Category Archives: television

Game of Thrones, Episode 8.05: The Bells

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 …

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Ironic, that.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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…OOOOOOOOOO…

…OOOOOOOOOO…

…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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Game of Thrones, Episode 8.04: The Last of the Starks

Hello everyone and wlecome once again to the great Chris & Nikki co-blog on Game of Thrones … this post was a long one, but then again, at an hour and twenty minutes for this episode, there was an awful lot of stuff to get through.

This episode was … OK. It has a lot of good moments, a lot of interesting stuff, but also exhibited some of the show’s more unfortunate tendencies. But that being said, we should just get into it — there is, after all, a lot to cover.

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Christopher: Two-thirds of the way through the final season, we’re seeing what has always been something of a contradiction embedded in GoT: the tension between the more typical and traditional fantasy narrative of Light v. Dark, Good v. Evil, and the more innovative and subversive preoccupation with power and politics. I spoke of this at somewhat more length in an interregnum post I made before the previous episode, but the TL;DR is basically that GRRM has from the start been having his cake and eating it, with the looming conflict between the living and the dead comprising the series’ background noise, while more immediately the competition for the Iron Throne has been the greater substance of the story.

That background noise, which has occasionally made it into the foreground, is the stuff of Tolkienesque fantasy: the grand conflict á là God and Satan, Gandalf et al and Sauron, Harry and Voldemort, etc. It is, to be fair, a staple of the genre. But what has always set A Song of Ice and Fire—and likewise Game of Thrones—apart is the greater preoccupation with the fraught complexities and grey areas of political power, and the ways in which those complexities lend depth and nuance to the people involved. Jon Snow’s Churchillian moment in episode one of this season laid out the stark (heh) contrast between the warring sides, as did Bran’s dire characterization of the Night King’s singular desire to wipe out all life. Those stakes don’t exactly make it difficult to choose loyalties.

Well, the easy choices shattered along with the Night King’s transformation into party ice. And if there was a sense that the resolution of the “great battle,” as Daenerys calls it, was a bit too pat, a bit too easy and sudden, remember that all of Sauron’s power came crashing down when a ring fell into some lava. The difference there being that that was the End: everything that followed was denouement. Here, we’ve resolved the Tolkienesque narrative, but still have to resolve the Shakespearean one. And based on this episode, I’m already missing the Night King’s ethical purity.

But at least we get a brief respite: to mourn, and then to celebrate. We begin with the camera’s slow movement over a body we soon recognize as the corpse of Ser Jorah. A distraught Daenerys kisses his brow and whispers words we don’t hear into his ear. We then get a similar moment of Sansa weeping over Theon’s body; in a moment of great significance, she removes a brooch of the Stark direwolf and places it on his breast—confirming for him, in death, that he is as much a Stark as a Greyjoy.

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It becomes apparent that this is a mass funeral: Jon and Sam and Bran, along with the other survivors of the Battle of Winterfell, stand in serried ranks before a huge number of pyres on which lay the dead—Dothraki and Unsullied, Northerners and all others who fought. (Perhaps most importantly, among the ranks of the survivors, we see Ghost—having sustained some wounds in the battle, but not looking nearly as mournful <sniff> as he will later in this episode).

I found this a very moving scene, not least because, as characters came forward to put torches to the pyres, there were a handful of silent tributes—Arya looking down at Beric, Sam at Edd Tollett, Jon at Lyanna Mormont—even as we catch glimpses of anonymous others who died. The flames begin to consume the pyres, and the smoke obscures the camera’s eye as it looks down at the mourners.

The scene then shifts to something we haven’t seen in some time: a feast, though at the start it is somewhat subdued. The Great Hall is crowded with long tables and people getting down to the serious business of eating. At first, there isn’t much in the way of conversation: at the head table, everyone seems lost in thought, and when Jon turns to look at Daenerys, she basically stares stolidly into the middle distance. The first words of the scene are Gendry’s; he looks around the room and then turns to the Hound, asking her if he’s seen Arya. Their conversation is a bit cryptic, but the suggestion seems to be that the Hound knows Gendry and Arya have become rather more than friends. “You can still smell the burning bodies, and that’s where your head is at?” the Hound asks, but then makes clear that his words aren’t a rebuke. When Gendry protests that “it’s not about that,” Sandor calls bullshit. “Of course it’s about that, yeh twat,” he says. “Why shouldn’t it be? The dead are dead. You’re not.”

As always, the Hound has no patience for pretense or bullshit.

However, on rising to go look for Arya, Gendry attracts the notice of the Queen, and becomes the first piece placed on the board of the post-Night King game of thrones. Daenerys tortures him for a moment, pointing out that his father, Robert Baratheon, was responsible for her family’s destruction and exile. But, well, bygones can be bygones—especially if it means she has a lord of a powerful house in her debt. “You are Lord Gendry Baratheon,” she tells him. “Because that is what I made you.” Gendry, understandably, is taken somewhat aback; and in a moment of symmetry, Davos—who was of course the Hand of another Baratheon of note, and both saved Gendry from Melisandre and retrieved him from King’s Landing—is the first to rise and hail him by his new title. The entire room follows suit. “See?” Daenerys says to Tyrion when he observes she now has a Storm Lord in her debt, “you’re not the only one who’s clever.”

Daenerys’ move does not go unnoticed by Sansa, who looks positively worried when she exchanges a glance with Tyrion.

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Perhaps it is the celebration of Gendry’s new status, or perhaps it has just gotten to that part of the evening, but a definite party vibe settles on the room. Jaime plays the role of enabler, removing Brienne’s hand from her cup when she tries to prevent him refilling it. “We fought dead things and lived to talk about it,” he says. “If this isn’t the time to drink, when is?” (To be fair, that’s a pretty good argument). But even as the room starts to come to life, Davos broods about Melisandre, telling Tyrion he promised to kill her—but that she killed herself, or was killed by her god, before he got the chance. And here we have an interesting little moment of reflection on what I’ve been calling the Tolkienesque narrative: Melisandre has essentially played the role of the voice of prophecy, the spokeswoman for the deity ostensibly at odds with the Night King and his hordes. All the way along, her purpose has been to find the person or people who can act as her god’s tools. Having been present for the great battle and helped in a substantive manner, her work was done, and her death was the last pre-credits shot of the previous episode.

Davos and Tyrion effectively sum up the contradiction I’ve mentioned: “The Lord of Light,” Davos says in a vaguely disgusted voice, “We play his game for him. We win his war. And then … he fucks off. No signs. No blessings. Who knows what he wants?” It’s a good question—having won the cosmic war, does the cosmic entity just leave the field? One way or another, there is now a new and far more complex reality to deal with. Or as Tyrion puts it, “We may have defeated Them. We still have Us to contend with.”

What did you think of this episode, Nikki?

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Nikki: This episode was what most of us thought it would be: the aftermath of the great Battle of Winterfell, and the movement toward the culmination of the overarching theme of the series. As I said the other day, this series is called Game of Thrones, after all, and we’ve been here since Day One just to see who’s going to win that damn game. And I thought this episode hit the perfect note of both bridging the battle sequence of the previous episode to the battle sequence of the next episode (my GOD what did this season cost them?!) while not only moving the living characters forward but properly mourning the dead. I was a little worried that those who died in the previous episode, would never be mentioned again, but as you pointed out so well, Chris, that opening scene paid proper tribute to them. And Jon was the one to stand over Lyanna (I was weeping in this scene). What was amazing about this episode is how many characters realized they need to change the way they were doing things: they’ve looked Death right in the eye and believed they didn’t have a hope of surviving, and now they realize today is the time to act because there might not be a tomorrow.

My concern with this episode is that in keeping with the general theme of “let’s act on things we’ve thought about, but never done,” they’ve made some steps to change my loyalties, to throw a wrench into the perfect works, and to hurt characters when it didn’t really need to happen. But more on that later.

After a depressing conversation with Ser Davos, Tyrion wonders, “Who could I speak to who would be even less cheerful after a great victory?” So as he’s talking to Bran… he comments on his chair, which Bran says is based on the one Daeron Targaryen had made for his crippled nephew 120 years earlier. Tyrion is impressed by his knowledge of history, saying it’ll serve him well as Lord of Winterfell. But Bran makes it clear he doesn’t want that—ambition to be the head of a House or a king belonged to his brother Robb, and in a way to his sister Sansa, but certainly not to him. He doesn’t “want” anymore, he explains. “I envy you,” says Tyrion, and Bran suddenly looks back over his shoulder. What the hell is he looking at?? I thought, thinking he could see something we couldn’t… but in the end it appears he was simply signaling to someone to come and wheel his chair away. “You shouldn’t envy me,” he says, with a bit of real emotion OMG actually entering his voice. “Mostly I live in the past.”

Tyrion, as most people do when speaking to the Three-Eyed Raven, simply looks confused. This was a really interesting moment for me, because while we see Bran as this weird all-seeing, all-knowing entity (I hesitate to even call him a person), imagine if you could see across all time, all the time, and unlike Billy Pilgrim from Slaughterhouse-Five, you don’t see definite futures but possible ones. The possible futures are probably all so desolate that you prefer to live in those past memories. His comment worried me a bit for the episodes to come: is that it? Is that why he doesn’t live in the future? Because there isn’t much of one left?

And now it’s over to Tormund, who’s trying to get Jon to drink to the point of passing out. “Vomiting is not celebrating,” says Jon. “Yes it is,” says Tormund, completely stone-faced. “TO THE DRAGON QUEEN!” says the ginger-bearded wildling, to some cheers that sound more like the ones you hear the knights make after the narrator says, “And there was much rejoicing” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

To which Daenerys stands and says, “To Arya Stark, the hero of Winterfell!” and the entire place erupts with cheers, drinking, stomping, clapping. (And I said to my husband, “Where IS Arya??”) Daenerys once again smiles broadly, hoping she’s curried some favour with these northerners. Jon smiles at her, Sansa sees the smile between the two of them and gets up and walks away. Daenerys sits down, alone, and watches Jon turn his back on her to continue talking to Tormund.

Meanwhile, Tyrion, Podrick, Jaime, and Brienne are mirroring some viewers at home with their drinking game (Jaime just gave a bit of a longing stare at Brienne: DRINK!), with Brienne seeming to be the only one properly holding her alcohol at this point. We haven’t had too many scenes with Tyrion and Brienne, but I love their friendly chemistry in this scene. And of course, all of us have enjoyed that other chemistry between Jaime and Brienne the Beauty.

Back to Tormund, and the scene that has everyone abuzz this morning. I will admit, I did not see this at all on my first viewing, but it turns out even when the Dead are threatening to destroy all of living civilization; even when some of the greatest warriors the world has ever seen are being felled on the battlefields; even when the night is (so so so so) dark and full of terrors… somewhere nearby, there’s a Starbucks open.

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Tormund talks about how amazing Jon is, that he was even murdered and came back to keep fighting, that he never gives up no matter what. “He climbed on fucking dragon, and fought. What kind of person climbs on a fucking dragon? A madman, or a KING!” They all cheer, and Jon turns to look at Dany, who puts a fake smile on her face and quietly tips her Grande Americano at him, probably thinking, “I’ve been climbing on a fucking dragon for seven years but SURE, let’s all talk about how awesome this guy is.” The look on her face is haunting… she had it in her grasp. She had everything—the south, the north, the islands, everything except Cersei, and she could simply use the others to get rid of her—and now that she sacrificed her Dothraki, many of her Unsullied, her dragon, and even her beloved Ser Jorah, to save the northerners… they’re going to pledge fealty to Jon if they find out his heritage. She just knows it.

I’m so torn over this. I’ve pledged fealty to Daenerys Targaryen from Day One, as y’all know, and given my love for Houses like Mormont, which run on matrilineal lines, I wonder if House Targaryen could change to reflect that? Aerys Targaryen was king, and when he was killed, it went to Rhaegar… who was killed, but his son wasn’t yet born. So Viserys was the only living heir in that moment, and it went to him. When he dies, it should go to Daenerys since they’re no longer in Rhaegar’s line (or does that matter? Someone help me out on this, dear readers!)… except she’s a woman, and the Targaryens are patrilineal. So they would want to find the male heir over the female one. Except… there was no male heir.

Until now.

Daenerys has always been about breaking the wheel, and this has really been a show about the power of women—Cersei’s currently ruling King’s Landing for better or worse; the Sand Snakes were the true force of Dorne; Daenerys has been one of the most powerful characters on the show by virtue of her dragons, her inability to be burned, her capacity for empathy, and her ability to change he minds of people; Arya was the one who did in the Night King; Brienne is the captain of the knights over any man; Sansa is the true brains behind Winterfell; Yara is heading up the Iron Islands right now (while her stupid uncle is over in King’s Landing)… so I’d be truly disappointed if in the end they stuck a white guy on the throne.

It’s like watching the Democratic leader nominees in America right now. But anyway.

Daenerys believes this to be her birthright. Jon doesn’t even want to be king. But it doesn’t matter what they want: it’s about what the people want. And we all know how well THAT works out.

Dany now surveys the room, seeing her Hand cavorting with Jaime and Brienne; seeing Jon hanging with Tormund, and in the background, in shadow, sits Varys. He has barely said a word all season, but he’s watching. As always. (And where the hell is Arya?)

Back to the drinking game, where Brienne has been getting Tyrion to drink like a fish, and Jaime is taking delight in watching how Brienne’s face is entirely lit up with joy at doing so. But then she jokes about how he was married before Sansa, and Tyrion screws up his face in a mocking way and drinks happily. Which was a strange reaction, given that his first wife was a woman he truly loved, and his own father made him believe she was a prostitute who was messing with him, so he had his soldiers rape her one by one, with Tyrion doing it last, paying her with a gold coin. It’s one of the darkest moments of Tyrion’s life, and not one where you would roll your eyes and go, “Oh fine I’ll drink!” But perhaps this is why Tyrion changes the tone by saying, “You’re a virgin.” (Note Podrick taking a huge slurp of his wine at that, HA!) Brienne just stares at him, the joy leaching from her face, and Tyrion says, “At no point have you ever slept with a man… or a woman.” She stands up to leave, but not so fast! The Giantsbane is here. He walks over to her, almost a foot shorter than she is, drunkenly rejoicing over their victory. “Now which one of your cowards shit in my pants?” he hisses, before throwing back his head and laughing that Tormund cackle, and Brienne leaves. He moves to follow her, but Jaime stops him, and the Kingslayer follows her instead, and suddenly a dim lightbulb goes off in Tormund’s head as he looks down to see Tyrion pouring the rest of his wine into the horn and Podrick grins.

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We cut to Tormund, eyes welling, realizing the Big Woman is going to be with another. “My heart is broken,” he growls, and the camera pans back to show that his listener is none other than the Hound, who has a look on his face of absolute disgust. “Don’t touch me,” he hisses. (I loved this scene so much.)

“You can touch me,” says one of the women pouring wine. And with that, Tormund happily heads off with her. I didn’t love this ending, as if he’d pine after Brienne for this long only to get over her in a heartbeat—so much build-up, so little pay-off. Is this the end of Brienne and Tormund?

Sansa watches the Hound sitting on his own and brooding, and she sits with him, and he reminds her how he used to disgust her. “I’ve seen much worse since then,” she says. He just wants her and everyone else to go away, so, typical Hound, he says, “I heard you got broken in rough.” Sansa’s face doesn’t change. I can only imagine he’s thinking what IS it with these Stark girls?! “He got what he deserved,” she replies. “I gave it to him. Hounds.” She elicits a laugh from him. “You’ve changed, little bird,” he says, an echo of what he called her in the early seasons, when he tried to get her to escape with him. He says if only she’d gone with him, none of those traumas would have happened. And our Sansa puts her hand on his. “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would have stayed a little bird all my life.”

In a way, this scene is utterly exquisite, because it pretty much sums up every character development on the show. Who wouldn’t be where they are now without everything that’s happened to them? But was it really necessary that she be raped to be a strong woman? That she watch her own father be beheaded in front of her? That she was passed from one man to the next, being used by each one? Did that happen to any of the men on the show? I’m not going to turn this into a feminist rant, because I believe Game of Thrones has been an extraordinary series for depicting how powerful women can be, and I think the fact that all of these women—Sansa, Cersei, Daenerys—have been raped on the show, which only strengthened them more, is, sadly, showing reality. This is supposed to be some sort of medieval type of timeline, and yet here we are in 2019, surrounded by stories of very strong women who, at some point in their lives, were denigrated by very small men. In the world of Game of Thrones, women being treated as the weaker sex is no different than in our world. But Sansa refuses to be defeated. Her capacity for bouncing back is quite amazing, and it’s been a very long road to getting there. Sansa isn’t okay, and she will live with the trauma of that rape and what was done to her for the rest of her life. But she refuses to be a victim, and that’s integral to the development of this complicated and fascinating character. And despite the problematic nature of this scene, I still love Sansa and the Hound getting this one final moment together.

