Game of Thrones packs plenty into a super-sized season 7 finale that offers more dramatic moments than you can shake a Valyrian steel sword at.
The term "hasty" might best describe Game of Thrones season 7, and that's not just because the series saw three fewer episodes than its usual 10-episode order. Either due to corporate mandate or the increasingly likely scenario that creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss found themselves running short on plot, the shortened season leaves the series in an awkward position where some might be questioning its ability to deliver the kind of ending initially considered to be a slam dunk at this point.
As evidenced by the plot mechanics of the last few hours, and especially in the overly contrived machinations of 'Beyond the Wall', Game of Thrones has run through developments faster than the Night King can turn a dragon into a super-chill zombie. Advancements in the plot that would normally take up a good portion of an entire season have happened in the blink of an eye, and often feel in service spectacle – e.g., the Hound chucking rocks at the wights to raise the stakes before Dany's miraculous appearance, or uncle Benjen's perfectly timed sacrifice – that the story's seams aren't just showing, they're ready to burst.
Thankfully, amidst the hasty push through the season, Weiss and Benioff have manage to maintain the grace notes between characters that have become so essential to the show and its characters. Tyrion, notably, has been given some of the strongest dialogue this season, and with good reason, taking an executive producer credit on Dany's plans to "break the wheel", the reformed Lannister is one of the few characters aware the real story of Game of Thrones (i.e., the fate of Westeros) doesn't simply end with the Mother of Dragons (or anyone else) on the Iron Throne. Unless the White Walkers are victorious, this is a story that won't reach conclusion in any of the characters' lifetimes. However, that notion didn't just take a back seat to perfectly thrown ice javelins, Gendry's marathon sprint to Eastwatch, and the character-negating plot of Sansa and Arya's potentially murderous sibling infighting back at Winterfell, it wasn't even allowed to be in the same car.
There were other welcome flourishes too, like Tormund and the Hound's discussion of Brienne of Tarth, and a brief but appreciated pair of exchanges between Jon and Jorah that finally allowed the Longclaw issue to be put to bed, and Beric's discussion with another of the Lord of Light's chosen ones about the purpose behind their resurrections. As fleeting as these moments were and as much as they were sidelined for the purpose of dispensing some admittedly visually stunning spectacle, the Game of Thrones season 7 finale is set to deliver more of those notes the rest of the season simply didn't have time or room for. Clocking in at a whopping 80 minutes, the 'The Dragon and the Wolf' follows the typical season formula by delivering a powerful denouement to last week's extravaganza and in doing so sets up the show's ultimate end run.
That denouement saw several key season 7 threads come to a head, with none more viscerally compelling, perhaps, than seeing the Wall come tumbling down courtesy of the zombified Viserion and his blue dragon fire. The moment came during the episode's final moments, and with those nearly 75 minutes Game of Thrones managed to spend quality time among its many characters, packing plenty into a super-sized season 7 finale that offered more dramatic moments than you can shake a Valyrian steel sword at.
Where 'The Dragon and the Wolf' found success was in its contraction of the narrative. It was in many ways culmination of the previous six seasons worth of storytelling and plotting to get the characters together in one place so they could talk about a conflict far greater than the one they've all been a part of since the series began. With the exception of the Starks and Littlefinger in Winterfell, as well as traveling Sam Tarly, it brought all the major surviving players together in one piece of mercifully unhurried table setting. In any other season, the meeting in the dragon pits might have been criticized for its languid approach, but considering so much of season 7 has been on fast forward, taking the time to enjoy a leisurely stroll so Tyrion and Bronn could catch up and the Hound and Brienne could come to terms with the circumstances that see their purposes aligned, came in like a breath of fresh air. It felt like the Game of Thrones that was a the top of its game with 'The Winds of Winter' was creeping back in, concealing some important Jon/Dany foreshadowing within a character-filled summit gathered to contemplate saving the world.
It took longer for Dany to roll in to the dragon pits like a boss than it did for her to fly from Dragonstone to that frozen lake Jon and the Westerosi Wild Bunch were stranded on, but it was worth it, since it afforded the episode a chance to play to the strengths of Weiss and Benioff's post-novels-as-a-blueprint writing style. The slowed pace delivered moments that featured especially strong performances from Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, as several past seasons of fraught sibling dynamics were brought to a head with genuine shock and concern about the wight Jon used to convince them to put aside the war for the Iron Throne for the only one that matters. It also led to powerful private moments between Cersei and her two brothers, one of which is her lover and neither of which she could bring herself to kill despite previous threats to do just that.
The extra time and slowed pacing even afforded Weiss and Benioff time to adequately deliver the moment between the Stark sisters in which they revealed their plan and summarily tried and executed Littlefinger on the spot. As a memorable moment in an episode full of them, the death of Petyr Baelish was perhaps more satisfying than it otherwise would have been had the internet at large not so easily taken the bait that the Stark women were suddenly easily manipulated fools driven against one another by a character who'd long outlived his usefulness to anyone, much less the plot.
In the end, 'The Dragon and the Wolf' demonstrated, it was skilled at bringing things crashing down in service of a final season that is now inseparably devoted to the battle against the Night King and his dragon-powered army. That seemingly promises a final six episodes with astonishingly high stakes, as the wights have finally made their way beyond the Wall. It might have taken some luck in getting the Wall to come down (was nabbing a dragon really the Night King's plan all along or did he just capitalize on an opportunity the moment it dropped in is presumably chilly lap?) but winter is truly finally here, and Game of Thrones has narrowed its focus down to one surprisingly straightforward storyline. But there are still a few wildcards left to play, like Jaime's now broken bond with his sister, and her machinations to hire the Golden Company to fight a war against forces otherwise preoccupied with saving the world.
There were glimmers of greatness in the extra-long episode that delivered a mixture of spectacle and character beats that closed out an otherwise uneven season in the fashion to which Game of Thrones has made us accustomed.
Happenings Around Westeros:
After getting a small reprieve from Jon, Theon got his moment in sun when his eunuch status unsettled his opponent so much he grabbed victory from the jaws of yet another humiliating defeat.
With the exception of Cersie, Littlefinger's death is, at this late stage in the game, the one that's arguably been the longest in the making. Though he played a role in getting Sana to Winterfell and to a place where she could successfully turn the tables on perhaps the most successfully manipulative character in the series, it's hard to imagine what, exactly he thought he was going to accomplish by turning the Stark sisters against one another. Like the Night King's acquisition of Viserion like it was all part of the plan, Littlefinger's ongoing manipulation is just one of those things that works best when not scrutinized too heavily.
Three-Eyed Raven is also known in some circles as the King of Exposition. It's hard to imagine anyone needed the vision of Rhaegar and Lyanna to further spell out who Jon's parents were and why it's important that the marriage was legitimate, but hey, what the hell else is Bran doing?
Let's hope all the locations on the credits map are covered in snow next season.
Game of Thrones season 8 is expected in 2018 on HBO.