Welcome again, everyone, to the penultimate installment of the Chris & Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog, which began April 20, 2011. Slightly more than eight years later, the end is in sight … though based on fan reactions since the episode aired on Sunday, we might be experiencing the kind of final-season-itis that so often afflicts otherwise excellent shows. Or are we? I guess we’ll have to wait for the final episode to see if GoT can stick the landing, but in the meantime …
Nikki: OK. The episode ended about 20 minutes ago and my heart is still beating a mile a minute. On the one hand, it was a devastating turn of events that once and for all turned me against the one person I’d been rooting for all series. But on the other hand… it was strangely cathartic, like that weird feeling we get when a show we follow gets cancelled: sad that it’s gone, but secretly relieved that now there’s one less show you have to keep up on. King’s Landing is gone, the Lannisters are out of the picture, Daenerys has lost her GoT-damn mind… and the Starks are still standing. And… I gotta say, I was kinda thrilled about this episode. I’m writing this immediately after it ended, and as with every week (continuing a tradition on Lost), I never read a single article about the episode until we’ve posted our blog recap and a lot of the time it’s like, “Oh. That’s what everyone else was thinking. And here I was with my own opinion that differed from everyone else’s… ah well.” I’m going to assume that people hated this episode and all the awful things that happened in it… well let me just lead off by saying I fucking loved it. LOVED IT. (And, again, I haven’t had much time to actually think about it and haven’t yet rewatched the episode because it’s 11:15 at night and I have to be up early tomorrow but I need to get this first pass over to Chris…but I just want that first gut feeling out there on the record. Tomorrow I might loathe it; you’ll have to wait until my next pass to see what happens next.)
A few weeks ago I was mapping out how the rest of this season would go with some friends: episode 3 would be the giant battle, episode 4 would be the planning and siege on King’s Landing, episode 5 would be the actual battle of King’s Landing, and episode 6 would be the denouement.
Well fuck denouement… it looks like episode 6 is going to be SO much more.
First things first. Chapter One: The Varys Problem.
So our episode begins with Varys in his chambers, writing missives that he’ll no doubt send by Secret Spider Raven, and here’s what we can make out:
…is not the only Targaryen left, Rhaegar and Lyanna…
…their son lives still, hidden by Eddard Stark. His name…
…he is the true heir to the Iron Throne…
I think we know enough to fill in those blanks, but the question is, to whom was he sending these? Iron Islands? Dorne? Across the sea? Who? If he’s opening by mentioning that Dany’s not the only Targaryen left, presumably Varys is appealing to a region that’s loyal to House Targaryen. This could be Meereen or any one of the places that pledged fealty to Daenerys. If it’s not a place loyal to the Targaryens, I doubt he’d be saying, “I know you hate Targaryens and believe they have no right to the throne, but hey, I found another one!”
Enter Martha, the little kitchen girl that Varys has employed as one of his spiders. She says Dany won’t eat anything, and adds, “I think they’re watching me, her soldiers.” Varys assures her that that’s their job, and she repeats his mantra to him: “The greater the risk, the greater the reward.”
The next day, Varys meets Jon at the beach where he’s arrived, with Tyrion standing above him on the cliff, watching with concern. Varys reports that Daenerys is not eating, not leaving her chambers, won’t talk to anyone. Jon is sympathetic (and I’m glad someone is, since everyone thinks she’s lost her mind when she’s actually a mother—and best friend—in mourning over losing two very important family members).
And then Varys plays his hand, and lets Jon know exactly what he knows. “Every time a Targaryen is born,” Varys says, “the gods toss a coin and the world holds its breath.” Jon guffaws and says, “Aw shucks, bald man, where’s I come from we’re not much fer jokes, da-HUH!” So Varys says they both know what Dany’s going to do now. Jon says she’s the queen, she has every right. (Sigh.) Varys says, “Men decide where power resides, whether or not they know it.” And while we cringe at the sexism of that statement… it’s unfortunately truer today than ever.
Jon stops walking, wants to know what Varys wants. Varys says he wants the right ruler on the Iron Throne, same thing he’s always wanted. “I still don’t know where her coin has landed,” he says. “But I’m quite certain of yours.” Jon just stares at him, again repeating she’s the queen. “I’ve known more kings and queens than any man living,” Varys explains, “I’ve heard what they say to crowds and seen what they do in the shadows.” He admits to having done terrible things to help them succeed, but says out of all of them, he sees Jon and knows he’d rule wisely and well. But Jon is unbending. Once again, he insists he doesn’t want it.
And in light of what happens by the end of this episode, I’m thinking we have to assign some of the blame to Jon and Tyrion on this one. They both were told by Sansa, Arya, and Varys what was going to happen, and they refused to listen, instead pledging fealty to a queen they’ve known a fraction of the time they’ve known everyone else. And look what happened as a result. When Jon insists, “SHE is my queen,” the camera pans back up to Tyrion, still looking on with concern… but unfortunately that concern is NOT that he’s worried Jon is wrong. It’s that he knows what Varys is going to do.
So Tyrion goes to see Daenerys, who has aged about 10 years in the past three days, but it turns out her little birds are even chirpier than Varys’s: she knows someone has betrayed her, she knows it was Jon Snow. He corrects her, “Varys.” But SHE corrects HIM. Varys only knows because Tyrion told him, and Tyrion knew because Sansa told him. And Sansa knew because Jon told her—so… it was Jon. In the very next breath Tyrion refers to Varys as the Master of Whispers but considering that Dany was privy to conversations in the Godswood and on the parapet with only Sansa and Tyrion, I’m thinking she is the one who’s mastered this art.
“Why did Sansa tell you?” she asks. “She trusts you. She trusted you to spread secrets that could destroy your own queen… and you did NOT let her down.” But Tyrion quickly tries to correct her, saying they all want what’s best, and he’s still convinced she’s the one who’s best. And then he leaves… sealing the fate of one of the most elusive characters on the show.
We cut to Varys, who continues writing missives in his room, until he hears the footsteps coming his way. We know some of those letters probably already got out, so this is a new one, which he quickly burns in a bowl, and then quietly removes his rings, a look of resignation on his face. As Grey Worm enters the room, we know this is it. Grey Worm takes him out to the cliffside, where Tyrion, Jon, and Daenerys are all standing. Tyrion admits, “It was me,” and Varys, clearly appreciating the candor, faces his accusers and says, “I hope I deserve this, truly I do. I hope that I’m wrong.” And with one last look at Tyrion, he says, “Goodbye, old friend,” and we get a sudden look of regret across Tyrion’s face. Because, yes, he’s sacrificing an old friend for a new idol.
I hope that I’m wrong. But Varys wasn’t wrong. Jon and Tyrion are the ones who are wrong in this moment, but they’ll pay the price for what they do here. As two glowing eyes suddenly appear behind Dany in the darkness, she sentences Varys to death, and Drogon’s giant head comes into the light, and he instantly immolates Varys on the spot, so hotly and fiercely that Varys doesn’t even have time to scream. Jon and Tyrion look unsure of themselves as Varys’s body sizzles off-screen.
And this moment isn’t even close to the worst of the now Mad Queen.
Christopher: I didn’t hate this episode, but it did make me angry. VERY angry. Not because of its narrative choices, but because there wasn’t enough time to build to them. I was thinking back to when they first announced that season eight would be the last season, and everyone scratched their heads, saying “How are they going to wrap everything up in just one season?” And THEN they announced there would be only six episodes, and the incredulity ramped up to eleven.
But because it has been so long since the end of season seven, we’ve had time to get used to the idea of six episodes … until “The Bells” made it crystal clear why a scant half-dozen installments isn’t remotely enough to properly bring this ship into harbour.
