Despite some vocal complaints over the last few “Game of Thrones” episodes, what truly sets the series apart is its considered character development, its knack for taking them to places viewers might have never expected. Here’s a look back at a few of the more interesting arcs, tracing their often twisting paths from series beginning to series end, so naturally, there are spoilers ahead.
Character: Arya Stark (Maisie Williams)
Relationships: Daughter of Ned and Catelyn, sister of Robb, Sansa, Bran and Rickon; adoptive sister of Jon Snow
Story arc: Move over, Steph Curry: There’s a new Baby-Faced Assassin, and she is bona fide. One might have suspected from the beginning, when she was a scrappy 11-year-old playing at toy swords, she would learn to use the real thing someday. Still, her eventual apprenticeship with a secret society of assassins had to come as a surprise. The teen survivor of her family’s dire fate embarked on a Revenge Tour, slaughtering enemies by the dozens and then pulled off an act of humanity-saving heroism during the Battle of Winterfell. She started the show as a little girl and became one of the most lethal players on it.
Character: Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright)
Relationships: House Stark (but also kind of House of Mystery)
Story arc: Bran starts the series as an ebullient, wall-climbing 10-year-old, has his body broken and falls into a coma (see Jaime Lannister), then undergoes a spiritual journey to embody a mystical force called the Three-Eyed Raven. His thousand-yard stare sees through time and space, and maybe into souls. No, this isn’t another Dark Phoenix story (“Dark Phoenix,” starring sister Sansa Stark, in theaters this summer) … yet. But Bran has, in a family that includes a resurrected-from-the-dead brother and a kid assassin, managed to become “The Weird Stark.”
Character: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)
Relationships: Daughter of Aerys II (the Mad King, deceased) and Rhaella (deceased); sister of Rhaegar (deceased) and Viserys (very deceased); aunt to Aegon (deceased, wait – no – alive and her lover)
Story arc: Soon after she was born to the great House Targaryen, her Mad-King dad was slain (see Jaime Lannister). Cast into a desperate existence, she was traded by nasty brother Viserys for a military alliance with the Dothraki. Daenerys came into her own anyway, eventually becoming the Mother of Dragons – literal dragons – and Breaker of Chains for her habit of freeing enslaved peoples. But in her quest to take the Iron Throne, perhaps as she saw those she loved killed or abandon her in one way or another, she became warped — her arc bent toward that of her father (“Let it be fear”). In her mass-murdering siege of King’s Landing, she proved forever it was she, not Queen Cersei, who was the most powerful individual in Westeros.
Character: Jon Snow (Kit Harington)
Relationships: Bastard son of Ned Stark, er, totally legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, stealth heir to the Iron Throne. Adoptive brother of Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon. Boyfriend of his Auntie Danerys. Whoops.
Story arc: Jon/Aegon went through the most changes in terms of status – bastard (but nice guy), scrub in the Night’s Watch, sworn virgin in the Night’s Watch, Romeo of the Night’s Watch, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, betrayed corpse in the Night’s Watch, King of the Bleeding North. Not to mention going from Stark bastard to Targaryen rightful king. He managed to stay humble, though he’s more comfortable around women now, and more comfortable leading troops to slaughter. But finally seeing the monster his love/aunt/queen has become, can the reluctant Prince-Who-Was-Promised also become the Queenslayer? One thing never changes, though: If Jon drafted the battle plan, you might want to do the opposite. The guy is an amazing fighter, but he strategizes as if everyone on his side has a “Get Out of Death Free” card.
Character: Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)
Relationships: Beloved son of Tywin Lannister, brother to Tyrion and brother/lover to Cersei
Story arc: Perhaps the most dramatic transformation has been Jaime’s. The pilot episode established him as one of the most despicable men in the Seven Kingdoms. The golden scion of the smug, power-hungry Lannisters and one of the greatest swordsmen in Westeros, he was already known as “The Kingslayer” for his fatal (though deserved) betrayal of the last Targaryen ruler. Then we discovered his very special relationship with his sister, Cersei, which he covered up by pushing a child (Bran) out a tower window. Hard to come back from that.
