Game of Thrones: Cersei, not the zombie-dragon, makes us gasp

Season finale: It’s the politics, cynicism and raw emotion that make this gripping TV

The art of persuasion has no rulebook. You can go about it honestly or deceitfully, lead with soaring rhetoric or concrete example, appeal to peoples’ best hopes or worst fears. In the season finale of Game of Thrones, we get examples of every path.

The supergroup of Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow and their amassed forces think seeing is believing, and bring a “live” wight – that screeching zombie captive – to King’s Landing where they hope to win Cersei Lannister to their cause.

If Cersei’s immediate conversion – and Euron Greyjoy’s instant desertion – is a little hard to swallow, it’s because few beliefs are so easily challenged by something as flimsy as indisputable fact. Just ask a climate sceptic or Trump voter. Besides, Cersei regards the dramatic entrance of Daenerys on a roaring dragon with the same scornful indifference that Queen Elizabeth II reserves for everything. How could an army of the dead faze such a mortal enemy?

What is far more believable is that Cersei would choose to play politics when faced with the apocalypse.

Bitterly abused when he fails to agree to her counter-truce (“Have you ever considered learning how to lie?” asks an exasperated Tyrion. “Just a bit?”) Jon insists that honesty is the best policy. “When people make false promises words stop meaning anything,” he frowns. “Lies won’t help us in this fight.” And, despite her best assurances, nor will Cersei.

Back at Winterfell, Littlefinger is deep in his own schemes of persuasion, where Sansa’s manipulation, poisoned against her sister, seems like the latest in a long history of violations.

Aiden Gillen's wily Petyr Baelish imparts his philosophical cynicism: to understand someone's motivations, "assume the worst". This has long been a dependable strategy in Game of Thrones, which makes this season's stock-in-trade oddly ill fitting: the delivery of satisfaction.

The baddies have been steadily vanquished; the good mostly delivered from harm; the truth comes out as frequently as a magically-accelerated raven flight or a deus ex machina with a flaming mace.

When the tables are finally turned on Littlefinger, outplayed by the poker-faced Sansa, her expert-witness brother, Bran, and Arya, the sardonic executioner, it is – near enough – how I hope the Mueller probe is resolved. Yet it’s hard not to feel that tristesse of getting what you wish for. Goodbye Littlefinger. Who will hold your ladder of chaos now?

Elsewhere in this extended episode, filled mostly with solemn talk, we get confirmation of what we already knew. “No one knows,” says Bran of Jon Snow’s true provenance. “No one but me.”

Well, no one but you and everyone with a reliable broadband connection, Bran; the internet came to this conclusion a whole series ago.

In a delightful interaction, the finale’s only supply of humour, Samwell Tarley encounters Bran, whose smalltalk has suffered profoundly since becoming The Three-Eyed Raven. Bran tells him that he is all-seeing, and Sam, who has really seen it all himself at this stage, needs no further persuading.

Between their book-smarts and their warg-smarts, they prove conclusively that Jon is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and – what’s more – legitimately born and thus the rightful heir to the Iron Throne. This, at the very least, should make for an awkward conversation between Jon and his aunt, Daenerys, who finally get it together in a ship’s cabin, and have thus almost come full circle: to an illegitimate berth.

The only thing that seems to occupy GoT's fantasies more than incest is castration, making it the biggest-budget adaptation of Freudian theory yet. This episode begins with deep rumination about what drives the Unsullied: "Men without cocks," marvels Bronn. "What's left to fight for?"

But one of its most significant character reversals is the sight of Theon Greyjoy, similarly dispossessed but newly righteous, withstanding numerous knees to the groin, then beating an Ironborn thug unconscious – persuasion by combat, winning over a very fickle crowd.

The climax, a solid bit of action, finds the serried ranks of the undead reach the Wall and suddenly halt – before the moment we’ve been anticipating. From high above, a very moth-eaten dead dragon soars down with a raspy screech, bearing on its back the Night King – or, I guess, the Night Rider.

With a searing blue flame it reduces the impregnable battlements to so much Slush Puppy and the opponents in this war – the only war that matters – pour into the Seven Kingdoms. So why does this demolition job feel like an anti-climax?

Probably because the most gasp-inducing moment comes earlier when Cersei gives the nod to have Jaime, her brother-lover, executed. In a tactic that could have served so many others well, Jaime refuses to accept it, and rides North into exile, or to join the War against Death and tell everyone of Cersei’s true intentions.

Cersei is usually a few moves ahead in this game, so all may not be as it seems, even to Jaime. But the emotion of this separation is brutal and raw. It’s a reminder that whatever the threats to existence in this fantasy world – dragon power, zombies, the darkest arts – the real enemy is always human.