violence 

What does repeated exposure to the suffering of our favorite characters teach us as audience members? Does it render pain casual? Does it make it permissible? Does it even lose its shock value? As an avid Thrones fangirl and a survivor of violence myself, this creates no small cognitive dissonance.

For years concerned viewers have been writing about the perilous implications of “your brain on violence,” and by extension GoT itself, and there may even be some validity to this. In fact, there’s been a hefty amount of criticism that the ratio of agony to information is even more drastically skewed in the story’s filming than in George R.R. Martin’s original conception. But that hasn’t stopped our fascination with the series – it’s more popular than ever.  

Why is this violence still so acceptable, if there’s suggestion that it could be doing us harm? What about watching trauma in a fantasy world makes the trauma itself so palatable?  

  • Is it that we humans are intrinsically vicious and insatiable with our rape glut? That the sensationalism of seeing another person violated in such a way overshadows any qualms we may feel about the morality of the scenes depicted? From this one humble fan and the all-around well-adjusted company she keeps… no.
  • Is it that a certain degree of visible brutality is necessary to adequately characterize a universe built upon suffering? That the needs of worldbuilding wherein we should understand violence as an integral a part of their culture by repeatedly viewing it are unusually high in this case? Perhaps, but I would argue that this position has its own limitations. As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in criticism of last season, “For violence in ‘Game of Thrones’ or anywhere else to feel creatively vital or morally shocking, it has to show us something new.” It seems that seven straight seasons of complete ferocity is more than enough to hammer home this message. Westeros as inherently violent stopped being new a long time ago: we get it. 
  • Is it that seeing fictional characters’ rape and pillage on such a regular (almost casual) basis normalizes this behavior for our own society and makes us more comfortable with our own evil inclinations? To a degree, yes. Repeated exposure to harmful behavior that goes unchallenged is proven to normalize that behavior. After no uncertain amount of binging, I can confirm that I no longer question the violence of these characters – I expect it, and to an extent am even desensitized to it. But there is a strong argument that if this were true to the extent suggested by many a concerned parent, every regular fan would have purchased their own crossbow by now.

I’m proposing that the reason the suffering in GoT has captured our attention and our hearts so fully is that that we relate so very much with the survival of it.  

Whether society has taught us to acknowledge or even to see it, everyone in the world (read: the real world) experiences trauma in some form – it’s almost an inevitability of living. This is just one of a multitude of alignments between our world and the Realm. What GoT does is lay bare for us not just the brutality of this particular culture, but also what is to be done as a result of it.


Show me some examples! 

Game of Thrones has gotten to the point where, seven seasons in, it’s doing more than just shocking us with scene after scene of graphic horror. Part of why the penultimate season was such a gripping spectacle was that, when it comes to trauma, the fallout, ramifications, and recovery are just as important as the initial violence. Just take for instance…  

  • Theon Greyjoy. As devastating as it was to watch his panicked internal struggle as his Uncle Euron laid waste to the Iron Fleet, this moment of paralysis is a masterfully realistic depiction of the kind of fight, flight, or freeze reaction that someone with PTSD could come to expect. Theon’s conflict, while frustrating in terms of plot action, is a refreshingly accurate window into the difficulties a victim of extreme, complex trauma can face – and the consequences that we collectively face if it’s ignored.  
  • Seeing Ollie stab Jon as vengeance for his murdered family was as unsurprising as it was tough to watch. Was it justified? Perhaps no. Was it encouraged by a fundamentally vicious world, a climate in which fairness and violence often manifest in the same beat? Yes. Was it a perfect depiction of what this kind of cocktail can do to a person’s psyche, what trauma begets if not addressed? Absolutely.  
  • And speaking of Jon Snow. Westeros’ favorite bastard is one of the only characters to experience pain, suffering – literally even murder! – and come out of it just as honorable and steadfast in his goodness as when he began – some might venture even to a fault. The fact that Game of Thrones presents us with a hero that rises from the ashes of his anguish with such virtue lends more than just a foil to the slew of corrupted and crippled survivors before him. It gives survivors in the audience a model of complex and healthy recovery that is unparalleled in the show. No wonder Jon was a fan favorite even before we glimpsed his fantastical derrière.  

Seeing our heroes go through­­­­­­­­ trauma endears them to us – not because we are vicious about seeing violence, but because the aftermath – what a character doeswith their trauma – is vital.  

It is vital because it is where we look to see ourselves.

Inarguably the thought of experiencing half of what many of these characters go through invokes a shudder. But is there not a comfort to be found in bearing witness to something horrible that you identify with?

Game of Thrones doesn’t ask us to forgive violence or trauma – it asks us to understand it.

What this viciousness can do to mimic a traumatic reality – and what it does to us to watch it— is to show that if something comes from trauma, then it’s our responsibility to listen to it. The show is compelling not just to those who have never been exposed to violence, but to those who have: watching Westerosi wrestle with the impact of their trauma in a real, human, consequential way can have tremendous effects on viewers. And it can teach us something invaluable.

In the Long Night ahead of all of us forced to wait until lord-knows-when for Season 8, it might not be such a bad idea to take a closer look at how we respond to trauma and the traumatized in our own society. Game of Thrones has hooked this humble fan on the strength and understanding that acts of violence can ask of us, and that is worth its weight in gold dragons.



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Taylor Barton

Taylor Barton is a professional actor, dramaturge, and director, and holds a B.A. in Theatre from Columbia College Chicago.