This story contains spoilers through Season 8, Episode 1 of Game of Thrones.
“I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.”
Sansa Stark may as well have been speaking for the audience as she dissed Tyrion Lannister during Game of Thrones’ Season 8 premiere. In a show full of schemers, Tyrion’s ruses once not only had a tendency to work, but also carried an element of righteousness: He was smart, and he was good. He smoked out a rat in King’s Landing; he wheedled himself and others out of bullies’ chains and prison cells; he engineered a special riding saddle for Bran. “My brother has his sword, and I have my mind,” Tyrion said to a sullen new ally in Season 1. “And a mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone. That’s why I read so much, Jon Snow.”
Maybe he’s stopped reading. Sansa dismisses him as not so clever in this recent episode due to his belief that Cersei Lannister, the most venal and cruel ruler in Westeros, would keep her vow to help her enemies, the Targaryens and the Starks, defeat the army of the undead. In the previous season’s finale, this promise was revealed as a bluff nearly as soon as it was made, with Cersei spelling out her obvious, self-interested logic in private to Jaime, the brother she loves. No one should be more familiar with that sort of logic than the brother she’s long despised. Yet Tyrion has fallen for her ruse and persuaded Queen Daenerys to stake her armies on it.
It’s the latest in a line of blunders. My colleague Chris Orr listed them in his Season 8 preview: “Tyrion hasn’t had a good idea in seasons now (truce with the slaver cities? sneak attack on Casterly Rock? let’s go snatch a zombie?).” Each of these wasn’t a mere dicey gamble whose upsides were mixed with downsides. They each backfired terribly, with consequences for his new queen, Daenerys, and the cause of liberation and world-saving she’s thought to represent. She’s lost soldiers, cities, and a dragon on his account.
He, in turn, has lost not only his cunning, but also his place within the show’s hierarchy of characters. In the first few seasons, Tyrion could nearly be thought of as the protagonist. He defended his life and his principles in the face of his family’s villainous plotting and the prejudices he faced for being born a dwarf. That arc saw him bonding with other underestimated sorts—Bran, Jon, Sansa—while trying to curb the excesses of the entitled Joffrey, Cersei, and Tywin. His family marked him for death; he took his horrible father’s life; he escaped by getting smuggled across the sea in a crate. But since bursting out of that box—seemingly a moment of final liberation from the Lannister yoke—he’s held an oddly diminished place on the show.
Part of the problem must be that he’s a mere adviser now, so he’s helping rather than driving action. That doesn’t explain why his advice is bad, though. Thrones has repeatedly showed that Tyrion’s instincts have been faltering, but it hasn’t offered up a theory for why. Maybe it’s been hinting at one, though: love.
In the Season 7 finale, Tyrion skulked outside the door while Daenerys and Jon consummated their love. It looked like he was jealous—and indeed, information in the official Game of Thrones scripts as well as an interview with the actor Peter Dinklage basically confirm that Tyrion has a crush on her. This crush might result in plot complications as Jon and Daenerys’s relationship and loyalties are tested in episodes to come. But perhaps it explains Tyrion’s general glumness so far in Season 8. On the ramparts of Winterfell, he, Davos, and Varys look down on Jon and Dany. Davos proposes that the two leaders should get married for the good of the realm. Tyrion has only this to offer: “They do make a handsome couple.”
If Tyrion is resentful of Jon and Dany, a comment like that one—about appearance—might indicate that it’s resentment tied to his status as physically different from others. Jon and Dany originally appealed to him as friends because they, too, were underdogs—a bastard and an exiled sex slave—who’d worked to transcend their lot. By now, the two of them are royalty, lovebirds, and dragon riders. Tyrion is on the sidelines, kvetching with two other advisory figures who, in their way, are phenotypically marginalized, too. Davos is an old man—much older than Tyrion, as Tyrion goes out of his way to point out. Varys is a eunuch (unlike Tyrion, as Tyrion, again, goes out of his way to point out).
The very first dialogue of Season 8, indeed, hints that Tyrion’s been stewing on bodies and marginality. Tyrion quips that Varys doesn’t have balls to freeze off, to which Varys poses this: “You take great offense at dwarf jokes, but love telling eunuch jokes. Why is that?” Tyrion’s response: “Because I have balls, and you don’t.” It’s a juvenile punch line, but you could read more into it: an assertion of his virility. That assertion takes on an especially acidic edge with the knowledge that he’s been feeling like a third wheel to the most important, blossoming affair in the realm.
One could then speculate that jealousy informed some of his botched schemes. The mission to grab a Wight endangered Jon, and Tyrion counseled against Dany going to save him. The truce with Cersei—secured in a private meeting between the two Lannister siblings after Jon’s unwillingness to lie about his loyalties derailed the negotiation—would seem to have shored up Tyrion’s value to Dany.
But the odd thing about this reading is that throughout the eight seasons, viewers were never led to think of Tyrion as petty. Tywin once called him a “spiteful little creature full of envy, lust, and low cunning,” and even if that description drew on a kernel of truth, Tyrion’s actions have repeatedly shown how conscientiousness can sit alongside and even be powered by baser traits. If he’s been poisoned by envy—for Dany’s love, and for the heroic agency Jon has been able to access lately—it’s a sad and somewhat inexplicable turn for a beloved character. The show hasn’t earned it.
Of course, the malaise that appears to be swamping Tyrion may well turn out to be one last obstacle in a valiant journey. Transcendence, or sacrifice in the name of love and country, could be on the way. But there’s a possibility of darker tragedy. Cersei has dispatched Tyrion’s old buddy Bronn to assassinate both Lannister brothers, and it’s exactly the kind of evil plot that Tyrion once would have been able to foresee and thwart. But his mind seems clouded lately. Is it so impossible that a crossbow bolt may end up in his broken heart?