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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Blood is thicker than water, maybe, but Ice beckons as Game Of Thrones closes its season (experts)

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Welcome to the “Experts” reviews of Game Of Thrones here at The A.V. Club, which are written from the perspective of someone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Originally, these reviews were a necessity, creating a space where those who had read the books could freely discuss upcoming story developments from the books, but we are duly aware that this is no longer necessary (what with the show passing the books). However, the separate reviews—you can read Brandon Nowalk’s “Newbies” reviews here—remain as a space to foreground the different critical perspectives of “readers” and “non-readers” while simultaneously providing spaces for conversation where one can connect with viewers with similar relationships to the source material.

NOTE: If you are posting for the first time since our switch to Kinja, don’t fear. There are instructions on how to connect your old Disqus account, which should hopefully keep you from being consigned to “the grays.” However, I’m going to go through and un-gray as many people as I can once I’m finished writing as well. I would also suggest using Google Chrome and the “Kinjamprove” extension, which makes Kinja threads more readable and shows you all pending comments as well as the approved ones. 

From a book reader perspective, it’s hard to say that Game Of Thrones is an “unpredictable” show. In fact, it’s probably the part of its cultural footprint that most separates readers from non-readers: whereas the show’s broader reputation has been for its no-holds-barred approach to killing characters, that’s old news to people who saw every one of those deaths coming.

But this season, Game Of Thrones has been objectively unpredictable. When the season began, my concern was that the show was going to move in slow motion, stalling so that big developments would play out at the end of this shortened “season” and build momentum for the real final season next year. But against all expectation, a show that once shifted gears manually went fully automatic, following up a slower premiere with a breathless rush toward “The Dragon And The Wolf.” I wouldn’t necessarily say that what actually happened this season was unpredictable, but the sheer volume of story ground the show covered is unprecedented. Time and space were thrown out the window, alliances were shattered almost immediately after they were established, and all so that the show could get from point A to point B before the final season.

But what I found striking about “The Dragon And The Wolf” is that point A wasn’t as different from point B than the pace of the season might suggest at first glance. Obviously, the destruction of The Wall by Viserion the wight is a significant development, but neither the dragon nor the loss of the Wall changes the overall conflict. When the season began, the factions of Westeros were at war with each other when they should have been uniting against the threat in the North. And when the season ends, there may be the appearances of an alliance, but there remain clear divisions between the “living” forces that will continue to plague them. For all of the ways that this season burned through potential story, its central conflict actually moved remarkably slowly, to the point where it would only be natural to wonder what the Night King was waiting for as he stalled North of the Wall.

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

“The Dragon And The Wolf” returns to the slow pace of the premiere, a bookend to the season driven by tense negotiations and crucial emotional turning points. And what it reinforced for me above all else was that season seven’s faster pace was the perfect example of a short-term solution that created long-term problems. Those problems, for the record, have nothing to do with “realism” or “temporality” or any of the shortcuts the show took in order to advance the plot more efficiently. Rather, the central issue is that only parts of the show started moving at warp speed, while other stories dragged their feet not unlike the Night King and his army. For every scene in this finale that felt like the logical culmination of the breakneck journey in the past six episodes, there was another scene that felt like it should have happened six episodes ago, with little logic for why it happened now beyond a conscious choice by the show’s writers. And while breaking the laws of time and space is a creative choice with mostly pedantic implications, the absence of clear logic behind character-based decisions we saw play out this season has a much more significant impact on the show and its future.

