Game on

As new sea­son dawns, will char­ac­ters re­main in shades of gray?

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drew Dansby

Win­ter is here: Sev­enth sea­son of HBO’s epic ‘Thrones’ de­buts tonight.

Fol­low­ing a pro­logue, au­thor Ge­orge R.R. Martin opened his novel “A Game of Thrones” with the line, “The morn­ing had dawned clear and cold, with a crisp­ness that hinted at the end of sum­mer.”

If a story that has spanned thou­sands of pages could be re­duced to one sen­tence, that one would well rep­re­sent Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” se­ries. It’s like a Mark Rothko can­vas: omi­nous and heavy, and full of in­for­ma­tion and en­ergy with­out nu­mer­ous lit­tle in­di­vid­u­al­ized el­e­ments pop­u­lat­ing it.

De­spite the evoca­tive per­fec­tion of that line, Martin’s story grew more pop­u­lous, and richly so. And I think that pop­u­la­tion made “Game of Thrones” — the HBO se­ries based on his books, which be­ings its penul­ti­mate sea­son Sun­day evening — stand out as a re­mark­able piece of work dur­ing TV’s new Golden Age.

Other great shows dur­ing this era boasted strong en­sem­ble casts. But in the case of “The So­pra­nos” and “Break­ing Bad,” to name just two, there was never am­bi­gu­ity about who served as the point of the show’s moral com­pass, re­gard­less of which di­rec­tion it pointed.

“Game of Thrones” put a boot heel to any no­tion of a moral com­pass. Char­ac­ters’ good­ness and bad­ness was cloudy from the be­gin­ning. A viewer could form strong opin­ions ei­ther way, but they were likely to be tested. Jaime Lan­nis­ter’s cur­rent prox­im­ity to re­demp­tion — he’s still has a ways to go — stands as the most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple.

Vul­ture re­cently ranked the show’s 93 prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters from least to most evil. As lis­ti­cles go, it was an in­ter­est­ing one and ex­e­cuted for the most part pretty

Meera (El­lie Ken­drick) and Bran Stark (Isaac Hemp­stead Wright) flee the Night King in Sea­son 7 of “Game of Thrones.” HBO

well. But I think it missed the op­por­tu­nity to re­ally pick at the idea of good and evil in these sto­ries we watch. Per­haps a half dozen or maybe 10 truly good char­ac­ters ex­ist on the show, and per­haps 10 truly evil ones. More than any se­ries I can think of, “Game of Thrones” rev­els in prob­ing the dif­fer­ent shades-of-

gray char­ac­ters.

Stan­nis Baratheon’s rank­ing at No. 28 gave me pause. Fra­t­ri­cide was just his warm-up. Then he had his young daugh­ter in­cin­er­ated, all in an ef­fort to ful­fill a prophecy.

“What is the life of one bas­tard boy against a king­dom?” he asked at one point of his pa­tient side­kick Davos Sea­worth. Davos: “Ev­ery­thing.” Stan­nis: “The boy must die.”

Stan­nis ap­peared to strug­gle some­what with his de­ci­sions, which made him a dif­fer­ent stripe of trou­bling char­ac­ter than the show’s no­table psy­chopaths. To my mind, his con­sid­er­a­tions made him seem more hu­man and his de­ci­sions made him more hor­ri­fy­ing, even com­pared to the show’s mon­sters — Walder Frey, Jof­frey Baratheon, Ram­sey Bolton.

Au­thor Martin once said, “I think the bat­tle between good and evil is fought largely within the in­di­vid­ual hu­man heart, by the de­ci­sions that we make.”

The bat­tles and be­tray­als look good on TV. But they’re not the ill­ness; they’re a symp­tom of the ill­ness. Martin’s body of work and the TV show that sprung from it re­peat­edly probe that theme, with “good” hearts mak­ing bad de­ci­sions and “bad” hearts show­ing grace.

Some char­ac­ters, though ghastly, at least bother to con­sider the math. The pa­tri­arch Ty­win Lan­nis­ter asks at one point, “Ex­plain to me why it’s more no­ble to kill 10,000 men in bat­tle than a dozen at din­ner.”

Well, some­body had to ask it.

Ty­win isn’t one of the more dif­fi­cult char­ac­ters to as­sess. Others are a tan­gle of mo­ti­va­tions, de­sires, ac­tions and in­ac­tions. Vul­ture called poor Theon Greyjoy the most com­pli­cated char­ac­ter on the show. Nah, he ac­tu­ally fol­lowed the com­pass he’d al­ways fol­lowed un­til it got cut off. Sansa Stark’s nar­ra­tive has been far more com­pli­cated and com­pelling, from a seem­ingly dim-wit­ted princess to one of the show’s most as­ton­ish­ing sur­vival­ists. She’s en­dured the worst of any sur­viv­ing char­ac­ter, and we don’t know yet how it will af­fect her.

Vul­ture had Daen­erys Tar­garyen deep on the non-evil side. But she’s a Tar­garyen, and they have some fam­ily his­tory as a volatile and ruth­less sort. Her ca­pac­ity for ruth­less­ness hasn’t truly taken flight, but it has flapped its wings a few times. And our as­sas­sin Arya Stark comes from a truly good fam­ily. But her vengeance mis­sion could ul­ti­mately con­sume her.

