TV REVIEW: Game Of Thrones 7.7 “The Dragon And The Wolf”

The Dragon And The Wolf

All the spoilers delivered directly to your face below, dear reader. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

 

 

 

 

Well. That was a hell of a time to slam on the brakes.

As I’ve argued before, this has been a season reliant on speed. The positive result of this is that the show has in just seven episodes charted the progression of an entire war, groundbreaking action scenes and all. On the other hand, this year’s installments have shown an unfortunate tendency to try using that velocity to leap over the cracks in their own story logic. It’s like the writers are rushing over cracking ice on a frozen lake, so it breaks behind them where they hope it’s someone else’s problem.

(I can’t imagine where I got that image from.)

“The Dragon And The Wolf” bucks this trend completely.  With a run time of seventy-seven minutes it’s the longest episode the show has ever produced, and yet in terms of plot beats it’s actually a little on the light side. Certainly less seems to actually happen here than did in recent finales. You’d probably have to go back to the show’s third season to find so sparse a closer, and that was a deliberate choice to allow the audience a post-Red Wedding breather. There are essentially just four plot strands here, (plus the final scene) and two of them – Bran and Sam’s revelation party and Theon’s latest redemption arc at the expense of a much more interesting female character – take up fairly little time. The fact we reach the halfway point of this bumper episode without having left the capital adds to the sense of slowness. Probably the last time we spent this long entirely within King’s Landing was “Blackwater” five years ago, and that was a battle rather than a peace conference.

So what gives? What could explain the amount of time spent in a single location in which no-one dies, or even has sex? The decision to linger for so long in King’s Landing must have been a deliberate one – there’s self-evidently no need to pad out an episode that’s more than half as long again as “The Spoils Of War”. So what explains the sudden reduction in pace?

I think the answer to that is both surprising and oddly pleasant. This is about our protagonists putting on a play.

The Play’s The Thing

This won’t be the first time the show gives us a theatrical production set in King’s Landing. It was just last season that we were gifted with Izembarro’s fascinatingly inaccurate retelling of the deaths of Robert and Joffrey Baratheon and Tywin Lannister. I really enjoyed that story-line, not least because I did some am-dram myself a ways back. My misspent youth aside, it was an interesting comment on how fiction often mangles historical truths in a way that does genuine damage. Plus, it’s always fun seeing works of fiction being represented inside works of fiction. I need my meta-itch meta-scratched from time to time, and this kind of thing does the job nicely.

What we see here is the next level down the rabbit warren; actors pretending to be people who are putting on a play they are pretending is real. That’s got so many layers my brain wants to turn itself inside out.

To be clear, this is a theory that relies on more than the banal observation that statecraft is fundamentally an act of performance, though that’s part of it. I’m also not claiming any significance in Kevin Eldon playing an actor in Braavos last season and a goldcloak loyal to Cersei in this one, though it’s a nice coincidence. The first piece of evidence for my theory is the Targaryen Dragonpit itself. Clearly, it isn’t actually anything like a pit. With its central circle and ascending rings of seating, it looks more like an amphitheatre, the ruined Westerosi equivalent of the arena in Meereen where Dany’s second husband was murdered.  A place of battle for the approval of an audience. In short, the perfect location for representatives of the opposing sides in a brutal war to come together and hack more pieces off each other.

Except they don’t. They sit down and talk. There’s no violence at all here aside from the Hound’s performative autopsy, and even that is in the pursuit of peace. This isn’t a battle for the approval of an audience (which with the seats in the scene itself all empty would of course be us). It’s theatre in the round. We’re not in the Colosseum, we’re at the Globe.

Next, there’s the walk-and-talk sequence at the start of the episode, as characters on both sides of the war meet and exchange witticisms, which reminds me of nothing so much as cast members bonding before a show. Come the performance they may have to project hatred and disgust at each other, but before the curtain rises, they can forget about all that and just chat – except the Hound, who I guess is too method for this kind of cast banter. And yes, this opening is slow, but that underlines the theatrical nature of the episode’s first half. Plays, after all, tend to feel slower than television shows. Doubtless there are plenty of counterexamples, but as a generalisation it strikes me as sound, if for no other reason than editing being a thing. It’s about more than just that, however – though I note the episode conspicuously refrains from intercutting the negotiations with some other scene that might increase the episode’s pace.  Even such basic theatrical necessities as the actors needing to take up time walking on stage is honoured here (I loved the game our queens were playing with regarding which would arrive latest, by the way).  Further, with so much of a negotiation dependent on your side being heard and understood, you could argue the dialogue itself is skewed toward the theatrical here. A set-up where the listener can’t make out every word you’re saying will result in failure for a play and a parley both.

