“Game of Thrones” has picked up a step in its final season — and the third-to-last episode of the series was proof of “Thrones’s” ability, still, to toggle between plotlines and tones elegantly even as the story winnows down to a few key characters. The two episodes preceding Sunday night’s had been tightly focused on the world of Winterfell, with the season’s second episode dealing with the preparations for a massive battle and the third looking at the battle itself. Sunday night’s episode established the stakes of what will be the show’s last hours by expanding out into the world beyond Winterfell — and doing so through the eyes of Daenerys, a character who’s been all over the Seven Kingdoms in her quest for glory and one whose power seems slightly attenuated at the moment.
This episode exists in a sort of inversion of audience expectations, as Daenerys’s confrontation with Cersei was meant to happen, in many viewers’ minds, before the climactic battle with the show’s putative Big Bad, the Night King. His seeming final end in the season’s third episode allows the show to spend its final hours on more interesting matters. Killing off your main villain with three episodes to go is a weird thing to do, and “Thrones” handled it doubly well this week: First, through a party scene in which every member of the Winterfell team worked out or worked through their feelings around the previous episode’s conflagration, and then, by establishing exactly what Daenerys and company would be dealing with going forward. The Night King may be gone, but the path forward seems perhaps harder than ever.
First things first: The party scene, which seemed at first to drag, became ingenious, allowing piquant character moments for practically every sympathetic character left on the show as well as presenting opportunities for various side conversations to flower into painfully human complication. Daenerys’s sneaking out early from a party of her acolytes felt both entirely in character and portentous of several long, poorly calibrated conversations left to come in the episode; Jaime’s pursuit of Brienne, a woman who’d been so flustered by questions of her virginity at the party and who’d been so finally eager to see him in her chambers, seemed at first like the cute indulgence of a first real adult affection, until, after their liaison, he admitted his toxic connection, even still, with Cersei.
This is what late-period “Thrones” has done especially well, and what the early series wasn’t able to — banquet scenes before the intimate understanding eight seasons grant and the character-culling eight seasons necessitates couldn’t allow the viewer to connect with every individual feaster. Now, Winterfell’s celebration of its survival feels, as much as did its preparations for battle, bolstered by character knowledge and, better, elegant construction. Daenerys’s falling out of the party, for instance, portends a conversation with Jon that happens only after the mania has subsided. It’s a painfully stilted one, but one that also cannot meaningfully be resolved yet; its awkwardness is rather the point, as is Daenerys’s losing control of her own narrative, one that’s built for eight seasons.
After all, the fact that Daenerys cannot hold Jon to a promise is proof of her dwindling power — the shift that ultimately seemed to be the topic of the episode. At Winterfell, Daenerys’s terms are clear, but they’re evidently unenforceable — her belief that Jon should keep the secret of his parentage to himself is violated within minutes of series time. And the waning power of Daenerys’s starving dragons, a plot point hinted at throughout this season, reaches a painful payoff as one falls to Euron’s arrows and the other can’t even be summoned to breathe fire. Daenerys’s former aide-de-camp Missandei’s last word, “Dracarys,” is a plea for a dragon to free her and incinerate Cersei, her captor, that goes painfully unmet.
A major object of speculation throughout the run of “Thrones” has been the idea that Daenerys — for so much of the show’s early going an object of fixation, despite her disconnection from the main plot — would eventually falter in her run at the throne, due to some combination of madness (hereditary) or overplaying her hand (congenital, seemingly). Those elements may yet emerge in full flower, though I found Varys’s and Tyrion’s murmurings about the potential of the dragon queen’s having lost her marbles a bit unconvincing. (Wouldn’t Varys simply prefer anyone more pliable occupying the throne?) The potential of Daenerys being pushed there by circumstance — that she may end up harming her cause or indeed ending it because her dragons were weakened by the Northern climate and because her heart was weakened by love for an heir — feels unworthy of her. If she cannot win the game — and who knows if she can? — one hopes the final two episodes will at least let the self-styled queen who wanted to break the wheel at least go out breaking the mold as much as she has so far.
After all, that’s been what Cersei has been able to do. The actual queen on “Thrones” returned in this episode after a two-episode absence that had been painfully felt and re-established her case as the most painfully complicated character on the series. Standing atop a battlement listening to Tyrion list Daenerys’s terms — enduring testimony from the brother she hated on behalf of the queen who wanted to usurp her — she seemed, for a moment, to consider them. She grabbed her prisoner, Missandei, by the arm and seemed to lean into her as if needing the simple power of human contact, or a person to bolster her or lend her strength. And then, after composing herself, Cersei commanded Missandei to say that futile last word before she died. Holding within herself the power for acts of desperation, grasping need, human connection, and inhuman cruelty, Cersei represents the show at its most painfully complicated. She’s back in full force for the show’s last two episodes — just in time.