All Images: HBO

After six episodes that have been incredible, infuriating, revealing, confusing, and epic, last night’s Game of Thrones finale had a great many things to answer for. They were the answers needed to help recalibrate the show’s uneven seventh season so it ended up greater than the sum of its inconsistent parts—even if that doesn’t equal the show’s best seasons.

“The Wolf and the Dragon” had its own problems to be sure—one in particular made me want to actually scream in irritation—the main one of which was its surprising lack of surprises. If you’ve been paying a decent amount of attention, you didn’t have to hunt out hacker leaks to form a pretty good idea of what was going to go down in the season finale, but for me, that somehow didn’t make it any less satisfying. If you’re a book reader, you know how the show, having advanced beyond George R.R. Martin’s novels, has been partially satiating our hunger by sporadically giving us the scenes we’ve guessed and hoped were coming. The finale was packed with these scenes, like a Thanksgiving dinner—you know what the meal is going to consist of, but it’s still a feast.

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It began with a meeting—The Meeting, really—where most all the show’s principal characters came together in the Dragonpit of King’s Landing for Jon Snow’s almost certainly unfeasible attempt to convince Cersei Lannister to help fight the White Walkers and their army of wights. There were three daises set up on the floor of the shattered arena where the Targaryens once imprisoned their dragons. The people sitting in them are as follows:

• Cersei, Jaime, Qyburn, Euron Greyjoy, and the Mountain

• Jon Snow, Davos, and Brienne

• Daenerys, Tyrion, Jorah, Missandei, Varys, and Theon

And, after several tense moments and several even more tense conversations, there is one person in the center of the all: The Hound, who carries a giant chest by himself. When he opens it, nothing happens—no movement, so sound. And when he kicks the chest over, the wight inside bursts out growling, and runs right for Cersei.

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In terms of showing the woman who currently sits on the Iron Throne of the threat that lies beyond the Wall, it honestly couldn’t have worked out any better if they planned it (and it almost makes you wonder if they did). Sandor Clegane yanks the wight’s chain back at the last second, so Cersei gets the most horrifying look possible. When the wight’s attention is focused on him, Sandor cuts the wight in two at the waist, allowing Cersei to see both halves trying to crawl towards someone to attack them. When the Hound cuts off a hand, Jon Snow picks it up to demonstrate the wights’ weakness to fire—then stabs the torso with a dragonglass dagger, demonstrating its other weakness.

All in all, Jon makes his case—so effectively, in fact, that Euron asks Jon if the dead can swim. When he answers no, Euron says (and I’m paraphrasing), “I. Am. Outta here.” He announces that he and his fleet are heading back to the Iron Islands, and leaving everyone on the mainland to die. Cersei also recognizes the horrific threat the living face, but she agrees to Daenerys’ request for a truce, and that she’ll send her forces north to fight with Winterfell and Daenerys’ Unsullied and Dothraki to fight the enemy of all of them. If Jon Snow, King of the North, agrees to stay up north and at no point take his soldiers anywhere near the eventual war between herself and Daenerys.

Jon explains he can’t do that… because he’s already bent the knee to Daenerys. And Cersei storms out of the Dragonpit.

Jon tells the truth, and dooms humanity. It was as infuriating a moment as anything I’ve ever seen on Game of Thrones. Oh, I know Jon has his honor, and his desire to always do the right thing has gotten him into trouble before, trouble that includes being murdered by his own men. But this moment… this is beyond the pale. Knowing the truth would end the nascent truce, negating everything they’d worked so hard for, rendering the death of Dany’s dragon meaningless, and indirectly consigning god knows how many inhabitants of Westeros to death, Jon tells the truth anyway.

Davos is pissed. Tyrion is pissed. Daenerys is extra pissed. Jon gives a pretty little speech about how lying is bad and people need to keep their word and blah blah, which might have had an ounce of weight to it if heal so hadn’t been talking for seasons about how the war against the White Walkers was the only thing that matters, nothing else—including Jon’s goddamn honor. Everyone on Team Daenerys and Team Stark knows it, but Jon doesn’t. It’s a decision so stupid, even for a Stark, it feels like it almost erases everyone’s development over the course of the entire series, like it reset everyone back to the beginning of season one. But the worst thing about it isn’t how dumb it is, but because it’s so selfish—a truth told for his own self-righteousness and self-image, and nothing else, because it certainly doesn’t benefit anyone else. In fact, it leads directly to Tyrion making his own terrible decision: To go see Cersei, the sister who’s tried to have him killed at least twice (that he knows of!), by himself and convince her to return to negotiations.

