[Spoilers for s6e8 abound below:]

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“There is nothing new under the sun” -Solomon, Ecclesiastes 1:9

“To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow.” -Quaithe of Asshai

The most recent episode of Game of Thrones, “No One”, centered on return. For Brienne, Jaime, Daenerys, Sansa, Jon, and notably Arya, going forward means going back. Like the hobbits who set the Shire straight at the end of book six in Lord of the Rings, our characters must go forward, and then return to where they were, armed with new knowledge, new experience to either better “meet and master” the challenges of war or to respond in more thoughtful ways to the various ethical conundrums and character tests the writers are constantly throwing their way.

Characters, for instance, have ‘arcs’. Lots of commenters were upset that the Arya arc is going more slowly: between Syrio’s training, Jaquen’s training, and her time with the Waif, shouldn’t she have learned more, been smarter?[1] Others will be understandably upset with Jaime, vis-à-vis the books; show-Jaime, while picking up a bit of honor on the way, is still as navel-gazingly self-centered as they come.[2] In fact, while this season’s been great across the board, the show’s faltered significantly on the Lannister front. Part of it’s just the constraints of the medium, but there’s some real issues there, too.

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Someone on the show’s team decided that Cersei can’t completely go insane this season, at least not yet. And this is where the fact that George R.R. Martin isn’t Tolkien, and he’s made that pretty clear over the years, comes into play. Characters don’t have arcs in the real world. As nice as it is that reviewers and commenters are using terms like ‘arc’ and ‘character development’, the real world isn’t always a monomyth cycle. Meaning, the most likely aftermath of Cersei’s Walk of Shame, following her son’s and father’s and daughter’s deaths, combined with Maggy’s haunting prophecy, is a degeneration into paranoid insanity, the script mostly followed by the books. Show-Cersei, however, can’t follow that script. Whether it’s because they had to cut down on the King’s Landing storyline this season, because their critics have been harshly demanding that the shows’ characters’ sufferings must be justified by redemptive ‘arcs’, or because they know something about the story’s endgame that we don’t, they couldn’t have Cersei be crazy this season.

So while book-Cersei becomes so consumed by paranoia and protectiveness that she pushes Jaime away, here Cersei can’t plausibly do that, so they double down on the whole ‘no one in the world but us’ star-crossed Lannister siblings shtick. Which leaves Jaime in an awkward position: deprived of his hand and thus his prowess as a fighter, then faced with an ideal of knighthood in Brienne and realizing how short he falls, Jaime’s profoundly disoriented, and he regains his identity only as a mature commander (for instance, he scouts obsessively even in friendly territory: the Young Wolf took him unawares in the Whispering Wood, and that won’t happen again) with a Brienne-inspired sense of ethics (he vowed to Catelyn that he would never again take up arms against Stark or Tully, and he successfully navigates the unenviable task of capturing a Lord Paramount’s ancestral stronghold without taking up arms against them). Last night, his motivations were much more flat and one-dimensional; he’ll move heaven and hell to get back to his sister.

So in the book, Cersei represents the way of strength and glory; she puts her priorities above all else, and she’s cunning and beautiful and determined. Jaime’s courageous, handsome, and a brilliant fighter; they’re so attracted to each other because of this strength and success. All that goes wrong when Jaime loses his sword-hand and Cersei descends into paranoia, and Jaime struggles between the selfishness and immaturity of his youth, instantiated in his relationship with Cersei, and a more mature respect for honor and leadership, represented by Brienne. Despite the showrunners taking Brienne all the way to the Riverlands for the sake of a brief reunion with Jaime, Jaime’s ‘arc’ just doesn’t have the same room to develop as it did in the books, since the writers aren’t quite willing to make Cersei into a full-blown villain this season. In short, it’s awkward, and on the theme of return, I think everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they finally got Jaime out of King’s Landing. Here’s hoping he doesn’t go back.[3]

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Cersei’s change forces Kevan to occupy a different space, too. Previously, he was carrying on Tywin’s legacy of trying to keep the Seven Kingdoms and House Lannister strong. He became an antagonist of Cersei since her decision-making was terrible: she was spurning Jaime, surrounding herself with sycophants, stifling Tommen, and generally acting only out of paranoia and insecurity. Now, Kevan’s actions are largely inscrutable: maybe he’s just thick, or maybe he buys all this fundamentalist religious mumbo-jumbo, or maybe he’s power-grabbing himself. As he tells Cersei her place is with the other women of the court, it’s darkly hinted he holds patriarchal attitudes. Lump him in with the High Sparrow and Ramsay Bolton, I guess, and hope that they, like the retrograde Dothraki horselords, get burned alive?

