This was the season that settled nothing. Most of the previous seasons left us with at least a few definitive answers. From Ned’s beheading to the Battle of Blackwater Bay to the Red Wedding to the Battle of the Bastards, while we never knew who was truly winning the game of thrones, we knew who’d lost. Unless you count the demise of Littlefinger and Dany virtually gifting a dragon to the Night King, this season featured no definitive wins and no crushing defeats. It mainly repositioned the players.
There’s the Night King, nearly as powerful as Sauron, marching through a ruined wall. There’s Dany — along with Jon (excuse me, Aegon) — now caught between the hammer of the Army of the Dead and the anvil of the traitorous Lannisters. Then there’s Cersei, who now clearly sees a path to remaining on the Iron Throne. She’ll watch the two most powerful forces in Westeros fight it out, then she’ll take on a weakened Dany. And if the Army of the Dead wins? Well Cersei made a fatal miscalculation.
If you ignore some of the bone-headed blunders that moved the pieces into place (all the mistakes were defensible except for the ridiculous plan to capture a wight), it makes sense. Dany’s strategic dilemma is clear. Fight it out with Cersei, and the North falls, the Army of the Dead is strengthened with the bodies of the Northmen, and perhaps not even her dragons can save her. Turn north and she’ll weaken her force while Cersei saves her strength. She has no good choices, regardless of whether yet another of Jon’s noble gestures squandered her first chance at a truce. I can see why she kept trying. I can see why she believed she has a deal – especially if Tryion has told her it’s real.
There’s a phrase that’s been used to describe some of the more satisfying moments this season — “fan service.” That’s when the show arguably breaks with its meticulous plot-making and relentless fatalism to provide the narrow escapes and the triumphant moments that characterize more conventional fantasy fiction. That’s when the show let the good guys win and the bad guys receive the justice they so richly deserve. And, yes, I can see the critique. The show is slightly less bleak than it used to be. Some of the escapes do strain credulity.
The fan in me loved the Sansa/Arya alliance and the surprise turn against Littlefinger. It was marvelous. The fan in me loved the way the show revealed Jon’s true heritage. And the fan in me has loved the cinematography all season, including the epic assault on the wall in the final moments of the finale. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. Not every show has to be as relentlessly grim as Breaking Bad, and the Red Wedding doesn’t have to set the tone for the entire series.
In fact, television has grown so dark that there might be something refreshingly counter-cultural about watching honor and justice triumph against long odds. I’m still skeptical the show will maintain its redemptive turn throughout its final season, but I won’t be opposed if, at the end of the day, the best man or woman actually does win.
I’ve been making this point, but as the shows forges ahead of the books, it is becoming more Tolkien and less Martin. I’m eager to see (if he ever gets around to finishing his next tome) how Martin himself avoids becoming Tolkien. After all, the white walkers are his creation. So is the Night King. So are the dragons. He’s built characters around prophecies that seem to have inexorable momentum. Perhaps he’ll surprise us. In any case, It will be interesting to see if he does it better than the show. I doubt he will.
So, what’s next? While Bran made much of Jon’s identity as the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, it’s hard to imagine Jon changing his fundamental character once he knows his true identity. He’s bent the knee to Dany. Will he break his oath to a woman he loves?
But there was something else. Why the grim shot of Tyrion watching Jon go into the Dany’s room? Why did the new truce seem to emerge so quickly after Tyrion guessed that Cersei was pregnant? Is there a chance that this new life and this second chance at a Lannister legacy (and the chance to atone for his part in the deaths of two of Cersei’s children) has turned Tyrion? I wonder.
Unfortunately, I fear that we’ll be waiting and wondering for more than a year. Shooting for Season Eight reportedly won’t begin for a few more months, and there’s a chance the final season won’t premiere until late 2018 or perhaps even 2019. In the meantime, I’ll re-watch this season and once again marvel at an astonishing television achievement. We won’t see its like for a very long time.