Last night’s episode of Game of Thrones was the last we’ll see of the show until 2018 or possibly even 2019, and as such it had a lot of things to do. Eighty minutes’ worth of things, in fact: it’s not only the longest episode in the show’s history, but one of the more substantial in terms of story setups. Note that those are setups: if last week’s “Beyond The Wall” was the season’s big action climax (and it was), “The Dragon And The Wolf” is effectively a feature-length teaser for Season 8 - the show’s six-episode climax.
At first, the episode appears to promise a large-scale battle, with the battlements of King’s Landing loaded with pitch and archers against the combined forces of the Unsullied and the Dothraki. But no: apparently, the siege at Casterly Rock was resolved in order for everyone to regroup at King’s Landing’s coliseum-like dragon pit for Thrones’ most high-stakes character convention yet. On one side, the Lannisters and associated ne’er-do-wells; on the other side, Danaerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, and associated e’er-do-wells; on the other other side, Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne, representing the combined forces of the North. If the earth had opened up and swallowed the lot of them, it’d be Tormund, Beric, and the ladies Stark against the world. Even if not, there’s a real fear of ambush and death in this enclosed arena.
After some brief reunions, it’s straight to business. As Tyrion points out, everyone gathered generally dislikes each other, and negotiations are thorny - immediately interrupted, in fact, by threats from Euron. Tyrion, Jon, and Danaerys make a strong case for a truce, but so strong is Cersei’s hatred of each that she makes jokes. They’re cut short, of course, by the appearance of the Hound’s pet zombie-man, who helpfully continues being savage and dangerous even when sliced in two. Even Cersei can’t deny that kind of horror, and Euron claims he’ll retreat back home before making some obligatory lewd remarks to fellow island-dweller Dany. But Jon’s stubborn adherence to honour and to his new queen puts paid to Cersei’s demands, and thus any potential truce.
(As a side note: Maester Qyburn totally admires the captured zombie’s perfection to an unsettling, Ash-from-Alien extent, which really cannot bode well.)
Nobody’s happy with Jon’s over-honest behaviour - not when life itself is on the line. Tyrion, however, is the only one willing (or, tenuously, able) to return to Cersei - and return he does. In the first of several terrific one-on-one scenes this episode, Tyrion and Cersei hash out their tumultuous past, building to Cersei almost - but not quite - admitting to caring more about power than family, and Tyrion goading his sister to have him killed. She can’t bring herself to do it, though, and lets him go - but not before revealing her pregnancy to him. At least, she reveals her claim of pregnancy. I still don’t trust Cersei not to be making it all up as some bizarre power play.
Cersei even acquiesces to Jon and Dany’s request, at least on the surface, appealing to their sense of mercy for whatever happens after the war. She doesn’t come across particularly trustworthy, but the gullible Jon Snow buys it. It’s a shame; a living, vengeful Cersei will put a real wrench in the works of making the Targaryens extraordinary again.
Meanwhile, in Winterfell, Littlefinger continues his dull and faintly irritating quest to turn Sansa and Arya Stark against one another. His philosophising to Sansa - that he assumes the worst of people, then applies that thinking retrospectively to their actions - is a particularly telling insight into his head, even if it is itself another attempt to get into Sansa’s.
It’s also the only remaining insight we’ll ever get into Baelish’s head - unless you count the literal insight offered us by his slit throat. Yes, Game of Thrones brought one of its most long-awaited character deaths yet in this episode, and it wasn’t just Baelish’s pathetic gurgling collapse that was so satisfying. Rather, it’s Sansa’s bait-and-switch play, bringing Arya before her court before turning on her ostensible advisor, that made this season’s ceaseless Winterfell-based bullshit almost worth it. Aidan Gillen’s performance as Sansa lists off his character’s many crimes - crimes he thought he’d fully gotten away with - is a joy, as he stammers, gets down on his knees, and pleads for his very life. Littlefinger was the worst, and now he’s dead, gagging on his own blood under the scornful gazes of everyone on whom he’d tried to pull one over. That’s even better than Sansa and Arya finally burying the stupid hatchet.
Also in Winterfell: Samwell Tarly arrives, family in tow, and in conversation with Bran finally helps lay out what the audience has been screaming at the television for weeks. Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and thanks to a secret marriage ceremony between the two, he’s also the rightful heir to the Iron Throne (or “rightful” - it’s complicated nowadays). We actually get to see the (non-murderous) marriage ceremony, which was a pleasant surprise, particularly paired with narration that refutes one of the show’s many rapes, replacing it with real, actual love. We don’t see enough of that on this show.
Oh, and there’s more. That whole sequence is also cross-cut with Jon and Dany finally, finally, finally getting their unwittingly taboo thing on. Score one for the “will they” team, and dock Team Won’t They five points. As for Jon and Dany themselves: bone well while you still can, friends. It feels so wrong, yet so, so right.
