Game of Thrones was once a rapidly expanding universe, a story that added characters, locations, storylines, and complications as if it had no outer limit. New continents popped up in the architectural models of the opening credits; dynastic families with their own convoluted histories were cavalierly introduced; major characters died in gruesome circumstances with jarring frequency, fracturing the story further still. But what once expanded must now contract. Game of Thrones is ending, and though the brutal course of human history never stops, stories do. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay in Westeros (at least, not until the prequels).
In the blandly decent first episode of the final season, Game of Thrones started flicking the lights, putting characters in place for whatever comes next, while running through a number of long-awaited reunions and first-time meetings. It was less an episode and more a breadcrumb, leading us to the next breadcrumb, which will lead us to the next one, until said breadcrumbs get scorched by dragons, destroyed by White Walkers, or sliced up in some other internecine dispute—and on and on, until we come to the end.
As a critic, I have never felt like I was tilting at windmills more than when I have written about whether Game of Thrones is actually good or not, whether its increasingly slavish devotion to what comes next has undermined the show, and if it has set itself up to disappoint by putting so much pressure on the final outcome. We’re all watching, and no one wants to hear it. Besides, as a person who has also devoted umpteen hours to Game of Thrones, I, too, would very much like to know what happens next.
As far as I am concerned, the big extant question about Game of Thrones, the TV show—bigger than all the billions of tiny questions about the arcane cosmology of its universe—is whether or not it will turn out to be a Bad Fan of Game of Thrones, the books. Will it try to provide some kind of morally uplifting narrative closure, or will it end in moral uncertainty? Will the show give us a schmoopy happy ending that completely undermines the ideas that have animated the series, or will it give us a morally gnarly resolution that doesn’t?
For my money, the best scene in the episode (also the only one in which anything really happened) was when Sam told Jon he’s “always been the king of the Seven Kingdoms.” I didn’t love it because it was so rousing, but because it was so messed up. What if, after all of this, Game of Thrones is just a long defense of the idea that blood really should confer power on some people and not others, even when that blood is known to belong to enlightened despots and genocidal pyromaniacs? What if Game of Thrones gives viewers a happy ending it believes is happy, but is actually an advertisement for continued tyranny? The possibility made my blood run colder than the jump-fright provided by that chopped-up ice zombie.
Momentum, the idea that we are hurtling toward some conclusion that will explain it all, has been so encoded into the Game of Thrones experience that in the absence of any forward motion, the show is … kind of dull. To zip it up for myself, I turned the episode into another kind of parlor game, ranking all of the episode’s pas de deux, first meetings, long-awaited reunions. This list, obviously, is definitive.
1. Sam and Dany
This first encounter was very good because it was very bad. Cheery, friendly princess of the people Dany tries her best to appeal to her boyfriend’s BFF, but fails miserably when she has to reveal to an increasingly distraught Samwell Tarly that she murdered his father and his brother. Ooops. Sam, one of the show’s most reliable barometers of real morality, met Dany and found her wanting.
2. Sansa and Tyrion
While I think that “rooting” for anyone to “win” is genuinely antithetical to the entire meaning of the show, I am … totally rooting for Sansa, so I like it when she gets to be wise and embittered and neg Tyrion.
3. Theon and Yara
Weirdly, given how generally inscrutable and boring I find the Iron Islands plotline to be, I found this reunion moving. I’m glad Theon is pulling his tattered psyche together in time to go sacrifice himself for the Starks.
4. Arya and the Hound
The problem with all of Arya’s encounters with friends and frenemies from her past is that she is so twisted and morally enervated she can’t experience joy or happiness outside the context of bloody revenge. But the Hound is also twisted and morally enervated, so their affectionate show of mutual disdain was fairly satisfying.
5. Arya and Gendry
I was not expecting my rom-com banter to come from Arya and Gendry—“I always knew you were just another rich girl”; “You don’t know any other rich girls”—but no complaints.
6. Jon and Arya
Should have been moving! Was not! Also downgraded this scene because having two sequences in a row reference Sansa and intelligence is a bad sign for Sansa, whom I am not rooting for except that I am.
7. Dany and Sansa
Game of Thrones—despite the sexposition that is somehow still happening—has more interesting, knotty female characters than it does male ones. And yet the groundwork is being laid for the show to devolve into a Dany vs. Sansa catfight, with Jon as the dope between them. Not feeling it.
8. Jon and the Dragon
Aka an advertisement for a future theme park ride.
9. Bran and Jon
“You’re a man!” Jon tells Bran, who is, in fact, a cardboard statue.
10. Bran and Jaime
This was the record-scratch ending of the episode: Bran and Jaime laying eyes on each other for the first time since Jaime tossed Bran out a window, paralyzing him, in the show’s first episode. It would pack more punch if Bran was still Bran, and not a monotonous, all-seeing automaton.