Let us begin our discussion of “The Dragon and the Wolf” at the end, for it is the end that really matters.
The Wall is down. It stood for more than 8,000 years, protecting the realms of men, but that’s all over now. The White Walkers are coming. The dead are coming. Winter is no longer coming, but here.
This has all happened before. Eight thousand years before Aegon the Conqueror started the Targaryen Dynasty, setting the modern age in motion, there came a winter that lasted a generation. It was known as The Long Night, and Old Nan told Bran about it, way back in the third episode of Game of Thrones:
“Oh, my sweet summer child, what do you know about fear? Fear is for the winter, when the snows fall a hundred feet deep. Fear is for The Long Night, when the sun hides for years and children are born and live and die, all in darkness. That is the time for fear, my little Lord, when the White Walkers move through the woods. Thousands of years ago there came a night that lasted a generation. Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts. And women smothered their babies rather than see them starve, and wept, and felt the tears freeze on their cheeks […] In that darkness, the White Walkers came for the first time. They swept through cities and kingdoms, riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders big as hounds…”
The Long Night nearly eradicated the human race. It only ended when The First Men and the Children of the Forest—once mortal enemies—joined forces against the Walkers in what became known as The Battle for the Dawn. As Jon told Dany earlier this season, “They fought together against their common enemy, despite their differences, despite their suspicions.”
Together, the Children and the First Men stopped the southward advance of the White Walkers and drove them back into the distant north. A great hero among the First Men, Brandon Stark—known as Bran the Builder—erected a 500-mile-long, 700-foot-high Wall, infused with magic, to keep the forces of the dead from ever returning. The Night’s Watch was created to guard the Wall, and Bran the Builder founded House Stark, eventually ruling the surrounding lands as the first King in the North.
These are the stories, passed down over 8,000 years until they became nothing more than myths, and legends, and tales to frighten children. By the time Bran the Builder’s distant descendant and namesake Brandon Stark heard the tales from Old Nan, people had stopped believing in the Children and the White Walkers, and had long forgotten what the Wall was really for. If they thought of it at all—and most people in Westeros never did—they thought of it as something meant to keep out Wildlings.
But the Wildlings—the Free Folk—were only human beings. The only real difference between them and everybody else was that they were unlucky enough to have been born on the wrong side of the Wall. Ygritte—Jon Snow’s first love—made this point to him shortly after they met, way back in Season Two. “They’re not your lands!” Ygritte said. “We’ve been here the whole time. You lot came along and just put up a big wall and said it was yours.” Jon protested that his ancestors were the First Men, so his people had been there all along as well.
“So why are you fighting us?” Ygritte asked.
That conversation—and the relationship that developed between its two participants—represented an important moment in Game of Thrones. It was the moment Jon Snow began questioning his vows and the strict rules of his allegiances, and started thinking for himself. It was the moment he started to recognize that people were just people, and that it was possible to empathize with—and even love—someone who was officially your enemy. It would be a couple of seasons yet before Jon Snow would become the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and the first to let the Wildlings back inside the Wall. It would be a couple more still before he would become King in the North, and set out to unite all the warring Houses in a common cause. And he still doesn’t know—though we now do—that he is actually the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen, the direct descendant and namesake of Aegon the Conqueror, and the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.
But the process of preparing Jon for the role—morally and ethically—has been underway all along. And a big part of that education was the realization that—as Samwell Tarly once said—”We didn’t build 500 miles of ice walls, 700 feet high, to keep out men.”
My point is, the Wall has a double meaning. It was meant to protect the living from the dead, and so it was once a symbol of hope and unity. But it became something that separated the living from the living, and thus a symbol of discord and distrust. That is the dual nature of walls: They protect, but they also divide, isolate, and exclude. In the 8,300 years after Bran the Builder built the Wall—and removed the common threat against the human race—humanity kept building walls. The walls became Houses, and the Houses—forgetting they were once united against a common threat—went to war against each other.
I am venturing now into territory that I’ve covered before. (It is increasingly difficult not to do so, as Game of Thrones approaches its ending and weaves all of its separate threads together.) So perhaps I can be forgiven if I quote a few paragraphs from my piece on one of the most thematically important episodes of the entire series, Season Five’s “Hardhome.” (Everything I said then applies doubly now.)
In George R. R. Martin’s novels, the “White Walkers” are more commonly known by a different name: They are called the Others. I’ve said that “othering” is the process of identifying those outside the circle of self as something foreign, something different and lesser, something that doesn’t deserve sympathy and doesn’t really matter. The Walkers are the ultimate other, the thing that stands outside the wall of humanity and defines the borders of sympathy and compassion and cooperation. They—literally as well as figuratively, in this case—break down the walls that separate us: Merely by existing, they unite everybody else into a common entity with shared interests […]
The White Walkers mean death, the Many-Faced God, the thing that defines the borders of life, the thing that makes us all equal, the thing that unites us all by waiting to claim us all. When we can pretend it’s not there—as most of Westeros is doing—all the minor differences between us seem important enough to plot over, to hate each other over, even to kill each other over. Then we can objectify each other, deny each other kindness, fail to recognize each other’s humanity. That’s how wars begin. That’s how torture and cruelty and slavery can exist. That’s how little boys can be thrown from windows, and women can be raped, and entire families can be slaughtered at a wedding […]
From the beginning, Game of Thrones has been about the walls between people, and the forces—sympathy, compassion, understanding—that can occasionally breach them. Now, the entire game—with all its petty divisions of class and clan—has been put into perspective, and the walls are a-tumbling down. Sympathy, compassion, understanding, and a recognition of commonality: These are what matter, and it’s only those qualities that will allow us to—as Jon puts it—”give the fuckers a fight.” […] The time for internal squabbles of “us versus them” is over. Now, the Others are Them, and every single living human being suddenly becomes part of Us.
Nothing is accidental on this show. It is not an accident that the very first shot of the series showed the gate in a wall opening, and people going through it. It is no accident that, before we knew about any of our regular characters or their complicated rivalries, we learned that the White Walkers were real, and that the dead were coming. The first episode is titled “Winter is Coming,” because the show never wanted that threat to be out of our minds for long. In fact, the entire series is very deliberately named: we should never have forgotten that all the things we (and the characters) thought were so important—all their politicking, rivalries, squabbles, and wars—never amounted to anything more than a silly game of thrones.
Likewise, it is no coincidence that “The Dragon and the Wolf” begins and ends with armies massing outside of walls. And it is no coincidence that—after existing in separate storylines for seven seasons—nearly every major character comes together now, in an open air forum where the walls have all but crumbled. Starks, Targaryens, Lannisters, and Greyjoys stand together, for the first time, to address a common problem. Season One’s “The Wolf and the Lion” began the open warfare between the great Houses. Now, Season Seven’s similarly titled “The Dragon and the Wolf” seeks to end that warfare and bring the great Houses together.
By the end of this episode, the Wall is down. All the walls are down, including the ones between Houses. The games are over. There’s only ever been one war that matters: the Great War.
And it is here. Winter is here.
