Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Game of Thrones each week in a series of letters.
Josh. Josh. Josh. My head is spinning.
Where the hell did this come from?
This entire season has followed a well-worn pattern—we love the characters, we’re invested in their stories, but the plot is insulting, the attention to detail is awful, and the dialogue is weak. The story is still good, but the episodes were bad.
And then this?
This was like if I handed you an old sock, a vat of donkey urine, and four dead pigeons, and asked you to make a soufflé, and instead you made a 20-course feast that would take George R.R. Martin 50 pages to describe.
In short, this ruled. This was the save of a lifetime. This has me psyched again, and—at the risk of repeating myself—I didn’t see this coming. Not remotely. It seemed so unlikely that I’m honestly afraid to call it excellent, because I’m scared that I’ve been duped somehow and all the smart reviewers are going to be like, “this sucked also,” and I’ll look like a dupe.
But I don’t care. I have to sing the praises, and I’m going to, but allow me one tiny moment of regret:
Why couldn’t the whole season be like this?
And now I pause while the Hound slaps me for whinging.
Okay, that’s done. So, where to begin with the praise? First off, they had to wrap up a very bad plot (the wight kidnapping) and maneuver their way to a very predictable conclusion. Cersei was gonna Cersei, and we all knew it, even as they tried to sow doubt. That’s the task the writers faced—take a story that everyone hates, and arrive at a conclusion that everyone already knows. There is simply no way in hell they should have pulled it off.
And yet? They did it. It may be too fresh for me to analyze exactly how they managed to execute a 40-minute (yup) King’s Landing opening with such shocking success, but I think it’s because for maybe the first time all season, they really committed to interpersonal drama. Even at its high points, this season has felt like a paint-by-numbers effort—smarter people than me have written how the season has been reverse-engineered to satisfy set pieces. They needed the magnificent seven beyond the wall, and they needed Dany to rescue them, and instead arriving there organically, the constructed a sloppy set-up that left everyone unsatisfied. This show—any show, really—works far better when those big set pieces are defined by the personalities and the relationships, not vice versa. In other words, Robb Stark dying at the Red Wedding because of his own honor and ignorance, coupled with the treachery and cunning of Tywin Lannister, is deeply satisfying on a narrative level because, despite its brutality, it’s the logical end point of disparate threads of character behavior. Nonsensical drama between Arya and Sansa, on the other hand, is deeply unsatisfying because we can sense we’re being led by the nose to some conclusion, and character is being ignored in service of the big event. It’s working backwards—the tail is wagging the dog. Intuitively, we the viewers know we’re being cheated.
So what was different about tonight? Game of Thrones still has terrific characters, and they finally used them. The drama was based around moments of dialogue, moments of small confrontation. Messages were delivered with subtlety—Dany’s arrival by dragon, the ominous armies and navies massing outside the city walls, the understated reunions, the uncertain silence of waiting. There were false moments—the Hound’s odd monologue with his brother, Euron’s interruption. But even those were in service of something important that would happen later. And at every moment, characters revealed themselves through action.
Cersei, for instance, was fully herself—half-clever, half-selfish. She masterminded the entire event, and everybody marched to her beat and reached her desired conclusion, but unlike the father she likes to bring up in every third sentence, she cannot see beyond her nose—not even inches away, where the wight is showing her the future. Deep down, her intelligence is always marred by her sense that there is no distinction between enemies, and that “enemies” is a category encompassing almost everyone. The end result is that she must always be fighting the small battles at the expense of the war, and isolating herself in the process.
(By the way, excellent parallel in the brother-sparing scenes—Tyrion, grudgingly and barely, because she knew it meant her imminent death, and Jaime because there is some love left within her.)
(Second by the way: If the Iron Bank is really loaning her money to buy the Golden Company, I hope they’re up for the imminent re-branding, courtesy of Daenerys, into the Molten Bank. Because Dany is gonna burn them. With her dragons. And melted iron is called molten iron, I think. Someone once told me jokes are always better when you explain them.)
Then there’s Jon—is there a more classic Jon Snow move than totally blowing it by refusing to go back on his word? As Tyrion said, just lie! A simple wink to Dany would have sufficed. Instead, he’s honor-bound, always honor-bound, even though he knows the reprimand that’s coming—this is the shit that got your father killed. But his counter-argument has a beauty of its own: When enough people lie, there’s no such thing as truth.