I’ll stipulate first that, having spent seven seasons building Daenerys’ character, watching her mature and develop a certain amount of wisdom and become what is unfortunately still that rarest of species in popular culture—not just a “strong woman,” but one who is flawed, subtle, complex, and, yes, strong, around whom key plot elements turn—only to drop her off the madness cliff and elevate a man into the role she’s been working toward, is pretty shitty. It is not, however, as if the show hasn’t laid the groundwork: we’ve seen her despotic and vengeful tendencies before, and she has become increasingly monomaniacal in her insistence that all should bend the knee. Remember, she only won the loyalty of the North because Jon Snow decided that giving up his crown was a price worth paying in the battle against the dead. But not everybody has Jon’s overdeveloped Eddardesque sense of duty and honour. Dragon or not, Daenerys was always going to have an uphill battle in Westeros, and she’s been showing she doesn’t deal well with not being called mhysa anymore. Hence, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Daenerys should go the route of her father.
And to be fair to the series, Game of Thrones and the novels on which it is based have always been about subverting generic expectations. The most honourable man in King’s Landing, a designation that would be plot armour in traditional fantasy, doesn’t survive the first season. Knights are not romantic and chivalrous figures, but trained killers. Warfare isn’t ennobling but horrifying. The nobility are concerned only for their own power and don’t see or don’t care to see the suffering their wars inflict on the commons. When there is a populist insurgence of the commons, it is populated by religious fanatics and bigots. The ascendant King in the North is defeated not on the battlefield but by bloody subterfuge. And so on.
Given the way in which GRRM sets up a whole host of fantasy conventions only to knock them bloodily down, it makes a certain amount of sense that one of the big ones—the trope of the Chosen One or the King (or Queen) in Waiting—should also fall prey to his de(con)structive tendencies. Daenerys is established as the Chosen One from the outset, a status cemented at the end of season one with the birth of her dragons. She is Aragorn, King Arthur, Neo—or she would be in a typical fantasy narrative. The revelation of Jon Snow’s parentage in a typical fantasy would mean that OF COURSE he and Daenerys would marry and rule jointly (the question of incest having been obviated by the longstanding convention that, in Westeros, bees do it, bears do it, but, especially, hot Targaryen pairs do it). But this ain’t Tolkien. Daenerys’ descent into vengeance and cruelty makes a certain perverse sense when seen against the background of GoT’s subversion of expectations.
BUT—and this is where I get angry—the way that descent into vengeance and cruelty was handled was terrible. As were any number of other plot elements that suffered from hasty treatment. We really needed at least one more episode; many people would have been annoyed, as people always get annoyed by placeholder episodes, but the best drama of this series has always come after a long, slow burn. Imagine, just for a moment, if Jon Snow had sided with Sansa about giving their armies time to recuperate; we’d have had another episode in which to lay out more carefully the distrust the Westerosi have for Daenerys, and her increasing resentment and paranoia; we’d have had time in which we might have seen Jaime start to regret his romance with Brienne, and feel the inexorable pull of his self-destructive love for Cersei; we’d have had time on the road with the Hound and Arya to plant the seeds of disquiet in her mind so that when the Hound tells her not to follow him into the Red Keep—and she doesn’t!—it might actually be a comprehensible moment.
Considering the careful work Game of Thrones has often done with its storytelling—not being afraid of going slowly and meticulously as it built this world and these characters— this fevered, headlong rush into the endgame is an affront both to the audience and to the actual story up to this point. The rage lighting up social media at this episode is anger at betrayal. I think it’s safe to assume that Daenerys’ immolation of King’s Landing was always going to piss people off, but the worst offense is that this truncated season made it not just indefensible but incomprehensible.
But we’ll come to that when we get to that scene. End of rant.
I found the death of Varys quite distressing, not least because I love Conleth Hill’s realization of the character. But I was also waiting for the bait-and-switch: for him to walk to what he assumed was his execution, only to have Daenerys forgive him. But then Drogon loomed out of the shadows, and I realized should have known better. It was at that moment that I knew this episode would not end well.
The scene immediately following, in which Daenerys contemplates Missandei’s sole possession (aside from, I’m guessing, a wardrobe full of dresses tailored to be almost-but-not-quite as attractive as Daenerys’), her former slave collar. It’s a quiet moment, and one that speaks to Daenerys’ state of mind, and her unforgiving execution of Varys—her closest friend and confidante murdered by her enemy, and here was Varys plotting to put Jon Snow on the throne. She gives the collar to Grey Worm, who makes it clear that he’s on the vengeance ride-or-die train. The life he’d imagined for himself and Missandei having gone up in smoke like the collar does in the flames, he’s obviously living solely for killing and more killing, until every Lannister loyalist is in the ground.
Jon Snow arrives and, after Daenerys dismisses Grey Worm, he stands before her in one of the more awkward silences we’ve seen on this show … broken when Daenerys basically says “I told you so,” re: sharing his secret parentage. And here, again, is where we would have benefited from another episode: her characterization, implicitly, that Sansa is her enemy—the execution of Varys, Daenerys says, is “a victory for her”—and her resentful observation that “there is no love” for her in Westeros needed more space and time for germination before she flies off the handle and destroys AN ENTIRE CITY with dragonfire.
I really think Varys needed to know Jon better, to have been privy to his obtuseness—then perhaps he wouldn’t have been so eager to supplant Daenerys. “Nobody loves me here,” she says, to which Jon says “I love you.” NOT THE POINT SHE WAS MAKING, NUMBNUTS. In perhaps another indication of her mental instability, Daenerys responds to his assertion that “You’ll always be my queen” by switching gears rather suddenly. “Is that all I am?” she asks, thirstily, and tries to change the tenor of the scene from court intrigue to clumsy porn. But Jon, methinks, has had time now to digest the whole, “Yeah, you’re my aunt” thing. “All right then,” Daenerys says when he breaks the kiss. “Let it be fear.”
And on that note, we cut to the Dragonstone throne room, with Tyrion imploring Daenerys to be merciful—comparing the people of King’s Landing to the people of Meereen, whom she liberated. Daenerys points out that the people of Meereen themselves rose up against the masters, which strikes me as rather weak tea, argument-wise … or at least missing the point of the differences between Slavers Bay and Westeros. The people in Meereen who rose up were slaves, largely; the people seeking refuge in King’s Landing are free men and women (or as free as they can be in a feudal system) who know Daenerys not as the Breaker of Chains, but as a foreign Usurper who comes with dragonfire and Dothraki screamers. The fact that Daenerys does not seem to comprehend this not-particularly-subtle distinction is another symptom of the accelerated narrative. Perhaps she has embraced fear over love, and perhaps she has convinced herself that anyone “choosing” loyalty to Cersei isn’t innocent, but that doesn’t change the fact that eventually—if all goes according to plan—she will have to govern these people. For a moment she seems to be on the same page, asserting that Cersei’s assumption that mercy is a weakness is wrong: “Mercy is our strength.” But Daenerys’ mercy doesn’t seem to be for the people in the present moment, so much as “future generations” who will not have to suffer under the heel of a tyrant.
Oh, Daenerys. Can you even hear yourself?
Tyrion at least manages to eke one concession from her, but only barely: if the city rings the bells to signal surrender, she will call off the attack. There is a very long silence, in which Peter Dinklage offers some very good face acting: undoubtedly thinking about his last argument with Varys, and wondering if he’s made the right call. But before he can make his exit, Daenerys informs him that Jaime was taken trying to sneak through their lines. “It seems he hasn’t abandoned your sister after all,” she observes. “The next time you fail me will be the last time you fail me.”