“We are a group of people who do not like each other.”
But here’s the thing: Just because something was a game, doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.
I’ve noticed that it has become more fashionable this season to denigrate and disparage Game of Thrones, as if it is somehow just a pale shadow of what it once was. Without George R. R. Martin’s detailed map to guide them, this disgruntled narrative goes, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have started writing what is essentially nuance-free “fan fiction” set in Martin’s world.
I vaguely understand this reaction, and I am certainly not above complaining about some of the absurdly hurried plotting we’ve endured as Benioff and Weiss move towards an ending. (I will, in fact, complain about some more of it in this review.)
But, in general, I find the criticisms unfair, even churlish. We are roughly 70 hours into an 80 hour story; if this were a movie, we’d be in the last ten or fifteen minutes. Should we be surprised to see the pace picking up? Should we be surprised to see the resolution of the plot prioritized over lengthy conversations and leisurely character development? Some of the criticisms seem to be centered around the predictability of certain developments, as if we should be not only surprised but disappointed to see seeds that have been carefully tended for seven seasons blossom into exactly what they were always destined to be.
And I find some of the criticisms baffling, because they imply that all of the exquisite character development that came before has somehow been jettisoned. As we discussed earlier this season, everything that these characters have been through continues to inform everything that happens now. That, in fact, was the point of it all. Jon Snow is far from the only character whose moral education has been ongoing for seven seasons: Everyone took a long, complicated, ethically challenging path to arrive where they do in “The Dragon and the Wolf.” I have minor complaints about some of the short-hand and short-cuts Benioff and Weiss are employing, but they have layered the themes so carefully, and built these characters so beautifully, that the show can speak in short-hand now.
In my piece on “The Spoils of War” I focused on just how much psychological back-story and emotional subtext we are able to read now in a character’s face, or in a silent look exchanged between two characters with a shared history. I could—but, you’ll be relieved to hear, won’t—write the same piece now about the melee of meaningful glances that occurs when everyone arrives in the Dragon Pit of King’s Landing. (Loaded looks pass between Cersei and Tyrion, Jaime and Brienne, Theon and Euron, and The Hound and the Mountain, before anyone says a word.)
And the larger organizational chart of emotional connections between the attendants at this gathering is kind of staggering. For example, we are used, by now, to seeing Podrick with Brienne, and Bronn with Jaime—but we remember, too, that Podrick and Bronn were once Tyrion’s first real friends. We remember that Brienne and Jaime spent an entire season with only each other for company, and that it was this relationship—more than any other—that reawakened the hero in the “Kingslayer.” We remember that Brienne nearly killed The Hound—leading to his rebirth as a different sort of man—because they failed to realize what they are now able to recognize: that, though their official allegiances were different, they shared a common goal of protecting Arya Stark.
I could spend this entire article fleshing out the significance of these (and other) relationships, but it would amount to a recounting of nearly the entirety of Game of Thrones. As much as it’s been anything, this series has been a chronicle of people being forced to see past their clan mentalities, discover the humanity of their supposed enemies, and rediscover their own humanity in the process. As I said in my review of last season’s finale, that’s the real purpose of the game: to determine whether humanity deserves to survive.
You could look back at the path of almost any one of these characters, and discuss how everything they’ve been through has led them here, to a point at which they can rise above their beginnings, put aside their selfish interests, and see what really matters.
Let’s take Brienne, for just one minor example: She was always a character defined by her stubborn adherence to the strict clan allegiances of the Seven Kingdoms, and to the strict codes of ethics that maintained them. Now—though her essential character has never changed—we realize that she has become someone able to see the bigger picture. “Oh, fuck loyalty!” she yells at Jaime. “This goes beyond houses and honor and oaths!”
Fuck loyalty? From Brienne of Tarth? This is the most faithful, honorable, and loyal woman in Westeros, she who once held “the Kingslayer” in total contempt because he had violated his sacred oath to protect the Mad King. But, over the course of the series—and particularly from her experiences with Jaime—she has learned that there are more important things than oaths and loyalty and codes of honor.
So maybe we shouldn’t call everything that has happened to these characters a game at all, but a school: a long, punishing curriculum designed to expand their worldviews and reprogram their priorities. Here, in the Dragon Pit, we have the graduating members of Game of Thrones’ senior class, ready to go forth into the world and demonstrate what they have learned. These—and a few absent classmates, like Arya and Sansa—are the handful of people who have survived the show’s brutal emotional gauntlet and emerged to face the final test: the one that will determine whether the human race is going to survive at all.
It must be said, the most important peace summit in the history of this world does not get off to an auspicious beginning. Everyone is looking daggers at everyone else, and the early conversation is taken up with old conflicts and petty resentments. Daenerys is late—irritating Cersei, who knows that arriving last is a privilege of power—and makes a deliberately intimidating show of power when she finally arrives atop her largest dragon. (Let it never be said that the girl doesn’t know how to make an entrance.) The Hound has a few words for the thing that used to be his brother, promising him that some old sins cannot, and will not, be forgiven. And the odious Euron waits until the official conversation has begun to leap in and demand Theon’s obedience in exchange for Yara’s life.
This last is significant, because Euron is not one of our “classmates”: He is a relic and representative of the old ways, the destructive and objectifying games of power and allegiance that used to be this society’s paradigm. (Remember, he came to power largely on an appeal to the raping, murdering “traditions” of the Iron Islands, and a rejection of the radically reformative notion that a woman might rule.) Here, he tells Tyrion that dwarfs are killed at birth in the Iron Islands. As I’ve said many times, Game of Thrones has largely been about making room within a rigid, power-based hierarchy for cripples, bastards, and broken things, and now Euron reminds us just how cruel and compassionless the old system really is. He is the personification of the parts of Westeros that are not worthy of survival.
“We are a group of people who do not like each other,” Tyrion says, acknowledging the elephant in the room. (The dragon in the pit?) “We have suffered at each other’s hands. We have lost people we loved at each others hands. If all we wanted was more of the same, there would be no need for this gathering. We are entirely capable of waging war against each other without meeting face-to-face.”
Indeed, most of Game of Thrones has taken place with the key players hating each other from behind separate walls, never meeting face-to-face. That, in fact, is one of the roots of the problem, for it is too easy to hate people you don’t really know, and too easy to kill people if you don’t have to look them in the eye. (Ned taught us that in the first episode, when he insisted that “the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”)
“There is no conversation that will erase the last fifty years,” Tyrion says now, and he’s quite right: No one is suggesting blanket amnesty for past crimes, and expecting everyone to live in harmony would be a pipe dream. There is no conversation that will erase the past seven seasons of Game of Thrones, either, and one of the worst things Benioff and Weiss could have done in this final act was to pretend that everything that came before could somehow be forgotten and forgiven. (There is a moment, later in this process, when Cersei seems ready and willing to join the Super Posse and just let bygones be bygones. It rings false, and—as we’ll discuss—it mercifully turns out to be false.)
