Monday, August 28, 2017

REVIEW: 'Game of Thrones' - Cersei, Jon and Daenerys Hold a Summit in King's Landing in 'The Dragon and the Wolf'

HBO's Game of Thrones - Episode 7.07 "The Dragon and the Wolf"

Tyrion tries to save Westeros from itself. Sansa questions loyalties.

Game of Thrones used to be one of the best shows at surprising its audience with its unexpected moments. That largely came from killing characters off long before it seemed like their stories should be ending. Those deaths would then create new consequences for the characters who remained. Their lives have been shaped by the death and destruction just as much as their own selfish desires for this world. But this season has been frustrating because so much of the writing seemed geared to creating big moments of spectacle that would dazzle the audience even though it's questionable why the characters would be in that position in the first place. At first, it seemed like the show was delaying the inevitable. Daenerys was staying on Dragonstone because her conflict with Cersei for the Iron Throne shouldn't end in a single episode with the three dragons burning King's Landing to the ground. But now, the finale is full of obvious and inevitable moments that the writing is painfully telegraphing to its audience. It's as if the show's creative team no longer trust the audience's intelligence. There are so many twists that could be seen a mile away. And yet, those reveals are played as these big, sweeping proclamations that will fundamentally change everything. In the longest episode of the series to date, it grows tiring. It makes it seem like it's not worth all of the time. That things are simultaneous rushed and truncated in a way that just throws the whole balance of the show off.

Perhaps this is an issue of the show not evolving as much as its story would suggest it should. The sixth season proved that the show could still surprise the audience. That finale is one of the best episodes the show has produced because it was so unexpected and told its story in a different and surprising way. But "The Dragon and the Wolf" strictly follows the same playbook. The purpose of this season seems to be getting everyone to accept that the war to the north with the Night King is the only one that ultimately matters right now. Everyone has come to a summit in King's Landing in order to create a truce so they can focus on that imminent threat. It's an effective sequence because of all of the character pairings and reunions. It's so nice to see all of these characters coming together in the same location. It's rewarding to see some of them interacting again for the first time in awhile - Tyrion and Bronn, Tyrion and Podrick, Brienne and Jaime, etc. For some, it's more awkward and highlights how things have changed over the course of the series - Brienne and The Hound, The Hound and The Mountain, Theon and Euron, etc. But mostly, this scene is all about showing Cersei and Jaime proof that the army of the dead exists and should require their immediate attention.

If everyone just accepts that fighting the Night King is the only plot that matters, then Game of Thrones becomes a very single-minded and straight-forward show. That stands in stark contrast to everything that came before in this narrative. This is a show with a sprawling ensemble spread out across an entire world. The show has been truncating. Over the past two seasons, it has killed off many characters who aren't essential. Or it at least gives the appearance of them being gone for good. For instance, no one seems to mention Ellaria Sand during this grand summit and whether she is still alive. If they all unite against this common enemy, they would be reluctant partners at best. But it would also be a different show in the way that it tells its stories. So, it's not all that surprising that the show resists the urge to change like that. It's still fundamentally about petty squabbles between royal houses. They are bickering amongst themselves over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne instead of preparing for the arrival of this grand, mystical army. Jon's stubbornness and refusing to tell a lie is a huge plot point of this finale. It's in keeping with his Stark identity. It's been a consistent part of his character for a long time. But it also seems foolish given the gravity of the situation. This show does so many things well. The technical proficiency it has produced this season is unparalleled in television. It spends millions of dollars and it shows. But the writing has just gotten too focused on producing big moments of surprise instead of crafting intricate and nuanced stories.

