Another season, another action-packed final episode. Sorry, did I say action-packed? I meant fanservice-packed.
There’s clearly no way we could have had this grand meeting between the three monarchs battling it out for control of Westeros without at least five minutes on the importance of cocks, followed by five minutes of people walking places slowly and several conversations about when characters spent time together in previous seasons, followed by several more minutes of waiting for other characters to arrive. And then we just had to include dwarf jokes that even the characters thought were sub-par, more sizzlingly sexy interaction between Jon and Dany, and a few minutes of pondering about a more metaphorical state of being fucked.
I’m here to close out the latest Game of Thrones season by talking about the dense, complicated politics the show is known for…which unfortunately just weren’t worth the screentime compared to the above.
Tyrion and Cersei
About half an hour through the episode, Cersei hits on a strategy that’s actually not half bad! She promises a truce, on the condition that Jon and the North stay out of any subsequent wars. She can trust a son of Ned Stark (oh ho ho, how clever) to honour his word. Jon promptly tells her that he can’t promise that because he swore to Dany about thirty seconds ago. Cersei stalks out of the meeting, not intending to give any sort of truce at all.
This leaves our protagonists in something of a bind. They can’t afford to fight the White Walkers and Cersei’s magical respawning armies. Everything depends on this, apparently, and Jon’s gone and messed it up bad (point about the value of the sworn word notwithstanding). They’re fucked.
DAVOS: Any ideas about how we might change that state of affairs?
TYRION: Only one. Everyone stays here, and I go and talk to my sister.
It’s not hard to see why the writers would want to keep the subsequent scene in the final cut. It’s definitely emotional, as a sister and brother who hate each other have this desperate, emergency measures meeting. Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey bring their A-games.
The deaths of Tywin, Joanna, Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen are all mentioned in this scene. The conversation ending in murder is seriously considered, as Tyrion tells Cersei that he’s dreamed of killing her, and dares her to kill him. Over thirty years of mutual hatred in a single scene of television. Throughout, Cersei rubs her stomach and refuses wine. She’s pregnant, you see. Tyrion picks up on these subtle clues and says it aloud. That’s where the scene cuts off.
A few minutes of screentime later, Tyrion comes back with Cersei and company, Cersei now agreeing to march north to fight the White Walkers as well.
In short, that scene was entirely about getting Cersei and Tyrion to a place where they could discuss politics, rather than discussing politics. We don’t know what Tyrion said to convince Cersei. Just as importantly, we don’t know how Cersei fooled Tyrion into thinking this was sincere.
Which brings us to…
Euron and Cersei
Way back at the meeting, when the wight-in-a-box popped up and went for Cersei, Euron stood up, asked if wights could swim, and upon hearing the negative, left the meeting. He said he was taking his entire fleet with him. We haven’t seen Euron since halfway through the season, asking if Cersei liked a finger up the bum.
Later, we see Jaime planning the march north. Cersei finds him, all surprise that Jaime would be planning a march north when she’d just promised to march north. When Jaime asks her what the hell she’s planning, Cersei tells him that she orchestrated Euron’s dramatic departure from the meeting to cover for him leaving to ferry the Golden Company across from Essos. When was this decided? Why would this happen? We don’t know. And since we never got any scenes to hint at it, we can’t know.
It’s so bad, Jaime ditched Cersei because she expected him to know all those things that happened offscreen.
But no political arena is totally immune to the curse of offscreen plot development. Let’s finish with the worst of them all.
The story so far here is simple. Littlefinger has stood by his wall, smirking and twirling his mustache, while Sansa and Arya came to mistrust each other for…some reason? Arya found a letter in Littlefinger’s mattress…I don’t know why she was looking anyway, nor why a letter written by a twelve-year-old hostage was supposed to be incriminating. Anyhow, last episode this resulted in Sansa snooping in Arya’s room, and Arya threatening to kill her. Every hostile conversation between the Stark sisters took place in private, with no indication that it was supposed to be for the benefit of Littlefinger’s spies.
This week, Littlefinger leads Sansa through the most painfully obvious “assume the worst” thought experiment known to Westeros. Not unreasonably, given that Arya threatened to kill her last episode, Sansa comes up with the idea that Arya might want to kill her this episode too. That’s where Winterfell Scene #1 leaves off.
Winterfell Scene #2 finds us with Arya marched into the hall in front of witnesses, in front of Sansa and Bran. All of them have either their best poker faces on, or are nearly falling asleep. I can’t tell, but the director should’ve told them to perk up a bit.
SANSA: You stand accused of murder. You stand accused of treason. How do you answer those charges…Lord Baelish?
Oh ho, what a twist. Nobody saw that one coming.
Littlefinger didn’t, at least, and so Sansa starts clarifying the charges. Littlefinger murdered “our aunt, Lysa Arryn.” And that’s not all. She also accuses him of murdering Jon Arryn. That actually is a shock, because unlike book!Sansa, show!Sansa never discovered this. She includes the detail of getting Lysa to send Catelyn a letter blaming the Lannisters. Then she brings up Littlefinger’s betrayal of Ned back in season one. Bran chips in with more details.
BRAN: You held a knife to his throat. You said ‘I did warn you not to trust me.’
Then Arya piles on.
ARYA: You told our mother this knife belonged to Tyrion Lannister. But that was another one of your lies.
No, seriously, when did they learn all this? These are huge discoveries. The murder of Jon Arryn started the entire political plot of the series; Lysa blaming the Lannisters for it got the Starks involved. The Stark kids found the person who did more than any single other individual to ruin their family and destroy the realm, and who has been attempting to drive a wedge between Sansa and Arya to destabilize Jon’s position as king.
The failure of storytelling here is staggering. These are series-spanning mysteries that get to the heart of the Stark kids’ motivations and character development. In-universe, the loss of life and trauma caused by these actions is incalculable. The discovery deserved attention and reaction, reflection and emotion. Instead, these revelations are used as a simple lever to dispose of Littlefinger.
It’s not even possible to tell when Sansa and Arya started planning together. Last episode Arya threatened to murder Sansa; this episode they’re buddy-buddy. Comments outside the episode would indicate that between Winterfell Scene #1 and #2 Sansa went to Bran and learned the truth…but this scene was cut. From what was aired, we have no way of telling.
The habit of keeping important politics offscreen to preserve these shocking twists is one of the worst habits the show’s developed in its past few seasons. It actually removes story and removes shock value from any twist. It is, however, a remarkably efficient means of turning the story away from, say, five minutes of Bran connecting with his sisters and the memory of their mother, instead to five minutes of Bronn talking about cocks.