“It’s not about living in harmony,” Jon says. “It’s just about living.” This is a repetition of the ideas Jon expressed in “Hardhome,” when he had to convince two other warring tribes to put aside centuries of mutual hatred to protect the common good. (“We’ve never been friends,” he told the Wildlings then. “We won’t become friends today. This isn’t about friendship. This is about survival.”)
Today, it’s all about convincing one person: Cersei Lannister, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Realm. And, at the beginning of this meeting, Cersei is still her old self, playing the old familiar game. She is characteristically bitter, angry, vindictive, and contemptuous of the entire human race. (“I imagine for most of them it would be an improvement,” she says, at the prospect of all of her subjects becoming zombies in the Army of the Dead.) She is still fighting the old wars, still playing the old game according to the old rules.
(It’s almost understandable: After all, she only just started winning. Dany and Cersei each began this season determined to be the first woman to win the game of thrones, so it is natural that they might resist the suggestion that the game be called on account of impending doom.)
So, give Jon and Tyrion credit where it’s due: I was skeptical of their stupid plan to bring Cersei a wight—and I’m still skeptical of how that mission went down—but there’s no denying that their little gift makes a strong impression on the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms.
“If those things come for us, there will be no kingdoms to rule,” Cersei says, after she has seen the dead man go for her throat. “Everything we’ve suffered will be for nothing. Everything we’ve lost will have been for nothing. The crown accepts your truce. Until the dead are defeated, they are the true enemy.”
This is exactly what Cersei should be saying at this moment: The futility and pettiness of the “game of thrones” is exactly what the other characters have realized, and what they all came here to make her understand. But it seems too easy, and it is.
So let’s talk about Cersei for a while, since she now seems to be the one major character who has failed all of her lessons. The Night King may be the final threat, but Cersei Lannister emerges here—seemingly once and for all—as the true final villain of Game of Thrones.
“I don’t care about making the world a better place.”
Yes, the wight made an impression, but it doesn’t really change the game for Cersei: She has known all season that her family was facing possible destruction.
“So we fight and die, or we submit and die,” she said to Jaime a couple of episodes ago. “I know my choice.” Her pregnancy changes the stakes a little—she is slightly less eager to embrace a recklessly destructive path than she was—but it is still only Lannisters she cares about, and right now House Lannister’s days are numbered either way. As Jaime points out to her later, someone will win The Great War, and the victor—living or dead—will come for Cersei next.
But it’s a poor argument to use on Cersei, because her odds of surviving either are about the same.
Knowing this, Cersei is too much her father’s daughter not to plan ahead for the long game, and to look for any tactical advantage she can get. So her first gambit—her first of several—is to try to even the odds a little. She will help fight the dead, she says, as long as Jon Snow promises to stay out of the war that follows. (There’s a chance she could defeat Dany, she thinks—she has noticed that Dany is one dragon shy of a set—but there is no chance she could defeat the combined forces of Dany and the North.) When Jon refuses to make this concession—for reasons we’ll discuss later—Cersei withdraws from the negotiations completely. “Then there is nothing left to discuss,” she says. “The dead will come North first. Enjoy dealing with them. We will deal with whatever is left of you.”
From Cersei’s perspective, her position is perfectly logical. The only hope for the Lannisters to retain power is if the living can defeat the dead, and then she can defeat the living. But her perspective is a problem: In fact, it is the central problem of Game of Thrones. Because what is missing from her carefully reasoned strategic analysis of the situation is concern for a single human being in Westeros who is not a Lannister. (“We’re the last Lannisters,” she told Jaime at the beginning of the season. “The last ones who count.”) She calls Euron a coward for running off to an island (or, as it turns out, pretending to), but her attitude is exactly the same: As long as she can isolate herself from the danger, she doesn’t care what happens to anyone else.
In other words, Cersei is the Westerosi power structure personified: Everyone who isn’t her is an enemy, an other. To the extent that Game of Thrones is about who deserves to sit on the Iron Throne, Cersei is just about the worst–case scenario. She is the ultimate expression of a “wall” mentality, and throughout the entire series the space behind her walls—never expansive to begin with—has been narrowing. Alone among the major characters, Cersei has never forged any new relationships that might challenge or expand her view of the world. Whereas nearly everyone else’s definition of “family” has been expanding over the course of the series, Cersei’s has been contracting. (By the end of “The Dragon and the Wolf,” in fact, Cersei’s “family” has been reduced to 1.5 Lannisters.)
Cersei rejected her youngest brother a long time ago. From the moment Tyrion was born—and committed the twin sins of “killing” their mother and being a dwarf—Cersei has hated him as she’s hated no one else.
And so Tyrion is a bit surprised when “the most murderous woman alive” doesn’t have him killed, and we suspect that Cersei may be a little surprised herself. We can speculate that she refrains from indulging her murderous impulses for practical reasons, as doing so would almost certainly precipitate an instant war that Cersei could not possibly win. But I think it’s more complicated than that. Their relationship has always been more complicated than that.
In this episode that so deliberately evokes our memories of past interactions between characters, it is no coincidence that the first thing Tyrion does—after realizing that his sister is not going to have him dismembered—is pour them each a glass of wine. We might remember—though it seems so long ago now—that these two characters spent much of Seasons Two and Three sharing strategic and commiserating conversations over the wine they both enjoyed drinking like water. Existing alongside their mutual enmity—which is, make no mistake, powerful and profound—there has always been a strange mutual respect, a recognition of kindred minds, if not of kindred souls. Cersei is able to talk to Tyrion like she talks to no one else: It is not the desperate and deferring way she spoke with Tywin, or the coquettish and controlling way she speaks with Jaime. In many ways, Cersei is the loneliest woman in the world, and—though she’d never admit it, or acknowledge it to herself—that isolation gives Tyrion a special place in her life. Only Lannisters matter, after all, and the only Lannister she can truly interact with as an equal is Tyrion.
(To go back and watch their scenes together from the first half of the series—in Season Two’s “A Man Without Honor,” or Season Three’s “Mhysa,” for example—is to be startled at their intimacy and honesty. We now realize that—as much as she claimed to hate him—Tyrion might have been the closest thing to a friend Cersei ever had.)
What is important about this, I think, is that this makes Tyrion uniquely essential to the understanding and (limited) development of Cersei’s character. If Game of Thrones is, as I have always argued, a show about the importance of broadening perspectives and expanding empathy, Tyrion may be the only chink in Cersei’s otherwise impervious armor. The world is full of “cripples, bastards, and broken things,” and Cersei can and does ignore them all, but she can’t quite ignore the one who shares her blood and name. He’s the fly in her ointment, the cuckoo in the nest, the outsider who was—through a fluke of birth—placed unignorably inside her unscalable fortress walls. As such, he is the only person who can really challenge her assumptions, complicate her understanding of the world, and confront her with truths she doesn’t want to acknowledge. It’s no wonder she hates him: his very existence—and her complicated relationship to him—puts the lie to the disastrously black-and-white simplicity of her worldview.
