A review of the Game of Thrones season finale coming up just as soon as we say goodbye, one idiot to another…
“This isn’t about noble houses. This is about the living and the dead.” –Jaime
A little over a year ago, Game of Thrones wrapped up its sixth season with its greatest episode ever. “The Winds of Winter” not only started tightening up what had been an overly sprawled narrative, but did a lot of it with a sequence (Cersei’s bombing of the Sept of Baelor) shot and edited like nothing the series had done before. It suggested a real evolutionary leap, or at least the idea that Benioff and Weiss could still surprise us at this advanced age for the show.
“The Dragon and the Wolf” brought the narrative even tighter, opening with a long sequence in and around the dragon pits that featured virtually every major character left other than the Starks and Littlefinger, as Dany’s coalition tried to negotiate a truce with Cersei’s. But this wasn’t another huge stylistic shift for the show — other than perhaps a portent of how sluggish the final six episodes might be if the showrunners stick to their plan of making each one feature film-length(*) — and was, like a lot of this penultimate season, a collection of strong individual moments in search of a story worthy of them.
(*) Why do Benioff and Weiss want to make six super-sized episodes rather than ten normal ones? It could be any number of reasons, including the fact that the cast and crew are all paid by the episode, not the running time, and if the budget remains constant, they’ll have far more money to produce each individual episode. Could the spectacle of “Beyond the Wall” have been accomplished in a season with ten episodes? Maybe, but it no doubt helped that more resources could be concentrated on it.
There were a number of striking beats: Cersei’s genuine shock at seeing the wight in action, the painful recriminations of the Cersei/Tyrion conversation, the splintering of Cersei and Jaime’s relationship over his refusal to break his oath to aid the North, and, especially, the palpable sense of relief I felt when the Stark sisters proved to be not nearly as stupid as either Littlefinger or the audience took them for. And there were a bunch of charming smaller moments, particularly as all the forces gathered for that confrontation in the dragon pits, like the reunion of the heroes of the Blackwater or Brienne and the Hound grudgingly recognizing they’re on the same side now. But the show’s just not built to run this long in any given installment — few dramas are, even ones with as many characters and storylines as this one — and despite excellent individual acting showcases for Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, and others, the finale really dragged, at times unsure why it should be bothering with anything not directly related to the Night King flying around on the back of his new pet zombie dragon.
As Jon, Jaime, Brienne, and others pointed out at different points, no other plot point on the show matters anymore — not Cersei’s plan to hire the Golden Company to re-conquer Westeros while her enemies’ backs are turned, not Theon’s quest to pay back Yara for her failed rescue attempt back in season four, not Cersei’s pregnancy or Jon’s claim to the Iron Throne or anything else. Yes, someone will have to figure out who’s in charge of Westeros if it survives the Army of the Dead’s invasion, and maybe Benioff and Weiss are going to fake everyone out and have Jon take out the Night King in the final season premiere so everyone can get back to scheming and plotting and lying. But the showrunners have worked very hard this season to get both other characters and the audience to agree with Jon about the importance of this threat above everything else, yet they’ve set up a narrative that’s both incredibly straightforward (defeat the Night King or don’t, and nothing else matters) and as labyrinthine as always (Cersei and Euron’s plans-within-plans, the Stark sisters running a long con on Littlefinger, Jon and Dany unwittingly continuing the most important Targaryen family tradition), as if they — like Cersei or Littlefinger (R.I.P.) — don’t want to accept that the story has fundamentally changed at this point, and the way they’ve always done things is not only irrelevant, but counter-productive.
Now, when you have actors as good as this, and personal history as fraught as it is between the Lannister or Stark siblings, you can still produce incredibly powerful moments. Jaime walking away from his sister is a huge deal, as is Cersei’s inability to kill either of her brothers despite her promises to do so, and both scenes landed hard. So did the springing of Sansa and Arya’s trap of Littlefinger in the great hall at Winterfell, and full credit to Benioff and Weiss for playing the Stupid Stark card, knowing we would all fall for it and get angry, because they’ve done it so often before.
