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Game of Thrones season 7 finale: 9 winners and 10 losers from “The Dragon and the Wolf”

The show closes out a solid but listless stretch of episodes with its worst season finale.

Game of Thrones
Cue Firehouse’s “Love of a Lifetime.”
HBO
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

“The Dragon and the Wolf” is the worst season finale Game of Thrones has ever cooked up.

This doesn’t mean it’s a bad episode. It just means that even in seasons I’ve liked far less than season seven, Game of Thrones tends to bring its A-game for the last couple of episodes. Even the greatly flawed season five ends with Jon Snow (I’m sorry — Aegon Targaryen) bleeding out into the snow. Game of Thrones’ finales generally sum up all that’s come before, while teasing the direction the story will head next.

But season seven ends just when the story is really starting to get going, with very little in the way of summing up. It might as well conclude with the Night King writing, “I’ve had such a great time this year. See you in 2019!” in your yearbook.

Yes, there was good stuff sprinkled throughout, and I dug how the first two-thirds (set at an elaborate meeting featuring almost all of the major characters) felt like a really awkward corporate team-building retreat. But overall, the episode left me a little listless. Right when things should be revving up, the show is going away. A finale should always leave you wanting more, but ideally not like this.

So with that in mind, here’s a supersize winners and losers, with nine winners and 10 losers from the seventh season finale.

Winner: me, for calling how ultimately inconsequential this season was

Before season seven began, I wrote a piece about just how hard it is for penultimate seasons of serialized dramas to pull off their story arcs. They’re so focused on setting up the endgame that they forget to tell interesting or coherent stories in their own right, which leads to the feeling that everything is just sorta happening to reach a preordained conclusion.

Game of Thrones tried a few ways to get around this problem. You could really tell all involved knew it was a problem. There was at least one big action sequence in every episode, even when the show had to completely strain credulity to shoehorn one in. And one of those action sequences was legitimately amazing.

But the show ultimately couldn’t escape the fact that it needed to run in circles for a while until the Night King could get hold of that dragon and break down the Wall, thus kicking off the final portions of the series’ story. There have been far better and far, far worse seasons of Game of Thrones than season seven, but there have been few that felt as much like they probably could have been collapsed into an hour or two of screen time.

Winner: fans of the show, for getting so many important characters in one place at one time

Game of Thrones
It’s Queen Cersei’s 25th annual jamboree!
HBO

When was the last time there were as many important Game of Thrones characters in the same scene as there were at the meeting about calling a truce in the ongoing war? Was it the Red Wedding? The Battle of Blackwater? When Ned Stark was beheaded? Or was it the very first episode, when essentially all of the main characters, save Dany, descended upon Winterfell at the same time?

To be sure, there are a few major players who don’t head to King’s Landing. Sansa and Arya have things to deal with back in Winterfell, and Tormund is up at the Wall. But other than that, just about everybody is sitting in the same place, at the same time, sniping back and forth about how they’re going to survive the coming war with the dead.

The scene is lethargic and poorly paced, because seemingly every moment requires reaction shots for every single character. But I ultimately didn’t care because it was such a thrill just to see all of these characters playing off each other for the first time in the show’s history. This was a scene that absolutely had to work for the rest of the show to have any resonance, and it mostly cleared the bar.

Loser: Cersei, for losing everybody

Cersei remains intent on being the last queen standing. Even as she “pledges her army” to join the fight in the North, she’s double-crossing Dany and Jon, in favor of holding back her forces to keep King’s Landing as the dead march toward it. Oh, and she’s also going to hire a bunch of freelance warriors from Essos. They have elephants! Yeah, she was scared of that wight, but not really, you know?

And yet this last act costs Cersei her truest love and best ally: her brother, Jaime. He rides off, presumably to join the fight against the dead, and I can only hope he swings by Bronn’s place on the way north.

But while Cersei was a loser...

Winner: Lena Headey, for being the best actor on the show

Every year, Lena Headey gets nominated for the Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, and every year, somebody else wins and she applauds politely. And yet she deserves so much more recognition for how beautifully she plays a tough, tough part. There have been a lot of good to great performances on Game of Thrones, but Headey gives the only all-timer out of the bunch.

