I'll tell you why I'm hard on "Game of Thrones" at times: Because of Arya's eyes.
A lot happened in the mournful, exciting and majestically melancholy season finale, but for my money, none of the special effects could match Maisie Williams' gaze as Arya watched the Hound's agony on that rocky hillside.
As she observed him, her eyes were unreadable yet endlessly compelling. Was she thinking about killing him? Was she pondering how satisfying it would be to check one more name off her list? Was she marveling at the fact that, despite everything he'd done to her and others, she had a weird affection for the scarred, profane, unsentimental warrior? Was she considering that the Hound -- the man who killed her friend and worked for her family's enemies -- had done more to teach her about surviving a brutal world than her own father had done?
All those things were in Arya's eyes -- and yet, perhaps, none of them were. She's so rich and complicated, and their relationship is so knotty, that those questions have no real answer.
Williams hasn't merely grown in height during the last four years, she's grown tremendously as an actress. One of the marks of a truly gifted actor is an ability to draw in and involve an audience without saying a word. The finale offered far more visually spectacular scenes -- and far more surprising ones -- than the hillside moment. But, despite everything else that happened and despite Rory McCann's impassioned performance opposite Williams, I have a feeling that, months from now, all I'll remember are Arya's eyes.
That watchful, intelligent face reflects what is best about "Game of Thrones," a show that, at its considerable heights, can pack a multitude of meanings into a single scene or moment. The Arya-Hound scene was special in part because it was the culmination of a complex relationship years in the making. The duo reminds me of Don Draper and Peggy Olson from "Mad Men" -- they've had a mentor-mentee relationship, a weird sort of friendship, they've hated each other at times and they've kept each other company in all sorts of odd and trying situations. But like Don and Peggy, they understand each other. They speak the same language, ultimately, and no matter what, they survive. Game recognizes game.
It's not as though Arya gloried in the death of the murderer of the butcher's boy. She's only human, after all. The finale -- and much of the show as a whole -- was all about characters coming up against the limits of their humanity and the limits of their forbearance. Sometimes external limits were imposed on them, sometimes they met an obstacle in their own character. But again and again in "The Children," we saw people surrender, give up, accept a hard truth or a painful reality. They embraced what had to be done and all the fallout that might follow.
Arya, in keeping with her status as Westeros' most challenged teen, ran into a double whammy of limitations. She was torn between her affection for the Hound -- a grudging and fluctuating affection, but an affection nonetheless -- and her unsentimental and clinical view of the Hound's lifetime of violence. She wanted to kill him and she didn't; she thought he deserved to suffer and she wanted to give him a quick end. The solution she came up with was strangely elegant, if awful for the Hound: She couldn't bring herself to kill him and she also didn't completely mind if he painfully bled out, so she just walked off. Of course, before she left, she took his gold, which just shows she really had learned everything important he had to teach ("That's what the money's for!").
Some scenes in "Game of Thrones" revel, sadly, in layers of ambiguity: Witness Tyrion's abject-yet-determined demeanor as he killed the only woman he'd ever loved and his own father, as well. Tyrion's awful realization consisted of this fact: He was really no different from Tywin. He would and could kill for any number of reasons, even if he had a deep personal bond with his target. He bumped up against the truth that he is, in fact, more a Lannister than he or his dad ever realized. The profligate, witty, acerbic survivor of Season 1 has come into his own as the brutal, self-serving son that Tywin always wanted but never recognized. Cersei was right: Tywin really never saw any of his children -- only his plans and stratagems for them. They were always objects to him, but people aren't objects and sometimes they fight back.
Tywin's problems -- and his death -- are a direct result of his towering privilege. He never struggled with limitations or constrictions: He thought he would always be able to arrange the affairs of his kingdom and his family to his liking. Only his will mattered -- or so he thought. As we've seen again and again on this show: Being a ruler doesn't make you smart, cunning or adaptable, and having power doesn't disguise your limitations, it often exposes them.
