Someone once told me that the way you could tell you were reading a children’s story — as opposed to a story for adults — was if, at the end of it all, “home” was where the protagonist was supposed to be all along. All season, as Game of Thrones marches to its strange and unprecedented finale — dreamed up by one man, but brought to life by two others — I’ve been thinking about this notion, of how endings can retroactively give a narrative meaning. As we turn the corner on season seven and look ahead to the show’s final six episodes, the question on my mind is: What kind of story will Game of Thrones ultimately be? And how will its final hours make us understand all that came before?
It’s not just us fans who seem obsessed with the meta-countdown to GOT’s final season; the show itself feels like it’s warping and shifting as the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter. Whereas one of the historically defining characteristics of this story was its sometimes too leisurely sprawl, characters and story lines now zoom toward one another with breakneck speed, like they’re all being sucked into the same final-chapter black hole. If the show once earned its heft — and its “grown-up TV” bragging rights — from the way it robbed us of characters who left large, aching spaces in their wake, this season has only dispatched characters that were easily peeled away in the first place. (Thoros of Myr, we hardly knew ye; Littlefinger, you went out in a season where, uncharacteristically, you impacted nothing around you.) Even this season’s insistent drumbeat of cliffhanger endings — which were once an occasional, jolting fillip in the tale — feels like a way of pointing a big neon arrow at the horizon: END TIMES ARE HERE.
At 79 minutes, “The Dragon and the Wolf” is the biggest episode in Game of Thrones history, but it also represents an intense narrowing of focus, as what seems like the entire living cast gathers in King’s Landing to contemplate a path forward in the Great War. These opening scenes have the feeling of a reunion, or maybe a good Irish wake. There are friendly pats on the back between Tyrion, Podrick, and Bronn; even Brienne and the Hound, last seen battling ferociously in season four, exchange a wry smile about little Arya Stark. (The fact that the “million” inhabitants of King’s Landing get a few off-hand name-checks, but are never seen, only heightens the sense that we’ve tightened scope on the few people that really matter.)
The meeting between Daenerys’s and Cersei’s teams takes place in the Dragonpit, a huge, abandoned arena that once imprisoned the last of the Targaryen dragons. As a memorial to both the source of that dynasty’s power and its eventual ruin, it makes for an evocative locale for this convocation, which marks the beginning of the final cycle of this war, and this story. Will history repeat itself, as another empire — this time, the empire of the living — fails to prevent its own demise?
After some necessary saber rattling (Daenerys makes a power-move entrance on Drogon; Euron taunts both Theon and Tyrion), it seems as if a different, more hopeful course might be charted. The wight-in-the-box demonstration proves surprisingly effective: Cersei is visibly shaken — and what a joy, by the way, to watch Lena Headey get to play a whole new range of emotions. Euron leaps up and peaces out to the Iron Islands, leaving a faint whiff of eyeliner and menace in his wake. Cersei declares that she will accept the request for a truce, but only if the King in the North promises he won’t choose sides between the two queens. She bids him promise as Ned Stark’s son, whom she trusts to keep his word — but because he is Ned Stark’s son (in spirit, at least), Jon confesses that he’s already pledged to Daenerys, surprising even his compatriots and sending Cersei storming off.
For a minute, it seems like we’re going to get a really interesting character evolution with Cersei. Tyrion goes back to her chambers to try to reason with her, and the two have an exchange that felt like it came out of an older season. Tyrion, so off his game lately, seems to really have his sister’s number this time; he stands up to her, he placates her with wine; she rails at him, but almost seems to relax a bit in his presence. When he brought her back to the Dragonpit and she told Jon and Daenerys that she would ride North with them after all, my heart lifted. What if, instead of turning into the Mad Queen, a pure villain who can see no reason, Cersei turned into the flintiest and scariest of allies? Besides power and security, family is the thing Cersei has always held closest to her heart; I was ready to believe that for the sake of her child, Cersei could be convinced to make another choice — in some ways, a harder choice — and I would have watched that version of the show till Azor Ahai showed up.