So yes, this is a play on television. Actually, it’s arguably plays on television, since since both sides in this drama are putting on their own performance. The most convincing play will win; a battle of the bards, if you will. This is about persuading people through performance, which is why everyone is so annoyed when it turns out Jon hasn’t bothered to learn his lines. It’s harder to sell the lies a play relies on when the cast forget which ones they’re supposed to be telling.

In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Cersei proves to be as false an audience member as she is clever a director. Dany and her people put on a good show overall, but they’re ice-skating uphill, as the saying goes. After almost twenty-five years in King’s Landing, Cersei Lannister was always going to write and direct the more convincing production.

Inception

Let’s analyse Cersei’s gambit in detail, then. Because I think it’s quite expertly put together. It’s probably her best scheme to date, actually, at least in terms of tactics. Strategically, sure, it’s a total disaster. Jaime points out she’s just guaranteed that whomever wins in the north will murder her next, and even that doesn’t go far enough. You can’t promise to move your entire army across two thirds of a continent and then not do it without everyone noticing.

But then this show has already pretty much given up on the idea that rulers and commanders ever bother with intelligence gathering operations (or maybe there’s only one raven left in Westeros, and she’s knackered after saving Jon last episode). By current Game of Thrones logic, then, this plan will probably take a while to prove disastrous. And anyway, Cersei’s plans are always strategic disasters. Given both that, and Cersei’s conviction that peace was impossible anyway, she may well have managed the best result her neuroses and limitations would allow.

There’s a lot to be impressed with regarding how she did it, too. First of all, Cersei is smart enough to realise that while her production has an audience of dozens, the only person she actually needs play to is Tyrion. This was a distinct possibility even before negotiations began, but Cersei confirms it during the initial conversation. Jon reveals himself fairly quickly as being no more cunning than the man who raised him, and Dany’s reliance on her Hand to make the case for an armistice – despite knowing her enemy blames him for murdering her father and eldest child – makes it clear Cersei will get further persuading Tyrion than she will working on Dany herself.

The question then becomes how to do that. How do you persuade a man you once tried to have executed and then put a bounty on that you’re willing to work alongside him for the common good?  Cersei’s answer to this is brilliantly simple.

You do it by making him think he’s persuaded you.

The first step is to play directly into Dany’s strategy. The Dragonqueen needs Cersei to believe there’s no realistic option but to agree to a ceasefire, so she comes to King’s Landing projecting power. Again, Cersei could easily have predicted this approach, but the thick formations of Unsullied soldiers and thick total lack of formations of Dothraki just outside the walls make this conclusion inescapable. All that was in question was how thickly Daenerys would lay on the dragons [1].  Dany is throwing every asset she has left into and onto the land, sea and skies around King’s Landing in order to persuade Cersei to stand down.

Since appearing to seem persuaded is Cersei’s goal, then, she increases the apparent effectiveness of Dany’s approach. She intentionally makes her position appear weaker than it is. First, she has Bronn lead the modest contingent of Lannister men sent to to escort her enemies.  In doing so, she gives the impression that her remaining force is small, and so lacking in experienced commanders Cersei has to rely not only on mercenaries, but a former employee and friend of her hated brother. Next comes the main stage of the deception, which centres around Euron. By contrasting the might of the Iron Fleet with a handful of Lannister guardsmen led by a man of uncertain loyalty, Cersei makes it clear that whatever clout she has left is being provided by the King of the Iron Islands. Then she has him publicly abandon her cause, apparently leaving her all but helpless against Daenerys’ twin armies.  [2]

(Props to Euron for selling his departure so totally, by the way, though if I’m brutally honest it probably worked so well at least partly because it still makes no sense that he’s on Cersei’s side in the first place. I’m hopeful next season we learn he’s simply kept Highgarden’s gold for himself and headed back home to build more ships to conquer the continent himself. In fact, given how few episodes the show has to wrap everything up – including Theon rescuing Yara, which probably requires Euron to not be on the move [3] – that might well be what ends up happening.)