And this is what he does for her now. For years—since Joffrey’s death, at least—Cersei has demonized her little brother: He has become a soulless monster in her mind, a devil whose sole purpose from birth—as she says now—was the destruction of the Lannister family. He has become her great “Other,” the player on the other side, the cause of all her misery and the receptacle of all her hatred. And we see in this scene (not for the first time) that a large part of her hatred of him stems from a projection of her own sins, of what would be—if she had an ounce of self-awareness—her guilt and self-loathing.
“You laid us bare for vultures, and the vultures came and tore us apart,” she says. “You may not have killed Joffrey, but you killed Myrcella, and you killed Tommen. No one would have touched them if father were here.”
To which we can only respond: Bitch, please. Deep down, one suspects that even Cersei—an intelligent woman, whatever else her faults—must realize that she, not Tyrion, got her children killed and made her family vulnerable. It was she who tried to have Tyrion executed, which led directly to Myrcella’s murder. It was she who, out of a petty rivalry, gave power to the Faith Militant, which weakened the Lannister authority and led to her own public humiliation. It was she who murdered hundreds of people in the Sept of Baelor—including the young king’s wife—and caused Tommen to kill himself. Yet, all of this she lays at the feet of her scapegoat Tyrion, whose one crime was killing Tywin and thus placing Cersei in the position to make such terrible mistakes.
Demonizing others—and blaming them for our own troubles—is one of the essential pastimes of an unjust society. But, as we mentioned above, it is easier to demonize someone when you don’t have to look them in the eye. Here in her chambers, face to face with her Great Other, she finds not a dehumanized monster but her all-too human brother. (“I am more sorry about the children than you will ever know,” he says. “I loved them, you know I did. You know it in your heart, if there’s anything left of it.”) She is confronted with a man who—unlike herself—can recognize, and own, and grapple with his own terrible sins and conflicted feelings. (“Hate me for it, if you want,” he says, of Tywin’s murder. “I hate myself for it, in spite of what he was, in spite of what he did to me.”) Among many qualities that Tyrion has, which Cersei lacks, is the ability to live in a world of grays: he can see complexity and contradictions within himself, and within others, without excusing or demonizing. Cersei, for example, thinks she scores a point by reminding him that Dany wanted to burn the Red Keep to the ground, but Tyrion is not blind to Dany’s faults. But, “She knows herself,” he says. “She chose an advisor who would check her worst impulses instead of feeding them. That’s the difference between you.” Dany is not perfect, but Dany wants to make the world a better place. Dany is not perfect, but Dany knows she’s not perfect, and can admit it. She can say—as I’m not sure Cersei ever has—that she was wrong.
What is remarkable about this scene, again, is how intimate it is: for all the fate-of-the-world-level stakes, and for all the decades of bitterness and hatred and attempted murder between them, this is a conversation between a brother and a sister. That, in the end, is what Tyrion does for Cersei: He sees her, and relates to her, as a human being, and he makes her—in spite of herself—meet him on the same level. “You love your children,” he told her once. “It’s your one redeeming quality: that, and your cheekbones.” He zeroes in on this one human quality now—by invoking his own love for her children—and in return he gets a speech that may be as close as she has ever come to admitting that she was wrong:
“I don’t care about checking my worst impulses. I don’t care about making the world a better place. Hang the world. That thing you dragged here, I know what it is, I know what it means. And when it came at me, I didn’t think about the world—not at all. As soon as it opened its mouth, the world disappeared for me right down its black throat. All I could think about was keeping those gnashing teeth away from the ones who matter most, away from my family.”
This is—typical for Cersei—an admission of her selfishness, and of her almost total lack of empathy. But it is also a very human admission, which speaks to that “one redeeming quality” Tyrion has always seen in her. It’s the confession of a mother, not a queen, and it instantly makes Tyrion realize that she is pregnant.
Immediately following this conversation, Cersei returns to the Dragon Pit, and offers to join the fight against the White Walkers. “The darkness is coming for us all,” she says. “We’ll face it together.”
And, if that were the last time we saw Cersei this episode, we would think that Tyrion had been successful: that he had actually managed to reach the human being inside the heartless ruler, and tapped that thin, nearly vestigial vein of empathy that has always been buried somewhere in her maternal instincts.
What I like about Cersei’s arc in this episode is that I have to believe Tyrion almost succeeded. There is, after all, little to be gained from the back-and-forth Cersei does here: refusing to help, then offering to help, then (ultimately) deciding not to help. (Her final deception, which she reveals only to Jaime, will surely give her nothing but a tiny head start. After all, it will not take Jon and Dany long to realize that the Lannister army is not marching with them.) To be fair, we can certainly read it cynically as Benioff and Weiss teasing the audience with the possibility of Cersei’s 11th-hour redemption. (Without doubt, they are guilty of such trickery elsewhere in this episode.)
However, I prefer to read it as Cersei, consciously or not, teasing herself with the possibility of redemption. There was, somewhere in all of this negotiation, a moment in which Cersei Lannister could have followed her nearly flawless career of callousness with one decent thing. It would not have excused everything else she has done, but it would have been something. She would still be a monster, but—when the chips were really down—she’d be a monster who tried to help save the world. I like to think that appealed to her, at least a little. I like to think that, in her righteous speech to her assembled enemies, offering to join their ranks, there was a part of her that enjoyed the idea, and enjoyed this vision of herself. It is a lie, but it is a lie that presents a changed, better version of herself that might have been, for a moment, tempting to believe.
“No one walks away from me.”
But Cersei—stubbornly herself to the end—will not change, and her moment of redemption comes and goes without her claiming it. It is to Jaime, of course, that she admits her duplicity, because she trusts Jaime to do what he has always done: to love her, and stand by her, and go along with her plans, no matter how evil she is.
In the interest of space, I only want to touch (relatively) briefly on Jaime this week. But it’s important to note that Jaime—unlike his sister—has changed. In fact, in a series replete with extraordinary character arcs, I find Jaime Lannister’s to be one of the most endlessly fascinating. He did, you will remember, push an innocent child from a window the first time we met him. He shoved a knife through Rory’s eye in Season One. He killed his own cousin to escape from captivity in Season Two. Just last season, he threatened to launch Edmure Tully’s infant son in a catapult. He has done horrendous things, all for the unnatural but unconditional love of his irredeemable sister that has been—as I argued in my review of “No One“—the single guiding principle of his existence.
Yet we have also the seen other sides of Jaime Lannister. In Season Three, we saw him save Brienne from being raped, when there was really no reason for him to do so. (In fact, he seemed to pay a high price for that random act of kindness, as that episode ended with the loss of his sword hand: It was almost as if the gods were recognizing and punctuating his painful transformation from the man he had been to the man he might yet become.) A few episodes later we heard his side of the incident that gave him the nickname “Kingslayer,” and we—like Brienne—were forced to admit that his interpretation of events sounded a lot more reasonable than the spin put upon it by “honorable” men like Eddard Stark. Shortly after that, Jaime committed the first truly heroic act we had ever seen from him, when he risked his own life to rescue Brienne from the bear pit.
