Critic's Notebook: Rousing 'Game of Thrones' Finale Caps an Uneven Season

'Game of Thrones' S07E07 Jon Snow and Daenerys - Still - H 2017
Macall B. Polay/HBO

[Warning: This discusses the seventh season finale of Game of Thrones. So many spoilers.]

Sunday (Aug. 27) night concluded a messy, narratively discombobulated season of Game of Thrones.

It's been a season of deus ex machina rescues, previously unimaginably fast travel and message-sending, and at least two or three emotional reunions every episode, each drawn out in the hopes of forcing fans to use as many exclamation points as possible in their tweets. It's also been a season of smart characters losing all sense of strategy and common sense just because strategy and common sense might lead to a slower, more deliberate pace. For six seasons, I don't know that I ever thought Game of Thrones was dumb, but this season it often has been.

Sunday night also concluded what may be the most epic season of Game of Thrones yet, and the finale, "The Dragon and the Wolf," combined spectacle and character in a way that most of this season has failed to do. It was still a clumsily structured episode in which one scene after another produced a "Wait, that doesn't make sense" head-scratch followed by a "Oh, that's because it was a twist" follow-through. It also had a few too many moments that were satisfying in fan-service-y ways, but damned if it wasn't still satisfying as heck — and that's how Game of Thrones needed to end this season.

Last week's episode was the season in miniature. Penultimate episodes have generally been standouts for Game of Thrones. "Baelor." "Blackwater." "The Rains of Castamere." "The Watchers on the Wall." "The Battle of the Bastards." Those are iconic episodes for fans.

Instead, we got what was perhaps the most infuriating of the show's nearly 70 episodes. The Lord of the Rings-style mission North of the Wall was already a dumb idea. Why send a squad of mostly recognizable characters, several with key leadership positions or genetic proximity to several royal lines, out into the unknown to kidnap a single zombie with no awareness of the force they were going to be facing? It was way too convenient that the crew included four or five virtually nameless figures to be devoured by zombie polar bears and the like. Then, in a season of time and geographic cheating, we had Gendry sprint back to the Wall, send a raven and Dany and her dragons were able to come to the rescue within the space of a single rough night with our heroes surrounded by zombies. The show's first six seasons were basically just an extremely slow mobilizing of forces to get Dany to the other side of the world, and the whole point was that nothing in Westeros, including the arrival of Winter, came quickly. Suddenly, the journey is nothing and process was thrown out the window and Game of Thrones became a different show, and that doesn't mean that Game of Thrones wasn't entitled to become that different show, and it doesn't mean that Game of Thrones wasn't always gradually becoming that different show, but that doesn't mean I can't prefer the show it was in the beginning.

(Note: I understand that White Walkers and wights are different and that none of them are technically "zombies," but if you want well reasoned, accurate Game of Thrones coverage, read THR's awesome Josh Wigler. I'm just a TV critic who sometimes loves this show and sometimes doesn't.)

Anyway, if the trip was that short by dragon, why didn't Jon convince Dany to fly up and back in a few hours, spot the zombies below (maybe grab one in a net of some sort) and return? Dany sees her zombies. No red-shirts had to die. No dragon had to die. No intelligence had to be insulted. And then as if we hadn't had enough deus ex machina, Uncle Benjen had to come to rescue Jon, having not been even mentioned at any point previously this season.

Narratively, the penultimate episode was just horrible, and that's before we get to whether the interactions between Sansa and Arya are believable as character choices rather than just suspenseful plot devices. Me, I accept that the characters have been through a lot and were already at each other's throats before they were separated and each had to learn the darkness they were capable of. They've always had different approaches to the world, so I can accept a fair amount of distrust between them, even if what we've gotten is really, really heightened. (That's before you get to what happened in the finale.)

But for all of the awfulness, I'm not going to pretend that the approaching rings of zombies closing in on the merry band of kidnappers, crashing through the ice, but not knowing any better, wasn't pretty cool, nor that I've become immune to mass dragon-based slaughter, even if we've seen the same thing a couple times this season. And the zombie polar bears whetted my appetite for AMC's The Terror, which will premiere at some point this winter, I'd imagine. And even though the last shot with the dragon's eye gone zombie blue was completely predictable, I still got chills and I had high hopes this episode would begin with the Night King sending a note to the wall reading "Now I have a dragon. Ho. Ho. Ho."

It did not.

It ended that way.

It took nearly an hour and a half of the Game of Thrones finale to get follow-up on the Night King and his zombie dragon, which was all about delayed gratification, because if you didn't see the dragon's eye go blue and go, "Well now I know how the Night King is gonna knock down the wall," I dunno what to tell you. That zombie dragon was always gonna take down the wall and, indeed, it did. That ended the finale with a legion of the differently alive marching down the hill with eyes on ruining the new sisterly bond between Arya and Sansa Stark. That's a good way to end an episode.

The finale was all about siblings coming together and siblings falling apart and I guess aunts and nephews coming together. If you know what I mean. Seriously? Do I have to draw you a picture?

