What with the dragons soaring, White Walkers marching, and Eurons Greyjoying, it seems pedantic to observe that Game of Thrones isn't exactly a bastion of psychological realism. I'm observing it anyway, for two reasons: The first is that the show has pulled off a few genuinely interesting, complicated, and resonant character arcs in its time (like Tyrion's recent tragedy). The other is that the show's dialogue can be witty, sharp, even transformative — in particular episodes.
The problem is one of stamina and scale. Game of Thrones seems able to conceive of great dialogue in sprints. It achieves interesting dramatic effects in the moment that the larger story can't always sustain and the larger causal systems don't justify. In other words, Game of Thrones is amazingly bad at character development. And the series' most frustrating missing links pertain to the Starks, whose arcs snap backwards so often they're basically switchbacks.
Take, for example, Sansa's competence in "The Queen's Justice." Did you think it was strange? I did. Having complained that her father protected her and failed to teach her; having apparently learned so little from her mother that she didn't even know the words with which to receive Brienne into her service; having failed to rally any Northern families to the Stark cause; having inexplicably withheld Littlefinger's military support from Jon Snow and made dozens of other poor decisions, Sansa is suddenly outfitted with extraordinary logistical competence. The girl who couldn't convince a single Northern family to fight with her instinctively understands how to get nearby Keeps to send her all their extra grain on the understanding that they'll get it back if it goes unused? How did this happen? Is she like Sam? Did she dig up a Manual on Diplomatic Winter-Prep and follow the instructions?
Don't get me wrong: I'm glad to see Sansa displaying some common sense and concern for her people's welfare. But these elisions are annoying because a) she's made such a point of her lack of practical education and b) we've seen her have "breakthroughs" like this before, and they don't build. They might last the space of a scene (or at best, a season), and then they expire. Remember the black dress she made herself in the Vale? That amounted to nothing.
I was puzzled but not surprised, therefore, by how quickly her loyalty to Jon Snow went out the window on Bran's return. All those nice sibling moments between her and Jon meant nothing. Her acknowledgment of him was 100 percent provisional, and the old conventions we thought she'd outgrown, having seen more of the world, reasserted themselves instantly. Sansa appears to have learned nothing. She still fetishizes legitimacy, and she still considers Bran — Jon's younger sibling — the better Stark. She can't wait to proclaim him King. She's regressed so far I can almost imagine her sporting a Southern hairstyle and wanting to marry Joffrey.
I promised I wouldn't bring up Arya's ridiculous year in training, so let's take Jon Snow as a dull but instructive case in point. We've watched Jon grow — I use the term loosely — into a well-meaning, pragmatic, but impulsive and incompetent leader. He's as easily baited as he is reluctant to lead. A sublimely ineffective communicator, Jon routinely leaves me wondering whether his disastrous diplomacy is stupidity, humility, honesty, or pride. Remember when he met with the wildling leaders and they asked him where Mance Rayder was? Remember his response?
(Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)
He almost got killed! It took Tormund to supply the necessary context (Jon killed Mance to save him from being burned alive). Nor did he fare much better when trying to recruit allies for the Battle of the Bastards; it took Ser Davos and Lyanna Mormont to rally people to his cause.
But Jon finally seemed to be outgrowing the sulks of a man who hates explaining himself! He expertly shut down Sansa's contention that the Karstarks and Umbers children should be punished for their fathers' crimes. Jon doesn't believe that, and he persuasively argued the point — reminding the assembled lords that he wasn't soft, but just.
This being Game of Thrones, he pointlessly backtracks. He makes a couple of good points to Daenerys, but his pitch to her is upsettingly ineffective. As Tyrion points out, what he's asking makes no sense, isn't reasonable, and his expectation that a stranger would fly to his aid on his say-so is … hard to understand. Is he really this incapable of reading an audience, or intuiting that people appreciate a story with some proof? If so, he has no business leading. He could very easily convince them by telling them he came back from the dead and showing them the scars that prove it. But no. For some reason, we're not doing that. In lieu of a useful, convincing disclosure, we get yet another instance of narrative withholding that makes Jon seem a little dumber and more hopeless — and flatlines the arc we thought he was on.
Then there's Bran. The last few times we've seen Bran, he was either studying to be the Three-Eyed Raven or traveling with help from Meera and Benjen Stark. In those scenes, he never seemed like the detached weirdo he's since become. He watched his father's childhood scenes at Winterfell with perfectly normal interest and warmth. So what occasioned this transformation into the guy who doesn't bother to hug his sister back? Why the dead-eyed stare? The decision to remark on how beautiful she looked the night she was raped?
I've seen some theories floating around that Bran has simply seen too much; he's lost track of normal human emotions. Maybe that's right, but it certainly hasn't been written into his arc. A single scene with a worried Meera trying to get him to converse normally could have done a lot to explain what's going on with him. Absent that, we're forced to accept that he's just different now. Maybe it's because the Night King touched him. Maybe he's traumatized by Hodor's time loop. Maybe Three-Eyed Ravens aren't supposed to emote. Who knows? The point is that his arc is no such thing, and his development is meaningless and not worth pondering. The moment you try to build on what seems true of Bran now — that he's wise, say — the logic collapses. Remember when Bran was touched by the Night King? Remember how that meant the wights could penetrate the cave, which used to be protected? You'd think Bran might conclude, based on that experience, that breaching the wall was a bad idea. You'd be wrong.
I like the Starks. We all do. But the price of liking them is tempering one's expectations. In a sea of characters hardening into stereotypes of themselves, the Starks are so bizarrely immune to consistent progress that almost anything they do could theoretically make sense. Game of Thrones has been criticized in some quarters for all its clumsy exposition this season (like Missandei's translation of the prophecy). It's a valid complaint, I suppose, but there's a certain irony to the fact that a show accused of over-explaining its plot is equally guilty of under-explaining its most beloved characters.