I’ll spare you a comprehensive catalog of Jaime’s actions since then—suffice to say, the path to redemption is seldom a completely straight line—but the good in him has more frequently overpowered the bad as the series progressed, and often at the expense of Cersei’s machinations. He sent Brienne off to find and protect the Stark girls, for example, indirectly and belatedly fulfilling the promise he made to Catelyn Stark. He tried hard to convince both Cersei and Tywin of Tyrion’s innocence in the matter of Joffrey’s murder, and set Tyrion free himself after the trial found him guilty. He has openly and subtly counseled Cersei away from the path of outright war, intervening for more peaceful solutions in Dorne, and in The Riverlands. He has conspired—as Cersei accuses him now—with her declared enemies, to forge alliances she considers treasonous.
In other words, every crime Jaime has committed has been for the sake of Cersei, and nearly every decent thing he has ever done has been in spite of her. Now—if, as I’ve suggested, “The Dragon and the Wolf” represents the final exam for the graduating class of Game of Thrones—it is only appropriate that Jaime’s final test requires an irrevocable break with his sister.
“This isn’t about noble houses,” Jaime tells her, proving that he, at least, has absorbed the lessons of the series. “This is about the living or the dead.” For Jaime, of course, it was never about noble houses: He never really cared about the family name; he only cared about Cersei. But, unlike his sister, he has a capacity to care about other people, and now his turn away from their insular co-dependency is a turn towards humanity, and a deliberate lowering of the walls that divide people. It is, again, an expansion of his sphere of concern, even as his departure represents a contraction of hers. “I’m the only one you have left,” he observers. “Our children are gone, our father is gone. It’s just me and you now.”
“There’s one more yet to come,” she responds, referring to the child in her womb. But that child is just a possibility right now. At the moment, Cersei Lannister is alone against the world.
“You don’t need to choose.”
The walls that separate people in the Seven Kingdoms are the walls of family. As I have said before, bloodlines have always been borders in Westeros: Everyone belonged to a family, and most of those families belonged to other families. Family almost entirely defined the structure of the society, and it was intended and designed to define the identity of every individual person within that society. Distilled down to its essence, that’s what everything is about: It’s the “us against them” mentality again, in which everyone protects their own, and to betray your family is the greatest sin there is.
It is a system that requires prioritizing the safety and security of the family over everyone who is not family, and thus externally dehumanizing. (“Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy,” as Cersei told Joffrey, way back in Season One.) But it is also a system that is internally dehumanizing, for it requires each individual to subjugate their own wishes, needs, and morality to the larger demands of the family, or to the family your family serves. (“The house that puts family first will always defeat the house that puts the whims and wishes of its sons and daughters first,” as Tywin Lannister said.)
I’ve long argued that this tension is at the heart of Game of Thrones, and that nearly every character arc can be traced by following a path away from the rigid dictates of blood families and towards the more compassionate and inclusive notion of found or expanded families. I won’t rehash those arguments here, but the point is worth repeating because there is probably no character on the series who embodies this tension more than Theon Greyjoy.
“No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or another,” Jaime told Catelyn once, speaking of all the oaths and bonds of loyalty people are expected to honor. That fundamental truth about Westerosi society is acutely painful for someone like Theon, whose entire identity has been fractured, all his life, by an irreconcilable schism of family. When Theon was just a child, Ned Stark fought a war against his father, killed all of his brothers, and then took Theon home to Winterfell to raise amongst his own children. He was called a “ward,” and the Starks treated him with kindness, but—as Tyrion pointed out, the first time we heard Theon’s story—he was really just a hostage. (“Your loyalty to your captors is touching,” Tyrion said. Later in the same episode, Jaime referred to Theon as “a shark on a mountaintop,” or, literally, a fish out of water.)
I have been very hard on Theon over the years, but Theon was in an impossible situation. By every law of Westeros—written and unwritten—Theon’s loyalty was to the Greyjoys, and to the Ironborn. However, by every standard of ethics, decency, and affection, his loyalty was to the Starks. “Am I your brother, now and always?” he asked Robb, in “Fire and Blood,” and Robb assured him that he was. Yet, just three episodes later, Theon was being re-baptized as an Iron Islander: He betrayed Robb, and he went on to commit his greatest “crimes” in Winterfell—murdering Rodrik Cassel and two innocent farm boys—for which he has been punished (and has punished himself) ever since.
It is easy for us to judge Theon, because we know the Starks are (mostly) good, and the Greyjoys are (mostly) assholes. But it’s also important to realize that this is not the standard upon which decisions in Westeros were ever allowed to be made: People were supposed to be loyal to their Houses and oaths, even if it meant completely disregarding obligations of ethics, decency, and affection. By that standard, Theon was no more wrong to betray the Starks than Sansa was to flee the Lannisters and the Boltons, or than Bran and Rickon were to flee Theon himself. (Yara, ironically, made this point to Theon, when he complained that the Stark boys had “betrayed” him. “I treated the Stark boys with honor and they repaid me with treachery,” he said. “Your little boy prisoners made you a promise and you got mad when they broke it?” she asked him. “Are you the dumbest cunt alive?”)
So we can’t judge Theon for breaking the laws of his society: He didn’t. We judge him, in fact, for not breaking those laws, for not substituting his own judgement for the dictates of Westerosi tradition. On one side, he had his all-important Greyjoy family name telling him what sort of person he was supposed to be, and on the other side he had the essential decency he learned from the Starks telling him to be someone completely different. The two standards were irreconcilable, and the desperate need to fit into one or the other ultimately tore Theon apart at the seams. “I always wanted to do the right thing, be the right kind of person, but I never knew what that meant,” Theon tells Jon now. “It always seemed like there was an impossible choice I had to make: Stark, or Greyjoy.”
In Jon Snow, he recognizes someone who was not completely unlike himself. Their situations were not precisely the same (though, as is confirmed this episode, their situations were more similar than they knew). But, raised as a bastard, Jon’s position with the Stark children was to be—like Theon once said of himself—”among them, but not one of them.” In the strict, patrilineal hierarchies of Westeros, such people—the “cripples, bastards, and broken things“—were always on the outside looking in.
And Jon’s entire storyline has been a gauntlet of—to use Theon’s phrase—”impossible choices.” At the end of Season One, after Ned was executed, Jon was tempted to forsake the Night’s Watch—his chosen family—to rush to the aid of his blood family. At the end of Season Two, he had to pretend to betray the Watch—killing his brother Qhorin Halfhand in the process—in order to join their mortal enemies the Wildlings. By the end of Season Three he had come to like and respect the Wildlings, and fallen in love with a Wildling woman, but he had to betray her—and his own feelings—in order to rejoin the Watch. He went to war against the Wildlings to protect his brothers in Season Four, and was in turn murdered by his brothers for protecting the Wildlings in Season Five.
The impossible choices continue for Jon now, and they are still the choices between duty to family and clan allegiances, on the one hand, and what his own conscience tells him on the other. But Jon is his father’s son, and his father—his true father, if not his blood father—was Eddard Stark. Old Maester Aemon—who we now know to have been Jon’s great-uncle—once asked Jon what Ned would do if he was asked to choose between love and honor, and Jon rejected the binary limitations of the question. “He would do what was right,” Jon insisted, and Ned proved that was true in the very same episode.
