SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “The Dragon and the Wolf,” the Aug. 27 episode of “Game of Thrones.”
It was so long coming that it was almost anticlimactic, but in the Season 7 finale — after a season of skulking in hallways and complicating viewers’ understanding of the relationship between Arya and Sansa — the Stark sisters revealed their plan to entrap Littlefinger in a public defense of his crimes. Bran was the chief witness, Sansa the judge, and Arya the executioner: With a swipe of the Valyrian steel knife that was first used against Bran, Arya slashes open Petyr Baelish’s throat so that he bleeds out in the great hall.
Fortunately, that was the only major death of the episode. (Well, the wight kidnapped from beyond the wall was killed, too, but not after some more maniacal screaming.) For its Season 7 finale, which ran a whopping 80 minutes, “Game of Thrones” opted for atmosphere building in wordless encounters. Theon kicked the crap out of someone; Jon and Dany shared smoldering looks of something like passion; an ice dragon reared back to destroy Eastwatch, paving the way for the Night King’s journey (and the action of Season 8). And most of all, there was silent staring in King’s Landing. The centerpiece of the episode was a long scene at a previously unseen location that looked like an outdoor arena — the Dragonpit, where the Targaryen dragons were housed until they grew smaller and weaker and eventually died out — and the entire awkward meeting is characterized by uncomfortable eye contact. Jaime and Brienne. Cersei and Tyrion. Euron and Theon. The Hound and Robert Strong, the reanimated corpse of his brother. Everyone and Drogon, who takes about 20 minutes of his landing process to storm around and snarl at everything before Queen Daenerys primly slides off. And then when the Hound releases the wight from its crate, the assembled company has to contend with the incoherent screaming of the thing, which writhes and flails until Jon demonstrates the only two known ways it can be killed.
The idea of the most important people in Westeros gathering together for a solemn council meeting never seemed like a good idea. The way these characters have been designed over the course of seven seasons, they all have certain fatal flaws that would prevent them from talking things out sensibly. Oddly, the episode first feinted towards that conclusion, framed around Jon Snow’s incredible goodness that prevents him from diplomatic dissembling, before zagging back over to the idea that even Cersei Lannister could put aside her bloodlust for the sake of her unborn child and all of Westeros. But then, right before the end of “The Dragon and the Wolf,” it zigged back in the other direction: Cersei reveals to Jaime that she has no intention of joining in the fight with Dany and Jon, and instead hopes to use the Iron Bank’s funds to keep their family safe. Jaime’s, of course, horrified, and finally does what the whole season has been building toward: semi-voluntary exile. The last we see of him is leaving King’s Landing as snow starts to fall.
Perhaps Jaime — like the audience — is wondering what the last several episodes were about. It was already surprising that Jaime was still so loyal to Cersei, after the explosive Season 6 finale that prompted Tommen to suicide. The arc of the whole series is one of Jaime finding his conscience while Cersei descends into power-mad bloodlust. Jaime and the audience both have long been aware of what Cersei is capable of. So extending that journey throughout this season felt — and was — superfluous.
The same could be said for the episode’s big death, as welcome as it might have been. Littlefinger is so slimy that he’s long been a favorite character to hate. But he’s also a character that commands a certain (grudging) amount of respect: His skills for survival and manipulation are uncanny, and over and over again he proved how far ahead he could see the predictable weaknesses of human nature. And yet, Sansa — like her mother — was his blindspot. He never fully reckoned with Sansa’s power, even as he treated her as his protégée. So it always seemed like she would be the one to send him to his richly deserved doom. But the execution of this plot arc was just atrocious. Who was really being duped: Littlefinger, or the audience? Because this bait-and-switch of the final hour indicates that none of the previous scenes about the Arya/Sansa dynamic can be fully trusted, because Littlefinger was watching. But how could he have been watching Sansa find the bag of faces (which she was doing apparently alone) — and not seen her plot this out with Arya? And even if that were plausible, how did Arya and Sansa, who haven’t seen each other in months to years, manage to fool one of the cleverest men in Westeros?
I’m not saying it’s impossible; I’m saying I would have loved to see it. Denying the audience the change to see that sisterly bond, fraught, but still united, is a real shame. Furthermore, I wish we could have seen Sansa plan out this eventual victory. Littlefinger’s presence was something she had to explain, in private, to Jon and Brienne and Arya. When did that shift for her, and why? Why does the show not seem to think the audience would care about that? The defining flaw of Season 7 has been that character work previously grounded in years of material has been pushed, far too quickly, to new and more convenient attitudes, so this is not exactly a new problem. But this issue extends beyond simple character work. If this simple made-you-look was how the Littlefinger arc was going to end — and how the Cersei plotline in this episode was going to end — then wasn’t everything before it just a dramatically inert waste of time? What’s the point of storytelling, if the end result is just pulling the rug out from under the audience a few times in quick succession? Sometimes, stories do something in order to make a broader statement about the world. And sometimes, they just do, you know, whatever.
At the same time, I wonder if maybe with this rather lackluster season out of the way, maybe Season 8 can now finally start getting creative again. Indeed this episode is supersized mostly just so it can rush us through to all the major developments. Bran and Samwell Tarly — a pair that should solve more mysteries together, on the whole — together stumble into the collective realization that Jon Snow is actually the heir to the Iron Throne (by some accounts), just as Jon and Dany have hot aunt-on-nephew sex (which is a new level, even for “Game of Thrones”). The Wall’s half-demolished, everyone knows about the invasion of the Night’s King, now there’s an ice dragon (that can breathe… something that destroys ice, I guess, it doesn’t really make sense), Jon and Dany are in love, and the last buried secrets are finally out on the table. Maybe now the story can actually do something, instead of running to keep apace of source material. Maybe “Game of Thrones” can now be great again.