Something that’s stuck out like a sore thumb this season has been the continued presence of Theon Greyjoy, who began the season running away when his sister was taken prisoner and has moped around ever since. While I wouldn’t want to hang out with the guy, Theon’s one of my favourite characters: utterly consumed by self-loathing and guilt, he’s desperate for redemption but doesn’t believe he deserves it. A stern talking-to from Jon Snow, however, sets Theon on what’s likely to be a fairly significant redemption arc in Season 8. In attempting to rally his remaining men to his side, he takes a beating from one of the many douchebags in the Ironborn - but that douchebag fails to take into account all aspects of Theon’s current physiology. Theon’s greatest strength is his sheer ability to survive, but his second greatest is his lack of genitals, now actually useful for once as his opponent knees him repeatedly in the groin. An extended face-punching session later, and he’s off to rescue his sister and possibly even claim back his dignity. Godspeed, Theon. May you spend less time rowing than Gendry did.
Theon isn’t the only character heading for redemption. In a reversal of Theon’s situation, Jaime Lannister finally cuts his ties with his sister in this episode, finally seeing her for the irredeemable psychopath she is. Calling Jaime “the stupidest Lannister,” she reveals her scheming: to send Euron to Essos to bring back a company of mercenaries, to instantly renege on her pledge to Jon and Danaerys. Well past the point of reason, she very nearly even has Jaime killed - but as with Tyrion, she can’t do it. If she’s truly pregnant, she’d better hope it matures unnaturally quickly: she’s more or less without allies now, backed into a corner and lashing out against anyone who dares come close.
Jaime even makes peace with Tyrion in this episode, their familial bond proving stronger than past vows or allegiances. I like that they’ve come to an understanding after all these years; they’ve both grown weary of the war, and recently of Cersei’s accelerating madness. They may both be idiots, but they’re our idiots, and now Jaime rides north from a darkened, newly snowy King’s Landing to an even darker, snowier Winterfell. There’s little chance of a warm welcome there, but for poor Jaime Lannister, it’s preferable to being held captive by his unhinged sister.
In the episode’s final moments, the event to which the show’s been building for seven years finally takes place: the army of the dead breaches the Wall. The army stretches as far as the eye can see, but it’s the Night-King’s new dragon friend who makes short work of the Wall itself, breathing blue flames (not ice!) at the structure with uncanny, machine-like focus. There’s no life in the Night-King’s assault, just calm, methodical destruction; so too do the Dead march on Westeros with a sickening inevitability. While the boat-sex is no doubt awesome, it seems Danaerys should have flown North after all.
“The Dragon And The Wolf” fulfills two functions. For one, it positions all the good guys in and around Winterfell, sandwiched between the growing Lannister forces to the south and the army of the dead to the north. For another, it airs all the lies and betrayals that set this whole business off - most notably the lie that started Robert’s Rebellion, the lie that set the Starks against the Lannisters, and the necessary lie that has concealed Jon Snow’s true identity. Some of its plotting is clunky - the amount of offscreen action that disagrees with what’s seen onscreen strains credibility, especially in Winterfell - but it gets the job done.
All this place-setting and revelation will come to bear in Season 8, as the forces of the dead and the living clash, even as the living tear themselves asunder from within. HBO’s not going to hold anything back in the final six episodes of its biggest hit ever; a show boasting some of television’s finest performances and arguably the medium’s finest visual craftsmanship ever. Let’s pray our world doesn’t fall to darkness before we get to see Westeros escape its own.
Winners and Losers: The whole of Westeros loses. Podrick’s magic dick gets a mention, and thus wins. Who knows - maybe Podrick’s dick is the true WMD against the undead.
MVP: Jaime, for finally getting on his fucking horse and riding away from Cersei.
Conspicuously Absent: Nudity, somehow, despite the arrival of the most-anticipated sex scene in the show’s history. A showdown between the two Cleganes, which may have to happen during battle, and which won’t hold much emotional weight anyway, given one of them lacks the ability to feel emotion.
Births, Deaths, and Marriages: RIP Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, dying the undignified death he’s always deserved. Also RIP one Wall, one very confused zombie-man, and a large group of Wildlings and Night’s Watch that we’re all hoping doesn’t include Tormund Giantsbane. Congratulations to Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, for both their secret marriage and secret baby (both in flashback).
Wild-Assed Predictions: The Night-King keeps having to double back because his shuffling army can’t keep up with his dragon. It turns out the Golden Company is actually the Golden Corral, and Cersei finds herself owning a large country buffet franchise she didn’t want. Dany and Jon find out the truth about Jon’s heritage, shrug, and make lots and lots of inbred dragon-babies. Tormund digs himself out of the Wall’s wreckage just in time to see Brienne killed by the Night-King, then self-immolates. Arya dons Littlefinger's face not to undermine Cersei's rule, but to gain access to King's Landing's classiest brothels.
Commitment to Craft: The effects at the episode’s end put major motion pictures to shame. And is it just me, or have everyone’s costumes become sexier over the course of this season?
Banter Is Coming: Jon Snow offers wisdom for the post-truth era: “When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies.”