Once that’s done, all that’s left is to find an excuse to abandon the negotiations. I’ve no idea what this would have been if Jon hadn’t told the truth, but I have total faith in Cersei’s ability to feign finding something offensive and then swishing away. It’s actually fairly likely she’d simply have accused Jon of lying – if he’s unaffiliated why did he arrive with Dany, why does he look at her when Cersei asks him questions, etc. – but the specifics don’t matter. What’s relevant is that with Cersei abandoning the negotiating table, Tyrion’s assessment of the situation is spot-on.

Unless. Unless he’s brave enough to enter the Red Keep, and smart enough to keep his head while trying one last time to persuade his bloodthirsty sister to stop all them murderings, preferably starting with him. It’s a ploy that’s both desperate – because they absolutely cannot lose this one and yet they’re still about to – and one that rests entirely on Tyrion’s intelligence, verbosity and political abilities. Which is to say, the three things his self-respect rests upon. Cersei maneuvers him into a position where he must risk everything to prove himself – not just for his own self-image, but to appease a queen whose fortunes have been decidedly mixed since she took him on as Hand. It’s absolutely critical he persuades his sister to accept a ceasefire. So, when she lets him think he’s succeeded, the relief and pride flood the areas of his brain that are normally cynical and suspicious. Simply put, he needs the win too much to question it when he gets it.

All of which is absolutely brilliant. Absolutely heartbreaking, too, because even after everything Cersei has found a new way to hurt Tyrion. It’s not perfect, admittedly. As others have said, it’s pretty disappointing that we don’t actually get to hear Tyrion’s pitch which allows Cersei to plausibly fake agreement. Immunity for her child seems logical, but also rather dull, and watching the two siblings talk about the world as it is and might be would’ve been much more interesting than them just rehashing the events of season four. This to me is a minor objection, though. We might not have got to see everything we should have, but the King’s Landing Peace Conference and the lie underlining it all still delivers.

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a problem here regarding scenes we should have seen, and information we should have been given. It’s just that this problem lies not in King’s Landing, but in Winterfell.

Let’s start talking about the north with some unquestionable positives, though. Major plus: Littlefinger is finally dead. Even better, it’s Sansa who engineers his downfall, paying back at last his years of manipulation and reckless endangerment by destroying him using his own tactics (the fact the great hall is lined with men he mistakenly thinks are loyal to him is a particularly nice touch). Very broadly speaking, the show did what it needed to with this plot. By returning Baelish to his sinister schemes after several episodes of simpering usefulness, our satisfaction with his death feels like something this season has earned, rather than simply being a present delivered a year late. Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, I really like the fact that Baelish seals his own fate by mistakenly believing the Stark siblings will turn out to be as easy to turn against each other as were the Tullys, Lannisters and Baratheons. It’s a reminder that as much as he claims to love Sansa, he’s never put the slightest effort into understanding who she actually is. He’s obsessed with a beautiful, wealthy woman with royal blood, and he’s decided that it must be love because of how desperately he wants to see her naked. He’s also apparently convinced himself that if he does enough favours for Sansa (for a very twisted definition of “favour”) she’ll fall for him too, making him Westeros’ preeminent example of that modern scourge, the “nice guy”.

Seriously, it’s genuinely creepy how well Petyr Baelish echoes those men who complain that women always go for jerks instead of nice guys (even though they admit they themselves aren’t all that nice), but who simultaneously attempt to “win” women by doing favours for them, in the belief each act of apparent kindness earns them coupons that can eventually be traded in for sex. If Littlefinger ever did get the Iron Throne he’d demand at least one of the seven kingdoms be renamed The Friend Zone. Rejecting this approach totally is therefore a feminist act, in a show that has far too few of them.

So all of that is fine, good stuff. The problem lies in how totally risible and idiotic Littlefinger’s last plot actually is. I can’t make the slightest sense out of it at all. What exactly was he hoping to achieve by forcing Sansa to banish or kill Arya? Maybe he wants Sansa isolated? Maybe he hopes having her as Queen of the North will get him closer to the Iron Throne somehow, as oppose to starting a second civil war in the north, at the start of winter, with an army of the dead approaching – i.e. what would inevitably have happened had Sansa declared herself queen? I have no idea, and that’s the show’s fault. Trying to fuel a feud between the sisters makes thematic sense, and ultimately allows them to bond over murdering a sexist scumbag – something all sisters should be allowed to do, obviously – but it still needed to actually have some point to it.