And that argument plays out in the heart of Jaime Lannister when he realizes that Cersei is conniving after all—finally, finally, finally, he gets the fundamental truth that his word is more important than his loyalty to Cersei, for the precise reason that she will inevitably corrupt that loyalty in the service of ambition. She loves Jaime, but she will betray him when it counts.
In matters of love and betrayal, there’s also Petyr Baelish to consider. (Notice how these themes repeat? That’s the kind of intricate writing that has been entirely absent up until now.) He had to die, he was always going to die, and the very egregiously awful Arya-Sansa conflict was nothing but a red herring to obscure (unsuccessfully) this ultimate end. In fact, resolving this plot with anything remotely resembling skill is an even greater rescue act than what we saw in King’s Landing. It was far quicker, but they did the best they could by using Littlefinger’s words against himself (God, what a failure this character was!) and uniting the sisters at last. The run-up was poor, but the end had a bit of poetry, and a touching, almost Wes Anderson-like closing piece from the two sisters on the ramparts.
And, hey, beyond all the good stuff, we got to see Rhaegar Targaryen for the first time ever (he looks like a less pathetic Viserys) and officially learn the truth about Jon Snow’s parentage. I had to laugh at this sequence:
Bran & Sam: He’s a Targaryen!
IMMEDIATE CUT TO: Confirmed incest!
And what else? The wall is down, the war is on, and the Night King rides a dragon now. There’s so much left!
I’ve talked too much, Josh—over to you. Am I right in that they salvaged this one from the slag heap, or are the cool kids all about to laugh at me?
That was so satisfying. The whole episode was full of the kinds of meaningful interactions between beloved characters that made me fall in love with this show in the first place, along with a delicious and surprising twist in the Stark Sisters saga that I didn’t see coming and a badass zombie dragon. That’s what I want in a finale.
Most importantly, this episode was allowed to breathe. The long walk to the dragon pit was the kind of scene mostly missing from this season (the silent, over-dramatic climb up to Dragonstone doesn’t count). The reunions were understated but perfect: Brienne and the Hound. Podric and Tyrion. And the best: Tyrion and Bronn. Do yourself a favor: Go back and watch as Bronn explains to Tyrion how he’s looking out for himself by delivering traitors right to Cersei’s feet. But this time, just watch Varys’ expression.
Theon finally has a true moment of redemption, thanks to one of Jon Snow’s better speeches. And that moment isn’t just standing beside his sister saying the words. Sometimes redemption means taking some licks and getting back up. No one has paid more for his sins than Theon Greyjoy, and it’s satisfying to see him find his fight again.
The only thing missing from this finale was the usual levity, but there really wasn’t a moment for it. No one, not even Bronn, was really in the mood. It was a sober hour and a half, but a constantly gripping one.
Props to both Cersei, who has outplayed everyone this season, and Lena Headey, who has given us a character we’ve loved to hate. Joffrey was petulant. Walder Frey was a lecher. Tywin Lannister was menacing but petty. Ramsey Bolton was cartoonishly sadistic. And Littlefinger wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought. But Cersei Lannister has turned out to be the greatest villain of Westeros—someone constantly underestimated by all of us. We all shared Olenna’s failure of imagination; we all believed Tywin when he told Cersei, “I don’t distrust you because you’re a woman. I distrust you because you’re not as smart as you think you are.” She seemed short-sighted and delusional through five seasons. Now she’s clearly the best player at this game.
And Bran was finally useful! Not only did he tell his sisters all the evil things that Littlefinger had done, he told Samwell Tarly the truth about Jon Snow. He’s actually trying to be helpful and not just a creepy brother.
So yes, this is the kind of writing we’ve missed this season to the point that Adult Swim ended tonight’s Rick and Morty with a eulogy for The Writing of Game of Thrones (2011-2016). I don’t know if they’ll want to take it back after that finale, but like with Theon Greyjoy, we saw some redemption for the writers tonight.
On the other hand, I’m pretty sure this episode marked the end of my dream of giant babies from Tormund and Brienne. We didn’t see him die, but I’m not sure how anyone within a mile of that crumbling wall of ice could possibly have survived. That would be a bigger stretch than Jaime’s full-armor, golden-handed swim.