It's played as a big surprise that Cersei agrees to the truce with Jon and Daenerys only to later reveal to Jaime that she doesn't plan on sending any troops to the north. She's still waging this war to maintain the Iron Throne. She's just deceiving the world around her to make them believe she's going along with everything they are saying. She's instead securing her rule by buying the largest army in Essos. Euron Greyjoy is sailing his fleet to secure the transaction now. She's strengthening her hold on the region. To her, she doesn't care about making the world a better place. She's a very selfish ruler who has come to learn how to play this game. She's gotten quite good at it. She's able to deceive Tyrion during their conversation. She is able to manipulate him into believing he has gained the upper hand by figuring out that she is pregnant. In reality, she is just using that as a tool to lure her enemies into a false sense of comfort and strength. She sees that Daenerys has lost one of her dragons. She figures the northern men and Daenerys' army can fight this war with the White Walkers. It's only a problem to her if they fail in this endeavor. And now, she has the army to protect her should that happen. This isn't surprising though. The plan to completely change Cersei's mind by bringing a wight to King's Landing seemed foolish for a number of reasons. Now, it's foolish because they are trying to appeal to the good side of a manipulative sociopath who has shown no remorse for any of her actions as of late. There's no reason for her to change now. She can put on a good performance. But it's also about protecting herself and her rule while crushing her enemies. It continues to make her seem like the smartest person on the show.

And yet, Cersei also comes across as a great plot complication to keep the war going on multiple fronts as the show heads into its final season. This war for the Iron Throne only ends with her death. That moment is bound to happen at some point. It's just curious why the show didn't think now would be a good time for that. What purpose is she going to serve in the final season if she's going to remain a threat that Jon and Daenerys will be distracted by when fighting the Night King? It sets up the expectation that this is a war that the living simply can't win because they are too busy fighting amongst themselves. That may very well be the outcome that the show is building towards. I've accepted that theory more and more as this season has gone along. Right now, the plotting largely works because of the performances from this terrific cast. It's nice to see all the nuanced and layered reactions in the dragonpit. It's dynamic to see Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage go head-to-head once more. And then, it's absolutely devastating to watch Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime realizes that there's no turning back for Cersei's monstrosity. He has been converted in his thinking regarding this new threat. He's willing to uphold his new oath to fight alongside the army to the North. He's betrayed by his sister's master manipulations. It's painful to see him ride away from King's Landing. The Lannisters are split entirely now because of the actions Cersei is willing to take to maintain her rule. That's a compelling and surprising moment. But it's still just creating new plot complications to make the final season more dynamic.

As one pair of incestuous lovings are torn apart, another are coming together for the first time. The hookup between Jon and Daenerys has seemed like a long time coming. This season has seen the two of them meet and grow closer. Of course, they aren't a particularly exciting couple. They are both kind of bland characters who don't muster much excitement anymore. Jon is thrilling to watch when fighting White Walkers. Daenerys is thrilling to watch when riding her dragons or delivering rousing speeches. This moment of intimacy seems forced. It's all a part of the show's master plan to reveal Jon Snow's parentage and true name. It's just a frustrating plot development. It's the most this finale seems out of touch with the audience's perception of the story. First of all, Bran learned about Jon's father and mother an entire season ago. He knew he had to share it with Jon but never felt the desire to send a raven. And then, Gilly reads an excerpt from a diary detailing Rhaeger Targaryen's annulment and marriage to someone else. The internet then become buzzing with the news that this meant Jon wasn't a bastard after all and is truly the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. And now, Sam has arrived in Winterfell and trades notes with Bran. It's questionable why Bran is more forthcoming with Sam regarding this information than anyone else. It's because it needs to happen out of convenience for the story. But the way it's told is this grand, sweeping display of shocking information. The show is expecting the audience to be stunned by this revelation. And yet, all of the theatrics with Bran seeing Rhaeger and Lyanna's wedding, Sam and Bran putting the pieces together and Jon and Daenerys having sex for the first time (while Tyrion notices the two of them in the same room) just seems like overkill to really hammer the point to the audience.

