The Redemption of Al Swearengen

Ian-McShane-as-Brother-Ray-in-Game-of-Thrones

So Ian McShane was on Game of Thrones last night. That was pretty cool.

More than cool enough to prompt an inaugural Game of Thrones post six years after the show began. Beyond the value of such an actor joining the chronicles of Westeros (and surely it was just as rewarding to catch a glimpse of Tim McInnery…that’s Captain Darling to you Blackadder) was the particular company he was placed in: that of Rory McCanns ‘The Hound’.

Oh…spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet. Sorry.

…huh. Lot of ‘Macs’ up there.

Surely many who enjoy Game of Thrones would at least be familiar with, if not also positively disposed towards McShanes previous HBO incarnation as Deadwoods Al Swearengen. A first glimpse of his weathered features and the sound of that awesomely reverberating barritone voice instantly conjured a sense of fearful anticipation as to the manner of sociothapy that would result – particularly when partnered, in a certain sense, with a character as violently impulsive as Sandor Clegane.
So it was that ‘Brother Ray’ turned out to be something of an unexpected turn for the actor. Not a devil, if not quite a saint; not a mastermind, though commanding respect; not intimidating, though possessed of clear strength. Possibly what surprises in this portrayal is that Brother Ray is not…dangerous.

That is what makes him worthy of mention.

In a series where violence in all of its expressions is integral to the conflicts that drive the narrative, the writers have clearly demonstrated that Westeros and Essos are positively overpopulated with dangerous people. Even those apparently not capable of inflicting actual bodily harm are clearly not to be trifled with – in fact, they may be more to be feared than any Mountain. Children have killed children, old men have ordered slaughter…and the devout terrorise the powerful.
So far Game of Thrones has introduced only two other importantly religious characters. Melisandre, or ‘the Red Priestess’, is a zealot who values no life above her devotion to the (so called) lord of light – and demands this same devotion and sacrifice of those around her. The ‘High Sparrow’ is still yet an enigma – one who seems to genuinely display compassion and humility, yet holds sway over an entire city…let’s face it, through fear.

It makes perfect sense: compelling drama stems from conflict, and that must be familiar to the audience. Though wearing the cloak of high fantasy, Game of Thrones has resonated so well because the characters and conflicts are perfectly familiar to the 21st Century. Regardless of any individuals views of God, to quote Contact* “95 percent of the world’s population believes in a supreme being in one form or another”. If organised religion is going to be mined along with every other aspect of life for conflict, then frankly there’s plenty to work with.

To all this is now added Brother Ray.

This backwater, unknown and unsuprisingly foul-mouthed (it’s Ian McShane) Septon influences few lives, aspires to no great heights and confesses to not even being particularly suited to his role. “I don’t know much about the gods” he says to The Hound. What matters to Brother Ray is not the precise understanding of the gods nature (single; many; omniscient; fallible) nor adherence to particular doctrine. A simple man, he says simply “all I can do with the time I’ve got left is bring a little goodness into the world. That’s all any of us can do, innit?”
What makes Brother Ray notable among the clergy of not just Game of Thrones but of film and television in general, is that he belongs to the notably smaller group of devotees whose ‘good guy’ status is beyond question. It’s not the relativistic view he holds of the gods that make him worth watching – such conceptual religion can be found in priests, rabbis, monks, nuns and guru’s of any number of fictional worlds. The real beauty is in his personal story: an arsonist, thief, murderer spends years engaging without thought in harm to others; finally, he is convicted of his deeds, and resolves to completely change everything about himself. What convicts him? It is not a lengthy encounter with another man of god(s); not a sentence imposed by a magistrate for his crimes; not a supernatural encounter with an angel, bright light or disembodied voice.

It was shame. His own shame, which he finally could not ignore.

He could not forget; he could not silence it; he could find no justification. He could not even dance around his culpability by considering himself some kind of animal. There was nothing particular about him, or his misdeeds, to set him apart from any other man. He had done wrong, and now he was broken for it.
This is a narrative not often so explicitly heard from such pastors, and it is one well worth thinking about twice. Why is it so familiar? Why is it reasonable? When faced with the simple and depressing reality that he has been hurting people, there is not conflict in the conviction that it is wrong. When choosing how to respond to such personal revelation, there is similarly no conflict in his starting position “to bring a little good into the world”. He does this by caring for others; feeding people; building homes; sheltering strangers. These are good things, no one would deny this.

Interesting that most would agree, no matter what their thoughts on god(s). Why is that?

This is why McShane is such a particularly great work of casting in the role. In the story can almost be heard the echoes of Al Swearengen – an amoral brute who’s more than clever. Brother Ray could be the proprietor of the Gem Saloon redeemed. This is perfectly encapsulated in the episodes conclusion, where the true measure of repentance is seen.

The question faces all who are confronted by their own shame. It’s easy to see it; it’s hard to change. Do we mean it?

*Just the film I’m afraid. Still haven’t read the book yet. I’ll get to it.

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