The Night King rides a white-fire-breathing dragon, and the dead are pouring down towards Winterfell. We have six episodes left and two big wars that Daenerys and her lover-nephew need to win to finally bring peace to a world that’s gone through six seasons of hell. And those of us watching from the outside may be in for a long wait until then. But thanks to “The Dragon and the Wolf,” it has a real chance of finishing strong.
Until then, I have a few questions for you:
1. I’m not sure how the Night King planned to get past the wall if Daenerys hadn’t delivered him a dragon. Do you think that, like Bran, the Night King knows things (like when giant chains are going to come in handy)?
2. Obviously the aunt/nephew thing is problematic, as is the fact that Jon has a better claim to the Iron Throne than Daenerys does. Is one of them going to die or are we about to have two inbred babies competing for succession? How do you resolve the pesky incest?
3. Is Tormund really dead? Why didn’t they show Tormund die? How the hell would he have possibly survived?
So glad to be writing these words and not getting out my son’s protractor to measure the flight of a laden raven.
The Josh Jackson protractor truthers are now going apeshit on Twitter. (Context here.)
To answer the Tormund/Beric question, I’m going to make a bold statement—they should have killed them. The fact that we didn’t see it means that they almost definitely survive, since there’s no reason to blunt the terrible impact of their deaths unless they manage to escape. But that’s dumb, and a symptom of what’s been wrong with this show all season. The characters we love can no longer die, or, if they do, it’s long, drawn-out, and never surprising. Tormund and Beric have zero chance to escape that situation—even if they don’t die when the wall comes down, and even if the wights don’t immediately massacre them and everyone else at Eastwatch, zombie Viserion would light them up like kindling. The fact that next season will have an inevitable scene where they stumble into Winterfell or White Harbor and yell “RUNNN!” is dumb. But the show is kinda dumb now, at least in this regard, so it will happen. (By the way, I didn’t see that Rick & Morty “tribute.” Hilarious.)
I’m going to push back a little on Cersei, because I don’t think this is a good long-term plan at all. In the books, GRRM makes it quite clear that she’s steadily blowing it as queen, but you’re right, on the surface last night looks like a victory for her. But it’s only a win if you don’t believe the central premise of Jon and the others, which is that without a united Westeros, everyone is going to die. Cersei is “succeeding” because the others, led by Dany and Jon, know that they have to be focused on the north. Cersei’s “rule over the ashes” plan is not just selfish—it’s the heart of bad strategy, because the armies she thinks are going to destroy each other will all be coming back under the Night King. Her best-case scenario is that Dany wins a very close victory, losing her dragons and most of her army, but in that case, what loyalty does she expect from the rest of Westeros, who watched her abandon them in their time of need? Even Stannis knew he couldn’t ignore the white walkers if he wanted to take the Iron Throne. Her three possible outcomes on this are dying (and seeing the Lannister name snuffed out), becoming the hated queen of a ruined continent, or watching humanity get destroyed because of her greed.
The best move here, even for someone who wants the Iron Throne, is to help Dany. She’d get all the positive PR for putting the people’s interests ahead of her own, and then, after that, she could make a choice between fighting for Westeros or bending the knee. Should she bend the knee, she’d get to rule at Casterly Rock as a beloved Lady alongside the love of her life, and she could spend all her time conspiring to get her child on the Iron Throne, if that’s what she wanted. It’s the only viable path toward success, but Cersei is so enamored with short-term dramatic victories like last night’s that she can’t see it. And in the meantime, she allies herself with a psychopath, loses the support of her brother, and is counting on a foreign army and a foreign bank to bolster her position. This will not end well.
As far as Jon-Dany incest, there’s two ways this could go. They could say, “we love each other, who cares? Targaryens have been doing this for ages!” Which, obviously, is not going to happen. For dramatic reasons, this will become a wedge between them. Not only is Dany Jon’s aunt, but now he has a better claim to the throne. It will surely divide them—Benioff & Weiss admitted as much in the extras from last night’s episode—and we’re fast approaching a reality where Westeros is not big enough for both of them. Looking head to season 8, you’d have to guess that at some point, one of the two has to die. Right? Martin has long said that the ending to his saga would be “bittersweet,” and I can’t see a happy ending that involves Jon and Dany ruling together. Now, could Jon hear this new information and decide not to pursue his claim in order to bring peace to Westeros? That would very much be in character, you’d think. He’s never been unduly ambitious, and deferring to Dany seems to be the natural order of things. But I get the sense it won’t be quite so simple.
