Time and time again, Game of Thrones sticks its landing. Perhaps that is required for a show built on spectacle and complicated political intrigue, but the series comes up aces when it most needs to.
That holds true for “The Dragon and the Wolf,” the season seven finale directed by Jeremy Podeswa and written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Even in a season pocked with uneven writing and inconsistent pacing, Game of Thrones puts an exclamation point on this season of television, setting up the final war in George R.R. Martin’s epic saga.
While “The Dragon and the Wolf” finishes with a bang, what sets it apart from recent great episodes is that this is built on dialogue, intrigue, and character relationships. Be that Cersei and Daenerys meeting for the first time, or Jaime and Brienne for the umpteenth, this hour plus of television was packed with long awaited confrontations and reveals.
The past comes full circle when Dany and Jon couple like Rhaegar and Lyanna before them, putting to bed the truth of Jon’s parentage. And maybe surprisingly, the episode succeeded because it centered the story’s first protagonist: Ned Stark.
Lord Eddard Stark’s legacy is complicated; while he’s undoubtedly remembered for his honor, there’s a false notion that his own stupidity and naivete caused the downfall of House Stark. Had Ned been more brutal and practical like Tywin Lannister, some say, his fate could have been avoided. But as Tywin’s legacy falls apart in the war-torn South while the wolves rise again in the North, that notion can be dismissed. Ned Stark raised morally strong children, who bend but do not break, and that parenting may end up saving the Seven Kingdoms.
And yet, it is in a lie that Ned Stark’s heroism truly lies; in shielding his sister’s trueborn son Aegon, Ned Stark shepherded the true heir to the Iron Throne (and maybe the legendary Prince That Was Promised) into adulthood and onto the frontlines for the Battle for the Dawn. Ned cleverly named him Jon, hiding his Targaryen ancestry from his best friend Robert by giving him the name of their mentor, Jon Arryn.
And though no mystery remains to who Jon Snow truly is, with each passing moment Jon Snow becomes more like the man who raised him.
In the ruined Dragon Pit of King’s Landing, that Ned-Stark obstinacy comes out, as Jon is unwilling to tell a lie necessary to placate Queen Cersei. Though Cersei is merely stringing Jon and Daenerys along, she knowingly plays on the memory of Ned Stark, repeatedly telling Jon she would trust the word of his child.
Jon’s refusal is met by ire on both sides, but given Cersei’s admission later in the episode, his decision ends up being retroactively wise. Jon is the type of man who would be honor bound to not take up arms if he swore to do so, and thus what came off as foolish honor in the truth actually prevents Jon from binding the North into inaction. Davos and Brienne are taken aback by Jon bending the knee, but Jon has set aside pride and politics to ally himself with the Dragon Queen, the one queen who offers hope in the face of the Long Night.
And though Ned’s name is all over the Dragon Pit scenes, it is Jon’s moment with Theon that struck hardest.
The sons Ned Stark never expected, Theon and Jon have always struggled for their identities, never carrying the Stark name but burdened with the pride and moral center that comes with it. Theon was led astray when he muted Ned’s voice in his mind, while Jon rose to Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and King in the North by unflinchingly taking Ned’s voice to heart.
In a surprisingly visceral moment, Jon tells Theon “You are a Greyjoy…and you are a Stark,” a moment that calls back to Theon claiming Ned Stark was his true father in the third season. Jon, by giving his acceptance (and a call to action) to Theon, proves incredibly cathartic to the Kraken’s son, reinvigorating his sea legs as he sets off to save his sister. In affirming the Stark within, Theon can be the Greyjoy, and the brother, he always desired to be.
Appropriately, an episode that centers Ned Stark’s legacy metes out justice to his betrayer, Lord Petyr Baelish. As always, Littlefinger fancies himself three steps ahead of everyone else, utterly oblivious to the tactician he’s created in Sansa Stark. The trial in the Great Hall will wipe Arya Stark off the board, he thinks, and further endear him to the Lady of Winterfell. So it’s with great shock (in horror for Baelish, delight for the audience) that Sansa Stark accuses him of treason and murder.
In a subtly wonderful touch, Littlefinger must pull himself out of the corner and explain himself in full view of the lords of the Vale and the North.
Lord Baelish has thrived at scheming in the shadows, but Sansa’s dragging him into the full light of court immediately exposes his disadvantage. The wolves circle, as Arya, Bran, and Sansa detail Littlefinger’s laundry list of betrayals, most notably of their father that put Joffrey on the Iron Throne. And again, it’s exceedingly fitting Arya puts an end to him with the very dagger that escalated the war between Stark and Lannister in the inaugural season.
