This week, a bevy of articles were published focusing on Tyrion Lannister. Specifically, they discuss how Tyrion has become an inessential character, a shadow of his former self who now only serves to make bad choices which needlessly endanger everybody else. It’s certainly understandable why many viewers are seeing it that way, since Tyrion used to be one of the most clever and savvy people in Westeros. But I think this particular criticism is a bit superficial, and missing the overall point.
First of all, yes, we’re supposed to be wondering why Tyrion isn’t quite himself lately. Sansa’s recent comment to him makes that very clear. But the sad punchline of being Tyrion Lannister right now is that Westeros is reaching such a dire state that his political maneuvering can’t compete with the fact that the Seven Kingdoms are teetering on the brink of apocalypse. His homeland is not as he remembers . . . Rome is now falling, and its predictable and well-trod power schemes, however chaotic they could be, are falling with it, replaced with a much less dependable form of chaos. Despite being Hand of the Queen, Tyrion is not exactly sure where he fits in a world so unpredictable, making him no longer as objectively calculating as he was in early seasons.
However, his advice and decisions haven’t been as terrible as some claim. In the past, they actually would have been spot on. The reason it’s not going so well for him at the moment is that he’s overestimating people: he’s giving them too much credit that they’ll, you know, not allow themselves and everyone they know to be annihilated.
How could he be so stupid to trust Cersei? He didn’t trust Cersei. He trusted the idea that his sister would realize that if she doesn’t cooperate, the world is literally going to end. That was the point of the whole shaky mission of traveling North to nab a wight in the first place. Time and time again, no one really believes or understands this threat until they see it firsthand. He intended to appeal to her self-interest, and it is in her self-interest to not die.
The Queen of Westeros is already at a severe disadvantage because of the dragons, but she’s completely outpaced by the fact that the army of the undead will soon be at her doorstep. Tyrion was right that she wouldn’t believe until she saw for herself. What he didn’t bank on was her having lost touch with reality to the point where AN ACTUAL ZOMBIE TRYING TO BITE HER FACE wouldn’t sway her perspective, let alone that she would pretend to change her mind (twice) and then hit him with the fact that she’s pregnant. Tyrion may want to strangle Cersei, but he can’t bring himself to murder his pregnant sister, no matter how terrible she might be.
Cersei believes she’s thinking like a Lannister and guarding their legacy, but she’s really just clinging to a fantasy scenario where she unwaveringly triumphs in smug satisfaction over her opponents, her head buried deep in the sand in order to reinforce the sociopathic feedback loop that is her current frame of mind. Her insistence to Tyrion that she’d watch the world die as long as she could protect her family is an empty statement, as fake as her subsequent change of heart; she has no remaining attachments to anyone save for Cersei Lannister, Winner.
Just as he didn’t predict that Cersei would casually toss away Casterly Rock, Tyrion couldn’t foresee her being so delusional as to view the White Walkers as merely another political rival to be checkmated. The Cersei of the past was selfish and cruel, but not remotely this far down the rabbit hole of misanthropic egomania. Her brother falls for her ruse only because it’s unfathomable to any right-thinking person that someone could be this deeply committed to dooming themselves.
Whether or not she’s really pregnant, Cersei neither wants to die nor live in ruin, but those potential outcomes are blatantly assured by the path she’s choosing. That she’s even still playing this game highlights how much she cannot be reasoned with in any capacity, a fact which Jaime realizes shortly after learning her true intentions. Even Qyburn — Qyburn!!! — looks concerned that the Wall has fallen; Cersei just smiles. (On that note, however, Tyrion probably should have been a little wary of his sister’s mental state given that her closest companions are now a mad scientist, a quasi-zombie bodyguard, and a psychopathic pirate).
Speaking of madman pirate lords, Euron is such a nihilistic lunatic with no true allegiances that, like Cersei, he’s almost impossible to predict or outmaneuver. He could easily pivot to another side without warning, has absolutely no principles whatsoever, and commands the largest and fastest fleet in all of Westeros. This type of wildcard puts Tyrion and any other adviser in a shit position.
