The Game of Thrones characters need to hang out more

This show is at its best when its characters get to just shoot the breeze

Varys and Tyrion, just hanging out.
(Image credit: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO)

At a moment when Game of Thrones has hurled its plot mechanics poetically into the sea, it's worth nothing that "Eastwatch" made up for all that with some really great conversations. I was trying to work out why they felt so right, so "Throny" in an early-series way. The reason is simple: It turns out a show's dialogue gets exponentially more interesting when characters with a deep knowledge of each other converse. Particularly when they're airing old grievances and interpreting each other's bad moods.

The fact is, we've spent so much time watching the various isolated characters on Game of Thrones looking blank or impassive as they endure their circumstances (or play their cards close to the vest) that we hardly know who they are anymore. For ages now we've had no real idea of what Arya was actually thinking or feeling — how she was changing or how who she was becoming. Same with Sansa. What a delight, then, to see the sisters together, picking at each other in the ways they used to, but with new layers. What a relief to have Arya — who's become something of a lie detector, I guess — look into Sansa's soul and name the ugly impulses that were lurking there. "You're thinking it right now," Arya says as she accuses Sansa of wanting to be in charge of Winterfell. "You don't want to be, but the thought just won't go away." We needed somebody to actually say that. Sansa and Littlefinger have spent what feel like years staring at things looking respectively blank and smug, and it's high time we got a little clarity on what they actually think and want.

What I'm saying isn't particularly deep: It's simply that this show, like most shows, is better when characters who knew each other well are allowed to have some friction with each other. Finally, after years apart, they do: Jaime and Tyrion have their confrontation. Davos and Gendry reunite and remind us of their bond and of Gendry's intractability. People who've long nursed grievances with each other hash them out. It's personal and uncomfortable and very human.

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But the other reason this episode felt expansive in ways others haven't — despite the amount of ground it covered — is that it actually let all its characters talk about inessential things. They got to just hang out. Davos prattles about all sorts of delightful things in "Eastwatch." Jon and Daenerys finally get to have a conversation that isn't about White Walkers or knee-bending and become closer as a result. A bored Sam stews over the Maesters' short-sightedness as Gilly whiles away the hours reading his books. (I've written elsewhere about how much misdirection there's been this season, and it's both charming and hilarious that Gilly reveals that Jon might have the stronger claim to the Targaryen throne. Deliciously ironic, too, that Sam — while bristling at how the Arch Maesters seem incapable of taking in the importance of information with real-life applications — fails to recognize the real-life implications of Gilly's discovery.)

That space lets things like the accidental revelation of Jon's legitimacy happen in ways that feel truly organic in ways the plot really doesn't. It lets the characters exist as characters rather than plot engines — it lets them be actual people in a world, people who have time to think about something other than battles or wights or revenge.

"Hang-out mode" also puts things into proportion. It shows you how something that means the world to one character means next to nothing to another. I enjoyed Varys' chat with Tyrion; this was another instance of two old acquaintances pairing up in ways that let them go deep. Varys is a pleasure every time he lets his guard down; he's the character whose spinoff I'd most like to see. But I laughed out loud when I realized that the message to Jon he'd intercepted — and described dismissively to Tyrion as "nothing good," making it sound boring — turned out to contain the bombshells that the Night King is close and that Arya and Bran were alive.

As if to prove how useful hanging out can be at making these characters breathe, it's worth noting what happens when they don't. Jon and Daenerys' conversation about her dragons brings them a step closer, but they remain ciphers in ways many of the characters don't. Why? Because they have advisers, but no real confidants. The result is we have no idea what's going on in their heads. Why, for instance, was Jon's reaction to this news that his siblings are alive so weird? "You don't seem happy," Daenerys says. No, he doesn't. Is he concerned that Bran will take over as King of the North? Is that it? If so, that means Jon has changed much more than we suspected — he used to not care about titles, and he adored his siblings. Is it something else? Who knows? He has no one to process the news with, which leaves his character in a weird, indeterminate place.

Then there's Daenerys, who gave this interesting little speech to the Lannister men she's conquered:

I know what Cersei has told you. That I've come to destroy your cities, burn down your homes, murder you, and orphan your children. That's Cersei Lannister, not me. I'm not here to murder, and all I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over rich and poor to the benefit of no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world. I offer you a choice: bend the knee and join me.

That speech is … puzzling. For one thing, Cersei hasn't destroyed the Lannister armies' cities, burned down their homes, or orphaned their children. Not yet, anyway (unless the wildfire counts). For another, this almost perfectly opposes the speech Daenerys gave to the Dothraki, which promises murder and destruction:

I am not a Khal. I will not choose three blood riders. I choose you all. I will ask more of you than any Khal has ever asked of his Khalsar. Will you ride the wooden horses across the black salt sea? Will you kill my enemies in their iron suits and tear down their stone houses?

What gives, Daenerys? You're making a lot of campaign promises to a lot of very different constituencies. "Eastwatch" seems to be poking a little — as the show sometimes does — at Dany's potential to be a good or just queen. (Tyrion's nervous defense of her execution of the Tarlys to Varys confirms that they both consider her to be on thin ice, ethically speaking.) But this? This is an out-and-out contradiction. Sadly, there's no sign that she recognizes that. I'd love to know what she's thinking, but Jorah just left. Let's hope she hangs out with someone she trusts soon, because until she does, she's going to remain yet another blank.

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