Where Is Everybody?
- King’s Landing
- The Targaryen-Stark team finally meets with the Lannisters to prove
Climate Changethe forces of the Night King are real. Cersei “agrees” to help. Jaime finds out she won’t and FINALLY tells her to fuck off.
- The Targaryen-Stark team finally meets with the Lannisters to prove
- Theon goes on a journey to find his sister.
- Arya and Sansa finally get their shit together and get on the same page. Littlefinger can finally no longer talk.
- Narrow Sea
- And down comes the Wall.
For a finale to a show that spent so much time in the throws and thralls of intense action and breathless forward momentum, it seemed shocking that the finale would be undoubtedly the season’s slowest episode. Focused on a few bigger interactions and operating by and away as the chattiest episode of the season so far, this was an episode moving its final relationships and plot points into place and focusing on the drama that’s pushed these people into this situation.
To be frank we haven’t had a real talky episode in a while. Especially in the last couple seasons, more focused on a traditional fantasy operation, the show has lost its sense of the politics, of how to persuade with words rather than with action. While no worse, it’s certainly a different show, so I was curious to see what would be of an episode that focused on the earlier diplomatic mode.
So, keeping that in mind, “The Wolf and the Dragon” is a show that has transformed those discussions and dialogues into essentially a form of action, something direct and driving. It’s not always brilliant plotting, but the show is so clear about its characters and how to sell their performance and their needs that it ends up working regardless.
I think specifically here of the scene between Tyrion and Cersei, their first confrontation since Tyrion fled King’s Landing at the end of Season 4. It’s Emmy-worthy work from both Dinklage and Headey, Dinklage’s open and raw pain and sadness and the way he twists and holds every line like a weapon impacting just the right way clashing against the seething rage that Headey barely holds underneath her dagger eyes and strugglingly-stiff upper lip.
Beyond just the performance, it’s the negotiation within the scene. Admittedly, it’s blunt, this part of the show is going to be blunt basically no matter what. But the two dance and prod and push back against each other, Tyrion laying out and breaking down defenses and Cersei throwing them back up. It’s exciting and direct drama that pushes the momentum forward even without the more immediate adrenaline thrills of a huge battle sequence.
This episode’s willingness to take the time is an asset, executing a lot of important things in the little time they’ve had this whole season (an extra long episode is still making up for 3 missing hours) in ways that are largely satisfying to see.
I’m of course speaking about the resolution to “Littlefinger tries to put one last wedge in the Stark Family.” Whether you like the way it’s been doled out this season or not, the finale here is a remarkably cathartic moment of television. I nearly lept out of my seat when “Lord Baelish” came out of Sansa’s mouth and seeing someone like Littlefinger finally punished for every wrong he’s visited is exactly the kind of win the show ended up needing.
Finally, the sequence at the Wall easily explained the rest of the episode’s relative low cost. The Wall coming down was a huge moment that had to be done right and done right it definitely was. The Night King riding in on the Ice Dragon is just one of the coolest images this show’s ever had.
This is an episode of completion, resolving the threads to pull onto two sides for the final showdown. It worked, it did that, and it did that with a lot of strong and impressive character work.
This season’s tendency for circumventing the A to B paths never stood out worse than in this episode. Twice, we essentially saw the results of something the show had never set up, Cersei deciding to pledge her help and Sansa/Arya’s final collaboration. While it never feels false to the moment, the show’s expedience is feeling more like slack than a need to rush through.
Your mileage will definitely vary on seeing Jon and Dany get it on, especially being here underscored as an act of incest. The reveal? Cool. The incest? Not as palatable per se.
Who Got A Win?
- The Night King
- Brought down the wall with a sweet-ass Ice Dragon pretty much accomplishing his main thing. Westeros is fucked.
- Arya and Sansa
- Finally learned to trust each other and got the sower of dissent out of their midst.
- Jon and Dany
- Made some pretty important alliances and solidified their power structure, we’ll see how well that goes.
Who Made A Mistake?
- Overplayed his hand with Arya and Sansa and he’s dead now.
- Lost Jaime, her last real thinking ally. Sycophants and zombies are all she has, which isn’t good for holding on to power.
- Jon and Dany
- Probably fell into a trap with Cersei. Got into incest. Oops.
