Randyll Tarly is not the nicest person on Game of Thrones. He named his son Dickon. He bullied his other son, Samwell, and gave him the choice between joining the Night’s Watch and death. In George R.R. Martin’s books, he’s horrible to Brienne of Tarth — when he’s not tormenting Dickon’s father-in-law or attacking his wife’s family.
But still, Randyll Tarly has had a, shall we say, rough time lately on the TV show. Even by the standards of Game of Thrones, which tortures everyone. And in the process, Randyll provided an answer to the most baffling Thrones question right now.
Spoilers for recent episodes below…
The biggest question mark, going into season seven of Game of Thrones, was, “Why does anybody recognize Cersei Lannister as a legitimate monarch?” Her claim to the Iron Throne is tenuous at best, based on her marriage to Robert Baratheon and the fact that she was mother to two other kings. The nobles of Westeros have gone to ridiculous, bloody lengths to keep a woman with a stronger claim off the throne before.
And then there’s Cersei’s history, including the fact that she was condemned and publicly humiliated by the High Septon (and then was suspiciously absent when the High Septon was blown to bits, along with hundreds of nobles and clergy.) She’s no longer bothering to hide her penchant for incest, and she’s elevated Qyburn, a failed Maester whom everybody despises, to the position of Hand of the Queen. Basically every social institution in Westeros, from the church to the Citadel, frowns on Cersei and those close to her.
And yet, she’s holding onto the throne, even if she doesn’t control any actual territory to speak of, outside of King’s Landing. Given that Game of Thrones has given us a dozen scenes discussing what makes a monarch legitimate, and exploring why the common people don’t just murder their rulers, it seems odd that we see people apparently accepting Queen Cersei, the First of Her Name.
But then there’s Randyll Tarly, the stubbornly loyal lord of the Reach, who has a ginormous stick up his butt. Randyll Tarly’s family has sworn loyalty to the Tyrell family for centuries, but then he betrays Olenna Tyrell and supports the Lannisters. And he stays so loyal to Queen Cersei, he’s willing to be burnt alive by Daenerys’ dragons (and even let Dickon choose the same fate).
I was honestly a bit confused by this whole storyline, with all the other stuff happening on Game of Thrones this season, until I went back and rewatched the second episode of the season, “Stormborn.” That’s where Randyll makes his fateful decision and throws Lady Olenna Tyrell under a bus. And he basically does it out of pure xenophobia.
Randyll’s xenophobia is mentioned right before he gets toasted alive, but you hear a lot more about it back in “Stormborn.” That’s where he listens to Cersei’s sales pitch, in which she says Daenerys is just like her father, the sadistic Mad King, and hears about the hordes of Dothraki and Unsullied that Daenerys has brought to Westeros. Cersei doesn’t seal the deal, but her brother Jaime does.
“I’m a Tarly,” he tells Jaime. “That name means something. We’re not oathbreakers. We’re not schemers. We don’t stab our rivals in the back or cut their throats at weddings. I swore an oath to House Tyrell.”
Jaime makes several arguments in response to Randyll’s puffery:
(1) Randyll also swore an oath to the crown, which is only relevant if you believe Cersei has a legitimate right to that crown.
(2) Lady Olenna has lost it—she’s “broken” and hell-bent on revenge.
(3) If Randyll joins the Lannisters, he’ll get a promotion to Mace Tyrell’s old job, Warden of the South. (Though Tarly should really ask Bronn how Jaime’s grand promises turn out.)
(4) Daenerys has brought “foreign savages and eunuchs” to Westeros — and even more importantly, if Randyll stays loyal to the Tyrells, he’ll be fighting alongside those people.
And this is the argument that strikes home. Even more than Cersei’s nightmare vision of the Dothraki and the Unsullied rampaging across Westeros, Randyll Tarly just can’t stand the idea of being in the same army as them and treating them as comrades. So he’s willing to forsake centuries of loyalty and even get burnt alive, ultimately, to avoid being tainted by these foreigners.
In his final moments, Lord Randyll even decides to cast Daenerys (who was born on Dragonstone) as a foreigner. “Say what you will about [Cersei], she was born in Westeros. She’s lived here all her life,” he says. But meanwhile, Daenerys is “a foreign invader, one with no ties to this land, with an army of savages at her back.” And that’s why he takes death by dragonfire over even accepting Daenerys as legitimate enough to send him to the Night’s Watch.
The notion that Cersei is being kept on the throne by pure xenophobia is an intriguing one, and I wish Game of Thrones had been able to spend more time on it. We do see how this fact of life constrains Daenerys’ options: her best fighters are the Unsullied and Dothraki, but she can’t use them to attack King’s Landing, or she’ll prove Cersei’s fearmongering right. She’s initially forced to rely on her Dornish and Ironborn forces, which turn out not to be worth that much, until she finally uses the Dothraki to wipe out the Lannister army. And we certainly heard plenty about the Westerosi fear of Dothraki back in the first season, when Daenerys first married Khal Drogo.
But I hope at some point, the show really delves into the question of just how big a problem this hatred of foreigners is for Daenerys—especially since it’s just going to be more and more of a challenge as she gets closer to ruling.
Seasons five and six of Game of Thrones focused heavily on religious zealotry, following Martin’s book storyline. Cersei gambles on elevating the High Sparrow, an uncompromising fundamentalist, to a position of power, and this backfires. The metaphor of powerful people attempting to use religious fundamentalism as a blunt instrument against their enemies only grew more fascinating the more we got to know the High Sparrow and saw that he was gleefully aware of the contradictions in his situation.
So now Cersei’s storyline has swerved, and fear of outsiders has replaced an over-zealous love of god as her weapon against her rivals. The television version of Cersei increasingly seems to be positioned as a giant object lesson in manipulating forces you can’t control—and an allegory for real-life situations in which cynical people in positions of power attempt to exploit the beliefs and prejudices of others.
But you have to wonder if Westerosi nationalism will bite Cersei in the ass as badly as religious extremism did. After all, Westeros isn’t really much of a nation anymore, thanks to Cersei, Littlefinger, and a few others. The Seven Kingdoms are a broken mess, in which almost all social institutions have collapsed, from the church to the great houses. Laws aren’t being enforced, customs aren’t being maintained, and it’s increasingly unclear what it means to be “Westerosi” at this point.
As entertaining and fascinating as Game of Thrones has been this season, that’s the main thing I’ve missed: the exploration of Westeros as failed state. (This is something you really have to turn to George R.R. Martin’s books to get a clearer picture of.) If anything, travel across the Seven Kingdoms is growing faster and faster as the show’s pace speeds up, which inevitably leaves the impression that Westeros is in tip-top shape. And yet, we know enough to understand that Daenerys and Cersei are fighting over a shell of a country. And I’m dying to see just how Cersei’s gamble on Westerosi xenophobia plays out (especially since she’s only on the throne thanks to the support of foreign bankers). Game of Thrones has pulled the rug out from under its characters so many times, I can’t wait to see what dust this particular rug kicks up.
Before writing fiction full-time, Charlie Jane Anders was for many years an editor of the extraordinarily popular science fiction and fantasy site io9.com. Her debut novel, the mainstream Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. Her Tor.com story “Six Months, Three Days” won the 2013 Hugo Award and was optioned for television. Her debut SFF novel All the Birds in the Sky, won the 2016 Nebula Award in the Novel category and earned praise from, among others, Michael Chabon, Lev Grossman, and Karen Joy Fowler. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney’s, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.