SPOILER ALERT I just completed a five-season Game of Thrones binge, a swift tour through Westeros that finally allowed me to reclaim some bougie pop culture cred (as if I’d ever aspired to a lot of it in the first place). I was late to the party because this is not really my favorite genre; I am not terribly compelled by armies of frozen zombie men (I’m a Minnesotan, I see enough of those already), smoky assassins that conveniently take out contenders for the throne, or franken-knights. But I’d heard enough praise to suggest it was more than some run-of-the-mill fantasy dreck, and while I wouldn’t call it a masterwork, it delivers more often than not.
Game of Thrones also generates its share of negative press for its gratuitous sex and gore, most of it justified. I’m hardly the morality police on this front, but it is so incessant that it quickly becomes banal. At a certain point, it stops making Joffrey or Ramsay Bolton seem more evil and just turns them into cartoonish villains, simplifying an otherwise complex drama. And does the show really aim to deaden the very idea of intimacy in its relentless sexposition, to suggest that love is the first victim of this Hobbesian world? Or is this just Fifty Shades of Grey for the fantasy crowd? The strength of many female characters also seems to belie their treatment as walking vaginas by the other half of Westerosi society. This all makes for an interesting statement on the state of American sexual voyeurism, but we’ll save that debate for another day. In the end, it leaves one oddly ambivalent: are we sure these people would really be worse off if they were all gored by the White Walkers?
Still, beneath the tiresome HBO trope is some serious human drama, as the show finds great strength in ambiguity. The characters are complex, and their motives believable. Here, I must admit that my favorite characters are not the Starks, the ostensible heroes of the series, but instead the Lannisters. Lena Headey was not always my favorite actress in the series, but she stole the show in season five, as the show traced Cersei’s arc of Greek tragedy. She wins nearly every battle she fights, but is slowly losing the war, failing the only three people who matter to her: her children. The first, a spoiled sadist, is dead, and her moves to protect the other two backfire: she sends Myrcella away before realizing the danger she faces in Dorne (ugh, Dorne), and Tommen is much too young, sweet, and innocent to rule over anyone besides Ser Pounce or claim any glory beyond his exploits under the covers with Margaery. Cersei’s walk of shame through the streets of King’s Landing was superbly executed, and she is a brilliant mess of a person; at once haughty and haunted, a careful schemer and a sorry pawn.
Cersei is hardly alone in excellent Lannister story arcs. Peter Dinklage’s slick performance has made Tyrion the star from the start as everyone’s favorite cynical and sharp-tongued dwarf. But I also fell for Tywin, the patriarch, so clearly the father of his three children. In his own way he is as duty-bound as Ned Stark, though he is much more utilitarian than his northern rival, and suffers no illusions beyond the ones beneath his very nose. While the show makes short work of its idealists, the realists aren’t much better off in the long run. The Lannisters’ undoing is not their cruelty or elitism, but instead their humanity: they see only what they want to see in their children and (in Tyrion’s case) their lovers. Even the coldest schemers have their sacred cows, and they all bring them down in the end.
If it weren’t clear that the political drama is the true fulcrum of Game of Thrones, the show offers obvious reminders, usually in lofty throne room speeches between Petyr Baelish, Varys, and various witty interlocutors. These scheming councilmembers and aides are master manipulators, and a potential Baelish-Varys showdown in the final fight for the throne would be one to relish. Baelish, so Machiavellian that he makes the Lannisters look like happy little Hodors, might be the most formidable character of them all; maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t think Tommy Carcetti—err, Aiden Gillen—quite inspires much confidence. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to see an endgame in his lonely maneuvers.
Varys, meanwhile, has chosen the devil he does not know in Daenerys Targaryen, and with Tyrion in tow, perhaps he figures they can cover for her lack of governing skills. Conleth Hill and Dinklage radiate chemistry whenever they’re on screen together, and I’d be perfectly content to see them running the show in the end. I’m also a sucker for the journey of their new ally Jorah Mormont, the world-weary Lawrence of Essos given sudden religious purpose by his obsession with the woman he cannot have. While Daenerys’ claim to the throne still has its share of holes beyond the ability to birth dragons and some badass liberations, the cadre forming around her is enough bring me on board ahead of all the other pretenders. Now if we can just sign up Diana Rigg’s Oleanna Tyrell for the Targaryen restoration, I’m all in. Daenerys’ victories tend to be the show’s most dramatic pieces, though it’s hard to know if this reveals the true heroine, or if this is just Game of Thrones messing with us again. They’ve gotten into our heads.