Just take that scene between Headey and Peter Dinklage, as Tyrion attempts to convince his sister to join the fight against the dead. Dinklage (no slouch himself), plays the scene as a raw nerve, a guy who’s lost so many people he once held dear and now finds himself forced to confront the woman at the center of the maelstrom that is his life, who’d really rather see him dead.

Headey matches him beat for beat, but she also holds something back. She’s just as angry, just as wounded. But the more you watch her, the more you realize some tiny percentage of it is an intentional performance. Cersei needs Tyrion to believe she’s sincere, so she can ultimately be insincere. It’s a very complicated series of emotional twists to navigate, and I’m not sure anybody else on the show could make their way through them. All the awards for Lena Headey!

Winner: penises, for being the male sexual organ

Game of Thrones
Jaime and Bronn discuss vitality and its relation to male prowess in warfare.
HBO

Speaking of Jaime, “The Dragon and the Wolf” sure featured a lot of discussion of male genitalia, particularly as the finale for a season that started with an entire premiere about women seizing power from the dunderheaded men who would otherwise hold them back (and dreamy ol’ Jon Snow).

Jaime and Bronn say the word “cock” a lot (in reference to the Unsullied, who’ve had something done to them down there). There are a bunch of metaphorical dick-measuring contests. Theon is saved because he’s been castrated. And Jon gets to use his for the first time since poor, doomed Ygritte, thanks to a late-night hookup with Dany.

I don’t know if there’s a larger point to any of this, but I found it sort of amusing that the episode could have easily concluded with someone unfurling a Simpsons-quoting banner reading, “Congratulations to the Penis! The Cause of and Solution to All of Life’s Problems!”

Winner: the longstanding tradition of pure Targaryen interbreeding, for accidentally continuing to exist

Jon and Dany hook up just as Sam and Bran put together the fact that they’re aunt and nephew. Congratulations to the Targaryens, for keeping their oldest traditions alive.

Loser: Euron, for not actually cutting and running

Just when you think Euron has had his first good idea — wait out the apocalypse on the Iron Islands and become the unquestioned king of the Seven Kingdoms (since everybody else is dead) — it turns out he’s part of Cersei’s secret scheme. Euron! Don’t do it! Who will laugh rapaciously and pretend to be a pirate when you’re gone?

Winner: the Dany-Jon alliance, for successfully recruiting most of the interesting characters

Sansa and Arya don’t seem like they’re incredibly interested in bending the knee to Dany, even if Jon wants them to. Cersei is off #TeamTheLiving for the foreseeable. And I guess Bronn is technically a wild card.

But if you’re someone who’s anybody in the Seven Kingdoms, you’re hanging out with the alliance between Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, because you know that’s your best way to survive both the winter and the oncoming rush of dead people and dragons into your kingdom.

For as much as I hope the show finds some way to tweak the “ultimate battle between good and evil” trope for its final season, I have to admit it’s going to be fun watching a lot of these people fight alongside each other. We’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time, and in some ways, the show almost can’t screw it up, thanks to that built-in sense of anticipation.

Loser: Tyrion, for losing all damn season long

Is there anything Tyrion has done this season that has paid off for him? He’s been played by Cersei, again and again, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, and he can’t seem to come up with a strategy to save his life. What’s more, he seems pretty bummed out that Dany and Jon are hooking up — maybe he’s in love with her too. (Everybody else is.) I guess Tyrion gets to mend fences with his brother, so that’s something. Come through, Tyrion! We’re rooting for you!

Loser: Littlefinger, for completely missing how thoroughly he was getting played

Game of Thrones
Not great, Baelish!
HBO

On the one hand, it was stirring to see just how thoroughly Arya and Sansa had learned the lessons of the past, how they had realized — hopefully without too much of an assist from Bran — that Littlefinger’s whole game is turning allies against each other, in hopes of advancing his own position. This is a series about how hard it can be to stop repeating the past, about how many of the characters want to smash the wheels of injustice but know how unlikely it will be to do that.

But it’s also a show that’s built itself atop big, unexpected deaths, and it’s hard to look at Littlefinger’s death as the “big death” from this season. The show tried to feint toward some suspense about Sansa and Arya turning on each other, but come on. Their brother can see all of space and time. He may care little for the affairs of men, but he seems to really dislike Littlefinger.