Tyrion exits, and from there we cut to people crowding through the gates of King’s Landing, and then to Jon and Tyrion coming ashore in a boat where their army is camped.
Nikki: OK, so I peeked, now that it’s Tuesday morning (sorry, everyone; I was away all Monday so it delayed us slightly here). And yeah, looks like most people hated it. So I’m climbing onto my dragon and doubling down.
OK, not really. Because I completely agree with you, Chris, that the way they’ve handled the writing this season is ham-fisted at best, and I think that has everything to do with the limited number of episodes. Let’s conclude a story that GRRM first published almost 23 years ago, making epic, sweeping changes to the direction of the story, and we’ll do it in, oh, six weeks. Considering how patient readers have been just to get book 6 this many years in, don’t you think they deserved a little more than this?
I still frickin’ loved this episode and will have a lot more to say about the why of that later. BUT I will state this absolutely: when I was watching season 7 of Buffy, I thought it was the best season of all of them. Week after week, twists and turns and changes in characters and huge developments and characters dying and wrapping up seven-year storylines and it was so amazing and exciting. But… it doesn’t really hold up to rewatches, because while the forward momentum of the plot was there, it was hurtling towards a pre-ordained endpoint, one that was exciting when you were on the edge of your seat and didn’t know what was going to happen next, but very disappointing on rewatch when you realize what was sacrificed along the way to get there. It’s possible that’s how I’ll feel about this episode on a rewatch… but I don’t know, it was pretty damn spectacular. But again, more on that later.
And I forgot to include this in my first pass on Sunday night, but on the weekend I read this really interesting Twitter thread by one TV writer on the difference between writing a show about characters and then a show that’s plot-driven, and why people are disappointed in this final season. Check it out here, it’s really worth a read.
Back to Tyrion, Ser Davos, and Jon in the early evening. Davos says the rear guard is ready to fight at daybreak, and Tyrion says Daenerys wants to attack now. They all look at each other and Jon says, “Daybreak at the earliest,” which feels like a tiny rebellion, this kernel that, you know, just maybe Daenerys isn’t making the best decisions right now so we’ll alter them ever-so-slightly. Tyrion then reminds Davos he’s the greatest smuggler alive and Tyrion needs a favour. “I’m not gonna like this favour, am I,” says Davos bluntly.
Next the Hound and Arya are on their way to the castle, and are stopped by a guard. Arya says coldly that she’s Arya Stark and off to kill Cersei, and the Hound reasons that hey, let us through and let the little girl kill Cersei, et voila; no battle tomorrow and you might even live. We see a glimmer of a smile on the guard’s eye, and a nervous turning to the tents behind him. We’d like to think that soldiers are fearless, but they’re human beings. They’re being thrown into a war to fight for one side or the other, while they’ll gain nothing by it. Of course they don’t want to die, and of course they’re afraid. This is foreshadowing the later scenes, reminding us that it’s not just women and children we should be thinking about at the end of the episode, but the soldiers who were simply trying to do their job and not get killed doing it.
This is followed by an amazing scene where Tyrion stumbles his way through really bad Valyrian in trying to speak to a guard outside where Jaime is being held prisoner. “I drink to eat the skull keeper… I want to eat the skull keeper… I want to see the…” The best part of this is the camera going back to the face of the guard, unchanged, just staring at Tyrion and clearly enjoying every second of this. He finally puts Tyrion out of his misery—“We speak the common tongue”—and Tyrion talks his way into the tent, using his rank as Hand of the Queen to gain leverage… for the last time.
This scene between Jaime and Tyrion is beautifully done, at the level of episode 2’s character-building before the Battle of Winterfell. Tyrion doesn’t just love Jaime: he worships him, and always has. He’s seen his brother’s flaws, he knows his brother has been in an incestuous relationship with his twin sister his entire adult life—a sister who’s been nothing but hateful towards Tyrion—he knows Jaime has made mistakes, has been a vicious killer, and in many ways seems irredeemable. But he loves him anyway. Jaime says Cersei once called him the stupidest Lannister, and you see Tyrion nod his head, almost inadvertently, behind Jaime’s back.
But Tyrion has a plan. He’s willing to swallow his hatred of Cersei to give Jaime an out and to save his beloved brother’s life. He has a key to unlock Jaime’s chains (clearly given to him by the World’s Greatest Smuggler™), and he tells Jaime about that passage under the Red Keep, where the dragon skulls are (again, foreshadowing of the future and reminders of the past), where he’s left a dinghy at the base of the caves and that all Jaime needs to do is retrieve Cersei, get her out, and the two of them can row away to a life together in Pentos. Jaime begins pointing out the flaws of the plan: the Iron Islands ships will be waiting in the harbor; Cersei will never go for it… and Tyrion counters each one. Cersei will fight for her child; the Iron Fleet will be taken out first in the battle.
“Swear to me,” Tyrion says.
“You have my word,” Jaime replies.
Tyrion wants him to ring the bells of the city and open the gates, which will signal they’ve gotten away and they can stop the bloodshed. Tyrion isn’t just here to save his brother, but all the people in King’s Landing. In a weird twist, he’s actually hoping to play on Cersei’s love of her unborn child to curb Daenerys’s blind rage, and that maybe they can appeal to the Dragon Queen to have mercy. Jaime says Dany will murder him.
Tyrion counters, “Tens of thousands of innocent lives; one not particularly innocent dwarf. Sounds like a fair trade.”
Jaime just stares at him, clearly trying to hold back his emotions. “If it weren’t for you,” Tyrion says, “I would never have survived my childhood. You were the only one who didn’t treat me like a monster. You were all I had.” And then the two brothers embrace—eight years melting away in a heartbeat—in the most touching moment of the episode (at least I think that’s what happened; I was crying so hard I could barely see the screen). I knew then that they’d never see each other again. After all, can we really end this series knowing that a future Lannister bastard is out there who will fight for that throne in 20 years with his mama’s help?
Daybreak. And that handlebar-mustached douchebag Euron steps on the deck of the ship, as each of the Scorpions is armed, chains pulling back, waiting for Drogon to arrive. The soldiers wait on the ships, on the parapets, in the streets of King’s Landing. The people shutter their doors, mothers hold their babies to their chests, the citizens rushing through the streets heading to the gates of the Red Keep for “safety.”
Among them is a hooded Hound, with a determined Arya. In another street is Jaime, with his golden hand (the dead giveaway for him and how he was caught by Daenerys’s people in the first place) unsheathed.
Outside: silence. The Essos army awaits. Tyrion, Jon, and Ser Davos stand on a hill. Tyrion’s hands are in nervous fists by his sides as he tells Jon to wait for the bells to ring, and to call off his men. Jon just stares at him, doesn’t agree, and walks away.
And then, there she is: Cersei, striding toward the very window from which her son Tommen jumped, with a smug smile on her face, watching the people of King’s Landing swarm into the Red Keep like little deflector targets. A mother and her daughter rush towards the gates until the Hound and Arya push her aside, and push their way in instead as the gates close behind them. Luckily the mother and daughter rush out of the way before the people begin to crush each other against the gate. Further back in the crowd, Jaime begins swinging his golden hand around, trying to get the notice of the soldiers, but no one is paying attention to the once head of the Kingsguard.
As Cersei stares over the city, and Tyrion waits on a hill, and Jaime rushes up some back stairs, the gorgeous music quietly plays some strains of “The Rains of Castamere,” which then quickly blends into other motifs we’ve heard throughout the series. (Once again, the music was sublime in this episode.) So much of what is about to happen is a result of the Lannisters, the Targaryens, the Baratheons… the large Houses who fight and fight in a constant, bloody desire for a throne made of swords, at the expense of the people from whom they expect love and fealty.
