What Did Game of Thrones Accomplish This Year?

Three Atlantic staffers discuss "The Dragon and the Wolf," the Season 7 finale.

Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in 'Game of Thrones'

Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers have been discussing new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we’ll be posting our thoughts in installments.

David Sims: In the end, I was tricked by the shorter season length, the extra-long wait for the show to come back, and the extended running times of the episodes. I forgot that this season of Game of Thrones was the penultimate one, a mere table-setter for the real war to come … next year. That isn’t to say the Season 7 finale wasn’t full of big plot turns—it absolutely was. Jon and Daenerys formally sealed their alliance, both militarily and romantically, just as Bran decided to spill the beans about Jon’s true parentage. Jaime finally turned his back on his sister, just as she fomented a drastic battle plan for survival. Littlefinger got his comeuppance, once and for all. And the Wall finally came down, after several thousand years of doing its job (that is to say, not falling down).

And yet, after all this chaos, after the burning of the loot trains, the loss of a dragon, and so much more death and destruction, it somehow doesn’t feel like that much has changed since the end of last season (when the truth about Jon’s birth was first confirmed). Daenerys is still waiting offshore, trying to decide how she wants to conquer. The Night’s King and his army of the dead are still approaching, having finally (after seven seasons!) made it to the top of Westeros. Cersei is still stewing at King’s Landing, plotting to rule a continent simply for power’s sake. And Jon is still as stubbornly noble as ever, resolute in his mission to stop the White Walkers but only by the most honorable means possible.

Put shortly, I confess to feeling a little cheated by this extra-long season finale of Game of Thrones, even though I was broadly satisfied with its biggest story decisions. It was especially strange that the first half of the action existed only as a sort of long con, with the second half basically refuting everything that had come before. No, Euron didn’t really flee to the Iron Islands with his tail between his legs. No, Cersei won’t really be allying with Daenerys. No, Sansa hasn’t actually been won over by Littlefinger’s plotting. No, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss haven’t totally thrown the internal logic of their characters out the window.

But then why did we have to suffer through that drawn-out negotiation scene, in which it took 25 minutes of screen time before the Hound revealed the contents of their lockbox (a screaming wight), and another 20 minutes more before Cersei falsely claimed that she would ally with the hated Daenerys to conquer the northern threat? There were some nice character reunions—like Tyrion and Pod—and some more frightening ones—the Hound and the Mountain, whose enmity remains unresolved—but apart from that, it was a whole lotta talk and no action.

The idea, I think, is to underline what a masterful game-player Cersei has become, tricking even her conniving brother Tyrion into thinking that she’s developed a sense of altruism because of her unborn child. No, instead Cersei’s brilliant scheme is to do nothing while Jon and Daenerys try to deal with the zombies themselves. If Cersei is so clever, though, I wish her ultimate goal were a little harder to poke holes in, as Jaime does pretty effortlessly, pointing out that whoever wins the northern battle will more than likely overwhelm Cersei’s seriously depleted forces (which now consist of Euron the madman, the mercenary Golden Company, and whatever Lannister and Tyrell bannermen haven’t been cooked alive by dragonfire).

Cersei is about as smart as Jon, who this season has cost Daenerys a dragon in service of the silliest recon mission ever and in return won her exactly zero more troops to fight the White Walkers with. His pivotal moment this episode, refusing to pledge neutrality in the coming war, was classic Jon—chivalrous but not very political, and his next move—bedding Daenerys before a legal marriage—was even dumber, and that’s before Bran’s casual revelation (to Sam of all people) that Jon’s real name is Aegon Targaryen, and he’s Daenerys’s nephew.

As a longtime fan of the books, I can’t deny feeling a certain delighted tingle on hearing Lyanna Stark whisper the name Aegon or on watching her marriage to Daenerys’s brother Rhaegar. These are things book readers have speculated on for so many years, and they’re among the few plot twists I can safely assume will end up in George R. R. Martin’s last books, if he ever does write them. As a fan of the show, it felt a little too cutesy—with Jon and Daenerys’s union, in particular, feeling rushed toward an obvious conclusion, ever so slightly unearned (though maybe I’m just holding Jon responsible over the death of the dragon, which Daenerys isn’t).

That was Season 7 of Game of Thrones in a nutshell: a weird combination of its story feeling both sped up and stalled out, with Benioff and Weiss giving the viewers bombastic set-pieces in between countless scenes with maddeningly circular dialogue. We’re finally ready for the end times, but I’ve been ready ever since Daenerys took her troops across the Narrow Sea. In the end, this was the season of the White Walkers, the show’s most visually striking, but narratively inert villains, marching ever closer to an inevitable conclusion. That’s what we’ve done this year. I can only hope Season 8 offers something more human—and more surprising.

Lenika Cruz: I’m really sad to say that “The Dragon and the Wolf” ranks somewhere near the bottom of Thrones episodes for me, and certainly at the bottom of Thrones finales. While “The Dragon and the Wolf” had some really big, powerful moments—Littlefinger falling off the ladder of chaos and into a pool of his own blood, Jaime walking away from a livid Cersei, the flashback to Rhaegar and Lyanna’s marriage, the Wall coming down, Daenerys arriving in King’s Landing with her dragons, Jon Not-Sand and Dany doing what Targaryens do best—it was frustrating to see them delivered in an episode rife with loose ends, characters making gallingly dumb choices, bad dialogue, and lazy storytelling.