Alas, it was all revealed to be an elaborate double cross. Euron’s departure was planned from the beginning, and he’s now sailing to Essos to pick up the mercenary company the Iron Bank’s funds have purchased. My disappointment in missing out on this new incarnation of Cersei was compounded by basic confusion about her schemes: What did she gain by the whole performance — was it just to lull Dany & Co. into complacency? Won’t they figure out real quick that she is not, in fact, sending troops to the North? Did that poor wight make any difference in her plans, or was the whole point of that story line really as pointless as it seemed last week?
Similarly, as glad as I was to see that Sansa and Arya weren’t, in fact, scheming each other’s downfall, but Littlefinger’s (and even appreciated how Arya seems to have adopted the Red Wedding throat-slash as her personal revenge move), some of the pleasure dissipated as I tried to piece together how last week’s scenes fit into this newly revealed puzzle. Maybe this is just me looking a gift horse in the mouth, since I did want to see these sisters come together, but the whole thing felt like a very dark episode of Scooby-Doo. (“If it hadn’t been for you meddlin’ Stark kids …”) If the sisters were in on the shared secret, who were they play-acting those hostile scenes for? And why go to all the trouble just to off Littlefinger — a character who hasn’t done much more than glower and skulk for ages now, and could have easily been dispatched at any time?
The worst-case scenario I can imagine for season eight is this dynamic, writ large: that we get to the end of nearly 80 hours of GOT and emerge scratching our heads, thinking, “What was all that for?” Looking ahead to the Great War, some characters express a similar anxiety, that what lies ahead will not fulfill the promise of what came before. “Everything we suffered will have been for nothing,” Cersei says as she contemplates a White Walker victory. Later, Daenerys echoes, “My dragon died so that we could be here. If it’s all for nothing, then he died for nothing.”
The Game of Thrones of a few seasons ago might have argued that suffering is a sunk cost; the blood and sweat you’ve poured into something has no moral sway on the universe. The rightness of an outcome is no guarantee it’ll come about — or that you’ll survive to see it. But I wonder how long that sense will hold out, now that the show is seeming to grow brighter and simpler as the end approaches. There’ve been deaths and twists aplenty this season, but little that’s really hurt, the way the loss of Shireen or Hodor did not too long ago. I’m sure we’ll lose main characters in season eight, but losing loved ones in the Last Big Battle is expected in even the most conventional of adventure tales — in this season, the most important characters have all felt like they’re being protected for a more meaningful fate down the line.
Meanwhile, it’s almost as if some characters on the show can sense that the end of days is coming, and they need to get right with God, as the show begins to push heroes to one side, villains to the other. How else to explain why it’s only now that Jaime finally decides that it’s time to break with Cersei? Her mass murder at the Sept of Baelor, which also led to the death of their last child, wasn’t enough, but making him break a promise to people who were recently their sworn enemies is? Keeping an oath at all costs is Jon’s sword to die on, not Jaime’s.
Or consider Theon, who until recently was struggling — realistically, I’d argued — with the severe trauma he’d faced under Ramsay. When his sister needed him after Euron’s shipboard attack, he made the terrible decision to jump overboard. Now, all it takes is seeing Jon’s act of “heroism” (an act that everyone seems to agree was pretty dumb), and Theon is magically able to take up the mantle of hero in his own subplot: facing down the ironborn to save his sister, beating one naysayer to a bloody pulp (which I don’t recall seeing him do even pre-Reek), and then falling to his knees for a redemptive splash in the water, the sun beating down on him and triumphant music swelling.
Like most episodes this season, “The Dragon and the Wolf” ends with some big, story-altering climaxes (all puns intended). Jon and Daenerys finally act on their simmering attraction, in a soft-core scene ickily overlaid with Sam and Bran back in Winterfell piecing together that Jon, as the son of a married Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, is the true heir to the Iron Throne — with a properly symbolic true name, to boot. And of course, as we know, that makes him Dany’s nephew. Meanwhile, the Night King brings down the wall with the help of the reanimated Viserion. Neither of these events are shocking twists; they’re the events the narrative has been bending toward all season. As we now settle in for a Longest Winter’s nap until season eight, lots of questions remain. The biggest one, however, is what sort of story we’ll find when we wake.