By the time the Wall comes down and the closing credits roll, 81 minutes have passed. But while it may have been the longest Game of Thrones episode ever, tonight's colossal season finale – "The Dragon and the Wolf" – gets straight to the point, wrapping up storyline after storyline with ruthless efficiency. It forges alliances and breaks them, unites couples and splits them up, rewards some liars and punishes others. And most importantly, it builds up our hopes for a grand alliance against the darkness, then knocks it to the ground. In the process, the season finale deals out moments of happiness and horror straight out of the biggest GoT nerd's dreams.
The lion's share of the screentime, appropriately enough, goes to Cersei Lannister. The carefully arranged summit between the ersatz Queen of the Seven Kingdoms and her many enemies is set in the sandy ruins of the Dragonpit, a structure built by House Targaryen to protect the outside world from their living weapons – and eventually vice versa. The unfamiliar location lends the lengthy negotiations a sense of unpredictability and novelty, like something new truly could be forged here from the ashes of the old regimes.
Cersei's in charge, however ... so fat chance of that. As long as she sits the Iron Throne, she intends to stay there, and not even the grasping hands of a shrieking, charging zombie will throw her off her plan. Her agreement to meet with rival monarchs Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow; the fact that first Euron Greyjoy and then she herself storms out of the summit; her bitter argument with her brother Tyrion over their many slain family members;, her final agreement to a truce: It's all a sham.
As far as Cersei's concerned, she can wait out the winter and let the various dragons, demons, dead men and Dothraki slaughter each other, then face the survivors at will. Not even Jaime – her brother, lover and the father of her unborn child – is in on the plan. As he's quick to point out, this is both strategic and moral lunacy considering what they're all facing. But it finally dawns on him that his sister is too far gone after a lifetime of paranoia, abuse and vendettas. In the end, he rides north alone, one man trying his best to do right by his own conscience. (Even lowly Theon Greyjoy has more support when he launches a mission to rescue his sister Yara from their vicious uncle – though considering the quiet strength of Alfie Allen's performance in the role, we'd follow him too.)
Up North, things go very differently for another schemer-in-chief. It turns out Sansa and Arya Stark have pulled off the ultimate bullshitting of a bullshitter, convincing Littlefinger that his plan to turn them against each other was working. Instead, he finds himself accused of treason in the younger sister's place. (Aiden Gillen, Sophie Turner, Isaac Hempsted Wright and Maisie Williams play their parts in this medieval courtroom drama marvelously.) Sansa lays out the charges in a voice quaking with anger. Bran drops psychic knowledge bombs that throw the accused completely off his guard. Lord Baelish himself searches frantically for the right words to escape, shifting from emotion to emotion like a malfunctioning robot. Arya watches the whole thing with bemusement until the moment she cuts his throat; after all, she's seen worse. So ends the saga of one of the character bested only by Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton on the love-to-hate-him scale.
But the most important action of all, unsurprisingly, involves ice and fire. In the metaphorical sense, Bran and Samwell Tarly use their respective mental gifts to sort out the truth once and for all about Jon Snow's parentage. He is Aegon Targaryen, the legitimate son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark – the Dragon and the Wolf of the episode's title. Even as we hear all this, we see the King in the North and the Khaleesi, a.k.a his aunt, make love for the first time. (Look, dragons do things differently, okay?) It's a scene fandom has longed for despite long having figured out their familial relationship; it packs the power of prophecy along with romance and lust. As messed up as it is, the fate of the world depends on it. They don't have a choice about that, any more than they did about falling in love.
Finally, we come to the end of the episode, and with it the end of Westeros as we know it. As Tormund Giantsbane and Beric Dondarrion watch in stunned horror, the White Walkers and their army of the dead arrive at Eastwatch, the Wall's most remote fortification. There, the Night King unleashes the fury of his undead dragon, who destroys the massive, ancient barrier in a blast of blue flame. In one haunting shot, writers/co-creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss, along with director Jeremy Podeswa, capture zombies staring blue-eyed and vacant at their master and his monster. Despite their mindless impassivity, there's an air of obscene anticipation about them in that moment, as if they know this is the final obstacle before they can get on with the work of destroying all life on the planet.
Game of Thrones' penultimate season has rocketed along from place to place, person to person, long-awaited meeting to long-dreaded conflagration for all seven of its episodes. That pace has thrown some viewers off balance. But in these final moments, the purpose becomes clear: This story, this world, has been hurtling toward a point of no return. We've now reached that point. The lies, betrayals, power plays, and murders we've witnessed for seven years, and which still continue in this episode – they are all a distraction. We're all in this together, and we'd better realize it ASAP. Is there a more urgent message for all of us to hear at this moment?
Previously: The Walking Dead