(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows.)
When Jon and Theon (of all people) stand alone in Dragonstone’s throne room during “The Dragon and the Wolf“, the many themes, events, and plots of Game of Thrones are beautifully crystallized, if but for a single moment. Theon looks at Jon, full of grace and honor, and can’t believe the difference in the paths their lives took; “you always knew what the right decision was, even when we were young and stupid”, he tells him, on the verge of tears. History may remember Jon Snow as a man of honor, and honorable decisions, but the story we all know is much darker, and much more complex than that.
Surviving in the world of Westeros is not just about making a series of smart choices; after all, every decision has its consequences, none of them glamorous (Jon’s death a paramount example of this). Except when it comes to saving humanity from the Walkers, there is no clear cut right or wrong answer; only history allows us the lens to view those who succeed and fail, the passage of time the true decider of who is the victor. After all, Robert’s rebellion began on a lie, throwing noble houses and social structure alike into a decades-long conflict: was the decision to protect the single life of Jon Snow – ahem, Aegon Targaryen – the right one after all?
A Tumultuous Season Comes To End On a Momentous, Yet Unsatisfying Game of Thrones
These conflicts have given Game of Thrones a depth unlike any show of its kind; even political dramas often fall short of offering the kind of philosophic, and historic, complexity the workings of Westeros offer fans of the show. And in “The Dragon and the Wolf”, Game of Thrones appears to offer a masterwork of its class, taking Theon’s observation on Jon’s ever-building legacy, and presenting it as a litmus test for other stories in the world. In the case of King’s Landing and Winterfell, it pays off beautifully: the long scenes in both locations, despite the problematic foundations said moments are built upon, embodies what the show does so well in earlier seasons. For all its faults this season, the show’s relentless pursuit of having characters re-examine their history has paid dividends; everything from long-simmering stories like Bran’s visions of Lyanna, to shorter conflicts like Sansa’s utter undressing of Littlefinger exists in the context of redefinition of history, and the importance of context in determining a winner or loser.
In the short term, even Cersei’s underhanded play of Tyrion, Dany, and company fits the thematic bill here: she uses her own emotional frailty against Tyrion, playing him into buying her false truce in the hopes of protecting her unborn child in order to strengthen her position in the southern lands, knowing she’ll be facing the Night’s Army if she does. Given that we’re at the end game, it’s pretty easy to see this won’t work out well for her; but in the moment, Cersei’s play feels like the smart, natural move for her to make, the Lannister way of outsmarting enemies and buying their way to victory proving once again that Cersei exists in the world of the past – although her decision probably seems smart to her now, it’s pretty clear history will not take well to her choices throughout the series, especially once she isolates herself from her brother, as she does in one of the hour’s most subtly dramatic moments (who thought The Mountain was going to cut Jaime down right there? Honestly the only moment of real mortal tension for me in the hour…. but I digress).
On a fundamental level, adhering to the debate presented by Theon makes for an entertaining, surprisingly intriguing hour of Game of Thrones; but step back and view it as a piece of the whole season, and “The Dragon and the Wolf” is a rather toothless hour of television, a season finale that doesn’t really offer anything in the way of surprises, unless a wildly incoherent climatic moment was what they were aiming for (no, I’m not talking about the Night Army breaching the wall). There’s really no sense of surprise in this hour; we could all tell Cersei was going to play Tyrion, because Tyrion’s done nothing this season to prove that he’s strategically smarter than anyone in his family (arguably the single most disappointing development of recent seasons, but that’s a longer conversation for another day). By the same token, Arya and Sansa’s “gotcha” moment on Littlefinger is equally satisfying, and equally unsurprising: not only does last week’s scene make absolutely no sense (if she knew Littlefinger wasn’t watching them, why say all that nonsense?), but it relegates one of the season’s most important plot developments to an off-screen conversation, the kind of “twist” element that only exists as a cheap ploy to avoid actual storytelling, with real meaning and stakes.
