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In Praise of Qyburn, Westeros’s Resident Freak

The current hand to the queen is the only character on ‘Game of Thrones’ who has remained completely true to who he is—which is a giant weirdo who loves dead people

HBO/Ringer illustration

Qyburn, former maester of the Citadel and current hand to the queen and zombie whisperer, is the only character left on Game of Thrones who makes any sort of sense. It’s so refreshing—he simply doesn’t give a damn about anything but that dark supernatural junk. He’s in it for the love of the game, with the game not having anything to do with thrones but merely the joy of being an occultist, libertine weirdo. Unshackled from the apocalyptic panic of the rest of the characters (there’s no way he’s not at least somewhat stoked about the Night King’s invasion), Qyburn has somehow emerged as the realest dude left on a show hurtling toward its endgame.

Sure, maybe it’s borderline absurd to single out a relatively minor figure like Qyburn for praise at the expense of a show with characters as undeniably dope as the Hound and Tormund Giantsbane and Arya Stark and Ser Pounce (RIP). But after spending nearly a decade with these characters, it’s safe to say their quirks, foibles, idiosyncrasies, and even their facial expressions are achingly, almost annoyingly familiar to us. It’s deeply sad, but television characters from shows we obsess over have this tendency to become people we know and care about, and, goddammit, it’s a jarring (and again, sad) sensation when our pretend buddies from afar get noticeably protean and unreliable and go straight dumbass on us and start behaving in ways that almost offend and insult us. This is the binger’s lament. We know this was all scripted by some person in a dark room, but we want to forget that. Characters behaving abjectly off-center happens with some regularity, most often in TV shows that creep past their natural life expectancies. Increasingly, the major players of Game of Thrones are following suit. Their concerns are so big that their personalities have been flattened or morphed or done dirty by producers playing fast and loose with logic. These main players are too lacerated with plot to function as recognizable people. Look, I’m not saying they’re not awesome (to varying degrees), but Jon, Dany, Tyrion, Arya, and Sansa aren’t really people anymore. They’re just pieces, crashing toward some bittersweet ending. Jaime’s redemption arc, set into motion in 2013, stalled for no discernible reason, so much so that they had to send him to Dorne to ascertain whether the Dornish ever think about anything but being horny and how cool poison is. (They don’t!)

It’s true that book readers famously huff and puff about the myriad things showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss continue to get wrong about the source material, or misunderstand, or don’t do justice to, or weirdly omit, or just don’t have the grace and poetry to convert to a less leisurely medium. Leaving that aside, the show and its creators, writers, and performers have, over the years, created an inner logic that by now we’ve more or less seen every major character break, bend, or vomit on.

Yes, we can forgive that even the characters who don’t ride dragons still have access to high-speed rail. But some things … nah. Sansa straight up doesn’t let Jon know she’d be showing up with the knights of the Vale during the Battle of the Bastards because she wanted to be … dramatic? Weird flex, but OK. Or how about Tywin Lannister, the shrewdest mind in Westeros, its white-haired Kissinger, straight up telling Arya he knows she isn’t a just some random serving girl, but then dropping the issue because, well, I honestly don’t remember. Maybe he had to get a sandwich and it became a whole thing and by the time he saw Arya again it would have been awkward to finish his thought. Then there’s greyscale, which apparently isn’t as incurable as dozens and dozens of characters mentioned, as long as Samwell Tarly happens to be around with a scalpel and an instruction manual. Even throwaway lines, like Tormund’s assuming that Gendry is “the fastest” when no one has ever mentioned Gendry’s relative speed compared with anyone else’s in Westeros, end up striking a memorably confusing note. Much of this is just sloppy writing, but these miniature attacks on reason also led us to very dark places, the most incendiary example being the scene that to everyone aside from the creators and cast seemed to be a sequence depicting Jaime Lannister raping Cersei. And then never mentioning it again. And then it having no effect on either the story or the characters.

Which brings us back to Qyburn, the former maester who was stripped of his chain for being extra. When other maesters were cutting open dead bodies to understand the secrets of life, he was cutting open live bodies to understand the secrets of death. He’s the soft-spoken revenant-raising uncle we all wish we had. Say what you will about his professional ethics, but he’s got a good thing going on and probably has a sweet room in the Red Keep, so he’s going to keep on being a grubby little crackpot, hanging around and performing eerie experiments in his down time, regardless of things like “the story” and moral arcs and loose narrative strands.

Qyburn’s trajectory in Game of Thrones is more or less unaltered from his arc in the novels, except for his introduction. In the show, Talisa and Robb find him near death at Harrenhal and presumably nurse his weird ass back to health and make the wise decision to leave him with Roose Bolton. In the novels, he’s already in the company of the absurdly cruel and wantonly violent mercenary company known as the Bloody Mummers. He treats Jaime’s recently acquired stump, tells a charming story about how he believes in ghosts and that the only guy who listened to his kooky theories was a dude named Marwyn, which connects him via six degrees of separation all the way back to the sad end of the Daenerys and Drogo romance. In short, this is a guy who simply believes that it sucks that he’s not allowed to dissect people whenever he wants, but he’s polite enough to generally not force the issue. From there the novels and the show meet, as Qyburn follows Jaime back to King’s Landing and rather seamlessly ingratiates himself to Cersei. Since then, over the course of five seasons, Qyburn has ambled into a position of precedence, if not exactly prominence in the show. He’s around from time to time, gets a few lines in, then goes on his way back to his eldritch laboratory, where he does most of his weird experiments off screen. His moments are good, though. The look of pure enchantment that shone in his eyes as he held the still-flailing hand of the captured wight was almost heartwarming.