Anyway, I find it a little bizarre that Littlefinger didn’t realize how badly he had been played, even when Sansa dropped his name as the person accused of murder at the supposed trial of Arya. It was rather stirring when he continued to protest his innocence, even after the all-seeing Three-Eyed Raven issued evidence against him, though. Fight to the end, Littlefinger!

Loser: Bransposition, for being bad

At some point, you’d think this show would figure out a way to indicate that Bran is going to explain a major piece of backstory to us that didn’t involve Isaac Hempstead Wright reading it in a flat, affectless voice. Indeed, it managed to do this several times in season six! But season seven, for whatever reason, is very fond of having him underline every plot point it can think of.

Winner: House Stark, for being a pack

A lot of the fluff pieces that surround Game of Thrones have centered on how Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams are good friends offscreen, too, which made it all the more irritating for them that they hadn’t gotten to share scenes together since season one. They must have been relieved at season seven, which didn’t always use them in the best ways (that Sansa-Arya feud from last week was really dumb) but played off the actresses’ connection heavily.

It all pays off in that lovely little scene atop the walls of Winterfell, in which the sisters remember their father’s words about how the lone wolf dies in winter but the pack survives. The ghost of Ned Stark has hung heavily over the series this season — fitting for a chapter so close to the end — and it sees fullest expression in the lives and deep bond between his two daughters. (Bran is pretty much over things like “having a family.”)

The more Sansa and Arya stick together, and the more they keep Bran around to tell them everything that’s happening all of the time, the more I think all of them might make it out of this show alive. I’ve predicted in the past that one surviving Stark sibling will probably die before the series is over — but now I’m not so sure.

Loser: Sam, for apparently only listening to Gilly offscreen

Game of Thrones
But sure, he’ll sit around and talk about the dimensions of spacetime with Bran all day long!
HBO

It could have been fun to see the moment of realization dawn over Sam’s head as he and Gilly rode toward Winterfell. You can just imagine him saying, “Wait, who got married?” and Gilly exasperatedly repeating what she told him. Instead, Hannah Murray gets no lines, and Sam gets to sit around and occasionally prompt Bran to deliver more exposition. Good times.

Winner: Ramin Djawadi, for continuing to be one of the very best things this show has going for it

Ramin Djawadi’s use of music has long been a key part of Game of Thrones’ success. I can’t think of a musical moment that has struck the wrong note, or seemed tonally jarring. He’s done everything from write the Westeros equivalent of pop songs to offer stirring music for battles, and he’s proved just about perfect at handling all of it.

That applies even more to “The Dragon and the Wolf,” which features plenty of moments where Djawadi’s score is the main thing holding the scenes together. He pushes the otherwise shrug-worthy scenes of Bran gazing upon the wedding of Lyanna and Rhaegar into the territory of tragedy, and his muted version of the theme song that plays as Jaime heads north, the first snows falling over King’s Landing, is starkly beautiful.

He doesn’t hit the same heights as he did in the season six finale (which opened with that nearly wordless montage of Cersei destroying her enemies, scored largely to one of his best pieces of music), but “Dragon” was some of his best work all season long nonetheless.

Loser: Theon, for winning but in a completely pointless fashion

Game of Thrones
Good work, Theon? We guess?
HBO

I think we’re supposed to see Theon’s decision to go and rescue his sister as a big, important moment in his character arc.

It technically is. A man who’s been torn between two different identities — Stark and Greyjoy — realizes he can reconcile them by trying to simply be a good, honorable man, and a man who’s been torn to shreds by trauma nonetheless throws himself back into the heart of battle for a loved one. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is straight out of George R.R. Martin’s plans for the character.

But boy howdy, I don’t know that the best way to achieve this character turn was “have Theon fight with a random dude, then win because it doesn’t hurt when you punch him in the crotch.” It killed any momentum the episode had built to that point, and it ultimately felt like a bad joke at the character’s expense. I all but forgot the whole storyline had happened until a co-worker reminded me.

