King Tommen is underrated.
Sure, that’s a take hotter than Dany’s Dothraki barbecue, but think about it. When Tommen rolled over for the High Sparrow on Sunday’s episode, what did he really lose, besides a small and quickly regenerated chunk of Jaime’s pride? (Besides, the former Lord Commander of the Kingsguard gets the decent consolation prize of officially winning his ex back. Cersei and plotting revenge: possibly the world’s most predictable turn-on.) Margaery, like the born schemer she is, lands on her feet. King’s Landing avoids a lot of bloodshed. And the people, in a shocking twist for a show that’s seemingly maxed out on shocking twists, get what they want.
It’s not sexy, or even particularly satisfying. With the crown and the church officially on good terms again, there’s nothing left for the ruling class to do but pack up their power fans — shout-out to Olenna Tyrell’s taste in accessories — and go home. But in exchange for the showdown Jaime so desperately wanted, nobody dies, political equilibrium is reached for the first time in years, and Westeros takes the tiniest step toward democracy.
Now compare that to the very sexy, deeply satisfying close of “Blood of My Blood.” Daario points out that Dany is slightly better at burning things to the ground than making sure things stay unburnt, herself excluded. Dany responds with a dragon-sized shrug — and a real dragon. All that talk of tearing down stone houses and killing men in metal suits sounds well and good on this side of the Narrow Sea. As a long-term option for the people of Westeros, though, doesn’t Tommen’s boring compromise of a church-state sound like a better option than a Dothraki horde followed by a Meereen-style quagmire?
In addition to the ever-more-obvious contrast between the realm’s impending apocalypse and the increasingly petty squabbling over its coolest-looking chair, there’s a growing divide within Game of Thrones over what it means to occupy said chair at all. “Blood of My Blood” is a particularly illustrative episode; in case we didn’t pick up on the implicit dichotomy between sweet, pliable Tommen and scary, pillage-mode Daenerys, Jaime spells it out for his only living child. “You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do anything,” he tells Tommen, inadvertently coining a new Lannister motto. “Not when you’re sitting in that chair.”
No one knows that victors write the history books better than Jaime Lannister. For Jaime, power is the difference between being celebrated as the Kingslayer and being executed for treason, between being with the love of his life as an open secret and having his children publicly denounced as abominations. To him, power doesn’t mean duty — it means freedom from duty.
It’s an ideological split that’s cropped up all over the place this season, and in true Game of Thrones fashion, it doesn’t map neatly onto characters we’ve been taught to root for and characters whose slow and violent deaths we’ve been taught to vision-board. Sure, there’s the brewing showdown at Winterfell, which pits a man who committed patricide and took over half a land mass in the name of a nagging-free torturing experience (Ramsay) against a man who now appears to have swapped the obligations of a sworn brotherhood for the obligations of his kinda-sorta family (Jon). But there’s also Tyrion, who’s now acted as the voice of reason for two different rulers — and whose philosophy is a lot more convincing when he’s telling Joffrey not to beat his fiancée in public than when he’s asking the people of Slaver’s Bay to just ride out a few more years of bondage. Which is to say: compromise is complicated.
For a show that’s ultimately about power — political, religious, military, or supernatural — and how people ought to use it, Game of Thrones sometimes feels like it’s of two minds on its central question. This is a series that made its name by inverting fantasy’s classic set of values, arguing for pragmatism over, or at least against, idealism. Ned, Robb, and Jon are all various states of dead; Tyrion, Littlefinger, and Varys have all lived to scheme another day. Keeping the long view may not be glamorous, but at least it pays, and it certainly has fewer casualties.
All that being said, Game of Thrones is still a television show, and TV loves a good showcase. So while the High Sparrow’s checkmate of the ruling class was ultimately the most consequential development on Sunday’s episode, it was Dany who got the prime real estate of its final five minutes. But don’t be fooled: as her journey has progressed, the window between Daenerys’s biggest coups and her eventual comeuppance has gotten shorter and shorter, until we got a reminder of her biggest weakness even before she had the chance to show off her strength.
Daario’s comment was the show’s most explicit reminder yet that Daenerys’s victories feel good in the moment, but hint at serious trouble down the road, both for herself and anyone who stands in her way — a group that includes a significant chunk of the population Tommen just spared another civil war. Heading into the season’s, and eventually the show’s, homestretch, Game of Thrones isn’t just arguing that practicality is good for the player. It’s hinting it might be better for everyone else on the board, too.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 31, 2016.