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Qyburn’s Error

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Over on twitter I offered a few thoughts on the evolution of Qyburn, who has become one of my favorite characters and one of the most important gears enabling the confrontation between Team Dragon and Team Lion.

Qyburn has been immensely consequential to several of the most important events in the series thus far; the preservation of Jaime Lannister’s life, the restoration of Gregor Clegane, the mastery of Varys’ spy network, the emancipation of Cersei Lannister, the destruction of the Great Sept, and the creation of the first dragon-killing scorpions. From relatively humble beginnings, he now acts as the Hand of the Queen, and her only remaining notable advisor. Moreover, he seems to be quite good at all of these jobs, even playing a critical emotional support role following Cersei’s Walk of Shame. The worst that can be said of him is that he fails to restrain Cersei’s most destructive instincts, but on balance he seems to have done relatively well with the hand he’s been dealt.

Qyburn’s role is larger in the show than in the books thus far, but it’s not impossible that he’ll occupy many of these roles. The medical mastery and mastery of Varys’ spy network are already in black and white; the creation of the scorpions, his role as Hand of the Queen, and his role in the plot to destroy the Great Sept remain uncertain. It’s likely that Benioff and Weiss have compressed projected storylines and characters, but he remains a formidable presence on both screen and page.

With respect to the former, Anton Lesser has played Qyburn brilliantly with relatively little screen time. The three scenes I remember are at the end of Cersei’s Walk of Shame, at the Great Council at the Dragonpit, and in a brief meeting with Bronn at a brothel. In the first, Lesser conveys genuine warmth and feeling for Cersei as she enters the castle, in obvious contrast to the other characters. In the second, it seems as if Qyburn is quietly having an orgasm as he examines the twitching wight. With respect to the third, “Poor girl, the pox will take her within the year” is delivered with the perfect combination of disinterest and contempt, both for the prostitute and for Bronn.

But Qyburn made a critical mistake (perhaps his first mistake) in last Sunday’s episode. After presenting Team Lion’s demands, Qyburn allows Tyrion to address Cersei directly, with Euron in earshot. This allows Tyrion to discuss Cersei’s pregnancy in a way that should make clear to Euron that the child is not his, with potentially disruptive consequences. Whether Tyrion has sussed out Cersei’s strategy for managing Euron remains unclear, but it can’t be that surprising that marriage is Euron’s price for an alliance with the Iron Throne, and that another of Jamie Lannister’s babies would complicate that dynamic. Showing Tyrion doing something smart would also be a good way for the producers to re-establish Tyrion’s talent for statecraft after cataloguing a long series of errors.

Given how Lesser and the writers have portrayed Qyburn, the mistake feels authentic. First, he’s not a diplomat, and may not have an instinctive grasp on how diplomats manage access to heads of government. Second, Lesser has always played Qyburn as demure and unobtrusive, which makes it unsurprising that he would allow Tyrion to push past him. I doubt that Tyrion would have made the same error if Qyburn had attempted to address Daenerys directly, especially if other members of the Dragon Queen’s alliance were present.

In any case, Qyburn has had a remarkably interesting journey thus far, and while I can’t imagine him surviving the next two episodes, I very much look forward to a suitable ending for the character.

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