Game of Thrones first made a name for itself by forcing viewers to reconcile the complicated choices of its characters with preconceived notions of how heroes and villains are supposed to act within the confines of fantasy blockbusters. As it progressed, the series pivoted toward more conventional depictions of good and evil, but at least one character continued to reflect and embody the complicated, morally gray nature of the series: Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
Introduced as a roguishly handsome knight who would push a child (Isaac Hempstead Wright) from a tower to cover up his incestuous relationship with his twin sister Cersei (Lena Headey), Jaime initially appeared to be a fairly typical villain. But over the course of seven seasons he has slowly revealed himself to have hidden depths that few viewers (though not book readers, mind you) could have predicted. He has been on a slow road toward redemption for years yet has always inevitably returned to Cersei's side, halting whatever progress he'd made. However, by choosing the greater good of humanity over Cersei's delusions of grandeur and their family legacy in the Season 7 finale, Jaime has finally severed ties with the worst version of himself.
It's no secret that Cersei has always exaggerated Jaime's darkest tendencies. His actions at Winterfell in Season 1, for instance, were all in the name of his passionate feelings for Cersei. As he pushed Bran out the window he literally said, "The things I do for love." It was this obsessive love that repeatedly pulled Jaime down to the dark depths of wickedness, initially giving off the impression that he was truly beyond the limits of human decency. However, later seasons would prove that when Jaime is removed from Cersei's powerful sway, he is a troubled man with a compromised moral compass, and one who is not completely beyond redemption.
While traveling to King's Landing as a captive of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) in Season 3, Jaime saved her from being gang-raped by men from House Bolton. He would also later risk his life to return to Harrenhal where she was being held captive, though he himself had just been set free. Although his decision was partly driven by a sense of obligation, their travels together had led to the formation of a relationship based on mutual respect. It was also during his travels with Brienne that Jaime would come to confess his deepest secret and reveal himself to be one of the most complicated men in Westeros.
It was widely known across the Seven Kingdoms that Jaime had killed the last Targaryen to sit on the Iron Throne, the "Mad King" Aerys II, despite being a member of his protective unit, the Kingsguard. His actions earned him the derisive nickname Kingslayer and a lifetime of people accusing him of being an oath breaker. However, contrary to appearances, Jaime did not selfishly break his oath in order to save his father's life. In a moving scene, an anguished Jaime revealed to Brienne what really happened the day he earned his moniker.
"Once again I came to the king, begging him to surrender," Jaime said, recalling the day the Lannister army sacked the city they'd just promised to protect. "He told me to bring him my father's head. Then he turned to his pyromancer. 'Burn them all,' he said. 'Burn them in their homes, burn them in their beds.'"
"Tell me, if your precious Renly commanded you to kill your own father and stand by while thousands of men, women and children were burned alive, would you have done it? Would you have kept your oath then?" he asked a stunned Brienne. "First, I killed the pyromancer, and then when the king turned to flee I drove my sword into his back. 'Burn them all,' he kept saying. 'Burn them all.' I don't think he expected to die; he meant to burn with the rest of us and rise again, reborn as a dragon, and turn his enemies to ash. I slit his throat to make sure that didn't happen. That's where Ned Stark found me."
Jaime's literal nakedness in the scene, which took place in a bath, added to the vulnerability of the moment. It marked a turning point for Jaime's character, and for viewers' opinions of his character. He was no longer just a selfish man out for self-preservation. The knowledge that his actions had actually saved the people of King's Landing but burdened him with the weight of being labeled a traitor revealed a man in terrible conflict, one who was constantly battling against expectations.
Jaime's revelation also painted him as something of a tragic hero, making him a much more compelling character in the process. Until that point, he had remained the picture of Lannister arrogance and cruelty. He taunted the Starks, even as he was imprisoned by Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and Robb (Richard Madden). He went so far as to murder his cousin to escape captivity, proving his family loyalty only went so far. But the knowledge of what really happened during the Sack of King's Landing pulled back the layers of emotional armor Jaime wore as a Lannister and a member of the Kingsguard, and it revealed that he wasn't everything he appeared to be on the outside.
Of course, his confession didn't erase or forgive his many transgressions — he was still a murderer and a man who pushed a child from a tower to conceal his own dirty secrets — but it did force viewers to take a deeper look at a man they thought they had pegged as being a compassionless a--hole.
It's obvious Jaime has never been a good, honorable man in the vein of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) or his spiritual successor Jon Snow (Kit Harington), especially in light of his rape of Cersei in Season 4 (the writers of the episode said the scene was not intended to be rape, but viewers on a whole differed). It's also likely he'll never be able to fully atone for his sins, many of which were accrued through his relationship with Cersei. But despite his actions — and the fact he continued to stand by Cersei's side long after it was clear she was a monster --Jaime was also trying to be better.
This is why, when the series pit Jaime against Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) on the battlefield in Season 7's "The Spoils of War," we no longer knew who it was we were actually supposed to be rooting for. That battle forced us to once again confront our complicated feelings about the man Jaime had become.
But now all of that appears to be changing; Jaime chose to head North in the finale instead of sticking with Cersei and their new, growing fetus. While Cersei may be perfectly happy letting the army of the dead and the armies of the North potentially wipe one another out, Jaime saw the implications of backing out of their deal. It wasn't just that they'd eventually have to do battle against whoever won the war with the dead; Jaime had made a promise and wasn't willing to compromise his integrity for the sake of Cersei or the Lannister name. He understood there is more at stake than just who's on the Iron Throne, something that Cersei still hasn't been able to grasp.
By calling back to the first time Jaime wasn't willing to let millions of people die when he could at least try to prevent it Game of Thrones has made it clear once again that Jaime has always been better than he appeared on the outside. So while Cersei's single-minded ambitions only drove her to slip further into more traditional villain territory as Game of Thrones progressed, Jaime's struggles pushed him in the opposite direction.
He's done bad things but is now trying to rectify his mistakes through better, smarter choices. Cutting ties with Cersei is a good start because it means he's also severing ties with the worst version of himself. He may still be a mess of often conflicting actions, and he may not survive the war against the dead, but he has finally chosen a life of integrity. He's finally, visibly on the right side in what has become an increasingly terrifying and unjust world. And that's progress.
Game of Thrones returns for its eighth and final season in 2019.