Spoilers ahead for season 7 of Game of Thrones and for the book series
It’s been a rough Game of Thrones season for Tyrion Lannister. Throughout season 7, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff scooted him firmly to the back burner, where he sat and fretted and was generally ineffectual. And even when he took center stage, it was to fail — not in dramatic and interesting ways, but in petty, often sad ones, like whispering unheard warnings to his brother Jaime during the loot-train robbery. The only useful thing he accomplished on-screen all season was getting Jon Snow to Dragonstone to meet Daenerys Targaryen, and even that was accomplished via omission, in a way that promptly rebounded on him.
It’s been a sharp comedown for one of the series’s most distinctive and popular characters, a man often at the center of some of the show’s biggest and most moving dramas. Tyrion has never had an easy time of it on Game of Thrones, but throughout season 7, he wasn’t just put upon and tormented by his family, his circumstances, and his life. He was reduced to a pathetic, hovering background presence with nothing particularly useful to contribute.
If season 7 had a Friends-esque subtitle, it might as well be “The One Where Tyrion Gives Terrible Advice.” He’s supposedly a tactical genius, but every military move he made in season 7 either backfired or was easily countered by his sister Cersei. And all the personal advice he gave as Daenerys’ chief advisor was dismissed or overturned. Some of it just seemed irrelevant, like his attempts to get Daenerys to discuss her succession plans for a throne she hasn’t even taken yet.
And some of it — like insisting that Dany leave Jon, Jorah, the Hound, and the rest of the wight-fetching team to die in the frozen land behind the Wall — seemed outright designed to make the audience hate him. It’s bad enough that he’s failing to outthink Cersei. In trying to talk Daenerys out of a daring dragonback rescue, he was failing the audience. “What would you have me do?” she asks him. “Nothing!” he tells her. “Sometimes nothing is the hardest thing to do. Do nothing!” That’s weak advice for a would-be queen, conqueror, and savior of Westeros. More significantly, it’s terrible advice for creating compelling TV. Imagine if Daenerys had listened to him. Her dragon Viserion would still be alive, but half her remaining human allies would be dead — and one of the season’s most thrilling battle sequences would be replaced by her sitting around Dragonstone, twiddling her thumbs and counting up her losses.
Tyrion certainly has a plausible motivation for his “do nothing” stance. This entire season, he’s been visibly frightened about the idea that Dany is irreplaceable, and that if she dies, his coalition is doomed. He wants to protect her, and advising her against personally charging into battle on dragonback is one of the few methods available for someone who is, as Dany says, not a hero. He certainly has reason to fear the loss of irreplaceable people, after the death of all three of his beloved nieces and nephews. Like everyone in Westeros, he’s dealing with trauma, sometimes poorly. But Benioff and Weiss’ scripts don’t do much to contextualize his feelings in any way that would give them depth or justify them as a character choice. He’s just being given the stock role of the whiny wife in a John Grisham thriller, trying to keep her husband from investigating the conspiracy or pursuing the criminals, because it’s dangerous. Tyrion is just trying to hold back a hero from being heroic.
And it was particularly notable in a season that was all about ramping up the pace of the show, bringing characters together, and moving plotlines forward. Tyrion was a consistent drag on that process, trying to get Dany to slow down, take less direct action, hide behind her advisors, and hide from the plot. Perhaps influenced by his recent failures, and her loss of faith in him — to the point where she accuses him of deliberately plotting against her, out of fear of her harming his family — he’s taken an increasingly passive role. And when he does accomplish something meaningful, like brokering a meeting with his brother Jaime to set up a wight-centric TED Talk with Cersei, or meeting in private with Cersei to argue for an armistice — Benioff and Weiss kept all the important parts of his negotiations offscreen. In both those cases, he was apparently able to talk his siblings into significant, hard-won concessions. But what we actually got to see on-screen were the parts of the conversation where he railed in self-pity about the family’s unfair treatment of him. What should have been dramatic, diplomatic negotiations in both cases became petty and personal, designed to undercut his character even further.
Even his final moments on-screen in the finale were passive and ineffectual, as he lurked in the darkness outside Dany’s room, watching her welcome Jon Snow into her bed. Plenty of viewers have read his behavior as romantic jealousy, especially after his episode 6 commentary to Daenerys about all the “heroes” who’ve fallen in love with her. But finale episode director Jeremy Podeswa denies that: “Jealousy is too simple, in a way,” he said in a post-finale interview with Insider. “I think what’s really going on here for me is that Tyrion is a strategist. He's somebody who thinks to the future and what the consequences of things are. For him, the union of Dany and Jon is a bit of a monkey wrench in terms of the plan for how they're going to move forward in a united front against the army of the dead.”
That’s a relief compared to the other prevailing theory, outlined by Joanna Robinson in Vanity Fair, that the showrunners were adapting an early George R.R. Martin plot outline to put Tyrion in romantic conflict with Jon. But it’s telling that Tyrion’s behavior in that scene is so opaque and passive that viewers weren’t entirely sure what they were seeing. Tyrion seems to be following his own “do nothing” advice, and giving the audience no insight into what he’s going through. He isn’t just becoming a less active and forceful presence, he’s becoming a less interesting and involved character. It’s frustrating to see an actor of Peter Dinklage’s talents reduced to standing silently in corridors or at council meetings. It’s equally frustrating to see Tyrion spending his most significant confrontation scenes whining about old grudges to Jaime or Cersei, instead of accomplishing anything worthwhile.
George R.R. Martin has always loved Tyrion best of all his Song of Ice and Fire characters, and he’s been clear enough about his preference. But he’s also been guilty of putting Tyrion into a passive, ineffectual mode for long stretches. In the book series, Tyrion falls in love with a low-born woman and secretly marries her, but his father Tywin has her gang-raped and cast out, and tells Tyrion she was a whore hired to seduce him. When Tyrion confronts Tywin about this lie at the end of A Storm of Swords, asking where she went, Tywin says she went “wherever whores go.” After killing Tywin, Tyrion spends the bulk of the most recent book, A Dance With Dragons, drinking and asking everyone he meets, “Where do whores go?” in a sort of imbecilic broken refrain. It’s a rhetorical question in response to a sarcastic statement, and it’s endlessly irritating for a character with such a strong point of view, at such a central part of the story, to be turned into a broken record.
So Benioff and Weiss certainly have precedent for hollowing Tyrion out into a shell of a man with nothing worthwhile to contribute. And it stands to reason that in a short, accelerated season with more focus on action, they’ve had to set some characters aside, and leave some plotlines incomplete or half-realized. Maybe that’s what Dany’s “You’re not a hero” speech to Tyrion really meant — she’s letting him know that, increasingly, the show isn’t focused on strategists and schemers. It’s focused on heroes who put their bodies on the line in battle. Or maybe Tyrion’s gradual fall into irrelevance is just the first half of a larger storyline that will see him fighting his way back to central stage in the final season. Maybe this is all setup for a larger story. And certainly there are no guarantees in Game of Thrones that anyone will get to live a meaningful life, much less find a happy ending.
But for a character with a backstory as involved and traumatic as Tyrion’s, the slow fade into irrelevance is particularly frustrating. Better he go out in a blaze of glory, doing something meaningful and befitting his character, than just gradually disappear offscreen. At the moment, he’s getting what reality competition shows call the “loser edit,” where he only appears in scenes where he’s being problematic, ineffectual, or annoying. In other words, where he’s earning his eventual elimination. Martin’s favorite character deserves better. And so does the audience that’s followed his suffering and struggling for seven seasons. Surely it’s all going to come to something more than this.