The Winterfell story has struggled much of this season, as the conflict between Sansa and Arya felt both manufactured and needless. But as Game of Thrones has done many times before, the climax of the arc still proved satisfying, as the Stark sisters get on the same page, and one of the most villainous characters of the story meets his doom. Watching Littlefinger beg and cry is incredibly rewarding, and a fantastic turn for Aidan Gillen, who gets to a show a side of the character hidden to us for seven years.
Lord Eddard’s legacy doesn’t end with the Starks of Winterfell, however. While Ned’s brood (including Jon and Theon) had been raised for years under his code of honor, Jaime Lannister was instantly, and perpetually, transformed into a pariah by that very same code. When Ned Stark found him on the Iron Throne, bloodied sword in hand and the Mad King’s corpse at his feet, Jaime Lannister became the Kingslayer. Instead of the knight in shining army, the Golden Lion of House Lannister was a fickle lickspittle of his House, his white cloak sullied by the one unforgivable crime for a Kingsguard.
Jaime’s journey since has been tumultuous, but his time with Brienne of Tarth marked a turn in his character. The Kingslayer was less the rogue we thought, and more a man oft-paralyzed by the conflicting vows he swore. He killed Aerys to save the lives of thousands (including his father), and King’s Landing only remains because of Jaime’s actions that day. Since that bath with Brienne, Jaime has done all he could to reclaim his honor, including arming Brienne to find the Stark sisters, and trying to find peace with his brother after Tyrion allied with Daenerys.
But his commitment to Cersei has prevented Ser Jaime from fully embracing his redemptive arc.
Each time Cersei pushes him away, Jaime is pulled back into her disaster of rule, either out of love for his House or his desire to finally be the father he could never be. But finally, Jaime severs his cancerous relationship with his twin sister, even goading her to execute him on the spot, something both of her brothers attempted in this episode. This moment was the most tense of the episode, with the Mountain unsheathing his sword before Cersei lets him leave. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s acting here was tremendous, selling the fear of a man who almost talked himself into death, not unlike Dinklage’s Tyrion earlier.
Jaime Lannister finally leaves his sister and King’s Landing behind, heading north for the Great War while the first snowflakes fall on the Westerosi capital. Even in this moment, Ned Stark’s words ring loudly. “You served your King well,” Ned admonished Jaime long ago, “when serving was safe.” Lord Stark was scolding Jaime for standing by Aerys as long as he did, even as the Mad King murdered Ned’s father and brother. Now, nigh 20 years after the Lannister sack of King’s Landing, Jaime chooses to serve a cause higher than that of who sits the Iron Throne. Winter is here, and Jaime Lannister is coming for it.
And thus closes Game of Thrones season seven, with only six episodes remaining in this epic tale. This season, more so than any other, relied heavily on the imagery and themes established in the early seasons to bring arcs full circle before the final plunge.
By centering Ned Stark’s legacy, the showrunners punctuated the season by highlighting the long journeys our characters have been on, and focusing on the last journey to come.
A time for wolves, indeed.
A Couple Extra Ravens
- I don’t think I’ve done a review this season without using the word “gnarly,” and to keep the streak alive, the Ice Dragon was gnarly. That scene is every bit the spectacle and horror I envisioned of the White Walkers broaching the Wall, and it was chillingly beautiful.
To address some of the post-episode reaction: first, Tormund and Beric are alive, as both made it a safe part of the Wall (and neither, especially Tormund, would get an unceremonious end at this point). Secondly, it’s just magic fire. People have tied themselves in knots about what Viserion is breathing and how it can break the wall; it’s nothing more than magic-on-magic violence. The show, from the get-go, has couched the dragons as magic more so than beasts, calling all the way back to Stannis’s words on the matter.
- This episode was a tour de force for the cast, as all the scenes were incredibly well acted with some of the better dialogue of the season. Kit and Emilia finally showed chemistry, and Alfie Allens’s reaction to Theon finally being called a Stark was as rewarding as Gillen’s Littlefinger crying and begging for his life.
But most of all, the Lannister siblings were superb this episode. Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, and Peter Dinklage are riveting, immediately bringing to life their complicated familial relationship that harkens back to the second and third seasons of the show. Each brother offering Cersei a chance to execute them was incredible television; the internal conflict of Cersei weighed against the fear of her brothers perhaps goading her one step too far. In each moment, I feared this may be the end of either character, plot armor and all. As we see this week, much of Thrones’s success can be attributed to the writing and performances of these three characters.
- Lastly, a big thanks to everyone who decides that my thoughts, out of the million recaps and podcasts out there, are worth your time. Each week I am humbled by the amount of engagement and discussion these posts generate, and they seem to become more fun to write each week. It’s no shock that Game of Thrones is a massive labor of love for me, and I’m thrilled at the reception these get. Finally, the biggest of thanks to Danny Russell for allowing me to post on DRaysBay, and the community for allowing it to thrive here.
When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.