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Game of Thrones

HBO

The central conflict of Game of Thrones season 7 is clear. Other than the White Walkers threatening to steamroll all of Westeros, it’s Cersei and her haggard collection of Lannister allies (are there still Lannister allies?) facing off against the invading Daenerys Targaryen, who arrives with most of the Ironborn fleet, Dothraki hordes, and Unsullied warriors in tow, welcomed by both Dorne and Highgarden who hate the Lannisters just as much as her. Oh, and did I mention she has dragons, too?

Overlooking the fact that it does not seem like a terribly fair fight, Game of Thrones has now gotten us to a strange place where I’m…not sure who were supposed to be rooting for in this conflict. And more generally, I worry that the show has been killing off all its best villains to the point where now there are barely any left. Spoilers follow.

Once upon a time, Cersei would have been fine in this antagonist role, but after season 6, it’s become hard not to be pulling for her. Things turned a corner when she went toe-to-toe with the High Sparrow, arguably one of the series’ best villains to date, in my opinion. We empathized with her during her walk of shame (shame, shame), and we leapt out of our seats cheering when she blew up the Sept with the Sparrows and Tyrells and her own uncle inside during one of the greatest sequences in Game of Thrones history. Seriously, I need to watch that entire thing again right now.

In truth, there are no more Lannisters left to hate. Tyrion was always the “good one” of the bunch from the start, but eventually we started to like Jaime when he was paired with Brienne, and now it’s Cersei who has won us over. The two brilliant forces of pure Lannister evil, Tywin and Joffrey, have been dead for years now.

Game of Thrones

HBO

There’s an argument that we’re now supposed to see Dany as a villain, instead, but I don’t buy that either. No, it’s not the most responsible thing to do to set loose Dothraki hordes in Westeros and bring dragons back to the land, but Dany’s entire journey has made us want her to be queen, going from slave to supreme ruler. While I understand how logically she now has the goals and army of a supervillain that is still…simply who her character is. The vast majority of the audience doesn’t want her to fail.

I understand that heroes and villains don’t need to be black and white, especially in Game of Thrones where many characters are shades of grey, but the show has been defined by its great villains in the past, and there simply are not many of them left. The truly hate-able Lannisters are gone, as I said, but so is Alliser Thorne, Jon Snow’s complex rival in the north, Walder Frey, killed a bit anti-climatically by Arya last season after committing the worst atrocity on the show with the Red Wedding, and Stannis Baratheon, who went from noble crusader to cultish weirdo before his death at the hands of Brienne. And now even Roose and Ramsay Bolton are dead, the latter of which was the most evil character the show has ever seen, more so than even Joffrey had been.

Now there is…who, exactly? Let’s break this down:

Game of Thrones

HBO

Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish – If you asked me a few years ago, I would have said that Littlefinger was one of my favorite villains in the entire show, do to his ability to manipulate everyone around him. It seemed like he could be on the path to stealing the throne for himself, but season six lost me with his character. When he traded Sansa to the Boltons, he stopped making sense. It didn’t fit with the core of his character (he’s supposed to be in love with Sansa as a younger stand-in of Catelyn) and was a poor tactical decision as well as he barely got anything out of it (and now officially nothing, with the Boltons dead). I still have hope that he could be one of the show’s last great villains, but his characterization on the show in the last year or two has been way off, especially compared to the books where he’s a much more brilliant, relevant tactician, and feels like a true threat. Don’t believe me? Here’s an amazing 14,000 word essay describing the “mad genius” of Littlefinger from a few years back that I still can’t get out of my head. Where is this guy on the show?

Game of Thrones

HBO

Euron Greyjoy – I’ve read a bunch of interviews about Pilou Asbaek’s Euron that say he’s supposed to make Ramsay Bolton look downright sane with what he gets up to this season, but I’m having trouble believing he’s going to be as effective a chaotic evil villain as Ramsay or Joffrey have been for the show. So far, while he certainly doesn’t seem harmless, he’s not someone who is interesting enough to loathe. Perhaps that will change this season, but I don’t think the show has laid a terribly good base for him to be a hugely important villain, and if his goal is tormenting poor Theon again, we’ve been there and done already.

Game of Thrones

HBO

The Sand Snakes – The Sand Snakes are essentially the Jar Jar Binks of the Game of Thrones universe at this point. Do we want them to die? Yes. Do we want them to die because they’re effective villains? Absolutely not. We just hate them because they’re poorly written, often poorly acted characters, and somehow the show took a bad book storyline and made it worse onscreen.

Game of Thrones

HBO

The White Walkers – Sure, the White Walkers work as a looming threat that may doom the entire world, but they’re also a weird set of villains for a show that is based on painstaking character development. To have such great villains like Tywin and Ramsay and the rest, these guys simply existing as “boogeymen” are a different class of bad guy that almost doesn’t fit in with the rest of the world. They’re ice demons, they raise zombie armies, they must take over the world. But I mean what else are ice demons going to do? This is one place where Game of Thrones, the political, back-stabbing drama, doesn’t really fit with Game of Thrones, the high fantasy story. We’re destined to get a cool dragons vs. Walkers battle at some point, and the Night’s King is certainly the most “dangerous” bad guy of all, but it’s a different sort of evil that doesn’t fit in on a list like this.

These are…really the only contenders I can even come up with at this point. The books might have given us Lady Stoneheart as another villain, but she’s been cut from the show, and I could see say, Sam’s dad, Randyll Tarly, as a good bad guy if his role was beefed up, but the current selection is pretty limited.

But maybe that’s kind of the point. Maybe we’ve had villains turn into heroes for so long, it’s time for some of them to turn back. It’s easy to want Jon to kill Ramsay or Sansa to kill Joffrey. But what happens when the show turns characters we like against each other? What if it’s Brienne vs. Jaime to the death. Cersei vs. Daenerys for the throne? Hell, we might even see Jon vs. Sansa. That could work, or it could destroy years of work building these characters, it would be a big gamble.

I do think we have moved out of the golden age of great Game of Thrones villains however. The show has given us some of TV’s best bad guys over the years, but our heroes have gotten enough revenge at this point where almost all of them are now extinct, and the leftovers don’t look so scary.

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