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Last week, in my recap of “Beyond of Wall,” I used the headline “Game of Thrones Is at Its Best and Worst Right Now.” I was referring to the show’s powerful ability to give us amazing, epic fantasy scenes unlike anyone has ever before tried of television. What I wasn’t referring to was the show’s original strength—giving us characters of depth, but also scenes between these characters, usually just talking to one another, that made them and Westeros rich and real and so captivating that even people who think stories about dragons and made-up places are dumb have gotten completely invested in the series.

Tyrion’s reunion with Cersei is one of those scenes, and, somewhat surprisingly, powered by the characters’ honesty wth each other. Cersei’s still mad that Tyrion killed their father, but more upset that he left the Lannister family so vulnerable that their enemies felt bold enough to kill Myrcella and wrest control of King’s Landing from her, eventually leading to Tommen’s suicide. Tyrion explains the reason he follows Daenerys is because she actually wants to make the world a better place, while Cersei only cares about her ever-shrinking list of who she considers family. Tyrion baits Cersei and tells her to have the Mountain, looming behind him, to kill him (when Cersei doesn’t, he pours himself a large glass of wine). Cersei reveals she’s pregnant. The two will never love each other, but they end up making their own sort of truce together. Or so it seems.

“The Wolf and the Dragon” is filled with these sorts of wonderful, character-driven scenes, more than the entire rest of the season put together. It’s as if season seven was sprinting through the plot for the first six episodes, in order to make sure it had plenty of time for these scenes after virtually all the main characters got together in one place.

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I’d argue Tyrion and Cersei’s reunion is the highlight of the episode, but here’s a few more of them, some large, some small, all gratifying: Brienne discovers the Hound is still alive, and the two of them share a small smile over what an ass-kicker Arya has become. Tyrion gets a few moments with Bronn (reminding him of his eternal offer to him: “I’ll pay double”) and his former squire Podrick. The Hound reunites with his undead big brother the Mountain—“You’re uglier than I am now”—and postpones Clegane bowl to another day, although he declares the day is indeed coming. Euron waits until the meeting starts and immediately interrupts to call out Theon, announcing he’ll kill Yara if Theon doesn’t surrender, annoying literally everyone else in the Dragonpit. Theon later tracks down Jon for their second encounter, risking death in order to genuinely ask how to be a person who does the right thing; a patient, forgiving Jon reminds him that Theon may have betrayed Ned Stark and his ideals, but there’s still a Stark inside him. (And one other, which I’ll get to in a minute.)

To the surprise of everyone in the Dragonpit, Tyrion returns alive. Even more surprisingly, Cersei and her retinue follow him—and then agrees to the truce, that her troops will march north immediately. And later, to the surprise of no one actually watching the show, Cersei sees Jaime issuing orders to send the Lannister forces north and calls him an idiot. Because Cersei lied. She’s not sending any troops north, because as soon as Daenerys’ forces are gone she’s going to retake all the parts of Westeros she abandoned. Euron didn’t turn tail and flee; he’s sailing to Essos to pick up the mercenary troop named the Golden Company, paid for by the very pro-Lannister Iron Bank of Braavos. As for the White Walkers? “Let the monsters kill each other,” she says, and her soldiers can take care of whatever’s left.

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In a much less aggravating echo of Jon’s decision, an angry Jaime reminds her he gave his word to the assembly, and he’s going to keep it. Cersei’s expression turns completely flat, and she reminds him that he betrayed her by conspiring to meet with Tyrion without her knowledge. Furthermore, if he rides north, it will be treason—and treason is punishable by death. Behind Jaime, the Mountain draws his sword, and Cersei’s paranoia shrinks her idea of the Lannister family even further, to the only one she has total control over—the baby growing in her stomach. Jaime is more shocked than scared (although he’s not unscared) but he does call Cersei’s bluff and walks away, leaving Cersei with her new family: her undead monster, her mad scientist, and her unborn child. Meanwhile, as Jaime begins to ride north, snow comes to King’s Landing.

And in the north, specifically Winterfell, everything seems to be going to hell. First Sansa gets a raven from Jon, blithely mentioning he’s no longer King in the North and oh, also, everyone serves Daenerys now. Worse, the season’s most excruciating storyline seems to be continues, as Littlefinger seems to be sowing more seeds of mistrust between Sansa and Arya, if putting a stick of dynamite in a bag of seeds and lighting it could be considered “sowing.” I mean, he starts by trying to indirectly convince Sansa that Arya has specifically come to Winterfell to kill her and become Lady of Winterfell, an idea so obviously dumb only Jon Snow’s sense of honor would come up with it.

Sansa has her guards summon Arya to the great hall, which is filled with even more guards, who bolt the door behind her. Sansa says, “You stand accused of murder. You stand accused of treason. How do you answer these charges… Lord Baelish?” And everyone turns to Littlefinger.