But too many other parts of the finale landed with a thud, none more than Sam and Bran’s conversation about the true nature of Jon and Dany’s relationship and his superior claim to the Iron Throne. (Just as Theon is both a Greyjoy and a Stark, so is Jon both a Targaryen by blood and a Stark by temperament.) Not only was it presented in the most baldly expositional way possible, but most of it was repetition of things the series had already shown us, including the very purposeful edit in “The Winds of Winter” establishing Jon’s true parentage. Benioff and Weiss weren’t being subtle with all this material, and they had to know after so many years of making the show how the Game of Thrones thinkpiece industrial complex operates, and that the second Gilly read Sam that passage about Rhaegar’s second marriage, the internet would be flooded with stories like this one explaining what that meant. Obviously, not everyone — maybe not even the majority of the audience — is going around reading these pieces, but Sam and Bran’s conversation was (like a similar sequence in the Westworld season one finale) presented as if it would be a stunning piece of news for the audience, rather than something the show had left an increasingly large trail of breadcrumbs leading towards.
As for the Night King using Viserion’s blue flame to bring down a chunk of the Wall for his army to finally enter Westeros proper, it was like much of the previous episode: huge in scale (albeit with weaker execution; the visual effects were much better in “Beyond the Wall”), head-scratching in terms of the story. Given what we know about the magical properties of the Wall, what was the Night King’s plan going to be if Dany hadn’t inadvertently gifted him a dragon? He has spent years wandering around wildling country, seemingly with no agenda beyond gathering up more undead soldiers, as if he — like the writers of the show he is on — knew that he had to eventually get past the Wall but wasn’t really sure how to make that happen, and in no hurry until the right tool presented itself.
The wights flooding through the huge hole where Eastwatch used to be at least ups the stakes for the story Benioff and Weiss plan to tell in these final six episodes (and however many total minutes they wind up running). But that in turn only lowers the stakes for any story not directly related to it. Jaime heading north without his armor or Lannister insignia now makes him more relevant to the only story that seems of any import, but his sister in turn is starting to feel like a vestigial limb — the hand Jaime lost once upon a time, perhaps? — of the show that Game of Thrones used to be, and may have to stop being very quickly whenever it comes back.
Some other thoughts:
* Back to the late Lord Baelish for a moment: he’s the most significant character on the show to be killed off since probably Tywin. After all, Littlefinger was more responsible than any other character for creating the war between the Starks and the Lannisters and most of the conflict of these seven seasons, as Sansa so thoroughly laid out in his trial. But, like Lady Olenna (who did, after all, arrange to murder the king), he had more or less outlived his usefulness to the plot by the time the end came for him, this time in the form of Arya’s swift dagger work. What exactly was his endgame going to be if he managed to turn the Starks against one another? He was still busy fighting old battles — and, unlike Cersei, didn’t seem to understand the true threat of the Army of the Dead and the possibility of having to fight the winner of this coming war in the North.
* One of the finale’s lighter moments involves Bronn and Jaime discussing the physical plight of the Unsullied and whether this limits their ability as soldiers. Later, in Theon’s brawl with the surly Ironborn sailor, we see it’s just the opposite, to an almost comical degree: Theon the eunuch is now invulnerable to a crotch kick, which somehow completely unnerves his opponent (who, like everyone else from the Iron Islands, already knew about Theon’s mutilation there) and turns a rout of Theon into his moment of triumph.
* If Beric and Tormund didn’t die when the Wall came down — and the last we see of them, they are watching from relative safety as slower comrades whom the audience doesn’t know plunge to their deaths — it won’t be quite as silly as Tormund’s survival in “Beyond the Wall,” but only because the show has now conditioned us to expect the good guys to survive even overwhelming circumstances.
* Jon is, by design, one of the show’s more humorless characters, but he gets to be dryly funny for a moment when he points out that the witch who cursed Drogo and Dany’s unborn child might not be the most reliable source of information when it comes to the fertility levels of the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, Reader of Knuffle Bunny.
* The credits map has been constant for several episodes now, even though Oldtown seems to have no relevance to the plot anymore (other than as the place where Sam found out about Jon’s legitimacy), and I’m wondering how much variety there can be for the final season. Maybe the return of Meereen or some other city of Essos for when Theon and Euron finally do battle? Or some other Northern castles we haven’t yet seen that could be in the Night King’s path?
Well, that’s it for the Game of Thrones reviews from me until at least sometime next year, and maybe not until 2019, depending on how long Benioff and Weiss take to produce these last six episodes. My vacation resumes as soon as this publishes, but Brian Grubb and a very special guest will be discussing the finale on tomorrow’s TV Avalanche podcast, and I imagine we could keep answering more of your questions about the season in future episodes once I’m back online again.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org