Douchebag Greyjoy looks at the sky, and his eyes squint as he looks closer. And then… there he is: Drogon. The terror of the Seven Kingdoms, and he’s coming right for the Iron Fleet. This isn’t a retread of just a few days earlier; there’s no brother dragon who is injured. It’s just Drogon with a very, very angry mother on his back, and he immediately takes out all the ships beside Euron. “Turn it around!!” Euron shouts to his crew, who all work laboriously to try to turn this massive Scorpion around to get a different angle. And in this moment we see the flaw of the dragon-killing machine: it’s too big, heavy, and slow. It can’t react in a moment the way Drogon can. It takes so many men just to reposition it that it can’t follow a dragon that’s whipping through the air at lightning speed.
And the Scorpions are pretty much the only defense Cersei’s got in her pocket right now. Uh oh.
Christopher: One of the side effects of a rushed storyline is that there end up being a bunch of contrived elements, not least of which in this episode was that Euron just happens to come ashore at precisely when and where Jaime makes his way to the caves that lead into the Red Keep. But there’s also the fact that Daenerys’ destruction of the Iron Fleet and the scorpions on the walls feels just really easy after the previous episode when Rhaegal was taken down so quickly. Granted, we must allow for the fact that Daenerys has undoubtedly been thinking hard about her tactics, and we see that she has amended them accordingly—diving down out of the sun, burning the ships before they can fire, being too fast and agile for the other ships to properly aim, etc. Still, it feels like she was able to somehow squeeze in a semester at Top Gun since the last episode.
That being said, the whole initial sequence is pretty spectacular, and watching Euron get his ass handed to him is certainly one of the more satisfying moments in the series. Also: how much did Cersei pay for the Golden Company? Because they end up being nonentities: if it weren’t for the fact that she has many more pressing concerns, she would be thinking of getting a refund.
That moment, however, when the gates explode in flame behind them and their ranks are consumed is one of the best instances of deus ex draconis from the show, and is not at all denuded by the fact that we know precisely what is coming. Poor Harry Strickland, commander of the Golden Company: we hardly knew ye. Knocked flat by the blast, he struggles to his feet to see the Dothraki screamers bearing down on him, and for just a moment we get a visual callback to The Battle of the Bastards when Jon Snow faces Ramsay’s charging cavalry. Unlike Jon, however, Harry does not defiantly draw his sword, but turns and runs (wisely, as he is not about to be rescued as Jon was by his own forces). The Dothraki overtake him, but he falls to Grey Worm’s thrown spear … and by the look on Grey Worm’s face, we can see that papa’s got a lot of killin’ to do.
With Drogon having helpfully breached the walls, the Dothraki, Unsullied, and Northerners flood into the city, overwhelming the Lannister soldiers and Daenerys continues to knock out the remaining scorpions, and then, almost as an afterthought, proceeds to annihilate the routing remains of the Golden Company.
One of the things I did love about this episode is the switching back and forth between the chaotic carnage down in the city and the deathly quiet of Cersei’s perch high above. It is, among other things, another visual callback to when Cersei watched the obliteration of Baelor’s Sept from a similarly vertiginous height; but her smug triumph of that moment is contrasted now by her increasing desperation as everything literally falls apart around her. Cut from her expression of dread as she watches Drogon bank for another pass to Drogon incinerating yet more of the hapless scorpions, and then to Tyrion walking through the piles of dead outside the walls, and back again to still more scorpion-killing.
And then back again to Cersei in her tower, clinging to the last thread of hope. “All we need is one good shot,” she says. “The scorpions have all been destroyed, Your Grace,” Qyburn informs her. But the Iron Fleet! Nope, burning. Also, the gates have been breached and the Golden Company destroyed. “Our men will fighter harder than sellswords ever could,” she insists, adding, “they will defend their queen to the last man.” Also: “The Red Keep has never fallen. It won’t fall today.” Hoo-kay, keep telling yourself that, Queenie … and remember those words when the Red Keep is LITERALLY FALLING DOWN AROUND YOU.
Qyburn’s expression during this exchange is very Bluth family: “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
Meanwhile, Daenerys’ forces, led by Jon Snow and Killy McGee (aka Grey Worm) march purposefully through the breached gates, pausing to kill random Lannister men who for reasons passing understanding run singly at the column. They arrive to find a standoff—a group of Northerners facing a somewhat larger group of Lannister soldiers, none of whom seem eager to keep fighting (whatever Cersei may believe). The two sides stare at each other for a long, tense moment, while Tyrion approaches the still-burning gates and stares at one of the city’s bell towers in the distance. Cut then to Jaime running up narrow stairwells, and then to Cersei. Is this the moment of surrender? Then Drogon comes swooping down out of the sky, terrifying the civilians, landing on a rooftop and roaring.
Aaaaand … that does it for the Lannister men. One guy drops his sword, and then another, and soon they’re clattering to the ground like plates at a Greek wedding.
As much as elements of this episode irked me, it is undeniably one of the most beautifully shot ones. As the soldiers drop their swords in surrender, the camera cranes up, and once again we get a stunning shot of King’s Landing’s labyrinth of narrow streets, and as the camera turns to take in the Red Keep, we hear people crying “Ring the bells!” loud enough for Cersei to hear.
And then a quick montage of cuts: Jaime snatching up a sword as he runs through an alleyway, Tyrion staring at a bell tower with desperate intensity, Daenerys on Drogon’s back, Cersei looking down at her burning city, back to Tyrion, who now looks to where Drogon perches, then Daenerys again, her expression inscrutable, and then back to Cersei. There’s a quick cut from Cersei’s profile to Daenerys’, and the hatred between them is palpable.
And then, FINALLY, the bells start to ring. Jon sighs in relief, Cersei closes her eyes, and Tyrion stares up at where Daenerys sits. Daenerys, for her part, stares at the Red Keep, her breath becoming shorter and her expression starting to crease as it sounds as though she might start sobbing.
OK, let’s pause here, because this is the moment where (I’m assuming) the average viewer’s reactions were about to go from “Huzzah! Victory!” to “WTF?” It’s crucial to note that, whatever her claim to the Iron Throne, and even if Jon Snow had the brains the Old Gods gave a flea and kept his trap shut about his parentage, crowning Daenerys was always going to be a hard sell: a foreign conqueror with a foreign army and shaky alliances at best. “Let it be fear then,” she said to Jon Snow, abandoning the hope that the people would love her; and, yes, watching a dragon immolate a defending army literally in minutes is fear-inducing, but it is also impressive and awe-inspiring. And fear tinged with awe and respect is one thing; fear laded with hatred, however, is quite another. Because what happens now basically means that she CAN’T be queen—in systematically destroying the better part of the city and killing thousands of innocents, Daenerys makes herself a war criminal.
Now, when I say she can’t be queen, I mean, well, of course she can BE queen—because, honestly, who’s going to fuck with her now?—but she cannot be the queen she has long professed to be, and nor, it soon becomes apparent, will she be able to retain the loyalty of those around her.