And now Gendry heads through the drunken courtyard to see if he can find our Arya.

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Christopher: There were a number of moments in this episode that either annoyed me or left me profoundly ambivalent, and Sansa’s vindication of her abuse as a necessary crucible of experience is Exhibit A. It’s particularly galling considering that I argued, apropos of her horrifying wedding night with Ramsay, that her rape wasn’t necessarily an example of the assault/abuse-as-character-building-trope; I didn’t think so then, and I wouldn’t have said so now except that those are the precise words the writers put into her mouth. Gah.

I suppose one way to read her words—considering she says them as she places her hand over Sandor’s—is as a sort of stoic comfort to him. What happened isn’t your fault, in other words, not that he seems to feel guilt at all. Whatever my annoyance with this interchange might otherwise be, it is a useful throwback to seasons one and two, a reminder of the odd relationship these two had. Sansa then was too taken with beautiful things, and the very idea of beautiful things. The Hound with his mutilated face was a disturbance in that dream, and despite his sour nature he proved, through his treatment of Sansa, that he was not irredeemable.

But again, then, as now, he has no patience for pretense or bullshit.

It was thus then, perhaps, inevitable that Arya should later join him on his would-be solitary trek to King’s Landing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that she’s running away from Gendry, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d had an impromptu musical number of “Don’t Fence Me In” following his rather impetuous marriage proposal. All in all, it was rather a sweet moment, but also somewhat sad, given that Gendry was the only person among the bajillion people watching this episode who didn’t see Arya’s “thanks but no thanks” coming from miles off. “Be my wife! Be the Lady of Storm’s End,” he implores her (on bended knee, no less). “You’ll be a wonderful Lord,” says Arya, after kissing him tenderly. And then she brings the hammer down: “And any Lady would be lucky to have you.” Ouch. Of course, anyone who has been watching since season one knew this would be her response. “I’m not a Lady. I never have been.” Her words hearken back to the conversation she had with her father in the first season, when she told him she did not want to be a “Lady.” Everything she has done since that moment has more or less confirmed that assertion.

Poor Gendry. I mean: good for Arya. But still. Poor Gendry.

We can’t know whether sex with Gendry was good, bad, or indifferent for Arya (I’m guessing good, if for no other reason than damn, look at the man), but it obviously hasn’t really changed anything for her. The same cannot be said for Brienne: having established her lack of experience in Tyrion’s drinking game, we transition to a moment a certain subset of GoT fans have been hyperventilating about since she and Jaime first did their Abbott and Costello routine. I must admit, I’ve been Team Tormund since the bearded ginger first made googly eyes at her; but I can’t complain about the way things have fallen out. Tormund might have had unrequited feelings for Brienne, but she just as obviously has had a thing for Jaime. So when he shows up at her door with wine and immediately starts complaining about how hot her room is, we kind of know where this is going. (Quick question: did anyone else flash to Jimbo Jones on The Simpsons? “Wow, now my shirt’s chafing me. Mind if I take it off?”).

The scene is touchingly, and appropriately, awkward. We’re reminded that Brienne is a virgin. What we’re not reminded of (which is probably for the best) is that Jaime has only ever slept with one other woman. In other words, this is the first non-incestuous sex he’s ever had (something that may or may not resonate with his later decision to decamp for King’s Landing).

And now I am obligated to make the following segue: DID SOMEONE SAY INCEST?

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We cut to Jon Snow alone in his chambers, doing what he does best: brooding. A champion brooder, he could have kept this up for hours without a break, were he not interrupted by his auntie. Daenerys lets herself in, and for a few moments it seems we’re back to where we were, pre-crypts revelation. But of course, memory intrudes. Their brief, promising make-out session interrupted (whether by thoughts of “Oh, shit, INCEST!” or “Oh, shit, BETTER CLAIM TO THE THRONE!” we’ll never know), Jon and Dany fall to discussing the fact that, yes, he is her nephew, and has the better claim to the throne. The fact that he doesn’t want it is, of course, irrelevant, though he seems to be the only person who doesn’t grasp this basic fact.

OK: just to stipulate, for all the arguments that ensue in this episode, and will almost certainly ensue in the remaining episodes, about whether Jon Snow is the better choice for the Iron Throne. HE IS VERY STUPID. Or perhaps that is unfair. He is not unintelligent, just morbidly obtuse. He, as everyone’s favourite redheaded wildling was fond of pointing out, KNOWS NOTHING. He might not actually be the son of Ned Stark by blood, but characterologically he is TOTALLY NED STARK’S SON. By which I mean: he is honourable to a fault, refuses to see the world in anything other than black and white, and, were it not for the intervention of Melisandre, he would have suffered a similar fate to Ned—i.e. killed for an excess of honourable intentions.

Case in point: he doesn’t want the throne. He says as much to Daenerys. But when she begs him—literally begs him!—to keep his trap shut about his real parentage, he says, well, no, I have to tell my family. Because of course he does. I don’t want the Iron Throne, but I’m going to tell people who will one hundred percent tell other people because they don’t want you on the throne. Because honour.

Look, I’m not saying it isn’t a difficult choice, or that Jon is in any way obliged to keep his peace … just that he has a propensity for doing such things without having a plan. Which might be something people wanting to sit him on a throne should keep in mind.

From here we cut to a brief shot of Brienne asleep and Jaime awake beside her. The first time I watched this episode, I didn’t really take note of this moment; it was only on rewatching that Jaime’s expression can be read as somewhat fraught. Again, remember that Brienne is the only non-Cersei he has slept with. Is he happy? Content? Remorseful? Caught in a moment of post-coital self-loathing? Something we consider when we come to his departure later in the episode …

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But on to battle plans! Grey Worm gives the bad news that half of the Unsullied are gone. As are the Northmen, Jon acknowledges. (A Dothraki also removes pieces from the map, without noting numbers). What is to be done? Daenerys is all about pressing their advantage, such as it is. “We will hit her hard,” she says, “rip her out, root and stem!” It’s worth noting that this approach meets with crickets from everyone in the room, including her advisors. Tyrion in particular is skeptical: “The objective here is to remove Cersei, without destroying King’s Landing,” he points out. Varys observes that Cersei has become increasingly isolated: Dorne has declared for Daenerys, and Yara has retaken the Iron Islands, but Daenerys seems to suffer from a particular form of tunnel vision: so long as Cersei sits on the Iron Throne, she can call herself queen.

The singular mania of Daenerys’ ambition comes into clear focus in this scene, enough that it has Varys later considering treasonous actions. To be fair to Varys, his vacillation is understandable, especially after Daenerys attacks Sansa’s perfectly reasonable suggestion that their armies rest and recuperate, characterizing it as something resembling treachery.

Daenerys’ impatience in this moment is … well, out of character. Let’s not forget how long she dallied in Essos for the express purpose of learning how to rule. Literally every single thing her advisors tell her in this scene is sensible and, more importantly, tactically sound. Cersei wants to bring all of the surrounding countryside into the walls of the Red Keep? Let’s see how long their food holds out. Our soldiers are wounded and tired? Let’s let them rest and recuperate. You came here to be the breaker of chains? Don’t kill innocents in your maniacal drive to take the capital.

But when all is said and done, Jon decrees that the North will submit to the will of the Queen. Which precipitates an impromptu family meeting …

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Nikki: … with an assassin, a magnificent woman-who-should-be-queen, a full brother who was brought up as our half-brother but we consider him our full brother even though holy shit he’s our cousin?, and… Bran. I love that moment at the end of the war room scene where Sansa stands next to Bran, arms behind her back and her head tilted up, Bran just stares at Jon with his arms folded on his lap, and Arya stands before Jon, saying, “We need a word.” Jon looks at them all and knows… shit is serious.

As you so wonderfully put it, my friend (I laughed out loud at your summary of Jon because it mirrored exactly the conversations I’ve had with my husband), Jon Snow is… kind of adorably dumb. When he decided to tell them in this scene the very thing Daenerys asked him like two seconds earlier not to tell them, my husband said, “Why the hell is he doing this? He’s such a dipshit.” And I said, “No, he’s Ned Stark’s son. Remember when he showed up at King’s Landing and very quietly whispered, ‘WAIT A MINUTE GENDRY IS ROBERT BARATHEON’S SON AND I DO NOT BELIEVE THESE GOLDEN-HAIRED CHERUBS ARE ACTUALLY ROBERT’S CHILDREN AT ALL AND I WILL PROVE THAT BLERG—’ (that’s my accurate sound effect for his head being chopped off, by the way…), yeah… he’s that guy’s kid. Or… at least… was raised as that guy’s kid. Nature vs. nurture and all that.”

Now, before any of them can speak, he jumps in there anticipating their Dany hate and explains they needed her, that without her they never could have won the war, and like new moms learn when dealing with a toddler tantrum, Arya first validates Jon’s feelings, “And I respect that” and looks at Sansa and basically says he’s right, we would have been toast without Dany, but then says that’s why they’re right too: they simply don’t trust this queen. Daenerys wasn’t making any friends in that war room, and she resents that the North won’t bend the knee, but the North has always been skeptical of anyone from King’s Landing, and she’s way south of that. So… nah.

Arya’s reasoning for why he should listen to them is that they’re family: that’s the only argument she has, but as one of the last four living Starks, she believes it’s the only one she needs. They don’t need someone coming between all of them; after all, people have been coming between them for seven solid years, and now they’re together, they need to stay together. And that’s when Jon says he’s not a Stark. (Not true, buddy: half your DNA is from Lyanna.) And he uses Arya’s argument against her: because they’re family, they should swear they won’t tell anyone what he’s about to tell them. Arya says, “I swear it” with such conviction I 100% believe her. Sansa is hesitant, and finally says, “Smmffph.” And so Jon stands before them, spreads his arms, opens his mouth for the most important speech of his life, and says, “Bran, you tell them.” Sigh.

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Cut to suddenly nighttime again and Jaime and Tyrion are sitting at a table, with Tyrion finally able to make “tall person jokes” about Brienne, because one thing about Lannister men: they’re not exactly discreet or respectful of the women they sleep with… and besides, since Jaime’s only ever really slept with his sis, he’s never exactly been able to kiss and tell the next day.

Enter Bronn, with crossbow. As I said in my first post of the season, he’ll follow through on this plan if it makes him money. But as many of you pointed out, he’d never do that to Tyrion and Jaime because of loyalty. Turns out we were each half-right: he bears no loyalty to anyone except maybe a banker of Braavos, but he’s done the math on his journey northward and realized that they’re going to kill Cersei, and she won’t be able to pay up. So he wants his payment now or they’re both getting arrows through their skulls. So Tyrion offers him Highgarden, and Bronn, after punching Tyrion in his face (but insisting he didn’t break his nose), agrees. Crisis averted… for now. (But as my friend Ashlie has said to me, that crossbow is going to play a major role before this is all done… remember Tywin.) The one line that stuck with me in this scene, though, was Tyrion holding up his cup and saying, “To climbing mountains.” Let’s hope that includes Cersei’s, and that the Hound is able to crumble that Mountain to pieces.

And with that, we cut to the Hound, who is taking the Kingsroad by himself until Arya joins him, which immediately pisses him off. He grunts short sentences at her—he likes to be alone, he doesn’t intend to return—for her to respond “Same” in equally curt answers. The Hound and his apathy clearly left an impression on Arya, and have shaped a lot of her character. Neither one intends to return to the North, which means they could both die at King’s Landing, which I could see happening if both fulfill their destinies, or they’ll take to another road for further adventures… a road, of course, that forks pretty quickly so they don’t have to spend any more time with another person.

The cut to the next scene is not immediately clear—it looks like a ship’s sail that’s ripped, only… oh… no. It’s Rhaegal’s wing. Back in the war room, Sansa proposed they all hold back and wait until the wounded have time to recover, and when Dany hissed at her that she’d brought all of this power to the North to help them in “their” fight, and now they were going to postpone on her, Sansa hissed back that her proposal was for Daenerys’s people to recover as well. And that includes Rhaegal, who is a strong flyer in the same way Nemo is a strong swimmer. One assumes a dragon’s wing could heal given some time and herbs; or hell, some sort of device like Toothless has in How to Train Your Dragon that fixes his crippled wing. But Dany’s jonesing to get her butt on that throne, and she will not stop to help Rhaegal.

Again, I’m as torn as Rhaegal’s wing on all of this. I love Daenerys and her journey. If she were a man we wouldn’t be expecting her to think everything through and take her time and make sure everyone is well, but because she’s the mother of dragons we expect her to do all of those things. But on that journey, Dany has been hurt, countless people have tried to kill her, they’ve attacked her, they’ve attacked her children, she’s lost everyone she’s ever been close to, and she’s become a little more hardened and is just tired of waiting. I understand her need to move forward. But… Rhaegal’s wing.

As Rhaegal does his wonky flight over Winterfell, Sansa stands on a broken parapet (though… was anyone else surprised at how much of Winterfell was NOT broken? Damn those stone houses hold up well…). Tyrion approaches her to try to appeal to the intelligent woman he knows she is, telling her Dany is a good person who has the support of her people, who wants to make the world a better place.

In this moment I was very aware that one difference between Sansa and all those leaders from all those places Daenerys has visited and conquered is that we know Sansa. Sure, she’s not a slave master or a torturer like some of the others were, but we also know her. She shows the same skepticism everyone else on the show has demonstrated when Dany comes to town, this mixture of awe, curiosity, and concern. But because we all know Sansa and one way or the other we’re all Team Stark, even if we’re rooting for others to be on the throne, we now see Dany through her eyes in a way we never saw her through another’s. Yet… we also know Dany, and we know she IS a good person, that she’s making tough calls but sometimes calls that need to be made (I mean, come on, were the Tarlys REALLY worth saving??) She’s been fighting through a lot for eight seasons, she’s come through fire, she’s birthed dragons from eggs, she’s lost everyone she’s loved, and she’s fierce and smart and strategic. But Sansa doesn’t trust her because she’s Other. And she’s only seen Daenerys under the pressures of war, which brings out the worst in people, so she hasn’t exactly had her fears laid to rest.

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But that Othering is a major theme of this episode: Arya tells Jon he’s one of them; he tells them to trust him because they’re family. Tormund will refer to the North as the South because it’s southern to him, and those people aren’t his people. Cersei sees her people as Them and anyone in the castle as Us. The North and the South do not want the same things. Sansa is skeptical of Dany because she’s from across the sea (well, and all that stuff in the war room). Daenerys keeps referring to the fact she helped Them, not that she helped save humanity, which would have eventually included people across the sea. Jaime tries to prove to himself that he could love someone other than Cersei, that he could make her Them and him and Brienne Us, but it’s just not going to happen; Cersei will always be the other half of Us to him.

You were right in isolating that line from Tyrion saying they still have Us to contend with, Chris, because they were united as long as it was living vs dead, but now that the dead are gone, the chinks in the armour have become very noticeable.

And so, as Tyrion pleads with her to listen to him, she finally asks, “What if there’s someone else? Someone better?” In that moment, she sees herself and Tyrion as being on the same side, despite his loyalty to Dany. That fealty is grounded in his belief that she will do what’s right; Sansa believes Jon is the one who will do what’s right. If they both want the same ends, perhaps they should get on board with the same means?

Next it’s to the courtyard and some goodbyes, and I don’t know if this is the final time we’ll see some of these characters or not. I’m hoping not, but with only two episodes left there was a finality with all of them. Despite Tormund and Sam being two of my all-time favourite characters, the one that hurt the most… was Ghost. The direwolf we’ve watched grow up from his time as a wee pup. The beast who has protected Jon from the beginning, who lay by his side when Jon had been murdered, who fought off white walkers at Castle Black, and who was in the first line of defense in last week’s battle. Missing one ear, with bloody scratches all over him, Ghost stands there looking at Jon with a bit of a hangdog stare, and with all the “good boi” memes that have been floating around regarding Ghost lately, I couldn’t help but think he was thinking, “But haven’t I been a good boy?” You hugged Tormund, Jon; you hugged Sam. WHY DIDN’T YOU HUG GHOST?!

What is a direwolf? They aren’t just abnormally large wolves that represent House Stark; each of them became a piece of the child they belonged to. Sansa’s Lady was killed just as Sansa was about to go to King’s Landing and the Sansa Stark of early days would be gone forever. Arya’s Nymeria has gone into the forest to live on her own, a solitary wolf who doesn’t need others to survive. Shaggydog and Summer stayed by Rickon and Bran throughout their time in exile and fought side-by-side; Shaggydog’s head was chucked into the room to prove the enemy had Rickon (who died shortly after), and Summer was killed by the white walkers when they entered the cave of the Three-Eyed Raven, just before we saw the last we’d see of Bran, and he became something else. Grey Wind fought for Robb Stark, never leaving his side, until he was killed moments before the Red Wedding, when Robb’s life was taken, too. Each of these wolves has a connection to their humans, reacting like them, acting like them, dying when they die, or when a part of them dies. They’re intrinsically linked to them. Ghost has been by Jon’s side longer than any wolf, and he was the runt of the litter when they found the pack of them (much like Jon). He’s loyal to Jon, but like Jon he’s also loyal to Jon’s friends and comrades. He will fight by Ser Jorah’s or Sam’s side as easily as he does Jon’s, and when Jon died… Ghost didn’t die. He broke the chain. We’ve all wondered what part Ghost played in the resurrection of Jon Snow, and I know it was a big one. Jon lived partly because Ghost didn’t die.