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Phew. After too many episodes of watching Arya acting like a maniac and Sansa turning ever more furtive and guilty-looking, it was so, so gratifying (but still not that shocking) to discover the Stark girls were playing Littlefinger, for at least some of it. A panicked Littlefinger flails about as Sansa lists off his crimes: convincing Lysa Arryn to poison Jon Arryn, then convincing her to write to Catelyn and say the Lannisters did it, lying about the dagger used by the assassin who tried to kill Bran, all of which set the Stark-Lannister war off, ruining or outright ending the lives of everyone in both families, then there was murdering Lysa, and selling Sansa to the Boltons… the list goes on. And when Sansa proclaims the sentence, it’s Arya, of course, who carries out the execution, and suddenly Petyr Baelish has a much-too-large hole in his throat. And later, Sansa and Arya have a talk where Arya isn’t threatening her sister, but the two acknowledge how different they are—to the point where they can’t really understand each other—but they still have affection for one another. Which is how they should have been the entire time.

As satisfying as it was to watch Littlefinger finally get his comeuppance for trying to set two Stark women against each other, I can’t honestly say it makes up for the past two episodes. I can’t help but think at least some, if not most of Sansa and Arya’s fights were real (they had several scenes where it seems highly unlikely that they were performing of one of Petyr’s spies), and it was only Littlefinger’s clumsy push at the end—or maybe Bran rolling in with the truth, since he was sitting next to Sansa in the room—that made them realized their rift was primarily Baelish’s fault. Even if they were playing him the whole time, surely there was a way for the show to tell this story without both of them turning into weird, awful caricatures of themselves. But still, I’m still so relieved this horrible storyline course-corrected that I don’t mind Littlefinger’s ignoble, ignominious death, or how he basically did nothing but get himself killed in season seven. Thank the gods it happened.

Also, thank the gods Samwell Tarly pulled up to Westeros and decided to check on Bran. Not because Bran tells him that Jon is actually the bastard son of Rhaegar Targaryen and his aunt Lyanna Stark, but because Sam is the one with new information. Turns out he was paying attention to Gilly dropping that plot bomb a few episodes ago, because he tells Bran that Jon isn’t a bastard at all, because Rhaegar and Lyanna were lawfully married. Bran activates his three-eyed raven powers, and see that’s it’s true—and then finally hears the words the dying Lyanna whispered to young Ned after she gave birth: “His name is Aegon Targaryen.” And he’s the true heir to the Iron Throne. Not Daenerys.

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…hich Bran announces, out loud, constantly throughout his visions, interspersed with scenes of Jon and Daenerys finally getting it on. The dichotomy of Bran keeps reminding everyone that “Jon’s last name is actually Targaryen” while the episode keeps showing Jon having sex with someone else with the last name Targaryen is very amusing. But Bran’s weird, constant narration of the revelation of Jon’s name and title is a strange, off-putting choice for the show, which has almost always trusted the audiences to put R and L together and come up with J. It robs the revelation of a lot of its narrative impact—compare it to the reveal of Jon’s parents from the season six finale—and the fact that the only reason the magic Three-Eyed Raven Who Can See the Entire Past But Somehow Missed This Part learns about it is because Sam Tarly decided to pop by Winterfell makes it worse.

Likewise, this year’s traditional season finale-ending White Walker scene feels almost perfunctory, despite how massively significant it is. As Eastwatch, the White Walkers and their army emerges from the trees, but stops short the wall. Tormund, Beric Dondarrion, and the rest stationed there are already freaking out when they hear the dragon. Viserion already looks undead—there are several holes in his wings—he now has blue fire, and the Night King is riding him. And then the dragon starts melting the Wall with his breath.

Despite the massive amount of the Wall that comes crashing down, and despite how many people die (we don’t specifically see Tormund and Beric die, although hoo boy does most of Eastwatch get annihilated while they’re on top of it), the whole scene felt so preordained it was hard to get excited about it. Of course the White Walkers had to get past the Wall. It didn’t help that the undead army was standing around while the dragon was doing all the work, nor did it help that the dragon was basically hovering in mid-air and blasting ice section-by-section, meeting no resistance from anyone or anything. It definitely didn’t help that it was literally preordained, after the Hound saw that vision of it in that fire in the season premiere.

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So, as you can see, the finale had plenty of problems. But I think overall “The Wolf and the Dragon” had far more goodthan bad about it, even if we all more or less knew Jon and Dany would have sex, who Jon’s parents are, when and how the White Walkers were coming, that Cerseiwould plan to betray everybody, etc., etc. Having all those long-awaited moments—and, more importantly, those wonderful conversations between characters, lacking for the vast a majority of these episodes—made all the difference in the world, and they helped the finale improve the entire season significantly, finally giving all those epic action scenes and story beats some emotional weight.

