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Everyone Changes, Everyone Stays the Same

‘Game of Thrones’ kicks character development to the curb

HBO
HBO

Game of Thrones doesn’t give us a whole lot in the way of optimism, but at least it’s shown us that people can change. Theon Greyjoy can go from a shallow cad to a stammering shell to a loyal kid brother. Jon Snow can go from brooding teen to brooding teen in charge of the Night’s Watch. Sansa Stark can go from wide-eyed romantic to hollowed tactician.

Unless, as “No One” suggests, they’re the exact same people they’ve always been.

When Edmure Tully asks Jaime Lannister how he lives with himself, we know the answer’s gonna be good. What we don’t know is that Jaime will take us all the way back to the pilot, when a beaming golden boy pushed a curious kid right out the window. “The things we do for love,” Jaime says, and with that, he’s back in full, unrepentant soldier mode.

Over the past five years, Jaime has arguably undergone the most complex evolution of any character on the show. The series’ ability to take a standard villain and mold him into a man with a definite, though peculiar, code is part of what makes Game of Thrones so much more nuanced than the rest of high fantasy, and even the rest of television. But “No One” sees him come full circle, with the person who both revealed and catalyzed his do-gooder streak fittingly there to witness it. Jaime tried committing to his role in the Kingsguard; Jaime tried sending Brienne to do something decent, if not necessarily in his best interest. By taking back Riverrun, and Sansa’s potential army along with it, the unlikely alliance that represented Jaime’s hard-earned ambiguity is over. Once again, Brienne and her onetime captive are on opposite sides of a war — and we know which side we’re meant to root for.

Jaime is only the most dispiriting example of characters going back to what they know best, an appropriate theme for an episode setting up the season’s climax (and, in two short years, the end of the series). Sandor Clegane has taken up his sword again, because he’s literally a Hound in need of a master. Daenerys has returned to Meereen, because it’s time to shut this quagmire down and take her khalasar to Westeros.

And on a much more triumphant note, Arya’s time in Braavos is finally coming to an end, though it’s still unclear what the point of that year-plus of commitment and decommitment and recommitment was. Whatever the answer, her subplot had slowly become one of the show’s most tiresome, largely because its outcome was obvious. A major character wasn’t going to suddenly become someone, or rather no one, else. She has a kill list to get back to!

But the symbolism of defeating the Waif with her one remaining relic from home has an undeniable power to it. So does the prospect of Arya finally getting back into the mix, with opponents we care about more than a shapeshifting schoolmarm.

Which brings us to the main advantage of walking back a few seasons’ worth of character growth. Depressing as Jaime’s backslide may be, it redraws some clear battle lines: Once again, a Lannister’s goals are at odds with a Stark’s. Ditto for Dany, who’s finally back on track to take what is hers with fire and a whole lot of blood. And while we may not know what role Sandor has to play — though “No One” directly acknowledges more fan theories than “Jaime and Brienne are gonna bone!” — we know it’ll involve some bloodshed; it’s what he does. Everybody has a true nature. If it vanishes, it’s only a matter of time until it reemerges.