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