The Starks, on the other hand, have always seemed out of their element in a world with all the schemers of King’s Landing. It helped that I knew to expect unexpected deaths when I started in, but Ned’s early demise was telegraphed all too clearly by his naïve nobility. The Robb character never developed enough for my liking, and Jon Snow, for all his screen time, mostly oozes toward becoming the father’s son we always thought he would be. Maisie Williams is superb as Arya in her haunted journey, and I appreciate the moral ambiguity of her story as she slowly turns herself into a vengeful killing machine, but that arc still feels a bit tangential to the central drama. Of all the deaths so far, the one that most disappointed me was Catelyn’s: at least she had some idea of how to play the game, albeit imperfectly, and for it became the most complex and interesting Stark. Sansa offers some hope on this front as well, presuming she has not joined up in the family tradition of shattering limbs upon falling from high places in Winterfell. (Otherwise, I’m afraid Hodor is going to need a bigger cart next season.)
Even if Jon Snow is a bit of a bore, his death would be irksome given how much we’ve invested in The Wall, and I immediately suspected it wasn’t permanent. There are too many loose ends in that storyline, and Melisandre, who has witnessed a man return from the dead and is clearly playing a longer game than the one Stannis offered, is still lurking about Castle Black. Melisandre has mostly annoyed me to date, but she now has a tantalizing role to play. Her mercy for Davos, the one redeeming character in the Stannis arc, still needs an explanation, too. So far, the different deities of Westeros have managed to coexist, but sooner or later things will come to a head, and the war among faiths and reason remains one of the more compelling plot lines left. One hopes there is no godly deus ex machina that will save the whole continent (don’t ruin it for us, Stark children), but I appreciate how the various faiths and magical acts are real enough in their power to seem plausible, while all incapable of capturing a total truth.
Beyond that, there are still a lot of choices left for the relative free agents of the story. Breanne of Tarth is clearly going to swing someone’s fate before she’s done, and she’s due for a reunion with Jaime Lannister at some point, too. Jaime has some big decisions to make now that he’s failed on his mission for Cersei; I’ve always gotten the sense that Jaime’s story should be a good one, but hasn’t quite been fleshed out well enough on screen. Gendry, who is by rights the heir to the Baratheon claim to the throne, is still rowing somewhere out in the east. Kevan Lannister has lived up to his brother’s standard in his occasional screen time, and I hope for more of him. (Is there any chance that Lancel’s conversion to fanaticism is just part of a tricky power play by that branch of the Lannister clan?) I also want more Tyrells, who from most any objective standpoint are the most qualified noble family to do any ruling in Westeros. Someone get Margaery out of that damn jail cell and let her do her thing. I guess the Iron Islanders still exist out there somewhere, too.
I’m prepared to be disappointed by the rest of Game of Thrones. I fear long battles against the zombie snowmen and Franken-Mountain, and more inane Ramsay Bolton torture. I expect more Dorne; well, at least the set for the Water Garden is pretty. I pray Arya and Bran’s adventures with otherworldly powers don’t stumble away from that tricky balance of faith I praised earlier. There’s even the terrifying possibility that Stannis isn’t dead, since the cameras cut away before Breanne brought down her sword. The sexposition will, no doubt, trail on.
And yet I’m still hooked. I suppose that makes George R.R. Martin a greater schemer than all of his characters, the true winner of the Game of Thrones. He’s a world-builder of epic proportion, and he’s done a brilliant job of turning to real European history to enliven a genre that too often apes its handful of genuine talents. It makes for a bizarre fusion of fantasy and hardcore realism, which may be why the sexual aspect has proven so troublesome and gives birth to arguments about its seeming “realism.” (Sex is hard enough to depict in a sincere, fresh way in the present.) The waters are sufficiently muddy that nothing is easy to predict, and it’s transcended genre and become a fairly intelligent cultural touchstone in an age when such touchstones too often appeal to the lowest common denominator. I want to see if this show can pull it off, though even if the end result proves wanting, the reaction to the train wreck should be amusing enough to make it worth it.