The Curious Case of Samwell Tarly

My favorite scene ever from Game of Thrones is from an unlikely source. During Season 1, Episode 5 (“The Lion and the Wolf”) King Robert Baratheon and Queen Cersei have a private conversation. During this meeting, and probably because Rob is half in the bag, an enormous amount of untold truth about their relationship is put on display between them and the viewers. Quiet, bold, harsh and biting, the scene is beautifully acted by Mark Addy and Lena Heady, respectfully. They do a painfully visceral dance of two people that fully acknowledge that their in a sham marriage. If not a sham marriage, damn sure a failed one.

“What harm could Leanna Stark’s ghost do to either of us that we haven’t done to each other 100 times over?”

“How long can hate hold a thing together?”

“Eventually, it became clear that my spite didn’t mean anything to you. As far as I can tell, you actually enjoyed it.”

Ouch. These words cut deeply and the actors leave the verbal sparring session both wounded and bloodied. I think this interaction is finally what led Cersei to killing Rob or, at least, making the idea of killing Rob feel comfortable.

This scene is the apex of what Game of Thrones can offer without relying on bare breast and dragons. There’s no sword swinging, no decapitation, no blood. Hell, there’s not even yelling. They shifted from military strategy (which King Rob was ultimately correct about; they should’ve killed Daenerys before she gained power) to the ghosts of their current relationship. Both actors are smart and tactful. They use their physical mannerisms concurrently with their words like a boxer evading a jab and throwing a devastating uppercut. Throughout the first six seasons of Thrones, there are numerous examples of how dialogue more so than action actually carry the show. The humorous banter between Tyrion and Bronn for numerous seasons, when Jaime tells Brienne the truth about the Mad King in the bath house, how Arya learns from all of her different teachers on her journey to becoming a fierce killer. The establishment of relationships and feuds is what fueled the show. With the most recent season, some feel the show has taken a step back. We were given big action but very little substance. But is this season as bad as people say it is?

Before this summer, news broke of how Season 7 and 8 would be the final seasons of Thrones. While saddening, it was understandable. However, what was odd was the announcement of the number of episodes in each season. Season 7 was set to only have seven episodes while the 8th is only set to have six. With the previous six seasons at ten episodes apiece, there was plenty of room for dialogue and reflection from every character in every story line, much like the scene with Rob and Cersei. With the constraints of being limited to only seven episodes, a lot of the weightiness of the show was cut back. This forced stories to be pushed quicker than they typically would’ve been in the past. For example, during the “Eastwatch” episode, Tyrion sneaks into King’s Landing and has a secret meeting with Jaime. During this episode, we only see a basic interaction between the characters; two brothers that haven’t seen each other since the murder of their father aren’t shown going into much depth about anything and it’s baffling. Maybe that was done to keep the interaction a secret to be revealed next season, but, for now, it feels like this meeting would’ve been completely drawn out. Other than particular scenes falling to the wayside, we’ve seen full on characters and story lines take critical hits. Where was Varys during the finale? Why didn’t Brienne have a larger role with the Stark’s? What the hell happened to the people of Dorne? To me, none was more surprising than the fall of the lovable underdog Samwell Tarly.

Perhaps the sweetest and sensitive person in all the Seven Kingdoms, Sam started as a gentle but awkward coward. On his journey, we’ve seen him challenge his fears, his doubters and himself to become to a mildly ballsy hero. Sent to the Citadel to find a way for killing the White Walkers, Samwell finds himself in, literal, deep shit. As opposed to being tasked with great discovery and research, he performs daily janitorial duties and book fetching for actual maesters, a far cry from slaying the undead. What makes Sam’s story this season so baffling is how the maesters are underwhelming and how untrue to form Tarly turned out to be.

During “Eastwatch”, the Citadel receives word from Brandon Stark that the Army of the Dead is prepping their march. Oddly enough, even though these are learned individuals, they don’t seem to be very receptive to this news. For men that have dedicated their lives to studying the history of the realm, they don’t seem to know anything about the Three-eyed Raven or the Children of the Forest. The maesters want to confirm the authenticity of the scroll, but impatient Sam cannot wait. At night, Sam and Gilly privately study stolen scrolls and books (because why would the Citadel want people to actually learn anything?) to find the steps for stopping the White Walkers. During study, Gilly stumbles on the secret of all secrets, the truth of Jon’s origin. Unfortunately, the secret must wait because Samwell must vent his frustrations with the Citadel and how they won’t listen to him. Tarly basically mansplains to Gilly the fallacies of the maesters while she’s uncovering the greatest treasure in the show’s history. It isn’t until later that he realizes what Gilly discovered. All in all, Tarly’s story this season was disappointing at best. But, even with Sam’s time at the Citadel being rushed and seemingly underdeveloped, was it a bad thing?

Samwell is smart and calculated, but he’s at his very best when he acts in hast. His raw instinct is what saved him, Gilly and Sam Jr. from the White Walker and it’s what gave him the courage to leave his father’s home after he grossly insulted the couple. His decision to leave the Citadel, even though they would’ve confirmed Bran’s message eventually, was valid because the maesters were not true believers of the danger that lies ahead. Also, even though Sam is a good man, I still think that it’s not that absurd that he mansplained to Gilly because he’s still… a man. I think the love they share is unquestionable but it is fair to question if Sam sees Gilly as an intellectual equal. When they both first arrive at the Citadel, women are strictly forbidden from entering. That indicates the Citadel is potentially more of a male think tank (a white male, to be honest; ain’t no Dothrakis in that bitch) than a place where ideas can be challenged at all angles. Since it’s more than fair to assume that maesters do not view women as intellectual equals, we can honestly question if Samwell feels the same way. During the conversation with Bran about Jon’s origin, Tarly expressly took credit for Gilly’s discovery. While disheartening, this is a lesson that every Game of Thrones fan should’ve learned since Season 1: every single character is flawed. We love Arya, but we ignore the fact that the trauma of watching her father die caused her to become a vigilante/serial killer. We love Jon because he’s a fearsome warrior but he is woefully inept when it comes to actual war strategy. We love Sam but he has a slight touch of misogyny while battling his own insecurities.

My favorite podcast this year is Binge Mode, courtesy of It’s hosted by the jovial and thoughtful Mallory Rubin and Jason Concepcion. The premise of the podcast is dissecting every Thrones episode individually while also including information and history from the books. For their last episode (click here), at the 1:39:40 mark, Jason offers a touching and sincere plea to the writers and producers of the show to improve upon the quality of the writing. While I agree with Jason and Mallory (please listen; it’s very moving stuff) that the writing has suffered, I’m just not sure if you can draw blood from the stone anymore. The emotional depth that was built over these last seven years by characters that we grew to love (and hate) has served a great purpose, but it’s all led to this moment. Now, this tale of family, honor and corruption has to conclude. A question that Thrones fans have to wrestle with is, was the rushed season worth it? To me, it was. The producers of the show either had to draw out these final seasons and possibly stretch some story lines too thin or compact everything to get to new plot points and conclusions quickly. I’m not upset they chose the latter. We didn’t really need three episodes of Sam trying to cure Jorja’s greyscale. Even though the show handled it like Tarly was doing a quick oil change, we didn’t need to wade through a process of trial and error. A lot of people were critical of the relationship between Arya and Sansa for a majority of the season, but the season finale was so satisfying that the build up was absolutely worth it. Ultimately, the end did justify the means. While I do think that we will look back at Season 7 as a pleasing thrill ride with some hiccups, I do hope Season 8 can find a healthy balance between the thrill and the story. We know that the zombie dragons will be there, but it’s the people that we truly love. Let’s not forget them.


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