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Game Of Thrones slows down for the longest, and best, episode of the season (newbies)

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Welcome to another season of Game Of Thrones reviews for those who have not read the books the series is based on. Since critics won’t be receiving screeners this season, each week I’ll publish the episode page once the broadcast ends and add my review to the page when I finish. That way newbies have a spoiler-free place to discuss the episode as soon as possible. As such, spoilers are strictly forbidden. Any spoilers in comments will be deleted on sight. Remember: Discussions of things that were different in the books or confirmations of things that won’t happen count as spoilers, too. Have you read the books and want to discuss what’s coming? That’s what our experts reviews are for.

The unfortunate thing about calling the season seven finale “The Dragon And The Wolf” is you can’t even reference it by name without picturing Daenerys Targaryen’s long-awaited hook-up with Jon Snow, her strapping hunk of an ally and also her nephew. It’s a hell of an episode, the dining car on this bullet train, not least because the dragon and the wolf got it on. But certainly not most because of that, either.

What’s so great about the episode is that it takes its time. The first 30 minutes of this 79-minute behemoth—a model for season eight’s reportedly extended run-times—are a single set piece: the big parlay in the dragonpit at King’s Landing. The obstacle of the episode isn’t an opposing military or zombies or dialogue like “bad pussy.” It’s a question of persuasion. Diplomacy. How to convince someone with words. And also with a chained-up wight. That’s the show I fell for in the early seasons, the one where almost every scene was two parties in a room pitting their worldviews against each other, and sometimes there was awesome supernatural stuff.

The other surprise is the lack of bloodthirst. The Hound doesn’t lift a finger against his brother, and everyone walks away from the dragonpit alive except the wight—but he wasn’t alive to begin with. Theon’s redemption scene convincingly threatens to kill him right there on the beaches of Dragonstone, dying for a good cause unbeknownst to anyone but the rapscallions who watched him die, but at last it swerves into something genuinely heroic. The execution of Littlefinger is formal, although his trial admittedly gives us ample opportunity to appreciate the tables finally turning on the man who got the ball rolling on all this bloodshed. Most surprisingly of all, the mad queen Cersei is challenged to execute both of her brothers at different moments, and she can’t bear to pull the trigger either time.

For a few seasons, it’s seemed like the once subversive, often overly cynical Game Of Thrones had permanently transformed into a more schematic heroic fantasy saga for this final run. Season five was the dark to augment the light of season six. Season seven is just watching dominoes fall as everyone does pretty much what we expect them to until the last one topples: heroes save the day, villains die, and the living defeat the dead at some cost. To be overly cynical myself, that is still the macro view. Littlefinger’s execution and the White Walkers passing through the rubble of the Wall are just two observations that this enormous Rube Goldberg machine is running on time.

But Lena Headey’s performance as Cersei complicates that impression just enough to give the roller-coaster some scene-to-scene drama. That hasn’t been true the whole season, but then she’s rarely had someone as good as Peter Dinklage to play off of. (For that matter, vice versa.) Their showdown arrives after Cersei has already betrayed some shock at laying eyes on a wight, a zombie, a mad unhuman ripping itself apart to get at her and rip her apart. It’s a new side of Cersei, and while I have trouble buying the immediate shift in team Lannister’s attitude toward a truce, there’s nothing false about the look on her face. Unfortunately, since Jon can’t promise to remain neutral toward the two queens until what they’re all calling now The Great War is done, Cersei walks away, leaving the Northern rebels and their foreign whore to clean up the mess themselves.

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

So Tyrion hatches one last brilliant scheme in a season full of them, and this one goes exactly as well as all the others, even if it doesn’t look like it at first. He alone takes a meeting with Cersei, in her chambers, with The Mountain ready and waiting to dispatch him. And the conversation does get to that point. Tyrion rationally defends killing their father, and Cersei reveals that she’s transferred her old irrational grievances to new ones: the deaths of Tommen and Myrcella. But he points out two things, one calmly and one in the height of passion, that prove Cersei is not just some evil villain. First, why take the meeting if she didn’t hope for something to come out of it? If she didn’t have any hope at all? Second, he dares her to kill him, really dares her, reciting all the crimes he’s guilty of and telling her how much he’s wanted to kill her, and still she can’t give the order. It doesn’t mean they’re on good terms. When she next speaks she is pure cold fire. But it does prove that somewhere in there, she knows he’s not the monster she pretends. Tyrion offers what she’s always claimed to want, and she can’t take it because she knows deep down it’s not really what she wanted anyway.

