Have the dragons already won?
We’re not talking about a battle between a zombie ice dragon and its two hot-blooded siblings. It’s a potential conflict “Game of Thrones” fans will no doubt spend the next year pondering, and no doubt a special-effects house is already figuring out how to deliver that kind of rousing, scaly battle.
But the non-literal version of the question still stands: Is “Game of Thrones” about dragons, spectacle and huge battles — or is it still about people? At times this past season, it was hard to tell.
Certain storylines, most notably the Arya-Sansa conflict, would have benefited from the kind of clarity and depth the show can provide when it’s not racing from one fiery clash to the next (as my Variety colleague Sonia Saraiya pointed out in her review of “The Dragon and the Wolf”). Fantasy worlds are full of what-ifs, so consider this alternate scenario: What if the rivalry between Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) had better conveyed their conflicts and disagreements, and had also contained the fake-out of Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen), but delivered in a way that did not make viewers feel they’d been cheated out of thoughtful character development?
What was real and what wasn’t in the war between the Stark sisters? Who knows? Why were Cersei’s lies at the truce conference ultimately deflating? Because, as the show’s giants and dragons have flattened walls and armies, its wars have begun to flatten its character portraits.
Consider Theon Greyjoy, whose path toward redemption was brilliantly brought to life by Alfie Allen. Theon’s big scenes in the finale would have had greater impact had the show not left him out of the core storytelling for long stretches.
The finale offered plenty of treats: A zombie dragon destroying an ice wall will always be badass. But it’s worth noting how desaturated and colorless the show becomes when it heads to the Wall. It’s not just because shadowy shades of gray and blurry off-whites are often a harried, hurried VFX team’s best friends. The muted shades are also indicative of the foe that Westeros now faces: It’s become colorless, emotionless. Arya’s Faceless Men were often more interesting than the poker-faced Night King, who has a tremendous throwing arm but is not exactly the most complex of characters.
When “Game of Thrones” returns with its final six episodes, the monsters unleashed by the Great War will undoubtedly offer some thrilling moments. But Westeros is always more interesting when it’s pausing to ask this question: What if the real monsters were inside us all along?
From its earliest days, that’s where “Game of Thrones” has excelled: at showing us characters resisting their worst and most selfish instincts and at learning (or refusing to learn) from their most trying and shameful experiences. Though the show has a sometimes lazy tendency toward nihilism, its most stirring moments often depict characters realizing they can be better people than their pasts would indicate. In Westeros, if atonement isn’t always possible, looking beyond one’s selfish concerns usually is.
As Bronn (Jerome Flynn), who’s been the wonderfully foulmouthed MVP of the season, might put it: “What do you do after you’ve realized, ‘We’re fucked?’”
All in all, I’m far more interested in the future actions of Bronn, Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), Tormund (Kristofer Hivju), the Hound (Rory McCann, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and even Podrick (Daniel Portman) than I am in whatever the Night King does. Bronn certainly faces a telling choice: Does the mercenary follow Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) into a likely deadly future? Bronn wants everyone to think he’s interested only in acquiring gold and saving his own skin, but we know there’s more to him. What will he choose?
He might want to repeat Brienne’s tart assessment —“Fuck loyalty” — but the truth is, the lady from Tarth was rejecting a certain kind of convenient, cowardly obedience. Oaths don’t protect men and women from having to make difficult moral decisions, and there are a lot more of those to come.
Cersei (Lena Headey) chose not to kill either brother, despite her desire to have them serve as the objects of all her hate, love and gamesmanship; Sansa and Arya decided to work as a wolf pack and kill the family’s most persistent enemy; Jaime chose to reject his sister-lover and break the remaining chain that linked him to the Lannister clan.
(And Jon and Daenerys chose to sleep together, but … eh. A few seconds of Jaime and Brienne staring at each other supplied more chemistry.)
The compression down to seven episodes — from past seasons of 10 — produced a number of storytelling hiccups. Fans and critics weren’t parsing travel times in order to pedantically nitpick: Their concerns were valid. Slapdash shortcuts and sloppy turns undercut the show’s psychological power, its ability to put you inside a character’s emotions, no matter how fantastic the circumstances. The scenes most indelible in the mind are often the cheapest: Conversations, confrontations, revelations that change a relationship forever.
Will the Hound and Arya meet again? What will Jaime say to Brienne on the road north? Did Tormund survive the disaster at Eastwatch? We’re used to big things happening on “Game of Thrones,” but I care more about who these things happen to.
Let’s hope “Game of Thrones” realizes that — as Jon told Theon — it doesn’t have to be a choice. In an ideal world, the series finale of “Game of Thrones” will unite complicated people and destructive pageantry seamlessly. Fire and ice, character and spectacle. When they come together in this fantasy epic, it truly is magic.