11 questions for the new season of Game of Thrones

As the show departed from G.R.R. Martin's books, it solved its plot issues by getting increasingly coy. That has created all sorts of problems for season seven.

The new season
(Image credit: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO)

Game of Thrones comes roaring back Sunday for its penultimate seven-episode season, and with it come hordes of questions, theories, and hopes.

I'm on the record as being overwhelmed and impressed by the exceptional music and direction last season. But when it came to the writing, I had questions. The biggest issue I've had with the series as it's departed from George R.R. Martin's books is that it has solved its plot problems by getting increasingly coy. In seasons past, we understood characters fairly well: how they thought, what they wanted, and how they were trying to get it. These days, rather than frankly admit what characters think and want, the show offers performance after performance that revels in ambiguity. This can be interesting and even effective in the short-term. In the long-term, though, the stakes collapse. If you never find out whether people were being straightforward or manipulative, their arcs fold into nothing as they die without resolution.

Here are 11 questions I hope the new season addresses.

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1. What's the deal with Jaime?

One of my absolute favorite scenes from last season was between Jaime Lannister and Edmure Tully. It's been ages since we've seen two characters actually hash out something that matters. This was that kind of scene — rich, interesting, textured dramatic. (It helps that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Tobias Menzies are just outrageously good together.) "How do you tell yourself that you're decent, after everything that you've done?" Edmure asks Jaime, and Jaime embarks on a long speech about how vicious he's willing to be because he loves Cersei: "I love Cersei," he says.

You can laugh at that if you want. You can sneer. Doesn't matter. She needs me. And to get back to her, I have to take Riverrun. I'll send for your baby boy. And I'll launch him into Riverrun with a catapult. Because you don't matter to me, Lord Edmure. Your son doesn't matter to me. The people in the castle don't matter to me. Only Cersei. And if I have to slaughter every Tully who ever lived to get back to her, that's what I'll do.

That seems clear enough — decisive, even. But here's how Coster-Waldau says it, and listening to him, I'm not 100 percent sure how to take it:

Compare his delivery there to this scene with Brienne, which — again — offers some amusing and necessary exposition but peppers it with true interpersonal tension. "I'm a Lannister," Jaime says. "Don't ask me to betray my own house." And while he sounds almost arch in his interactions with her — even jokey and condescending — this almost, almost sounds like a plea.

I love those two scenes because they gesture at a character in crisis — at someone struggling with the public's perception of him and with his own understanding of himself. This has long been Jaime's dilemma, but the show hasn't had time for that sort of thing these last few seasons, and it's offered too little consistent characterization for me to trust it now. My sense, watching that speech, was that Jaime was struggling: that despite his casual affect, he has real feeling for Brienne. And that despite posturing as a vicious impassioned lover, what he really needed was to convince Edmure to surrender and himself that his love for Cersei is real. That speech felt to me like an inflection point. The finale, after all, had Jaime watching the carnage at King's Landing looking like this:

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And he attends Cersei's coronation with this rather wonderful expression:

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"197013","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"337","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"600"}}]](Screenshot/HBO/Game of Thrones)

These do not look quite like the Man in Love he represented himself as being to Edmure. So the question is: Did Jaime mean it when he gave Edmure that speech listing the things that matter to him and the things that don't? Does he love Cersei? Everything I've mentioned above leads me to believe he was lying, or trying to convince himself. But maybe the show will double down and confirm that he meant it all along.

2. What's the deal with religion?

I'm skeptical that this Jaime conflict is actually progressing because the show has constructed tantalizing scenarios like these, gotten me interested in them, and then killed everybody before I could work out what everyone was lying about and why.

If, like me, you were trying to figure out to what extent the Sparrow was a true believer vs. a political operator — if you assumed we had scene after scene between him and Tommen (or him and Margaery) in which a delicate dance of faith and politics was being slowly unfurled because the show considered the intersection between religion and politics important — well, you're out of luck. We never got clarity on Jonathan Pryce's character, or on whatever arc was shaping up between him, Tommen, and Margaery. The show killed all of them and never showed its hand, so now there's nothing to say.

But hope springs eternal.

Religion is important on Game of Thrones, and last season suggested at least a passing interest in Melisandre and how her understanding of her own powers and failings square with reality. "The Red Woman" showed her exhaustion and some of her ability; we've also, of course, seen her prophecies fail. (Will she meet Arya again, as she said she would?) Jon Snow tells her he saw nothing when he died. But he also came back from the dead. So … where does that leave religion as an agent in this semi-magical universe? (I'm always grateful for Maggie the Frog, since her prophecies to Cersei all actually came true.)

It's irritating — not subversive or experimental but simply irritating — that the rules of magic sprout and bend and break in accordance with narrative needs rather than anything like an interesting self-supporting system. (I wrote about that here.) We've seen the Faceless Men establish extremely strict rules about killing for personal reasons, punish Arya severely for violating them, and then shrug when she does it again and runs away. We've seen Dondarrion insist that he loses parts of himself with every resurrection, but we've also seen Jon Snow return from the dead without noticeably changing. Will the show establish some rules about how all this works? Or why those rules seem to matter sometimes and not others?

