Game of Unknowns or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Game of Thrones On a Remedial Level

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The following essay almost certainly contains spoilers for the Season 7 finale of Game of Thrones. Unless I got all the details wrong.

Game of Thrones is a show with thousands of castmembers, hundreds of whom have speaking parts. There are seven kingdoms, each with complex and thorough backstories and lineages. There are mystical creatures and witches and knights; zombies and dragons and giants. Some of the characters have multiple nicknames, for example: Daenerys Targaryen, who is known at various times as Dany, Khaleesi, the Mother of Dragons, The Silver Queen, Dragonmother, and Daenyerys Stormborn. There’s a group of warriors—the Dothraki—who even speak their own language. And the characters all have tongue-twisty names like Aegon Targaryen and Stannis Baratheon and Jaqen H’ghar.

As far as I can tell, there are three basic types of Game of Thrones viewers. There are the people who read the books, who follow the show with Talmudic attention to detail, who know arcane facts about dragonglass and direwolves and Valyrian steel, who could easily draw you a map of the Seven Kingdoms, and who can recite, by heart, the names, character traits, battles won and lost, and love affairs of multiple generations of Westeros’ seven major families.

Then there are those who never read the books but watch the show with similar closeness, who tune in to Game of Thrones podcasts and after-shows and who spend time on Reddit threads and various other message boards to dissect and analyze and obsess over each show. For these people, no detail is too minute, no character too minor, no snippet of dialogue spoken too passingly.

And then there are various degrees of folks like me, although I confess I’m a particularly hopeless case. I watch the show the way a small child watches one of those cartoons that contain lots of inside jokes for parents—easily half, if not more, of the plot goes over my head. I’d say that I’m playing checkers while the rest of y’all are playing chess, except checkers might be too sophisticated a game for my level of comprehension. Frankly, Tic-Tac-Toe might be a better analogy.

Take a few recent examples: A couple of episodes back, the scheming Littlefinger planted a letter, once written by Lady Sansa, in a place where her assassin kid sister Arya would surely find it. That particular show ended with Arya reading the letter. My first thought: What a cliffhanger! What could possibly be in that letter? Meanwhile, readers of the books and close watchers of the show already knew what was in that letter: It was the letter evil queen Cersei had demanded Sansa write, forcing her to pledging fealty to the Lannisters and blaming her father Ned Stark for his own death. Oh yeah, I thought, when I was reminded of all this on Twitter, that letter.

Another, perhaps even more embarrassing example: Recently, a group of seven of warriors went in pursue of the White Walkers or “wights” (honestly, I think White Walkers and “wights” are the same thing, but this could be another one of my gaps). All of Twitter was abuzz with talk of the “Magnificent Seven” and the “Dream Team.” But of the seven, I only knew four really well and the fifth guy I was a little sketchy on: There was Jon Snow (major character! Him I know!), Tormund (whom I call the “curiously hot ginger Wilding guy who was also in Force Majeure”), the knight Jorah (aka Dany’s bitch), the Hound (he’s kind of hard to miss), and Gendry, the one I was a bit sketchy on (I have some dim recollection of him being Robert Baratheon’s bastard son and also being seduced/tortured by the witch Melisandre, unless that was actually his lookalike, the kindly squire Podrick, who I think has an enormous shlong). It’s the two other guys I want to talk about because this is what really separates the chess players from us tic-tac-toe players. I had no idea who they were. Eventually, it became clear to me that one was a drunken preacher with the power to raise the dead and the other was a guy I vaguely remember he resurrected a bunch of times? Maybe in a cave? But I couldn’t recall how or why, or what either character’s connection to the larger plot was. And more to the point, I didn’t care.

Upon hearing this, serious Game of Thrones fans would no doubt be shocked or appalled—or both. But honestly, you have no idea how much fun it is to watch this show on a surface level. You still get lots of great acting and unchecked debauchery and awesome battles. There are still zombies and dragons. And you have a pretty solid understanding of the major characters and their motivations in any given scene. Every once in a while, you’re completely lost, but at that point you either tune out until the next scene, accept the fact that you have the comprehension of a small, helpless child, or, if you’re feeling particularly need-to-know-y, use Twitter or Google for additional insight.

Which brings me to this season. Much as I’ve loved Game of Thrones, I’ve always found it frustrating that most of the major characters are rarely in the same geographical region as each other, let alone the same room. This year, partly because the show is on an accelerated timeline (it’s ending next season) and partly because it has finally whizzed past George R.R. Martin’s painstakingly mapped out books, all that has changed. There have been reunions galore—Sansa and Jon, Sansa and Arya, Arya and the she-knight Brienne of Tarth, Bran and his sisters, all the dueling (and shagging) Lannisters, and so on. And characters we’ve long wanted to meet—hello, Dany and Jon!—have finally met and proceeded to get it on (all while buzzkill Bran calmly informed us that Dany is, in fact, Jon’s aunt). It’s been extremely satisfying. Some have complained that this is all akin to fan fiction, but it turns out I’m okay with expensively mounted fan fiction, as long as the acting is still great, the dialogue still clever, the stakes, both personal and political, still high, and the special effects still extraordinary.

What’s more, there have been grumblings on Twitter and elsewhere that the show has thrown away its sense of time and place in service of plot. Characters do seem to get from one part of Westeros to the other in record speed—I’m still not sure how Gendry ran all the way to Dragonstone, for example. Other reveals—the fact that Sansa and Arya weren’t really at each other’s throats, but were secretly conspiring against Littlefinger, for example; or a fake out involving Euron Greyjoy pretending to leave King’s Landing—seem less about logic than about creating awesome drama. Again I say—bring it on! With a few exceptions, this is the first season of Game of Thrones that I’ve been able to largely comprehend. Plus—zomg!— zombies vs dragons! Crumbling walls! Undead polar bears! Dragons that are zombies! After seven seasons, they’ve made Game of Throne for Idiots and this idiot, for one, couldn’t be happier.

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