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The Key to ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 8 Isn’t Dragons or Swords or White Walkers or Even Incest. It’s Consequence.

The fantasy epic won over the masses thanks in large part to a painful reality: Characters reaped what they’d sown. One event in Season 6 changed that—and the show. Can ‘Thrones’ rediscover its stakes?

Alycea Tinoyan

Midway through Season 6 of Game of Thrones, a 10-episode run that included such narrative highs as Jon’s resurrection and parental reveal, Hodor’s holding the door, and Cersei’s destruction of the Sept of Baelor, Samwell Tarly experiences his own moment of should-be catharsis. After a disastrous dinner with his family at Horn Hill, Sam decides to stand up to his father, Randyll, by leaving the castle with Gilly—and taking the family’s Valyrian steel sword, Heartsbane, with him.

Randyll was sure to react unkindly to such theft. Heartsbane was the “pride of his House,” Brienne thinks in A Feast for Crows, and had been passed from Tarly father to Tarly son for nearly 500 years. Heartsbane was so important to Randyll that it was part of his rationale for demanding Sam forsake his inheritance and join the Night’s Watch; in the first A Song of Ice and Fire book, Sam says that the lord of Horn Hill told him, “Heartsbane must go to a man strong enough to wield her, and you are not worthy to touch her hilt.”

So when Sam makes clear his idea to steal the prized blade in the middle of the night, Gilly expresses suitable concern. “Sam, that’s your father’s sword,” she cautions. “Won’t he come for it?”

Sam is resolute in response: “He can bloody well try.”

Or he can forget it ever existed. Far from inspiring further familial drama and a new branch in Sam’s plot tree, Heartsbane hasn’t even been mentioned in the 11 episodes since—not by Sam, not by Gilly, not least by the father who swore Sam would never wield the ancestral Tarly blade and in fact died without addressing the theft. Sam’s heist yielded no consequences at all, and in a show that had for so long balanced every action with a secondary effect, thus contributing to its sprawl and propelling its characters in new and exciting directions, this apparent oversight is just the tip of the sword.

The lesson comes as early as the start of the Thrones pilot: In George R.R. Martin’s world, actions breed consequences. Ned Stark’s first real action in the series is to execute a Night’s Watch deserter, no matter his reason for fleeing (in this case, seeing the White Walkers). Ned had to execute the man because those are the rules, plain and simple.

And while Ned perhaps veered too far toward an inflexible adherence to those rules, his thinking reflects the broader reality in Westeros and Essos—and one that has permeated much of the show’s run. Consequences in this world are paramount, which may sound trite, but differentiates this story in a broader fantasy genre landscape filled with deus ex machina saviors and invincible heroes and all manner of plot contortions that allow the protagonists to carry on.

Game of Thrones succeeds in large part because of its ever-present consequences, which allow its vast and meticulous plot to follow a cause-and-effect structure that feels seamless rather than forced. The Lannisters try to kill Bran, so Catelyn arrests Tyrion, so Jaime attacks Ned and his men, so Robb calls Northern arms for battle, and so on. Part of the fun of the tale is examining how each action and reaction will in turn produce more actions and reactions, which helps the story flow as smoothly as the Rhoyne in summer.

Because consequences affect all characters, moreover, they have arrived most prominently in the form of shocking deaths for heroes: after Ned misplays his hand with Cersei and incorrectly trusts Littlefinger, after Robb reneges on a vow with Walder Frey, after Oberyn Martell taunts his fallen opponent in combat. As Sansa says to Jon in the Season 7 premiere, about Ned and Robb, “They made stupid mistakes, and they both lost their heads for it.”

The might of consequences in this world is such that they don’t come just for protagonists, though, and they don’t manifest just in death, either. They don’t just subvert genre expectations; they create a grounded story with coherent world-building and consistent rules across people and actions. Cersei schemes without regard for her own criminal past and she is imprisoned. Tywin pushes his son too far and dies on the privy. Jaime flaunts his privilege and loses a hand. Robb executes Rickard Karstark and loses half his army. Daenerys trusts a witch and loses her husband. The list goes on.

This constant stream of retributions yielded an understanding in the Thrones audience, too—that if they watched a character make a stupid mistake, that character would soon suffer the fallout, even if that fallout isn’t so severe as decapitation. This expectation raised the stakes in every moment of every episode, because every word and action mattered a great deal for the future. Characters had agency, but that freedom came with a cost.

Once upon a time it did, anyway. Then Jon died and came back to life, and this seemingly steadfast principle began to unravel.

In the 15 episodes since Jon’s resurrection in Season 6, Episode 2—since the show passes by Martin’s existing blueprint, really—the once-clear relationship between actions and consequences admittedly doesn’t disappear in most non-Heartsbane cases, but it blurs.

For instance, Jon dies and his character traits don’t budge much after reincarnation. This consistency contrasts with fellow resurrection beneficiary Beric Dondarrion, who previously noted, “Every time I come back, I’m a bit less.” It also makes Jon’s death seem designed more for shock value and plot propulsion than a meaningful change going forward.

Jon also abandons the Night’s Watch after his reincarnation and basically nobody notices nor cares. Remember, the first thing the audience learns about the Night’s Watch is that desertion equals death. But when Jon, the order’s Lord Commander, leaves Castle Black in Season 6, this precedent doesn’t come to fruition. In fact, besides Dolorous Edd, his replacement as Lord Commander, the only person to mention that Jon has forsaken his sworn duties is Ramsay Bolton, who states wryly before the Battle of the Bastards that if Jon kneels, he will pardon Jon for deserting. Jon might have some wiggle room because the Night’s Watch vow states that members’ tenure “shall not end until [their] death,” so Jon’s death might have absolved him of his sworn duties. Indeed, he tells Edd, “I pledged my life to the Night’s Watch; I gave my life.” But that conversation hasn’t happened with anyone else, and because so few people in the realm know about Jon’s resurrection, it’s not as if they’d naturally know about the reason for Jon’s leave, either.