So in making Ghost go North, Jon is leaving a piece of himself there, in the place where he won over a race of people, where he fell in love with a woman, where he was originally born and thought he would die, where he met his best friends. Jon’s going South, but he’s leaving his heart in the North. Perhaps saving Ghost might save Jon after all.

You and I both have deep feelings when it comes to animals, Chris, did you feel that horrible pang as Ghost stood there staring longingly at Jon?

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Christopher: Such a pang. I’ve never quite understood people who don’t want pets, or who are dismissive of the emotional connection people form with their cats or dogs or dragons (which are really just big winged cats, when you get down to it). I think audiences would have been down with whatever carnage John Wick got up to in the first film, but it was the murder of his puppy (by Theon Grejoy, of all people) that gave the action that followed a genuine pathos at the outset.

So, yeah … I was upset with Jon for sending Ghost north. Actually, that’s not true—I think sending him north was probably the best for everyone involved. I was upset with Jon for hardly even acknowledging him before he went. That just seemed cruel, and the CGI people really nailed the look a dog can give you when it’s sad.

But I think you’re right, Nikki—that connection between the Starks and their direwolves is elemental, and I suspect that Jon (in a rare moment of insight) recognizes that a place like King’s Landing is terrible for such an animal. Ghost is a creature of the North, after all; and there was something in this scene as everyone said their goodbyes that made me wonder if, when all is said and done, Jon might not end up back there. He certainly looked like that’s where he’d rather be going, and said as much to Tormund. A piece of him will be there with Ghost, but there’s also the fact that he left a piece of himself behind when Ygritte was killed. He may have fallen in love with Daenerys, but that relationship will never have the kind of passion he experienced with Ygritte (though we’re not ruling out the possibility that Daenerys will also try to kill him before all is said and done). It would be sort of a fitting end if, after he fulfills his last duties, Jon returns to the North.

The most touching goodbye, of course, is with Sam. It’s worth thinking back to the hero’s journey Samwell Tarly has had, starting as a painfully shy and cowardly new recruit at Castle Black, mocked for his weight and his timidity. And now he can take pride of place among the heroes of this story, having found his way to something resembling courage, and also to love and now has a family of his own (the bit where he stumblingly tries to explain how Oldtown was just so boring at night, and all those books, only to have Gilly interrupt: “I think he knows how it happens, Sam,” was perfect). It does beg the question, however: what does Sam do now? He’s no longer a part of any army, apparently, no longer a man of the Night’s Watch (does the Watch even exist any more? does it need to?), so what’s up for him and Gilly? Stick around at Winterfell? Return to the Citadel to complete his training as a maester (and pay some hefty library fines)? Take his seat as the Lord of Horn Hill?

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But we don’t know. Jon saddles up after one last look at Ghost <sniff>, and then we cut to the other half of the army heading south, this one by sea. Grey Worm and Missandei stand by the railing (and I’ve asked this before, but it’s a point of bother: does no one ever sit down on ships in Westeros?), and exchange a loving look as they hold hands. Which was not, I should say, a moment I found fraught with foreboding the first time I watched the episode, but on rewatch? Yikes.

Meanwhile, Tyrion has obviously shared Jon’s wee genealogical secret with Varys, who makes the very astute observation that when eight people know a secret, it’s no longer a secret—it’s information. And sooner or later the small circle of people who know will expand by a magnitude. And what then, Varys asks? He games it out: it’s not merely, as Tyrion observes, that the revelation will lose Daenerys the North and the Vale. He has the better claim. And even though Jon has professed not to want the throne, Varys is smart enough to see what Tyrion tries not to—that what Jon Snow, aka Aegon Targaryen, wants will largely be beside the point when the truth emerges. That’s the tricky thing about divine right: it sort of limits the choices of the person so afflicted, and the fusion of Stark and Targaryen in a person who, while excessively prone to making poor choices, people nevertheless are drawn to, is really too perfect a creation not to have the people acclaim him king. Also, let’s not forget the personal story and intrigue of a man born of a secret marriage who grew up ignorant of his true identity is precisely the kind of thing people love. It’s the Once and Future King all over again.

The other problem with divine right, as Daenerys is discovering, is that if the entire basis and logic of your conquest is a rightful claim to the crown, that all goes up in smoke when the better claim shows up. Tyrion really should have pressed her for more details when she said she would break the wheel. How? What did that mean? If the entire point of landing on the shores of Westeros with an army was to smash the feudal system and replace it with an elected senate or a series of autonomous collectives, and in the process abdicate her claim to be absolute monarch, that would be breaking the wheel. But no: she means to reinstate Targaryen authority, even though she is no longer the Targaryen with the best claim to the throne.

This much, we can glean, Varys has gamed out. And he will have more detailed thoughts later. But while those two have been having their confab, the fleet has arrived at Dragonstone, and Daenerys with the two dragons soar over the masts of the ships to triumphal swelling music. Which, knowing this show, doesn’t bode well. Or as my friend said, seconds before Rhaegal gets hit with multiple massive crossbow bolts, “Oh, PLEASE no massive crossbow bolts!”

But … massive crossbow bolts. Made even worse by the shit-eating smug grin on Euron Greyjoy’s face as his ships come sailing around the headland.

Rhaegal’s end is quick and brutal, and if Daenerys has any sense left, she should see it in part as a rebuke for her insistence on not waiting. As you pointed out before, Nikki, we see a huge rent in his wing earlier, and he is obviously having some difficulty flying. Whether proper time to heal would have helped him evade the massive crossbow bolts is something we can’t know, but the fact that he meets his end while not at his full fighting strength should give our heroes pause before they consider an all-out assault on King’s Landing.

Daenerys, enraged, dives in to immolate Euron’s ships, but quickly decides discretion is the better part of valour as a new volley of bolts fly up at her.

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(I have a quibble with her tactics here. Yes, coming in at a low trajectory right into the line of fire is definitely a bad idea, but these crossbows look like they have a limited range of motion, and they’re mounted on the bows of the ships. Why not circle around from behind? Or come in at a steep angle outside the weapons’ arc of motion? Seriously).

With the sole remaining dragon leaving the field of fire, Euron and his ships aim their crossbows at Daenerys’ anchored ships, making short work of them (I’m also unconvinced that the weapons would be that devastating at that range, but I’ll let that one go). Tyrion jumps into the sea and a mast seems to fall on him, and the screen goes black in a head-fake—usually that long the screen is black means the credits are about to roll. But no: we cut to a beach on Dragonstone, where our heroes have dragged their sodden, coughing selves out of the brine. Everyone seems present and accounted for … except Missandei.

Cut to the Red Keep, where Cersei looks down from a high window on the crowds of people streaming through the castle gate. As if the previous scene wasn’t enough of a reminder, we’re reminded that Cersei is no fool—she knows as well as Daenerys’ advisors (and possibly better than Daenerys) that a successful assault on King’s Landing—especially one that employs dragonfire—will almost certainly result in thousands of innocent deaths and casualties. It is obvious, of course, that she cares nothing for the people of the city, except as their usefulness as human shields. But it’s becoming clear she holds most of the cards now: Daenerys has only one remaining dragon; her forces have been drastically reduced; Cersei has the Golden Company, which evens the numbers; and if Daenerys defeats Cersei through sheer force, she also defeats her own chances to claim the throne as a leader and not a tyrant.

The little exchange between Cersei and Euron is a masterclass in cringeworthiness: however hateful Cersei is in this scene, Euron is more than a match, even if he does seem entirely oblivious that she can’t stand the sight of him. Nevertheless, she promises that the Lions shall rule the land and the Krakens shall rule the sea … “and our child shall one day rule them all.” I almost feel sorry for the poor sap. Were it not for the fact that both of these characters will almost certainly die before the end, it would almost be worth it to see them prevail, if for no other reason than we could start a betting pool about how long it takes for Euron to suffer an “accident.”

“So much for the Breaker of Chains,” Cersei says as she sweeps from the room, and the camera finds Missandei, chained but not yet broken.

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Nikki: Seeing Missandei in chains again… ugh.

Now we move to the war room at Dragonstone, a place we haven’t seen in a while, and it’s as cold as it ever was. Now Varys and Tyrion have knowledge they didn’t have before, and watch how closely they watch Daenerys as she reacts to everything they say. For the first time in these situations this season, Varys takes the lead instead of Tyrion, leaning forward onto the war table (right after she’s knocked over the Lannister Lion), and saying, “You are making a mistake.” He explains that Cersei has brought her citizens into the Red Keep only as protection, assuming either Dany won’t attack the city while they’re there, or, if she does, Daenerys will be the bad guy and everyone will turn on her and back Cersei instead. “These are the people you came here to protect. I beg you… do not become what you have always struggled to defeat.” Tyrion cranes his neck forward to see her face.

Dany doesn’t pause. She speaks of destiny, that she’s been sent to free the world of tyrants. Both of them have a look on their faces like, “Crap. Wrong answer.” Tyrion asks to wait for everyone else to arrive, to talk to Cersei in the meantime, as Grey Worm looks desperate. And Dany gives in, but not for the reason they think. “Speaking to Cersei will not prevent a slaughter,” she says. “But perhaps it’s good for the people to see that Daenerys Stormborn made every effort to avoid bloodshed, and Cersei Lannister refused. They’ll know who to blame when the sky falls down upon them.”

Crap. Wrong answer.

In her defense, Cersei just killed Rhaegal. And I’m fucking angry, too, Daenerys. They should all burn for that one. But anyway…

And that’s when the conversation turned (until the sun went down… NAME THAT SONG) and Varys and Tyrion talk. Y’all will correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I’m pretty sure they’re sitting in the same throne room at Dragonstone where Tyrion once sat with Daenerys, and became convinced she was The One. The room where she made him Hand of the Queen as they sat on those same steps and drank wine. And now, a few years later, he and Varys realize there’s another possibility, and when Varys asks him who he thinks would make the better ruler, Tyrion doesn’t even have to answer aloud; they both agree. There’s a conversation about whether a cock is important to be a ruler (yes, because of patrilineage, yes because the lords will support you; no, because… Joffrey) and I found the next bit to be particularly intriguing. Tyrion once again suggests that Dany and Jonny could rule together. Varys says no: she’s too strong, and would bend him to her will. Tyrion says but he could help temper her through his compassion. In any other story, Varys would be talking about the man and Tyrion would be talking about the woman, but the roles are reversed here. Neither one mentions that Jon can be dumb as a stump, and I’m assuming we didn’t hear “you know nothing, Jon Snow” for four seasons for no reason at all.

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Varys points out that Jon is a Targaryen and a Stark: he’s the only one who could unite the kingdoms and bring in the North and the Vale. Tyrion disagrees: he still believes in Daenerys (Stannis rigidly believed in the Lord of Light, though; we’ve certainly seen where zealousness gets you on this show). Varys refuses to align himself with anything but the realm itself, and he doesn’t believe Daenerys is the one. “So what happens to her?” Tyrion asks. Varys simply tips his head, and we’re all drenched in horror. We know what the Spider is capable of.

“Please… don’t,” pleads Tyrion quietly. But Varys is unbending. “Each of us has a choice to make,” he says as he turns to leave. “I pray we choose wisely.”

And then it’s back to Winterfell, and one more woman treated badly. Argh.

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Christopher: One of the exchanges between Tyrion and Varys I found particularly interesting, albeit less than clarifying:

VARYS: You know where my loyalty stands. You know I will never betray the Realm.
TYRION: What is “the Realm”? A vast continent, home to millions of people, most of whom don’t care who sits on the Iron Throne.
VARYS: Millions of people, many of whom will die if the wrong person sits on that throne! We don’t know their names, but they’re just as real as you and I. They deserve to live. They deserve food for their children. I will act in their interest, no matter the personal cost.

Varys has always, both in the novels and the series, proclaimed himself a selfless servant of “the Realm,” and for what it’s worth, has always walked the walk—something never more apparent than when his sparring partner was Littlefinger, in whom Varys always saw the dangers of boundless, selfish ambition. Say this much for Varys: he has never desired power for himself.

The problem is, the “Realm” is a nebulous entity, and one dependent—to satisfy Varys’ considerations—on having a wise and just monarch. As such, he’s caught between two necessities: his ethical imperative to ameliorate the suffering of Westeros’ millions, and the corollary need to serve the monarch who will best accomplish that. Varys is no activist: he’s what we would today call a professional political operative, albeit one of the rarest of that species (i.e., one with a conscience). But the fact that this system is effectively predicated on the absolute power of the monarch? Well, that makes his self-imposed task quite possibly impossible.

But back to Winterfell, where Sansa relays the dire news of Euron’s ambush to Brienne and Cersei. “I always wanted to be there when they executed your sister,” Sansa tells Jaime. “It seems I won’t get the chance.” Given how carefully Sansa measures her words these days, I think it’s safe to say that wasn’t a random thought spoken out loud, but a deliberate twist of the knife. Brienne might have vouched for Jaime, and Sansa took her at her word, but Sansa would know that whatever Jaime still feels for Cersei, those feelings are almost certainly raw.

Cut to Jaime sitting by the fire, clothed for travel, while Brienne slumbers in the background. She wakes to find him gone, and chases him down into the courtyard where he’s readying his horse for the ride back to King’s Landing.

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OK, so there are three elements of this episode that have irked a lot of viewers: Sansa seeming to embrace her rape and assault as character-building; Daenerys’ apparent pivot to tyranny; and Brienne, arguably the single best fighter in Westeros dissolving into tears because her new boyfriend walks out on her. We’ve both had things to say about the first; the second is distressing but still unresolved (and we’ve seen hints of Daenerys’ Mad King tendencies before—anyone remember that time she crucified the Masters of Meereen?); and while both of those make me grumble, I found Brienne’s meltdown both believable and heartbreaking.

Brienne has spent her life erecting walls, developing a thick skin through long years enduring the taunts, insults, and contempt of men and women who called her a freak. She endured, and overcame the obstacles before her by becoming a better fighter than any man who went against her. She armoured herself with pride and honour and an unshakeable sense of duty. Which didn’t mean she became emotionless or harboured no desires: we know she loved Renly Baratheon. The fact that she was accused of his murder hurt her probably even more than his actual death. She’s never been entirely impassive: we saw as Jaime’s cruelty landed and his insults hit their mark. In hindsight, the relationship that developed between those two has been one of the more nuanced evolutions in the series.

When he knighted her, we saw, however subtly, how that broke down one of her barriers. When he came to her and she gave into her desire, we saw her passion and her need. After a very long and fraught relationship, she made herself vulnerable, something that had been unthinkable after a life spent behind her walls. So when he leaves her, and tells her coldly just what kind of a hateful person he is—as hateful as Cersei—and rides off without another word, that betrayal is hardly going to be met with Brienne’s impassivity. Gwendolyn Christie played this moment with such pain that it had me crying … but I somehow don’t think she’s going to spend the remaining two episodes locked in her room weeping into her pillow and listening to Sarah McLachlan. I feel sorry for the people who have to face Brienne 2.0 in battle, because I suspect my girl’s coming back fiercer and badder than ever.

Also, I’ve read a puzzling number of reviews and recaps that take it as axiomatic that Jaime is returning to King’s Landing to get back with Cersei. I mean, I suppose that’s … possible? I think it’s entirely more likely that one hearing the news of Cersei’s latest enormities, Jaime couldn’t countenance staying behind in Winterfell. My guess is that he’s either returning to kill her (or try—watch out for Arya, dude), or join Jon’s army, or some combination thereof.

I also would put a substantial bet that Brienne does not remain at Winterfell, either.

What did you think of the abrupt end of Brienne’s first romance, Nikki?

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Nikki: I agree with you on it, my friend. I’m not a fan of the trope of “Oh, it’s a woman who is the fighter in this story, therefore we MUST add a romance element,” but Brienne, despite having the body type and ability to be a warrior and following that passion all along, is still a human being with human emotions. She’s a cis-gendered heterosexual woman with the needs that come with that, and to suggest that she isn’t allowed to succumb to those urges is just wanting social politics to overcome human reality in this instance.

Jaime wasn’t just a guy she met on the battlefield that she invited to her bed: he’s someone she hated, kept as prisoner, learned to respect, and with whom she’s fallen in love. And… she’s a virgin, so this is her first time, and whether you’re 17 or 40, your first time is going to be important—in fact, I’d wager it’s far MORE important if you’ve waited that long. And now, after trying out a non-family member in the boudoir for the first time, Jaime’s jumping on a horse and leaving her. Brienne stands there, a woman who’s never been defeated, who has won every hand-to-hand combat in which she’s been involved—she’s not used to losing. But she’s new at this, and as far as she’s concerned in this moment, she’s failed. And Cersei has won.