Loser: the Wall, for being unable to survive foreshadowing

All season long, the characters have been talking about how the Wall has stood for thousands of years, and how the Seven Kingdoms are safe as long as it stands, and blah, blah, blah. The second the first of these speeches rolled up, I thought, “Oh, that Wall is done for.” And the more the season talked about it, the more convinced I was that the final image of the whole year would be the Wall coming down, as the White Walkers marched through. (To be fair, I figured it would have something to do with the Night King blowing a horn, which seems to be what’s going on in the books.)

That meant the Wall’s ultimate demise was … a little anticlimactic, to be honest. Everybody said it could never happen, but then it did happen, and what do you think of that? There were some awesome shots and individual moments in the sequence of the Wall coming down, but the overall geography of the thing frequently felt as if it made no sense. Director Jeremy Podeswa showed Tormund and his pals hurtling themselves down the steps, but I never had a great sense of how far they had come and how far they had to go, even as the Wall toppled.

Still, I’m glad the Night King is coming, and I dearly hope we get an entire hour devoted to his backstory in the final season, similar to how Lost devoted a couple of episodes to the backstories of important characters in its mythology in its own final season. I really don’t want his motivation to be “I am evil.” It’s a little too similar to how Breaking Bad sullied its final eight episodes by having Walt face off with neo-Nazis, the only bad guys who seemed credibly worse than him.

Winner: prog-rock bands, for getting some awesome album cover imagery

If you have a prog-rock band and you’re not making an album with a dragon spitting blue flame on its cover tomorrow, I don’t trust you to know what you’re doing.

Loser: the show’s pacing, for stopping just as the story’s getting going

Game of Thrones
Always work in a picture of a dragon. It’s just good form.
HBO

If there’s a central sin of season seven, it’s this: There was either too much story for seven episodes or not enough story for seven episodes.

Some episodes were drastically hurt by the curtailed episode order. The sixth episode, for instance, would have benefited mightily from spinning off Jon’s adventure beyond the Wall into an episode of its own (and probably would have avoided many of the logic flaws that doomed it). Some episodes seemed like they were running in place to kill time. I really did love that big meeting between all the major players, but I’m not sure it needed 40-some minutes to play out. The same goes for literally everything involving Sansa and Arya this season (yes, including Littlefinger’s death).

The long and short of it is that the season needed to end on the White Walkers pouring through the breach in the Wall, so it did. But along the way, it didn’t quite know how to stretch out what story it had set aside for this season, which resulted in a very oddly paced, herky-jerky sort of season. And then, just as things were getting good, the show went away for at least 18 months and maybe two years.

Loser: my wife, for almost certainly predicting a major part of the show’s endgame

If you don’t like speculation about how the show will play out, turn away now. Everybody else, I’m pretty sure my wife has figured out a big part of the show’s ending, and I’m mad she did it instead of me. So I’m making her a loser.

So remember the Seven? You know how there’s a lot of focus on them and their roles, even in the TV show (which has had less use for the religions of the Seven Kingdoms than the books)? What if the show is going to come down to seven remaining characters, each of whom corresponds to one of the Seven? (Other fans have suggested the Seven might correspond to the Starks specifically.)

This is my wife’s best guess. It seems right to me, but I sort of figure Tyrion will survive too. What do you think of it?

  • Father: Jon/Aegon
  • Mother: Dany
  • Maiden: Sansa
  • Crone: Bran
  • Warrior: Brienne
  • Smith: Gendry (this is the one I doubt most, but he is literally a smith)
  • Stranger: Arya

Anyway, I hope she’s right. It would be kinda cool, right? See you in 2019, everybody!

Other winners: You, for being great, engaged readers; Viserion, for getting to breathe blue fire; the Night King, for getting a dragon of his very own; visual learners, for that handy demonstration of what can kill a wight; the Jaime-Brienne-Cersei-Tormund-Hound love pentagon, for making me believe in romance again.

Other losers: My editors, for having to read all of this very quickly; the wight, for having to ride in a box and then just getting to die; Cersei’s unborn child, for having the mother it does; Podrick and Bronn, for having to sit out the big scene; anybody waiting for Clegane Bowl, because I’m starting to think it’s not coming, despite the Hound’s promises to the contrary.

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