Afterward, she returns to the dragonpit to announce her agreement to the truce. “The darkness is coming for us all. We will face it together. And when the Great War is over, perhaps you will remember that I chose to help, with no promises or assurances from any of you. I expect not.” The self-pity and pettiness is classic Cersei, but what a zag! It was always hard to imagine what this show looks like with all the humans on all sides temporarily working together. The way this seems to have worked out, even a raging venomous beast like Cersei might be capable of some small measure of redemption, or cooperation, or something. It would reorient the show not just away from the sadistic violence of its past but toward something more merciful and just in the future. It might break the wheel.

The season has been heavy on challenging Dany’s values. How is restoring the Seven Kingdoms under one southern ruler breaking the wheel? Well, this truce suggested a greater subversion than I had expected at this point. Nobody’s killing one another, the bad guy’s asking for mercy, at least three independent and overlapping governments are working together. I was expecting a blockbuster battle, but what I got was tense but peaceful drama. “The Dragon And The Wolf” slows down and cools off, and Game Of Thrones is better for it.

Then the episode continues. Cersei was just pretending to commit to the truce. Here’s where all the plans start to look dumb and pointless, except to fool the audience. For the last time this season, Tyrion is made to be a strategic fool. I haven’t been as hard on this aspect of the season as others, because I buy that Tyrion might overestimate himself in military matters. But face-to-face negotiation with power players in the capital? Now that really is his bread and butter, and after a season of fucking things up in Dragonstone, he once again completely misreads the situation in King’s Landing. It’s not as disastrous for him politically (what were they going to do if Cersei didn’t agree to the truce anyway?) or personally, because for whatever reason Cersei doesn’t kill him. But it does betray his political prowess. First-billed and a fool. At least Dinklage got a killer scene out of it.

As for Cersei, pretending to work with her enemies while secretly hatching some grander scheme was pretty much what I expected for the truce going into it. In fact, the final half hour of “The Dragon And The Wolf” gets everything back on track toward that expected fantasy saga finale. But I appreciate that Cersei isn’t acting out of cardboard villainy and that she and Jaime both fail to fulfill some grand destined role, for instance, by either or both of them killing the other. At least not yet. Instead, what we find out is just that Cersei is one petty brother-fucker, which we knew, and that it’s plain old selfishness, not evil, not fate, that warps her against the only man she ever loved and potentially dooms her realm. Jaime finally leaves her, walking right past his imminent executioner, and rides out of King’s Landing, finally neatly sorting our humans into good and evil and Bronn. I’m not sure why Qyburn or Tycho are so cool with their collective big gamble this week, but at last we find out why the Iron Bank was built up so much: They, uh, have an army.

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

Meanwhile at Winterfell is another overdone scheme designed mainly to surprise the audience. In the black of her chambers, Sansa brainstorms with Littlefinger what Arya could want. “After she murders you, what does she become?” he asks. To which Sansa does everything but gasp and spit-take, widening her eyes and saying like she’s just realizing it for the first time, “Lady of Winterfell.” Which is all to say, she and Arya and Bran have been putting Littlefinger on this whole time. When Littlefinger really starts to bare his teeth, talking about a game he plays where he assumes the worst of people’s intentions, I started to hope the producers had outplayed us one last time, and that he was aware they were trying to play him. The scene was dark, his performance suddenly vicious, and Winterfell at last opened up to some new, if dark, possibilities. Alas, Sansa pretends to gather everyone in the great hall to try Arya, and at the last moment reveals she’s actually trying Littlefinger for murder and treason, although I think everyone in that room already knew what was going on except him. The reveal was just for us.

The big news here is the dagger used to try to kill Bran was Littlefinger’s all along. So for those counting, he’s the one who conspired to poison Jon Arryn, hired someone to kill Bran, and encouraged Catelyn to kidnap Tyrion. Any way you slice it, this all goes back to him. As creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss write it, it’s a pathetic portrait of betrayal, even of the two people he’s genuinely loved in his life. Aidan Gillen whimpers on his knees, stretching for the first time in years. And finally Sansa sentences him, and Arya swings the sword, or dagger as the case may be. For all the historical callbacks in the episode, and in its old age Game Of Thrones keeps portentously reciting old lines verbatim, this callback is the most resonant. Ned always said the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. His daughters are finding a different way forward.