We don’t know why he’s leaving—as you say, Chris, Jaime knows that Cersei is doing the wrong thing (and I’m not even convinced she’s pregnant; I feel like she’s just pleading the belly like Moll Flanders in an effort to delay her execution, and using it to manipulate idiots like Euron Fucking Greyjoy), but his speech at the end points to who he really is: someone who could never say no to her. Is he rushing to be by her side, or is he rushing to help them execute her? I think either possibility could happen, and to be honest, part of me kind of hopes he’s rushing to be by her side, because I just feel like that’s more in keeping with his character. Jaime is a character who can’t really be fully redeemed because he’s unable to forgive himself, and will continue to punish himself for what he’s done in the past. He hoped sleeping with a good, honest, loyal, moral person would wipe away his own sins, but he was just as dirty in the morning as he was before he entered her chambers, and now maybe he’s looking to face facts. But if he’s going to execute Cersei… then I’m very interested in how they’ll play that one out, too. Maybe Brienne will find happiness after all. (I’ll admit, I yelled at my screen, “Tormund, if you’d just stayed ONE MORE NIGHT!!”)

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We end this episode at the gates of King’s Landing, with Cersei, Euron Fucking Greyjoy, and the Kingsguard standing atop the walls of the city with Missandei as her prisoner… all looking out at about 100 Unsullied soldiers, Daenerys, Varys, Tyrion, Grey Worm, and Drogon in the background. The dragonkilling spear cannons are along the wall, so Cersei didn’t exactly arrive at this meeting with cookies and a smile.

Cersei just killed Daenerys’s child, but remember: the Lannister Queen still believes Tyrion killed Joffrey, so it’s an eye for an eye from her POV. The gates open and Qyburn steps out, and Tyrion goes to meet him. The imp tries to appeal to Dr. FrankenHand of the Queen as Cersei looks on (that smug look on Lena Headey’s face the whole time is brilliant; I think Headey does some fantastic face-acting in this scene). Tyrion demands Cersei’s unconditional surrender; Qyburn demands Daenerys’s. Tyrion drops the formalities and says, “Qyburn… we have a chance here, to avoid carnage. Help me… I don’t want to hear the screams of children being burned alive.” But he’s appealing to a monster, and knows he’s getting nowhere. As Qyburn begins to list off all the reasons why Dany will lose, Tyrion gives up and goes straight to the source: the sister who’s hated him his whole life. The marksmen raise their arrows, and Cersei raises her arm… and seriously my heart stopped. I wondered if they’d just end Tyrion right here to shock the hell out of all of us.

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But she drops her hand, and Tyrion tries to play his: he tells her she hates her people, they get it, but she’s been a good mother, and isn’t a monster. He reminds her of the child she’s carrying. “You’ve always loved your children more than yourself, more than Jaime, more than anything,” he says, as her eyes grow wet and she stares at him. I know he believes he’s appealing to her better nature, but I think he’s reminding her of those children, that they’re all dead, that she held one of them in her arms as he struggled for his final breaths… I don’t think this was the right tactic. And sure enough, it doesn’t work. Cersei glares at Daenerys, steps over to Missandei, and tells her it’s time for her final words. Grey Worm and Daenerys step forward, realizing there’s no stopping her.

Missandei, a woman whom Daenerys found in chains, who was saved from slavery and found love with a soldier who adored her for her peace-loving ways, who has been the most loyal and faithful advisor to Daenerys from the moment she met her… chooses “Dracarys” as her final word: Burn them all with fire. The final choice of a lifelong pacifist was to call for bloodshed. And as Grey Worm turns away, and her body falls off the wall—sans head, thanks to the Mountain—the camera zooms in on Daenerys, who is seething. She will burn this city to the ground, and everyone in it. Tyrion knows what’s happening, and turns back to Cersei, who sneers that smug smile, knowing that Daenerys is about to become the villain of the story.

I don’t know how I’m going to handle these final two episodes. But… here we go.

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Filed under Game of Thrones, television

Of zombies and rabbits

Warning: spoilers ahead for Watership Down and The Walking Dead.

Watership Down

I have done a lot of thinking and writing about zombie apocalypse and what I’ve been calling (in my as-yet unfinished scholarly articles on the topic) the “spectre of catastrophe.” So imagine my surprise when, after watching a recently-dropped limited-series show on Netflix last night, I had a weird revelation.

Much zombie apocalypse, but most especially The Walking Dead, is essentially based on Watership Down. Or, rather, not based on Richard Adams’ 1972 novel about rabbits—but the uncannily similar tropes and themes are somewhat illuminating.

This past weekend, my girlfriend and I watched all four episodes of the Netflix-BBC co-production, and quite loved it. The one major downside to this version is that the animation is quite terrible, and makes it very difficult at points to differentiate between the characters. On the upside, voice-cast is truly staggering: James McAvoy as the reluctant leader Hazel, Nicholas Hoult as the runty Fiver, whose oracular visions prompt them to flee their warren at the outset, Gemma Atterton as Clover, Olivia Colman as Strawberry, and a host of others like Daniel Kaluuya, Gemma Chan, Tom Wilkinson, Rosamund Pike, Mackenzie Crook, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (aka Simon Adebisi from Oz), and Ben Kingsley as the menacing General Woundwort. But for me the standouts were John Boyega as Bigwig, a bruiser  who has to learn subtlety, and, in one of my favourite bits of voice-casting ever, Peter Capaldi as the caustic and sarcastic seagull Keehar.

I read Watership Down when I was in high school and loved it; but I am also of the generation of children who were absolutely traumatized by the 1979 film, which doubled down on the violence and death in the novel to create an animated spectacle that I think was burned indelibly on my young cerebral cortex (even doing a Google image search made me tremble somewhat). My experience in this regard is not uncommon, given the number of parents who thought, “Oh, a cute film about bunnies,” little knowing the horror they were about to visit on their children.

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The 2018 iteration retains the novel’s sensibilities with regards to the precarious existence of prey animals, but dials back the violent visuals. It still builds tension extremely well: we are never not aware of how vulnerable the rabbits are all the time, and indeed the prologue to the first episode relates the rabbits’ creation mythology in which the sun god Frith punishes them—the earth’s original animals—for their proliferation by introducing a host of predators to cull their numbers.

So basically, they live in a word where everything wants to eat them—dogs, foxes, cats, owls, hawks, and, of course, people … and when people don’t want to eat them, they want to domesticate them and put them in cages as pets. More pernicious, however, is humanity’s rapacious need for land, which is what drives Hazel and Fiver and their small band of believers from their warren to start with. Fiver has visions of death and destruction that baffle him, but which we recognize as backhoes callously digging up the land for the construction of a new subdivision with no regard for the society of animals living below. Hazel and his tiny band of followers get out, and later on hear of the destruction from the warren’s sole survivor.

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But … what does this have to do with zombie apocalypse, you ask? Good question, though I will draw your attention to my above observation that everything out in the world wants to eat these rabbits. Leaving the safety of their warren and its environs, Hazel et al are exposed and endangered, and every step they take into the unknown world is one that could end suddenly with claws and teeth.

What’s important to keep in mind about Watership Down—and what I’d either forgotten in the intervening years, or (more likely) never grasped to begin with—is that it is essentially a dystopian story. It’s about the violent and capricious destruction of a society and the harrowing journey to find a new safe haven. And for all of the monsters populating that landscape, the greatest danger posed to our main characters is other rabbits—just as, in your average zombie film, the true threat isn’t from the dead but from the living.

Over its eight and a half seasons, The Walking Dead has driven this particular theme home … again and again and again. And again. My biggest beef with the storytelling in TWD is that it hasn’t done much to break from the narrative formula of zombie films: which is to say, the panic and flight following the initial outbreak, fighting one’s way through the undead hordes to sanctuary, respite within that sanctuary for a time (whether it be a mall, a military compound, a pub, or Bill Murray’s house, as in Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombieland, respectively), until something happens that forces you to leave and once again brave the world without. TWD reiterated this narrative season after season, always with a new safe haven (Herschel’s farm, the prison, Woodbury, Terminus, Alexandria) and a newer, badder big bad to contend with (the dead themselves, their own weaknesses and infighting, the Governor, the Wolves, cannibals, and of course Negan).*

All of which leapt to mind as I watched Watership Down. Hazel and his small band encounter two other rabbit warrens, each of which offers a chillingly dystopic vision. In the first, all of the rabbits are well-fed and welcoming, and our heroes gorge themselves on a massive pile of lettuce and leafy greens and carrots deposited nearby. It seems too good to be true, and of course it is—though only the clairvoyant Fiver sees as much, and refuses to join his fellows at the feast. Bigwig threatens Fiver, warning him not to spoil this for the others, but when he marches off in anger he finds himself caught in a wire snare—because that’s the deal at this warren, they get to live comfortable and well-fed lives, in exchange for one of their number being taken on a regular basis for the local farmer’s pot. And this has become the ethos of the warren: they reject the usual stories told by the rabbit bards that celebrate speed and cunning, instead offering sermons on the virtues of gratitude and complacency, and not questioning generosity that keeps them well-fed.

Dystopian visions of complacency range from the Lotus-Eaters of The Odyssey to Aldous Huxley’s self-medicating society in Brave New World. The devil’s bargain Richard Adams introduces in Watership Down allegorizes more explicitly the dangers of trading freedom for comfort. While there is no obvious correlative in zombie apocalypse narratives, I did think of the Terminus episodes of TWD. Desperate to find safe haven and suffering from hunger and thirst, Rick Grimes et al follow signs leading to a settlement calling itself “Terminus,” which promise safety and comfort and welcome. The promise proves to be merely a lure by which the people of Terminus draw in the unwary and proceed to kill and eat them, trading their humanity for safety and plenty (the first thing some of Grimes’ people encounter is a wholesome-looking women presiding over a grill heaped with meat).

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Ewwww.

Aside from Bigwig’s close encounter with the snare, the rabbits make their escape without much difficulty, and are joined by Strawberry (Olivia Colman), who tells them that no one in the warren makes friends because they know they might lose them to the snare. At the same time they are eager to welcome newcomers to the warren, as greater numbers lessen the chances of being taken next.

More terrifying, and more actively threatening, is the second warren—an authoritarian regime called “Efafra,” overseen by General Woundwort, in which most of the rabbits—largely females—are essentially held captive in terrified thrall to a quasi-military hierarchy sustained by Woundwort’s chosen “captains,” thuggish rabbits who take pleasure in tormenting the others. Their cruelty is its own reward, as they revel in their authority and privileges. The parallels between Woundwort and Negan, and Efafra and the Sanctuary are fairly obvious, but that likely has mostly to do with the ways in which both stories show how despotic societies are sustained by a cult of personality surrounding the leader, his willing subordinates chosen for their own talent for cruelty, and a cowed populace. Of all the threats faced by Hazel et al, greater than an entire ecosystem seemingly mobilized to snack on them is the threat of other rabbits in thrall to violence. Holly, the lone survivor of the original warren, tells one of Woundwort’s captains that he lacks “animality”—that what Efafra has done is emulate humans, and in doing so, has given up what we might call a basic rabbit-sense.

Not, perhaps, the subtlest of messages, but one that resonates strongly in a world where humans are depicted as thoughtlessly destructive, and the Efafran rabbits are genocidal, determined to exterminate any neighbouring warrens that might compete for resources. As stated above, I was struck by the critical mass of voice talent recruited for this remake, which poses the question of why remake Watership Down in the present moment (aside from Netflix’s voracious need for more and more content, of course)? There are, I have to imagine, many answers, not the least of which is the pressing need to reassess our relationship to the natural world, coupled with the apocalyptic preoccupations of so much popular culture. Richard Adams wrote Watership Down at the dawn of the environmental movement in a moment that saw the first celebration of Earth Day and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. All of the themes baked into the narrative have, sadly, only become more acute and immediate in the intervening half-century. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised when a recent retelling of Adams’ story resonates with the various other catastrophic narratives I’ve been writing about.

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*To the show’s credit, it has broken this cycle since settling in Alexandria and making contact with the various other settlements in the area. Since the defeat of Negan and the Saviours this past season, TWD has opened the possibility of a more nuanced and open-ended narrative evolution.

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Filed under maunderings, television, The Triumph of Death, what I'm watching

Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Thing (part two): A Tale of Two West Wing Episodes

Since Trump’s election, one of the ways I’ve tried to escape daily reality is by rewatching episodes of The West Wing. This is not, from what I have gleaned, an uncommon strategy. I have also rewatched Aaron Sorkin’s proto-West Wing film The American President at least three times, and watched President Andrew Shepherd’s (Michael Douglas) climactic speech more times than I can count.

Since the announcement of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, I’ve been wanting to rewatch what I think is easily the best post-Sorkin episode of The West Wing: season five’s “The Supremes.” Unfortunately, Netflix no longer carries The West Wing, and I only own the first four seasons on DVD (first world problems). But after last Thursday’s testimonial drama, I bought the single episode on iTunes and watched it.

The premise and the resolution is classic West Wing, to the point where it made me wonder when I first watched it if it was an episode Sorkin had written before his exit from the show (it wasn’t). Justice Owen Brady, a young(ish) conservative firebrand, dies suddenly, and so the Bartlett White House is given the gift of replacing a conservative judge with someone more in their wheelhouse. Of course, given the Republican control of Congress, anyone too liberal—or really, liberal at all—is out of the question. But in a bit of theatre to scare conservatives and make their ultimate nomination more palatable, the senior staff make a show of interviewing some liberal firebrands—most specifically, Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close), whose judicial history defending women’s reproductive rights has made her a bête noir of the right. Meanwhile, as her presence in the West Wing causes conservatives to shake in their space boots, the president and senior staff set their sights on moderate Brad Shelton (Robert Picardo), who is pretty much guaranteed not to rock any ideological boats:

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BARTLETT: Affirmative action is going to be back in the next few years. Let’s start there.
SHELTON: What do I know about it?
BARTLETT: What do you think about it?
SHELTON: I don’t know. [pause] Not the answer you were looking for?
BARTLETT: Not really.
SHELTON: Unnerving, isn’t it?
BARTLETT: Is there another topic you’d be more comfortable with?
SHELTON: Nothing comes to mind.
BARTLETT: Perhaps you should make something up.
SHELTON: I’m not trying to be cagey, but I don’t position myself on issues and I don’t know what I think about a case until I hear it. There are moderates who are called that because they are not activists. And there are moderates who are called that because sometimes they wind up on the left and sometimes on the right.

I’ll come back to this passage momentarily, but meanwhile, long story short: the episode is an indictment of moderation, depicting the need to find milquetoast candidates for SCOTUS as a failure of the higher ideals of debate and argument between fiercely opposed but honest camps. A compromise is brokered: Chief Justice Roy Ashland (Milo O’Shea), a brilliant liberal lion suffering from dementia, will step down and be replaced by Evelyn Baker Lang. In exchange, the Republicans get to replace the dead Brady with conservative firebrand Christopher Mulready (William Fichtner), who earlier in the episode articulated the value of having ideologues on the Court.

MULREADY: Who’s at the top of the list? [pause] If I leaked it would they believe me?
BARTLETT: Brad Shelton.
MULREADY: Really?
BARTLETT: You don’t like him?
MULREADY: He’s a fine jurist. And in the event that Charmine, Lafayette, Hoyt, Clarke and Brandagen all drop dead this summer, the center will still be well tended.
BARTLETT: [laughs] You want another Brady?
MULREADY: Sure, just like you’d like another Ashland—who wouldn’t? The court was at its best when Brady was fighting Ashland.
BARTLETT: Plenty of good law written by the voice of moderation.
MULREADY: Who writes the extraordinary dissent? The one man minority opinion whose time hasn’t come, but 20 years later some circuit court clerk digs it up at three in the morning.

This tune wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin, but sounds like a pretty accomplished Sorkin cover band. The attractive mythos of his work is that all people in the wrong need is one persuasive argument to come around; that, and the depiction of workplaces staffed by intelligent, dedicated, honestly devoted people. My favourite line from his first series Sports Night is when Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillame) says, “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” It’s sentiments like this that make The West Wing and other Sorkin products feel like safe harbour in the present moment of rampant bad faith, hypocrisy, and mendacity.

BUT.

Perhaps you’ve already figured out where I’m going here.

I rewatched “The Supremes,” but it was unsatisfying … even as fantasy. Its principal centerpiece was when Evelyn Baker Lang runs into Christopher Mulready in the West Wing, and the two proceed to have an animated argument about various points of law—ideological enemies who obviously enjoy each other’s company, and enjoy even more the cut and thrust of legal debate.

