Winter is here – for fans of Game of Thrones, anyway. We enter into the TV series’ final offseason with no firm idea of when it’s going to end – there’s been talk of a Fall 2018 or a Spring 2019 premiere, but in truth, no one is certain. What we do know (unless it changes) is that the final season will be six episodes long, with each episode – like this one – being nearly movie-length.
They’re going to need every minute.
At this point I think I (and lots and of lots of other people) have pretty much called out all the major highs and lows of this almost entirely original season, and in truth “The Dragon and the Wolf” was nothing if not a doubling-down on what came before it. If you like what Game of Thrones has become, there was plenty to like here. If you feel it’s strayed too far from A Song of Ice and Fire, you’ll have a seemingly never-ending feast of gristle to chew on. And if it’s some of both – as it is for me – you’ll probably have been left feeling exhausted and generally less than satisfied.
I did like a lot of what we saw here, but it was mostly the lower-key moments that clicked for me. For example, the reunions between Tyrion and Podrick, and Bronn. The detente between the Hound and Brienne, who in the end were fighting on the same side all along. There were even some excellent moments in the reunion of Tyrion and Cersei, and Ceresi’s final (for now) conversation with Jaime. But as the season comes to an end I’m forced to wonder what it all meant. Who wouldn’t have predicted that Cersei was totally untrustworthy, and the presence of a wight in King’s Landing would do nothing to change that? Who wouldn’t have predicted that sending a group of bearded curmudgeons north of the Wall to capture a wight was a dumb idea? Who wouldn’t guess that Jon Snow would be a fool for his honor – or that he and Daenerys would end up making the episode title come to life?
That this fanfic of a season was full of plot holes is hardly worth repeating at this stage – it feels almost cruel. But if the whole Euron bit was a ploy, how exactly did Cersei know there was going to be a wight in the dragonpit – and if she didn’t, what was supposedly going to be Euron’s excuse to betray her? Stuff like that still bothers me, petty as it is. But here’s a bigger issue – pretty much this whole disastrous finale was
Jon Aegon Snow’s Sand’s Targaryen’s fault. It’s his fault so much time was wasted on a nonsense mission dependent on Cersei’s being reasonable. It’s his fault Dany lost one of her children. And it’s his fault Viserion is now the greatest weapon in the Night King’s arsenal, and destroyed the Wall at Eastwatch (and let’s not get into whether that should even be possible in Martin’s mythology). And maybe killed Tormund and Beric too (though by God, I sure hope not).
There’s a larger problem here, though, and near as I can tell it’s one Martin’s books are no less free from than Benioff and Weiss’ adaptation. Ultimately, the Night King and his army of the dead are a less interesting opponent than someone like Cersei Lannister – or Stannis Baratheon, or Petyr Baelish. The human conflicts have always been what made this series so powerful – and indeed, the best moments’s of this episode (like the throne room conversation between Jon and Theon, or Cersei and Jaime’s parting) reflect the strengths of the story. I’m not sure an enemy which Jon rightfully points out is one who cannot be negotiated with, who represents the enemy of life itself, can ever carry the narrative the way subtle, shaded conflicts between people do.
That’s a problem for next year (or the year after) I suppose, and who knows when for Martin himself. In the meanwhile much has indeed changed, I’ll give Benioff and Weiss that much. The silly Winterfell drama ended as expected, with the fanservice death of Littlefinger. How much of the tension between sisters was a ruse? It doesn’t really matter, I suppose – TV Bran’s Gary Stu powers made it all a fait accompli. Jaime has finally seen the end of his loyalty to Cersei, the final straw being the fact that she plotted with Euron Greyjoy behind his back expects him to break a pledge to do what he knows is right. Jaime’s story remains one of the more compelling in the TV version of the story (despite its significant missteps along the way), and I was genuinely worried for a moment that Cersei might kill him rather than let him walk away from her. Just what he intends to do now (as the snow begins falling with heavy symbolism on King’s Landing) is unclear, but I would imagine he’ll end up fighting the dead beside Bronn and his brother – and I can think of far worse things to look forward to.
The destruction of the Wall is certainly the headline, but the biggest development in the human part of the story is perhaps that the truth about Jon Snow (which I imagine will be one of the few major plot threads shared by the books) is finally out in the open – to Sam and Bran anyway. It’s nice that the all-seeing Bran didn’t see that detail about Rhaegar and Lyanna actually being married – though I suppose he’d have had no reason to look for it. The Targaryen’s unusual marriage practices aside, this can only prove to be a significant source of tension between he and Daenerys in Season 8 – if you accept the Targaryen claim to the Iron Throne on principle, than it’s Jon who’s the legal holder of it. And given his nature it’s hard to imagine him forgoing that claim for expediency – or love.
If one were to speculate on possible endings for this series, it’s interesting to consider whether Benioff and Weiss will return to Martin’s script – for they certainly know how he intends to end the series (both have confirmed this). Martin could change his mind of course – or never finish the book series at all – but if I were in his shoes, I’d rather have Game of Thrones continue its divergence and do its own thing than spoil my ending. One way or the other it seems likely to me that the story will conclude with no one sitting on the Iron Throne, because it’s hard to see a justification for any single character being the right one to do so. We’ll find out soon enough, I suppose – in the case of the TV series, anyway.
For all its flaws, this season of Game of Thrones was still superb entertainment a lot of the time – and “The Dragon and the Wolf” was no exception. It was indeed liberated in a sense, free at last to hoe its own ground, and perhaps was the better for it. For me the show was undeniably at its best when it was adapting Martin’s material more or less straight, but the weird purgatory of Season 6, forced to hybridize canon and original content, was a low point. Season 7 may have seen the series fully transition to fanfiction, but at least it was unshackled from the chain’s of Martin’s half-finished plot threads and character arcs. It’s going to be a long wait for the final season, but fans of this story are more than used to long waits.