Well, we’ve made it to the end of another season of Game of Thrones. This wasn’t just any season, though. This was the penultimate installment of HBO’s fantasy juggernaut. That, and the news that next season will consist of only six (probably very long) episodes, means there was a lot riding on Sunday’s season finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf.” This is the stage-setter, the rule-breaker, the episode that primes us for next year hinges. On that score, Game of Thrones delivered, because things are bound to be entirely different in Season 8 in a big, big way.
We have to talk about the relationship indicated by the title of the episode: The Dragon and the Wolf. Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) finally Did It (Sex). In a moment of tension and strife and no small amount of success (so they think) they made love. The incest plot that thousands of fans have anticipated for years and posted about on Tumblr and theorized about on Reddit has finally reached its (no pun intended) climax. The moment has its seeds in their very first meeting, but it really seemed imminent when Jon told Cersei (Lena Headey) that he couldn’t accept her bargain because he’d already pledged himself to Dany. What seemed like half a dozen characters asked him after that meeting “Why didn’t you just lie? It costs nothing.” The general consensus was that he didn’t lie about his relationship to Dany because he was like his father Ned (Sean Bean), a man so committed to honor that it cost him his life. The real reason, as we now know, is that he’s been falling for the Dragon Queen for some time.
So, Ice and Fire met in bed together for the first time even as Sam (John Bradley) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) confirmed for the umpteenth time the theory many fans have had since the beginning: Jon is the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Not only that, though: He’s not a bastard. The accepted truth in Westeros had always been that Rhaegar abducted and raped Lyanna, thus inspiring Robert’s Rebellion (Robert loved Lyanna, and her brother Ned Stark was willing to go to the ends of the Earth for her). As Bran and Sam discover, though, this was a lie, a false assumption that lit a powder keg. Rhaeger and Lyanna loved each other but kept it secret. So, war broke out, the Targaryens lost power and everything that’s happened since can be traced back to this secret wedding ceremony.
Plenty of other things happened in the episode too, of course. Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) revealed that their recent animosity had all been a ploy. They lured Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen) into the web they spun and finally put an end to the show’s original sociopathic supervillain. In King’s Landing, after an improbable summit that saw all manner of reunions (Jaime and Brienne!), Cersei revealed to her brother/lover that she’d only been posing all along. She will not aid in the fight to the North. In fact, she’s sent for mercenaries from the east to pick up the pieces when the fight with the dead is done. Jaime, who’s long known that his sister is a poisonous narcissist, walked away from it all and rode North. Oh, and there was also that small matter of a Zombie Dragon punching a huge fucking hole in The Wall.
We don’t need to pick apart the plot of the Season 7 finale. If you’re reading this, you’ve already done that in your head for hours and hours. What’s more pressing and more fascinating is what Season 8 will bring. One of the frequent criticisms of Game of Thrones’ penultimate season was its seemingly physics-defying speed. Characters practically teleported from one place to another. Ravens flew faster. Dragons zipped from castle to castle like they were equipped with warp drive. In this abbreviated season (just seven episodes as opposed to the usual ten) it was necessary to keep the plot rolling, but there’s a chance that it really did gum up the works. Pacing on Game of Thrones isn’t as clear to us now as it was in, say, Season 3.
Here’s the good news, though: Season 8 very likely won’t be like that.
“The Dragon and the Wolf” was, as most Game of Thrones finales are, a mixture of resolutions and set-ups. Arya and Sansa are newly united (“The Lone Wolf dies but the Pack survives,” bless you Ned.) and Littlefinger is toast. Jaime’s finally found the courage to leave his sister. Dany and Jon finally Did It. The White Walkers finally punctured the Wall, and so on. Where this season sets itself apart, though, is in building on something that Season 6’s finale delivered on so nicely. Last season Arya finally came back to Westeros and Dany was poised to begin her conquest. This season everyone is united on a single continent and the game board shrinks yet again. Most of the major players meet up King’s Landing, in the Dragonpit. Even if they don’t agree on everything, they all acknowledge each other. All of those quick travels in Season 7 may have been a clever TV illusion, but they were also an acknowledgment that the world of humans is getting smaller.
By ending the season with the breaking of the Wall, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are sending us a clear message. Even as Jon spent the whole season trying to convince everyone that the White Walker threat is real, the show itself was breaking down barriers to make that reality pervasive. The White Walkers aren’t just real now. They’re marching south. They’re claiming men and dragons alike. They’re compressing the world down to a peninsula full of squabbling nobles.
So too are Dany and Jon compressing the world in their own way, merging ice and fire in a way that will almost surely become very complicated soon. Sam and Bran are compressing the world. Arya and Sansa are compressing the world. The sprawling, seemingly endless parade of characters and subplots that Game of Thrones once brought us is getting smaller by the second.
Season 8 won’t look like the show we once knew. Oh, you’ll recognize character names and locales and that epic theme music. But so many things that were complex have simplified and so many things were simple are now more complex. We’re dealing with a different beast. Like the dragon Viserion, who shifted from loyal child to undead wrecking ball, the show is undergoing a transformation of its own.
But who will be left standing in the wreckage?