The game of thrones has always been less of a battle and more of an art. Although weapons and armies are essential tools for its players, statecraft and spycraft are the defining forces that govern its winners and losers. You rule or you die not based on how many men you have, but how careful and strategic you are with the powers at your disposal. And yet as we head towards the endgame of the series, the strategies of its smartest operators and military minds appear faulty almost to the point of negligence.
Tyrion’s plan to put the Cersei offensive on hold, have Daenerys and her allies run up and down Westeros several times to steal a zombie, and then march with it into the stronghold of their deadliest and least trustworthy foe is baffling at best. Rather than fighting either one battle or another, it forces them to keep both threats alive, while putting their most precious assets at tremendous risk. So it comes as no surprise, then, when their ridiculous heist of a single zombie comes at a very high cost, ultimately arming their “true enemy” with nothing less than a dragon. It’s Ned Stark-level foolish, and not even particularly noble; one can imagine the Tyrion of previous seasons laughing at the plan outright.
The men’s weekend North of the Wall inevitably ends up going south when they are attacked first by a zombie bear and then by an entire zombie horde. But before the carnage comes, Jon and Beric, the two men resurrected from the dead by the Lord of Light, take time to ponder the deeper meaning of their magically extended lives. Why were they chosen, of all people? What larger plan is at work behind their miracles? “I don’t think it’s our purpose to understand,” Beric says solemnly, effectively summing up their entire exchange while also giving an accurate thematic recap of this episode.
The insectoid swarm of the Night King’s army of the dead is stopped by one deus ex machina after another: first a pond, then a dragon, and finally Coldhands, aka Uncle Benjen, who comes out swinging an incense burner and sacrifices his life for Jon because apparently two people can’t ride on a horse. The zombie Thermopylae battle and dragon attack are thrilling in their own right, and the loss of the dragon Viserion emotional. The sacrifice finally transforms Daenerys into the sort of hero and queen she’s always wanted to be, although no one really knows what that means, beyond the battles and platitudes.
For all her talk of breaking the wheel and creating a new, more equitable world, we have yet to see a single concrete description of what that actually looks like. There’s no slavery in Westeros, no chains to break, so how exactly does she plan to upend the current order? Is she interested in a better criminal justice system, wealth redistribution, some sort of democratic body to rule alongside her monarchy? Right now her political platform consists of “dragons” and “bend the knee,” which is persuasive to be sure, but not exactly wheel-breaking.
Right now Daenerys’ political platform consists of “dragons” and “bend the knee,” which is persuasive to be sure, but not exactly wheel-breaking.
Even Littlefinger’s plan, which seems to be dividing the Stark sisters so that he can step in as a more trusted advisor to Sansa, ends up feeling similarly vague and ineffectual. He convinces Arya that Sansa might not be totally loyal to her family, and then sagely advises Sansa to have Brienne intercede. It sounds like a good idea, but then Sansa sends Brienne to King’s Landing instead, rendering his counsel useless. In an even more bizarre turn, Arya threatens and terrifies Sansa because of a letter her sister wrote as a child, with a knife to her throat, in hopes of saving her father—a move that feels unconvincing even for currently-on-a-killing-spree Arya.
Arya has literally ground men into meat and served them to their family members, but her confrontation with Sansa is perhaps the first time her horrifying, cold-eyed vengefulness is focused on a character viewers care about. She talks about her murderous versatility as a sort of feminist liberation, a way of escaping the gender roles that would have bound her to a life that she never wanted. “The world doesn’t just let girls decide what they’re going to be,” Arya tells her sister. “But I can now. With the faces, I can chose.”
Unfortunately, she gives this little female empowerment speech at the exact moment when she’s low-key threatening to cut off her sister’s face with a knife, for reasons that are tenuous at best. Arya, who is supposed to be expertly trained in the dark art of deceit, not only gets played badly and easily by Littlefinger, but shows a startling lack of empathy towards the most long-suffering member of the family she holds so dear—not to mention the same pettiness that she accuses Sansa of having in her heart.
Arya and Sansa started out as children, with all the silliness and myopia that children have. One of the great delights of the show has been watching them slowly emerge from their traumatic childhoods as powerful women and savvy operators with a keen eye for what their father could not see: who you can and cannot trust. Arya specifically trained in the art of spotting lies, and yet somehow cannot see the truth of her own sister, standing right in front of her.
Arya, who is supposed to be expertly trained in the dark art of deceit, not only gets played badly and easily by Littlefinger, but shows a startling lack of empathy towards the most long-suffering member of the family she holds so dear.
This contrived catfight not only robs Arya of her maturity and intelligence but Sansa of her power, just as she is finally coming into it. Does anyone actually think the Northern lords would turn against the Lady of Winterfell for a scrap of nonsense written under duress, especially after Ned himself made a fake “confession” for exactly the same reason? Like so many things happening on the show right now, it is unbelievable.
As funny as it might sound to talk about plausibility in a story about dragons where someone just got attacked by a zombie bear, so many elements of this episode are the worst kind of unbelievable: the kind where you don’t believe the characters. Game of Thrones has devoted years to developing the sweeping personal arcs of these people, so it’s a bit disheartening to watch it now and feel like suddenly I don’t know them, or perhaps that the show doesn’t. Is Tyrion not actually that smart? Is Arya not actually that discerning? Is Sansa not actually that strong?
Another question that this sibling rivalry brings to the fore: Are two powerful women not allowed to exist in the same place without one of them trying to sabotage the other? Outside of the Sand Snakes—we barely knew ye—it’s hard to think of two women who have been allowed to have the kind of relationship so many men on this show have been afforded, the camaraderie and “brotherhood” that has defined so many of their characters. Instead, they always seem to be at each other’s throats. How much more kickass—and compelling—would Sansa and Arya be if they were working together, and finally getting to know each as adults rather than reenacting their childhood squabbles with knives? It’s a scenario that may never come to pass.
But there’s a zombie dragon now, so there’s that.
Early in the episode, Daenerys muses to Tyrion that she’s glad he isn’t a hero. “Heroes do stupid things and they die,” she says, dutifully echoing the one lesson that Game of Thrones has taught over and over again. Going in to the season finale, there are more heroes on the board than players, something that never bodes well for anyone. And as the Lord of Light and/or the showrunners awkwardly push our favorite characters into whatever spaces they need to occupy for the endgame, it’s hard not to feel like, despite years of painful education, so many of them have learned nothing at all.