"Game of Thrones" shows us that characters who can't adapt and who are rarely or never forced out of their comfort zones will inevitably come to grief. OK, it's true that most characters come to grief regardless of their personal growth, but those who hold fast to old ways or outmoded beliefs are often the least fortunate. Ned Stark did not adapt to the slithery politics of King's Landing. Robert Baratheon could not evolve from a warrior into a king. Joffrey always was and remained a sociopathic little s***, and we all know how that turned out. Lysa Arryn, stuck in her airless Eyrie, didn't interact with the world and kept a hysterical death grip on her little empire and her maladjusted son. What did getting her own way get her? A one-way flight out of her comfort zone.
Ayra has had to adapt. Jon Snow never truly stopped being a man of the Night's Watch, but his loyalties were malleable -- malleable enough for him to get the girl (temporarily) and get the Wildling intel he was after. When we last saw her, Sansa had clearly upped her game, and Bran has delved deeply into the mysterious powers that brought him to the strange man under the tree. The Stark children's father may not have figured out how to play the game, but his children have tried hard not to make their dad's mistakes. (That said, Robb certainly evolved and adapted, but he still died. The Hound wasn't wrong: There is no safety anywhere. Yet what keeps me rooting for the Stark kids -- and Tyrion -- is that they aren't bloodlessly rational like Tywin or heartlessly selfish like Littlefinger. We see flashes of the Starks' and Tyrion's kindness and thoughtfulness once in a while, and we know that being brutal and unforgiving comes at a cost for them. Sometimes.)
"You win or you die" -- that's how the saying goes, but maybe it should be "you change or you die." As I've said before, power itself is often the lead character of this show, and no one in pursuit of power -- or merely trying to survive -- has the luxury of remaining static and rigid. When it's working, "Game of Thrones" shows the costs and consequences of the most adaptable characters' evolutions, which are sometimes quite painful, sometimes fortunate and tend to keep us all off balance, characters and viewers alike.
Killing his father and lover brought Tyrion no joy -- only the dawning knowledge that he was capable of anything. Daenerys had to respond to the growth of her dragons, a powerful symbol of her independence, by chaining them up. That clearly felt like walling off part of her soul, but that is what rulers have to do. It's not pleasant to come up against the limits of your power or even your humanity, but ignoring what's in front of you is a sure way to engineer your own doom.
Even Mance Rayder had to admit that his Wildling army was no match for Stannis' cavalry. Jon, still loyal to the Night's Watch -- or what's left of it -- had to come to grips with the deep mark Ygritte left on his heart. The Hound had to acknowledge, with his dying breaths, that he didn't even have the strength to end his own agonized existence. The ability to change and adapt is a good thing to have in Westeros, but that ability is not infinite.
Can "Game of Thrones" change? Can it evolve into a show that will truly challenge "The Sopranos" as the most successful HBO show of all time? I'm not referring to "GoT's" commercial and ratings success, which HBO has been crowing about lately. Regardless of what the numbers say (and they're very good numbers), both shows will be making buckets of gold for HBO long after the curtain drops on events in Westeros.
The real question is this: Will "Game of Thrones," like "The Sopranos," continue to rigorously challenge itself and its viewers with an honest and complex view of men and women and their foibles? Or will "Game of Thrones" keep falling into ditches of its own digging? Every season, I find myself extremely frustrated with certain scenes and story lines, and I end up muttering to myself, "Come on, 'Game of Thrones,' you're smarter than this."
I might as well get to the eyeroll-inducing Jaime-Cersei scene. It's not possible for me to convey how jaw-dropping and dispiriting it is that one of the most perceptive and humane shows on TV is clearly not aware that it depicted Jaime raping his sister back in Episode 3. It was even more depressing that the scene in the sept was followed in the next episode by the overkill of the sexual violence at Craster's Keep, which is, as many smart critics have written, part of a pattern of problematic depictions of sexuality, sexual violence and rape. (Lord knows, we never would have figured out that the occupants of Craster's Keep were bad guys if multiple naked, unnamed women had not been attacked in those scenes.)