Then there’s the Dany problem. Tyrion has very uncynically thrown his support behind her, and even seems to have a romantic affection which he keeps to himself. But he continually comes up against her messiah complex. For all of her breaking of chains and her grand aspirations, Dany can come off as an entitled white savior with an unfair and very burny advantage over all of her enemies. Tyrion is 1000% aware, and correct, that everyday people won’t take well to “this continent is mine by birthright and you have to accept me or I’ll set you on fire.” Particularly not with the Mad King still in recent memory. In fact, as he’s pointed out, such an approach is far from the revolution Dany has in mind.
This perhaps gets to the crux of what’s going on with Tyrion: he isn’t ruthless. Early in the story, he possessed a bemused pessimism, and that reflected in his attitude about the world at large. But at heart, he’s always had a keen awareness of how much life can suck, and has never had a hard-on for adding to the suffering of others. He can be ruthless — his murders of Shae and Tywin are a perfect example — but those acts often leave him shaken. Look no further than the fact that he has watched armies burned alive, not once but twice. (By wildfire and dragonfire, respectively). In both cases, he looked on in awestruck horror, clearly disturbed by the fact that he played a role in enabling this to happen.
He is no longer the cynic he used to be, and that transformation has given him serious reservations about war. Hence why he often tries to avoid it. Sometimes this is a serious misstep, as when he should have listened to Grey Worm and Missandei about not trusting the masters (or at the very least should have had a backup plan).
But even that was a situation he inherited, as Dany had already set those dominoes in motion. The whole point of Meereen was Tyrion and Dany learning the hard way that unmooring entire civilizations and telling them to suddenly be different, no matter how noble and humane the intention, has maddeningly complicated fallout. He was left to clean up that mess and made it worse, before she returned to put people in line with a weapon no one else has: dragons.
Tyrion was much more successful at this when power games were fun exercises of snark and cleverness, and war an abstract concept played out on a board with wooden pieces. That all began to change, though, when the Battle of the Blackwater showed him firsthand the havoc his decisions can wreak. He’d witnessed plenty of violence by that point, but seeing a bay full of men screaming and dying, and then nearly losing his own life in the process, seemed to sour his playful approach to politics and conflict.
The coldly strategic move to have handled Cersei would have been to suggest using the dragons to sack King’s Landing. But this means thousands of people being slaughtered and burned, a cataclysmic event which would sow further enmity. It also means giving the thumbs up to destroying what remains of his family. The last time he killed a relative, it left him a ruined shell of a human being, his life losing all meaning until he met Danaerys.
Yet as much as Tyrion loves and admires Dany, he’s also afraid of her. Both Varys and himself have had moments recently where they’ve wondered what they’ve gotten themselves into. Dany’s more vicious tendencies have been harder and harder to reign in, and Targaryens are famously stubborn when others try to curb their tendency to conquer.
Another part of his dilemma is that Tyrion looks at the big picture, whereas most others are focused on their own particular priorities. The reason Sansa can be so glibly dismissive of him is that her main concern is protecting the North and her family. She’s never seen the wights, doesn’t care about Dany’s claim to the Throne, and can afford to not worry about deciding to treat with a person like Cersei. Instead, Sansa is understandably busy with figuring out how to survive both the winter and an impending war, and now having to feed these fucking dragons. Tyrion meanwhile has to strategize the survival of their civilization, and start planning what the future of that civilization should look like.
All of this puts him in one of the most torn positions in Westeros. There’s no priority he can meet where he doesn’t appear to be neglecting something else. Tyrion wants Dany to win, but has reservations about her willingness to use fire and blood as a demonstration of uncontestable power. And the battle with the Lannister army showed him that when push comes to shove, he doesn’t want to mercilessly watch his family die, a point reiterated by Cersei’s (supposed) pregnancy. And an enemy is coming which could reduce all of these stakes to ice if something isn’t done soon.
Very, very few people in power truly grasp the danger posed by the Night King, apart from Jon and Dany (who, given her recent pronounced arrogance about the North belonging to her, seems to be un-remembering what she saw beyond the Wall), and time is running out to convince anyone else.