At the core of this episode—fitting given the “revelation” Bran finally gets around to delivering—is the notion of family, and we get our latest family reunion with the Lannister siblings. While the meeting in the Dragonpit brings together a wide range of characters—Tyrion’s reunion with Pod and Bronn, Brienne’s conversation with The Hound, etc.,— in addition to Dany’s first meeting with Cersei, it’s most significant story wise for bringing Cersei, Jaime, and Tyrion back together. That it happens in the Dragonpit is clearly Cersei’s doing: here is a monument to the death of House Targaryen, where the dragons were held captive and withered away to nothing much like the House itself. But beyond Cersei’s head games and the evocative backdrop for the scene aesthetically, the Dragonpit serves as a good contrast for Thrones itself. When the dragons were constrained, they went extinct, but I’d argue the opposite is true for this series. When Thrones is constrained, as it is when a good percentage of the show’s characters are in one space, the show becomes far more interesting. It thrives on the opportunity to put two characters in a room together and just let them work through everything that’s happened to them: we saw it in season one with Robert and Cersei, and we see it again here as Cersei and Tyrion meet in her chambers following a stalemate in the negotiations, and Cersei and Jaime eventually meet once a truce has been agreed to.

Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey have not shared a scene together since the fourth season of this show, and I really missed the energy they pull from one another. Cersei’s hatred is never clearer as it is with Tyrion, whose “kinslaying” at birth robbed her of a mother. We never saw that, of course, but we felt it in the way she treated him early in the series, and we saw it in her willingness to hold him accountable for Joffrey’s death, and now in her choice to hold him accountable for Tommen and Myrcella’s deaths by removing Tywin from the picture. What becomes clear in the scene is just how deep Cersei has used Tyrion as a defense mechanism: she is the one who ultimately doomed Tommen, not Tyrion, even if she traces the High Sparrow’s treachery and the Tyrell move to take power back to Tywin’s death. And so the show does the simplest thing: it puts the two characters in a room, and tests them. The test for Tyrion was whether he’d enter the room at all; the test for Cersei is whether or not Tyrion leaves alive.

He does, although the implication leaving the meeting was troubling. Cersei’s pregnancy—which the show has not signaled in any way is fake, despite my initial skepticism because I’ve watched too many soap operas—is very briefly put forward as a reason for a softening of Cersei’s position. Their entire conversation is about the future of their house, and the argument is that Cersei’s position has changed now that she and her siblings are not the only ones left standing. It’s a rather frustrating moment for the character, an implication that motherhood would curb all of the vicious instincts that she had previously shown in successfully working her way to power. And so it was weirdly heartening when Cersei revealed to Jaime that she was just plain lying: she has no intentions to travel north, and she’s going to raise their baby to inherit whatever world is left over. While Tyrion—desperate for a truce, and optimistic to a degree that is frankly going to get him killed one of these days—believes Cersei because he has to, as an audience member I struggled with that reading, and was rewarded with something truer to the show’s most striking antihero.

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

And yet the show continues to resist turning Cersei into an outright villain. She could have killed Tyrion, after all, but chooses not to, despite his goading of The Mountain. And later, when she meets with her brother and lover Jaime, the conversation devolves to the point where Cersei actually appears to give The Mountain the order to kill him, but then she hesitates at the last moment as he walks away from her. This season has shown Cersei to be deeply sadistic, perhaps, but her violence has been fundamentally motivated by revenge (with Ellaria, still rotting in a cell with her daughter’s corpse apparently) or part of her war efforts. She is still not someone who we have known to murder one of her siblings in cold blood, and that moment with Jaime was an example of a moment where I wasn’t thinking “are the writers wiling to kill Jaime,” instead understanding what was happening in terms of the characters involved. It was another standout scene in what was a particularly strong episode for Headey, and creates a significant turning point in Cersei and Jaime’s relationship.

However, that moment comes too late to fully regain control of Jaime’s wayward arc. Earlier in the episode, Jaime and Cersei actually met before she met with Tyrion, but we don’t see it. I found that odd: Brienne had just tasked Jaime with convincing his sister to accept the truce, but then we’re kept outside the room? But that has been par for the course as the show largely left Jaime’s continued support of Cersei to a rote return to “the things we do for love,” hearkening back to Bran’s “fall” from the tower at Winterfell. And while that might be true, the fact that Jaime spent months with Cersei after she blew up the Sept of Baelor still doesn’t track with the sense of honor we saw him developing in his time with Brienne, and that we see manifest here when he chooses to travel north on his own. It’s a case where the show spent the season delaying this moment because they needed Jaime as the face of the Lannister forces, but given the strength of his position here how did he not balk at her previous actions? Why was this the breaking point? How did the months that passed over the course of this season go by without more hesitation on Jaime’s part than we saw?

