Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones season-seven premiere.
Game of Thrones is such a straightforward adventure, always focused on characters and plot, that its keener moments of self-awareness slip by without calling attention to themselves. The seventh-season premiere, “Dragonstone,” is filled with them; they confirm that Thrones is as dedicated to self-reflection as its wisest characters.
One of the show’s most cynical regulars, the profane, disfigured knight Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), travels further down his personal road to redemption. We see him bury the corpses of a father and daughter that he robbed while fleeing with Arya Stark (Maisie Williams); the father killed the daughter and then himself rather than let both die of starvation. “I’m sorry you’re dead,” Sandor says, shovel in hand. “You deserved better, both of you.” The cranky atheist and flame-phobic knight also heeds a Lord of Light–worshiper’s plea to stare into a fireplace and describe what he sees: a vision of the White Walkers’ army waging war on the living. It was jarring, yet inspiring to see one of the least sentimental characters from the show’s early years express hard-earned regret and be properly horrified by a vision of civilization’s end. It was just as arresting, in a different way, to see Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) trying to talk sense into his sister, Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), who is so consumed by the desire to outlast her enemies and preserve her power that she refuses to see that her House has no decent allies left — and no heirs, either. Most intriguing of all is the episode’s opening scene, which initially plays like a flashback: We see the cackling, sadistic, rape-happy Walder Frey (David Bradley), architect of the Red Wedding, leading a banquet hall in a toast to the impending destruction of his enemies. Then, puzzlingly, Frey seems to chastise his guests for failing to wipe out the entire Stark clan: “Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe.” It turns out the wine was poisoned; every imbiber keels over and “Walder” removes his false face to reveal Arya, who revenge-murdered Frey last season. Right before the toast, Arya warns Frey’s oblivious child-bride not to drink her wine because it’s good stuff that shouldn’t be wasted on women. This feels like a shift from the misogyny of the show’s first three seasons: That Arya’s line is ultimately revealed as a secret reprieve for another female in the hall sums up the storytelling jiujitsu that has deepened the final seasons of Thrones.
Once an engrossing but problematic show that alternately decried brutality and wallowed in it, that simultaneously valorized and exploited its women, Game of Thrones has become more empathetic, complex, and progressive in its final leg (though its racial politics remain iffy). Indeed, there are times when Thrones seems to be subtly apologizing for what it used to be; wondering, like many of its characters, about the point of it all, and waving away simplistic answers. This is healthy. In fact, this sort of home-stretch introspection distinguishes great shows from shows that are merely notable. “Winter came for House Frey,” Arya tells the sole survivor of her retaliatory massacre; twilight is coming for Game of Thrones, too, and the increased precision and sensitivity the series has demonstrated in every aspect, from characterization and storytelling to sexual politics, suggests that executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are thinking not just about how to satisfy the series’s vast audience, but about their legacy.
The shift from adaptation to invention deepened the show. Game of Thrones premiered on HBO in 2011, a year after The Walking Dead; the success of both heralded a wave of shows that were based on novels (or graphic novels), and that could compress, cut, rearrange, and add material without worrying about where the next plot point was coming from. But Thrones’ source, a series of doorstop novels, was unfinished when the show debuted. After years of hemming and hawing, Martin confessed that Benioff and Weiss would finish their version of the tale before he could finish his. At that point, the show seemed to lose the sour leadenness that weighed it down even during its most affecting and rousing moments. In retrospect, the show’s obligation to stay true to Martin, or perhaps what it believed to be fans’ perception of Martin, might have accounted for its tendency to pander to the reptilian brain even when it didn’t have to: scenes that stripped actresses, showed rapes instead of alluding to them, and lingered over torture and suffering, played like attempts to prove literary bona fides (and satisfy HBO’s thirst for “extreme” entertainment) rather than unpleasant but necessary attempts to get a point across. A new exactness seeped into the show’s bones. This could be seen across the board, particularly in the violence (which was still shocking but often more measured, such as the killing of Ramsay Bolton by his own hounds, more implied than shown) and in the way the characters discussed issues that weren’t really settled just because the more powerful person said they were (see Kit Harington’s Jon Snow and Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark discussing what to do with the Karstark and Umber castles; she’s interested in punishment, Jon in politics).
How will Benioff and Weiss finish the series? (For his part, Martin has told the showrunners in broad strokes how he plans to end the books.) The big threat — the advance of the White Walkers — is an extinction-level event, and at the start of the new season, only Jon and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), who wanted to study the monsters’ physiology, seemed to fully grasp this. Game of Thrones is such a crowd-pleaser that the temptation to deliver an all’s-well-that-ends-well finale will be enormous. But the careful parsing of characters into factions that get it and factions that don’t indicates that the series might resolve itself as a cautionary tale about what happens when vengeance and pride get in the way of survival. Game of Thrones has often been likened to the Godfather movies. It earned the comparison not just through its intricate cross-cutting (see the season-six finale’s stunning opener), its shocking eruptions of gore, and its steely depiction of an entrenched patriarchy, but in its court intrigue and whispered musings on power. The show’s main storytelling model has been the first Godfather, which ended with Michael Corleone having the clan’s major enemies executed and reasserting control over his realm, including his questioning wife, Kay — the Corleone World version of a happy ending. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is probably the most Michael-like of the major characters, and the season-six finale saw her leading a war fleet and three fully grown dragons toward Westeros to settle all family business. But what if the show is headed toward an ending more like the bleak fade-out of the second Godfather, which ends with the genius tactician brooding by himself after executing his brother in the name of the family? Or the third Godfather, where the karmic wheel spins around, fading out the story with the death of a character who has lost everything that mattered to him? Thrones probably doesn’t have the nerve to go to a place that dark and treat the tale of Westeros’s destruction as a cautionary one — much of the audience would be enraged if it did — but what Benioff and Weiss have put onscreen since they ran out of novels indicates that they’re not going to tell us what we think we want to hear.