I’m still deeply trou­bled by Jon Snow’s res­ur­rec­tion. I re­al­ize New­to­nian laws don’t ap­ply to Wes­teros, but I keep wait­ing for the equal and op­po­site re­ac­tion — some sort of hor­rific off gassing from his be­ing brought back from the dead. Thus far he emerged from the other side mopier but oth­er­wise un­changed. Has “Pet Se­matary” taught us noth­ing?

Much talk cir­cu­lates about Snow be­ing Azor Ahai, a leg­endary fig­ure who shall re­turn and fight off the White Walk­ers/ Others from north of the Wall. But prophecy in “Game of Thrones” has only a slightly bet­ter bat­ting av­er­age than prophecy in our own cul­ture. We’ve seen more of them de­bunked in Wes­teros than con­firmed. And with so many com­pet­ing faiths in that land, some­body has to be wrong. And ev­ery­body could be wrong. Faith can be a com­fort and a curse.

Those White Walk­ers also bear men­tion. We’re cer­tainly meant to think they’re a press­ing force — not of evil, as they don’t seem to have any mo­ti­va­tions, but cer­tainly of de­struc­tion. But it bears cyn­i­cal men­tion: Are they de­stroy­ing some­thing that needs to be de­stroyed? We’re not ob­serv­ing a utopia in Wes­teros but rather a land in­ca­pable of sta­bil­ity for more than a few years. Maybe it needs a flood to flour­ish once again.

Read­ing “The World of Ice and Fire,” Martin’s anvil-size pre-his­tory for the se­ries, I chuck­led at a de­scrip­tion of the land from long ago. “The world was far more prim­i­tive, how­ever, a bar­barous place of tribes liv­ing di­rectly from the land with no knowl­edge of the work­ing of metal or the tam­ing of beasts,” goes one pas­sage. The au­thor clearly finds some tart hu­mor in the idea that “progress” as a con­cept im­plies progress as a pos­i­tive evo­lu­tion.

Work­ing with metal brings ben­e­fits, and it yields weapons. Much like the White Walk­ers/ Others. Their ori­gin was that of pro­tec­tor, cre­ated by the chil­dren of the for­est as a line of de­fense against en­croach­ing First Men. Like many weapons made in the name of de­fense, they ceased to be peace­keep­ers.

And I keep re­turn­ing to the be­gin­ning.

“A Game of Thrones” — Martin’s book — starts with young Bran Stark. I didn’t think that mat­tered much — that the first chap­ter of the book was from his point of view — when I read it a cou­ple of decades ago. Now I think it means ev­ery­thing.

I read a re­cent col­umn on “Game of Thrones” that made the pre­pos­ter­ous as­ser­tion that last sea­son was the first one in which the story sim­pli­fied. It sim­pli­fied only in that the field of play­ers seek­ing power has been win­nowed.

Per­haps I’m fool­ish for fol­low­ing Bran too closely, but let’s be clear: In a years-span­ning se­ries full of twists and sur­prises, the rev­e­la­tion that Bran is ca­pa­ble of some form of time travel is the sin­gle great­est mind­fork in “Thrones.” Even if Bran’s move­ments are in a closed time-travel loop from which he can­not re­write the past, his fin­ger­prints could be all over ev­ery sin­gle thing we’ve seen and will see.

There ex­ist wellde­vel­oped the­o­ries that Bran has been bounc­ing around time for eons, that he’s the Bran­don the Builder who, ac­cord­ing to lore, built The Wall and Win­ter­fell, his fam­ily’s fortress.

How ob­ses­sive can fans be? Well, some­body posted a screen­grab from a DVD ex­tra that in­cluded a sketch of Bran­don the Builder, who’s sit­ting on a plat­form with poles so he can be car­ried. Our Bran’s legs haven’t func­tioned since his hor­ri­fy­ing fall in the show’s pi­lot episode, “Win­ter Is Com­ing.”

Un­til we know more about him, he’s the grayest of gray. He could be some bringer of sal­va­tion. He could be re­spon­si­ble for the en­tire mess.

Bran may be a tricky sell for HBO, though, more so than in the books. Ask view­ers to rank char­ac­ters in terms of their emo­tional con­nec­tion (good or evil), and he prob­a­bly doesn’t make the Top 10. He was ab­sent for one full sea­son. And more prob­lem­atic is he’s the one key char­ac­ter who hasn’t spent mul­ti­ple sea­sons slash­ing, schem­ing or schtup­ping, which put him on the pe­riph­ery of the show.

The ti­tles of the first three episodes of this new sea­son are “Dragon­stone,” “Storm­born” and “The Queen’s Jus­tice.” None of those three points to­ward Bran. But as other gray char­ac­ters — Jon Snow, Daen­erys Tar­garyen, Cer­sei Lan­nis­ter, to name just three — tear at each other over a sin­gle goal, a throne made from melted swords, Bran’s do­ings are dif­fer­ent. And they may be even more im­por­tant.

With two short sea­sons of the show re­main­ing, morn­ing has dawned clear and cold with a crisp­ness that hints at the end of sum­mer.

‘Game of Thrones’ Sea­son 7 pre­miere When: 8 p.m. Sun­day Net­work: HBO

HBO

Much talk cir­cu­lates about Jon Snow be­ing Azor Ahai, a leg­endary fig­ure who shall re­turn and fight off the White Walk­ers, led by the Night King, above. But prophecy hasn’t proved re­li­able in “Game of Thrones.”

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