Do yesterday's wars matter on Game of Thrones?
Game of Thrones made its name by tossing clichés out the window. The noble hero could die, bloody and pointless. The cute kid could be a vicious warrior, and/or another corpse on the pile. The sex and swears could seem boundary-breaking for teenagers or people who didn't know fantasy was supposed to be weird. But the boldest part of foundational book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, was always George R. R. Martin's rigid history-buff detail orientation, his centralizing notion that a world of dragons and ice zombies and burning swords could also be a world where furrowed-brow politicians debate the national debt, where wars are lost due to bad weather, where the country's finest swordsman stresses out when his army doesn't have steady access to livestock and grain.
The problem with the books — if you think it's a problem — is how the details start to pile up. Families distantly referenced become central figures, far-flung points on the map become major settings; suddenly, everyone is a central character. I ride hard for books four and five, but Martin's mid-period Westeros tomes have wandered freely away from the Starks, the Lannisters, and any obvious through-line that usually constitutes a saga. Six years ago, with the TV show still merely a burgeoning phenomenon, A Dance With Dragons comprised a thousand pages of sprawling gradualism, big battles brewing and new forces slowly arising.
You remember that Martin was an anti-war lefty in the '60s, who wrote a brilliant book in the '80s about his Reagan-era disenchantment with his whole generation. You wonder if "disenchantment" is more important to this saga than we think; by the end of book five, villains had become heroes, heroes became entrapped in governmental bureaucracy, one good person was reborn a vengeful demon, and Martin himself seemed less interested in his most famous characters than in the renegades and the ruined.
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When I think of A Dance with Dragons or the equally sprawling Feast for Crows, I remember Sam Waterston, playing a demi-Satanic CIA director in Oliver Stone's history-as-fugue-state biopic Nixon. Waterston's spook discusses some long-ago top-secret operation that spiraled into the whole national-security shadow nation, and he sounds like he's describing a monster out of Lovecraft: It was "not an operation, so much as an organic phenomenon. It grew. It changes shape. It developed appetites." That's the general vibe you get from the last decade-plus of Martin's Westeros output: Not a tight narrative operation but an engorged organic phenomenon, growing and changing shape, developing appetites, defining new cosmologies, creating new supporting casts every couple chapters.
Notably, that Waterston scene barely makes logical or historical sense, and wasn't even in the Nixon theatrical cut. And it's hard to think of any TV show that has ever sprawled like Martin's post-2000 work, besides maybe Doctor Who and Adventure Time and, arguably, this season of Twin Peaks. In adapting Martin's later books and pushing the narrative past their boundaries, the show refined its own version of the story. After a couple years of slow-burning backroom politics and face-swap tutorials, the sixth season of Game of Thrones ended with two of the show's finest episodes ever. In "Battle of the Bastards," Queen Dany and soon-to-be-King Jon eliminated the biggest bad guys in their respective corner of the map. Buh-bye, Boltons! Sayonara, Slavers!
The fact that neither Ramsay Bolton nor the various Faceless Men were ever very interesting maybe didn't matter. Thrones gets a lot of credit for its long game, but showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are actually high practitioners of a grander TV tradition: the sharp pivot. Dorne's not working? Kill some, banish the rest to the finale! People love Bron? Pair him up with Jaime! Bad guy's a miserable sludge? Feed him to the dogs! In the darkest chapters of Thrones‘ middle period, whispers started screaming about the show's oft-abused female characters — an opinion symbolized, with awareness and complexity, in Cersei's nude walk of shame, a sequence so perverse and punishing that you could only root for the nefarious Queen once it was all over.
Vengeance came for Cersei in the season 6 finale, with an explosion that destroyed her religious zealot foes. Cersei's triumph was also a kind of descent, but there was genuine and sincere feeling of female catharsis running through the season. Sansa sent rapist Ramsay to the kennel. Dany sailed toward conquest on Yara Greyjoy's ships. And Arya Stark returned to Westeros to kill malevolent patriarch Walder Frey, slicing his throat just a few feet from where his men sliced her mother's.
So: The game board's been wiped clean of the dullards, no more preaching High Sparrow, no more monomaniacal Ramsay, no more long swoops Eastward towards Essos in the opening title sequence. What now? And: Did any of that matter? Dany meandered through Slaver's Bay, waiting for her dragons to grow, then left; the Starks are back in Winterfell; the Lannisters no longer need to even pretend to be Baratheons. As Thrones enters its final act, its unclear how much that middle act even mattered, and as the cast list thins down to a few big names and supernatural threats, dimensional complexity gives way to speeches about the Night King. If the problem with the books now is a sprawling antipathy towards narrative catharsis, the problem with the show could become quite the opposite: Here's a Greatest Hits compilation of Big Moments, without the slow-burn simmer that made scenes like the Red Wedding stand out like a supernova against the darkness.
The season 7 premiere kicked off with the latest mass murder at the Twins, an Arya hero thrill that made you worry the show was already overdoing the Mission: Impossible face-pull effect. It ended with a long walk, Dany's dialogue-free arrival on her family's ancestral island. Dragonstone looked cheaper when Stannis lived there, but that seemed appropriate for the wannabe king's frugal imagination. Dany's always been a more recognizably fantastical figure, a chosen one with a grand destiny and a strong dose of magic in her veins; it makes sense that Dragonstone itself seems so much larger now, all dragon heads and byzantine walkways, bright sunlight where Stannis once lingered in fiery shadow. Her long walk ended, Dany deadpanned: "Shall we begin?"