Okay, there is one more historical comeback with some juice. Sam and Bran put their little heads together and discover that Jon Snow’s real name is Jon Sand, er, Aegon Targaryen. This time it’s the audience who’s ahead of the characters, and watching the swirl of memories (a secret riverbank wedding reminiscent of Robb and Talisa’s, the Tower Of Joy scene with the full quote, “His name is Aegon Targaryen. You have to protect him. Promise me, Ned.”) and present-day interlude (Jon and Dany rocking the boat completely unawares) evokes a beautiful bouquet of discovery and excitement and then whatever it is you feel when you witness incest on this show. By all accounts revulsion is a common reaction, but I moved onto groundling delight way back when Cersei was using Lancel as a replacement Jaime. I have a feeling Jon isn’t going to take the news, er, lying down, but the Jon-Dany coupling has never been more interesting.

Stray observations:

  • “The Dragon And The Wolf” is written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Jeremy Podeswa.
  • This is old business, but nothing ever came of Sam absconding with his family sword, huh? I was sure that old bastard Randyll would at least send some thugs after him.
  • So, Grey Worm and company just retreated from Casterly Rock or what?
Screenshot: Game Of Thrones
Screenshot: Game Of Thrones
  • How everyone goes crazy every time Tormund looks at Brienne, that’s how I feel watching Brienne and The Hound share a moment. Hang the romance. Their clash at the end of season four is still one of the three or four peaks of the series.
  • Did anyone buy the idea that Bronn nonchalantly thinks he might stand to profit from Tyrion’s death? There’s something off about the danger of the episode. I didn’t feel it during Tyrion’s walk to Cersei’s lair, although I should have. Cersei and company don’t even flinch at the box The Hound unloads for them. It could have been a cannon or something; haven’t they seen Django? But I did fear for Tyrion and Jaime against The Mountain, and I honestly feared (and admired) that Theon might die there on the beach.
  • “Remember me?” The Hound says to The Mountain. “Yeah, you do. You’re even uglier than fucking I am.” The Hound doesn’t make to hurt his brother, nor vice versa, but The Hound does say something intriguing: “You know who’s coming for you. You’ve always known.” What is he talking about?
  • “Oh, fuck loyalty!” With that, Brienne takes a big step toward surviving the series.
  • Jaime tells Tyrion he (Jaime) is an idiot. Tyrion replies, “I’m about to step into a room with the most murderous woman in the world, who’s already tried to kill me twice, that I know of. Who’s an idiot?”
  • Dany tells Jon, “I can’t have children.” “And who told you that?” “The witch who murdered my husband.” “Has it occurred to you that she might not be a reliable source of information?” Guess who’s about to be pregnant!
  • The other thing that betrays the Sansa-Arya plot is how ham-handed it is. Until Arya arrives, at every suggestion, Sansa’s all, “That’ll be all, Littlefinger.” Now all of a sudden she’s having late-night chats with him about how to kill her sister?
Illustration for article titled Game Of Thrones slows down for the longest, and best, episode of the season (newbies)
  • The Jon-Theon macho melodrama played like gangbusters in the Nowalk apartment. It’s been a long time coming, in that Theon is still beating himself up for his crimes and Jon’s very proximity encourages that strict self-assessment. So when Jon says he’s done a lot of things he regrets, Theon tells him, “Not compared to me, you haven’t.” And Jon doesn’t let him off the hook out of politeness. He doesn’t say, “Oh, come on.” He agrees with Theon’s words, and Theon looks slowly down, ashamed, rejected, both of them thinking the worst of him. But over the course of their conversation, Theon expresses himself in a way that gets through to Jon, and Jon, the ultimate moral voice in Theon’s life, affirms Theon’s Starkhood, absolves Theon as much as he can, and encourages him to go be a hero. It’s a beautiful bonding moment, and it’s exactly what Theon needs. “It’s not my place to forgive you for all of it. But what I can forgive, I do.” There’s nothing more exemplary of a better way forward, and the dramatic potential therein, than forgiveness.
  • At last Bran brings the receipts. “You held a knife to his throat. You said, ‘I did warn you not to trust me.’” (To be fair, I suspect he and his sisters hatched this whole plan back at the weirwood tree that day.)
  • Cersei repeats her refrain: “I told you, no one walks away from me.” It sounds cool, but Tyrion walked away from her in that earlier scene. Similarly, right after Bran is all, “I see everything,” Sam surprises him with some news he hadn’t seen. I’m sure he just hadn’t fully absorbed it yet, but it sticks out. Work on your one-liners and get back to us.
  • So that’s how they’re claiming Targaryen legitimacy. “Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie.” Okay, then! Bygones! Back to the Targaryens!
  • R.I.P. Littlefinger. Jury’s out on Tormund and Beric.
  • In the final moments, Bran wargs into a very unlucky raven, stopping to rest atop Eastwatch moments before the Night King, astride his undead dragon, torches that segment of the wall to the ground. Poor raven!