But perhaps the biggest reason that Tyrion isn’t as sure of himself lately, and has been noticeably more fallible, is that it’s good drama. It’s easy to forget that we’ve already seen Tyrion as an ace Hand of the King; having him be the exact same thing for Dany would do wonders for Tyrion’s self-esteem in the morning, but wouldn’t have much going on in terms of character dynamics. Instead, seeing him struggle with his confidence in a world where all of the rules are rapidly being rewritten — even the rules of deceit — or disappearing altogether, is frankly much more interesting. “Tyrion continues to be awesome always” encourages very little in the way of conversation.
Characters not behaving exactly the way the audience wants or expects tends to become an issue the longer a story moves forward; we grow so accustomed to certain traits and rhythms that, when those things are thrown for a loop, people cry foul. Take last season’s conflict between Sansa and Arya. A frequent criticism was that them behaving in such a paranoid and competitive manner was out of character.
Except, it’s not.
We hadn’t seen them interact with each other since the very first season. In the interim they’ve experienced completely different journeys, and at this point of the story are still sussing each other out. All Arya knows is that the Sansa of her experience was a spoiled brat who wanted to be a princess, and is now in charge of Winterfell. This is the same sister who wrote a letter declaring their father a traitor, an act that ultimately led to his death. Arya can’t watch Game of Thrones . . . she wasn’t there to see what happened with Joffrey or Cersei or Littlefinger or Ramsay.
Meanwhile, Sansa can tell that Arya’s youthful rambunctiousness has been replaced with the steely detachment of a trained murderer. She finds a bag full of human faces, for R’hllor’s sake. (And she’s already reeling from the recent arrival of Dr. Branhattan). Part of Arya blames Sansa for Ned’s death — Arya is one to hold grudges, hence her list — and absolutely does want to kill her sister. Sansa is right to be afraid.
These are two people who no longer know each other being thrown back into the pot together. They were never particularly close, and as adults are almost strangers. So the idea that they would immediately high-five and team up sounds a lot like shallow wish fulfillment. They needed a shared experience to bring them together, and that experience ended up being the (off-screen) realization that Littlefinger was exploiting their distrust of one another. And then they do team up and turn the tables on him and have their big moment.
For all the complaints that the series has grown less complex, the expectation that the characters’ best traits should always be on display is the exact kind of writing that really would rob the series of any depth. Game of Thrones isn’t a story about what should happen, or giving the audience what it wants. And it’s not a story where, even if the characters have grown, everything they do is right and smart, or good and just.
In no way is Tyrion Lannister a flawless human being. Sure, he’s sensitive, intelligent, witty, charming, and cunning. Westeros considers him a monster for the way he was born, an unnatural freak who killed his mother and shames his family. Without a doubt, Tyrion is an underdog and effortlessly easy to root for.
He’s also a privileged asshole who drank, fucked, and joked his way through life while the political machine which kept him alive ground endless others to a pulp. He murdered Shae — one of the only people he’s truly loved — in an act fueled as much by bitterness and rage as it was self-defense. Myrcella might still be alive if he hadn’t had her shipped off to Dorne as part of a callous move to upset his sister, and his killing of Tywin (no matter how seemingly justified) set in motion the chain of events which has placed Cersei on the Throne.
But, unlike other characters who’ve inflicted similar damage, Tyrion is also keenly aware of these things. They’ve left a weight which continues to hang over him, and from which he’s learned a great deal.
Tyrion Lannister has consistently been the reluctant conscience of the series. His grappling with how to move forward is very much him wrestling with the questions at the core of this tale: those of power, those of heritage and loyalty and the way they shape identity, and especially those of the human cost when the powerful squabble over rights and titles and lands and surnames. In the approaching world of the Night King, adding to the pile of the dead means that death is coming that much sooner.
So no, Tyrion isn’t suddenly just a bumbling moron. He’s also not the Tony Stark superhero some have hoped he would be. The diminishing of his confidence — the one thing which has gotten him out of almost every dire situation in the past — is something for which he was likely always destined.
Is Tyrion going to betray Dany? Murder Cersei? Be revealed as a Targaryen? Become a dragon rider? Any of these are possible. We won’t know until we see. What we do know is that schemers such as him, Varys, and Littlefinger now find themselves overshadowed by the arrival of winter, the winds of change, and the meddling of supernatural forces. They must adapt or die, something which Littlefinger failed to learn. Evolution, like revolution, is messy and awkward.
Tyrion is still in the middle of his. Don’t count him out quite yet.