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What Did Game of Thrones Accomplish This Year?

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, straight-up bad dialogue, and lazy storytelling.

Some viewers would argue that these are problems that have plagued Thrones all season, if not for longer—especially since Benioff and Weiss have been trying to make do with the rough outline that Martin gave them for the series’ 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 the show, I tend not to notice or fixate on the imperfections. I don’t always love the choices the series makes, but I am increasingly 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 seeing the seams come apart so dramatically with “Beyond the Wall” largely 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 at the outset), 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 to express 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 of an army of zombies. I also didn’t understand why Dany wouldn’t have briefed her Hand on the fact that Jon had just bent the knee—something she definitely should have done before entering negotiations with her 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 a difference; either way, Cersei would have been playing them. But his decision strikes 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 an elaborate way to give the White Walkers their ice dragon.)

If, as you noted, David, this episode was meant to position Cersei as a self-interested mastermind, it also made clear that this woman who so fetishizes the notion of family has virtually no family left. 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—its own twisted commentary on how much Cersei has endured over the series. And while she couldn’t bring herself to murder her brothers (each called her bluff), she also will go into early next season without their trust. With 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 stirred up by the sisters’ supposed enmity. 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—and finally seeing the Stark girls behave like we’d expect them to—was a relief. It was nice, too, to see Bran make his visions useful (That’s So Three-Eyed Raven) although 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 show creators were out of source material to use. I don’t want to think that 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 real goofy sitting on Ice Viserion—or a good look Ser Gregor’s face could stop me from watching six more episodes and seeing Thrones through to the end.

This post will be updated with an entry from Megan Garber.

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