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Which, for what it’s worth, I have no doubt happens in the actual SCOTUS. Both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan have expressed affection for the late Antonin Scalia, someone whose opinions and personality you would think would be anathema to them. But the fact remains that the Court has become almost absolutely polarized in the past few decades; the fact that Anthony Kennedy voted with the liberals on abortion and gay rights made him the sole justice whose vote wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The prospect of a court filled with Brad Sheltons, who might honestly consider cases on their individual merits and whose votes would not be predictable, seems vaguely utopian in the present moment. I suppose that in the imaginary SCOTUS of this West Wing episode, in which, apparently, five out of the nine justices are centrists, a couple of extreme voices would be good for the sake of debate; but that has not been the nature of the Supreme Court for a very long time, if indeed it ever was.

Fortunately, The West Wing boasts more than one episode devoted to nominating a Supreme Court justice. Well … one other episode, from season one, which is actually far more germane to our present situation for a variety of reasons. In “The Short List,” the senior staff plan to nominate a justice who is, to use one of Donald Trump’s favourite expressions, right out of central casting. His name is:

JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
DONNA: Yes.
JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III. He sounds like he should be a Supreme Court justice.
DONNA: It’s a good name.
JOSH: Phillips Exeter, Princeton, Rhodes scholar, Harvard Law Review, for which he was, oh yeah, the editor. Did I mention that he was dean of Harvard Law School? Did I mention that his father was attorney general to Eisenhower?
DONNA: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
JOSH: That’s right.
DONNA: Jewish fellow?
JOSH: You’re not gonna ruin this moment for me, Donna.

(There’s a “Merrick Garland” joke to be made here, but I’m just going to ignore it).

When the President later meets with Justice Joseph Crouch (Mason Adams), whose retirement is opening the seat, the justice takes Bartlet to task for not living up to the promise of his campaign:

CROUCH: You ran great guns in the campaign. It was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. And then you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath. Just the middle of the road. Nothing but a long line painted yellow.
BARTLET: Excuse me, sir…
CROUCH: I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat. I wanted a Democrat. Hmm! And instead I got you.

He also upbraids Bartlet for making such an obvious choice for his replacement, and begs him to reconsider nominating someone else:

CROUCH: You’ve decided on Harrison.
BARTLET: I haven’t made a decision yet, Joseph.
CROUCH: You’ve made the call. [beat] Did you even consider Mendoza?
BARTLET: Mendoza was on the short list.
CROUCH: Mendoza was on the short list so you can show you had an Hispanic on the short list.
BARTLET: That’s not true, Joseph.

Long story short: Bartlet has second thoughts, enough to make him ask his staff to put together some information for him on Mendoza—“I just want to be able to know something. There’s gonna be a lot of questions. I don’t want it to be ‘we had a Hispanic on the short list’”—but not enough to make him change his mind. That is, until Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) uncovers an old article of Judge Harrison’s making the argument that there is no constitutional protection for privacy. Long story even shorter, they throw Harrison out of the boat and bring in Judge Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) for an interview.

(Full disclosure: I love Edward James Olmos, and would happily watch anything he’s in. He’s one of those actors who brings such immense gravitas to everything he does, and his sole two appearances on The West Wing are no exception).

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Some people in the West Wing are not overly pleased with the change in game plan, however:

MANDY: I’m the one who has to sell this. And he is not exactly America’s idea of Supreme Court justice.
JOSH: Mandy, I don’t…
MANDY: Let’s do a side-by-side comparison. [reads from piece of paper] Harrison went to Walnut Park Country Day, Phillips Exeter, and Princeton undergrad, and Harvard Law. Mendoza attended P.S. 138 in Brooklyn, City University of New York, and the New York Police Department. Harrison clerked for Warren Berger. Mendoza…
JOSH: [off of the top of his head] New York City Police Department ’65 to ’76, Assistant District Attorney Brooklyn ’76 to ’80, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eastern District, Federal District Judge, Eastern District. Let me tell you something, Mendoza went to Law School the hard way. He got shot in the leg, and when they offered him a hundred percent dispensation, he took a desk job instead and went to law school at night. He’s brilliant, decisive, compassionate, and experienced. And if you don’t think that he’s America’s idea of a jurist, then you don’t have enough faith in Americans.

OK—this is where this episode resonates with me in the present moment. My next post in this series will be about the pernicious myth of meritocracy, something present, I’m sorry to say, in almost every other piece of Sorkin property. Generally, The West Wing is obsessed with credentials: Sam’s secret service code name is “Princeton,” C.J. has a Masters from Berkley, Josh was a Fulbright scholar and went to Harvard Law, and the President is a graduate of Notre Dame, has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics. I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but Brett Kavanaugh’s repeated, plaintive mantra of “I went to Yale!” made me think of this moment in the episode, especially the point at which Peyton Cabot Harrison III, under intense questioning from Sam Seaborn, says

HARRISON: This sideshow is over. With all due respect, Mr. President, I find this kind of questioning very rude.
SAM: Well then, you’re really gonna enjoy meeting the U.S. Senate.
HARRISON: Be that as it may, it’s disgusting. We all know you need me as much as I need you. I read the same polling information you do. Seven to ten point bump, 90 votes, unanimous out of committee, I was courted. Now, you have me taken to school by some kid.

This, of course, is hardly the spittle-flecked rage exhibited by Kavanaugh, but it is a dramatization of the same sense of entitlement. A few moments later, Harrison says, “I am an extremely well credentialed man, Mr. President, and I’m unaccustomed to this sort of questioning.” Again, resonance with the present moment: the anger Kavanaugh exhibited last week was this sort of sentiment cranked up to eleven: anger at the effrontery that you might be denied what you feel you deserve. “The Supremes” is a great episode, and one that articulates an idealized vision of good-faith debate; “The Short List” articulates something more immediate and crucial to our present moment, which I’ll get into in my next post: namely, that diversity isn’t just about race and gender, but also about thought and background. As I said in my previous post, the fulminations from Lindsey Graham et al that these accusations levelled at Kavanaugh will “ruin his life” are just so much horseshit. Kavanaugh’s suggestion that his admission to Yale was due entirely to his own hard work is more of the same.

That said, it’s not hard to understand why he might consider his educational background a defense. Looking at the current SCOTUS, every single justice went to either Harvard or Yale law school; the only sort-of exception is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who transferred to Columbia from Harvard.

I’m not saying an Ivy League education is a bad thing. What I am saying is that I will address this question in my next post.

To be continued.

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Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018

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One of the many tributes to Anthony Bourdain I’ve read in the last twenty-four hours said that he was a connoisseur of “authentic” food.

That’s the wrong word. “Authenticity” as it relates to culture is fraught at best, actively misleading at worst: the search for the authentic too often becomes a fetishistic quest that ignores the glorious, protean, evolutionary nature of culture—and, as Anthony Bourdain spent the last twenty years exploring, there is no better exemplar of this principle than food.

Bourdain didn’t care about authenticity, he cared about honesty. Or perhaps more accurately, he loathed bullshit, whether it took the form of political pieties, pretentious or corporatized food, or, not infrequently, his own fulminations. Aside from his enormous intelligence, talent, and insight, his death comprises the loss of that rarest of commodities in the present moment: an open mind. Though he was never shy about his political leanings, he was always willing to break bread and find common ground with just about anybody, and was always brutally honest about his own blind spots. He started his public career celebrating the brutal and caustic masculinity of the professional kitchen; he ended it apologizing for his part in valorizing such meathead attitudes and embracing #MeToo. He made great hay in the early days ridiculing celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay, but would later acknowledge their culinary talents, befriend them, and speak in a more nuanced way about the complexities of food and celebrity. And through it all, he never claimed for himself the mantle of brilliant chef, though many people tended unthinkingly to make that assumption: he was, he was always very clear to assert, a journeyman cook who lucked out.

The stars might have aligned for him when he got an article published in The New Yorker, but from that point on he made his bones on his talent as a writer, critic, and observer. My first encounter with Bourdain’s work was when I read Kitchen Confidential twelve years ago. By then, I knew his name, but only vaguely. Reading that book was a revelation, not just for his exposé of the life of a professional cook, but for his narrative voice: though he matured beyond the punk aesthetic of that career-making book, he never lost his caustic, no-bullshit approach. I envied his verbal dexterity and ability to be at once pithy and eloquent. Television might have become his medium of choice, but he was first and foremost a writer of enormous talent.

His death by his own hand reminds us that no outward appearance of success or happiness necessarily reflects what is inside.

His life reminds us that there is always more to learn, and the best way to learn is from other people. Food was how Anthony Bourdain entered the world; it’s eminently appropriate that his television career took him increasingly farther away from food as his focus while it also remained the anchor of his explorations. Parts Unknown was far more about culture and history and the specifics of a given locality than about the vagaries of cuisine, but it remained the basis of his interactions with people: his interviews almost always took place over food and drink, and whether he was talking to gun-loving Trump voters in West Virginia, survivors of America’s illegal war in Cambodia, or (recently) Newfoundlanders in a Big R restaurant in St. John’s, food wasn’t just a symbol of common humanity but the literal, material thing that connects us.

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Thoughts on the (non) cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which spiral into a broader discussion of prestige TV vs. sitcoms)

I really need to get these posts written faster. I started writing this yesterday apropos of Fox’s cancellation of Brooklyn Nine-Nine on Thursday; I left a bit to be written today, and I wake up to see that NBC has revived the show for an abbreviated sixth season. So, rumours of the show’s death were greatly exaggerated, but I’ll keep my original intro out of laziness and the fact that I like it …

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Thursday, Fox announced it was cancelling Brooklyn Nine-Nine after five seasons. After their indecorous shitcanning of Firefly so many years ago, I didn’t think there was any way for Fox to hurt me again … but then I let Andy Samberg’s cop sitcom worm its way into my heart, having been lulled in the intervening years to forget the first rule of avoiding heartbreak: don’t get attached to Fox properties, especially if they’re unusually intelligent and well made. That just never ends well.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m a television junky. Once upon a time this might have been considered a failing in an English professor, but since the rise of HBO and its various imitators, the tube now offers an embarrassment of riches. What has been perhaps most interesting in the past few years, however, is not so much the continued production of dramatic HBO and HBO-type juggernauts, with Game of Thrones and Westworld (among others) picking up the torch from the likes of Deadwood and Breaking Bad, but that some of the smartest and most progressive television has appeared in the form of network sitcoms. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is (or was) exemplary of this tendency, with a racially diverse cast than never reeked of tokenism, and nuanced, complex characters who transcended what were at first glance one-dimensional comedic tropes: Jake’s macho goofball obsessed with 70s cop shows, Rosa’s acerbic ass-kicking woman, Amy’s goody-two-shoes, Terry’s musclebound sergeant, and so forth. Each of these actors at once managed to have their cake and eat it too, playing the stereotypes for laughs while simultaneously getting laughs for playing against type and revealing depths of character that served as trenchant critiques of a host of things from toxic masculinity to racial profiling.

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To be sure, sitcoms have always tended to be the more subversive and insidiously political shows, from Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family to The Simpsons; but in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, when television broke out of its formulaic box and aspired to the level of art with such series as The Sopranos and Mad Men, it tended to replicate a certain masculinist narrative logic and more often than not placed damaged, complicated, difficult, and frequently violent men—white men, pretty much exclusively—at the center of the story: Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock in Deadwood, Don Draper in Mad Men, Walter White in Breaking Bad, Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy, Raylen Givens in Justified, and so on. Which isn’t to say that these shows don’t have anything to say or do with questions of gender, race, and identity, but that such considerations almost always serve to reflect back on the shows’ masculine center of gravity undercuts the substance of their critique.

By contrast, such sitcoms as Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Fresh off the Boat, Black-ish, Bob’s Burgers, and such non-network examples as Master of None, High Maintenance, Broad City, Archer, and Big Mouth—to say nothing of Parks and Recreation, quite possibly the greatest sitcom ever to air—have been doing yeoman’s work in introducing diversity in their casts, as well as articulating (generally) a politics of hope and understanding. It’s one of the reasons why Andy Samberg’s character Jake Peralta served to turn off a significant number of viewers at the outset, but rewarded those who stuck with the show: his heroes are the hard-bitten, cynical cops of 70s films, and most centrally, John McClane of Die Hard (I would be interested to know precisely how many episodes there are in which Die Hard or McClane aren’t name-checked). That is to say: his ostensible dream is to be the kind of take-no-prisoners, I-make-my-own-rules, go-ahead-make-my-day rogue cop that valorizes masculine violence and disdain for law and procedure. But as much as he might fantasize about being that kind of cop, Jake’s journey over the series’ five seasons has been a process of discovering the value of community and teamwork over gut instinct and radical individualism. That he would eventually get together with the Hermione-esque Amy Santiago was more or less inevitable according to the laws of sitcoms, but it was narratively hard-won—not least because it was in part Amy’s influence in eroding Jake’s John McClane delusions that he transcended his character’s initial defining tropes.

 

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About two weeks ago, a Facebook friend tagged me in the comments for a Slate article by Kathryn VanArendonk titled “Overly Long Episodes are the Manspreading of TV,” wondering what my thoughts on the argument were.

The article essentially argues that episodes of an hour or longer have become unnecessarily commonplace in prestige television, citing, for example, the 69-minute season two premiere of Westworld. For an HBO season premiere, VanArendonk allows, such a length episode is not unusual, but the second episode was even longer (71 minutes), “and I’d be astonished if it’s the last episode this season to run over an hour. The season-one finale episode, after all, was a full 90 minutes.” She continues,

It’s hard not to watch much of Westworld, especially those over-an-hour installments, and not feel at least a little frustrated with a show that has so little compunction about its own obtrusive length. In the (rare) instances where an episode fully uses and needs over 60 minutes, I’m perfectly happy to cede the time. But again and again, overly long TV episodes feel like self-important prestige signaling, more about muscle (and budget) flexing than they are about the best way to serve a story. They take up narrative space with all the blithe obliviousness of a story that assumes it’s the most important, most worthy thing you’re doing with your time. Long TV episodes imply they deserve that extra space—after all, they’re significant, quality TV. And bigger equals better.

“The time has come,” she asserts, “to call out this swaggering, unselfconscious expanse.” And per her title, she charges that “Interminable TV episodes are the manspreading of television storytelling.”

Before offering my two cents, I read further on in the comments thread, and was unsurprised to find the article’s premise largely mocked and ridiculed. “That has to be one of the most tortured analogies I’ve ever seen,” said one commenter; another, “This is to be filed under: ‘I have nothing of value to say, so choose an “unpopular” topic to complain about instead’.” “Ok, funny analogy, unbearably long text and nope for your theory.” And finally, “I agree that more may not necessarily be better, but what does gendering the pattern do aside from foment gender antagonism?”

The sentiment of this last comment recurred quite frequently, often expressed in, shall we say, much less polite terms. Why make your complaint about lengthy episodes a gendered one? said many people. To more than a few complainants, this was the main issue with the article. For my part, I also found the manspreading analogy somewhat tortured, but I knew precisely what the article’s title meant: that prestige TV is masculinist in its DNA, and that the key tropes of its early, groundbreaking shows have persisted even as television itself, more broadly, becomes more inventive and diverse across an unprecedented number of platforms and media.

The most insightful observation of the article to my mind was the attribution of episode bloat to “prestige signaling,” a means of communicating the weight and heft of a show’s thematic gravity:

The prestige signaling of HBO’s “we’re not TV” then drifted over to FX, where runtime bloat touched series like Nip/Tuck and The Shield, and then became especially noticeable on FX’s Sons of Anarchy. Midway through its run, Sons began to abjure its supposed hour timeslot and made a habit of moseying into a full 90-minute scheduling block. In talking about the unique scheduling for the series, a Variety piece pointed directly to the influence—and the prestige and “quality” implications—of longer runtimes on premium cable. Letting an episode of Sons relax into a 55-minute total length, bulked out to 90 minutes with commercials, “gives [FX] a chance to keep up with the creative scope of HBO and Showtime, which aren’t forced to cut into their series with commercial breaks.” Longer episodes mean more “creative scope.” Longer episodes are how you know something’s important.

This article would have been less glib had it directly addressed the tacit association of “importance” with the kind of violent and/or self-obsessed masculinity on display with all of the shows mentioned. In the early days of HBO, shows like Oz and The Sopranos were a revelation because they seemed to break all the established laws of episodic television in terms not just of their violence, profanity, and nudity, but also in terms of how they told their stories—and abjuring the rigid 42-minute run time of network dramas allowed for more flexibility for the writers and directors to take as much time to tell a story as the story demanded or needed. Sometimes that ran long, sometimes not so much. And often it was precisely the case that an episode might run over an hour because it needed that time to convey its substance and complexity.