That's a pretty good summation of this premiere, I think: A long walk to where it all begins. Did we need a prologue for such a short season? Reply hazy; ask again in six weeks. I'm not sure we needed two different scenes with queens staring at maps of Westeros, plotting their next four moves. And I'm not sure we needed another map, helpfully discovered by Sam in a book titled Plot Point on an infographic declaring This Is How You Kill The White Walkers.
I could watch all day Lena Headey-as-Cersei spew bitter wine-at-breakfast vitriol at her various enemies — a "brood of bitches" down south, an "old c—t" in Highgarden. And I'm intrigued that the show has essentially staged a full in-universe reboot of the character Euron Greyjoy. Coming off last season like the umpteenth moody variation of Sean Bean's Boromir, Euron reappeared last night with a makeover and an attitude adjustment, prone to sassy flirtation and chest hair-advertising deep V-necks. Rocking a tight-fitting leather ensemble, Euron is an assault on Thrones‘ usually meticulous Medieval-chic aesthetic. Note taken, fans: This Greyjoy isn't like the other Greyjoys. This Greyjoy describes the population of the Iron Islands as "a lot of very unattractive people." (Leave it to the Greyjoys to invent self-aware self-loathing.)
I kinda loved Euron, because I love when Thrones indulges its soapier side. Up North, newly-crowned King Jon and the show's best characters are lingering in grim wintry stasis. Jon's nervous about the White Walkers, Sansa's nervous about the Lannisters: Their debate cuts to the core of Thrones, either a show about humans fighting humans or a show about humans putting aside their differences to fight a blue man with an undead army.
The latter is the overarching saga for Jon's ensemble. Tormund, once a character you could call "morally ambiguous" or "proudly murderous," is more-or-less in the Night's Watch now, making flirty protagonist tall-person eyes at Brienne. Littlefinger, who once seemed to have his finger in pockets not even sewn yet, has staked his whole claim on being Sansa's Tyler Durden.
"Yesterday's wars don't matter anymore," Jon insisted, and I worry that in pruning so much of the show's cast in season 6, Game of Thrones is beginning to think the same way. Starks, Lannisters, Targaryens: They're all where they should be, the pretenders are all gone, the variables have been replaced by constants. It used to matter when a whole High Family got decimated at once, but the Frey-o-cide was a Westerosi in-joke by midway through the premiere's running time. Jon is a recently crowned monarch, reassembling his country after years of bloodshed and betrayal, but he can always dangle the approaching Night King as a Great Unifying Force and skip through all the human drama of politicking. In that sense, Jon and Dany have started to seem like more or less the same character, with identical grand destinies and identical support staffs of frowning true believers.
This was maybe the intention all along. (Fan theory has held them together: He's the ice, and she's the fire, and what a song they'll sing!) And if I miss the history-haunted earlier seasons, full of morally decayed nobles and battle-scarred warriors, I can also acknowledge the endearing escapism of Thrones‘ political fantasy. Here's a show where a bastard and an orphan have defeated all other authority figures and promise a new future past their world's old enmities, the wheel broken, the old wars forgotten. Weirdly, Thrones has become the most committed popular vision of the rise of millennials to political prominence. Fantasy politics, sure, with cool dragons as environmentally sensitive weaponry and literal zombies as climate change; but here's a show where gray-bearded traditionalists give way to Stark kids half their age, where a hip liberationist like Dany can turn establishment outcasts into proud followers of her new way. That Dany is both a symbol of #RESISTANCE and the old inbred dynasty feels appropriately millennial, too; this is a generation that demands social consciousness from Disney royalty, that seems to prefer outsider-art rebellion as peddled by the in-crowd.
What I'm saying is: The core of Thrones has always been complex, and there's something too simple in this premiere, a reframing of the show as a war between good heroes and nefarious-hilarious punks. I anticipate great battles in the wars to come, and am open to the possibility that this prologue was doing the usual work of four Thrones episodes, teeing everybody up for the breakneck race toward the finale. The convergences are interesting, if forced: Chronology and geography have been scrunched, so it's not as surprising as it should be to see Jorah hanging way down South, and I expect Bran's long spiraling road trip will end up back at Winterfell in half the time it took him to get to the Wall the first time.
Meanwhile, at a small unimportant cottage in some small unimportant corner of Thrones‘ big world, the Hound and a band of fire-worshipping wackos lingers for a night in the carcass that was their country. Rory McCann was always a standout on the show, and the Hound feels even more essential now on this comeback tour. While everyone else is following a god or a grand destiny or a long-promised kill list, the Hound's just living, for reasons that elude him. He had a nice speech about Beric Dondarrion, pondering why a man so normal and unimportant would be chosen as a resurrected hero; but the speech was really about the Hound himself, I think, a character who basically died years ago and was brought back by the god named Ian McShane.
"I'm sorry you're dead," the Hound says, burying the people he didn't bother helping. "You deserve better." A moment of hard-won humanism — well, after the Hound looked into the fire and saw his next plot point. I don't mind when the show moves its chess pieces into place. But I remember most of all the Hound observing a cold dead cabin, remembering the sad past and pondering a bleak future. For the Hound, at least, yesterday's wars do matter.