(We tend to think that Ned was a well-intentioned devotee to honor and loyalty, but it is important that we remember that Ned’s last act on this earth was to proclaim Joffrey the true King of the Seven Kingdoms. In doing so, he violated every code of honor he ever had, and he thwarted every law of Westeros designed to ensure the patrilineal succession of power. But he did it for the love of his daughter: To use the distinction Arya made last week, it was against the rules, but it wasn’t wrong.)
Jon has always been someone who could make those distinctions, and thus make those decisions. And this, now, is exactly what Theon says to him: “You’ve always known what was right,” Theon says enviously. “Every step you take, it’s always the right step.” And—though Jon modestly demurs—that’s pretty much true: Jon is basically the only major character (still alive) who has never really set an ethical foot wrong. He’s made mistakes, and he’s had to make difficult and uncertain choices, but he has never committed any crimes out of cruelty, or pettiness, or hatred, and he has never committed any atrocities out of a sense of duty or allegiance. And in part that is exactly because—whether he’d think of it this way or not—he rejects the rigid, binary definitions of right and wrong that have always structured Westeros. He rejects the “us-versus-them” mentality, and he refuses to subjugate his own morality to any external expectations.
The ability to make these distinctions is what Jon has always had, and it is what Theon—torn between blind allegiance to two opposing ideologies—has always lacked. But Jon chooses to forgive him for this, and that forgiveness, too, is essential to the current ethical climate in Game of Thrones. After all, nearly all of Westeros was laboring under the same damaging, subjugating, impossible rules, and nearly every major character has done terrible things in the name of following those rules. How harshly can we really judge someone like Theon, who lacked the innate moral strength to recognize what so few people in Westeros have recognized: that he could, and should, make decisions for himself?
That is what Jon tells him now. Theon’s tragedy was always his inability to choose between Greyjoys and Starks, but Jon insists that that’s a false dichotomy. “You don’t have to choose,” he tells Theon, pointing out that he, too—as Theon himself once realized—is Ned Stark’s son. Everything Jon learned from Ned is within Theon too. “You’re a Greyjoy, and you’re a Stark.”
In fact, it might be more appropriate to say “You don’t get to choose.” Choosing one side or the other is the easy way out, the way to let someone else do all your thinking for you about who you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to do. That’s what Theon has done all his life, and it’s what got him into all his trouble. That’s what he did in Season Two when he let his Iron Island father and crew tell him what it meant to be a man. Jon never did that: His life would have been a lot easier if he had chosen to simply follow the rules, but Jon somehow knew that simply choosing—between the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings, for example—was rarely the right thing to do. (In the words of little Shireen Baratheon—one of the clearest-eyed ethicists Game of Thrones ever had—”It’s all the choosing of sides that made everything so horrible.”) Being a Stark doesn’t tell you what the right thing to do is, anymore than being a Greyjoy does: you have to decide for yourself.
Which—finally—is what Theon Greyjoy does. He ends this conversation with Jon by talking about Yara, his sister, the only person who always tried to save him, even though he was—in her words—the stupidest cunt alive. “She needs me now,” he says. He is asking for permission to leave and attempt to rescue her, but Jon doesn’t give it, reinforcing the point that Theon needs to stop asking other people who he is supposed to be. “So why are you still talking to me?” Jon says. In other words: You know the right thing to do, so go do it.
Theon’s final scene this episode is an echo of the moment in which he first went wrong, the moment when he betrayed the Starks and let himself be baptized as an Iron Islander. But it is important to note that, this time, no one else is there to wash away his sins and dictate the content of his soul. Kneeling alone in the surf of Dragonstone, having finally decided who he is and what he needs to do, Theon baptizes himself.
“How do you answer these charges, Lord Baelish?”
As I mentioned earlier, this episode’s title, “The Dragon and the Wolf,” deliberately evokes Season One’s fifth episode, “The Wolf and the Lion,” for that episode is a plausible candidate for the moment in which open warfare between all of the great Houses of Westeros actually began. In that episode, Robert Baratheon ordered the murder of Daenerys Targaryen; Lysa Arryn took Tyrion Lannister prisoner; and Jaime Lannister slaughtered Ned Stark’s men. The War of Five Kings would not officially start until the first season’s end, but “The Wolf and the Lion” showed that war’s opening skirmishes.
That episode also featured a scene in which Varys and Baelish faced off in the Throne Room of King’s Landing. “There is a sense that Baelish and Varys may be the real rulers of this realm,” I wrote at the time. “They are the chess players, and Robert and Ned may just be pieces on the board.” At the time, both of these chess-masters had me fooled: I thought Varys was the sinister one, while Littlefinger seemed to be “weaseling on the side of good.” But we know now that I had that reversed, as Littlefinger was revealed shortly after to be the chief architect of discord and distrust in the Seven Kingdoms. It was he who convinced Lysa to poison Jon Arryn, and to frame the Lannisters for that murder. It was his knife that was supposed to slit Brandon Stark’s throat while he lay in a coma. It was he who betrayed Ned Stark, leading Ned to the executioner’s block and leading the nation into war.
Now, while his chessboard opponent Varys is escorting his queen into King’s Landing on a mission to save the world, Littlefinger finds himself groveling on his knees before getting his throat deservedly slit. (That’s check and mate, Petyr.)
To be honest, the character (and actor) probably deserved a slightly better narrative fate than he got, which was to have his death overshadowed by a lot of unnecessary nonsense between the Stark Sisters (see below). But there’s no doubt the time was right. Beginning even before the series began—with the offscreen murder of Jon Arryn that set the entire plot in motion—nearly everything bad that happened between humans in Game of Thrones can be traced back to Littlefinger’s machinations. So, from a narrative perspective, it is appropriate that Littlefinger should die here, before we enter the final season and confront the real, non-human threat. With the arrival of the White Walkers, and the destruction of the world imminent, the show no longer has need, or even room, for the sorts of political and interpersonal subterfuge at which Baelish excels. (To imagine Littlefinger trying desperately to ingratiate himself to the Night King is to imagine the show descending into comic self-parody.)
And Littlefinger’s actions have seemed both vaguely motivated and randomly directed for a while now. What, after all, was his ultimate plan? It seemed to be to marry Sansa and rule beside her on the Iron Throne, but how he planned to get there is something we’ll never really know. (Maybe George R.R. Martin will tell us in those novels, which should appear any day now.) The show gave us a fantastic speech for Littlefinger in Season Three’s “The Climb“—in which Baelish expressed his overarching philosophy that chaos was “a ladder”—and then seemed content to let him create and climb various rungs on that ladder without any apparent destination in mind. Gillen’s performance went a long ways towards making Littlefinger a compelling figure in this story, but he was never much of a character, seemingly incapable of change or development. By the time of his death he had degenerated into little more than a convenient plot device, and one that had rather outlived its usefulness.
