Jaime Lannister standing before the Queen in Winterfell.
It’s the characters, stupid.**
No, not because Westeros is a magical world of dragons and knights and white walkers and battle scenes and intrigue. Not even because of the salacious violence and sex, let alone unexpected plot twists (who among us doesn’t still need a little therapy after the Red Wedding?).
It’s the humanity of the characters that creates connection to the show and its tale.
We remember, for example, the incredible Battle of the Goldroad when the Lannister army faces the combined doom of the Dothraki and Daenerys astride a fire breathing dragon. That’s a magnificent spectacle.
And the characters are better yet.
Episode 2 of this last season is nearly devoid of action, yet gripping. Yes, Cersei, Jon, Deanerys, and more continue to play the great game. But, even that quest for power takes a back seat to the characters this week. Lord knows it’s not the splendor of a drab, gloomy Winterfell that draw us in.
It’s not the majesty of Game of Thrones that keeps us watching so eagerly, though it may draw us in at first. It’s the characters and the subtlety of the production.
Subtlety like the unforgettable Season 6 closing scene with Sansa’s smirk as Ramsey Bolton meets the gory death he so richly deserves. Subtlety like the looks shared this week between Jaime Lannister and Brandon Stark as the former faces a hearing before his family’s enemies, the Targaryens and the Starks. You could watch the entire scene on mute and guess the sequence of events just by watching Jaime’s eyes.
Even taking the main figures of this episode not named Jon/Aegon and Daenerys there is a rich tableau of character development and expressions of the spectrum of the human condition to woo us:
Jaime Lannister – the arrogant sister-fucker has redeemed himself. Not 100% remorseful, he mostly declines to apologize for his earlier acts in defense of his family. But as he stands in Winterfell, humbly requesting to join the defense of the realms of men, he says what fans of the show long ago discovered: “I’m not that person anymore.” Redemption indeed.
Sansa Stark – the prissy naif of Season 1 has matured into a Bismarckian realist of a leader, with a touch of Machiavellian ruthlessness. And the trajectory of her hellish journey in between has helped transform her from one of the most annoying characters to one of the most endearing.
Brienne of Tarth – in some ways she hasn’t changed, a character intrinsically true to her nature. Yet, since we first met her at tournament before Renly Baratheon, she has transformed from a wandering soul seeking the right role for herself in the world into perhaps the most honorable living knight in the Seven Kingdoms. And that smile after she was thus honored…
Tyrion Lannister – how has the lecherous, drunken “whoremonger” of Season 1 become one of the most beloved character’s on the show? His is one of the great character arcs in modern entertainment…aided and abetted by Peter Dinklage’s superb portrayal. His fireside lament to Jaime this week that he cannot return to whoremongering due to the “perils of self-betterment” is one of those delightfully subtle moments that says a lot without saying much at all.
Arya Stark – the dark side of greatness is often overlooked, especially in entertainment. Arya is a great character. She’s also a great killer. And her path to that reality is littered with windows into that darkness.
In her own words this week: “I know death, he has many faces. I look forward to seeing this one.”
She has issues. And we love her for that.
Poderick Payne – the incompetent yet faithful squire of his youth has transformed into a warrior, training combatants under Brienne’s tutelage. Yet, it was the glory of his singing that is the climax of Episode 2. A scene both lovely and haunting on the eve of battle, leaving moist eyes for many a fan.
Jorah Mormont – there may be no greater person of service in the show. He goes from admittedly heart broken at the news Daenerys named Tyrion her Hand to counseling her to forgive Tyrion for his most recent error. “You’re advising me to forgive the man who stole your position?” she asks.
Yes, yes he is. Showing that the best advice to give is that which the person needs to hear in their shoes, not what you want to say in yours.
Theon Greyjoy – a story of undeserved grace if ever there was one. His crimes against the Stark family merit great punishment, even if not the horrific ordeal administered by Ramsey Bolton. Theon’s return to Winterfell to defend House Stark is a lesson in honoring that grace.
Brandon Stark – yeah, he’s a weird dude now that he’s the 3 Eyed Raven. Really weird. We also got a small insight into how he has suffered to embrace becoming something bigger than himself, and with heavier burdens. One even senses traces of lament.
Yet, as he says to Jaime in the Godswood after sparing Jaime from shame before the assembled alliance of lords and ladies, “I’m not angry at anyone.”
Not angry, and ready to use his crippled ass as bait to draw in the Night King. Remind me not to underestimate this guy.
The Hound – Sandor Clegane is readily hateable in the early seasons. Yet, his character, a walking testament to the inner-conflict facing most of humanity, is a reminder of the good that lurks within even the worst of us…if we’re willing to let it take the reins.
Samwell Tarly – a man with faults. So many so that even as Jon, Sam, and Eddison stand atop the walls of Winterfell reminiscing on the beginning of their time together with the Night’s Watch, Sam still comes in for affectionate ribbing for his lack of fighting skills and appeal to the ladies.
Sam knows what he’s good at: reading, learning, and being there for Gilly; and what he’s not. His gift of “Heartsbane” to Jorah out of respect for the fallen Lord Commander Mormont is an example of honoring your own strengths while empowering others to honor theirs.
Lady Mormont – speaking of Mormonts, if I’m the Night King I might not tangle with this one in the battle to come. She’s a testament that greatness comes in all forms, even if those forms are entirely unexpected.
Tormund Giantsbane – a rascal’s rascal. Yet, the consummate realist. His earlier lament of the human cost of Mance Rayder’s pride planted the seed for Jon’s eventual bending of the knee to Daenerys. And his succinct yet glorious “Fuck tradition” line this week prompts Jaime to knight Brienne. Proof that profound statements need not come wrapped in excess fluff.
How many of these characters will remain with us after next week? Sadly fewer for sure.
Yet that’s why the show appeals. It draw us into these characters. Into all their strengths and faults. Which is why as spectacular as one of the great battle scenes in TV history is likely to be this Sunday, it’s going to be a longer, more drawn out – if entirely expected – martial version of the Red Wedding.
And we’ll all be watching anyway because the show is that damn good.
**Speaking of stupid, if you’re on the internet, clicking on Game of Thrones headlines while trying to avoid spoilers, stop it. People complaining about spoilers on the Internet might be worse than the “Am I the only one who has never watched Game of Thrones?” crowd. Thanks for listening to my TED Talk.