We’ve finally reached the climax that so many predicted and so much haphazard Game of Thrones plotting has rushed to set up. Viserion the ice dragon—who exists only because of a terrible plan, which existed only to eventually create an ice dragon—has brought down the Wall. Jon’s true identity as an honest-to-goodness Targaryen has been confirmed, just in time for him to hook up with his aunt. Petyr Baelish, the embodiment of petty political machinations, has been taken off the board. As Jon is so fond of reminding us, the Great War is here, and at long last, both sides have committed themselves accordingly.
The sole complication, of course, is Cersei Lannister. Given that complication is what Game of Thrones does best, it’s little surprise that Cersei’s scenes were the standout of an episode that otherwise went perfectly according to plan. This show thrives when it’s delving into the messy, confused human psyche, picking apart the tangled chain of thoughts that lead someone into acting against not just their own best interest, but all of humanity’s. Even with the army of the dead marching south, “The Dragon and the Wolf” reminds us, the real threat is still ourselves and the comforting, fatal illusions we conjure.
In an hour-plus otherwise marked by families coming together—unwittingly in Jon and Dany’s case, nonsensically in Arya and Sansa’s—this finale tore the Lannisters even further apart. But unlike Arya’s rift with Sansa, Cersei and her brothers’ estrangement is entirely, tragically in keeping with her worldview. Cersei Lannister has only ever valued family and power, two things that for the vast majority of her life were one and the same. The family half of that equation has always grounded Cersei with the sympathy that every truly great villain needs to hold our attention. Her eldest may have been a monster, but Cersei loved her children with a ferocity that almost justified the war she started to protect them; she may be sleeping with her brother, but in its way, Cersei and Jaime’s connection was purer and more steadfast than the vast majority of relationships in this Machiavellian universe.
Over seven seasons, Thrones has gradually stripped Cersei of her family, leaving only power for her to cling to with increasing desperation. Joffrey, then Tywin, then Myrcella, then Tommen all died—the last death without any scapegoat for Cersei to fixate on instead of herself. Now, sitting on the Iron Throne at the expense of her last surviving child, Cersei has become obsessed with upholding her father’s legacy as the savviest, most ruthless political mind in the Seven Kingdoms. To that end, she’s surrounded herself with yes-men who, as Tyrion points out, encourage her very worst instincts of amoral self-preservation: Qyburn, the not-even-a-maester whose disturbing experiments she’s happy to harness to her own ends, and Ser Robert Strong, the revivified Mountain who’s even more of a mindless killing machine than his living self. Looming over it all is the prophecy Cersei received as a young girl, a self-fulfilling inevitability that gives Shakespeare’s most tortured antiheroes a run for their money. It’s not just that Cersei is doomed to see her children die and to herself perish at the hands of her little brother. (Crucially, Jaime is technically younger than his twin, if only by a few seconds.) It’s that her paranoia about that possibility is only making it come to pass.
All that careful groundwork comes to fruition in the back-to-back, mirrored confrontations between Cersei and Tyrion, then Cersei and Jaime, in “The Dragon and the Wolf.” The face-offs are two of this uneven season’s finest moments, and prime examples of the “two people talking in a room” setup that so often makes Game of Thrones the gripping interpersonal drama it is. A lifetime of unwarranted resentment rips to the surface as Tyrion makes his last-ditch appeal, while Cersei reveals that his chief crime wasn’t being a dwarf, but that he “laid us bare to the vultures” and tarnished the family legacy that Tywin treasured so much. And with Jaime, we see Cersei’s toxic, fermented resentment inflict its most fatal casualty: the one true relationship she has left. In the end, it wasn’t Jaime who had an epiphany and chose to leave the mother of his children, and possibly future child, behind; it was Cersei who forced his hand by revealing how far her trust in and esteem for him had deteriorated. The last shred of humanity in Cersei lets both brothers survive even when they both call her bluff. Sadly, it’s that shred that’ll eventually be her demise when one of them kills her.
Compare those past three paragraphs of analysis with the information we have about the fast-approaching Night King, which is approximately zilch. (OK, fine: He was created by the children of the forest to stop the expansion of mankind thousands of years ago, and he’s served that purpose a little too effectively ever since.) That’s the point: The Night King is, as Jon calls him, a general who can’t be reasoned with, an existential threat to put mankind’s comparatively minuscule differences in perspective. But those differences—loyalty versus pragmatism, self-interest versus a higher purpose—are Game of Thrones’ heart and soul, what we’ve spent years observing and passionately taking sides on. Part of what defines humanity are the tics, passions, and vulnerabilities that can make us our own worst enemy and, not coincidentally, make for great television. That’s why the image that will stick with me after Sunday night won’t be the Wall crashing into the sea in all its CGI glory. It’ll be the look on Jaime’s face when he’s realizing the only woman he’s ever loved has chosen her sense of autonomy over him.
Of course, Cersei’s commitment to double-crossing her newly minted allies in the North is also what promises to make Season 8 more than just a redux of last week’s battle, dragons against White Walkers ad nauseam until one of them (spoiler: not-ice dragons!) wins. Cersei’s betrayal, with Euron and the Golden Company at her back, is what keeps the conflict interesting—because Cersei herself is one of the most interesting people Game of Thrones has introduced. She has something the White Walkers will never have: a heart, and the horrible, self-destructive things it makes her do.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.