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.