Some would argue these problems have plagued Thrones all season, if not for longer—especially since Benioff and Weiss have been trying to make do with the rough outline Martin gave them for the series’s end. And we could debate the extent to which these issues have seriously hurt the show (from a narrative, not ratings, angle, of course). In general, if I’m enjoying myself during an episode, I tend not to fixate on the imperfections. But for the first time, I am seriously questioning the strength of the foundation Thrones sits upon. Not everything worked for me this season, but a lot of it did, up until last week’s “Beyond the Wall.” At the time, I went a bit easier on the episode than David and Spencer did. Yes, the kidnap-a-wight plan was absurd, and the speed with which a team of supposedly scrupulous people agreed to it bewildering, but it had the possibility to be cool in execution. Rewatches soured me on the episode even more, leading me to wonder if watching the seams come apart with “Beyond the Wall” destroyed my suspension of disbelief going into the finale.

As you smartly pointed out, David, the first half of the episode consisted of major characters making questionable decisions that were later revealed, with less of an “A-ha!” than maybe hoped, to be masks for other, more reasonable, decisions. The Dragonpit summit struck me as something that should have been compelling in theory (all these major characters in the same place at the same time!), but it nonetheless left me deflated thanks both to the minimal build-up and the unbelievable neatness of it all. The show tried to telegraph its awareness of how awkward and futile-seeming the whole exchange was (“We are a group of people who do not like one another,” Tyrion helpfully acknowledged), but those efforts rang false, much like the previous episode’s attempts to comment on its foolish-hero storyline. Still, one of the best Dragonpit moments was the brutal, near-scientific, presentation of the wight-in-the-box: It was more effective and frightening than I thought it would be, prompting even Cersei’s stoic mug to express actual fear.

I tried to stay on board, but then came Jon’s horribly timed display of Starkian chivalry, which we were supposed to believe was enough to make Cersei forget how terrified she was just two seconds ago about an army of zombies. It made no sense to me why Dany wouldn’t have briefed her Hand on the fact that Jon had bent the knee for her—something she should have done especially before heading into negotiations with a rival. The situation reminded me of Jon and Sansa conveniently not getting on the same page about Winterfell matters in private, seemingly as a way to engineer scenes of tension with the northern lords. In the end, Jon agreeing to extend the truce wouldn’t have made a difference; either way, Cersei would have been playing them. But his decision struck me as a superficial ploy—to derail talks and create an excuse for Tyrion to meet with Cersei alone. (Much like the wight mission seemed like a not-so-subtle one to give the White Walkers their ice dragon.)

If, as you noted, David, this episode did a poor job of rationalizing Cersei’s duplicity, it did at least make clear that this woman who so fetishizes the notion of family has virtually no family left. My sense is that she’s all but certainly lying about her pregnancy: With no real, living children left for her to protect, she’s now using a fake, phantom child to protect her—a twisted, but on-brand, bit of manipulation for Cersei. And while she couldn’t quite bring herself to murder her brothers (each called her bluff), she’ll also go into early next season without their trust. The way things ended between her and Jaime, I can finally see a path clearing for him to become a Queenslayer (something I really thought would happen this year, but oh well).

As for Sansa and Arya in the north—the reveal that they were working together all along against Littlefinger was the only payoff that would have been satisfying given the rampant confusion that thread stirred. Nearly everyone I talked to about last week had very different, shaky interpretations of the “rivalry,” but in a post-show interview the creators suggested Thrones had tricked fans into thinking Arya and Sansa might really try to murder each other. (The show did not.) Seeing Littlefinger meet his end after a season of irrelevance—and finally seeing the Stark girls behave like we’d expect and hope them to—was a relief. It was nice, too, to see Bran finally make his visions useful (That’s So Three-Eyed Raven), although he was far too late in the case of Jon and Dany, who engaged in an act whose name, if it exists, is less punny than “twincest.”

I could spend a while complaining about the dialogue (Bronn and Jaime’s interminable conversation about cocks; Brienne’s uncharacteristic “Fuck loyalty!”; Sansa telling Arya, “You’re still very strange and annoying”; everyone robotically repeating some variation of “We’re fucked”) and the loose ends (How’s Grey Worm doing? Are we to assume that Theon doing some good punching constitutes a redemption arc?) But mostly, I just want to be way more excited for Season 8 than “The Dragon and the Wolf” left me. I can’t help but compare this finale to Season 6’s “The Winds of Winter,” which managed to be terrific even though the creators were out of source material. I don’t want to think the show is doomed to be a less-good version of itself without Martin’s books as a guide, though it might well be. But for all my frustration, not even the Night King (who, let’s be honest, looked like a huge dork sitting on Ice Viserion) or a good look at Ser Gregor’s face could scare me away from watching six more episodes and seeing Thrones through to the end.

