At one point in A Storm of Swords, the third installment in the book series adapted into Game of Thrones, Bran Stark and his companions are wanderin’ through the woods when the messiah prince (who is also, after all, just a bored lonely little kid) requests a story. Meera Reed launches into a tale about one of her people venturing into the world outside the swamp they call home. He sees a tourney being held at an enormous castle, where he meets a wolf maid who defends his honor from bullies while also revealing a soft side, sniffling at the dragon prince’s sad song.
Gradually, the reader realizes that Meera is not making this story up to keep Bran quiet. It really happened, and within living memory: the enormous castle is Harrenhal, our hero is Meera’s father Howland, the wolf maid is Ned’s sister Lyanna, and the dragon prince is Rhaegar Targaryen, the Mad King’s heir and the older brother of Dany and Viserys. We even see younger versions of supporting characters like Ser Barristan, Oberyn the Red Viper, and the now-departed Benjen Stark. As such, her brother Jojen is increasingly puzzled that Bran never heard this story from his father Ned, who was there himself; Bran, for his part, interjects to suggest ways the story could be made more traditionally high-fantasy like the stories he loves best (a very meta note from Martin, demonstrating how he has subverted those tropes). Even he can’t change what really happened, though, and the scene ends with a bittersweet acknowledgement of how stories won’t save you from your ghosts:
Bran thought about the tale awhile. “That was a good story. But it should have been the three bad knights who hurt him, not their squires. Then the little crannogman could have killed them all. The part about the ransoms was stupid. And the mystery knight should win the tourney, defeating every challenger, and name the wolf maid the queen of love and beauty.”
“She was,” said Meera, “but that’s a sadder story.”
The reason Ned never told this tale, of course, is that it points at that “sadder story,” the secret he took to the grave: Jon is not his son, but the product of a secret union between Rhaegar and Lyanna. Howland Reed shares that secret, because he was there—he saved Ned’s life from Rhaegar’s Kingsguard just outside Lyanna’s “bed of blood,” which Bran’s visions back in Season 6 showed. He told his kids the story of the tourney at Harrenhal, but Ned didn’t, because he promised his beloved sister in his final moments that he would keep her son secret and safe.
R+L=J, as this revelation has come to be known, is the beating heart of the fandom. It’s the theory to end all theories, the answer to mysteries both political and metaphysical, the single most significant twist in a story known (for better and worse) for its twists. And on Sunday night, we saw it, theory made flesh. Whatever problems I have with how this show is written, I couldn’t help but be moved by that.
This theme of a buried truth finally coming to the fore extended across the episode. One of the major driving ideas of both books and show is that the civil war in Westeros is a distraction from and has exposed our vulnerability to the real fight, which pits the living against the dead. In “The Dragon and the Wolf,” that idea came to a head, as all the various warring factions came together in the Dragonpit (a legacy of House Targaryen, the family that forged a common Westerosi identity with fire and blood) to bear witness to the abomination that would destroy Stark, Lannister, and Targaryen alike. Just like in last week’s episode, the writers made the wise decision to structure the buildup around reunions and conversations about the past, wringing every payoff they could out of having more or less the entire cast converge. In both cases, there’s an underlying tension that adds gravitas to these interactions: the apocalypse is here, and that should bring us together.
It doesn’t work, of course. That’s clear immediately, when Euron shuts down Tyrion’s big speech to remind Theon of their very personal grievance that has not gone away. Jon pleads their case, but can’t offer what Cersei wants (his knee, bent), and of course, Cersei never intended to send her forces north. It’s not a surprising move on the writers’ part, but it’s a sensible one, and one that seems likely to be reflected in the books. Dany might yet win the game of thrones, but she will have to move on from it for a while. Besides, she’s got other things to do (hot incest with her nephew).
And that same choice wasn’t just made by her—this was the episode where Jaime Lannister finally walked away (also from incest). I must say this wasn’t as satisfying as it could’ve been; the show slow-rolled Jaime’s inevitable break with his evil crazy sister for far too long, putting his characterization on ice in the meantime. Given that Jaime killed Aerys Targaryen, the king he’d sworn to defend, because he was about to detonate wildfire under King’s Landing, it would’ve been far more cathartic and dramatically sound if Jaime had left the Mad Queen after she blew up the sept with that same wildfire. As it stands, he blew right past that, as well as her non-reaction to the dragonfire he faced earlier this season. I’m glad Jaime’s finally gone, and that poetic shot of snow falling as he left King’s Landing gave me shivers, but overall, it felt like a mangled opportunity.
Speaking of inevitable moments that were delayed so long that some of the meaning was sapped away, let’s talk about Littlefinger’s death scene. As I’ve said before, Winterfell has definitely been the low point of Season 7. The conflict between the Stark sisters felt extremely contrived, especially with this fakeout as the end point; the showrunners have admitted that they conceived this plot backwards from the climax they wanted, and boy, does it ever show. It took so much transparent padding to get us here that it didn’t hit home quite as hard as it should have. Why did we blow past the coeval traumas that Sansa and Arya each had to endure, which made them the strong characters they’ve now become?
Then again, I so thoroughly despise Petyr Baelish and have been awaiting his downfall (in both books and show) for so long that it was still cathartic to watch him break, beg, and bleed. His expression earlier in the season when Bran threw “chaos is a ladder” in his face was the appetizer, and the finale was the feast. I was cackling like Mr. Burns as he burned through his options, finally falling to his knees and pleading before Arya stepped and sliced in one smooth motion, cutting him off and cutting him up. Beyond my schadenfreude, though, it fits thematically despite the shaky buildup—as the army of the dead approaches, the story’s ultimate political schemer is swept aside. He’s exposed as the one thing he can’t stand being: unimportant.
For while the phrase “a song of ice and fire” refers first and foremost to the intercut romances kindled between Lyanna & Rhaegar and Jon & Dany (Martin being a capital-r Romantic), it also refers to the foundational metaphysical elements of this universe, namely the ice of the white walkers and the fire of the dragons. Season 7 ended with the fall of the Wall, the most inevitable event of them all. And in this case, the execution was everything I could’ve hoped for, a series of metal album covers in motion as the series-long promise of the white walkers finally pays off. This, above all else, is the critique of the eponymous game: while we’ve been fighting, there’s a darkness at the edge of town, and it just unleashed “shadow fire” on the only thing holding it back.
Even if Tormund and Beric are dead (weirdly few major characters died this season, despite multiple dragon fights), it was incredible to see a demigod lich king and his ice dragon nuke an ancient magic symbol of order. If Game of Thrones shifted its priorities and smashed the accelerator towards unabashed Michael Bay action madness, at least the set pieces were good and the high fantasy hit with a crunch. Fans have known that the army of the dead was going towards the Wall for many seasons, and it was obvious in retrospect that they weren’t just going to reach the Wall to die like Mance Rayder’s army (whose failed invasion effectively set up how fucking scary the Night King and his team are), but seeing them breach the wall in such theatric fashion was terrifying and spectacular.
The cards are all on the table now, all secrets exposed. The mockingbird has been killed, the wolf and dragon united (past and present), and the real enemy has arrived. The game of thrones is dead; long live Game of Thrones, script problems and all.