On the surface, ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ was an infinitely more functional and purposeful episode of television than last week’s ‘Winterfell’. Or, indeed, than anything since probably ‘The Winds of Winter’ in Season 6.
There is a lot going for it.
Firstly, all the action is confined to one location. Which admittedly Game of Thrones has done before, but here it is not out of spending time with one big spectacle – a la ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ – but due to the story, with almost all major players arriving at Winterfell.
Secondly, there are clear stakes at play (something the show has really muddled itself with since the series departed wholesale from the source material). With the imminent threat of the Night King’s army, every single character’s actions are driven onward with that in mind, whether they like it or not. It amounts to a unity of purpose and motivation for the characters, which is understandably rare in a show like this where episodes more typically involve characters in very disparate storylines, united by nothing but chronology.
Thirdly, there are some legitimately affecting moments for several characters, articulated with clarity and meaning due to their (rare) definition of character development over the preceding eight seasons. Jaime, in particular, gets some good work as a character finally unburdening himself from the weight of Cersei dissonance. Putting aside their relationship (and yes, that’s a lot to put aside), his actions as they’re tallied up aren’t so dissimilar to those characters who more easily appeal to our sympathies. It’s just that his role has so far existed largely in support of Cersei, who reads as bad.
There is something odd, however, about Daenerys still running the line about Jaime killing her father and her seeking revenge. Jaime’s actions have been repeatedly relayed to us, and her, as not the usurping, kingslaying myth. Like, since Season 3? And Daenerys has literally just come from a scene where she had to confront her own actions at murdering a father and heir to a house, but now she draws the revenge line at Jaime because he acted to prevent genocide? Okay. This is the big problem with their characterisation at the moment – even though I’m trying to say good things about Jaime’s characterisation, but bear with me – in that I don’t think Daenerys as a character would take this line with Jaime. She’s already moved beyond that, according to previous seasons. But the writers make her backtrack here, in order to serve the tension that Jaime’s arrival brings, and to add further question marks around Daenerys’ leadership qualities. So characters are suffering because the confines of predetermined story points. But I digress, because this is rampant all over the story at the moment.
Jaime’s arc works in the show and in this episode because it’s been largely consistent in how he’s moved from point to point. It’s clear to see him at Winterfell now, in light of where he started and everything he’s experienced. The only muddling with him has been the repetition of his allegiance to Cersei after Tommen’s death, if only because that felt like stalling until his eventual abandoning of Cersei.
The same could be said with Brienne, though her character has had less to do and often has been sidelined for longs stretches as a supporting character to other stories. But for someone so prominent in the books, it is wonderful to see her knighthood, and the performance from Gwendoline Christie that comes with it. To see her remove the psychological armour she wears with such adherence is a lovely note, and it was great that the show took the time to include this in the crowded battle preparation schedule.
And lastly, Theon. Also a character sidelined in support of others, but also someone who features tellingly in ghastly fashion in the books, this small moment toward redemption was both well handled and performed. Though this will likely end in Theon’s death next week, his characterisation does feel like one they’ve got relatively right over the eight seasons.
I do wonder if there’ll be more moments like this, though, in the episodes to come. These characters are rare consistencies in a show that has – like with Daenerys above – moved backwards and forwards on characters depending on the needs of the story. And it’s hard to not read this as a direct consequence of the writing background. It can’t be easy, mind you, to write a story with someone else’s outline in mind, after certain commitments to plots and character have already been made without that outline. Furthermore, to do so while folding in the expectations of audiences who form readings and attachments of the characters that go beyond the text (both books and show), trying to draw a straight line in a character’s story would be almost impossible in this hall of character mirrors.
But the problem is that this will result in confused readings of plot points for audiences. There has already been enough of that in response to Arya and Gendry’s romance in this episode. Where we have both the book versions of the characters, the show dramatisations of the characters, the audience extrapolations of these characters based on what both the books and the show offer, and the unarrived potential of the unwritten books – all of this results in characters having to embody multiple, conflicting versions of themselves. That being said, this scene was but a small hint of what misreadings might lie ahead in the final episodes.
In particular, with Tyrion.
In contrast to the other characters mentioned earlier and their clear lines of drama throughout the show, Tyrion has not been helped by the separation of show from book.
Back when George R. R. Martin was still involved more heavily in production, and in an episode written by Benioff & Weiss, they had the character reveal an awful lot about his inner motivations, at a time when he felt close to death. In ‘The Mountain and the Viper’, Tyrion is locked in a cell and reminiscing to Jaime by way of a story about their cousin Orson.