This is all particularly frustrating because the actual Stark who was dangerous to Littlefinger was Bran, and yet he totally ignores the Three-Eyed Raven after giving him the dagger. I argued at the time that this was a deliberate attempt to gauge what Bran knew, but having learned from that that he potentially knows everything, Littlefinger seems to forget about him entirely. That’s why I assumed Littlefinger’s rendezvous with the serving girl in the Winterfell stables two episodes ago was about arranging an attempt on Bran’s life, only for that meeting to apparently have no relevance to anything at all.

Bran causes all sorts of problems here, in fact, and I’m not even talking about how terribly framed his reveal of Jon’s father is (at least, I’m not talking about it yet). His testimony shows he could tell all along that Littlefinger betrayed their father, and either didn’t bother mentioning it or even thinking to check until now. Bran’s sudden announcement of the truth is about as clear an example of deus ex machina as you can find in modern television. It also weakens the sisters’ triumph, since they’re forced to rely on their wizard brother to get the job done. You could argue it’s nice that it takes all three of Ned Stark’s surviving children to finish off Littlefinger, but the whole point about Bran this season is he’s no longer Bran. For sure if we’re supposed to believe he’s still the little boy who used to love climbing and faked bravery at an execution to make his father proud, his failure to promptly avenge Ned becomes all the more ridiculous. He’s either a Stark or he’s a plot device, and whichever of those we settle on, it makes what we see here read as pretty poorly constructed.

We’re also not sure of the sequence of events here either, whether Sansa worked out Littlefinger’s scheme and went to Bran for more evidence, or if Bran finally got around to revealing the truth and Sansa took it from there. The first seems more likely, but my point is we don’t know. We’re not given the information we need to figure out Littlefinger’s fall after it happens, let alone be able to predict it.  There was apparently a scene filmed in which Sansa asks Bran for help, but it was cut, presumably to avoid signposting what was coming. Which makes some sense – it really would have made it all too obvious – but highlights the larger problem: the writers were so determined to generate surprising they actually hit nonsensical.

Still, though. Littlefinger deserved to die, and the Starks deserved to kill him. That much can’t be denied. And the scene of Sansa and Arya trying to repair their relationship over their shared memories of their father and the sense of loss they invoke is a fine ending to the Winterfell arc for the year. Peace has once again returned to their home, and the last enemy of their family in the north is finally dead.

Let Sleeping Dragons Lie

Until the Wall is breached a few minutes later, of course. I doubt anyone was surprised by the Night King finally getting through into the Seven Kingdoms this episode. It was an obvious thing to happen in the show’s penultimate finale even before Viserion’s body was dragged from the frozen lake. Even the fact it would be the final scene was fairly safe bet; essentially this was simply the season two cliffhanger dialed up to the maximum possible extent.

Still, I’ll admit it. It absolutely did its job. After a frankly mediocre season, those final moments left me fully stoked for the final battle, Cersei’s inevitable betrayal and all. It also managed to briefly make me forget just how terrible the scene immediately before it was. SMOOTH SEGUE. As subtle as a zombie dragon blowing up a seven hundred foot wall of ice.

Anyway. Let’s talk about the reveal of Jon Snow’s true parentage, then, which managed to fail on just about every level possible. Seriously, whole new levels were being built mid-scene by exhausted, caffeine-fueled Doozers just so there would be more of them for that scene to fail on. First of all, as with Littlefinger’s death, this development is an entire season too late. We’ve known since the season six finale that Jon Snow’s mother was Lyanna Stark. That would be the woman who Rhaegar Targaryen allegedly kidnapped and raped, making him the only plausible candidate for being Jon’s actual dad. Waiting a year to confirm the most likely option as the correct one is ridiculous.

Second, there’s the fact that this revelation of Jon’s true identity as a Targaryen is interspersed with him having sex with his aunt whilst Tyrion hangs around outside the door.  What possible reaction is this supposed to generate in the viewer, other than discomfort to the point of nausea? Even if we pretend learning who Jon’s father really is somehow constitutes a revelation at this point, it’s smashed to pieces as a big reveal by all the icky jiggling, which in turn fails to work as the cumulation of Dany and Jon’s arcs for the season because you’re too busy thinking about how his dad was her brother. Presumably the two moments are supposed to work together, but they just explode into nothingness like matter and anti-matter, obliterated by their mutual incompatibility.