Speaking of this moment, which they do frame explicitly as a descent into madness, showrunners David Beniof and D.B. Weiss have said that in that moment when Daenerys stares hatefully at the Red Keep, she’s thinking about what the Lannisters did to her family two decades before. (For those who have not read the novels, the sack of King’s Landing is an event that looms large in the cultural memory, much more so than in the series; the first forces to arrive at the city gates were those of Tywin Lannister, whom the Mad King believed to be an ally. In truth, Tywin had been biding his time in Casterly Rock, ignoring the King’s order to come defend the city because of a host of personal slights; he watched and waited, not wanting to ally himself with the losing side. So when it became apparent that Robert Baratheon’s rebellion was winning, Tywin hurried his army to King’s Landing. Still thinking Tywin an ally, the King opened the gates, and the Lannister army promptly began massacring soldiers and civilians alike, making as brutal a show of it as possible to counterbalance his laggard arrival. In particular, they moved to wipe the Red Keep clean of every last Targaryen. Gregor the Mountain Clegane raped and killed Rhaegar’s wife Eli née Martel, and killed her daughter and infant son. King Aery’s queen, pregnant with Daenerys, had been spirited away to Dragonstone along with the young Viserys). That Daenerys might be so enraged at the sight of the Red Keep and the thought of what the Lannisters had visited on her family is fair enough, and really, quite understandable. So when Drogon lifts off from the rooftops, my assumption was that Daenerys was going to attack the Red Keep and put a quick end to things by killing Cersei.
Which—and I want to be very clear about this—would have been excessive but understandable, and also tactically sound if, in fact, fear is to be her key motivator. Imagine: the entire populace of a city watching as a single dragon handily destroys a castle everyone had always thought impregnable. That would frighten me into bending the knee.
But … no. Sigh.
Nikki: No indeed. Because what happened took me, you, all of King’s Landing, and the whole damn world off-guard.
And therein lies the reason I loved it. Because lately, so much of movies and television is so utterly predictable it’s become tiresome. And with the trajectories of all of these 28,000 characters on Game of Thrones over eight years, I feel like, as exciting and thrilling as it’s been, very often, as we’ve watched Daenerys and her dragons immolate the slave-drivers of Meereen, for instance, we were excited and cheering, but… we totally knew she was going to do that.
When this series is over, it’s the beheading of Ned Stark I’ll remember. Was I happy about it? Of course not. But it was SO unexpected, it was an incredibly thrilling moment. It’s the Mountain crushing Prince Oberyn’s head. It’s Tommen jumping out a window. It’s Tyrion shooting Tywin. It’s Jaime pushing Bran out a window. It’s Stannis allowing his daughter to burn to death at the stake. It’s Hodor’s death. It’s the Red Wedding. It’s all those moments that were terrible and took people I cared about (for the most part) and killed them when I least expected it.
It’s the moments we don’t see coming that, in life, are the worst ones. But when it comes to my entertainment, I want the opposite. Don’t give me happy endings and perfectly tied-up threads. Don’t let the good guys win and the bad guys lose. Give me surprises. Make me unexpectedly like someone I loathed, or hate someone I thought I loved. We live in an age where the greatest characters of the past 15 years are the anti-heroes: Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper. Well I say being on the female anti-hero.
Of course, Daenerys isn’t exactly that at this point, because we’re not quite rooting for her during what happens next. But at the same time, I don’t think we could be surprised. What bothers me the most is that I didn’t see this coming. As I mentioned earlier, we cheered when she burned the slave-drivers of Meereen alive. But we didn’t notice that look of pure smug victory on her face as she watched her “children” act so viciously. We were sad when Khal Drogo died, and considered their love to be everything… despite the fact she was underage when he married her, and he raped her the first night they were together. Her brother was a piece of shit, but one who actually protected her a lot of her life, caring for her when she was a newborn infant. Yet she didn’t flinch when the Dothraki crowned his head with molten gold, and he died an agonizing death. Daenerys isn’t exactly Anne of Green Gables.
I would say what happens next, in theory, was foretold, foreshadowed, and not out of the blue. However, what I WILL concede is that it’s handled too quickly from a writerly point of view. We didn’t get that gradual build-up to it, and instead the writers just forced the actors to do it, telegraphing the shock and horror and outrage by their faces, instead of doing it through dialogue. Is that lazy writing? Bad writing? OR… were we not paying attention?
Imagine you come from across the sea. You’ve spread your version of love throughout the lands, you’ve birthed your three dragons from fire, and you’ve proven that despite the patrilineal nature of your family tree, you are the last true Targaryen standing. You’re the breaker of chains, the one who has allowed the slaves to go free, yet… you stay a little bit longer than planned in Meereen and suddenly people are questioning you. What the hell? Why are YOU questioning ME? I’m the breaker of chains, dude, you should be happy you’re not IN them right now.
And then along the way you meet Jon Snow. He tells you of a terrible thing that’s happened north of the Wall, so you bring the armies you’ve spent several years amassing, and your three beloved children, north of the Wall, and you fight the white walkers to save the people of the north. In doing so you sacrifice many of your soldiers, and one of your children. You return to Winterfell… and nothing. People slapping Jon Snow on the back, questioning his fealty to you, wondering aloud why the hell he’s no longer King of the North. You have Sansa Stark glaring at you. Sansa didn’t just lose a child in that battle; Lyanna Mormont didn’t lose half her men north of the Wall. But they’re going to question YOU, the person without whom none of this would be possible. You suggest strategies for how the Battle of Winterfell will play out, but Tyrion and Sansa begin questioning you in front of everyone, making you look like you’re not any good. You don’t have any of the people following you, you haven’t received their love, yet you’ve sacrificed more for them than you have any other place. And right before you’re about to go headlong into yet another battle… Jon Snow tells you oh hey, guess what? I’m also a Targaryen. Tis my butt that is the rightful butt for that sharp-ass throne. But don’t worry, baby, I don’t actually want it. I’ll totally let you have it. You won’t be on that throne because you deserve it; you’ll be on it because I won’t take it first.
After everything you’ve done, everything you’ve sacrificed… it’s possible you won’t get the one thing you wanted at the end of it. You could have kept your dragons across the sea, had a quieter life leading the people who loved you in these smaller cities, but you wanted more. You wanted to make your dead ancestors proud of you. You wanted to live up to the promise of the Targaryen name and take the throne in their name. And now THIS doofus is going to get the throne instead; not because he wants it, but because every other person wants him on it despite that fact he’s never given them armies or given them dragons—YOU did. And holy shit he’s also your nephew but let’s leave that nasty business for another day.
So you go headlong into the NEXT battle, and another child is wounded, most of your soldiers are massacred… and Arya Stark, who distrusts you, is the one who claims the biggest victory. You sit in the banquet hall afterwards while the guys pat Jon Snow on the back and say “DUDE you rode a fucking DRAGON?! That is SO badass!” and he keeps his back to you. He’s weird around you now because he knows you’re his auntie. His sisters despise you. No one loves you. You will never be queen of these people. And so you ask him to do one favour for you, just ONE thing… and he doesn’t. And immediately, like THE MOMENT they think you’re unfit for office because here’s a male idiot who isn’t really as qualified but hey, he’s a dude and he’s OUR dude so we’re going to vote for him… they begin to work behind your back to make sure you won’t get there.
It made me think, let’s be honest: if Hillary Clinton had one dragon and a small army that would follow her the day after the election in 2016, isn’t it possible she would have just gone apeshit on the people, fuck love and democracy and unity? Haven’t we all had that feeling, but just didn’t have the dragon to help us follow through?