Nothing made Orson happier than smashing beetles to death. Tyrion tried to question Orson about this, but couldn’t find out why Orson was so intent on destruction of the beetles.
I was the smartest person I knew, certainly I had the wherewithal to unravel the mysteries that lay at the heart of a moron…
Piles and piles of them, years and years of them. How many countless living, crawling things smashed, dried out, and returned to the dirt? In my dreams, I found myself standing on a beach made of beetle husks stretching as far as the eye can see. I woke up, crying, weeping for their shattered little bodies. I tried to stop Orson once.
There’s a lot in this scene, which though it has no equivalent in the books, feels enriched by that sense of memory and history that the early seasons did when GRRM was still available. The writers mentioned at the time that they saw it as Tyrion’s method of trying to get to the heart of wanton destruction: why do people kill and destroy?
More crucially, why do they do it to those that are weaker than us?
There is a misanthropic element to Tyrion’s character that has always been present, right from the beginning, but for a long while was couched as cynicism coming from a character who had suffered a lot. Tyrion saw himself as the monster that others called him, and the ennobling nature of his character was that he still tried to do good in spite of their loathing.
However, it seems clear that the show has struggled to articulate Tyrion’s character as well since he met up with Daenerys, a point which seems anticipated in the books but as yet unwritten. Since then, Tyrion’s intelligence seems to be undone repeatedly by new levels of cruelty or depravity from those around him. But these mistakes seem to have come from uncertainty as to what his character’s role is when paired with Daenerys (also, if this did play out in the books, who gets the story? who’s point of view is it when we’re with these two characters?). He seems to be attempting to appeal to Daenerys’ better nature at many steps, hoping she won’t resort to fire and brimstone and instead aim for diplomacy. Can’t lead the people if the people are all burned to a crisp.
But the show has fumbled this, and now we’re stuck with a character repeatedly being told he makes mistakes and isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, and it’s portrayed as if this is a correct judgement. ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ had Daenerys threaten to end his time as her Hand, as if his mistakes were sufficient development for this to actually occur.
Clouding this further have been now two scenes where Tyrion has had a private conversation that’s led to later motivation, only the audience is left out of the scene. Firstly with Cersei last season when negotiating her support, and secondly with Bran in this episode. Both resulted in a change in Tyrion’s outlook, but the deliberate withholding of this from viewers can lead to suspicion that he’s being more malicious than he is. Maybe he was in on it with Cersei, and Daenerys’ slaughter of the Lannister army was too much for the son who always longed to be a true Lannister? Maybe Bran revealed something about the coming battle that allows Tyrion to feel optimistic, but also devious in how he parcels out advice and information to his queen? It’s uncertain, because it hasn’t been dramatised for us (not unlike the weird shenanigans with Littlefinger, Sansa and Arya last season).
None of this really makes for coherent character development, unless we factor in that there’s an endpoint to Tyrion’s character the writers are building to, and they need to manoeuvre him to that point, story-wise and psychologically. Which seems to be that they want Tyrion in opposition to those around him, probably unjustly, and all he can see is Orson killing those beetles, kun kun kun.
A character who tries to do good but can only be seen as monstrous by the monsters around him. Remember, twice previously he has been on trial for violent actions he was innocent of. Violent actions that everyone attributed to him because they saw him as the monster, when all he’d tried to do was be good.
What would Tyrion do to avoid a beach made of the husks of people, rather than beetles? Or, has he been pushed to the point where wanton destruction is what’s required, and he needs to become Orson-like in order to achieve it?
Maybe then he will become the monster they always said he was.
Either way, there’s a deliberate movement with his character that’s been taking place over some of Season 7 and the two episodes so far in Season 8. This all may become logical in hindsight when we get to the end. But my fear is that the bizarre nature of the show’s writing process has left it with some weird characterisation – not just of Tyrion but crucially with him – and that when the end plays out the audience may not respond as to a tragedy (like in ‘The Rains of Castamere’ and ‘The Door’) but with confusion.
The confusion with Arya’s characterisation in ‘A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms’ is understandable, given the storytelling process of Game of Thrones. I fear that by the end of Season 8, the audience may be dealing with significantly radical shifts in character resolutions, that profoundly impact the conclusion of the whole story.
And instead of a unified emotional response, the show may deal with a fracturing of reactions, depending on how much the audience is invested in the book-heavy early depictions of a character, or the later, fan-servicey incarnations, or the weird in between where a character’s own nature is changed to suit the purposes of a story that has largely been determined in another time and place by a very different author.