At the start of “The Dragon and the Wolf,” the season-seven finale of Game of Thrones, the lengthy Dragonpit meeting between Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and their respective alliances reestablishes relationships and reminds us of long-simmering feuds with nothing more than a few brief conversations and glances. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) warily assesses Cersei while Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) violently dismisses his nephew, Theon (Alfie Allen). Meanwhile, the dishonored Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), unsurprisingly, finds it difficult to make eye contact with Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). With the exception of the moment that Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) rolls a wight out of its makeshift prison, the entire sequence is notable for how it sees the episode zigging away from the spectacle that has increasingly defined this season and toward the show’s once-stubborn obsession with the art of diplomacy.
Less refreshing, just about everything that occurs in the North is a wooden confirmation of things viewers already know, from the obvious (and largely pointless) treachery of Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), to Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West) confirming that Jon Snow is actually Aegon Targaryen, Daenerys’s nephew. It’s satisfying to watch Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) carry out the judgment of her sister, Sansa (Sophie Turner), and horrifying to see the Night King’s army use their newly converted, blue-fire-breathing zombie dragon to tear down the Wall, leaving the fates of Tormund (Kristofer Hivju) and Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) left uncertain. But Littlefinger’s death, the revelation of Jon’s parentage, and the breach of the wall have been so long in coming that they don’t carry nearly as much dramatic weight as they should. Even the consummation of Daenerys and Jon’s love feels as obligatory as the tasteful staging of the scene, which suggests a means of not overly complicating the act in the rear view when both of them eventually learn that they’re related.
The events that occur in and around the Dragonpit are just as inevitable as those in Winterfell and the Wall, but they’re less predictable. Violence is teased, but tantalizingly withheld, thereby setting a clear endgame for the final season. Sandor doesn’t fight his brother, Gregor (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), but he does stare directly into the man’s red eyes and reminds him of their unfinished business. Jaime doesn’t have to be a Queenslayer, but he does (technically treasonously) abandon Cersei after being shamed by Brienne (“Fuck loyalty,” says Westeros’s most loyal knight). And while sad-sack Theon doesn’t face down Euron, he does win back his authority and sail off to rescue his sister largely because he has no balls.
Theon’s redemption speaks to the main theme of “The Dragon and the Wolf”: the essence of what we fight for. It’s telling that the episode opens with Bronn (Jerome Flynn), staring over the walls of King’s Landing at the assembled phalanx of Unsullied, questioning why the “cockless” would go to war since they can’t have families and therefore have nothing to spend their gold on. It’s a limited perspective from a limited man, but it’s not tossed off as a comic observation, as the rest of the episode goes on to demonstrate all the many other things a person can and will fight for. Bronn may enjoy being addressed as a lord, but he has no understanding of the responsibility that entails, which is why he happily fights for coin and women, whereas Jaime would charge a fire-breathing dragon if he thought it might protect those he loved.
In other words, there’s more to fight for than personal pleasure, or as Jon puts it, “This isn’t about living in harmony—it’s just about living.” These existential stakes quickly measure the worth of each person at the Dragonpit meeting, particularly Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), a man who could once out-drink and out-fuck Bronn. After Jon’s honor-bound admission of allegiance to Daenerys threatens to sabotage the makeshift alliance, wights be damned, Tyrion sets aside all thought of safety in an effort to personally persuade his sister. “I’m going to step into a room with the most murderous woman in the world, who has already tried to kill me twice—that I know of,” he says to his brother, and yet that doesn’t stop him. He even encourages Cersei to have the Mountain kill him: He accepts all her rage and blame in the hopes that, at some point, she will consider what it is she really wants.
What Tyrion overlooks, or underestimates, are the stakes that Cersei believes herself to be fighting for. (She means it when she pompously declares herself to be the world.) The largest difference between Daenerys and Cersei may be that one believes she can’t have children whereas the other one has already lost three of hers and no longer has any interest in checking her own worst impulses to protect an impending fourth. Cersei belittles Euron and then reveals her pregnancy to Tyrion, all to provide a plausible reason for agreeing to march her armies alongside Daenerys’s in order to fend off the dead. (In actuality, she’s sent Euron to retrieve the 20,000 expert mercenaries she’s purchased from the fabled Golden Company in Essos.)
The strength of the exchange between Tyrion and Cersei hinges on how skillfully Dinklage and Headey play their characters’ attempts to both confront and run from their feelings for the other. Tyrion and Cersei’s desires are raw and not held back by any sense of propriety, given the intimacy of their meeting. Tyrion drinks wine to calm his trembling nerves, and his voice strains with agonized frustration, whereas Headey at last gets to release some of the hatred that her character has long-harbored against Tyrion and, in doing so, reveals the deep love and maternal instincts buried beneath that hard exterior. Of course, even this revelation, like attempting to use her pregnancy to keep Jaime loyal, is just a weapon in Cersei’s arsenal. Her deep love extends no further than family, and she’s willing to burn Westeros to the ground for them. Her desperation somehow makes her seem sympathetic, and when she practically holds a sword to Jaime’s throat, you understand that she’s just doing all that she can to keep him from breaking her heart.
The lack of an even playing field for the characters in Winterfell is what makes the surprise execution of Littlefinger so uninteresting. Sansa, backed up by Bran’s absolute knowledge of Littlefinger’s previous transgressions, holds all the power. Littlefinger doesn’t stand a chance and isn’t even given an opportunity for trial by combat; he’s surrounded by men who despise him, and his throat is slit mid-plea by Arya. The fact that he’s caught so off-guard by Sansa and Arya’s subterfuge demystifies every action the man has ever taken on Game of Thrones. Worse, because the series achieves this twist only by deliberately feeding viewers the same bad information about the supposed feud between the Stark sisters, it cheapens some of the previous Winterfell sequences, suggesting that they, too, were artificial.
Ironically, Littlefinger is done in by his own earlier advice to Sansa, a description of a game he likes to play, one in which he assumes the worst possible reason for which someone might say something, and then matches that against how well it might explain the actions they take. Just as Littlefinger reveals too much of his strategy to Sansa, so too do writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss—and this hastiness saps much of the surprise that Euron’s retreat was a ruse. Euron isn’t one to run away from (or even be frightened by) an army of the dead, which means that his flight from the Dragonpit can only signal Cersei’s pending betrayal. (She’s right to call Jaime an idiot for not realizing that her temporary pledge of allegiance was a lie.) It’s unnecessary for the writers to call attention to their tricks, because, in the end, it’s not about games or thrones, but about the human stakes behind both.
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