I think a more useful way to consider the episode bloat against which VanArendonk rails is to think in terms of prestige television having come to comprise its own genre. The charge of “prestige signaling” points in this direction, as it suggests that these later-generation shows from HBO, AMC (we could spend an entire post just talking about The Walking Dead in this capacity), and FX, and now also Netflix and Amazon, are self-conscious about conveying their seriousness. Genre, as I tell my students repeatedly, is largely about expectations, of going in knowing the formulae. The more iterative a genre gets, the more formulaic, and in the end the satisfaction of expectations does not always serve the content in logical or coherent ways, which is, I would argue, one of the key reasons the victims in slasher films tend to behave stupidly—less because the characters are meant to be stupid than that is what satisfies the genre’s expectations. It’s a bit ironic that we can now start to discern generic conventions in prestige television, given that the early breakthroughs often tended to entail the utter disruption of genre: the mob movie with The Sopranos, the police procedural with The Wire, the western with Deadwood, the historical epic with Rome (stayed tuned for a future post in which I explain why The Walking Dead’s deficiencies proceed from the fact that it has not managed to subvert or divest itself of its own generic expectations).

Recently, a good friend of mine expressed horror and bafflement that I have not yet watched Westworld. Considering my long preoccupation with prestige television, both from an academic and a personal perspective, it seemed unthinkable to him that I would not yet have obsessively binge-watched it. And I will! Eventually. But as I told him, I think I hit critical mass with the self-conscious high seriousness of prestige television a while ago. I’m delighted that Brooklyn Nine-Nine has won a reprieve, not because such sitcoms offer an escape from the heavy fare of the Westworlds of the TV landscape, but because increasingly such shows exhibit the intelligence and complexity of critique of hour-long-and-longer dramas, while doing so with greater diversity and humanity.

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Game of Thrones, Episode 7.07: The Dragon and the Wolf

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Greetings once again fellow Throne-heads, and welcome to the final installment of season seven—it was a short season, but did not lack for action and stuff happening, especially with regard to the resolution of certain narrative threads that have been dangled in front of us from the beginning … as well as some new shit going down.

As always I am joined by the incomparable Nikki of House Stafford (house words: “Hale and Well-Met”). And this is a super-sized blog post for a super-sized episode, so pour yourself a drink and settle in. Gonna be bumpy. Lead us off, Nikki!

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Nikki: This week featured some more awesome vistas, amazing CGI, incredible acting (Lena Headey you are on fire this season!), and the loss of a beloved longtime character.

It begins with the Unsullied lining up in their proper, perfect lines, as they’ve been trained to do, and then the Dothraki racing through those lines as if to say, “Yes, we will follow military protocol… but we’re also just here to randomly slaughter you, so…” The music that was playing in this opening was new and awesome. It felt like a more ominous version of the guards music from Wizard of Oz. Bronn tells the Lannister soldiers to get 500 barrels of oil in addition to the 500 they already have, and the soldier responds, “Yes, m’lord.” I wrote in my notes, “Bronn’s gonna love that” and then immediately he told Jaime how much he likes being called that.

Bronn watches the Unsullied prepare, and crassly (and hilariously) says to Jaime, “You wouldn’t find me fighting in any army if I had no cock. What’s left to fight for?” Jaime counters that gold is worth fighting for, and you use that gold to protect your family. Bronn responds that you won’t have a family if you don’t have a cock, and Jaime pauses for a moment and concurs that yeah, maybe all this IS about cocks.

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Which is a beautifully ironic comment, given that everyone who is currently in power is a woman.

Jaime looks hopeless, because he’s already been here once before, and Bronn agrees that their chances aren’t good. “I think we’re about to be the downtrodden,” he says. In several moments in this episode you’ll see Jaime’s face be almost unreadable, but one thing you can read is how torn he is about following Cersei, whom he knows is wrong. While he sits by her side, he understands the threat in the north is far greater than anything they’re dealing with here, he knows that she’s as murderous as everyone says she is, and he knows that Daenerys would massacre their armies in minutes. But his loyalty (for now, at least) is to the woman carrying his child.

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Doesn’t anyone ever sit down on ships in Westeros?

Meanwhile, on the ship, Tyrion watches as they approach King’s Landing. Jon Snow stands beside him, and wonders aloud how many people live in King’s Landing. When Tyrion says over a million, Jon asks why so many people would want to be crammed all together like that. He comes from the north, with its open moors and wide vistas of sky, and here’s a metropolis that smells like shit with people living on the streets. But Tyrion says for many this is their only hope of survival, and besides, the brothels are far superior in King’s Landing. Coming home to King’s Landing is never easy for Tyrion, but you can tell he’ll always have an uneasy fondness for the place.

In the hold of the ship, the Hound knocks on the crate and the wight sounds like a small dragon trying to fight its way out. Even I was frightened, and I’d already seen that thing.

At the Red Keep, Cersei prepares for the meeting, which she’s attending against her better judgment. She instructs the Mountain that if anything goes wrong, he’s to “kill the silver-headed bitch first,” followed by her brother Tyrion.

As Tyrion et al disembark and enter the royal gardens, they see where the dragons had been kept long ago in the time of Aegon, and Tyrion comments that given the madness of the king and the size of his dragons — which would have dwarfed Dany’s children — King’s Landing at one time must have been the most terrifying place in the world.

And then we get a ton of reunions all at once — Brienne and Jaime, Podrick and Tyrion, Brienne and the Hound, Bronn and Tyrion. It’s like covering off a ton of lost time in one fell swoop. What did you think of all of these former allies/enemies all coming together again, Chris?

 

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AWKWARD.

Christopher: It had me thinking about the difference between Game of Thrones and our other favourite examples of prestige television: namely that, more than any show I can think of, this series has been playing—of necessity!—the long game. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m particularly susceptible to well-written and intelligent television for the simple fact that I’m a narrative junkie. I love a good story well told, and love the slow burn of a Breaking Bad or The Wire. Series like that are about as close to a sprawling, chunky novel as you’re likely to find in a visual medium, something that speaks to the fact that the most revolutionary aspect of “prestige” television is the shift from episodic to serial storytelling. David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, more or less made this case in annoyed response to those who said that his show had an “unfair advantage” because HBO didn’t have to play by the FCC’s rules:

All of us have the freedom to do story lines that unfold slowly. We all have the freedom to create characters that are complex and contradictory. The FCC doesn’t govern that. We all have the freedom to tell stupid, bad jokes that may actually turn out to be funny. And we all have the freedom to let the audience figure out what’s going on rather than telling them what’s going on.

But in many cases, if not most, the laws of television still govern on some level for most shows, and the perennial question of renewal versus cancellation has tended to dictate that narrative arcs describe seasons rather than entire series. Nowhere has this been more explicit that with The Wire, with each season exploring a different aspect of Baltimore within the larger context of the War on Drugs. This innovation of David Simon’s was in part a genius compromise with the television imperative of season-ending cliffhangers—episodes of that show often ended surprisingly, with none of the narratives cues that usually tell you the credits are about to roll. But because of the thematic continuity of each season, the finales provided definite ends, while still leaving you wanting more.

Game of Thrones, by contrast, is all about the cliffhangers—but to a great extent, its cliffhangers are doubly effective because this is a series whose endgame was established early on (arguably, in the pilot episode’s cold open). Even though the novels are still in progress (dammit, GRRM!), it’s been pretty clear from the start just what kind of ultimate confrontation we’re heading to—and though we’ve seen skirmishes (Fist of the First Men, Hardhome), we end this season with the first real battle of the great war. (It’s amusing to speculate on just how much bigger the sales of the novels would have been if HBO had pulled the plug after season four or so—how many people would have run to the bookstore to see what happens in the end).

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And so—to finally answer your question, Nikki—what we’re seeing in this episode, and what we’ve been seeing in the various reunions over the past ten episodes or so, is a deeply satisfying narrative convergence. What did I think of everyone coming together again here? It felt like a payoff for all the time we’ve been watching this show. Considering that for six seasons, one half of the action was taking place on an entirely different continent—with Daenerys building her strength, her confidence, and her armies—having her actually in the same space as Cersei Lannister was brilliant.

But as for the leadup, I can’t tell you how much I loved this scene—Tyrion and Pod’s heartfelt reunion, the Hound and Brienne’s comically respectful exchange (“I thought you were dead”; “Not yet. You came pretty close”), in which she tells him Arya is alive and well at Winterfell; when he asks who’s protecting her, Brienne says, “The only one that needs protecting is whoever gets in her way,” to which the Hound responds, feelingly, “It won’t be me.” Ha! Ol’ Sad Eyes is learning some wisdom in his age. And then, of course, Tyrion and Bronn: on reminding Bronn of his offer to double whatever anyone else pays him, and suggesting that arranging a meeting between him and Jaime might make Bronn suspect in Cersei’s eyes, Bronn counters that it’s because of him that Cersei now has the option of beheading a bunch of traitors as soon as she gets bored with their badinage, “All thanks to Ser Bronn of the fucking Blackwater! If that’s not looking after myself, I don’t know what is.” Tyrion’s expression is priceless—caught between knowing the danger they’re all in, the fact that if everything goes pear-shaped that Bronn will have out-thought him, and grudging respect for Bronn’s survival instincts. “It’s good to see you again,” he says after a moment, and we know he’s sincere when he says it. “Yeah, you too,” Bronn admits.

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Lots of side-eye going on in this scene.

But then we arrive, everyone wearing their game faces as they enter the Dragonpit for a confrontation we’ve been waiting six freakin’ years to see—everyone, that is, but the Mother of Dragons herself (the fact that Bronn and Pod leave to have a drink “while the fancy folks talk” was hilarious—I think I’d almost rather have been present to hear their conversation than that of the A plot). There follows several moments of watchfulness as some of our principals—Jon, Brienne, Jorah, Tyrion, the Hound—survey the arena for possible threats or treachery. “I left this shit city because I didn’t want to die in it,” the Hound snarls at Tyrion. “Am I going to die in this shit city?” When Tyrion acknowledges that possibility, the Hound says, with equal measure venom and fatalism, “This is all your idea. Seems every bad idea has some Lannister cunt behind it.” “And some Clegane cunt to help them see it through,” says Tyrion through gritted teeth, and at that moment Sandor sees his brother Gregor—surely the most poisonous of all the reunions of the episode, even more so than Cersei and Tyrion. As the queen’s procession passes through, there are a series of glances: Brienne and Jaime, Cersei and Tyrion, and Euron and Theon. Before Cersei can complain about Daenerys’ absence, the Hound strides up to confront the Mountain. “What did they do to you?” he asks. “Doesn’t fucking matter. You know who’s coming for you. You always know.” (Ser Gregor might want to pay special attention to the upcoming tutorial on how to kill the undead).

 

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That moment you stop complaining about someone’s tardiness.

Cersei is quite irked by Daenerys’ tardiness, quite possibly because showing up after her enemies had been her power play. But of course Daenerys knows better than anyone how to make an entrance, and on rewatching the sequence in which she swoops in on Drogon, I paid more attention to the expressions of everyone assembled—and it’s more or less a masterclass in face-acting. Jaime, presumably still somewhat traumatized by his last dragon encounter, is fearful and nervous; Cersei, discomfited, but refusing to stand and give her adversary the satisfaction; Euron, genuinely perturbed for once; Davos, stoical as always; Jorah, obviously trying to suppress a grin; and Jon, lovestruck—or possibly slightly gassy, it’s hard to tell with him.

I think however that the prize for face-acting in this entire sequence goes to Qyburn—not afraid of the dragon so much as fascinated in a deeply creepy way … just as he is when he first sees the wight. When he later picks up the severed undead arm, he wears an expression that one imagines Tycho Nestoris would wear on seeing Smaug’s hoard—one of something approaching lust. Anton Lesser, the actor playing Qyburn, does a masterful job conveying a mad scientist’s sociopathic fascination with stuff that could further his diabolical studies. The things I could do with this, he seems to think of both the dragon and the wight.

Truly, if there was ever a character who might happily work for the Night King …

Also great face acting: the “WTF?” Tyrion gives Jaime when Euron interrupts him to yell at Theon.

I quite enjoyed this scene: I wasn’t sure how it would play out when I saw the episode preview, but I loved the balance of egos and personalities, and the way in which the good guys present their case to Cersei. “There is nothing that can erase the past fifty years,” Tyrion admits. A truce is the best anyone can hope for in this situation, a pause in hostilities while the greater threat is dealt with. Eventually, it will come down to Daenerys versus Cersei, and Cersei can see no reason to pause—as far as she is concerned, all of this is a pantomime, designed to neuter the Lannisters while Daenerys and Jon Snow muster even greater forces.

Which, to be fair, is precisely the response they’d expected from her, which is why “We have something to show you,” says Tyrion. Cue the Hound emerging from the Dragonpit green room with the crated wight.

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I loved this protracted nature of the sequence that follows: the excruciatingly slow reveal as the Hound unlocks and unbars the crate, while Cersei shares skeptical glances with Jaime; the expectant looks on the faces of Daenerys et al; and finally, the long moment after it has been opened in which we all wonder if perhaps the ice zombie has disintegrated in the interim … and what that might mean for this summit.

And then: The Walking Dead: Westeros!

What did you think of the reveal, Nikki, and of Cersei’s response to it?

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Nikki: I thought the same thing, that the wight was actually completely dead and not sorta dead, and we were about to be in big trouble — of course, I was thinking this while simultaneously knowing deep down it wasn’t, and thinking of the writers, “You sly bastards.” Of course it’s alive, and it’s effing TERRIFYING.

On The Walking Dead, zombies can freeze. There’s an onrunning joke that if they would just walk north, for god’s sakes, instead of hanging around in Atlanta, they would be in the frozen tundra and the zombies would freeze where they stand. Here in Westeros, of course, the rules are different. When you’re created in ice, you can move in ice, and that last battle north of the Wall was a formidable one. And yet, this wight has been chained in a box for a few days, and now he’s in a warmer temperature for the first time, and he just seemed to move SO FAST. That’s not what we typically think of the slow-moving, lumbering beasts. The audience is privy to the Cersei-cam view, and just as it runs right at her, we see it coming for us, all sinew and bone and grey, hanging skin… and screaming. The look on Cersei’s face when that thing flung itself at her was one of the best moments in the series for me. She looks genuinely terrified, but just as she tried to keep her face neutral and unimpressed when Daenerys arrived via Dragon Express earlier in the meeting, here she similarly tries not to show her fear.

It doesn’t work.

At some point Cersei moves from “I’m not going to show anyone I might be scared” to “OMG GET THIS HORRIBLE THING AWAY FROM ME” and her hands clutch the sides of the chair and her eyes grow to the size of saucers and she pulls herself as far back into the chair as she can get. To her credit, she does NOT jump out of the chair and run screaming from the Dragon Pit, but she looks about as scared as I’ve ever seen Cersei, except for the moment when she was kneeling by Joffrey’s side and saw the life flow out of him.

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Moments earlier Cersei had referred to the Army of the Dead as nothing but a colossal joke, and Dany as nothing but a usurper. Now… shit just got real. Now everyone is silenced, even the loudmouthed Euron, who showed just how uncouth he is by interrupting the only major summit of everyone trying to lay claim to the Iron Throne and making it all about him just a few moments earlier. Westeros’s own Dr. Frankenstein Qyburn, as you mentioned, Chris, looks utterly fascinated.

The dead are coming back to life and they will eat us all.

We don’t stand a bloody chance.

Dragons schmagons, that is a DEAD GUY in front of us and he almost ripped out Cersei’s throat.

Suddenly, all the politicking and battles between human armies seems completely petty, and mean nothing. Cersei will truly be the queen of the ashes if this guy persists. I mean… she’ll be queen for one minute before she’s eaten, too, of course. Much was made of the Dragon Pit on the way in as being the most terrifying place in all of Westeros. Now, given what they now know is coming for them, the Dragon Pit seems positively safe, and yet in that one moment, it truly is the most terrifying place in Westeros. Even Brienne looked like she was about to soil her armour.

Euron asks if the zombies can swim, and the answer is no. Welp! That’s THAT, then, and he grabs his things and says he’s running back to the Iron Islands. He leans in to Dany on his away out and tells her she’d best head back to her island, too, because when all is said and done, and when this winter is over, the people on the islands will be the only ones alive.

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Which… seems like a good plan until we remember that now, they can fly. D’oh. But more on that later.

As he walks away, Cersei admits Euron is a complete coward, but moves back to official business, and says she will join forces with them and will accept their truce. “Until the dead are defeated,” she says, “they are the enemy.” For once it looks like Cersei’s going to do the right thing. However, she has a tiny little request in return: after the dead have been vanquished, the King of the North needs to retreat to the north and stay there. He cannot take up arms against her army, he cannot choose sides. He has to be Switzerland. “I know Ned Stark’s son will be true to his word.” (At which point GRRM, sitting in the back, stands up, looks around and says, “Sorry, does anyone see one of Ned Stark’s sons sitting anywhere here because I DON’T.” Ahem.)