Nonetheless, from a thematic perspective, Littlefinger’s death seems highly appropriate, if not completely satisfying. For—even more than Cersei—Littlefinger represents absolute isolationism, selfishness, and self-preservation. “You created your own sigil, didn’t you?” Cersei observed once. “Some people are fortunate enough to be born into the right family,” Littlefinger replied. “Others have to find their own way.” Littlefinger was made a lord at the end of Season One, but House Baelish is a house of one: no one wears the mockingbird sigil but him. He claimed to love Catelyn Stark, but he betrayed her family and had her husband killed. He claimed to love Sansa Stark, but he sold her to a psychopath who raped and tormented her. He married Lysa Stark, then threw her through the Moon Door. In a series that is largely about people learning empathy, and expanding their spheres of concern, Baelish has remained unremittingly selfish and heartless. As Varys told us long ago, Littlefinger would “see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes.”
Littlefinger thrived at—and by—pitting House against House. “That’s what you do, isn’t it?” Sansa asks him here. “That’s what you’ve always done: turn family against family, turn sister against sister.” So, in an episode where all the great families put aside their petty enmities and come together in a common purpose, Littlefinger’s death is a symbolic marker of how everything in Game of Thrones has changed.
“The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”
It may not have escaped the notice of my regular readers that this post is almost two years late. (In fact, I’ve heard from some of you, and I know it didn’t escape your notice.) The funny thing is, I wrote the vast majority of this piece on time, in late August and early September of 2017. I probably would have published it on time—or no later than my posts usually are—if it weren’t for one factor:
I really, really didn’t want to write about Arya and Sansa. Every time I pulled my draft up to finish it, I kept getting stuck on the Arya-and-Sansa section.
It didn’t help that some of the impatient fans I heard from seemed to be hoping that I was just the man to make sense of it. (“Where’s the review of the GOT finale?” one email read. “I need you to explain WTF happened with Sansa/Arya!”)
Guys, I’m sorry. I’ve tried, and I can’t do it: We may just have to accept that this was one of the worst executed storylines in all of Game of Thrones. It simply makes no sense. I was just about prepared to accept that Arya and Sansa were putting on an act for Littlefinger and his spies over the last few episodes, in order to draw out evidence of his past crimes and current plans. But, if that is what was happening, it still turned out to be stupid and futile: Everything that comes out about Littlefinger’s duplicity is either something Sansa already knew, or else something Bran saw with his (annoying) magical powers. So what was the point?
I keep coming back to Littlefinger’s advice to Sansa:
“Sometimes, when I try to understand a person’s motives, I play a little game: I assume the worst. What is the worst reason they could possibly have for saying what they say and doing what they do? Then I ask myself, ‘How well does that reason explain what they say and what they do?'”
This is actually a very useful thought experiment. And, when I apply it to Benioff and Weiss’s plotting here, I realize that the worst reason they could have for staging this (mercifully brief) faux-fight between the Stark Sisters—and the only one that explains it perfectly—is that they wanted to manipulate the audience. They were willing to sacrifice logic, and disrespect their characters, for the sake of a cheap “gotcha” moment that nearly everyone saw coming anyway. (Last episode had several such moments as well: This is something that would give me trepidation about going into the final season, if I let myself think about it too much.)
However: Leaving aside the disastrous execution of this storyline—or, at best, chalking it up to the absurd pacing of this season—there is interesting stuff to discuss here, and even evidence of good intentions. As I suggested last week, there are ideas and themes worth exploring here, which are genuinely located in these two characters, even if the illustration of those themes and ideas has made them both act stupidly.
At the end of Season Three—in the wake of The Red Wedding—I spent an entire post examining the question of what family means in Game of Thrones. As we’ve discussed, it’s always been a key question, and it’s always been a complicated one, but the chief lesson of the series on this subject is that the family you choose matters as much or more than the family into which you are born. Tyrion Lannister has found a home in House Targaryen. Theon is both a Stark and a Greyjoy. Sam—born a Tarly, and once a brother of the Night’s Watch—has made a family with a Wildling. Even Jaime, whose obsessive love for his twin sister caused so much pain and turmoil, can renounce that family tie and join his former enemies in a common cause.
Given this near steady progression—on everyone’s part—away from blind loyalty to House and blood, it is natural, even inevitable, that Arya and Sansa would distrust one another. Polar opposites, they were never close: They had very few scenes together before they were separated at the end of Season One, and none of those scenes were particularly happy.
Also, of course, they were children the last time they saw each other, and had not been through any of the unbelievable heartache and turmoil and torture and growth that they would both undergo over the course of the series. And they have taken dramatically different paths to arrive back at Winterfell. Arya has been largely alone, and self-reliant, and she has become a strange, violent, and (frankly) scary-ass human being. Sansa, on the other hand, has spent nearly the entire series embedded with one enemy after another—Joffrey, Cersei, Littlefinger, Tyrion, Ramsey—forced to adapt herself constantly in order to survive. Simply put, these two young women do not know each other, at all, and they have very little reason to trust each other.
So, to some extent, it all comes back to the question of family. What does it mean, at this point in Game of Thrones, that these two women are sisters? What is that worth, and how much is it to be trusted?
Benioff and Weiss, director Jeremy Podeswa, and the two actors involved, all nearly salvage this entire storyline with an absolutely beautiful conceived scene. Atop the Winterfell battlements, not looking at each other, each separated and framed by the merlons, Sansa and Arya stand together but apart, and have a brief conversation that somehow reconciles the sisters’ past, their different experiences and natures, and the entire question of what “family” means now.
It begins with a simple expression of sisterly concern: “Are you alright?” Arya asks Sansa, and already this scene feels more genuine than any of their interactions over the past few weeks. They agree on their respective roles. (“I’m just the executioner,” Arya says. “You’re the Lady of Winterfell…I was never going to be as good a lady as you, so I had to be something else.”) And they have a mutual exchange of admiration, and an acknowledgement of what the other has been through. (“I never could have survived what you survived,” Arya says. “You could have,” Sansa replies. “You’re the strongest person I know.”) And then, of course, a reminder that they are still sisters, and still very different. (“You’re still strange and annoying,” Sansa adds.)
But it’s bringing the conversation back around to Eddard Stark that really seals their relationship. Arya begins, quoting Ned’s words: “In winter, we must protect ourselves, look after one another.” And Sansa, recognizing their father’s words, finishes the quote. “When the snows fall, and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” “I miss him,” Arya says. “Me too,” Sansa agrees.
Ned’s memory is all over “The Dragon and the Wolf.” Cersei invokes his name in appealing to Jon’s honor. (“I know Ned Stark’s son will be true to his word.”) And Jon cites Ned’s example to defend why he won’t lie to her. (“Talk about my father if you want,” he says. “Tell me that’s the attitude that got him killed.”) And then again, in the scene where he tells Theon he is a Stark as much as a Greyjoy. (“Our father was more of a father to you than yours ever was.”) Now, having avenged Ned’s death by executing the man responsible for it, Arya and Sansa remember his lesson, which also happens to be the lesson of the entire episode, and one of the lessons of the entire series: We are stronger together than apart.