Plus, by the end of the finale, it’s clear season seven was designed specifically to consolidate everything going on in the show for the game’s final round (or so it certainly seems to me). All the major characters know about the White Walkers. Jon and Daenerys have solidified their alliance, partially while naked. Everyone’s heading north… except Cersei and her troops, because she’s planning on betraying them all, of course. The White Walkers are here. Virtually all the loose ends that began filling this series right from the season one premiere have been taken care of, e.g. Littlefinger.

And that’s the biggest reason “The Wolf and the Dragon” has arguably saved season seven. The episode is so obviously an attempt to clear the board and set up the remaining game piece for the final round that the mystery behind all the bizarre choices the show (and characters) made falls away, because this season was so clearly about getting from point A to B. Actually, to be more specific: Last night’s finale was a pre-planned destination that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to cobble together the route to afterwards, occasionally over some highly irritating terrain, e.g. the excruciating Sansa-Arya conflict.

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I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about the final season. Even if Weiss and Benioff completely planned the show’s final act years ago, and their only trouble was scrambling to get from the end of season six to the season eight premiere, with only six episodes left it’s very hard to imagine the show will suddenly slow its breakneck pace, or that the characters will have much if any time to have those scenes that originally made a phenomenon in the first place. And who’s to say that what they have planned for the final season is actually any good?

We can’t know until the final season of Game of Thrones arrives, which I’d guess will probably be July 2018 at the earliest. As long as Sansa and Arya are no longer at each other’s throats and Jon Snow isn’t allowed to make any more decisions, I’ll be there.

Assorted Musings:

  • Lord Bronn of the Blackwater, the greatest cock philosopher in all of Westeros.
  • Did the show tell us at some point that the Unsullied managed to get out of Casterly Rock despite being surrounded by Lannister forces—and how—or is Grey Worm and his men’s appearance at King’s Landing a plot hole? Asking for a friend whose name is Bob Ricken.
  • Qyburn’s instant look of gleeful excitement when he sees the rotting, undead wight was genuinely unsettling.
  • Can wights swim? No. But I’m going to assume they can sink, particularly when holding onto a giant chain, and, with the chain to grip, they can maneuver around enough to wrap chains strategically around a dead dragon. Then they just sit there and dissolve.
  • How dumb was Jon’s decision to tell the truth? So dumb it made Brienne of Tarth say, “Fuck loyalty!” (Albeit to Jaime.)
  • When Daenerys casually drops the info that she can’t have another baby, Jon asks her who told her that. “The witch who murdered my husband,” she replies. Jon Snow responds with the greatest thing Jon Snow has ever said in seven seasons: “Has it occurred to you that she might not be a reliable source of information?”
  • One thing I didn’t mention about Littlefinger’s death is that while I like that the Stark family was finally too strong to fall for his shit, it still seems somehow… small. Like a character who was plotting so far ahead and has caused so much death and destruction should have had a grander death. I think, though, that we can chalk this up to the show just trying to cut off as many loose ends as possible before the final season, and that he’ll meet a crueler, much more appropriate fate in the books.
  • When Theon tries to convince his pitiful remnant of Iron Islanders to go with him to rescue Yara, they immediately say no. Theon won’t shut up until the captain punches him, and they fight—well, the captain fights,and Theon gets his ass kicked. But Theon keeps getting up, until the captain makes the fatal mistake of trying to knee Theon in his genitals, which doesn’t affect him at all, allowing him to beat the captain’s face in. I’m not at all sure how I feel about this scene.
  • Honestly, I was hoping for way more about Rhaegar and Lyanna in the episode, watching them meet, discovering a reason why they let Westeros go to war instead of explaining their marriage to anybody, if there was a reason Rhaegar sacrificed his marriage and basically his entire family to wed Lyanna beyond love, as the books have implied. I can’t really begrudge the show for wanting to keep this backstory simple, though.
  • I didn’t go frame-by-frame or anything, but a cursory inspection of the Jon/Dany sex scene has led me to believe that Emilia Clarke is not exposed at all, while there is a great deal of Kit Harington’s ass. Which is a good thing. Much like Kit Harington’s ass.
  • When Tyrion spies Jon going into Daenerys’ room, he lurks in the hallway outside, and the music turns a bit sinister. Is he worried this is going to cause a problem for Daenerys or the alliance? Or is something else going on?
  • So how was the Night King going to get past the Wall if he didn’t get his cold hands on a dragon, anyway? I am assuming a frontal assault, with the giants helping pull off the iron gates to the tunnels at the base of the Wall, and just sending an unrelenting amount of troops through until the living stop living? Or would the magic built into the Wall have stopped them?Explain your theory in the comments. Show your work.
  • Line of the episode, courtesy of Tyrion, after Jon’s ruinous decision to tell the truth: “The immediate problem is that we’re fucked.”