Love and loss can do terrible things to a person, and Daenerys has reached a breaking point. She’s been used, abused, raped, tortured, and hated. She’s been loved and adored, and as that love was poured into her, so she poured it back out. But the moment she came to the land of the people she one day hoped to rule, none of that resumé mattered anymore: she was an outsider, untrustworthy, unloved, and alone. She’d lost her husband, her unborn child, two of her dragons, the man who loved her and would have moved mountains for her, her entire family, and now her best friend. Jon Snow is being pulled from her, and her Hand no longer trusts her. The slow descent of Daenerys’s mind has had a quick push in these final episodes, and yes, I agree that it would have been nice to have had two or three more episodes to flesh it out, but it’s also painfully obvious what has happened to her. In this moment, she reacts with anger and pure id. There’s no reason, no thought. She’s given in to her basest instincts, and the whole world is going to burn. They will never have her as queen; she’d be on that throne for only a few months before the Starks would come and boot her off it. And she knows it. You’re right, Chris; she can never be queen now. But she knew that before she started burning the people. They were never going to have her as queen. And if they aren’t going to accept her as their queen, she’s going to leave no kingdom to reign over at all.
As Drogon begins breathing fire on the people of King’s Landing, Jon Snow just stands there in shock. “Oh… fuck.” Cut to Tyrion, who gasps and takes a step backwards. The Lannister soldiers, who had just surrendered, turn to Daenerys’s army as if to say, “OK, guys, we’re on the same side now… I think?”
But they’re not. Because anyone with an ounce of Valyrian blood feels what Daenerys feels. Grey Worm is mired in the same grief as the Dragon Queen, and he picks up his spear and lands it in the chest of one of the Lannister men. As some of the Dothraki and Unsullied run forward, Jon tries holding them back. He’s lost in this moment and has no idea what to do. He’s pushed aside, and they begin the slaughter. And when the Kingsguard begins to rush Jon Snow, he does the only thing he can: he chooses the side of Grey Worm, and begins to kill.
The look on Cersei’s face is amazing. She watches Daenerys and Drogon set fire to the city, moving back and forth, street by street, in a wave as if King’s Landing is a giant version of Lombard Street, that weird curvy street in San Francisco. In this moment, she realizes she can’t live: if Daenerys will kill them, how could she spare Cersei? Tyrion looks on in horror. Standing on the hill outside King’s Landing, he can see everything going on in the air. His head trembles as he watches what she’s doing. The Unsullied continue to methodically kill everyone who’s not one of them. Ser Davos rushes to the side, trying to ferry the people out of the city, pointing a way to safety. Jon stands in the middle of the battle, screaming for everyone to stop. Women are killed by the Unsullied as their children watch, a whole new generation of children to grow up and hate the big Houses that have done this to them. (If she survives, of course.) Jon walks through the carnage as if deaf, only the sound of his breath and the wide eyes, and the knowledge that he backed the wrong ruler on this one. He sees a northern soldier grab a woman and drag her into an alleyway as if to rape her, and he impales him on his sword, shouting at the woman to find a place to hide.
Cersei continues to stand on her perch, watching Drogon come closer, but he turns at the last minute, banking along the side of the Red Keep and taking out more buildings. Oh, he’s coming for her, all right, but she’ll have to wait.
Question: what is Drogon’s power source: How the heck does he have THAT MUCH FIRE in him??? I assumed he’d have to recharge his batteries at some point, but is a dragon fuelled by hate? Because that’s the only explanation I have for how it’s like he’s got a gas line shoved up his ass and never stops for the entire episode.
But I also LOOOOOOVED the look of the dragon’s-eye views over the city as the fire lit it up. And I also loved the way, every once in a while, we see a green explosion, reminding us of that wildfire that Cersei once planted all throughout the city.
Meanwhile, as you say, Chris, in the Euron ex machina, Douchebag Greyjoy comes up onto the shore at the very moment Jaime walks by (like come ON) and the two of them engage in hand-to-hand combat, resulting in Jaime getting a dagger to the lung and another one to the ribcage, with Euron getting a karate chop to the larynx by Jaime’s golden hand. (NICE.)
Aaaaand, up in Cersei’s tower, Qyburn Vs. Cersei 2019 continues as she keeps missing what’s right in front of her in 1080p HD (and seriously, during the daytime so it’s not like it’s the Battle of Winterfell or anything…). Qyburn once again tells her it’s time to GTFO, and she counters, “The Red Keep is the safest place in the city.” He tells her the Unsullied could breach the gates of the Red Keep, even if the dragon doesn’t get to her first. He tells her she should be in Maegor’s Holdfast, which is that area inside the Red Keep where Cersei’s bedroom is, with spikes surrounding it, and a drawbridge being the only way in or out.
And that’s it. A single tear rolls down Cersei’s cheek, and she begins rocking back and forth and audibly crying. She’s given up. For eight years we’ve seen these moments of vulnerability, but they pass as quickly as a cloud in the sky, and then back comes hard-edged Cersei. But those days are over. She’s played all of her cards, and she’s only got a lousy two of clubs left. She’s done. Now all she can do is run. Quiet violins play “The Rains of Castamere” in the background as she turns to take Qyburn’s hand. It’s interesting to note that here, at the end, she has Qyburn and the Mountain in her corner, and while that’s basically Frankenstein and his creature, it’s two more people than Daenerys has now. (Although I feel like Grey Worm would still be loyal to her.)
Aaaaand, meanwhile down on the beach, Jaime gets up and shoves a sword in Euron’s belly (NIIIIICE!) as Euron arrogantly says, “Another king for you.” Yeah, sorry, asshole, I don’t think you’re exactly a king notch on Jaime’s bedpost. As he looks above him to Drogon flying over, his last words, with a smile, are, “I’m the man who killed Jaime Lannister.” Misguided arrogance to the very end.
Cut to the Hound and Arya, bold and determined as they stand on the floor map we saw in season 7. The Red Keep is crumbling around them, and it’s taking chunks out of the map on the floor, destroying this representation of Westeros in a symbolic gesture. The kingdom, as we’ve known it, is gone.
Christopher: Well, with any luck. You’re absolutely right, Nikki, that GoT’s greatest quality has been its twists and surprises. My only argument with what you were saying above is that Daenerys’ abrupt decision to start indiscriminately killing civilians was not surprising in the least. Or rather, it was one of two possibilities we’ve been primed to expect: would she go the route of restraint, as counseled by Tyrion and Varys, or would she go the full Targaryen on the city? One of the lovely touches of her systematic strafing runs (and I’m with you on wondering just HOW MUCH FIRE Drogon can spew before he needs to recharge his batteries) is the occasional bloom of green fire emerging from the conflagration—wildfire, presumably from the hidden caches her father had ordered hidden all through the city two decades ago, which has been his scorched-earth tactic to deny King’s Landing to the Usurper. Remember, Jaime’s choice to betray his oath and kill the King was made to prevent Aerys from burning the city to cinders.
But as to the question of unexpected twists: given that Tyrion and Varys have basically been imploring Daenerys to show mercy to the city for two episodes, we can’t be surprised she chose not to. Nor would we have been surprised if she had. What would have been surprising? Daenerys smashing through the ceiling of the throne room and having Drogon melt the Iron Throne to slag, having realized that her monomaniacal desire for it was destroying her. Your observation, Nikki, that the rubble falling onto the map of Westeros is symbolic of the kingdom’s end is, I think, spot on. And I still think that is how this all ends: but at this point it has to end without Daenerys.
I look forward to the final sequence of the last episode, which I now predict will be Jon Snow walking north on the Kings Road, Littlest Hobo-style.
But back to the Hound and Arya: as I’ve already mentioned, this is a moment that needed more of a build, not least because it could be extremely poignant. As it is, it is difficult to imagine that Arya, after everything she has done and suffered and learned, having traveled all the way from Winterfell with the sole purpose of killing Cersei, could be dissuaded from that determination because of a brief moment of sentiment from Sandor Clegane. “Go home, girl,” he says. “Fire will get her. Or one of the Dothraki. Maybe that dragon will eat her. Doesn’t matter, she’s dead. And you’ll be dead too if you don’t get out of here.” Well, none of the above there, Sandor. But thanks for playing.
