Good ol’ Qyburn. The former maester has puttered around Westeros since the third season of Game of Thrones, but chances are you’ve wondered, “Wait, who is that again?” at least once as he’s appeared increasingly frequently in this final season. He’s always lurking, and he’s always got something deeply unpleasant up his sleeve, and nobody seems to know how to talk to or about him. What’s his deal?
Well, good news: I love Qyburn (fine, “love” is a strong word, but whenever I see him on screen, I go, “That’s Qyburn”), and the diabolical mind enabling Cersei to dominate Westeros is becoming increasingly important.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for Game of Thrones up to season 8, episode 4, “The Last of the Starks.”]
Qyburn first appears when Robb Stark arrives at Harrenhal; he’s among those that the Mountain has left for dead, and is barely alive when Robb discovers him amongst the scattered bodies. Once restored to full health, he remains in Harrenhal as de facto maester, though, as Jaime notices when Qyburn is tending to his hand (or rather, lack thereof), he’s been stripped of his chain.
This is where the full Qyburn creep factor kicks in. Sure, he seems perfectly nice and harmless — in the books, Cersei thinks that “the laugh lines around his mouth [make] him look like some little girl’s favorite grandfather” — but there’s much more to this old man than meets the eye.
The reason he’s no longer an official maester is because, instead of conducting experiments on dead bodies as he was supposed to, he’d been conducting them on people who were still alive. It’s something he justifies by noting that what he learned helped him save lives further on down the line, but in combination with his interest in necromancy, it provides a handy hint as to the kind of shenanigans he gets up to later.
By “shenanigans,” of course, I’m referring to the transformation of Gregor Clegane into Robert Strong. Qyburn makes his prioritization of science over self clear when he volunteers to “save” the man who very nearly killed him — who gives a crap about past grudges when there’s necromancy in the cards and nobody’s going to question your ethics? He’s the bizarro version of Varys in that respect: he’s not loyal to one person or another so much as he is an ideal. Varys’ is the good of the realm, and Qyburn’s is scientific advancement. That he keeps helping Cersei even when she’s imprisoned by the High Sparrow isn’t really loyalty — it has everything to do with knowing that she’ll support his work.
She needs The Mountain, who is her new, silent, giant champion; she needs the stores of wildfire he finds under the Great Sept of Baelor and subsequently ignites to wipe out of all of her enemies; and she needs the scorpions (long-range artillery weapons, essentially ballistas) he engineers to take on Daenerys’ dragons. Qyburn is responsible, in other words, for every major weapon that Cersei has in the upcoming war against Jon and Daenerys. He’s been elevated to her Hand as a reward, and given the latitude in his work to match.
The moves are noteworthy not only because he’s violating whatever the Westerosi equivalent of the Geneva Convention is, but that he’s doing it in the most innocuous way possible. He’s not a particularly visually flashy character; he’s always wearing grey robes, without the bright house colors or weaponry that distinguish almost everyone else on the show.
Qyburn himself doesn’t make waves — even though the waves his creations trigger are titanic. He’s easy to underestimate and overlook. Even the characters around him constantly do, to their own detriment (see: Pycelle’s demise). Cersei is the only one to acknowledge what he’s capable of, though just how quickly he’s risen and how much access he has to her now (he’s there to confirm her pregnancy to Euron) suggest that she might be underestimating him, too.
At the end of the day, he’s one of the most important players in the game, despite not having a cool nickname like “Kingslayer” or being generally hot (though beauty is in the eye of the beholder). To put it more accurately, he’s not even playing the game — he just wants to do morally questionable science, and he’ll poke his head in to check on proceedings every now and then to make he gets to keep doing it. Here’s hoping he makes at least one more monster before the show ends for good.