Game of Theories: Why We’re So Fixated on “Figuring Out” Game of ThronesPhoto: Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO TV Features Game of Thrones
In his first appearance in Game of Thrones’ seventh season, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West), First of His Name, Curer of Greyscale, Reader of Tomes, Follower of Instructions, Slayer of White Walkers, Janitor of the Citadel, has a frank, validating conversation with Archmaester Ebrose (Jim Broadbent) about the existence of those nasty, previously mentioned White Walkers. Poor Sam, ever the schlemiel to Thrones’ cast of schmucks, laments that nobody believes in his accounts of the ancient nemeses of humankind; in point of fact, he mopes, “they all doubt the Walkers ever existed in the first place.”
Ebrose, not one to dismiss a chronicle out of hand, gives Sam half the reply he desperately needs to hear: “The simplest explanation for your grating obsession with the White Walkers is that you’re telling the truth, and that you saw what you say you saw.” Sam’s relief is curtailed by the realization that much as Ebrose believes him, he’s not going to help him bust into the Citadel library’s restricted section, either. But the value of Ebrose’s commentary isn’t restricted to Sam as a character: Really, it’s good advice for Game of Thrones’ theory-fixated audience, Occam’s razor applied to a show that needs no more unnecessarily complicated plot hypotheses.
Granted, Ebrose, in accepting Sam’s reports of White Walker activity beyond the Wall, appears to be acceding to a complex truth rather than a streamlined truth. The simplest explanation, as he puts it, is pretty damn abstruse. It means accepting the existence of an eldritch humanoid race with no allegiance to any governing body in the Seven Kingdoms, which means concurrently accepting the existence of the undead, which also means accepting the influence of magic upon reality. Asking people to buy what Sam’s selling as truth is a big ask. In Game of Thrones, Ebrose is endorsing what amounts to wild speculation based on coincidences and happy accidents submitted by a handful of “unconnected sources.”
For us, though, Sam’s exchange with Ebrose feels like a not-unintentional, if slightly indirect, message to viewers: Despite Game of Thrones’s reputation for unpredictability, the likeliest direction the show will follow is the most obvious direction. That’s a message worth heeding when it comes to a series that isn’t discussed or analyzed as much as it’s dissected; episode to episode, week to week, HBO’s fantasy epic begets thesis after thesis, conjecture after conjecture, regarding twists, surprises, potential plot courses, incoming character deaths, and too much else that has nothing to do with the actual content of the damn show. We’re too concerned, seven seasons into the narrative, about what-ifs and whens and who-bys, things that have yet to happen, and all at the expense of the things that actually have happened.
It’s not that Game of Thrones’ legions of recappers, fan scholars, and critics focus solely on outsmarting the show and predicting its moves as the manifold overarching plot grinds forward (or really, in the case of this season, pole vaults forward). You can find plenty of that all over the web. But those analyses must compete with all the content that’s adjacent to the thankless thought exercise of guessing, which admittedly is much easier to package and proliferate among the wide swath of readers willing to give their clicks over to the mindfully mindless amusement of prognosticating someone else’s fiction. To an extent, I get it. Placing bets on what “oh shit” moments will go down as we fly along through Game of Thrones’ penultimate season is, or at least can be, fun; playing detective and concluding that say, Roose Bolton is actually a skin changing vampire, or that the prince that was promised isn’t Daenerys, or Jon Snow, but actually Jaime Lannister, or Sandor Clegane, or fucking Hot Pie, or that Bran is actually Bran the Builder is a good way of tickling one’s brain, similar to watching cute cat videos or getting scorched.
But just like cute cat videos and weed, there’s a limit to how much theorycrafting a person should reasonably engage in before they’re putting themselves in mental danger, and frankly, Game of Thrones doesn’t give a good goddamn about the theorycrafting anyways. Yes, it’s true that the show gained traction over its first few outings for catching viewers off guard; nobody who’d never read any of George R.R. Martin’s novels prior to watching the show knew that Ned Stark, the prototypical fantasy hero, would be dead before the Season One finale, or that Robb would die on his own wedding day, or that Daenerys would foster a litter of dragons in a version of the genre apparently stripped of the accoutrements we expect from it. But we’re long past the point at which Game of Thrones’ initial tricks and deceptions work on us. We’re not only trained not to be shocked by the shocking—we now know to keep a step ahead of the story to sniff out the shocking before it occurs.
This probably best explains why we’re so fixated on figuring the series out. We cannot imagine how Game of Thrones will top itself in terms of taking us by surprise, and we cannot wait to find out, either, so we account for every detail that strikes us as off, or incongruous, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. Even Bernadette, Cersei’s longtime handmaiden, sets off red flags just by telling her lady that the Iron Bank is a-waiting on her, and that’s where we get nonsense like this, neither adding to Game of Thrones’ pleasures as a sort-of puzzlebox nor enhancing breakdowns of the show’s plots and themes. This isn’t good sleuthing. (Case in point: Per my counter-prediction, Arya took the most straightforward path and went back to Winterfell to enjoy a bitterly awkward family reunion.)
More egregiously, though, this doesn’t make for good viewing. The show has given us the only real clue we need to unlock its forthcoming revelations, disclosures and other various adumbrations: Ebrose’s kind but stern words to Sam, spoken at the outset of this season. We shouldn’t be subjecting Game of Thrones’ remaining narrative to overwhelming scrutiny, probing every line, mulling over every errant detail caught by the camera, poring over outside sources (you know: books) to calculate the next startling maneuver the series will make as it hurtles toward its climax, not because it can’t take that kind of scrutiny, but because it doesn’t care about that kind of scrutiny. Start expecting the expected.
Read Paste’s episodic reviews of Game of Thrones.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.