Of course, this isn't the only silliness happening in Winterfell either. The story with Arya, Sansa and Littlefinger has been infuriating to watch this season. It was severely effected by the condensed episode order. It felt like things were happening very quickly and without reason. Arya returned home to Winterfell. It was this grand reunion. But then, she and Sansa were immediately turned against one another for some strange reason. They were both being fooled by Littlefinger. He did that in order to remain in a position of power with Sansa. At least, that's what I believe his motivations for this chaos was. Mostly, he just loves creating chaos and the show needed to give these characters something to do this season. This story rested entirely on the audience's acceptance that Arya and Sansa would believably want to kill each other. They never got along when they were kids. They've both changed so much over the years. And yet, the rationalization for this story always seemed far-fetched. It seemed obvious that they were either acting like stupid Stark children who were being manipulated by Littlefinger or it was just some grand ruse to ultimately reveal Littlefinger for his own crimes. After seven seasons of character development, it just seemed untrue that they could be tricked by Littlefinger so easily. So, it always seemed likely that this was going to be the tragic end for Littlefinger on this show. And that's exactly what occurs here. It too plays as this epic reveal that should stun the audience. But mostly, it's the only decision that could save these characters and their current trajectories. It's nice to see Arya deliver the fatal blow. But it's more rewarding to see Arya and Sansa acting like sisters once more looking over their kingdom as they prepare for war.

And finally, the season ends on a very ominous note of the Night King being able to destroy The Wall and lead his army south into Westeros. It's a thrilling moment. The Night King isn't wasting his newly acquired dragon at all. He knows how to use it. So in honesty, the Night King is probably the smartest character on the show. He has incredible magical powers. Plus, he knows how to use every tool to his advantage. He's been roaming around wildling country for a long time acquiring new soldiers for his army. He's been stuck up there because of the magic within The Wall. And yet, the exact circumstances have always been shaky. It just seemed more likely that he was stuck in that environment until the show was ready to have everyone in Westeros face this threat. So now, the Wall can come tumbling down. It's an impressive visual. It's haunting to see the Night King riding a dragon while it breathes blue fire. It's absolutely terrifying. But again, it creates a key question in the writing. What was the Night King's plan to get past The Wall if he didn't have this dragon? That seems like a huge plot point. It makes this journey much more convenient and possible now. But it also seems like he is just making things up as he goes along. And now, he has the freedom to truly reign his terror down on the world. It's a tantalizing premise for the final season. But again, the more one looks beyond the spectacle, the more questions we'll have about the motivations of the characters.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Dragon and the Wolf" was written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss and directed by Jeremy Podeswa.
  • It's delightful to listen to Jaime and Bronn's conversation at the top of the episode about the usefulness of a cock as a fighter. It gives them purpose. They don't know what the Unsullied are fighting for without it. And yet, Theon's later fight shows the usefulness of not having one because he's able to take his opponent by surprise.
  • That Theon moment is setting up another story for the final season. He and his remaining men are planning on chasing after Euron in the hopes of rescuing Yara. He believes he needs to do it for her after her failed rescue attempt for him back in Season 4. It also shows that he is becoming more confident as a leader once more.
  • Tormund and Beric are seen on top of The Wall at Eastwatch when the Night King and his dragon attack. Because they aren't visibly seen dying despite many soldiers falling to their deaths below, it seems very likely that they survive this attack. But that means they are in a precarious situation being surrounded by the army of the dead without many resources to protect themselves.
  • So what exactly is Tyrion going to do with the information that Jon and Daenerys are becoming a couple? Other characters have their suspicions. Littlefinger sees it as a possibility to forge a strong alliance. Jorah sees how easy it is for Jon to sway Daenerys' opinion. But Tyrion is the only one who sees that they are acting on the intimacy.
  • When Sansa turns on Littlefinger, she is able to present all of this evidence of him conspiring to turn the Starks and Lannisters against each other. She has listened to him and seen what he has done. She brings up the deaths of Jon and Lysa Arryn as well as the betrayal of Ned Stark. And yet, did the show just forget about that time Arya witnessed him conspiring with Tywin to defeat Robb? It seems like it.
  • The big deaths this season were Littlefinger, Olenna, Ellaria, the three Sand Snakes, Thoros and Viserion. So overall, it was kind of a disappointing season for deaths that actually meant something. Viserion being turned by the Night King is a huge moment. Olenna had an epic speech to Jaime in her final moments alive. But Littlefinger has long outlasted his usefulness in the story.
  • Only one season left of this show. It's only going to be six episodes. And yet, there's a rumor going around that they'll all be as long as this episode. That seems like a mistake. If they need that much screen time, they should spread it across more episodes. It was a problem in this season because nothing felt like it was properly able to breathe and develop. But again, it was thrilling to watch. I'm still anxiously awaiting the conclusion of this epic story.