- The Spoils of War
- The Dragon and the Wolf
- The Queen’s Justice
- Beyond the Wall
The Season MVPs aren’t necessarily the most important parts or the consistently best parts of the show. Emilia Clarke or Kit Harrington wouldn’t necessarily be the best contender for a spot like this, nor would Lena Headey or Peter Dinklage or supporting actors like Liam Cunningham or Gwendoline Christie or Kristofer Hivju.
It’s a mix of both importance and quality confined to this specific season, the people who’s work in Season 7 made it particularly special or interesting. Whether it’s in front of the camera or behind the scenes, Season 7 wouldn’t fit together without what this MVP did.
- Nikolaj Coster-Waldeau
- Jaime has definitely been a character that fluctuates with the season and how interested any given set of writers is in him, but Season 7 has almost certainly been Coster-Waldeau’s finest hour. Partially because it took him out of the sidequest hole and partially because it took him out of the hole of only ever really being involved with Cersei, Coster-Waldeau did some of his best work this season, including his confrontation with Olenna, his reunion with Tyrion, and (I know I just shit-talked this) his final scene with Cersei. Coster-Waldeau gives Jaime a principled nobility that’s rare, a man of his times blinded by a thousand allegiances and willing to do what he thinks is right at the end of the day. It’s a compelling character to watch and rarely has that mattered as much as in Season 7.
- Matt Shakman
- Director of “The Spoils of War” and “Eastwatch,” Shakman is probably the best large setpiece crafter not named Sapochnik the show has. His direction on “The Spoils of War” made for a strong and well-crafted piece of television up until its final battle, which kicked it over the top. Field of Fire 2.0 is one of the most thrilling bits of televised warfare ever from the arrival of the Dothraki to Jaime plummeting into the lake and it is Shakman’s direction that made it so exciting.
- Sophie Turner
- Sansa is done being kicked around. Turner’s performance this season was the transformation fans have been waiting for. Even with her uneven decision making, Turner pulls off a calculating and icy-cold performance as much Stark as it is Lannister and Baelish. The moments of warmth only amplify how good it is to finally see Sansa take control of things for once.
- The Night King
- This one is going to the character rather than the incredibly able performer behind the makeup and effects. The Night King provides the show a thematic and narrative focus that it’s never quite had, moving towards an existential threat of evil that overrides the pettier human concerns. The menace he conveys in a few short moments is what Game of Thrones needs in these last moments, a common enemy to bring these warring factions together.
- The Special Effects Team
- This was an expensive and fucking MASSIVE season to pull together, near unprecedented in television. So kudos to the hardworking Visual and Special Effects teams that had to make demon kings and dragons and wolves and massive hordes and collapsing walls all real and all convincing.
What’s Worked on the Whole?
On the whole, the buzzword of this season was “forward momentum.” The show has long left its political drama roots behind in favor of a high fantasy narrative, a show about struggle between kingdoms and the ultimate defeat of an evil at the root of our souls.
Yet, Game of Thrones really has ultimately shone under that lens. The show feels fun and propulsive in a way it never has and feels epic and grandiose on a scale no television show has. The reason this show has such a hold on the zeitgeist is how impressively it has clasped to our imaginations, how much it wonders and amazes with the images it can show us.
This is a show now of legacies and mythologies, a show letting a deep well of history show all of its excitement before us. The sense of this season of Game of Thrones is that almost nothing has been like it and that it’ll be hard to imagine anything will be quite the same after.
All the stuff that has worked throughout the run of this show still works here. This is still a cast, though no one pulls all the focus, that is an impressive and endlessly remixable ensemble. Everyone works together, feels natural together. No one’s work is incredible, but everyone’s work is strong. Watching Dinklage in concert with Clarke and Harrington and Headey and whoever else come along is a rare delight and every permutation this show has pulled off remains worth watching.
This is an action show now, defined by its move towards the end. Even when it’s slow, you feel the machine churning everything towards an ultimate end. That works, that’s compelling. That’s the stories that need to be told and they way it need to be told.
What Needs To Get Fixed?
I’ve been remarkably positive about this season, so let it not shock you too much that I do have criticisms and misgivings. Things that have worked on an individual basis about Season 7 are troubling trends when pulled to a larger whole.
