Warning: Season 6 spoilers abound.
It was the most shocking scene in an episode that otherwise played out precisely as expected. Walda Frey, the wife of Roose Bolton, gave birth to a son. (This was not the surprising part: The existence of another Bolton heir had been heavily hinted at last season.) The birth of a healthy baby—a boy, no less—was good news to everyone save for Ramsay Bolton, who “would prefer to be an only child.” So Ramsay, having murdered his father to ensure his accession to the throne, called for Walda and his new baby brother. He met the child, a cooing infant, and led them, casually, to a dog kennel. The dogs howled and growled and clawed at their cages. Walda realized, slowly, why she and her son had been taken there. She clutched the baby, a preemptive Pietà. She begged Ramsay to spare them. She reminded him that the infant in her arms was his half-brother. Ramsay, unmoved, uncaged the dogs. He gave them the order.
Mother and son, soft and unarmed and helpless, were mauled to death. We know this not because we saw it, but because we heard the human wails drowned, quickly but not quickly enough, by vicious growls.
It was the most horrifying Game of Thrones moment since, well, the show’s previous depiction of a child’s violent murder. But it was not at all unusual: The Bolton infant joins the increasingly populous parade of children who have met their deaths in the series’s eponymous game. Lommy. Joffrey. Zalla. Mycah. Shireen. Etc. Kid-killing, indeed, is so common on Game of Thrones that Vulture recently took it upon itself to rank the child deaths the show has thus far portrayed, according to their respective sadness. Last night’s death, however—its manner, particularly violent; its victim, particularly young—is the culmination of another kind of violence the show has leveled against children: violence not just against young characters, but against youth itself.
Game of Thrones has long had an extremely tense relationship with childhood as a stage of life. The show is populated by young people who are not, in any meaningful way, children. There are the kids—Joffrey, Ramsay, and their like—who, contra quaint cultural assumptions about youthful innocence, are as cruel and sadistic as any adult could ever be. There are also the kids whom the show’s plot has systematically robbed of whatever youthful innocence they may have began with. Bran Stark, all gawky limbs and buoyant energy, is quickly defenestrated by one of the adults charged with keeping him safe. Arya undergoes a figurative version of the same treatment, the traumas she endures plunging her into a very mature kind of violence. Sansa’s initial innocence is converted, through a similar alchemy, into a cold impulse toward self-preservation. The surviving Starks are still young; they long ago stopped, however, being youthful.
They are not alone in that deprivation. Game of Thrones may be indiscriminate when it comes to the victims of its violence; childhood, however, is one of its most consistent casualties. Myrcella, quiet and soft and innocent, is murdered, tellingly, right before she is able to cross that traditional threshold of adulthood: marriage. Shireen, perhaps the most traditionally childlike of all the show’s young people, meets a similar fate—and due to the machinations of a woman who uses magic to cheat the typical trajectories of aging. The youngest victim of the show’s most infamous instance of mass violence, the Red Wedding, is the unborn child of Talisa—a character stabbed in utero, effectively punished for the crime of being young.
In all this, Game of Thrones’s universe calls to mind the harshly Darwinian logic of the savannah, or the jungle: It operates according to a value system in which strength—survival—matters above all else. Kids are often the victims of violence, the show suggests, because childhood itself is a form of existential weakness. Youth demands that parents and protectors act selflessly to preserve its innocence; sometimes the show’s flawed parents—Stannis and Selyse Baratheon, and many others—suggest that kind of altruism is too much to ask of adults who are themselves beset by weakness. Childhood, according to this logic, is a form of social sacrifice, and in that of personal indulgence: It is a luxury unfit for a time in which, yes, winter is coming.
It’s a sad suggestion, but a resonant one for a show that is operating in a culture that finds itself asking similar—if, thankfully, much less violent—questions about childhood and adulthood and the line between the two. Helicopter parenting, emerging adulthood, boomerang kids, sexting, playgrounds designed to be safe and dangerous at the same time—these are all components of a broad cultural conversation that redounds to a basic question: What is childhood, at this particular juncture? How sacred should childhood be?
Game of Thrones’s showrunner, Dan Weiss, has previously justified the show’s excessive violence by explaining that it has a moral purpose: that the show’s many murders and other killings are meant to complicate viewers’ sense of empathy. Shireen’s death, Weiss told Entertainment Weekly, was intended to repulse viewers—but then, also, to make them question the nature of that revulsion. Why, in a show so full of violence (against other children, too), was her death so much worse than the others? Why are we unfazed by the murder of adults, but disgusted by that of a person who is, in the end, only a few years their junior?
On the one hand, Game of Thrones’s latest murder is simply more evidence of a show that is struggling to keep shocking its viewers. When your characters have engaged in incest and mass-murder and coming back from the dead—when your many plot twists have casually blended opera and soap opera—there aren’t too many taboos left to break. An infant, rosy-cheeked and mauled by dogs, is one of those taboos. But if Weiss is to be taken at his word, then Game of Thrones’s latest infanticide is making a point not just about its victim, whose death is horrifying for all the obvious reasons, but also about the people who are experiencing the horror. Childhood is, the series has suggested, a collective endeavor: a construct that is molded and shaped and encouraged and discouraged by all of us, collectively. Youth itself, as a phase of life and a state of mind, demands protection. It is, like Ramsay’s baby brother, new and soft and—for better and for worse—very, very fragile.