Side note: One interesting theory I read after writing my first letter last night is that Tyrion got Cersei to “agree” to a truce by offering to put her child on the Iron Throne once Dany’s reign was over, since she can’t have children. This would have happened off camera, between decanting the wine and Cersei making her return to the dragon pit, and it makes a vague amount of sense. It also might explain why he looks so upset when Jon and Dany are boatsexing it up later. However, none of it jibes with Cersei’s later actions, so this is probably irrelevant.
Great question on the Night King, and one I had too—was the guy just going to wander around the north with his massive dead army until the wall melted? Does he have Bran’s gift of sight, and was he waiting for the dragon? Did the white walkers come back to life in Westeros because of the dragon? If not, does that mean they never could have breached the wall if not for Jon’s really stupid “capture a wight” mission? Did Dany’s rescue mission lead to the death of humankind?
All shall be told, I suppose. And now we reach the end, Josh—our own melancholic farewell for at least another year, probably more. It has been a pleasure as usual, and I guess I’ll leave you with the simplest, yet hardest, of all questions: How the hell is thing going to end? Plot it out for me…and I’ll ponder what you’ve written for the next 12 months or so.
I’m not arguing that Cersei is anything but a power-hungry psychopath. But she’s the only one still playing the game, and she’s playing it well. The fact that she let Tyrion go shows how far she’s come. Two seasons ago, killing Tyrion would have been the end in itself. But her mercy is only in service of getting what she really wants—a chance, however slim, to put a child of hers back on the Iron Throne. Becoming the hated queen of a ruined continent is enough of a goal right now to keep her plotting. Anything that sends those dragons away from King’s Landing and opens a chance for the silver-haired bitch and the boy who calls himself king to go off and get themselves killed, possibly stemming the tide of the dead is going to be the best option for her. That makes her a selfish, conniving, awful excuse for a human being. But it also makes her the ultimate villain of this tale.
I agree with you that everything is heading to make the Jon and Daenerys love story a tragic one. There’s no way the two of them end up with his-and-hers Iron Thrones. But someone has to end up in that chair. More on that below.
I now accept that Tormund and Beric (and, I assume, Gendry) are all still alive, despite the awesome destruction we saw as the wall crumbled. I’ll just assume that whoever was doing the special effects forgot that someone was supposed to make it out alive, and we’ll just chalk it up to the fact that they must have been climbing down a different section of the wall. Disbelief suspended, yada yada yada, if we don’t see them die, they’re not dead.
I don’t want to map out the whole ending because it would hopefully pale in comparison to whatever Martin, Benioff & Weiss have in store (or we’re all in the wrong business), but I’ll make a few guesses:
1. The death of one of Daenerys’ children—Viserion—is the sacrifice required for her to birth an heir. The destruction wrought by the Night King’s march south will fulfill Mirri Maz Durr’s prophesy/curse, and Daenerys’ womb will “quicken again.” She will bear Jon’s son and name him Drogo, and he’ll reign over a peaceful Westeros.
2. If either Jon or Daenerys have to die, my money is on the Aegon Targaryen. He’s already died once, and his purpose—to unite the living against the dead and to keep the Targaryen line alive—could all be fulfilled soon.
3. Cersei will die in childbirth, just like her mother. After she spared both her brothers, I no longer see one of them killing her. Her child will continue the Lannister line, ruling in Casterly Rock.
4. Yarra lives. Theon and Euron die. Props to all the writers for showing us how you do a redemption arc on television. Theon, Jaime, The Hound: Those are some long slogs back into the good graces of viewers, and witnessing hard-earned redemption enriches the soul. Not since Jesse Pinkman has this been done so beautifully.
5. Most importantly, Tormund and Brienne will have giant babies. The dream is still alive.
Please don’t have died in that wall collapse even though that’s some Glen-covered-by-zombies-level-character-logically-should-have-died shit, Tormund.
Follow Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson on Twitter. They’re currently looking for a new show to collectively review until Game of Thrones returns.