But after leading Lannister forces in a war against the Starks, Jaime underwent a years-long odyssey that tore him down to the studs. As a prisoner, he came to admire the noble female warrior Brienne of Tarth, and in standing up for her, lost his sword hand – a persona-shaking blow. He suffered through the deaths of each of his and Cersei’s children. In the face of the ultimate war between the living and the dead, he abandoned the double-dealing now-Queen Cersei to fight for humanity rather than twisted family loyalty. In the end, though, he left behind the new, positive life he could have had with Brienne et al to be with his true love as their world collapsed around them — literally.
Character: Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann)
Relationships: Brother of Ser Gregor Clegane, bodyguard to Prince Joffrey Lannister, captor of, then self-styled protector of Arya Stark
Story arc: Initially one of the loyal Lannister/Baratheon thugs and one of the most feared warriors in Westeros, the Hound did some bad things and developed eyes for Sansa Stark. Over time and largely through an unplanned, epic road trip with Arya and his defeat in combat at the hands of Brienne of Tarth, Sandor left behind the trappings of court and his misplaced loyalties. He joined the Brotherhood Without Banners in the fight against the White Walkers. The reformed Hound proved his selfless (somewhat fatherly) love for Arya by persuading her to abandon her quest to kill Cersei before his final faceoff (so to speak) against his evil, perfomance-enhanced brother, Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane.
Character: Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner)
Relationships: Daughter of Ned and Catelyn, House Stark; wife to Tyrion Lannister; wife to Ramsay Bolton (very deceased, to everyone’s delight)
Story arc: She began the series as arguably its least likeable character, pouting her way through the first season and, frankly, helping get her father killed. Her friendship with Tyrion, including their sham marriage, moved her forward. Then she survived horrible trauma at the machinations of Littlefinger and the cruelty of Ramsay Bolton, emerging stronger and smarter than one might have guessed she could become. Now she is the formidable Lady of Winterfell, wise beyond her years, and fiercely loyal to her family and to the North. In some ways, she sees even more clearly than supposed Smartest Man on the Show Tyrion. If she’s left to rule from Winterfell, one has to expect the North to be in good hands. Though there has been, of late, a palpable swelling in the ranks of Team Sansa fandom, and with so many other contenders out of the way now, what happens if the remaining Targaryens take each other out — if Jon and Daenerys turn on each other, which now seems distinctly possible for the first time? Might this onetime whining tween ride her hard road all the way to the Iron Throne?
Character: Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen)
Relationships: Ward of the Starks, raised as a family member as part of a military alliance.
Story arc: Theon had to be one of the most objectionable characters on the show, with one of the most annoying arcs, as he turned on his adoptive family – the Starks – betraying them though they had treated him well. His actions led Winterfell to fall into the hands of the degenerate Ramsay Bolton and the visitation of horrors upon many, including Sansa and himself. After having his Ironborn pride and identity destroyed forever by Bolton, Theon took several seasons to stand up for what he knew to be right – defending his sister Asha (a far better ruler and braver warrior than he) and making his last stand to protect Bran from the Night King – fulfilling a promise he made back in Season 1. In the end, his turnaround was so complete that Bran told him he was a good man. And that weirdo knows stuff.
Character: Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage)
Relationships: Despised son of Tywin Lannister, brother to Cersei and Jamie Lannister
Story arc: Lannister home movies are scored by Ramin Djawadi’s sweeping orchestral take on “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others”: Perfect blond Adonises and Venuses crowding out Westeros’ Wisest, Tyrion. It’s not just his dwarfism that made him an outcast in his own family – Cersei blames him for the death of their mother (in childbirth) and later the death of her eldest, Joffrey. The hyper-intelligent Tyrion would become something of a wastrel, turning his energies to the paid company of ladies and copious wine: “It’s what I do; I drink and I know things.” He killed his hateful father – on the toilet, no less – flushing his birthright and spiraling into booze-fueled depression. Then he met Daenerys and became the cleaned-up Hand of the apparently Mad Queen, and a bona fide power player in the endgame of Thrones.