Megan Garber: Given some of the events of “The Dragon and the Wolf,” and given how down you guys are on this episode, I should maybe say at the outset: I’m totally not kidding. I really liked this episode! No Cersei-ing, promise! The episode left me riveted. It left me feeling more confident that this story might actually be going somewhere good as it heads toward its conclusion. It struck me as satisfying both in the ends it tied up and in the new ones it unfurled.

Partially, okay, yes, that may be because of one very particular thing this hour-and-a-half of television accomplished, which is that “The Dragon and the Wolf”—too late, but finally—rid the world of Petyr Baelish. (And while we’re gathered, let us all hope together that those savvy Winterfellians burned his body, because I can take a lot from this show, but I definitely cannot take an ice-zombified Littlefinger.) I agree, Lenika, his demise was a relief: Old “chaos is a ladder” finally reached the point beyond which he could climb no more, and now his watch is ended, and while what is dead may never die … I really, really hope he is dead for good.

But the de-Baelishization of Westeros isn’t the only reason I’m on Team Dragonwolf. I also appreciated, overall, all the fake-outery afoot in this episode. This season has been, on top of everything else, a really fascinating (I think) meditation on the dynamics of belief, and trust, and faith—when it comes to existential threats, and when it comes to geopolitical strategy, and also when it comes to other people. The whole Wight-in-the-Box storyline was definitely absurd at points—last week, for one of them—but it also existed as an acknowledgement of what it takes to make people believe: For Cersei to trust in the particular kind of magic the Night King represents, she’d need to see it first-hand. She’d need to be terrified by it, in person. She’d need to be threatened, first-hand.

And, so, Daenerys and her group, like some masterful product-pitchers on Shark Tank, created a presentation, complete at the end with a flaming zombie-hand, that was dramatic and compelling and basically presented itself. Cersei, of course, should have totally invested.

To me, though, it was also fitting that the Season 7 finale would complicate those broader ideas by getting the show back to one of its oldest and most reliable themes: good, old-fashioned lies. The simplistic strain of dishonesty that got Ned Stark killed after Joffrey went back on his word, and that led to the Red Wedding, and that was so much a part of the show before it got much more complicated in its considerations. “Some day you’ll sit on the throne and the truth will be what you make it,” Cersei told Joffrey back in Season 1. She is now living the predicate of that prediction—only Cersei is the one engaged in the truth-making. She’s the one destabilizing the world by refusing to operate according to the most basic kind of honor there is: honesty.

Arya and Sansa, too, engaged in a kind of lie when it came to Littlefinger. The circularity of their revenge was simplistic, sure—they faked out the ultimate faker, in an elaborate ruse—but I actually appreciated the tidiness of the whole thing. (Plus, the show succeeded in faking me out with that team-up twist: I’d been thinking that Arya had already killed Littlefinger and was simply Faceless Man-ing him in that cool exchange with Sansa—a circular return to the beginning of the season, with Arya’s pretending to be Walder Frey. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I, too, had been fooled.) Game of Thrones has (generally) been thoughtful about revenge and justice and the interplay between the two, and here was Sansa, in particular, having seen so much and survived so much, getting a fitting kind of vengeance against the man who has been such a constant source of manipulation and instability in her life. Thank you for all your many lessons, Sansa tells Littlefinger, her coldness a call-back to the way she dispatched Ramsay Bolton to his dogs. And then her sister slaughtered him.

I definitely agree that there were some scoping problems as all this played out—the way, as you said, David, the sped-up and the stalled-out collided—but I actually didn’t mind that here as much as I have in past episodes. The speed and slowness struck me as better earned in this episode than they did in previous ones. And they seemed, in the context of “The Dragon and the Wolf,” like fitting reflections of a show that has been compelling in part for its ability to tangle the soaring and the small. I loved those little moments of wry humanity you pointed out, Lenika: Sansa’s note to Arya that “you’re still very strange and annoying,” that tiny but meaningful little glance exchanged between Brienne and the Hound. (There is much smizing in Westeros, at the moment!) Bronn dismisses the headliners of Wightapalooza and “the clever words that come out their pie holes” and Tyrion replies, quietly, “It’s good to see you again.” That kind of thing—the soft moments against the hard ones—gets me every time.

But those moments also work on a thematic level. Love is often, in this show, presented as a political complication—imagine what might have happened had Robb Stark not fallen for Talisa, or had Tyrion not fallen for Shae, or had the Lannister twins remained siblings alone—and the finale set up conditions where romantic love, in particular, might either save humanity … or (oof) contribute to its demise. “The Dragon and the Wolf” solidified what we already basically knew about Jon’s true parentage; that means he is now romantically involved with not only his aunt, but also his (potential) rival for the throne. It means there’s a chance, going into the show’s final season, that Dany and Jon will at some point have to choose between each other and something greater than either of them: political power, perhaps, or salvation itself. Or maybe love, in the end, will adopt a more Nolanian dimension: Maybe it will be the force that breaks the wheel. Maybe what we’re headed toward is the two houses, the Targaryens and the Starks, joining forces in the most literal of ways—Daenerys and Aegon, the rulers of the Andals and the First Men, the protectors of the realms, the breakers of chains, the parents of dragons.