Game of Thrones certainly had to draw you a picture. Since last finale, dedicated readers of the books had known that the long-proposed "Rhaegar + Lyanna = Jon" theory was presumably true, and we spent seven episodes this season watching Jon and Daenerys dance around a potential romance with a mixture of anticipation, awe and horror. But apparently it hadn't been made clear yet that they were kinfolk, so Non-Walking Expositional Device Bran got to just explain this information/vision to Sam. Why Sam? Because Sam came with the knowledge of an annulled Rhaegar marriage, a marriage that would legitimize Jon and make him a viable heir to the Iron Throne ahead of Aunt Dany. Basically, Sam was the only person with knowledge that Super Bran didn't possess, so he got to be there for the exposition dump, while simultaneously giving no credit to Gilly for a discovery that she actually found. Game of Thrones had to make sure you knew exactly what Jon was to Dany and what Dany was to Jon before Jon knocked on Dany's cabin door and they made sweet, sweet family love, a sex scene that couldn't be done under the sheets because without Jon Snow's bare butt, viewers might not have been quite so turned on/disturbed by the whole thing.

So that's all happening!

He's my lover! <slap> He's my nephew! <slap> He's my lover! <slap>  He's my nephew! <slap>

It's funny that in an episode that confirmed Jon Snow (or Aegon Targaryen) had no Ned Stark DNA, most of the episode's drama was set in motion by a stubborn rectitude that was definitely nurture over nature.

"Have you ever considered learning how to lie every now and then?" Tyrion asked Jon.

"When enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies," Jon replied.

And now he's sleeping with his aunt.

But what was going down with siblings in this episode?

At least some of the estrangement between Arya and Sansa in the previous episodes was proven to be for show as Sansa summoned Arya into the main hall and she began an accusation of murder and treason before naming Littlefinger, smirking against the wall, as the accused. Littlefinger was shocked and protested his love and devotion, but Sansa was having none of it. The final nail in Littlefinger's coffin came when Non-Walking Expositional Device Bran gave testimony against him, testimony I'm pretty confident wouldn't be admissible in any sort of real court. Fortunately, in this court Sansa was judge and jury, leaving Arya to be the executioner, cutting Littlefinger's throat. I'm not sure this is really justice, but it's totally satisfying and it let the sisters have their bonding moment on the ramparts of Winterfell, as each agreed that the other was darned impressive and had gone through some different stuff in the previous six seasons, which was really all anybody wanted.

Speaking of siblings, Cersei sent Jaime packing, as she broke her word to help Jon and Dany (and Tyrion) in favor of sending Euron to collect a mercenary army to help take solid control over most of Westeros while Team Incest is fighting zombies. Because Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are both great, it was a powerful scene, especially when Jaime begged Cersei to have him killed rather than letting him continue to live in a world in which he's an oathbreaker (and in which his sister-lover thinks him a treasonous conspirator). "I told you no one walks away from me," Cersei hissed at Jaime. But he did. Rode away, in fact. There was a great opportunity for Jaime to cast off his golden hand, like the discarded watch at the beginning if Easy Rider. It was not taken. 

It was still the second-best scene between Cersei and one of her siblings. The showdown between Cersei and Tyrion was probably my favorite scene of the entire season because, like the final scene with Sansa and Arya, it was just two people talking about and acknowledging the shared pain brought about by the experiences of the series. Peter Dinklage has his Emmys and what not and needs no more recognition, but Headey has yet to win an Emmy and her work in the finale is going to make her a powerful force next year.

And the long-promised Cleganebowl at least for the time being boiled down to The Hound staring down The Mountain at the parlay in the Dragon Pit and basically promising to eventually kill him. Does anybody think The Mountain currently has enough sentience to understand what was being implied? I don't. But it happened.

Speaking of siblings, I could write about Theon's courageous decision to go off to rescue Yara (after a tough conversation with semi-adoptive semi-brother Jon), but that would cause me to acknowledge that Theon gained the support of his people by beating up on a guy who learned the valuable lesson that kneeing a man with no genitals in the genitals is not an effective fighting strategy.

OK. This is quite long enough and I'm not one of those critics who writes 3,000 words about every Game of Thrones episode. Bless them. I haven't even mentioned a half-dozen of the other reunions in this episode. Podrick and Tyrion! Brienne and The Hound! I've said all summer that the season could just be edited as a montage to Peaches & Herb's "Reunited," but after the finale I'm debating whether the montage should be set to Eurythmics' "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" or Sly and the Family Stone's "It's a Family Affair." It's nice to have options.

This was a rough season, but I think many people expected a rough, table-setting penultimate season before the show ends its run with what we hope will be Throne-shaking insanity. Was it exactly the sort of roughness we feared, though? Probably not. There were too many battles and scorched armies to think of this as table-setting in any traditional way. It was a huge season of Game of Thrones. It was just a season whose hugeness came at the expense of the geographic, temporal, character and narrative logic that we've come to expect from the show. Or maybe leaps in continuity and plausibility are just the price you pay for a surplus of dragons, and as the show's audience has only grown, I can't doubt that this is a price that most would pay willingly.

The finale worked better than most of the rest of the season for me because while it lacked not for dragons, it also delivered one great two-person chamber scene after another. And incest. Naked incest.

Bring on season eight.