That seems important, because:

3. Who can control the dragons?

This will obviously be a major issue as the series winds down and the dragons fulfill their narrative destiny. There are a few favored candidates besides Daenerys: Tyrion, who unchained them in season six; Bran, who might be able to warg into them; and Jon (for slightly spoiler-y reasons I won't get into).

4. Will Daenerys become evil?

There were some signs last season that Daenerys was breaking bad (or mad). Her exhortation to the Dothraki was more about tearing down stone houses and less about granting people freedom than her earlier stump speeches. It felt like a departure. Some fans thought this was a sign she was becoming her father, the Mad King. Later, though — in her discussions with Theon and Yara — she seems quite sensible. Dany tells the Dothraki she wants the Seven Kingdoms. She tells Yara she can have independence in exchange for loyalty. She preaches destruction to the Dothraki while telling Yara their fathers were "evil men" and proposing that they build something better. She tells the Dothraki they'll seize lands, she tells Yara there will be no more raiding or raping. (The Dothraki might be a little resistant to that. So is Yara: "That's our way of life," she says. Dany is firm.)

These are not consistent positions, so: Is Daenerys lying to Yara? To the Dothraki? Neither? Both?

Here's that speech, in case you want to refresh your memory:

And here's her conversation with Yara and Theon (I recommend reading this brilliant analysis of the weird gender stuff happening there, by the way — skip to 26:13).

5. Why did Tyrion, once a competent diplomat, get hired just as he became extremely stupid?

Tyrion was always the intellectual center of the show — a smart and savvy commentator on the goings-on at court and an instinctive diplomat. Dany just made him her Hand, which is surprising, since almost every diplomatic decision he made in Meereen turned out disastrously. Why was this the case? And why didn't it matter?

6. What does Varys think about everything that's happened?

Since Tyrion's counsel seems less than useless, I'd love to get Varys' perspective on the odds of victory for everyone concerned. Maybe he and Olenna could have a quiet scene together where they hash things out.

7. The Battle of the Bastards proved that the Starks are incompetent military strategists. Will that matter?

It seems to have troubled no one — not even the formidable Lyanna of Mormont, who so nobly protects the 62 men of Bear Island — that hundreds died unnecessarily because Sansa withheld crucial information and Jon made a catastrophically poor military decision. Will it? Littlefinger warns Sansa that news of the battle will spread quickly. What will that story be?

8. Will people in King's Landing care that Cersei usurped the throne?

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Same question, really. She killed a few thousand people and blew up the faith. We were given to understand that the High Sparrow's power was a function of his broad popular support. Do Cersei's troops and subjects have any feelings about their elimination? Some expressions at the coronation suggest that all is not well, but somehow — despite the sporadic attention the show pays to "the people" mattering (for Daenerys, especially), I fear that nothing will come of this.

9. Does debt matter anymore?

Remember when Tywin told Cersei they were broke? The Iron Bank is supposed to be terrifying. Will Cersei have to deal with them?

10. What did this series of expressions on Sansa's face mean?

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She seems happy as people cheer for Jon, and then her expression changes. Is Littlefinger successfully turning her against him? Is she afraid of Littlefinger? I'm not sure quite what to make of it, and hope we find out what it means, and soon. I'm eager to learn whether Sansa is cunning or dim.

11. What is Arya's deal now?

Arya showed both remarkable restraint and unbelievable stupidity in season six. We saw her exert extreme caution on the night she escaped from the Faceless Men — she hid in some kind of cave, ready to defend herself with Needle as spooky music played. Her plan there seemed clear — wait for the Waif and defeat her in the dark. By the next time we see her (which seems like the next day) her whole sense of the situation seems to have changed: She walks around Braavos in broad daylight, unarmed, hands behind her back, wearing her own very recognizable face, and throwing money around. After that pointless, massively incompetent display (this is starting to seem like a Stark trait), she appears to have emerged fully-formed as a tactical genius: By the finale, she's a masterful butcher, pie-maker, and user of other people's faces.

The writing for Arya last season was shockingly bad — I'm not saying anything new there — but what matters more to me than her wasted year in Braavos is the fact that we have no clue what she's like on the inside anymore. It seemed like her bond with Lady Crane reintroduced her to feelings of warmth, friendship, and mercy. It seemed, on the other hand, like her time with the Faceless Men taught her the limitations of personal grudges — and she must at some point have been a true believer, since she was able to drink from the fountain without dying. I guess something changed? Or the water test failed? In any event, next time we see her, she's a grinning revenge machine who seems awfully similar to the Arya we knew two seasons ago. Arya used to be an open book to us; we saw her reciting her list of names. She's been opaque for over a year; I'd love for the show to catch us up on what Arya actually thinks these days.

That's true across the board, really. The show has gotten very coy about letting viewers know what characters really think. That makes a certain kind of sense; if you make everyone opaque, then moments when they're acting without clear motivation don't matter as much. They have their reasons. But this show was so much better when it admitted what people really thought and loved and wanted.

It's gotten a little battle-drunk of late. The show has tilted toward long spectacles, battles, and action sequences that are gorgeously directed and quite dramatic as long as you don't mind how little character sense they make. That there will be more battles is inevitable as Game of Thrones draws to a close. I hope they can make it count at the level of character too.

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