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On the Back of Tyrion Lannister, ‘Game of Thrones’ Returned to What It Does Best

With the White Walkers dispatched, “The Last of the Starks” turned its focus from supernatural existential threats to human-to-human politics

HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

Whatever the disappointments of last week’s battle, they came with a promise. The showrunners of Game of Thrones, it was clear, did not care to focus their narrative energies on the White Walkers, their motivations, or the existential threat they proved to Westeros. The Night King was dispatched before the halfway point of Thrones final season. The mythology behind him was handwaved. The fatalities incurred by his final assault, at least among characters we knew, turned out to be minimal. After more than seven seasons of hype for the Great War, Game of Thrones instead opted to conserve its energies for what Daenerys Targaryen has optimistically termed the “Last War.”

Clearly, the hard fantasy elements are not where masterminds David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s hearts ultimately lie, despite the ominous warnings of Thrones own characters. And as much as that priority may frustrate certain fans, it still presents an opportunity. By resolving the White Walker threat so early, the show left itself half a season to devote to the conflicts it did care about: those between humans, with their shifting loyalties, messy emotions, and other storytelling perks you just can’t get from a bunch of CGI zombies. Or, as Tyrion Lannister neatly puts it: “We may have defeated them, but we still have us to contend with.”

It’s no coincidence that Tyrion gets entrusted with the episode’s theme, even as the rest of Winterfell is still in the throes of a post-victory bacchanal. Once dependably the best character on the show—unsurprisingly, since he’s also whom author George R.R. Martin has said he enjoys writing for the most—the so-called imp has endured a rough few years. Tyrion becoming Dany’s hand once seemed like an ideal match between a ruler with aspirations higher than just holding onto power and an adviser with the strategic skills to help her achieve those goals. In reality, their relationship has largely manifested in several devastating losses at Tyrion’s behest and a growing Mad Queen–like mistrust on Dany’s end. My colleague Jason Concepcion has theorized that Tyrion’s uncharacteristic lack of savvy is the result of plot necessity—to render the odds of Dany’s challenge to Cersei, as Varys puts it, “distressingly even.” That hasn’t made it any easier to watch. Apart from a touching moment with Sansa, the Battle of Winterfell arguably represented the character’s nadir, forced to wait and worry while everyone else did the plot’s heavy lifting upstairs.

But talking and scheming are Tyrion’s forte, and with the Night King shattered into a million ice shards, there’s suddenly a lot more room for those. “The Last of the Starks” was Tyrion’s best episode in several seasons, allowing him to trade barbs with old sparring partners and give voice to some of the series’ most crucial ideas. It was also the best episode of the season. “The Last of the Starks” was still marked by some of the haphazard pacing that’s defined Thrones late period but the episode also, at times, recalled the nuance and pleasures of the series’ peak.

Tyrion is devoted to Daenerys. He’s also being forced to question his image of her, especially as the rapidly spreading news of Jon’s true ancestry offers another viable candidate for the Iron Throne. His conversations with Varys, both on the boat ride to Dragonstone and in the castle’s throne room following an ambush by Euron’s fleet, mull over crucial questions Thrones has spent its run both hinting at and shying away from, kicking the can of Westerosi political theory just a little farther down the road. What does a ruler owe their people, and what should those people expect from their ruler? Should our allegiances lie with family, chosen leaders, or abstract concepts like the realm? Is it better to be an idealistic firebrand or a more even-keeled stalwart? And, oh yeah, is a female politician the high-fantasy version of “electable”?

It’s a thrill to hear these cerebral concepts being hashed out with high-minded rhetoric and a dash of gallows humor, especially after several hours’ worth of simplistic contrast between mute, murderous ice creatures and all of humankind. The current King’s Landing may be a viper pit of despotism; in Thrones’ first half, the capital was home to nitty-gritty debates over how to administer an entire continent, dry-yet-fascinating stuff that finally feels like it’s working its way back to the forefront. But Tyrion’s scenes in “The Last of the Starks” aren’t all discussions of potential treason, with Dany’s potential assassination looming like Rhaegal no longer can. Tyrion also gets to be fun again, as a chronic drinker and womanizer who learned to use humor as a coping mechanism the hard way has every right to be.

While still at Winterfell, Tyrion first initiates the most fan-servicey coupling in Thrones history by nosily asking Brienne whether she’s still a virgin. (Answer: yes, but not once Jaime has something to say about it!) Then, he briefly reunites with Ser Bronn of the Blackwater, an encounter that proves complaints about Thrones’ logistics always had more to do with the toll corner-cutting takes on characters than mere nit-picking. How did Bronn get up north so fast? How did he, a brawling sellsword without Arya’s assassin training, slip into the castle undetected? It doesn’t matter, because it gets him in the same room as the two spoiled brats who used to employ him, and whose company he—and we—can’t help getting a kick out of.

“I’ve been breaking noses since I was your size and I know what it sounds like” is a delightful line. Still, the negotiation between noble scions and an upstart mercenary gets to be more than just a good hang—not that Thrones hasn’t been awfully short on those lately. Bronn gets Tyrion to promise him Highgarden, a seat that would make him almost exactly as powerful as they are, if not more. Jaime objects on grounds of elitism, only for Bronn to astutely point out that every great house starts “with a hard bastard who was good at killing people.” Everything in this world comes down to hard power, and there’s not much separating the highborn from the low except the pluck of their ancestors. These are important reminders as the future of Westeros is decided, and as a thinker by nature, Tyrion’s ideally situated to introduce them.

Not that Tyrion is suddenly perfect, let alone a perfectly rational character. Misplaced as Dany’s suspicions may be, she’s right that Tyrion still has a soft spot for his sister, one that leads him to think she’d be receptive to his eleventh-hour plea at the King’s Landing gates. “You’ve always loved your children,” he tells Cersei, quoting himself from earlier in the series. She responds by having Missandei decapitated, inaugurating what’s likely to be her final fight. Just as he can’t quite bring himself to admit the truth about Dany’s more despotic instincts, Tyrion can’t let himself see Cersei’s full-blown monstrosity until it’s too late. Unlike some of his other blunders, though, this one seems more organic than forced. Tyrion may be called the Halfman, but he’s one of the most fully human figures on the show. When Thrones focuses on that, it’s all the better for it.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.