It’s not to say Littlefinger’s death isn’t a glorious moment for the Stark family: then again, we’ve seen plenty of people wimp out and beg for their lives as they see the end coming for themselves on this show. Is it that impressive without seeing how Arya and Sansa figured it out? Rather than trust the audience to invest in the emotional connections between sisters – which the show FINALLY digs into, in the season’s final scene in Winterfell – Game of Thrones went for a poorly designed political plot, a story with no stakes for its antagonist (what was Littlefinger’s goal exactly – pit generation after generation of Stark women against each other, until one of them fucks him?) that was delivered in the cheapest, most derivative and unsatisfying way possible. Though we get a magical scene between Arya and Sansa later in the episode, Littlefinger’s exit didn’t feel anything like karmic justice or beautiful retribution; it simply felt like a lame duck plot being put out to pasture, hoping a bit of dramatic flair would cover up for the utter lack of depth offered in the story arc.
The collection of great character moments is almost enough to not be overshadowed by the thin plot mechanics holding them together; however, in scenes like Bran and Sam’s conversation in front of the Winterfell fire, the stitches in the fabric are a bit easy to see. In a single scene, Samwell is able to remember information he’d previously ignored from Gilly, while receiving information that Bran hasn’t shared with anyone else in Westeros, while both of them are missing key bits of information to the same story. On the surface, this scene is everything it should be: it fills in the gaps of Jon’s history, giving definition to the entire scope of the series, and still holds true to the complicated nature of preserving history accurately (even the three-eyed raven still though Jon was a bastard, after all). But with Samwell’s magical, sudden arrival in Winterfell (after taking fifty fucking years to get to Oldtown) Bran dropping knowledge he’d been withholding from his family (who he was indirectly responsible for setting up to take out Littlefinger, ever the political Stark for some reason) isn’t exactly as satisfying a moment as it should be.
It doesn’t help the scene is essentially a backdrop for aunt and nephew fucking, a sequence that very well may go down as Game of Thrones‘ weirdest, most dissonant moment ever. As one incest relationship falls apart in King’s Landing (revealed to be the toxic disaster it always was), Game of Thrones reveals another in a moment that is supposed to be both romantic and mysterious, but instead feels perfunctory and uncomfortable, a moment of two people fucking during a long journey because it’s the season finale damnit. It’s odd; on one hand, the thematic mirroring of their pairing as the Lannister clan falls apart presents another interesting examination of Westeros’ generational turnover. Is this a more progressive, accepting Westeros (which is kind of, in many ways, the Westeros of old) – and if so, why is Game of Thrones still presenting the Jaime/Cersei relationship as the most absolutely evil, ass-backwards thing two related people could do? It is a classic “have cake and eat it too” moment, a weird disconnect that is a byproduct of the show’s own scope, calling back events of the pilot (and even before) without taking into consideration how it would shape other scenes around it.
Ultimately, Jon and Dany having sex doesn’t feel like a good or bad moment for the show, or its characters; it’s just kind of there, just as the weirdly suggestive shot of Tyrion’s longing look at their bedroom door is placed after. Why shouldn’t these things happen, is the question Game of Thrones asks, rather than really presenting great reasons why they should. Wasn’t Dany pretty pissed that Jon allowed his adopted father’s sensibilities destroy their truce with Cersei (that she wasn’t going to honor anyway – besides, the point however)? Didn’t Jon repeatedly say their relationship wasn’t going to be about love or attraction, since the fate of the fucking world hung in the balance? In the end, they fuck not because the characters have chemistry or the show presents a great opportunity for the two to explore a physical relationship: it’s just thrown in as a montage over some swelling music, a scene that both refuses to exist in the moment (their love scene is… cold and distant, to say the least – nothing intimate about it at all) or reflect on the weight of it all, since it’s information being fed to us over a fucking montage.
