When Game of Thrones started, it eschewed traditional fantasy narratives by plunging headfirst into moral ambiguity. Yes, there were clear bad guys like Joffrey and clear good guys like Ned, but Game of Thrones didn’t care about making sure you could easily divide people into such groups. Heroes like King Robert had gone to seed, and you cheered for drunken wise-asses like Tyrion. You weren’t even entirely sure whom you could trust, and this moral grey area breathed life into the politics of the show. It wasn’t so much about right and wrong as much as who knew how to effectively wield power.
But in this week’s episode, “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” everyone was a good guy facing off against a very clear bad guy. The biggest problem with the Army of the Dead is they don’t really represent anything beyond death. What makes them fearsome—their lack of a viewpoint, an inability to be reasoned with—also makes them an uninteresting antagonist. They exist to kill and ultimately be defeated (the show keeping Cersei in its back pocket all but ensures that the Army of the Dead doesn’t make it past Winterfell), and because our characters must unite in order to defeat a massive threat, our human characters have been distilled down past the conflicts that made them interesting.
There was only one scene in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” that felt out of place, but it also felt like a call back to when the show was engaging in more interesting things than massive battles and questions of who will die. The scene has Sansa and Daenerys talking about what happens to the North if the Dead are defeated. It’s a far richer question than, “Who will die?” because even though we root for certain characters, it’s a binary outcome. If Arya dies, we will be sad, but nothing really changes in Westeros. What Sansa and Daenerys are discussing is far more interesting because it’s a political question that upends the power structure and character motivations for two major players.
It’s also a scene that’s uninterested in who’s good and who’s bad (although it become pretty clear that the show is setting Daenerys up for a fall). It’s not elegiac or melancholy. It’s the brass tacks of politics and power that the show was built on, and unfortunately, it’s the outlier in this episode that prefers to discard any animosity or ill feelings in favor of redemption and good feelings. It’s giving the audience what they want, but not necessarily what they need.
I understand the need for a calm before the storm and to check in with everyone before battle. I also understand the desire to have a bunch of nice things happen before a bunch of bad things happen. We’re about to watch a lot of beloved characters die. But Game of Thrones never used to be interesting in niceties. It would have been nice if Ned Stark hadn’t had his head chopped off or Robb and Catelyn hadn’t been murdered at the Red Wedding or if the Viper hadn’t had his head exploded. There were lots of nice things that could have happened, and they didn’t because Game of Thrones, while not an endless slog of misery, also understands that the world it’s created is unfair. The show eschewed fantasy tropes to forge its own path, but as the series winds to a close, Dan Weiss and David Benioff are pushing it back towards the traditional.
This isn’t to say that I need everyone bickering as the Army of the Dead arrives, but pragmatism sometimes gets in the way of good drama. Yes, the pragmatic thing to do is to forgive Jaime, entrust him to Brienne, and let him fight. But that quick solution deprives the characters of emotionally wrestling with what they’ve done or how they feel. Because the upcoming battle is the most important thing, there’s no longer any room to consider moral ambiguity. Everyone is redeemed, everyone is forgiven, and that makes the redemption and forgiveness feel cheap and unearned. It needs to be there because the fight is more important, not because it’s the natural place for these characters.
When the Battle of Winterfell arrives, we will all be very sad. We will mourn the loss of characters we like. But right now, let’s take a moment to mourn the show that has been lost in favor of good feelings. We’ve lost complexity to the politics and ambiguity to the character’s actions. You don’t need to worry whether or not Arya’s fixation on murder has darkened her soul. She has a new weapon and she’s getting laid! You don’t need to worry if there’s a split coming between Daenerys and Tyrion. She had a nice chat with Jorah! All you need to worry about is who lives and who dies. Maybe after the Battle of Winterfell, a more interesting show will come back from the dead.