The overriding issue for Game Of Thrones this year has been pacing. I would not say that GOT has ever been a “slow” show, outside of perhaps the first couple episodes of the entire series. This is largely because since it got going, it has functioned less like a TV show than five interlocking shows running on top of and around each other. So any given episode, you might have the Dany show slowed to a crawl, and the Arya and Theon shows wandering in circles, but you still have the Sam show chugging along and the Jaime and Brienne show racing forward, and the Stannis show plummeting to a sudden end, and hey, remember when this was the Ned show? Or when there was a Cat and Robb show to counterbalance the dips into the horror anthologies around Joffrey or Ramsay?
|"What do you mean, he just ran back to Eastwatch?"|
The sprawl of the show meant the pace was always variable, even within an episode, but once the series got going that quickly became an asset. Part of the show’s famed unpredictability came from the unusual ruthlessness the source material brought to its genre, represented by things like Ned’s death and the Red Wedding. But an equally important part was that even if you had internalized that none of the storylines were going to end happily, you never knew which was going to idle and which one would leap forward in a given week. There has been much talk about how the GOT has begun to feel more “like a TV show” since last year, and it certainly has. But this has mostly been discussed in the faintly snobby sense of the series leaving behind the literary pedigree of the source material and the showrunners being unable to do anything but speed things up while dumbing them down, like the lowly TV hacks they are. I cut them a bit more slack, however, because for one thing, while they are "off book", they are not making this all up on their own. They're still beholden to the major plot beats provided by Martin, and if there were neat and clear paths to take those beats from points A and B to Y and Z, then he probably wouldn’t have spent the 6 years since the publication of the last book puzzling over it himself. But also, as I have intimated before, there comes a point when the series has to stop spinning its countless threads outward, and start weaving them together, to bring all five of those interlocking shows to a single cohesive conclusion. When I say season 7 has felt more like a TV show than ever before, I don’t mean as opposed to feeling like a book. I mean it feels like a show, rather than five shows.
Which is not to say that the season always managed this transition elegantly. Whatever larger narrative concerns dictated the basic beats of last episode’s action beyond the Wall, there was no need for the logistics of Gendry’s run and Dany’s save to be so nonsensical. And while I’m sure there are vagaries of production that justify why shortened seasons of 6 or 7 extended episodes would be preferable to standard 10 episode seasons of normal length, it does seem like the latter would have alleviated some of the most sore of those logistical thumbs. The accelerated pace may be a necessity, but it is a double-edged sword. It contributes directly to the stunning moments that made the 1-2 punch of “The Queen’s Justice” and “The Spoils Of War” two of the best hours the show has ever done, and just as directly to following them with two of the worst in “Eastwatch” and “Beyond The Wall”. Thankfully, “The Dragon And The Wolf” is closer to the former than the latter.
Turns out, I had Cersei pegged correctly in that she would never seriously contemplate a truce, but I was wrong in that I assumed this dead sprint of a season would dictate that she would spring her trap immediately. There is a way this should be frustrating; after all, this episode quickly put all the pieces in place to give us a melee with Jon, Brienne, the Hound, the Mountain, Jorah, Jaime, and Bronn and Euron, all going at it in the middle of a ring of dragonfire. Just the series of glances and eyefucks that takes place when Cersei’s entourage enters gets all kinds of juices flowing – the Hound and the Mountain, Jaime and Briene, Cersei and Tyrion, Theon and Euron. There seems to be twenty different fuses attached to this powderkeg, such that when it all ends without a single crossed sword or flambeed building it would be easy to be disappointed. But the series has always thrived on people discussing violence as much as committing it, and by the end of the summit, the more immediately deflating thing is that in all this talking neither Varys nor Davos got a word in edgewise (for the eagle-eyed, Varys at least gets some wonderful pursing and shrugging in the background of Bronn’s speech about taking care of himself).
|Couldn't find a .gif of it yet, so just going with an old classic|
But pretty much every bit of what we did get in the Dragonpit was spot on, starting with Cersei’s wonderfully passive-aggressive choice of it as venue – a crumbling monument to the decline of Targaryen power, not lost on Dany as she laments what it would take to Make Westeros Exceptional Again. Even before we arrive there, we’ve gotten the spectacle of the Unsullied playing straight men in the Dothraki Screamer Stunt Spectacular!, which in turn brings out the cock philosopher in Bronn, who also gets to briefly pal around again with both Tyrion and Pod. And The Hound has a friendly chat (okay, only friendly by his standards, but considering those standards and their last meeting, very friendly indeed) with Brienne and face-off with what’s left of The Mountain. He gets in some choice insults about being the handsome brother, and making intriguing intimations about a mysterious someone he should be afraid of. In any case, the meeting finally gets started after Dany makes her now-rote entrance with Drogon (who, diminishing dramatic returns aside, has been aging better than Maris Tomei in terms of effects work). Or rather, it almost does, but Euron steps in to threaten Theon. He was clearly just waiting for someone to start talking specifically so he could interrupt, because he’s an overcompensating douche, and apparently Westeros is still a few centuries away from inventing that idiotic thing Trump does where he tries to yank handshakes into his personal space by surprise.
|You can just hear the guy thinking "Christ, how did this |
guy's dick get so small it became my problem?"