As a sidenote, apart from the fact that Brienne’s journey to Riverrun served almost no purpose, she’s been a huge highlight. Solo duel with Ramsay next week would be all a watcher could ask for. Assuming Littlefinger doesn’t go Robert-the-Bruce on them, she’ll probably be around for a long, long time. Apart from that, all quiet on the Northern Front for this week.

The only slightly dispiriting thing is how ideology-driven the show seems right now. Those four men the Hound kills with an axe have already slaughtered the only happy and innocent community we’ve seen in the whole season – do we really have to further denigrate them by showing how crude they are before the Hound axes them? Maybe if the show were set in the 1950s the quartet would’ve bragged about being adulterers so that we could all feel a little better about watching them be brutally axe-murdered? On Tolkien, Martin said:

“The war that Tolkien wrote about was a war for the fate of civilization and the future of humanity, and that’s become the template. I’m not sure that it’s a good template, though. The Tolkien model led generations of fantasy writers to produce these endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes. But the vast majority of wars throughout history are not like that…we’re all both [heroes and villains].”

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And that’s the reason Jaime’s storyline disappoints: he’s probably the only main character left in the show who’s still both a hero and a villain, so he’s not the best character to flatten and simplify. Brienne, Sansa, Arya, Daenerys, Yara, Jon, Tyrion, and Davos? Heroes. Littlefinger, Ramsay, Joffrey, the Wise Masters, Kevan, the High Sparrow, and Euron? Villains. And that’s the problem; our world of Thrones has become even more moralistic than Tolkien’s was. Taking his Christian vision as a starting-point, what if Sauron and Saruman were adulterers? Lascivious hedonists? Even Lewis’s Narnia wasn’t that didactic; they knew that out-and-out moralism doesn’t make for great storytelling.

Yet the showrunners in Thrones have felt compelled to make every villain run afoul of our most strongly-held moral convictions, to stamp them with the taint of patriarchical and regressive attitudes (Euron says a woman can’t be king, the Sparrow makes that horrifying speech to Margaery about a woman’s role in “congress”, and so on). While, despite living in a feudalistic society, none of our male heroes (Jon, Tyrion, Davos) show the slightest signs of those vices. Maybe that’s for the best, and maybe we need a strongly moralizing season right now; it’s probably good and useful cultural work that Benioff and Weiss are doing.

But Martin’s vision this is not. The photography’s been beautiful, the writing sharper than ever, the more-frequent bouts of humor a welcome addition, and the plot progression an arguable godsend for readers who’ve been craving more for four years and eleven months. Still there’s a certain sense of moral complexity which has diminished; the grey part of the character-spectrum has been attenuated as more and more characters are shooed into the good box or the evil one. Martin himself hates war and the black-and-white thinking which accompanies it more than almost anything. Next time the Hound axe-murders some baddies, here’s hoping they’re talking about their childhood over a nice dinner. War and outrage, even when well-justified, have costs. A bit more nuance wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

[1] Yes, one might reply, but the Waif’s been in elite-assassin-training for five-plus years and has all the materiel an FM could wish for at her disposal.

[2] And on the issue of return, the callback to Jaime pushing Bran out the window was a bit of a head-scratcher. Was it meant to show he hasn’t ‘developed’ at all since then? That he’s temporarily relapsing into earlier Jaime-mode, possibly as a defense-mechanism against whatever romance or scruples Brienne’s visit has inspired? Or does it make the callback in order to contrast: there he was being flippant, but here has a touch of ruefulness? (Did anyone notice if Laurence Laurentz was in this week’s directing credits?)

[3] It’s worth hedging all of that with Qyburn’s “rumors”, which could easily accomplish Cersei’s insanity (in a cool twist) and keep Jaime away from KL in one fell swoop. Hoping for a Blackwater flashback soon, and all the signs are there.