Thirdly, there’s the idea that Rhaegar and Lyanna loved each other and were married in secret, meaning “Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie”. Well, to start with, no it wasn’t – it kicked off because the Mad King burned alive the brother and father of Robert’s best mate. Rickard and Brandon Stark have not magically returned from the dead because we’ve found out Lyanna was in love with the heir to the throne. Further, anyone paying attention already knew this for weeks, given Gilly had already found out Rhaegar secretly married someone, and again Lyanna is the only sensible candidate (note that Sam takes the credit for this like a huge jerk, by the way).  This is a scene confirming that the most likely scenario possible generated by clues weeks or even months old is in fact the correct one, and it’s not even confirmed to either of the two people who might actually be personally invested in it.

Which brings me to my fourth objection, which is that the dialogue here insists Jon needs to learn the truth about his parentage, but doesn’t bother to give us any compelling reason to believe that. Jon has spent his entire life thinking Rhaegar Targaryen kidnapped, raped and ultimately caused the death of his aunt, as well as having taken to the field to fight against his father who sought justice for both that abduction and the agonising deaths of his own father and brother. How is he possibly supposed to process learning that this villain of his childhood didn’t fight against his father, because he was his father, and that his paternal grandfather is actually his maternal grandfather, and that his paternal grandfather killed his maternal grandfather, and that his true father didn’t actually kidnap the woman he thought was his aunt, and the woman he thought was his aunt was actually his mother, and and his actual aunt is the woman he is currently sleeping with? Yes, Jon has always wanted to know who gave birth to him, but it’s never occurred to him that gaining a mother would mean losing a father, and there’s absolutely no reason I can see to believe that he’d count himself lucky for the exchange, especially since it might cost him his first romantic relationship since he betrayed Ygritte four years earlier. All of which is to say nothing of the risk this revelation would destabilise the alliance between Jon and Dany in the early stages of the most important war in ten thousand years.

And for what? So Dany knows her lover is her nephew, and therefore can take the throne after she dies? If she wants Jon as her heir she doesn’t need the Targaryen link, and if she doesn’t, that link would just be an inconvenience; the kind of inconvenience that starts wars. Or is this really all about getting Jon on to the dragon named after his dad? Because that would make this one more poorly-conceived slice of set-up in pursuit of an obvious conclusion.

Finally – and I freely admit this is my most nitpicky complaint – it’s been established in both books and show that Aegon Targaryen was the name of Rhaegar’s first son, who didn’t die until after Rhaegar himself did. I suppose Lyanna might have heard that Aegon had been killed during the sack of King’s Landing and done a little recycling, but naming both of Rhaegar’s sons “Aegon” is still clumsy for no good reason.

Which I guess is a pretty good way to sum up this entire season. It’s not been by any measure a disaster, and I’d be surprised if anyone’s personal list of their three least favourite Game of Thrones episodes included one from this year. That said, I’d be far more surprised if anyone had anything from season seven in their top three, either, or even their top ten. With the show now almost totally working without support from Martin’s books, or even his future plans, what was once among the most complex, surprising and challenging shows on television has become content to offer up obvious conclusions brought about through wobbly means. Two years ago Ian McShane’s dismissal of Game of Thrones as “just tits and dragons” felt like a serious disservice to a exceptional albeit flawed show. After season seven, for all that the Game of Thrones has – finally! – reduced the amount of gratuitous female flesh it parades on screen, his assessment, unfortunately, seems far more accurate.

Score: 3/5

GS Reviewer: Ric Crossman

[1] Not to be smug (heaven forbid!), but the instant I saw Dany had brought Rhaegal I knew she’d made a mistake. To bring one dragon may be regarded as prudence. To bring two looks like you’ve lost one.

[2] I wonder what Cersei would have done had the wight proved to be fake. One option would be throw Ser Gregor, the Queensguard and Euron at her enemies, perhaps hoping Theon will turn against his allies either because of the threats against his sister or from simple muscle memory. Cersei could then escape while the Lannister guardsmen line up to jump down Drogon’s gullet. Another option would be simply to have Euron defect as before – he’s an infamous pirate and Theon’s uncle; no-one will look askance at him abandoning Cersei even without an undead army bearing down on the realm. In any case, all this is only relevant if Cersei doubts the army of the dead is real to begin with. Given she knows Qyburn resurrected Gregor Clegane, there’s probably no noble in the south who’d find the idea of wights easier to credit.

[3] Holy crap though, did that story start on a bum note. Sexual mutilation can be tactically advantageous lol! Because literally everyone knows that old injuries don’t trouble you when someone is smashing their leg into them, obviously. 

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