That question does not destroy Jaime’s arc: on a broad level, his is still the story of the misunderstood kingslayer who continued to live his life doing what was expected of him without fully grappling with the immorality of those actions, which gradually rise to the surface and drive him to take control of his path forward. But there were too many false starts in the middle of that story: that could have happened when he returned to King’s Landing the first time, and it could have happened when he returned to King’s Landing at the end of last season, but instead it took place here where it offers the promise of a redemption arc about three seasons after that arc would have come without significant caveats (beyond the whole “tried to kill a kid in the pilot” caveat that was just always going to be there regardless).

“The Dragon And The Wolf” is, unfortunately, laden with several stories that work on the macro level but fall apart when you consider the mechanics of the story in question. This is no truer than in the events at Winterfell, where the show provides a cathartic moment of Stark solidarity that does not bother to paint a logical picture of events. I think the implication in the episode is that last week, Sansa legitimately believed that Arya might be plotting to kill her, and that the two sisters were at each other’s throats right up until the point where Littlefinger teaches Sansa how he justifies his own actions. He tells her a long story about “assuming the worst,” at which point Sansa breaks down the case for Arya’s actions being driven by her wanting to be lady of Winterfell. And, like with Cersei’s pregnancy being used to soften her, the idea that Sansa would ever take this seriously was laughable, which did make it satisfying when the “big reveal” happens and Sansa is actually putting Littlefinger on trial for murder and treason instead of her sister.

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

It’s a fun scene: Sophie Turner taps into Sansa’s past pain, Aidan Gillen brings out the most pathetic sides of Littlefinger as he gets on his knees to beg for his life, and the efficiency with which Arya slits his throat packs a visceral punch. But as the scene carried forward, it kept shooting itself in the foot. If Sansa knew most of this about Littlefinger already (and she knew enough), why was she ever working with him in the first place? Why didn’t she send him away or hold him accountable for murder immediately after the Battle Of The Bastards? And if the show is arguing that she was waiting for Bran’s Three-Eyed Raven evidence—is that even admissible?—then why didn’t Bran give it to her immediately? When did he give her this information? And how long has Arya been aware of this, and what role did she play in this ruse? I raise these questions because I am literally unclear of what the show is saying happened here: Was this a sibling rivalry that flared up but was ultimately defeated when the siblings decided to work together? If it was, the show drastically overplayed that rivalry last week, as it is difficult to go from Arya threatening to murder Sansa a week ago to now working alongside her without hesitation. I’m glad they’re working together, and loved their final moment on the walls of Winterfell reminiscing about their father, but the show went too hard into the rivalry for the sake of a “twist,” and I still have no idea what drove the characters involved given what may or may not have happened offscreen.

And thus we come to Bran’s other role in this episode. In an episode where family is key, it’s fitting that this is finally when we officially learn that Jon and Daenerys are blood relatives. Technically speaking, the show had never actually confirmed this: while it could be surmised by the Tower Of Joy flashback, and HBO released some material on their website that confirmed the long-held “R+L=J theory,” the text itself left the question open to interpretation. I even got an email from someone who felt it was possible they weren’t related, and the door had been left ajar this season by the fact that Bran never told anyone about it for reasons I do not understand.

I think I understand what the writers argue in “The Dragon And The Wolf.” When Bran tells Sam—who rode all the way to Winterfell from Oldtown, about which I have questions that I’ll just let lie—about Jon not being Ned Stark’s son, Sam fills in the pertinent marriage information he gleaned from the Septon diaries he transcribed earlier in the season. The implication is that Bran didn’t think his news was that significant to anyone but Jon himself: he just thought it meant that Jon was a Sand instead of a Snow, and that his father being Rhaegar Targaryen was an incidental detail in the grand scheme of things. It’s an argument that Bran is not a viewer of the television program Game Of Thrones, or a reader of A Song Of Ice And Fire, and thus wasn’t so concerned about this news that he would tell Sansa, or Arya, or send a raven to Jon. It was information that was able to wait until Sam confirms that Rhaegar and Lyanna had been wed, which made Jon the true heir to House Targaryen and thus the Iron Throne, and which also means that he’s on a boat to White Harbor shagging his aunt.