Anyway, once the talks have fallen apart , it becomes Tyrion’s job to go to Cersei alone and convince her to change her mind, because of course Cersei will only listen to the member of the entourage she despise on the most personal of level. This is the latest in a series of “solutions” that don’t make sense on their face, but we just have to pretend they do in order to set up the next scene. But I can do that rather gladly when it allows Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey to square off for the first time in three years, laying their recriminations and regrets bare as they rehash the devastation their family has endured since “winning” the War Of Five Kings. Well, maybe bare isn’t precisely the right word in her case, but Lena Headey has become so adept at letting the genuine wounds seep through the tiny cracks in Cersei’s armor that abandoning her claim that Tyrion actually killed Joffrey without ever acknowledging it directly still reads like a milestone by omission. And it turns out it’s actually Cersei herself doing the acting in this case, as she later reveals that regardless of how many true emotions bled through, the whole thing was a song and dance to buy time for Euron to go fetch a fresh army from Essos. This is what makes her such a great character and villain; she is dangerous precisely because she has such huge blind spots when it comes to her self-perception, but she is aware enough of how others perceive her to know that she has to play very hard to get for their to be a chance of anyone buying it.
They do buy it, at least to an extent, if only because the show and characters have both placed themselves in a position where they kind of have to. Jaime may be the only one who believes it entirely, but as his sister points out he has always been the stupidest Lannister. The final separation between the twins has been a long time coming, and while I assumed it would come I also thought it would be more immediately fatal. Having Jaime ride north alone, after Cersei balks at ordering the Mountain to murder a brother for the second time in the hour, is faintly disappointing in that it strands my single favorite performer on the show in King’s Landing with no one but Qyburn and maybe Mark Gatiss to play off. But it’s even more exciting because it gives Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, one of the other very best performers on the show, a whole slew of new characters to play off, many of who have every reason to want him dead.
|And one who will just be having none of his sass, mister.|
But where siblings are splintering in King’s Landing, they are coming together at Winterfell, in spite of Littlefinger’s best laid plans. The Winterfell plotline has also been the victim of plot compression this year, although the payoff was better served by it than the set up. Even as someone who spent the last couple weeks insisting Littlefinger’s scheme would end precisely as it did, the show and Sophie Turner play things just aloof enough to have given me the odd moment’s pause before that extremely satisfying turn where Sansa reveals who is on trial. And that turn is particularly well set up by Littlefinger’s last scene counseling Sansa, where he overplays his hand by telling her about the “game” of assuming the worst of everyone’s motives and seeing how well their behavior matches up. It’s actually a fairly good exercise as far as tactics go, but not something that, as a pimp, you should be encouraging a girl to try as you’re trying to run pimp game on them.
And when Sansa does try it out, it crystallizes two things she already knew. One, Arya didn’t come there to displace her as Lady Of Winterfell, because of course she didn't. And two, this precisely what Littlefinger has always been: a slimy pimp. In the literal sense, yes, we've always known he kept brothels. But it's also in the specific ways he tries to psychologically undermine the women he wants to possess. The trial scene gives a succinct rundown of many of his crimes, for the benefit of the Northmen and Vale knights and also those at home that didn’t follow all of them exactly when they were revealed (often separately from his motives for committing them), but the bit that is hit hardest is this: he played sisters against each other to isolate them and make them more dependent on him. He did it with Cat and her sister, and now he is trying to do the same to her daughters. Of course, he did in fact protect Sansa at times, when it suited him, the way a pimp may sometimes protect his charges from unruly customers or the law. But when they exercise independence, or are no longer useful to him, he doesn’t hesitate to hurt them.
|I tried thinking of the worst reason a man could |
have to dress this way. I do not recommend it.
But he taught Sansa too well, and you can see him realize exactly how bad he fucked up the moment Sansa starts parroting his lines about the game back to him. Aiden Gillen’s performance has verged on self-parody for years, but his final, sniveling turn is terrific and makes it especially gratifying, as do the various callbacks to seasons past, and the dagger he used in his most roundabout bit of scheming being the one to snuff him out. But my favorite bit is how the whole set up, with the knights of the Vale turning on him when he thought they were there to contain his rival, subtly mirrors his betrayal of Ned in the throne room. It strongly underlines the dynamic of Littlefinger finding the North too rigid for his games as an inversion of Ned finding no purchase for his stolid honor in the South, without belaboring it.
The scene works well, but not as well as it could. The problems with it are not within the finale, but in the lead up. The seeds for the conflict between Arya and Sansa are definitely there, but the frantic pace of the season didn’t give them the time and narrative fertilizer to properly sprout. The sister’s one-on-one last week was on the right track, reigniting the old differences and mistrust between the sisters in a way that had an internal logic to it, but it was too sudden and total to feel organic. Having Arya flat-out threatening to cut her only sister’s face off was probably always going to be a bridge too far. But even one more scene of Sansa being interrogated about her dependence on Littlefinger could have gone a long way, and maybe pushed her to a place where she could plausibly find herself defending him. Because while all the Stark kids have suffered greatly on their journeys, those trials have left the other two weird in a way that Sansa isn't. They nodded at this with the discovery of Arya’s faces, but she and Bran's magical nature could have been more grounds for estrangement from Sansa and her earthbound struggles. Imagine, if you will, the three of them back in the godswood, picking over all the sketchiest parts of Baelish’s plans, only for her to snap at them: “How dare you judge how I survived? You think you had it so hard, but you were both free, and had wizards and wolves and Hounds and killers who change faces to protect you. I was trapped in the lion’s den, and all I had was him.”
