When we last saw Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, in the final episode of Season 7 (nearly a year and a half ago!), he was lingering in the shadows, his shoulders slumped in disappointment as he watched his queen, Daenerys Targaryen, and their ally Jon Snow engage in some rather enthusiastic accidental incest. Sidelined, desexualized, and overcome with worry, Tyrion’s was a position more familiar to the castrated spymaster Varys—not coincidentally the figure the black-sheep Lannister had spent the most time with for the past two seasons as the pair crossed continents in search of Daenerys’ favor. Tyrion once loomed largest among the HBO drama’s approximately 17 million characters, serving as the show’s default protagonist (and garnering the actor who plays him, Peter Dinklage, three Emmy wins, another four nominations, and a Golden Globe). But that brief moment in the finale seemed to confirm the second-banana status of Daenerys’ recently promoted hand. How did the fan favorite—the character most beloved by author George R.R. Martin himself—lose his place in the spotlight? And is Game of Thrones better for that loss?
It’s easy to see why Tyrion became the show’s first breakout character. We were always meant to identify with the youngest Lannister, an aristocratic dwarf whose out-of-placeness in Westerosi society made him an underdog hero. Weak but wealthy, smart but softhearted, Tyrion’s ever-variable status was a microcosm of the instability of the Seven Kingdoms. It’s hard to understate how radical the character still is in terms of the representation of little people, as Dinklage—one of the few known actors in the cast upon the show’s debut—threw every ounce of sexual charisma and merlot-dry wit he had at the screen. Above all, Tyrion was instantly worth rooting for on a show that became infamous for its brutality (or, some might rightly argue, its sadism), because he offered hope that just because a person came from this bleak place didn’t mean they had to be of it. He refused to sleep with Sansa after their forced marriage in Season 3. He’s one of the few royals who spares a thought for the common people as fellow human beings. And he slapped Joffrey—more than once!—thus giving the audience what we most craved at the time.
But as every nattering no-name whose violent opportunism leads to their bloody downfall can attest, Game of Thrones does not have a lot of character types. The storylines and roles that made Tyrion so beloved were replicated in later seasons, often with far more depth. After setting up his younger brother with a prostitute when they were teens (with the woman posing as the victim of a crime who Tyrion would help “rescue”), Jaime turned out to be the show’s most tragic romantic. And Jaime’s surprisingly tender friendship with his former captor Brienne of Tarth supplanted Tyrion and Bronn’s contentious alliance as the series’ most memorable buddy-comedy pairing. A survive-at-all-costs Cersei has emerged as the Lannister whose death we’ll mourn most (don’t @ me), while bookish Samwell Tarly took over as the nerdy male-audience surrogate who gets with girls far more conventionally attractive than he is.
At the end of Season 4, Tyrion accomplishes what he’s seemed destined to do from birth: killing his dick of a dad, Tywin Lannister. Game of Thrones hasn’t given him much to do in the three seasons since. His adventures with Varys abroad turned out to be a wan sequel to his swashbuckling with sellsword Bronn, whose transactional friendship constantly tested the limits of what Tyrion could buy with his family’s money. His long-awaited meeting with Daenerys led to a new role in the fight for the Iron Throne, but his military tactics, which saved King’s Landing from Stannis’ invasion in Season 2’s Battle of the Blackwater, cost the Dothraki queen several crucial allies by Season 7. Meanwhile, botched attempts at levity, like the scene in which Tyrion teaches Grey Worm and Missandei how to make a joke, have only underscored how alarmingly underdeveloped the show’s darker-skinned characters are and always have been. Even Dinklage’s rakish charm is no match for the Daenerys Narrative Prison of Waiting Around Doing Nothing in an Intriguingly Angular but Implausibly Empty Set and Occasionally Visiting Her Dragons (aka the DNPWADNIAIESOVHD).
Dinklage’s ability to sell Tyrion as a boozer and a whorer has always been about as believable as his mushy English accent; he has too intellectual a mien for that. (“I drink and I know things” feels about half right.) The Lannister’s DGAF libertinism has always struck me as that of a poor rich boy putting on an act, like a trust-fund kid who never showers to show everyone how real he is. Still, after his act of patricide, it would have been more fitting to see Tyrion live out the rest of his years as an anonymous barkeep in sunny Dorne, laughing to keep from crying when a traveling troupe of actors reenact his family’s many tragedies as farce. Sure, he’s still got things to teach Dany, like when he reminds her, “Killing and politics aren’t always the same thing.” But if we want modern enlightenment to win out over medieval superstition in the end, Tyrion’s partnership with the seemingly unstoppable Daenerys isn’t going to make the crusade for those values any more suspenseful. At this juncture, it seems like the show might have felt tauter, and no less resonant, if we’d seen as much of the post-Tywin Tyrion as we have of Hot Pie.
Game of Thrones once sought to subvert heroic tropes: Ned Stark set up his own execution because he was too much of a Good Guy. Tyrion’s rise on the show fit that project; he wasn’t morally conflicted enough to be an antihero, but he certainly validated, if not glamorized, beta-male softness. But with humanity’s survival at stake, the show has realigned its priorities, and anyone without an army at their disposal is relegated to also-ran. Tyrion’s once-distinct mix of radical empathy and bright-eyed ambition now seems perpetually shrouded in the shadow of Daenerys’ dragons. He’s strived for heroism, but heroism no longer has a place for him.