Okay, this is easy, Jon, you just look at her and say, “Cool, cool… no problem. As soon as the wights are all dead Ima head back to my homestead and y’all can fight this one to the end, that’s totally cool.” Then he can turn and give a big wink to Dany when Cersei isn’t looking and it’s all great, this is going to be ea—

I am true to my word, or I try to be. That is why I cannot give you what you ask. I cannot serve two queens. I’ve already pledged myself to Queen Daenerys of House Targaryen.

GODDAMMIT JON SNOW.

Davos stands there, dumbfounded, suddenly realizing he really should have counselled this kid better because clearly Jon Snow is more of a dumb shit than even Ygritte thought he was. Daenerys goes wide-eyed. Tyrion just closes his. Somewhere, off in space, Captain Picard is face-palming in frustration.

Cersei has a brief moment where she probably thinks, “Well, good luck with this one then, Dany, because Jon Snow’s armies will be marching on Dorne when they take a wrong right turn on their way to King’s Landing. Seriously, where do you find these guys?!” And she stands up, tells them there’s nothing more to discuss, and to have fun fighting the White Walkers in the north — she’ll deal with whatever gets past them.

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As the King’s Landing contingent leaves the stage, Brienne races after Jaime and tries to appeal to him. She saw how scared he looked when that thing jumped out of the box, because it mirrored her own face, and she knows that he knows they can’t just let it happen, that if they deal with “whatever is left” it’ll be not only the 100,000 marching south, but everyone in the north that will have been killed and reanimated to march on the south. Jaime counters that he can’t help her: “I’m loyal to the queen and you’re loyal to Sansa and her dolt brother.” (HAHA!) Brienne stops him in his tracks when she says, “Oh fuck loyalty!”

Whoa.

Brienne is a character who is loyal to a fault. She has actually made questionable decisions at times due to her unbending loyalty, has put herself in harm’s way constantly for loyalty, has even questioned her own loyalty knowing it’s not leading her down the right path… and yet, she remains loyal to Renly Baratheon, to Catelyn Stark, to Sansa and Arya Stark. So even Jaime almost gets whiplash when his head jerks back at this statement coming from her, of all people. “Fuck loyalty?!” he says. She tells him they can’t beat this alone, and he knows it, and he has to tell the queen. At this point Cersei has stopped and is staring at the two of them — two people, by the way, who actually became quite intimate at one time, with Brienne being the only person who is a rival for Jaime’s affection. But he just says, “Tell her what?” and keeps walking.

Back on the stage, people are pissed. Tyrion watches Cersei leave. He knows his sister better than anyone, and knows that not only have they just lost her army, but Jon Snow would have lost all Cersei’s respect for not lying. She doesn’t respect honesty — the last person she met who was this stupidly honest was Ned Stark, and we all know what she did to him. Even Theon is standing there looking surprised in the background, and I couldn’t help but think only Jon Snow could make Theon Greyjoy look like a Rhodes Scholar in comparison.

Davos flat-out says, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” Daenerys marches over and says, “I’m grateful for your loyalty, but my dragon died so we could be here, and if it’s all for nothing, then he died for nothing.”

Jon looks torn — in his heart he believes he did the right thing, but he knows he’s just betrayed the very queen he swore an oath to, which is the OPPOSITE of the right thing in his world. Tyrion turns on his heel and says with evident frustration in his voice, “Have you ever considered learning how to lie now and then JUST A BIT??”

And Jon Snow looks at them all with that look of his and says he won’t swear an oath to uphold, because the world is built on lies and over time words mean nothing and blah blah blah self-righteous blah blah blah I’m ushering in a better world yadda yadda yadda.

Tyrion says the more immediate problem they have to face now is that they’re all FUCKED. And he has decided the only way they could possibly get unfucked is if he goes to Cersei himself. I couldn’t help but wonder, by the way, if the Lannister army is truly the only real shot they have against the White Walkers? Daenerys slaughtered their army in the valley, and I know that wasn’t the entire Lannister army but it was certainly a large portion of them. And she reduced them to fewer than a thousand men. So… is that really their best chance? But anyway…

Dany rushes to his side and says she didn’t come all this way to have her Hand murdered by the queen, and he said neither has he, but it’s the only way. Jon Snow offers to go himself — because somehow even being a major player in what just happened he seems to have missed WHAT JUST HAPPENED — and they all look at him like he’s even stupider than they thought three seconds ago and Tyrion says NO, he will go to the queen because it’s his sister, and he knows her. And if she kills him she kills him, but this is the only way we’ll get anything done.

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And Tyrion heads off to see Cersei, but first he has to get through his brother Jaime. I know we’ve already seen one reunion between Tyrion and Jaime, but this one felt more like the one I wanted to see: you can see that Jaime still has some affection for Tyrion — and perhaps, now that he’s seen Tyrion’s queen up close and sees that Tyrion is actually there for good reason and means well, he actually respects and feels some awe for his brother. Tyrion is the imp who was never cared for or loved by his mother, who was the bane of his father’s existence, who was despised by his sister, who became a drunk who was going to amount to nothing, but who got a lot farther by working a lot harder by being a lot smarter by being a self-starter… and he became the Hand of Queen Daenerys. Jaime sits next to Cersei’s throne, but only because at night she’s, you know, sitting on his. And despite being put into the dungeon and exiled and Jaime saying he would kill him if he ever saw him again, Tyrion has never stopped looking up to his older brother, never stopped wanting him to respect Tyrion for everything Tyrion has done. He believes his brother is one of the most fearsome warriors alive, and while that respect has cooled somewhat, you could tell in this scene he’s still seeking that approval.

Tyrion looks at Jaime and says he might be an idiot, but he’s about to walk into a room with the most murderous woman alive (considering how many people Dany has killed with that dragon that might not be completely true but let’s not fixate on that). And of course, Jaime doesn’t argue with him. He tells him that perhaps he should say his goodbye now, and even though there’s a joke underlying that moment, you can tell Jaime would be saddened and torn if that does, in fact, play out to be true. I loved this quiet little scene between the two brothers.

And then, Tyrion walks into the lion’s den. What did you think of this scene, Chris? Did you think in another life Tyrion and Cersei might have made good drinking buddies?

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Christopher: Um, no. I can’t imagine the circumstances in which Cersei would ever be friendly with Tyrion. There was an Imagur.com visual recap of the episode with comic captions making the rounds on Facebook; it is worth reading just because it is hilarious, but also because it is the only thing I’ve seen that points out that the Hound’s presence goes unremarked by the Lannisters (in spite of the fact that he used to work for them—and was, in fact, Joffrey’s sword shield, and that his desertion at the Battle of Blackwater Bay was kind of a big deal for that reason):

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“All ugly people look the same to me” is perhaps something of a reductive distillation of Cersei’s worldview, but it is not unhelpful in summing up a certain aspect of her character: she doesn’t mind ugliness when it is coupled with power and serves her purposes (e.g. the Mountain), but when it falls outside her use, it is beneath contempt. One imagines that had Tyrion been born a clean-limbed version of her and Jaime, Cersei might have been inclined to forgive him her mother’s death in childbirth; by the same token, had he not been such a clever little shit and rebellious to boot, she might have been satisfied with contempt as opposed to outright loathing. Cersei’s hatred of Tyrion (in contrast to Daenerys’ valuing of him) is representative of her congenital antipathy to anything not falling within her very rigid sense of herself, which is also her sense of how the world should work. Euron’s sneering comment that children born like Tyrion were left to die of exposure reminds us of Tyrion’s first-season observation that peasant families in Westeros did the same—that the only reason he was allowed to live was because he was a Lannister. And for all of Cersei’s veneration of her father, we know all too well she wishes he had treated Tyrion as the Iron Islanders or peasant Westrosi would have.

In a more metaphorical sense, though, Tyrion represents the peasantry and all the rest of the people(s) Cersei sees as beneath her. If her conversation with Tyrion makes anything clear (if it wasn’t already clear), it’s that her sole and primary concern is for herself and for her family.

So no—I cannot envision a parallel reality in which Cersei and Tyrion would be good drinking buddies.

That being said, this scene between them is one of the best acted parts of the series thus far (and as we both know, that’s saying a lot). The intensity in this scene is remarkable, due in part to what I mentioned before about how long it’s been in coming—but in the hands of lesser actors, it would have been … well, less than it is. It took me some time, as you and our more devoted readers will remember, Nikki, to warm up to Lena Headey as Cersei—not because I didn’t think she was a good actor, but because she was so very different from how GRRM depicts her in the novels. But she has so totally owned this character that when The Winds of Winter finally comes out in thirty years, I suspect I’ll find the Cersei of the novels out of step with what I’ve become accustomed to.

What I loved most about this scene relates to what I was just saying about Cersei’s absolute sense of order—her anger with Tyrion for killing Tywin has little or nothing in this moment to do with love or grief, but rather with the fact that the death of Tywin left the Lannisters vulnerable. Tyrion’s defense is that his father had sentenced him to death, knowing full well he was innocent; and further that Tywin had humiliated and belittled him his entire life. But they’re speaking different languages. Cersei might feel grief for her children, and blame Tyrion’s murder of Tywin for that, but the greater sin—the absolute sin, as far as she is concerned—is the betrayal of family, the making vulnerable. As we have seen this entire series, vulnerability is precisely the thing that Cersei loathes and fears the most.

Which is not to say there is no humanity in her—no, that would be too simplistic, too easy, and unworthy of this series. Cersei is, as characters from Olenna Tyrell to Tyrion himself have professed, a monster—but she’s hardly a Bond villain or some sort of mustache-twirling, cackling caricature of evil. What I love about this scene is the pain and fear that Lena Headey brings to the character, roiling just beneath the surface and inflecting the rage she professes. Everything she does in this episode is about restraint; the genius of the summit scene was, in part, due to Cersei’s studied calm, betrayed only in minute gestures and facial expressions. Ditto her scene with Tyrion. Peter Dinklage gets to emote here, which isn’t at all a knock against his performance—his speech that crescendos with him daring Cersei to order the Mountain to kill him (and his shuddering relief when she doesn’t) is brilliant. But the tension of that moment doesn’t lie in the Mountain starting to unsheathe his sword so much as the close up of Cersei’s face and the hunger there as she balances on the line between desire and pragmatism.

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But of course she doesn’t accede to her own wish to see Tyrion dead—instead, she plays him. It’s really only obvious on rewatching—and it makes me doubly suspicious that her pregnancy is a sham—that she seeks to fetch Tyrion in with her talk of how seeing the wight narrowed the world for her down to concern for her immediate family. What’s brilliant about her deceit here is that one suspects it isn’t really deceit: I have little doubt Cersei is speaking truth when she says that the specter of the army of the dead didn’t make her fear for the world at large, but for herself and those close to her. If nothing else, this is what this tête-a-tête articulates to us: that Jon Snow and Daenerys, whatever their flaws, are the good guys because they care for the whole of Westeros and not just those close to them. Dany’s encounter with the Night King transformed her thinking, even though it came at the cost of one of her children. Jon Snow has always been on the side of the masses. In the moment when she’s most obviously signaling her ostensible pregnancy to Tyrion, Cersei wonders whether or not Euron had the right idea about retreating to an island—and we wonder if, in that moment, she’s sincere.

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With that, we return to the Dragonpit, and the next installment in the Jon and Dany chronicles. Of the various complaints about this season, and the final few episodes in particular, those not preoccupied with geography (guilty) have fixated on the fact that we don’t really get a better development of the romance between these two. The most critical have charged that there’s NO chemistry between these two WHATSOEVER, but I disagree with that—I think there’s definite chemistry between Dany and Jon, it just needed more cultivation. And perhaps a little more subtlety in the writing? I mean, it seems that every time the two of them talked, Daenerys saw fit to remind him that she couldn’t have children … which can be read as (1) Dany already thinking about getting it on, (2) offering a caveat in advance of a possible dynastic marriage, or (3) basically letting him know that, hey, birth control? not an issue! That being said, the final seconds of this scene were redolent with desire—it was totally a moment in which the two would-be lovers really wanted to kiss, not least because Jon Snow (who might know something after all) has, to coin an expression, the audacity of hope. When Dany tells him that she learned of her barrenness from “the witch who murdered my husband,” Jon asks, “Has it occurred to you that she might not have been a reliable source of information?” Really, what’s remarkable here is that after all these years it’s JON FUCKING SNOW who points out this rather obvious flaw in Daenerys’ reasoning.

Cue Tyrion’s return, in advance of Cersei and her entourage. “My armies will not stand down,” she informs them all. “Nor will I pull them back to the capital. I will march them north to fight alongside you in the great war.” Awesome! Nothing could possibly go wrong now, right?

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Well, as if to distract us from the UTTER CERTAINTY of Cersei’s insincerity, we cut to Sansa’s conversation with Littlefinger, and a further suggestion that Sansa means to do Arya harm. In order to emphasize this, we open on her tapping a scroll on the table—news that Jon had chosen to bend the knee to Daenerys, which is bad enough, but also reminding us of the incriminating scroll Littlefinger had left in his mattress for Arya to find. But it is Jon’s choice to submit to Daenerys that is the first item of business, with Sansa (rather understandably) irked and a bit incredulous that he would do such a thing. Littlefinger of course wants to make it sordid: citing the rumour that Daenerys is beautiful, he says “Jon is young and unmarried; Daenerys is young and unmarried.” An alliance, he says, makes sense—together they’d be difficult to defeat, but though he was named King in the North, “he can be un-named.”

And here’s the point at which, in hindsight, we wonder how much Sansa and Arya have already started plotting? Is this entire scene a means of drawing Littlefinger out, or is this where Sansa has her epiphany thanks to Littlefinger’s “game” of imagining worst intentions? Is it after this scene that Sansa goes to Arya and says, “Hey, I know we’ve been bitching at each other, but where did you get that scroll?”, or is she now just knowingly giving him enough rope to hang himself? I guess we can’t ever know that, but it’s still a pretty decent scene, especially considering it’s Mayor Carcetti’s swan song. Of all the characters on this series, he’s had a good run—of those who we met in season one, he’s one of the few who has made it this far.

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He leads Sansa through all of the worst possible scenarios, all of the worst possible reasons Arya has acted as she has—leading her, ultimately, to the conclusion that she wants to be the Lady of Winterfell.

If I’d really been thinking, this is where I’d have gotten off the Sansa-vs-Arya train and realized (for certain) that Littlefinger’s number was up. Not because I considered it unlikely that Arya might be murderous, but because of a flaw in Littlefinger’s logic, one based in his own desires—he assumes that everyone else has ambitions comparable to his own, that everyone else wants power and status. Or else that everyone else can be convinced that ostensible rivals are driven by a desire for power or status. But however creepy Sansa’s encounter with Arya and her bag of faces was, one thing that emerged from that (and from every encounter they’ve had since Arya’s return) is that Arya has no desire to be the “Lady”—that she has spent her life charting a different course.

I’d like to think this was the moment that a part of Sansa’s brain called bullshit. But I guess we’ll never know.

From there we cut to Daenerys’ war room, and whether or not it’s in Dany’s best interests to fly or sail. What did you think of Daenerys’ declaration that “We’ll sail together,” Nikki? Was she already thinking of that sumptuous stateroom she has on her ship?

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Nikki: It’s possible she was thinking of that stateroom, but more importantly, she chose a side. Like you, as our readers know, I was late to the “Dany ♥ Jonny” party because I really just wanted to see it as a political match-up. (And, you know, that whole auntie thing.) And I’d like to think that Daenerys here is ruled by her head and not her heart and was making a solid political move in saying she’ll sail and going against the advice of Jorah, much to Jorah’s chagrin (and he obviously can see the attraction between the two). But then again, so what if she is ruled by her heart? It would only show us that she’s human. She’s been involved in so many political moves for someone so young, and the only person who’s ever truly had her heart — Khal Drogo — was a union she was forced into, one that began with rape. So hey, why not have her fall for the cute, dumb jock?

Mr. November leaves the war room and is crossing the throne room when Theon stops him, and we have the only private discussion between these two former sort-of brothers of Winterfell. Neither one was legitimately a Stark brother, both of them had lived on the periphery, although Jon had more stake than Theon (remember way back in season one, when they found the direwolves, Jon got one but Theon didn’t). Theon tells Jon that he respected what he did back at the Dragon Pit, and unlike everyone else present, Theon wasn’t surprised by Jon’s actions, because they were in keeping with the honourable Jon Snow he grew up with. “Every step you take [every move you make] seems to be the right one,” he tells Jon. Jon plays it humble, saying he’s made many mistakes, and we know he has. “Not compared to me, you haven’t,” says Theon, and Jon immediately agrees.