Arya, of course, is not to be deterred. Or, well, at least not after just one argument. The Hound stops her walking past him. “Look at me!” he says, and tells her that revenge has basically been his entire reason for being his entire life. “You want to be like me?”
What follows is a tender moment that isn’t precisely out of character—after all, the Hound has had a lot of time to get to know Arya and develop respect and affection for her, even if he’d never say as much—but seems unlikely at this eleventh hour to convince Arya to drop Cersei from her murder list. I guess we can never know what conversations they had on the road to King’s Landing, but then that’s sort of my point … for the purposes of good storytelling, we should know.
Well, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes, the Hound’s sole moment of sentiment has the desired effect, and Arya abandons her murderous quest. (I will confess, there was an earlier moment when I half-expected Qyburn to stab Cersei and remove his face to reveal Arya’s. Alas). “Sandor,” she says, and he turns back to look at her. “Thank you.”
No worries, Arya. There will be another queen on your murder list before this episode is done.
From here we cut to Cersei and her Queensguard making their way down the Red Keep’s stairs as the castle falls apart around them. The ceiling collapses, and Cersei is protected by the FrankenMountain, who doesn’t seem at all perturbed by huge rocks falling on him. Others in their group don’t fare so well, as the stairway transforms into something a little bit more al fresco. When Cersei and Qyburn find their feet, they see two things: open sky, and the Hound standing at the foot of the stairs. “Your Grace,” he greets her. All the surviving members of the Queensguard save the FrankenMountain charge down at him, and meet their bloody end in a short enough time that I wonder if maybe they weren’t REALLY the best of the best.
“Hello, big brother,” Sandor greets the Thing That Was Gregor, and whatever programming Qyburn had instilled into his zombified frankenbrain is apparently not enough to overcome Gregor’s antipathy for his younger brother. “Ser Gregor!” Cersei says, desperately, “Stay by my side!” This order is met with his impassive, red-eyed gaze. He ignores her, and when Qyburn tries to stay him, the mad scientist meets with his inevitable fate when the FrankenMountain grabs him by the neck and slams him into what remains of the wall before hurling him down what remains of the stairs.
Dude really should have read Frankenstein, or watched season four of Buffy. This is how it ALWAYS ends, Mr. Premodern Prometheus.
And now it’s that moment we’ve all be waiting for: Clegane Bowl! Cersei, however, is uninterested in the event, excusing herself down the stairs as she mutters, “I think I left the stove on.” Not that either of the brothers care. The Hound attacks, landing sword blows with no effect, finally knocking off Gregor’s helmet so we can finally see what his reanimated face looks like. “Yeah, that’s you,” says Sandor. “That’s what you’ve always been.” And while that is a poignant comment on the ugliness of Gregor The Mountain Clegane’s soul, there was a point at which he’d have been dead much sooner into this fight. But we’ll come to that in a moment.
Meanwhile, Cersei has made it down into the map room and encounters Jaime, who has—in spite of the multiple stab wounds he received from Euron—made it out of the bowels of the castle to find her.
OK … give it up to Lena Headey. Her expression, the mingling of despair and shock with her incredulity at seeing her beloved twin at the end of all things, and the happiness and love that surface on her face in spite of everything else, was genuinely touching, and actually made me a little sad for her. They embrace amidst the falling rubble—and in that moment we see why Jaime threw everything away to return to her.
But back to the Cleganes! The fight is not going well for the Hound, for the simple reason that nothing he does—including driving his sword deep into the FrankenMountain’s belly—has any noticeable effect. Nor does plunging a dagger into his neck, at which point I was saying “Zombie rules! Kill the brain!” Except … not so much that, either.
Meanwhile, Arya finds herself in the midst of a city being annihilated.
Nikki: Arya begins moving through the streets of King’s Landing, with rubble in her hair, seeing dead women lying in doorways—not killed by dragonfire, but with clear abdomen wounds that could only have happened with a sword. The bewilderment on her face is palpable. Some guy who honest to god I thought was Gendry rushes up to her and yells, “Have you seen my wife?” in a panic and she just stands there, completely disoriented. The world has gone to hell while she was in the Red Keep (if you think about it, she and the Hound would have already been inside when Daenerys lost her mind, so she’s just piecing together that, just like the final season of Game of Thrones, things haven’t gone according to plan).
And that goes for her own plan, too. Since she saw her own father beheaded right in front of her, she’s had a single-minded purpose that has helped her fall asleep at night and get up in the morning. That has pushed her down the Kingsroad, through many an adventure, surviving rapists and marauders, even joining a cult that taught her how to become the world’s best assassin. And now, like you said, Chris, that purpose is gone in one unconvincing snap of the fingers. And she’s lost. No purpose, nowhere to go, uncertain of who’s side anyone is on anymore. It’s Cersei vs. Daenerys, so… if she hates Cersei, she must be on Daenerys’s side? Nope. There are so many sides you’d have to throw a 20-sided die to ascertain who you’re with now.
As I was driving somewhere yesterday and thinking through this episode, it occurred to me that the actions of the two key female protagonists of the series were spurred by seeing the head removed from someone they love: Arya at the end of season one, who turns into a cold assassin as a result; Daenerys at the end of season eight, who pretty much does the same. Arya’s is on a quiet and personal scale; Daenerys’s is on a giant and mighty one. But maybe if someone had given Arya a dragon, things would have been different.
It’s worth going back to watch the choreography of this scene, of Arya moving from confusion to shock to horror to fear as she begins running, and to watch how the rubble falls behind her as she moves through the streets, nearly running into so many people. Again, I know I’m coming out of the story and pointing out production here as I often do, but imagine how difficult a scene this was to pull off, nearly all one take, making sure the actors hit their marks, the people above are hurling down rocks and rubble on cue… this is a scene where it doesn’t look like much CGI was involved. I love TV moments like this one.
But back to the story. The camera pauses repeatedly on several dead and wounded people in doorways, to show us the destruction and agony that Daenerys has wrought. Arya gets out of the alleyway and into a crowd of people, rushing in the same direction like salmon spawning… and she slips. At this point the action moves back and forth between her and the Hound, with Arya being trampled as the Hound is being beaten by Darth Unmasked. As Gregor beats the Hound and he falls, we cut to Arya actually hitting the ground. She tries to stand up, but Gregor kicks the Hound back down. It’s a lovely bit of symmetry that shows just how inextricably linked these two characters are—the unlikeliest of allies—and how they might both die in this moment.
But Arya is suddenly rescued by that woman who had tried to get through the gates earlier, and had been pushed aside by the Hound (an actress whom I’ve heard is actually from series 5 of Line of Duty, which I’m still DYING to see but it hasn’t yet aired here). She’s quickly pulled away from the woman as she gets pushed instead through the streets of spawning salmon, her face a portrait of terror.
And… back to the Cleganes. Jesus, this fight. I was yelling, “Oh my god, just DIE already!” by the end of it. And then, echoing the thoughts of everyone at home, the Hound says just that—“FUCKING DIE!!” he bellows as Gregor has him up against the wall, held up by his throat, and Sandor repeatedly stabs him over and over and OVER again with the dagger. And then… the Mountain moves his thumbs into the Hound’s eye sockets… and squeezes. As if it wasn’t bad enough to see him do this to Prince Oberyn, we’re now going to be subjected to watching Sandor’s head explode like a cantaloupe, too?? NOOOOOOO…
…and then Sandor stabs him in the eye and right through the brain.