In any event, the massive mistake of the Jaime-Cersei sept scene can never be undone, and that will forever hang over that pair, thus I have zero interest in their future as a couple. But it's the bigger picture that troubles me.
In a brilliant recent essay, Bethany Jones put the history of sex, sexuality and assault on "Game of Thrones" in the context of a disappointing decline in how HBO has treated these subjects of late. To be clear, I have zero problems with stories that feature a lot of nudity, sex and difficult characters. But like Jones, I do have a problem with depictions of sexuality and exploitation that feel like they're stuck on repetitive and tiresome loops. Jones is right about where HBO has gone wrong in these arenas (and not to beat a dead mammoth, but I think the disappointments in those areas are directly related to this problem).
"Game of Thrones" has improved a lot since its first season, but it can do so much better.
"There was a lot that ['Game of Thrones'] faithful audience was willing to overlook at the start," Jones wrote. "They took it on trust. The endless sexposition. The tittering frathouse atmosphere of so many bared boobies. The casual misogyny. In a world of casual misogyny it seemed, initially, like a knowing nod ... But we're in the fourth season now, and it's getting tiring. As this season has progressed, it has gotten darker and rapier, and there's no sign that the darkness and rapiness has any point other than as splaff-bait and as a sort of spurious 'edge'-credential. It's become impossible not to ask: what's with all the sadistic machismo, HBO?"
Exactly. "Game of Thrones," as it goes forward, can be the show that explores the intelligence, sadness and spirit we see in Arya's eyes. Or it can be the show that keeps tripping itself up with one-sided, limited and repetitive tropes and tiresome cliches. And those problems aren't limited to the realm of sexuality and sexual violence (though that is often the show's Achilles' heel). Why was Ser Alliser Thorne a petty, willful tyrant? Because Jon Snow needed to seem smarter than him. Who is Gilly? A personality-free appendage who proves Sam's worth. When will Stannis display more than grumpy petulance? Uh, someday?
"Game of Thrones" is a massive undertaking, and I enjoy the mammoths, giants, zombie ice babies, fighting skeletons, epic battles, magic and dragons as much as the next person. And those cool things may be responsible for the show's success, but isn't it interesting that the show's popularity exploded during its darkest season?
A king died horribly in public, killed allegedly by his own uncle. The Wildlings and other marauders sowed chaos across the land. Daenerys crucified more than a hundred slave owners. Tyrion was betrayed by almost everyone he'd ever known and condemned to death. Sansa's aunt was murdered in front of her. Many terrible things -- not just Mance's army -- stirred behind the Wall. The Wildlings and Stannis' riders appear poised to rain hell on Westeros. All things considered, Season 1 seems like a child's tea party by comparison.
"Game of Thrones'" excellence, however, is not dependent on its depictions of violence and assault, or epic showdowns and skeleton battles. I like to think that its popularity is due in large part to its attention to how the consequences of large and small events play out for complex, flawed, selfish, frightened and otherwise recognizable human beings.
The amazing fight between the Hound and Brienne mattered because both of those people matter to me -- I love Brienne's steadfast integrity and quiet determination, and I respect the Hound's bravery and carefully hidden compassion. The Tyrion sequences were incredible because one could see the pain in his eyes as he carried out those terrible acts, and yet nothing about Peter Dinklage's performance asked for forgiveness for the character. We watched Tyrion damn himself, and it was terrible and fascinating. There was sudden violence in those scenes, but those tragedies were years in the making, and their fallout will be reverberate for years to come.
If you want pointless, meandering misery porn, you can always watch "The Walking Dead." The reason "Game of Thrones" is orders of magnitude better than that show is because a scene of a young woman sitting on a hillside, contemplating her frenemy, is the one of the finest things this show has ever done.
It's a truism baked right into the show's DNA: Sometimes the price of success is higher than the price of failure. If "Game of Thrones" can give us scenes like the one between the Hound and Arya, I will keep wanting -- no, demanding -- that it do better in every realm.
I recently guested on the Sound on Sight podcast talking "Game of Thrones." You can get that podcast here.