Why Game of Thrones has become so incoherent
This show is over-relying on offscreen conversations to explain onscreen behavior — to devastating effects
I said last week that Game of Thrones has gotten terrible. I more or less stand by that, but there's no denying that "The Dragon and the Wolf" was a thousand times better than the two preceding episodes. For one thing, it had a lot of what makes Game of Thrones not just fun but interesting: good dialogue. This show improves when it relaxes the action enough to let people talk and sparkles when the characters talking actually know each other well. We've been getting more of that, and some of those long-awaited reunions really paid off: I loved watching Brienne and The Hound share a proud parental moment over Arya, and it was heartwarming to watch Podrick and Tyrion, Tyrion and Bronn, and Brienne and Jaime all touch base. That Brienne continues to double as Jaime's conscience makes it feel right that his decision to turn away from Cersei came at her instigation. This was an episode heavy with moral counseling, and Brienne is to Jaime what Jon is to Theon.
Still, those exchanges were brief. It was a particular treat, then, to watch Tyrion and Cersei finally come face to face and talk through some of their dysfunction. Tyrion needed to talk. He needs absolution from his siblings every bit as much as Theon does, and Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey killed in that scene. Sadly — and this is why I maintain that the show hasn't pulled up from its nosedive — the episode's reliance on black boxes that enable fun but improbable plot twists meant the scene was undercut in retrospect. To clarify: The crucial part of that scene — the part where Tyrion says whatever he presumably said to convince Cersei to join the fight, and she convinced him she'd agreed — was missing.
One sympathizes, because it's an almost impossible scene to write. How would Cersei's concession have gone? How can you write it without Tyrion seeming, well, stupid? "Cersei, you must care about your unborn child! I know you do. So do I. Join this fight and build a better world!" "You have appealed to my mother's heart! I will give more than you ask for and demand nothing in return!" Sorry, but that's just not Cersei, and even Tyrion would know that. I know Tyrion has been retconned into a gullible incompetent this season, with such a poor understanding of his sister that he thought the wight quest would convince her. I appreciate the tragic turn his character has taken, and how his guilt over betraying his family might cloud his judgment. I still don't believe that even dumbed-down Tyrion would fall for any version of Cersei's concessions here. Game of Thrones is rife with Conversations That Must Have Happened in order for events to make sense, but this particular one is about as plausible as Jon Snow correctly reading the room. It's about as believable as a scene that starts with Sam and Bran bringing the Septon's journal to Cersei and ends with her nodding sadly and handing Jon Snow the crown.
Here's why that's a problem: It's so hard to imagine this Conversation That Must Have Happened that some fans have started coming up with more plausible theories for Conversations That Must Have Happened More: Maybe Tyrion secretly struck a deal with Cersei to make her child the heir to Daenerys' throne! Maybe Tyrion is lamenting his role in ending the Lannisters — more on his tragedy here — and sees this as a way to make amends. Maybe he's reverted to the Lannisters entirely and is ready to kill Daenerys — hence his creeping behind the staircase!
I don't believe any of that. I suspect Tyrion's hangdog loyalty to Daenerys is real because I trust that a well-written show would give me a sign or two if it wasn't. (Yes, Tyrion has expressed some misgivings about the burning of the Tarlys, but he's surely noticed that Daenerys has otherwise followed every plan he's made to the letter — the Casterly Rock siege, the wight quest, letting him go alone to talk to Cersei — despite the fact that they've all ended disastrously.)
On the other hand, the show is so untrustworthy at this point that it might easily be withholding crucial information from us in order to "surprise" viewers with the reveal later. That is, after all, what it did with the Arya and Sansa storyline that resulted in Petyr Baelish's death. We saw the Stark girls at each other's throats last week — in private, so they couldn't possibly have been performing their dysfunction for Littlefinger. But the chilly, almost murderous distance the sisters had developed over two episodes somehow thawed.
How? During a Conversation That Must Have Happened that we — who have been spent years waiting for and tracking this relationship — have the privilege of guessing at.
