For the past eight years, every episode of Game of Thrones has opened with an aerial tour of its vast world in clockwork miniature, following the exodus of its main characters as they journeyed to far-flung locales over continents and oceans. As the series winds down to its conclusion, most of those characters have either died or converged on a single point: Winterfell, the place where it all began and the place where humanity will make its last stand.
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The years in between have been brutal and bloodthirsty, full of internecine battles that turned allies against each other and left Westeros littered not only with bodies but with the sort of betrayals that can inspire clannish hatreds for generations. The skin of their shared histories has become such a welter of overlapping agonies and scars that it is sometimes hard to remember them all, who is connected to whom, by which red thread of trauma, and why.
And so, with all of them crammed into the same icy castle on the night before the dead descend, Winterfell has become a sort of one-room play where nearly every scene pairs up two characters with a fraught history and forces them to interact until the boil is lanced and some closure, or at least détente, is achieved. While that's satisfying on a fan service level, sometimes it feels like wheel-spinning until the battle begins; I'd love to have learned even one thing I didn't already know about the characters having these conversations, instead of just listening to them confess secrets revealed seasons ago.
We open on the inevitable reckoning between Jaime Lannister, long reviled as the Kingslayer for stabbing the Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King, in the back while a sworn member of his Kingsguard. Daenerys has been nurturing revenge fantasies about her father's killer for a long time, and while she's no longer ignorant of the fact that he was a sadistic psychopath, it hasn't dulled her anger. Nor is she alone. So much blood has been shed in the Seven Kingdoms that trauma is not a straight line but a circle: Jaime killed Dany's father, who killed Jon Snow's uncle and grandfather; Jon's biological father (who is also Dany's brother) was killed by Gendry's father, who was killed by Jaime's sister, and around and around we go.
Jaime has more crimes to answer for as well. Namely to Bran, whom he pushed out a window and permanently paralyzed in order to cover up his sexcapades with his twin sister Cersei. To Jaime's surprise, Bran doesn't rat him out; instead, he simply makes a cryptic comment about "the things we do for love," because he's grown fond of acting like an omniscient narrator who repeats people's secret catchphrases back to them without explanation.
Because he's finally reached Step 8 of his asshole recovery program, Jaime follows Bran to the godswood to make amends. He tells Bran that he's sorry, that he isn't the same person anymore. Bran agrees. "You still would be if you hadn't pushed me out of that window," he says indifferently. "And I would still be Brandon Stark."
All of them are now walking Ships of Theseus, broken down and rebuilt so many times that almost nothing is left of who they were when they set out.
After he pushed Bran out of the window, the old Jaime had insisted that death was far preferable to living as "a cripple, a grotesque." You could argue that the golden lion died on the road between Riverrun and Harrenhal when his sword hand was cut off, just as the old Bran died in the cave of the Three-Eyed Raven or the old Arya died in the House of the Black and White. That all of them are now walking Ships of Theseus, broken down and rebuilt so many times that almost nothing is left of who they were when they set out.
Not everyone has been quite so transformed by their journeys. Others, like Brienne of Tarth and Sansa Stark, don't change fundamentally but simply come into their own—become more of who they always were, or wanted to be, as the Lady of Winterfell or a knight of the Seven Kingdoms. The one disappointing exception to all this self-actualization is Tyrion Lannister, who started out as a savvy, cynical player seemingly destined for greatness. At this point in his character arc you might expect him to be pulling strings like the second coming of Littlefinger; instead, he enters the endgame behaving like a simpleton who wouldn't hesitate to look up if Cersei said "gullible" was written on the ceiling.
After learning from Jaime that—surprise to no one!—Tyrion got played and Cersei was lying the whole time, Daenerys storms out of the throne room and reads her Hand the riot act. She literally makes him admit he's a fool, and it's kind of like watching a medieval Gordon Ramsay put an errant chef's head between two pieces of bread and force them to say they're an idiot sandwich. It gets worse when Tyrion claims that he made the mistake of trusting Cersei because he's too smart—precisely the sort of clumsy self-aggrandizement hat the old Tyrion would have mocked with relish. While I understand that perhaps a blood sacrifice was necessary to move all the chess pieces into their proper places for the finale, it's still a huge bummer to see one of the most compelling characters grow steadily more boring and bad at things because the plot required him to play the scapegoat.
Elsewhere, Arya briefly serves as a role model for letting bygones be bygones, chilling on the castle walls with The Hound (who once murdered her friend Mycah) and Beric Dondarrion (who once helped sell her friend Gendry to the Red Woman so she could harvest his blood). She eventually gives up on their sad-sack-a-thon and heads off to do what any curious but sexuality inexperienced young woman would do on the night before her potential death: get laid. Fortunately her old pal Gendry is around, and after some foreplay involving knife throwing and a quick review of his sexual history, they finally head to bonetown, but not in the charnel house sort of way.
As you do when you are making merry because tomorrow you may die, they also spend some time talking about death, the only word Gendry can come with to describe the White Walkers and their army. Truly, they should have sent a poet. Death has meant a lot of different things on Game of Thrones, sometimes something far less final than it seemed, sometimes an end and sometimes a beginning. Arya worshipped it, for a time, believed it was a gift, even after it wrenched her parents and brothers from her world. "I know death," she says when Gendry uses the word to describe the armies of the White Walkers. "He's got many faces. I look forward to seeing this one."
It's some good smack talk, but somehow I'm less sure. A death cult is one thing, and an apocalypse cult is another. I'd be curious to hear how the theology of the Many-Faced God reckons with the idea of humanity being completely annihilated—as a rapture, a mass blessing of all the entire world at once, or a blasphemy? All men must die, of course, but who would be left to worship the god of death if they die all at once? Why else would the House of Black and White preserve the faces of its first acolytes in their creepy murder museum if there were not things in the world worth remembering and saving?
The one piece of truly new information in last night's episode gets dropped in almost casually at the war council, where Bran reveals the true motivation for the Night King's siege on the Seven Kingdoms: "He wants to erase the world." Further, as the new Three-Eyed Raven, Bran is the memory of the world, a living library of Alexandria that the Night King wants to burn.
This happened once before with the Doom, a fiery cataclysm that razed the highly advanced civilization of Valyria to the ground, leaving nothing but smoke and ash behind. Years ago, when Tyrion and Jorah sailed through the ruins, they recited the lyrics of a song about Valyria and how it met its end: "The city of a thousand years/And all that men had learned/The Doom consumed them all alike."
"How many centuries before we learn how to build cities like this again?" wondered Tyrion. All that the Valyrians were, all that they had accomplished, erased from the memory of the world as if it had never been. This is the death that the Night King brings, the death beyond death that kills not just people's bodies but their past and their future. And so they spend the last night drinking, and telling stories, and remembering until the horn finally blows and the army of dead arrives. Then they go out to make history, for as long as it still exists.
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Sansa's already seen her father and her brother invite political catastrophe and death by listening to their hearts rather than their common sense, and she'd rather not retread that particular narrative just because Jon is getting laid for the second time in his life and dragons are the world's coolest roller coaster.