While Theon’s scene at Dragonstone gave Game of Thrones the thematic foundation much of the episode (and season as a whole) lacked, Dany/Jon/Bran/Sam’s scene, followed by the Night King taking down the Wal, undercuts any of the strong work found in Dragonstone or at Winterfell. The only two big moments of the episode we see past the negotiation scene (since Sansa/Arya and Cersei are basically done off-screen) are the Night King and the Winterfell/sex boat montage stuff, the lasting image of season seven are the show’s weakest points: the flashy, but empty conflict with the CGI squad, and the show’s inconsistent delivery of story, rushing through major conflicts and reveals, in a desperate attempt to condense the show’s world and place all the pawns in order for the final six episodes of the series. The machinations at play are nothing but obvious in this episode, and although Game of Thrones is always able to find the space in between moments to enrich its world and characters, those strong elements are lost in the salvo of mindless plot machinations, lackluster direction, and the ever-growing feeling Game of Thrones has lost sight of its journey as it begins to reach its final destinations.
- And that’s season seven! A lot of rushed plots, a lot of fun thematic allusions, and not a lot of cathartic release to some of the show’s most-awaited climatic moments.
- Arya and Sansa’s scene above Winterfell is beautiful, and everything I wish the rest of this season offered these characters, rather than the waste of a plot line they were tied up in.
- I’d imagine Tormund and company live the siege on the Wall, since Game of Thrones didn’t bother checking in with any of them before signing off.
- Ice dragon! As expected, blue fire looks cool – and as expected, it’s still disappointing to think about how the imagery of the finale scene came to be. The expedition beyond the Wall will forever be one of the show’s most disappointing climatic moments.
- Oh my god, fuck Euron Greyjoy. Such a bad character, and such a poor bit of subterfuge on the part of Cersei. Effective, I suppose… but it’s a farce on a show that doesn’t play to farce, and it feels way out of line with anything else Cersei would do.
- Hey, Jaime finally stood up to his sister! Too bad that story didn’t happen three seasons ago, so Jaime would be a character we still admire, like Brienne.
- The Mountain/Hound stare down is a thoroughly ludicrous moment, but one I completely enjoyed and accept.
- I get that the Rhaegar’s first family was dead, but why did Lyanna name Jon Aegon?
- OK, the Hound and Brienne’s conversation about Arya was awesome. One thing Game of Thrones really delivered on (in this episode, and the season) is the smallest interactions between characters: Jon and Jorah talking family, The Hound looking at the family he had robbed seasons earlier, and Arya having a meal with Hot Pie were moments to remember.
- Ok, the ice dragon looked pretty cool. Still doesn’t give the Night Army an interesting story to tell, but hey, apocalyptic stuff is still exciting in its own right.
- UGH, how does Tyrion not see through his sister’s lies? He’s been such a fucking imbecile as the Hand all season, it’s really frustrating (also – remember when he used to like fucking? He mentions a brothel in this episode, and it is the first time in years he has felt like a sexual being. Just a random thought).
- Hey, Theon is going to save Yara… except she won’t be there, so who cares about this storyline?
- Cerei has the Golden Company at her disposal… again, who cares at this point?
- Why not give us CleganeBowl this week…. why not???!!!
- So… the Night King was just waiting for a dragon the whole time? How did he know Jon would devise this shitty plan to go beyond the Wall and stealth-steal a wight? And how did he know Dany would show up after? If the Wall is magic, wouldn’t it stop an undead anything?… Ok, my head hurts – better to not think about this story any more than we have to.
- Another logical question: what was Littlefinger’s goal in starting another war between Stark sisters? What would he gain from them taking each other out? There was a point where it felt Littlefinger was tied into the Big Game playing out at the center of the story, but this episode reveals it all to be a ruse constructed around a sexual obsession. GREAT.
- One last question of logic, for the trifecta: How did the Unsullied get out of Casterly Rock, if Cersei wasn’t pulling her troops back an inch?
- Ultimately, season seven was a bunch of great, disconnected individual moments trying to swim through a speeding current of plot development (and contraction), one where the supposed twists and turns are coming fast and hard, as if to cover up the thin logic and storytelling underneath these flashy images and expensive scenes. It’s odd to see a show so out of rhythm with itself this late in the game: watching it so masterfully craft small interactions and stories between characters (especially ones that reference back to specific old stories) while fumbling the intricacies of its larger plot made for one of the more oddly exciting and frustrating seasons of any show in recent memory.
- See you in.. late 2018? 2019? Whenever it is, and wherever I may be at the time, you know I’ll have words to say about Game of Thrones as the Great War begins in the dead of winter.