The pattern continues once in the Battle of the Bastards, as Jon charges the Bolton army all by himself, perhaps the stupidest fighting move ever depicted on the show. “It’s crucial that we let them charge at us,” Davos instructed before the battle, and when Jon looks poised to begin his one-man charge at the might of the Bolton force, a stricken Tormund warns, “Don’t!” Jon does anyway, yet he survives and, with Sansa’s imperative assistance, wins back Winterfell for his family.

Jon might be more immune to consequence because, as a lead protagonist and (perhaps) the prophesied Prince Who Was Promised, he can’t suffer the brunt of consequence at this juncture. But this new approach applies to other characters, too, and thereby weakens the entire story’s structural integrity. After abandoning her mission to kill Lady Crane, Arya wanders carelessly through Braavos despite knowing her enemy can assume any number of potential faces as a disguise. She is then stabbed in the stomach, repeatedly—yet is still strong enough to not only survive that stabbing, but to defeat the fully healthy Waif the next day. Arya’s occasional lapse in judgment isn’t new, as she proved by not naming a more important villain like Tywin Lannister when offering names to Jaqen H’ghar in Season 2; the lack of fallout, however, is, as Tywin’s survival produced the Red Wedding and Arya’s family’s momentary demise.

Also across the Narrow Sea, Jorah contracts greyscale, a deadly disease that drives men mad and has no known cure in adults, and lets it spread over his body. This happens before Season 6—and then after Season 6, not only does he not infect anyone else, but he is healed in the span of a single night in the Citadel, and he returns to Dany’s side with seemingly no ill effects from his malady.

Back in Westeros, Cersei blows up the whole Sept of Baelor, and while negative consequences ensue with Tommen’s death, nobody questions when she just ascends to the Iron Throne thereafter. Perhaps this is a result of Cersei killing every other character in King’s Landing who might object, but this step still seems strange in a show that had for so long concerned itself with the laws of succession and then doesn’t even mention the oddity of Cersei’s reign.

Her twin brother enjoys a freedom from repercussions for his actions as well. Armed with only a spear, Jaime charges a dragon on horseback. Tyrion knows the stupidity of this effort; as he surveys the battlefield from afar, he spies Jaime’s charge and calls his brother an “idiot” three times in the span of a few seconds. Yet not only does Jaime avoid a roasting, but after being diverted to the nearby lake in an episode-ending cliffhanger, he doesn’t even get captured by the khalasar that has waylaid his forces. Instead, he and Bronn, his rescuer, are free to mosey back to King’s Landing unencumbered.

This list could continue for a while: Sam steals the sword without notice; Arya and Sansa’s inane squabbles in Winterfell magically receive resolution off-screen; Jon decides not to board Drogon during the escape in “Beyond the Wall” for some reason and then receives help from an out-of-nowhere Benjen; and on and on.

It’s possible, of course, that some of these events could still yield payback (e.g., Jon’s resurrection or Jorah’s greyscale), but taken in concert, the group illuminates the shift that has occurred. If recent Thrones episodes feel different from their forebears, a change in the cause-and-effect structure is a large reason.

The lack, or at least diminishment, of consequence hasn’t ruined the show, of course, but it’s of a piece with other complaints about recent seasons. It’s similar, for instance, to the fact that the show has not bothered to address who now rules in several of Westeros’s regions where leaders have died, and it’s similar to the “jetpacking” in Season 7, which saw characters zip across continents whereas previous seasons illustrated the time and effort and logistics involved with travel. In all of these cases, Thrones world-building frays at the seams. Without consequences, the storytelling becomes unmoored and the stakes are artificially diluted. The absence of consequences has made the recent portion of the show seem off-kilter from the tone and expectations Thrones had established early on and mostly maintained through its run.

Season 8 might fix some of these issues. The travel concerns were so glaring that for Season 8, writer Dave Hill told Entertainment Weekly, “We tried to keep more of the time logic rather than jet packs.” Maybe consequence will follow suit, and the show will re-center that element this season. In Jon’s arc, for instance, the back half of Season 7 seems to swing closer in this direction, with errors like the journey north gifting the Night King a dragon with which he could shatter the Wall.

But it’s hard to feel confident that Season 8 will stick to that approach when so much recent evidence piles against it. Just circle back to the example that led this column to see how the lack of consequence for Sam’s action dulls that moment of theoretical triumph, in retrospect, and poisons the future as well. Every subsequent Randyll appearance carried the burden of expectation, but here Thrones delivered, essentially, a false promise of payoff. Instead, it now appears as if that entire exercise was just to bring Heartsbane to the heroes at Winterfell in advance of the coming battle against the dead—and Thrones has long thrived because it prized character development and organic story growth over forced plot machinations. Too much of Season 7 fell into the latter category.

If Season 8 follows this same trajectory, if it skips points B, C, and D in its rush to get from Point A to Point E, the whole final run could stagger under the plot’s own propulsive weight. Reverting to the previous course surely won’t be an easy feat, with so many threads and loose ends to consider, and so much sheer plot to cram into the final six episodes. Heck, Martin himself hasn’t figured out how to reach (or even approach) his written conclusion.

But if the showrunners learn their lessons from recent stumbles, and if they more closely follow the initial storytelling model, the last season could be spectacular. That might be bad news for Jon, who could probably use another death-defying act of fortune or three. But it would be great news for viewers enchanted by the show’s original spell.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.