Game of Thrones’ season finale promised to bring together more characters than ever before, and it certainly delivered on that front. While it saw the dead march on in a moment of epic spectacle, and provided a huge revelation about one of its central character’s lineage, it’s in the ensemble’s many deep and fraught relationships that this extended episode was at its best. And like much of this season, it’s an episode that comes with its fair share of frustrations, too.
The summit at the Dragon Pit of King’s Landing did indeed see a number of reunions. The problem is that even for a bumper episode like this, there were just too many to truly explore. It’s always been in the character work that Game of Thrones truly shines, and some of these figures have history going back a long, long time. Doesn’t it seem crazy now to think that Bronn and Podrick were ever in Tyrion’s service?
There are plenty of nice beats – The Hound and Brienne, the survivors of the Blackwater coming together – but many potentially weightier pairings got short shrift. One of the series’ greatest ever scenes was between Jaime and Brienne (in the bath, in season 3), and it’s a shame we don’t get to see more than a rushed exchange between them when they finally come face to face again. Admittedly it would have been tough to give everyone the time they deserved: this is an instance where having such a large and deep ensemble actually works against the show.
Plot-wise, Dany’s demonstration of the dead to Cersei worked well (or so it appeared), only being scuppered when Jon Snow seemingly tried to emulate his father’s Stupid Ned Stark meme by announcing his allegiance to Daenerys at the worst possible moment. He’s not wrong about the need for honesty at this juncture, but history does have a habit of repeating itself, and honesty got Ned killed. What works in Jon’s favour is that if he does follow in his father’s footsteps, they won’t be Ned Stark’s, as the show overtly reveals Jon’s true name to be Aegon Targaryen, in a somewhat clunky sequence of exposition.
Then again, it’s all academic really. The show has been teasing out Jon’s heritage for so long – most of it long after the audience had already figured it out – that the reveal has little effect. Frankly, the series’ obsession with Jon just isn’t as interesting as it thinks it is.
In the North, the Wall may have been torn down by the Night King’s new pet ice dragon, but it was in the crumbling relationships between characters that the episode was at its most memorable, as both Jaime and Tyrion were pushed to dare their own sister to kill them. (And who would have thought that Jaime would be the one more at risk?)
This is a strong episode for Lena Headey, as Cersei tries to reconcile her desire to preserve her family’s power with her inclination to kill both of her brothers. And while it initially felt there was a missed scene – Tyrion and Cersei’s confrontation was superb, but it didn’t feel like enough to have convinced Cersei to help Dany – it was revealed to be misdirection, and Cersei’s stubbornness and deluded self-belief remain untarnished. It’s the final straw for Jaime, who walks away from his sister, his lover, and his queen, in what felt like a huge moment, underlined by hauntingly beautiful shots of King’s Landing as the snows began to fall.
There’s another excellent bait-and-switch at Winterfell, as the past few weeks of tension between Arya and Sansa is revealed to have been resolved behind the scenes, as the pair lay a trap that even Petyr Baelish couldn’t weasel his way out of. Pitting the sisters at odds was a plot that felt overly contrived and arguably unnecessary, and the earlier scene with Littlefinger once again speaking poison into Sansa’s ear had us screaming at the TV – it appeared we had a Stupid Sansa Stark moment to go with Jon’s – but the ultimate pay-off was superb, and a great moment for Sansa, even if none of it retroactively justified Arya’s behaviour in previous episodes.
As for the finale’s only casualty, Aiden Gillen’s performance as Littlefinger – in particular his questionable accent(s) – was often unfairly criticised, but few could have played the character with such an obviously slimy yet curiously charming mix: even as the blood gushed, Littlefinger was still trying to talk his way out of a cut throat.
Another actor on the show who perhaps doesn’t often get his dues is Alfie Allen. The scene where Jon forgives Theon is wonderful; another wall being torn down, in the sort of emotionally raw character work that the show excels at, and Allen was excellent. On the one hand, Theon has long been the show’s punching bag, so it was perhaps apt that he was only able to regain the respect of his men by taking an epic beating. But on the other, that his turning point comes through base violence is arguably Game of Thrones espousing its worst macho and animalistic tendencies. Still, that’s the way the Ironborn work, and the crotch-kicks having no effect was a funny beat to play (and a nice punchline to Jaime and Bronn’s earlier discussion of the Unsullied).
This has been a mixed bag of a season, and it’s difficult not to think that the show’s struggles are a result of not having GRRM’s books to work from any more. The season peaked with the outstanding attack on the loot train, but too much of it has focused on a plot that increasingly feels like it’s on rails rather than organic, and Benioff and Weiss’ own hands have been far too obvious in the way certain things have played out.
For all the series was built on its ‘anyone can die’ ethos, nobody of note fell this season (Littlefinger, like Olenna, had served his purpose). It’s become clear who the main players are, and they all felt protected; the good guys tend to survive these days. It’s why the engineered animosity between Sansa and Arya didn’t quite play, and why the Eastwatch Seven’s trip beyond the Wall lacked real stakes. Game of Thrones continues to be beautifully shot, scored and acted, but in the race to the finish, it’s lost something of itself; still riveting and obscenely entertaining, but lacking the unique sense of danger and the emotional resonance that was once its stock in trade. There’s nothing here to match last season’s finale, or come close to its devastating and beautiful opening sequence.
Still with only six (probably extended) episodes to go, there’s pretty much only resolutions to come, and that should provide more than enough drama to see the show off in fine fashion. We’ve also got Cleganebowl all-but confirmed, and the prospect of dragon vs. dragon to look forward to as the Night King marches on. Wrapping up a show this complicated is going to be no mean feat: we know Game of Thrones can handle the action – let’s just hope it doesn’t forget the people at the centre of it.