Game of Thrones finally put a humanizing face on the war for the Iron Throne in Sunday's "The Spoils of War", when Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the Lannister army faced off against Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), Drogon and the Dothraki horde in an epic battle that culminated with Jaime sinking to the bottom of a body of water. The good news is, despite appearances, he probably won't die. The bad news is, we didn't know who we were supposed to be rooting for.
It's always been easy to support Daenerys' claim for the Iron Throne against someone as mad and cruel as Cersei (Lena Headey), especially when everyone of note was removed from the danger. But with the lives of Jaime — a complicated but beloved character — and Bronn (Jerome Flynn) — a true fan favorite — on the line, it became impossible to root for Daenerys to succeed, even after Bronn injured Drogon during battle. Because, while we naturally root for her character, from a certain perspective it is possible to see her as an invader who is trying to claim what she thinks is hers largely because of the family she happened to be born into and not because of her individual merits or strengths as a leader.
By physically pitting these fan favorite characters against one another on the battlefield, the abstract has also become reality. Game of Thrones is no longer just moving pieces around a giant map of Westeros. These are no longer just nameless and faceless soldiers fighting and dying in the names of our heroes, but men and women with whom we have come to empathize and understand to be capable of moral complexities. When something like this happens, we are forced to finally confront the atrocities of war and examine the human costs of battles like this one. We must ask ourselves if what we're really fighting for is right, because while Jaime and Bronn fight for the perceived enemy and are guilty of their own evil acts, they are not without merit or undeserving of compassion. Their lives — and by extension the lives of the men who fight alongside them — are not somehow less valuable than Daenerys' life because of their sins or the circumstances in which they've found themselves.
The morally gray space occupied by characters like Jaime and Bronn within Game of Thrones' expansive narrative is what elevates the show's storytelling from simply interesting to emotionally compelling and challenging. Sure, when the weapons are pointed at morally depraved individuals like Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) or the slave owners of Essos, it's cathartic to watch them be beaten at their own games and thrilling to watch them burn under dragon fire. But the universe in which the series operates is rarely drawn with such hard lines. It's not always as simple as good vs. evil. In fact, most characters are not written to be black or white, but exist as complex individuals who've been forced into the gray by the difficult choices life has forced upon them. As a result, over time, the lines between the show's traditional heroes and villains have become increasingly blurred as characters have grown and revealed themselves to contain multitudes.
Jaime is perhaps the most obvious example of this. In Season 7, he is not the man he appeared to be at the beginning of the series, when he pushed a young Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) from a tower to keep his incestuous relationship with Cersei a secret. He hasn't been that man in a long time — at least since Season 3, when the time he spent with Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) revealed Jaime to be a conflicted man whose truth has been twisted by appearances. Jaime is not without his flaws, but even while forced to bear the weight of the judgment of the Seven Kingdoms for most of his life, he's been trying to be a better man than his birth name has allowed him to be. These are the things that make him a compelling character to watch.
Of course, Jaime's redemption arc hasn't been without its pitfalls; his continued relationship and association with the monstrous Cersei has made it difficult for him to completely redeem himself. But drowned at the bottom of a body of water while his younger brother (Peter Dinklage) looks on simply cannot be the end to Jaime's incredible journey. Even if we ignore the many theories that Jaime will be Cersei's undoing — and the foreshadowing that she will be his — the truth is, Jaime Lannister's death will not be wasted. He is far too important to the narrative to disappear in this manner, especially when it's unknown if he was able to deliver Olenna Tyrell's (Diana Rigg) final message regarding Joffrey's death to Cersei. Basically, he still has much to do before he can shuffle off this mortal coil.
But while it's unlikely that this is the end of the road for Jaime, unfortunately there's no real reason to believe Bronn survived rescuing Jaime from Drogon's fire. The episode foreshadowed his death when Bronn insisted on receiving his promised reward of a castle and Jaime told him he could have his pick of the empty castles once they'd won the war. It's a truth that's perhaps too sad to bear, for Bronn was the comedic gift that kept on giving in these difficult times. But without casualties and consequences of a certain magnitude, the stakes of Daenerys' attack are lessened to almost zero. And as the series builds to the upcoming war for mankind, we must begin to prepare ourselves to say goodbye to many beloved characters, because not everyone is going to survive. Based on what we've seen so far this season, these battles are only going to become bigger and more deadly. As more characters we love clash in the war for the Iron Throne, it's likely only going to become more complicated to know which side to choose.
Of course, maybe we won't have to worry about any of this at all, since no one seems to be all that concerned that the White Walkers are coming. Sorry, Jon.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.