Game of Thrones has always known how to put on a spectacle. Who can forget Daenerys walking out of a funeral pyre with her newly hatched dragons wrapped around her singed shoulders, or the satisfying fury of her cutting down the slave masters of Astapor with a single word: dracarys. Who doesn't remember the terrible rising strings that played at the Red Wedding before the blood, the purpled face of Joffrey in his death throes, the sound of the Viper's skull cracking open, Jon Snow gasping back to life, or battle after battle of terrible grandeur.
Game of Thrones Premiere Recap: Jon Snow Still Knows Nothing
Game of Thrones Recap: That's What Death Is
Game of Thrones Recap: The Problem With Prophecies
At their best, these have been alternately stunning and gutting moments that were both stirring and meaningful: They provoked emotion, but also did not rely solely on how cool they felt because they were about more than just the feelings they evoked. They were part of arcs with narrative intention; they were great not just because they gestured at a shorthand of greatness or played emotionally provocative music at the right time, but because they advanced a story. They told us something about a person or a people or a world that was both resonant and true.
Something being true might sound like an extremely fake idea in a story about dragons and zombies, but it relies on things that absolutely have to exist for narratives to work: consistency, relatability, and surprise. Show us a person who feels real, who touches the weird, soft human parts of us in ways we intuitively connect with, and then show us what happens when they break in understandable and unexpected ways against the rocks of the world and each other.
The breaking, no matter how grand and terrible, loses all meaning when the people at the heart of it feel like pawns that have no interiority or personal consistency and just shift around to say and do whatever sounds most awesome. You have, at that point, lost the plot or forgotten the entire point of plot. It's not sounding or feeling cool from moment to moment. It's about the people, and all the weird and wonderful and extremely sad ways they interact, even and especially when there are ice zombies and dragons and fake worlds circumscribing them. There is no amount of sound and fury and Jon Snow literally just screaming at a dragon that will substitute.
It doesn't always have to be kind (and probably shouldn't be). It doesn't have to be the most crowd-pleasing (and probably shouldn't be), but it has to feel earned. And Game of Thrones is not earning its shit anymore.
We've been told, for example, that Tyrion is brilliant while he consistently does incredibly stupid things again and again. We are being told, now, that Jon Snow is clearly the best candidate for president because his bros are slapping him on the back in the meadhall for making a pretty good speech and borrowing the keys to his girlfriend's dragon a couple times. Even though he: 1) Doesn't want it 2) Is bad at it 3) Again, I think it's really important to say how bad he is at it, because that was the whole point of Ned's story and Robb's story and every Stark man's story—that they don't care about politics; they care about their personal honor regardless of what it costs them.
And yet here is Varys the Spider, the string-puller in every dark and ruthless corner of the Seven Kingdoms, agreeing that beerhall camaraderie is more important to leadership than being consistently good at your job for more than five seconds. "She's too strong for him," says Varys, by means of disqualifying Daenerys as queen to Jon's king.
It's not sounding or feeling cool from moment to moment. It's about the people, and all the weird and wonderful and extremely sad ways they interact, even and especially when there are ice zombies and dragons and fake worlds circumscribing them.
And this is the problem with last night's episode, the one it doesn't even understand: It's all about women orbiting men, about how they look through that limited context, and how that's the measure of this world's future. So much for breaking the wheel, when the limit of your power will always be defined by how much you threaten your boyfriend in the eyes of his buddies!
The victory feast is a parade of characters acting like bullies to women for no reason, often to women they like. Why does Tyrion decide to publicly embarrass Brienne for being a virgin, and then demand details of her genitals from Jaime? Why does the Hound decide to try and humiliate Sansa for being raped? Why do we get to hear Sansa defend this on the basis that her debasement by men—not the fact that she has run the North like a queen and killed most of her enemies—is the locus of her strength? Or Dany telling Jon that he shouldn't trust his sister because of all the rapes: "She's not the girl you grew up with. Not after what she's seen. Not after what they've done to her." None of this makes sense.
Tormund, who two episodes ago was all about the practical, egalitarian feminism of letting people be rewarded for whatever they're good at—why not knight Brienne?—ends up declaring that Jon should be king because he, I dunno, got on a dragon like Dany has been doing for literal years now? Also, who thought it was a good idea to put the only black woman on the show in literal chains and then murder her to make a white woman have feelings?
Nobody grows. Nobody gets better or more interesting. The story of Game of Thrones right now is a story of regression, of spectacle over humanity. Maybe the saddest moment in all of this is when Jaime, the poster child for the redemptive character arc, the man who has earned better and earned better and earned it again, is offered happiness and hope and throws it all away because the plot demands that he has to be in King's Landing for the next couple episodes. That's the problem when you stop caring about characters, about humans in your stories, and only care about the denouement and not how you get there. You become cruel, and you force people to be cruel to themselves and others to get them where you need them to go, and you say that it is the story of the world.
Nobody grows. Nobody gets better or more interesting. The story of Game of Thrones right now is a story of regression, of spectacle over humanity.
The most tragic time of any diminishing faith is when it must admit its lack of relevance and simply cannot, when something that once felt vital and important becomes a dead book full of dead gods being danced to life again by opportunistic or hidebound fundamentalists. Tell me about the truer faith: The kind that admits its own faults or the kind that defines itself by its inherent inability to fail. Which one will take you where?
One of the few scenes in Sunday's episode that that felt like something approaching an authentic character arc was Arya's refusal of Gendry's marriage proposal. From Septa Mordane to her parents to Gendry, people have always wanted her to be something different than what she knew she was: a lady, No One, a wife. She tells Gendry the same things she told her father so many years ago: "That's not me." She has always known herself, not as a static concept but as someone who has both grown and remained entirely true to herself.
If only Game of Thrones knew how to do that anymore on any broader level. If we want to say that this story means anything, that has to mean everything. And when it doesn't, when it fails itself and every bit of belief you ever invested in it, that has to mean something too.
- This woman saved John McAfee from an epically bad deal
- Will artificial intelligence enhance or hack humanity ?
- How to build, and keep building, a place like Notre Dame
- My search for a boyhood friend led to a dark discovery
- The quiet beauty of high-octane sports cars
- ✨ Optimize your home life with our Gear team's best picks, from robot vacuums to affordable mattresses to smart speakers .
- 📩 Want more? Sign up for our daily newsletter and never miss our latest and greatest stories