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

But that cut from Bran’s revelation to Jon’s late-night rendezvous to Daenerys is truly the only justification for why Bran revealed this information to no one before now. The show has established that he can see anything he puts his mind to: he would have been able to see Jon and Dany, and he should have been capable of putting two and two together about how this might change Jon’s perspective. The show tries to leave itself room by saying that Bran’s access to information is dependent on some type of cue: he didn’t know to look for Rhaegar and Lyanna’s marriage, for example, but he visits it once Sam tells him it happened. But surely his mind would have drifted to Jon’s state of affairs once in a while, right? Has he never heard of “see something in your visions, say something to the people it might dramatically impact?” But he couldn’t do that, because the show had to wait until it could make the move it wanted to make: watching two crazy kids fall in love with one another at the same time it’s revealed they’re both related and about to begin their own family rivalry over the right to rule over Westeros.

As I noted last week, Jon and Dany’s storyline has had the most time this season, and overall I’d call it a success: I buy that these two people would see the other as a kindred spirit, and that their respect—forged here in Jon’s refusal of Cersei’s request that Jon not pledge allegiance to Daenerys, a foolhardy bit of honor mixed with admiration—could blossom into love. I’m even mostly okay with the idea of the show exploring “accidental incest,” even if I still have questions about how to navigate it tonally as the show moves toward its conclusion. But in order to give that story time to grow, others had to move at a snail’s pace, or disappear altogether. The show hastily tried to return to Theon’s storyline in the finale, as Jon gives a prophetic speech about Ned Stark as a surrogate father figure to help nail home the themes of family, but what was Theon doing the rest of this time? What has been happening to Yara? The season gave us every beat of Jon and Dany’s story, but only slivers of many others, setting a clear hierarchy: this tragiromantic coupling now sits at the heart of the show, the central emotional beat that will anchor Game Of Thrones as it moves into its final hours.

And yet it’s weird, I think, that the living are still marching toward the dead as a truly motiveless force. The show’s characters have always been complex, and so I was always going to be invested in whatever complex alliance fought to defend Westeros from the arriving threat. And the season, pacing problems aside, mostly created compelling character combinations that will now march into full-out war in the six episodes to come sometime in late 2018 (or perhaps a bit later). But they’re marching against a Night King whose motivations remain entirely vague: yes, he was created by the Children Of The Forest through torture, but why now? What is motivating the White Walkers to march on Westeros? Even if the show’s ultimate argument is that the living might be their own greatest enemy, are the White Walkers and their army nothing but an empty shell? Is the sheer scale of their threat the entirety of the development we’re going to get?

And that’s where I return to the lack of “progress” in this season despite the distance covered. For as much as the show went against expectation by barreling forward, it made fewer big moves than I might have expected. Littlefinger and Olenna Tyrell proved the only true noteworthy deaths (sorry Thoros, you were gone too long), and the big action beats that were delivered—the Loot Train Attack, Viserion’s death, the fall of the Wall—either went by without any significant loss of lives we cared about or came with consequences that mostly just delivered on the inevitable. There was no world where the White Walkers were not going to make it past the Wall: the question just became how, and Viserion the wight became the answer. The effects work has been stronger than ever, and I appreciate the commitment to scale, but the show went through surprisingly little transformation in preparation for its final season outside of its newfound speed.