HBO

When he had to surrender the hand to the fire, you couldn’t help but feel for him. Unrequited love is tough.

Knowledge fascinates this man in a way it just doesn’t most citizens of Westeros. Even the maesters and the educated elite generally use “book learnin’” more as a cudgel of social capital than any actual path toward enlightenment. Even Varys the Spider, a known enjoyer of knowing things, used knowledge to further an obscenely long game of political chess. The ultimate cynic, Varys, it turns out, was a boring idealist the entire time. Not so with Qyburn. Sure, he strolled into the capitol and appropriated all of the Spider’s “little birds,” but only because Cersei told him he was going to be the new Master of Whisperers. His plots within plots are more quotidian: figure out how this organ works; calculate how best to break this bone; decide how much blood one must extract from Gregor Clegane before you’re allowed to rename him Robert Strong. This is the last curious man in Westeros. When every other character is out here saying things like “Winter is Coming,” Qyburn is out here asking, “May I borrow your spleen because I was wondering whether maybe it helps make people-zombies faster?”

He’s the dude not getting too caught up in the bullshit that is giving every other player on this fake medieval chess board collective brainworms. Qyburn’s consistency can only be admired. This guy might register as low-down and dirty and yeah, even repugnant to modern audiences, and also Seven Kingdoms audiences, but look, he’s a big thinker in a world bereft of inquisitive minds. Granted, his epistemological bailiwick seems to be uh, necromancy, but that is the sort of excess you can expect from true believers forced to operate in a deeply conservative, hierarchical, and stagnant society like Westeros.

Qyburn quietly just does his thing and refuses to seem like a MacGuffin, despite totally being one. Part of this is due to the pitch-perfect performance of veteran British character actor Anton Lesser, who has injected several lethal doses of off-putting, grandfatherly charm into Qyburn, all without the aid of meandering monologues or clumsy sexposition, or, indeed, even all that much screen time. He’s insidious, like real weirdos with a sacred mission tend to be, but at least he’s not a one-note Machiavellian failson like Littlefinger, or a Caligula like Joffrey or a Caligula-but-worse like Ramsay Bolton. This is the guy who swooped in and made Frankenstein’s monster, defying the will of the gods both old and new. But he was, like, super chill about it.

Almost most impressive of all—and also weirdly fitting—he’s the one character on the show who could lay claim to having a genuine friendship with Cersei Lannister. It’s not like they’re drinking buddies, but the mutual respect is there; he even stands by her side at her lowest ebb. The odd camaraderie is almost sweet, stripped of all that “in the game of thrones you win or die” baggage. She is preternaturally accustomed to being effortlessly and almost absentmindedly terrible to people, and yet, something about Qyburn draws out what you could almost call affection from her. When Jaime dubs Qyburn an “odd little man,” Cersei comes to his defense and proclaims, “I’ve grown rather fond of him,” and she means it! There’s no power play there, no subterfuge or artifice or plotting. Doubtless, she recognizes that a maester willing to get down and dirty and crass would be useful to an immoral person such as herself, but it’s still a noteworthy and unfeigned pronouncement.

So, let’s all raise a tall goblet of sour Dornish red to Qyburn. But of course homeboy is an absolute creep without scruples who ingratiates himself with the worst possible people at best and probably a dude who has boned down with at least one dead body (but it was for science!) at worst. No, this has nothing to do with the finer merits of a defrocked maester who dabbles in necromancy. This has to do with the singular clarity of Qyburn’s purpose. I get him, man. He’s trying to make sense of a world gone mad. Granted, in a deeply unnatural and problematic way, but he’s relentlessly adhering to his own code. He won’t betray his blueprint or decide to do some confusing thing that no one would ever do because there’s only five episodes left and we just gotta get this show on the road! He is who he is so completely, so thoroughly, that I can’t help but celebrate his continued existence on the show. He could have easily been written out, recast, or just quietly forgotten (Greatjon Umber, Daario no. 1, Ilyn Payne) but he made it through the gantlet, and looks poised to have some part to play yet, after so many other more esteemed stalwarts have fallen by the wayside.

He’s a freak on a leash, a Westerosi cuckoo clock gone totally bananas, and I love him for it. Qyburn comes real with it on a great show that is nonetheless distracted and increasingly grappling with shepherding itself to a rewarding conclusion. Let Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion and the rest of those dorks serve the plot and betray themselves. An army of White Walkers poised to destroy humanity with their undead army is a terrifying prospect and all, but Qyburn can raise the dead, too—and he’ll give people crossbows for you if you ask him nicely.

Like I said, a very well-rounded bloke.

Alex Siquig lives in Baltimore, drinks MD 20/20, and writes about things like Game of Thrones, the Willennium, and the life of Doug Funnie.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.