“The Dragon and the Wolf” is the show’s longest episode to date, but it doesn’t feel it. From the all-star meetup at the Dragonpit, the ruin where the dreams of the Targaryen dynasty withered away to nothing, to the tender fairy tale sex scene between Jon (Kit Harington) and Dany (Emilia Clarke), it moves with understated grace toward its appalling, inevitable conclusion. Along the way it lives where the show has always lived: in conversation.
Seeing nearly every one of the show’s main players gather together to hash out the fate of the Seven Kingdoms is a real joy. Daenerys’s entry on dragonback feels sadly prophetic as Drogon sets foot in the place where his last stunted ancestors lived and died, and the looks of terror on the faces of Westeros’s great and powerful at their first glimpse of an undead wight feel are a bitter condemnation of all the backstabbing and bloodshed that filled the series’ first six seasons. Here, finally, is the enemy. It’s a somber moment.
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The World and the Self
Even Cersei (Lena Headey) is shaken to her core, which makes her false pledge to march north and her lunatic unwillingness to listen to her brother Jaime’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) pleas to honor it all the more sickening. With nothing left but an empty dream of power and one last child to ruin, she chooses to turn her back on the only war that matters and keep playing the dismal, poisonous games that have already cost her everything. The horrible moment in which she debates unleashing ser Gregor (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) on her twin and lover feels like watching something vital break, like a green branch splintering and twisting. Whatever genuine love existed between them, it’s dead now.
Lena Headey has always been one of the show’s strongest performers, and her portrayal of Cersei as a damaged, vulnerable woman emulating the system that broke her has never felt more timely or more poignant. Her childlike chant of “I won’t hear it, I won’t hear it!” when Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) tries to offer his condolences over the deaths of her children is as bottomlessly sad as anything the show has delivered to date. I don’t think it’s much of a reach to say that to Cersei, sold to a drunken rapist by her father, tortured and humiliated by the church and her subjects, stripped of the children into whom she poured all her warmth and hopes, the act of accepting another person’s feelings as real has become something dangerous, an invitation to loss and the helpless terror of love.
In the North, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) confront that same terrible void and choose to trust in one another rather than turn their backs on reality. In retrospect the buildup to Littlefinger’s (Aiden Gillen) groveling, miserable death in the great hall of Winterfell feels needlessly complicated and obtuse, full of feints and double-feints and resolved by Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) at an arbitrary moment, but the emotional material along the way has been strong and the conclusion is ugly and difficult to look at.
Littlefinger was perhaps the show’s most emptily ambitious character, a man for whom power and status were an end unto themselves, whom nobody liked or trusted, who envied everyone, coveted everything, and nursed a hollow place inside himself until it grew to fill his entire being. Watching his long and terrible game, the source of so much of the series’ bloodshed, implode in the space of a single second is like watching the pus ooze out of a zit ignored for too long. In the end, he was so much less than the sum of all his scheming.
A World Worth Fighting For
The rapprochement between the sisters Stark is a breath of fresh air. The easy chemistry between Williams and Turner makes the whole muddled story feel worthwhile as two people who might easily have been led into conflict by their traumatic pasts take a long, hard look at themselves and choose another path. It’s that kind of relief that gives the finale, with its comparative lack of spectacle and chaos, so much power. Consider Bran’s vision of Rhaegar Targaryen (Wilf Scolding) and Lyanna Stark (Aisling Franciosi), so clearly and so tenderly in love, marrying in secret by the riverside. The grisly casus belli that sparked Robert’s Rebellion is transmuted in an instant into a symbol of hope.
And speaking of hope, life, and love, Jon and Dany finally fuck. Bran’s narration of Rhaegar and Lyanna’s story over the moment they lock eyes across the threshold of Daenrys’s cabin has a raw, almost elemental power. “He loved her,” he says softly, “and she loved him.” There, in Daenerys’s bed, among the twining limbs, is the antithesis to the threat from beyond the Wall. Stopping the dead might require an army, but what binds people to fight for their comrades, their country, their families against such an abomination, is love. The world of the living has to be a place worth, well, living in.
Which brings us at last to the arrival of the army of the dead and the Night King’s destruction of the Wall. Think back for a moment. How many episodes, how many seasons have ended with a triumphant, awe-inspiring shot of Daenerys and her dragons, her armies, her fleets? The choice to end this one on a gruesome mirror image can hardly be an accident. As Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric (Richard Dormer) flee the ruination of the great barricade which has kept humanity safe for millennia, as the reanimated Viserion soars above the icy wreckage, the Night King on his back, and the numberless dead trudge into Westeros, how do those stirring spectacles of Dany’s military might transform in our memory?
Perhaps this horror, in the end, is what we’ve always been cheering for.