Blood ties still don’t matter very much: Tyrion and Cersei are blood-related; Euron and Theon are blood-related; Sandor and Gregor Clegane are blood-related. (For that matter—though they don’t know it yet—Jon and Dany are blood-related.) But what matters is shared ideas, shared experiences, shared values: That’s what makes a family. The Starks are special not because they share blood, but because—seven seasons into Game of Thrones—they are still the only happy family we ever saw, the only family that seemed to share an affinity, a goodness, and a genuine affection. That, more than anything—the memory of the fundamental decency that flawed, foolish Eddard Stark instilled in them—is what makes Arya and Sansa sisters forever.
“He’s never been a bastard.”
Finally, what is there to say about Dany and Jon’s coupling, or the “revelation” of Jon Snow’s true lineage? Both events—which happen simultaneously in “The Dragon and the Wolf”—have seemed inevitable for at least several seasons.
Most of us guessed long ago that the “bastard” Jon Snow was really the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and the show more or less confirmed this definitively at the end of Season Six. So the bombshell here—that he is really Aegon Targaryen, the true-born heir to the Iron Throne—doesn’t have much shock-value.
And it has been clear since at least the second season that Jon and Dany were the real main characters of Game of Thrones, and the most likely candidates to one day take the crown. That meant these two have been on a collision course right from the beginning, destined to be either lovers or enemies. Since neither of them turned out to be evil—or paired off permanently with someone else—it was clear they would end up, at least temporarily, together.
I do not expect them to remain together: Even if we were all willing to ignore the fact that they are nephew and aunt, Game of Thrones is not traditional enough to end with a happy marriage, and there can be (at best) only one new ruler of the Seven Kingdoms.
Nonetheless, these two parallel love stories—the title of the episode, of course, applies to them both—are of the greatest importance to Game of Thrones. If these developments seem predictable now, it’s partially—as I said above—because everything in the entire series has been patiently but deliberately building towards them, not just narratively, but thematically.
I have long said that one of the recurring themes throughout this series is the challenging of the prevailing narratives. Allegiances, codes of honor, histories, fairy tales, faiths, expectations of family, gender, and class: all of the governing narratives that held this society together and told its members who they were supposed to be have cracked and shattered as the series progressed.
Here, we have final confirmation that everything about this society, as we first knew it, was wrong. “Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie,” Bran says here. “Rhaegar didn’t kidnap my aunt, or rape her. He loved her, and she loved him.” So the war that put Robert Baratheon on the throne—the war Ned Stark helped lead and win—was based on lies. Ned and Robert basically created the entire power structure of Westeros as we have ever known it, and they were on the wrong side of history.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. (By all reports the Mad King was, after all, quite mad, and probably needed to be removed from power.) But is it hard to imagine that the Seven Kingdoms might have been better off if Rhaegar had succeeded his father to the throne, with Lyanna Stark as his queen? From everything we know, doesn’t that sound like a preferable alternate history to the one given us by Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon, Tommen Baratheon, and Cersei Lannister?
The important thing, for our purposes here, is that Jon Snow is, himself, a symbol of unity, not division. He was the product of two great Houses that should have been joined together, but instead became mortal enemies. He grew up believing himself to be an outsider in this society, but in fact he should have been the ultimate insider and inherited leadership of the entire nation.
So if, as I’ve suggested throughout my reviews, Game of Thrones is largely about breaking down the divisions between different kinds of people; and making new families of former enemies; and making space for the “cripples, bastards, and broken things,” Jon is the perfect encapsulation of that. And indeed, his entire “career” throughout Game of Thrones has been about that: first by uniting the Night’s Watch and the Wildlings, now by uniting all the great Houses. And it’s no coincidence that, in both of those instances, he fell in love, embracing empathy and affection where there had been distrust, hatred, and fear.
The love between Jon and Dany is probably doomed. The entire human race may, in fact, be doomed. But if there is any hope for anyone in Game of Thrones—as both winter and the Wall fall—it lies in coming together: in forgetting old grievances, and rewriting divisive narratives, and forging new families with the people who live on the other side of the barriers we’ve built. If there is any hope at all—corny though it sounds—it lies in love.
So, in that regard—if in no other—maybe Game of Thrones has been something of a fairy tale all along.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- What do we make of Tyrion’s sad, bitter response to seeing Jon enter Dany’s cabin? It could simply be disgruntlement about how Jon has become the de facto Hand of the Queen, displacing Tyrion from his role as most trusted advisor. But it is also the first real, textual suggestion that Tyrion might be in love with his new queen—though I think we can go back and read this in Dinklage’s performance. I said way back in “Hardhome” that he and Clarke have surprisingly good chemistry. (Certainly, alas, they have better chemistry than Clarke shares with Kit Harington.) The show doesn’t have time for another love story at this point, but if Jon and Dany are doomed by genetics and fate, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Dragon/Lion merger.
- Can we talk about Cersei’s baby for a moment? I have a bad feeling about this baby. I have some doubts as to whether it really exists, and—if it does—I have further doubts as to whether it is really Jaime’s. I can’t get the idea out of my head that there could be some Qyburn-engineered, monstrous son of the Mountain growing in Cersei’s womb. On a completely different (and probably equally wrong) track, I can imagine Cersei, at some point, offering her child to the Night King.
- While I’m wildly speculating, let’s talk about the common theory that Bran is, somehow, the Night King. I dismissed this for a long time, but I’m finding it more and more plausible, particularly after the time-stream shenanigans of “The Door.” First of all, the Night King kind of looks like Bran. And it makes a certain amount of thematic sense, as well: the callous attempt to murder 10-year-old Bran is where Game of Thrones began, and it would be just like this show to have that original sin be the crime for which this society ultimately pays. (Also, we still have the Three-Eyed Raven’s prophecy in “The Children” to contend with: “You will never walk again,” he told Bran. “But you will fly.” Does this mean his “flying” through the eyes of ravens? Does it mean he’ll fly on one of Dany’s two remaining dragons? Or does it mean he’s already flying atop the reanimated Viserion as the Night King?)
- Speaking of Bran, I laugh every time he tells someone he’s the Three-Eyed Raven, and they respond as Sam does here: “I…don’t know what that means.” You and me both, brother.
- As much as I love and respect this show, I still wince at the juvenile, 12-year-old-boy moments that somehow still pop up. Which is to say: I could have done without the “Theon Gets Kicked Repeatedly in the Place His Balls Used to Be” scene.
- I enjoyed this (foreshadowing?) exchange between Jon and Dany, when she tells him she can’t have children. “Who told you that?” he asks. “The witch who murdered my husband,” she responds. “Has it occurred to you she might not have been a reliable source of information?”
- While I do sincerely apologize for the loooooooooooooong delay in publishing this post, it was kind of nice to ease back into thinking about Game of Thrones, a week before the final season premieres. I love writing about this show, and I’ve really appreciated the messages from my readers telling me they still want to hear what I have to say about it, two years later. I will, of course, be writing about the final season, and I’ve also got another exciting announcement for my GOT fans coming in the next week or so. Watch this space.