And so Game Of Thrones goes into its final season with largely the same momentum it came into its penultimate season with. Yes, Daenerys finally came to Westeros, and in “The Dragon And The Wolf” we get to see the various sides of this story all together for the first time in the Dragonpit, and it’s pretty great: just hearing Ramin Djawadi’s various themes all playing in quick succession, from the Unsullied to the Lannisters to Daenerys to the Starks, there’s something powerful there that the show tapped into well all season. However, we’re still anticipating the ramifications of R+L=J, and we’re still waiting for the first real battle between the living and the dead, and the show hasn’t really changed despite everything that transpired over the course of this shortened season. And so while the show gets points for avoiding losing track of the big picture while contorting itself to get through so much narrative in such a short period, there remains enough loose ends logic-wise that I go into the final season with excitement to see what the end has in store and a somewhat skeptical eye toward how they’ll tell that story given the choices on display here.

Stray observations

  • So Jon Snow is actually, technically, Aegon Targaryen, or so Lyanna whispered to Ned with her last breaths. Are we going to have to start calling him Aegon now? Or can we call him Aejon? Let’s call him Aejon.
  • The meeting in the Dragonpit reminded me of a contract signing in professional wrestling, where you’re just waiting for it to devolve into a fight: it almost does with Euron, of course, who can’t resist playing the heel with Theon. And in wrestling terms, Cersei’s “I know Ned Stark’s son will be true to his word” would have definitely started the brawl.
  • Speaking of: so what was Euron and Cersei’s plan? His song and dance about leaving for the Iron Islands seems VERY context specific: is he just a great improviser, and they had originally planned for him to throw a different fit in his departure? Was his taunting of Theon part of the plan? I get they want to leave the Golden Company thread open, but that still doesn’t track for me.
  • Speaking of professional wrestling, Theon’s fight with the boat captain was booked like a novelty match, right down to the “no sell” of the nutshot. It make me chuckle, but also felt tonally off in a scene that involves him murdering a guy to prove his masculinity and everyone just sort of being okay with that despite the guy not being wrong about Theon’s cowardice.
  • The choice to have someone who so closely resembles Harry Lloyd play Rhaegar is… interesting. I mean, I understand the logic that the two siblings would look alike, but it’s weird to get information that confirms Rhaegar’s love for Lyanna while struggling with the face of someone we loathe. I even thought it was Lloyd for a second.
  • “Maybe it is all cocks in the end”—well, not if we’re talking about the nudity on Game Of Thrones, it’s not. I liked this little bit of banter between Bronn and Jaime, but I also took it as a slight meta-comment, which continued to be relevant as Kit Harington stayed “rear only” in Jon’s intimate moment with Daenerys.
  • Anyone else find the moment between The Hound and The Mountain super arbitrary? I wasn’t sure what they were trying to accomplish: Are we meant to think The Hound will eventually get his revenge? Was it just to remind us that CleganeBowl is a thing that could happen? I have questions.
  • Loved the little bit of banter between Brienne and Sandor: It’s a bit weird that Brienne didn’t also take time to talk to Jon (given that she was just with Sansa and Arya, and Bran, both of whom Jon has never really addressed after their returns to Winterfell), but I maybe preferred getting this glimpse of two protectors reflecting on their charges.
  • Question of the Week: I mean, there’s lots of questions to ask here, but let’s keep it simple: Is there any real possibility, in your eyes, that Tormund and Beric died on the Wall? On the one hand, it seems a bit toothless to effectively have the entire Wall collapse and no one but a few random wildlings die. But on the other hand, they didn’t actually get any kind of death, and by that logic I’d say they’re definitely still among the living. But the show resisted what I thought was coming—a shot of them looking down at the missing Wall as the armies came through—so it seems like they at least want to leave the question open. Could either or both show up as surprise wights in the final season?
  • Thanks again, everyone, for a short but fun return to Westeros—these comment sections have been huge and ungainly, but also filled with lots of interesting insights and great conversations. I am hopeful that by the time we get to next season, the transition to Kinja will have been fully completed, and our makeshift tools for trying to make the comment system work for the kinds of discussions we have here will have evolved into something more formal. In the interim, though, I’m going to go through and do my best to get people’s comments visible, and encourage you to follow the link on how to sign up for Kinja using your Disqus account and use the Google Chrome extension that makes things more readable. Thanks for reading, and as always you can ask me any questions or raise any comments on Twitter at @Memles.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.

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