Magic has always been part of Game of Thrones, but it didn't used to drive the action. That's changing. More and more, the show is indulging a tendency to fudge the reasons things happen. Why, to take a recent instance, did Benjen Stark show up exactly when Meera was collapsing in exhaustion (which also happened to be the very moment the wights found them)? The answer is no answer at all. The answer is Phlebotinum. The answer is: "magic".
That creeping dependence on the supernatural has been bad for Game of Thrones, with the show relying so heavily on magic to resolve things (fan favorites "Home" and "The Door" were both guilty of this) that we've come to see the brilliant dialogue and subtle power moves of episodes like this week's "Blood of My Blood" as mere "table-setting" for the heady joys of unexplained resurrections and poorly theorized time loops.
But here's the thing: Sunday's Game of Thrones was actually the best episode in recent memory. And that's precisely because it turned its attention away from magic and back toward the show's substance and strength: family drama.
It's been years since we've seen the wonderful internecine warfare by which love and kinship and alliances circulate on this show. This week we got it in spades — or swords: Sam takes Heartsbane. Arya reclaims Needle and her identity as a Stark. Jamie, expelled from the Kingsguard by his own son, is thereby freed from his vows (like Jon, whose watch is ended). People are starting to move under their own power and for their own reasons. Even the Waif is on an unbecomingly personal mission.
There was even a set piece on family dysfunction. Sam's homecoming had it all: the venomous patriarch, the gorgeous dining hall, and an ugly deconstruction of the wretched race, class, and gender divisions that structure Westerosi thinking (and plague our own Thanksgiving dinners). The Horn Hill scenes were notable not just for Lord Tarly's cruelty but for the rest of the family's kindness. Not since the Starks have we seen a family this sympathetic. Gentleness puts cruelty in perspective, and small touches, like Gilly's careful reading of Sam ("you're a nervous talker") en route, raised the stakes of her brave defense of him later and authorized his transition into full rebellion. This was a grounded scene, a human scene with nuance and dramatic cross-currents that kept its shape and made sense without resorting to cantankerous White Walkers or sultry Red Women or wearisome Many-Faced Gods or bedraggled Ravens, all of whom have been clogging up the works with dei ex machina for months.
Magic is not intrinsically boring. But it becomes so if its rules are randomly violated and its causes are aggressively withheld. After six seasons, we still know next to nothing about the White Walkers: what they want, why they turned on their creators, what their real powers are, whether they can even think in the traditional sense and, if so, how. They can warp locations, apparently! Huh.
As any journalist covering climate change can confirm, processes we don't understand will bore us into denial if they don't first make us credulous and fond of conspiracies. (The comparison between White Walkers and climate change is apt.) Take Meera and Bran's storyline. Forced out of a magic tree because Bran violated a rule no one mentioned, they're chased by wights and rescued by a resurrected relative (who despite undergoing the very process that created White Walkers somehow did not become one) while angry skeletons belch and shatter. "Magic" does nothing to explain this sequence of events. It's narrative nonsense. But we extend these incidents conspiratorial credit ("what happened to Hodor was terribly sad and clearly brilliant — we'll find out why soon").
That reliance on magic has blunted the show's longtime interest in people's ugly but idiosyncratic motivations. There was a time when the familial relationships and dysfunction didn't just advance the story, they were the story. The trouble is that isolating characters in various prisons and training camps for years erodes those networks and dependencies. Who knows who they are to each other now? Few interpersonal dynamics remain strong enough to produce effects, so Game of Thrones' marvelous old system of causality withered. It became a show wherein Things Happen and it falls to viewers to reverse-engineer the reasons why they did. (When Margaery says she was "very good at seeming good," it struck me as a neat description of the show, which has long bouts of seeming to be good without, perhaps, quite being so.)
And then along comes "Blood of My Blood" and its gloriously silly play-within-a-play — a small return to causes and effects, to people, to plot! The rest of the episode bubbles with drama as if infected by the playlet: Sam rebels. Jamie's jaunty opening to the High Sparrow — "Sorry to interrupt" — shrivels into the unexpectedly sad and public loss of his son. Daenarys puts on a show even if it's sort of a rerun, and Margaery chooses her role in the High Sparrow's script: She stages a conversion spectacle, accidentally upsetting the Lannister-Tyrell play (and ploy) to rescue her. The fight between Sparrows and royalty turns into a contest in stagecraft, one play against another, and the High Sparrow's has more famous actors. ("They've beaten us, that's what's happening," Lady Olenna says in a play-like aside to Mace Tyrell.)
Most rewardingly, perhaps, Arya develops a sense of history, empathizes with Cersei, condemns the bad lines that have been written for her, and writes new ones herself.
So much happened, both analytically and practically, and yet the episode didn't feel rushed. Many scenes felt luxuriantly long, with space to develop and resolve. There were conniving schemers (Olenna, Margaery, the High Sparrow), skilled survivors (Gilly and Margaery), and genuinely entertaining villains (not just Lord Tarly but the wonderful Richard Grant's Izembaro, an irascible playwright and actor whose diva-like rejection of others' input — "This is my profession. You have no right to an opinion!" — is either a self-deprecating joke by the showrunners or some shade for George RR Martin, whom they overruled by making Coldhands the same as Benjen Stark).
This is a rich text. So why did this episode get such a tepid response by fans and critics?
One possibility is that a pattern of spectacular resurrections (which we were lied to about) and tragic but incomprehensible "twists" like Hodor's produces something like learned helplessness. Why should viewers question the absurd things that happen if the answer is always "magic" or "it's in the books" or "you'll see"? We're at the mercy of a coy and capricious all-knowing author(s), and we're so grateful when something is revealed that we're thrilled, a little overcome, and not as skeptical as we might be.
After six seasons in that explanatory limbo, maybe we've gotten hypercritical of the merely human scenes simply because they're fully within our grasp. Many fans, for instance, found the dialogue in "Blood of My Blood" too on the nose. Perhaps it was, but surely this is preferable to the absurdly underwritten "Good soup" exchange Jon and Sansa had after their reunion. Consider that case, because it's a fine example of how Game of Thrones gets coy when we most hunger for disclosure. Was what we most needed to know about two siblings reunited after rapes, torture, and resurrection that the soup was good and that Sansa was sorry she was mean? As dialogue it's certainly not obvious, but neither is it interesting or realistic. (That soup looked terrible.) We could have learned so much about the lonely, guarded adults they've become by hearing them tell their stories — however briefly, and not in an expository but in a reflective way. Instead we had to infer, through hints, whether they discussed any of what happened to them at all.
What a luxury it has been, then, to watch Arya's face change as she watches the play. Her glee at watching Joffrey die curdles when Lady Crane performs Cersei's grief. For the space of an instant, Arya grants her worst enemy the honor of sharing her own motives, her own pain response. Even their names rhyme, Mercy with Cersei. It's an identification she'll soon cast off, but these small reckonings with history are the stuff that make the frigid, sweeping scope of Game of Thrones worth following. Without it, to quote Arya, "It'd all be farting, belching, and slapping" — with a little magic thrown in.