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‘Game of Thrones’ Doesn’t Need a New Villain

Euron Greyjoy arrived too late to steal this many minutes in Season 7

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

Game of Thrones is the only televised entertainment that almost makes HBO’s misleading tagline true. Thrones is too expensive for the small screen and is based on source material so sprawling that some said a TV adaptation wouldn’t work. It looks like a movie sustained for 60-plus hours. It has blockbuster ambitions, which it’s largely fulfilled.

In other respects, though, Thrones isn’t different from TV; it’s the epitome of the medium, succeeding in the same ways that TV traditionally has. We watch Thrones for some of the same reasons that we watch any episodic series: We like spending time with the familiar faces on screen, whose escapades become staples of our Sundays. We marvel at their growth and debate their decisions. We file away what they’ve done, and we await what they’ll do next. It’s not just the North that remembers.

As Thrones nears the end of its run, our ties to its characters, forged and strengthened over a six-year span — or far longer, for book readers — are producing the show’s most meaningful and emotional moments. Yes, we’re all worried about the White Walkers and which prince (or princess) was promised. But callbacks and character growth are the show’s greatest ingredients. The Hound confronting (and trying to atone for) cruelties committed three seasons earlier. Daenerys landing on Dragonstone without danger or dialogue — a seemingly mundane moment that takes on added significance in light of her origins and travels. Arya exacting revenge for the Red Wedding. Arya briefly reuniting with Nymeria — after 60 episodes apart — and acknowledging how much they’ve grown since their separation (and not just in the “now Nymeria is horse-sized” sense). The reappearance of Hot Pie and, one of these weeks, Gendry. Dating back to Season 6, even Season 1 casualty Ned Stark has seemed active again, both through flashbacks to the Tower of Joy and in echoes of his actions and words in scenes with Sansa, Arya, and Jon.

We’ve watched almost all of Westeros’s remaining rulers rise from humble beginnings: Daenerys, banished from her home and delivered to a warlord like a piece of property; Jon Snow, barred from sitting at the same table as his “half-siblings”; even Cersei, married to a husband who didn’t care about her or about being a king. Along the way, they’ve all suffered tragedies, committed atrocities, made dumb decisions and wise ones. Dany’s allies — Tyrion, Yara, Lady Olenna, Ellaria — have also all escaped, survived, or shouldered aside undeserving people of privilege who were handed power while they sat on the sidelines. We may not love or even like them, but we do have histories with them.

With one exception: Euron Greyjoy, who’s emerged from the mist to sink his clawed corvus straight into Season 7’s splintered deck.

Euron parachuted into the series in the second episode of Season 6, the 52nd of the series. Within seconds of his Skywalker-style uncloaking, he announced that he was the Drowned God and was the storm, and then tossed his brother Balon over a rickety bridge that had no business being part of a king’s commute. Balon wasn’t beloved by the Ironborn or the Thrones audience, but at least we knew who he was: a crotchety guy who liked to launch failed invasions and once received his son’s penis via afternoon post. Euron was a cipher who resurfaced for the Kingsmoot three episodes later and, after a few minutes of boasting about his “big cock” and eunuch-shaming Theon, convinced a fickle crowd of Ironborn to change its chants of “Yara!” to “Euron!” Then he sat out the second half of the season.

That was the entirety of our time with Euron up through Season 6. But two episodes in, Euron has been Season 7’s main mover and shaker. He showed up in the premiere with a revamped leather-and-eyeliner look and an enormous new fleet that was apparently 3-D-printed. He mocked Jaime’s missing hand, proposed to Cersei, and, after initially being rebuffed by his would-be bride, pulled off a suspiciously accurate strike in which he boxed out and captured Yara, Ellaria, and Tyene and (admittedly) did the series a service by killing a couple of Sand Snakes. He has ships, outfits, and attitude. He’s the Poochie of Pyke.

Euron’s presence does serve a purpose. Surrounded by enemies, Cersei needs an ally with weapons to maintain the series’ suspense, and Qyburn reinventing the crossbow isn’t cutting it. But while Euron’s fleet (with an assist from Dany’s tentative tactics) is preserving Cersei’s reign, his bloodlust is the lone dispensable plot point in an otherwise absorbing story. If Euron had sailed into the series a few years ago, there would have been time to establish a better backstory than “angry guy who racks up frequent floater miles.” But it’s a little late to introduce a compelling villain on a show that already has multiple central struggles, and whose other characters carry the weight of several seasons behind them. Every Euron scene feels like a lost opportunity to see someone like Bran, who hasn’t so much as sent a raven to say “I’m alive” since he sledded through an extremely lax customs check at the Wall. The makeover memes were fun for a day, but Euron’s surface is all we see. And on that surface, he smolders with generic rage.

More galling than that is the way in which the cast’s and crew’s extracurricular comments are trying to position Euron as a Season 7 standout. “He’s such a great kind of heir apparent to Ramsay [Bolton], and such a great baddie for this season,” said director Mark Mylod, while explaining why he reoriented the naval battle in Episode 2 away from Yara to focus on Euron. Or as D.B. Weiss said in the same video, “To see Euron’s pure psycho greed throughout the whole thing and when Theon jumps overboard, that laugh is, that’s the character’s encapsulation, is that shot. That’s why this is somebody you should be worried about.” Those testimonials arrive on the heels of actor Pilou Asbæk’s declaration that: “The psychos I’ve encountered have so many different sides to them. So each scene I’ve done with Euron, I pick a new thing I wanna show. ‘This scene I want to be charming.’ ‘This scene I want to be a molester.’ ‘This scene I wanna kill someone.’ After this season, Ramsay’s gonna look like a little kid.”

Aside from the obvious question — how many psychos has Asbæk encountered? — the mystery here is why we would buy Euron as a worthy successor to Ramsay — or, frankly, why we would want one. Granted, Euron is a very bad dude in the books, but the televised version hasn’t earned that kind of comparison. I’d sooner accept him as a good guy. Talk to me when he’s spent entire seasons flaying and dismembering Theon instead of giggling at him once.

Unless the scripts call for Euron to waterboard his captives (or worse) for five more episodes, he’ll never pad his Big Bad résumé enough to make up for missed time. And if he does, it will waste too many of the show’s precious remaining minutes. Next to the nuance on display in nearly every non-Euron scene this season, “pure psycho greed” seems insipid and simplistic. There’s more meaning in one Lady Olenna line or Sansa hairstyle than in any of Euron’s supposed depravity. Even Ramsay was a little more layered than that.

We’ll always owe Euron for X-ing out the Sand Snakes. But the sooner he sneers at the wrong dragon and gets swept off the board, the better off we’ll be. Game of Thrones outgrew Euron before he arrived.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.