Which, of course, doesn’t stop him. Fuck. Me.
And so, realizing he can’t kill this thing—this one-time brother who was a monster even as a child, once pushing the Hound’s face into a fire just for kicks—Sandor moves on instinct. You burned the side of my face and made me live like this my whole life. So I’ll push your face—and the rest of you—into burning hot lava, and we’ll both die. The scene is beautiful, as they pitch over the edge of the parapet and down the long wall of the Red Keep, straight into the burning inferno below them as the orchestra swells. I was sad to see the Hound’s story end like this, and yet it felt rather perfect.
And now we cut to Jon Snow. I’ve poked a lot of fun at him this season, but his look of devastation, of being utterly lost, is heart-rending. He’s gone with the flow his whole life: he accepted what his father told him was truth. He went to the Wall as a bastard. He fought alongside his brothers, and has always been a protector and defender rather than the one starting anything. He befriended the wildlings through his mercy. He never looked for accolades or love, he just did what he thought he was supposed to do. He met Daenerys and bent the knee to her because she told him to and she seemed like the rightful person to have that throne. He followed her, and when his family questioned his loyalties, he remained calm and kind to them, torn between the love of the people he grew up with, and his new love and loyalty to his queen and lover. When he was told the truth about who he was, he didn’t rise up to usurp her; he told her he didn’t want the throne, not realizing that wasn’t the correct answer. Of course, if he’d never told her or his sisters anything, and it had remained a secret between him, Bran, and Sam, perhaps none of this would have happened. But it’s that honesty Jon’s always had that gets him in the end, the same honesty Ned Stark had (well, honesty with everyone except that tiny detail of Jon’s parentage, but ANYWAY…). And at every turn, by simply doing the right thing, even though it wasn’t always the smart thing, he did right by everyone around him.
But now, as a result of him backing the madwoman on the back of that dragon, thousands and thousands of people have died. Northerners who have pledged loyalty to him are raping women in the streets. Arya is lost. Daenerys’s mind is lost. Innocents are being slaughtered, and he’s helpless to stop any of it. (I couldn’t help but think, you know, the moment you’re separated from your direwolf, BAD THINGS HAPPEN, JON.) And in this moment he decides he’ll no longer be a part of the bloodshed. With Ser Davos looking on from across the square, Jon sheathes his sword and begins helping people out of King’s Landing, shouting for his armies to retreat. Barely anyone is listening to him, but he’s going to do the right thing, again, and he hopes with more positive consequences.
And then we return to Arya, lying in the street, covered in ash. There’s a beautiful look of the ash falling from the sky like snow (and I’ll let you explain the symbolism of that one and how it relates to the ending, Chris), but I couldn’t help but think of the historical nature of ash falling from the sky. Nuclear fallout, Hiroshima… and Auschwitz. The atrocities committed in King’s Landing are mind-boggling, yet not unrealistic.
I’ll turn what Arya does next and the final Jaime and Cersei scenes over to you, Chris, but I just wanted to agree with your earlier comments: I thought the way these two fell into each other’s arms in the map room was beautiful. They’re broken, and have done horrible things, but when they’re together they’re none of those things. The only time Jaime doesn’t feel like a bad person is when he’s with Cersei. Brienne simply reminded him of all the things he could never be. And when Cersei looks into his eyes, for a brief moment she’s not a monster.
Christopher: It IS a lovely moment, but it lands better on rewatching it, knowing what happens to them—on the first go-around, all I could think was that they bloody well not let Cersei of all people get away. In that moment she’s not a monster, but that hardly absolves her of every single other moment in the series. But their escape is not to be, as they find their way out blocked. Making their way down through the bowels of the Red Keep, they pass the old dragon skulls standing in mute testament to the Targaryen dynasty, whose scion now lays low the very city the first dragon-kings built. The skulls’ very presence this deep in the fortress is yet another reminder of Robert Baratheon’s usurpation of the Mad King, as he banished them from the throne room to erase the memory of the Targaryens; and then to cement his alliance with the Lannisters, he married Cersei.
The general reaction to the death of Jaime and Cersei has been that it was unsatisfying—after eight seasons of villainy, fans wanted something more visceral, whether by dragon fire or Arya’s blade. I admit, I was at first a little underwhelmed by it; but on reflection, it all seems eminently appropriate: having spent so much of her time of late standing in high windows, looking down on the city she that is the seat of her power—which she both covets and despises—finding her end buried beneath the rubble of her hubristic ambitions? To quote Buffy, as justice goes it’s not unpoetic.
The tragic figure in this drama, however, is Jaime. His journey in this story effectively began at another window in another tower. “The things I do for love,” he said as he shoved Bran out. But even though he received something approaching absolution from Bran just a few episodes ago, he still ends his time realized that he could never manage to cut the ties tethering him to Cersei. As with so much else I’ve complained about in this episode, that realization really needed an episode or two’s worth of development to make this moment genuinely tragic; but it is tragic nonetheless. “Nothing else matters,” Jaime says, over and over. For him this much is true: only Cersei has ever mattered to him—not honour or duty or ambition. His other tragedy, of course, is that Cersei has never reciprocated this sentiment. Everthing matters to Cersei, and as a result she fears death above all else. “Don’t let me die!” is her repeated plea, and even if the castle wasn’t collapsing on her head, she would have to realize there is no escape for her.
The final moment of the chamber collapsing gives way to a sky full of ash drifting down like snow. As you say, Nikki, there is an apocalyptic quality to the scene—earlier, we saw Arya covered in grey but for the blood on her face, lying as if dead. She rises, coughing and retching, witness to the devastation wrought by Daenerys. You thought of nuclear fallout and Auschwitz, Nikki; my first thought was September 11th, and the images of survivors in Lower Manhattan staggering about covered in ash. I’m going to assume that the imagery used here isn’t accidental, but deliberate, meaning to evoke such apocalyptic scenes. (In case we don’t get it, the first sequence ends with the collapse of the bell tower that had signaled surrender). After Jaime and Cersei’s quietus, we return to Arya as witness, walking shellshocked with an expression on her face I don’t think we’ve seen before. We’ve seen Arya distraught, terrified, enraged … but with each successive trial and trauma she has developed a calm and equanimity to the horrors of the world, secure in the knowledge of just how dangerous she has become.
This is something new, something she cannot absorb with calm and equanimity. The ash, as you say Nikki, is deeply symbolic, not least because it evokes something Varys once said of Littlefinger: “He would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes.” That was a crucial line, as it marked a clear distinction between the two schemers: Varys was as much a master of the game of intrigue as Littlefinger, but did it for the good of the realm. Littlefinger’s boundless ambition was the key reason Varys loathed him.
Varys is now ash, immolated because he betrayed someone in whom he saw similarly indiscriminate ambition. “I hope I’m wrong,” are his last words. Arya, covered in ash in the midst of a blasted cityscape, is testament to just how right Varys was.
And we also now realize that in the vision Daenerys had of the throne room with its ceiling destroyed, it isn’t snow drifting across the floor.
Whatever narrative failings brought us too hastily to this moment, it is nevertheless haunting. The arrival of the white horse might seem a bit too blindingly symbolic—hope in the midst of catastrophe, life in the midst of death, etc.—but it is visually stunning. The final shot of Arya riding the horse out of the still-smoldering city may also function as an indication of what to expect, given that since season one, Daenerys has always ridden the white horse that was her wedding gift from Khal Drogo. Is this an indication of how the Khaleesi’s fortunes with run in the final episode?
Well, I guess everyone will just have to tune in here this time next week …