Why? So we can be as stunned as Petyr Baelish when he's outfoxed.
Don't get me wrong: It's gratifying to see a disconcerted Baelish pleading for his life, and there's malicious symmetry to Sansa quoting him back to himself. But Baelish getting executed (however satisfying that was) is not the story. How Arya and Sansa and Bran stopped being dysfunctional weirdos and came back together to defeat him is the story. And it got skipped. It was withheld. It's a black box.
That frustrates me, because the Stark arcs have been particularly underwritten, so I'd have liked to see their triumphal reunion spelled out.
But there are plenty of other black boxes: Cersei and Euron's little "play" in the finale, which had evidently scripted his fake exit (he must have had a different pretext prepared, since he didn't know a wight would be attacking; Daenerys' current thinking re: what level of violence is appropriate; Sansa's behavior at the Battle of the Bastards (and her reasoning for sending Brienne away); Jaime and Cersei's strategy when they outsmarted Tyrion and left Casterly Rock unguarded in order to take Highgarden.
The trouble with this black box maneuver — of which the show has grown overfond — isn't just that it's a cheat that excuses the writers from tackling the hard transitions that make a series great. In fact, the only thing worse than crucial Conversations That Must Have Happened is the presumption that otherwise no one talks to each other offscreen. I'm sorry, but there's no way that Jaime hasn't turned to Cersei when they're in bed and said, "Hey, you've been kinda cagey about your plans with this Euron guy. You keep talking about marrying him. What gives?" There's no way Sansa and Arya and Bran haven't sat at the dinner table and talked — however awkwardly — about things.
Those omissions mess with characterization. "The Dragon and the Wolf" was delightful in many ways, but in this respect, it's no different. Cersei's double fakeout seemed like great stuff as it was happening, and Lena Headey was magnificent in that scene with Tyrion. In hindsight, though, none of the plans on the table made much sense. Plenty has been written about how Tyrion's plan to convince Cersei to join Jon and Daenerys by showing her a wight seemed unlikely to work. Sure enough, it doesn't: Cersei walks away from the negotiating table. Fine: This seems to show that the writers recognize that Tyrion's plan was pretty crummy.
But then Tyrion, undaunted, and fully aware that he's her least favorite person, decides at great personal risk to go back and convince her. Against all odds, he seems to succeed! Now at first, this felt to me like the show putting its thumb on the scales and showing Tyrion's extremely high-risk plan working. (Although the wight demonstration was more effective than I expected, I have to admit.) I honestly would have accepted it, too: The tension in that scene was so intense and raw that I could almost have believed feelings running that high could generate an unexpected outcome.
But no! It turns out he never had a prayer! Cersei's intensity of feeling in her scene with him was all an act; she was calculating and strategic throughout, and only pretending to agree. She planned for Tyrion to detect her pregnancy (which could also be fake). She outsmarted him by planning to do none of the things she promised.
This, too, seemed cunning in the moment! But there is a problem with Cersei's plan. If she promised to send troops — which no one asked her to do, by the way — and then she just doesn't send them, it buys her … what? A few days before someone notices? The plan might have worked if she hadn't gone the extra mile and promised to march north with her enemies. As it stands, it seems like her deception would be pretty easy to detect quickly, even if Jaime weren't defecting. The double fakeout that initially scanned as a demonstration of Cersei's strategic brilliance turned out to be kind of disappointing. And the black box that framed it turned out not to contain much.
In the meantime, the wall has crumbled. The spell is gone. And while we have no direct confirmation as to whether Tormund and Beric died in the Night King's demolition, there are clues. Sometimes, when I try to understand a show's motives, I play a little game. I assume the worst. Game of Thrones has become a show where people don't die offscreen — they barely even die onscreen. And the worst reason the show could possibly have for not showing two beloved characters dying in a spectacle specifically engineered to look as lethal and inescapable as possible is the cheap uncertainty a black box provides — which will no doubt be used to surprise us.