There is admittedly a problem with even that (eminently excellent) fanwank, though: Bran. His apparent omnipotence can render so much conflict moot that the show is compelled to just ignore him 90% of the time. Even if there is a bit of a logical limitation to his power implied in that he has to know what he is looking for in the past in order to find it, his powers kind of put lie to Tyrion’s assertion that “there is no conversation that will erase the last 50 years.” If Bran is part of that conversation, a whole lot of controversy can be put to bed. In the books, I believe his seer powers are more specifically tied to weirwood trees, so even just establishing that he has to touch one to look back in time would be something. It would mean that at least his infinite and instantaneous search engine doesn’t have a wireless connection, and so he can’t just be solving every potential dispute instantly and infallibly as they arise. As it is, it comes off like the only reason he doesn’t resolve his sisters nearly-murderous spat earlier is general disinterest. And while I understand he’s kind of obsessed with the whole White Walker issue, there's been no indication he's been doing anything proactive on that front this whole time.
But the Night King is done sitting on his heels, now preferring to sit on a zombie dragon. So Bran is not going to be able to kick back in his sativa haze much longer. We, however, are going to be waiting quite awhile, possibly even until 2019 if recent scuttlebutt is to be believed. That is way longer than I want to wait, but given how much of this season seemed like it had been undercooked at the script stage, I’d rather they hold it back as long as is needed to make sure the final finale is baked to perfection. All five of them.
So, is it 2019 yet?
- Winter falling on King’s Landing was just beautiful.
- Zombie dragon looks awfully imposing, and I like how they seemed to animate him flying faster than the living dragons ever have but…shouldn't he just fall apart at the first prick of dragonglass, like all the other wights and Walkers?
- The effects work on the dragons gets a lot of praise, but the wight they dismember in broad daylight, with no dark or snow to hide it, is as good as any of the zombie effects have ever been.
- Speaking of that wight, it made for a dramatic moment, but come on, Mountain. You really just let that snarling beast get within inches of Cersei? Queensguard my zombiebutt.
- My one gripe is, designwise, is how pretty much everyone in King’s Landing (Jorah, Brienne, Euron, the Hound, Bronn, Cersei, Missandei, Varys, the Mountain, Tyrion, Qyburn, Jon) is wearing deep blacks. Only Jaime has any color, and it’s the darker crimson armor he’s been wearing the last year. Having them visually distinguished would have both looked more interesting, but also emphasized what a hodgepodge of motives and allegiances have been brought together.
- Little bit I love: Headey’s performance-within-a-performance when she is “agreeing” to the alliance. She laces just enough real bitterness in when she says she expects them to forget her magnaminity the moment the dead are defeated that even I bought for a second that she was being sincere.
- Littler bit I love: Yohn Royce hasn’t gotten much to do this…ever, but the actor makes the most of the three words of dialogue he gets.
- Littlest bit I love: “It appears Tyrion’s assessment was correct: we’re fucked.” (Dany smiles) (20 minutes later, they be fuckin’)
- Oh right, Dany and Jon knock boots after it is definitively confirmed that he is her nephew and technically in front of her in line for the Iron Throne. For whatever reason, I can’t muster up the enthusiasm that other fans have for this whole deal. First Jon’s parentage, then their hook up, and now his legitimacy have been fait accompli among fans for long enough that by the time the show gets to it, I just kind of shrug. With the romance, I like Dany and especially Jon fine enough on their own, but I don’t get enough spark out of them as a pairing to get worked up about the implications either way. And in terms of the line of succession, they have established that dragons and armies trump bloodlines so thoroughly that it seems like something I expect to become important because the show says it is, not because it feels like it has be. I’m much more intrigued by who the Mountain has coming for him.
- Speaking of that, I am preparing myself for the possibility that he just means something more abstract, like fire (to pay back Sandor’s disfigurement in kind) or “the Stranger” (being the sort of Grim Reaper of the Westerosi pantheon), because I can’t think of anyone besides himself that is still alive and could resurface at such a late hour to be a more satisfying deliverer of comeuppance. Arya maybe, but The Mountain certainly hasn’t “always known” she was coming.
- Solid episode construction: Having the scene follow Littlefinger’s execution lends subtle credence to Cersei’s threat to have Jaime killed when he is abandoning her, as it subtly suggests an even bigger climax to come than the season’s “biggest” death.
Season Morghulis: House Frey, Obara Sand, Nymeria Sand, Tyene Sand, Ellaria San, Olenna Tyrell, Randyll Tarly, Dickon Tarly, Thoros Of Myr, Viserion, Benjen Stark, Littlefinger