I think much of the negativity towards this season (what’s been out there in at least my critical bubble) is directed towards this show going towards a more traditional high fantasy direction. The show has become decidedly less Martin and Tolkien going more towards Peter Jackson or Dungeons and Dragons.
While the bones of that change I’m in favor of (and also believe it was the only way this story could actually end), it’s definitely meant a lot of writing and narrative decisions that have altered the storytelling qualities of the show.
The dialogue has definitely suffered. Without the Martin material to pull from, this show has definitely moved towards functionality and lost its grace and intelligence in speaking. Characters used to weave wars with words, now they beat each other down. It’s a change reflecting a more functional storytelling style and a greater sense of momentum, but it’s a change I am sad to see.
More concerning is the narrative convenience this show has become too quick to indulge in. While the timeline stuff mostly feels like the concern of continuity geeks and internet commenters seeking clicks, the show’s lack of connective tissue is a bigger problem.
It felt like a lot of stuff just…happens in this show. Characters make decisions to justify narrative choices, narrative choices are made without set-up or follow-through, and point D is reached from point A. It’s lazy, frankly. The show has a lot to get through, I understand, but it needs to get there.
Tyrion can’t make mistakes just because the show needs him to. Jon can’t almost die and get saved just because the show needs him to. Sansa and Arya can’t fight just to trick the audience. This show needs justification and purpose and what’s been happening threatens to make for an unsatisfying ending.
At its best, Game of Thrones peers into a world. At its worst, Game of Thrones reveals the strings manipulating it. In the books, it’s every side quest and artificial reason that Martin has taken to prevent getting to its end. In the show, it’s every artful dodge and slight of hand that Benioff and Weiss have taken to speed to its end.
A show written without an ending needs to avoid the missteps when it’s finally there. Let’s hope there’s some time taken, or at least some though, with the last season.
Where’s This Going?
We’re in the final stretch, so what has this all been about?
For me, Game of Thrones is a show about power and how badly human nature fucks it up. That we’re trapped in these petty struggles that function as a cycle. Power cannot change, power can only put new people wielding it. Breaking the wheel, as Dany often says she will do, requires a fundamental altering of the system, not just a different hand guiding it.
Time and time again, this show has been about the mistakes of legacy. Of people repeating the same mistakes of their mentors, their parents, their ancestors, and their predecessors. Of seeing the same patterns and doing nothing to stop it. Tyrion seeks to prevent a Mad Queen as Dany teeters towards burning those who will not submit, Jon seeks to not become Ned again as he makes the same honorably foolhardy decisions, Cersei seeks to prevent her family falling apart as she pushes the last members of it away.
Power corrupts and institutions are no match for those who seek to use them. The only thing that can interrupt is understanding the larger threats the world faces. The existential threat of the Night King, something more insurmountable than any individual one of them. Game of Thrones’ ultimate question is “Can humanity put their nature aside and work for a collective good? Or are we doomed to repeat our mistakes again and again until we all die together?”
The Night King is climate change, The Night King is nuclear warfare. The Night is anything and everything that has ever threatened us as a whole and asks whether our politics will ultimately be enough to save us.
So where does this show go? How does this show do that?
I don’t know for sure is the honest answer. Game of Thrones is undeniably pessimistic and unsure that we can escape that cycle. A few standing up loudly is not enough to overwhelm the forces who would do nothing but their own interest. There’s a part of me that suspects any broken wheel would lead to the creation of a new one. That Dany retaking power and creating a society free from the Lannister control would lead to her own tyranny. That the show ultimately wants power itself to be broken.
But perhaps that’s the show’s aim. The Song of Ice and Fire, Jon and Dany, is what can finally end all of this. The pain and the suffering and the terror from beyond the world. I think there’s a chance this show ends in something better, in a look at a world that breaks the power structures that put them in this place and can defeat the threats that face it.
Will it require sacrifice? Probably. The remnants of the old (Jaime and Cersei) will probably have to go and the new will have to give something up (Jon). There’s no chance everyone makes it to see the New World.
But Game of Thrones is now in its final moments. The moment where the Wheel spins the fastest. Whatever stops its, breaks it, keeps it moving on is still to come.