Theon explains that when he was at Winterfell he was always torn between loyalties: he had been taken as Ned Stark’s ward away from the Iron Islands during the Greyjoy uprising against the Iron Throne, but even though Ned took him as a prize when Balon Greyjoy surrendered to Robert Baratheon, Ned has raised him with love, not as a slave. He’s eaten and slept and grown up alongside the Stark children, and became very close to Robb. And yet, he was torn. He was born a Greyjoy, and remained a Greyjoy. He had worshipped the Drowned God as a child and had a sister, Yara (his brothers were killed in the war). And yet, he was also a Stark, living at Winterfell, learning archery and sword-fighting among the other Starks. In this declaration we finally get to the central problem in Theon’s head: having grown up torn between two loyalties, it’s difficult for him to remain loyal to anyone. It’s why he so easily switched sides in the early seasons before Ramsay Bolton nabbed and tortured him. And he lives with the pain of knowing how his lack of loyalty ended up hurting both the Starks and the Greyjoys. Jon listens to him, and you can see his loathing dissipate for Theon as he does, because he knows how it feels — Jon was accepted as a Stark by Ned, but was always treated like an outsider by Catelyn because Jon represented her husband’s infidelity. (What I would give to bring Catelyn back to life for one minute just to tell her that Ned had never been unfaithful to her.)

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Game of Thrones is a story of outsiders. Tyrion is the imp who didn’t belong in the Lannister clan. Jon Snow is the bastard who was never fully welcomed at Winterfell. Theon Greyjoy was a boy torn between two Houses. Ramsay Bolton lost his mind as the bastard son of Roose Bolton. Brienne of Tarth was so large she could never be trussed up like a lady, but because she was still a woman she could never be fully treated like a male soldier. The Hound’s own brother pushed his face into the fire, scarring him for life and making him an outcast. Samwell Tarly didn’t have the desire or ability to be the military leader of House Tarly like his father wanted him to be, so he was shipped off to the Wall. Ser Jorah was exiled from House Mormont after he had participated in the slave trade, which shamed his family. Gendry was one of the many bastard children of Robert Baratheon, but he lives in fear of Cersei finding him and killing him so he can’t lay claim to the throne. The list goes on and on. Even within the legitimate families, you have characters like Arya who don’t fit, or Tommen, who knows he’s a bastard but goes along with the whole “Baratheon” story.

Despite his sympathy, Jon acknowledges that Theon has been guilty of many crimes. “I can’t forgive you for all of it, but what I can forgive, I do,” he says. And then he finally looks right at Theon and adds, “You don’t need to choose. You’re a Greyjoy, and you’re a Stark.” This is such an important line: all of the people I’ve just named above have been treated as outcasts, but they are part of something. Tyrion is still a legitimate Lannister. Theon a legitimate Greyjoy who could just as easily swear fealty to House Stark. Despite Ramsay’s bastardy, he took over as the head of House Bolton (well, you know, after he murdered his legit baby brother). Brienne is the most formidable swordsperson in the Seven Kingdoms (save, perhaps, Arya) and has been accepted into many folds. And similarly, Jon Snow is a Stark, even if he’s not a Stark by way of Eddard (something we know and he doesn’t). He’s been raised as one, he thinks more like Eddard than any other character on this show, and he remains loyal to his House.

Theon tells Jon that Yara actually tried to save him when no one else would, recalling the scene where she breaks in to save Theon, who cowered in the back of the cage and refused to go with her. “She needs me now,” he says. “So why’re you still talking to me?” asks Jon, and he leaves. I was a wee bit disappointed at the very ending of this conversation. Jon just told him he’s as much a Stark as he is a Greyjoy, and should be proud of that. And then when Theon hints that he could use some help in the next little bit to retrieve his sister before Euron departs with her, Jon says, “You’re on your own.”

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Theon heads down to the beach to try to conjure up help from the Iron soldiers since Jon didn’t offer any, but the men will not be led by the man they perceive as Reek. They tell him they’re going to start over, find an island, kill all the men, and take their women (incidentally, this is actually part of the Drowned God philosophy and very much what the culture of the Iron Islands is based on). In the fight that ensues I actually thought Theon might die, but no matter how many times he knocks him down and screams at him to STAY DOWN, Theon conjures up his inner Rocky Balboa and stands up again. And then he gains the upper hand when the Greyjoy soldier kicks him in the crotch… and then does it again… and Theon just stands there grinning at him.

It reminded me of that scene in my favourite episode of King of the Hill, where Bobby Hill goes to the women’s self-defense classes and learns the best way to take down a bully is to kick him in the crotch while yelling, “That’s my purse! I don’t know you!” (What ensues is comedy GOLD.) And when his Mom starts to berate him at the end of the episode, he kicks her squarely in the crotch… and she doesn’t go down.

Where Peggy Hill does not kill her 10-year-old son on the front lawn at that point, Theon does move in for the kill and takes out the soldier with his bare hands, which is a pretty awesome display of ferocity, and then he moves to go get his sister.

I’ll admit the lack of the actual Yara rescue scene was a little disappointing to me in this episode — I felt like that’s something that could have been resolved now so we don’t have to wait until season eight, but whatever. That said, time is of the essence at this point, and I wouldn’t want that scene to be rushed, despite the whole Greyjoy saga being rather peripheral at this point.

And from here we move to the scene with Arya and Sansa. Remember last week when you said that for the first time in the series you truly hated Arya, and then I spent about 3,000 words explaining to everyone exactly where the sisters were in season one and how if we look at it entirely from Arya’s point of view, it actually stands to reason that she would hate her sister, although the only part I thought felt suspicious is when she said Sansa has nothing to worry about if she’s innocent, when Arya’s experience would tell her that’s not true at all?

Well… this week all I have to say is:

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Anyway. I still think it was well done and fitting that Arya should go after Sansa, and I swear not 10 minutes after we posted our blog last week, the fan theory that Arya and Sansa were actually playing Littlefinger blew up all over my FB newsfeed. But my first response, as I posted on my FB wall, was, if someone is actually being played, I believe Arya’s doing it and Sansa’s not in on it. And therefore my explanation still stands because I believe Arya was playing everyone knowing that Littlefinger was watching and Sansa — thinking that her sister really was about to kill her — would be able to pull him into a trap, but at the same time, she was releasing some of the hostility and pent-up feelings she’s had towards her sister for many years. It’s a perfect way to get off her chest what she really thinks of Sansa, while at the same time going, “Well THAT was a fun pantomime of which I didn’t mean a single word, eh sis??”

What’s come out in the last few days — I’m not sure if you saw it or not, Chris — is that there was a deleted scene where Sansa actually went to Bran and asked if Mr. I Can See Across Time could look at Arya for her and tell her if she’s actually planning to kill her. They took out this scene for time reasons, but it goes a LONG way to explaining that no, Sansa wasn’t actually in on it, but in this moment she finally realized Arya’s stunning endgame, and that it would help the two of them put an end to Lord Baelish once and for all. It’s too bad they took it out, because without that scene, it leaves the [non]-trail a little too jarring, and for a show that shows us SO much exposition with every character, putting the audience into their heads, it rarely falls to such trickery.

That said, Arya’s dagger slice was pretty awesome to watch.

Though, oddly, I’ll admit, I think the show loses a little something without Lord Baelish in it. Not only does he keep everyone on their toes — and he’s actually put that delightful Lucky Charms Leprechaun lilt back into his voice in recent episodes — but he’s actually a rather sympathetic character in the books, I felt, simply because the books provide the flashback to his childhood where you see what a sweet person he was, always hanging back beside Catelyn trying to impress her, while Eddard was a bit of a buffoon to him.

What did you think of the quick death of Lord Baelish, Chris? Were you at all sad to see him go, at least from the show’s narrative point of view?

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Christopher: Before I get to that, I want to dispute your characterization of Jon Snow as a not-too-bright jock. I’d say rather that he’s the not-too-bright emo guy who writes really bad poetry, but whom everyone likes anyway because he’s a genuinely nice guy. I mean, as long as we’re slotting everyone into Breakfast Club-style designations. He’s really kind of a combination of Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall.

But anyway … I’m at once delighted that Littlefinger got his comeuppance in such dramatic fashion (“as justice goes, it’s not unpoetic”), and also sad to see him go—both from a narrative perspective, but also because I just love watching Aiden Gillen do his thing so much. He’s such a good actor. The first thing I ever saw him in was the British Queer as Folk, in which he played Stuart—the sexpot character in the small group of friends on which the show focused. He was kind of an asshole on that show too, but so very compelling. It’s a testament to his acting that when the American adaptation was made, they cast an actor (Gale Harold) in the Gillen role so good-looking that he might possibly have Greek god lineage. Gillen is himself quite an attractive man, but he acted his sex appeal—there are moments in the British Queer as Folk in which be basically exudes sex. (Fun fact for anyone who likes to play television series master-universe crossover: the teenager Stuart deflowers in the first episode of Queer as Folk, Nathan, is played by Charlie Hunnam. So for those keeping score, Jax Teller of Sons of Anarchy had his cherry popped by Lord Petyr Baelish).

From there, Gillen went on to play idealistic councilman Tommy Carcetti on The Wire, whose election to the role of mayor starts with him having all the best intentions, but soon he become compromised by his own ambition and ego. When he was cast as Littlefinger, I joked (after I’d done my Dance of Joy for such brilliant casting) that this was perfect because Littlefinger was basically Carcetti ten years on, having lost whatever idealism he’d had at the start. I’ll miss him for all of those reasons, and for the fact that he’s always just a value-added character in any scene he graces (his occasional lapses into Irish Batman notwithstanding).

littlefinger-wut

“Wait. What?”

 

But alas, Littlefinger is gone—and we cut from his death to the shadowed outline of Cersei from behind and she walks to where Jaime is briefing his generals (just as an aside—is it just me, or have they been using this shot, i.e. the medium close-up from behind featuring a character’s head and shoulders, as they walk to whatever significant meeting they have, an awful lot this season? It could very well serve as the cover for the DVD collection). Jaime is, unsurprisingly, doing what he does best—leading the Lannister armies. He bites out a series of orders crisply and clearly, and the impression we get is one of extreme competence. He’s in his element here. So of course it’s up to Cersei to disabuse him of his assumptions.

Dismissing his generals, she marvels at his stupidity—did he really imagine they were joining up with Jon Snow and Daenerys? To be fair, Jaime isn’t the most subtle of thinkers—much to Tywin’s dismay, his heir was, as Cersei observes, always far more interested in hunting and fighting. Tyrion was the true thinker, though Cersei now seems to have adopted the role of the key Lannister intellect now that the Imp has gone over to the enemy.

It’s worth pausing a moment to note once again the way in which different characters have evolved over the seven seasons of this show. Jaime Lannister when we first met him was brash, arrogant, and amoral—something encapsulated in how he pushes Bran out the window at the end of the pilot episode, obviously not wanting to do so, but also more or less indifferent to the fact that he’s killing a child. (Interesting thought—one assumes some time next season he’ll meet Bran; will the new Three Eyed Raven bear a grudge?). Since then, he’s been captured by the enemy, imprisoned, released, re-captured and de-phalanged, returned home, lost his son, watched his brother convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, helped his brother escape, lost his father to that brother’s vengeance, lost his daughter, and lost his other son.

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“But … but … I’ve only JUST NOW developed this sense of morality!”

So, y’know, he’s been through a lot. And apparently for Jaime Lannister, that puts him in touch with his inner Ned Stark: he’s appalled at Cersei’s plot, mostly because he’s given his word, and her betrayal means he must betray his own honour. The amorality of Season One Jaime is nowhere to be seen; instead, we have an older, wiser (but apparently still unsubtle) Kingslayer for whom words actually mean something. Not so much his sister: “I’ll say whatever I need to say to ensure the survival of our house,” she tells him, but Jaime has shifted into a new paradigm. “This isn’t about noble houses,” he rages, “this is about the living and the dead.” He gets it—he’s had his Saul-on-the-road-to-Taursus moment, or what I suppose in Westeros we now have to call his Jon Snow moment. The stakes are clear to him. He made a promise … but Cersei only concerned about survival. Her survival, and that of her family. All of the scenarios she outlines for him—the dead win, they come south; the living win, they come south—she frames not perhaps as win-win, but certainly that their would-be allies have about the same designs on them as the wight they’d seen that morning. That is to say: there is no eventuality in which the Lannisters are not ultimately on the chopping block.

One can almost admire her cold calculus: if one’s only concern is oneself and those closest to you, it makes total sense not to risk anything when your enemies will destroy each other. The one variable Cersei doesn’t seem to have considered, however, is that if the Night King wins, he comes south THAT MUCH MORE POWERFUL. If Jon and Dany prevail … well, they’ll almost certainly be very depleted, to the point where Cersei’s armies have a fighting chance. That’s an awfully big risk to take, but Cersei doesn’t seem to have figured that out. Jaime, by contrast, has—and despite his prospective fatherhood, Cersei’s maybe-baby is not a poker chip one wants to play in this imminent war.

Especially not when one considers the fact that his relatively newfound honour puts him at odds with the woman he’s loved literally all his life. Seeing the wight pushed Jaime past a certain point, but Cersei’s own recognition that “The monsters are real” doesn’t change her calculus, for a reason that was made explicit to Jaime by the Queen of Thorns: though Cersei goes on to name all the figures of myth and legend from White Walkers to Dothraki Screamers, the fact becomes unavoidable to Jaime is that the true monster is the woman he loves.

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What I love about this scene is that it really is a paradigm shift for Jaime, and it makes clear the fact that they’re no longer speaking the same language. In an effort to convince her, he falls back on the logic of armed force and his memory of being routed by the Dothraki and a dragon—there is no way to defeat them, he reminds her. But say what you will of Cersei, she is nothing if not observant, having noticed that Dany brought only two dragons to the summit. When Jaime lamely suggests that the third might be guarding her fleet, she deals him a withering look. No, she says: Daenerys brought her full force so as best to intimidate them. That should have included all three dragons; the absence of one means that they’re vulnerable.

(Which is of course a moment of dramatic irony for all of us: knowing as we do that Viserion was brought down by the very threat to which Cersei is indifferent, and that he’ll be a weapon deployed against the living , is something she cannot know. And we, the audience, only come to appreciate the magnitude of that threat in the final moments of the episode).

And then we come to grasp the full extent of Cersei’s plotting in her revelations about the Iron Bank and Euron’s deception. I must admit, I had a grudging admiration for Cersei in this moment—genuinely thinking a few steps ahead. One wonders what excuse Euron would have made to beat a hasty exit during the summit if the good guys hadn’t brought the wight? But he’s off, one way or another, gone to fetch twenty thousand swords to bolster the Lannister host. Though it is rather questionable just how loyal mercenaries from a different continent will prove when faced with the army of the dead. Not really something the Bronns of the world would be willing to face, no matter what the payday.

(Huh. Writing that makes me realize: Bronn went to have a drink with Pod at the start of the summit, and so wasn’t there for the release of the wight, was he? Clever work, GoT writers! Because I have to imagine that, on seeing that thing, he wouldn’t be quite so keen to have a castle in continental Westeros—probably would have pledged his sword to Euron at that point).

What follows then is a brief but heated argument over betrayal and treason. Jaime is irked that Cersei plotted with Euron behind his back; but Cersei—not unreasonably—is still angry at Jaime for treating with Tyrion and, by extension, with Daenerys. She’s not wrong in calling that betrayal; whether it’s treason is a matter for the lawyers, but what becomes obvious in this moment is that Jaime has started thinking globally (as it were). He has a bigger picture in mind, even as he worries about the survival of House Lannister. In the end, however, he is resolute in hewing to his promises—as I said above, he finds his inner Stark!—and basically breaks up with Cersei here.

Let me repeat that in all caps. HE BREAKS UP WITH CERSEI.

Though not without concern for his life: the Mountain, once again, offers the threat of death. Twice in this episode has Cersei been challenged by one of her brothers to order the Mountain to kill them, and twice she blinked. And while Tyrion emitted explosive gasps of relief when he wasn’t summarily cut down, I suspect Jaime didn’t care much one way or another—he was deserting his sister, the woman he’s illicitly loved all his life, and if Ser Gregor had actually put up a fight, he might well have welcomed death.

Instead, he’s on the road … alone. I suppose it was naïve of me to think he might have taken some of the Lannister army with him. But no—he’s alone, and as he pulls a glove over his golden hand, a snowflake falls on it.

(I suppose it’s only appropriate that, given how long this show has been saying “winter is coming,” when winter comes, it takes an awfully long time to do so).

What follows is a rather beautiful and poignant sequence in which we see snow and night falling—over the desiccated jawbones of dwarf dragons, over the Dragonpit itself, and over the rooftops of King’s Landing. (I’m having a James Joyce moment here: “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”).

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Jaime-snow

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The falling snow provides an elegant segue back to Winterfell, where Samwell Tarly has arrived! And for once I won’t complain about the brevity of the journey, which really should have taken all of next season. What did you think of Sam’s reunion with Bran, Nikki, and Bran’s, um, exposition?

gilly-sam-arrival

Nikki: First, I think “maybe-baby” is my new phrase, so thank you for that! And also, while I’m with you that I would have loved to have seen Podrick and Bronn have that break for the beer, and that not letting Bronn see the wight means he’ll actually stick around, there was actually a more pragmatic reason that Bronn splits at the very beginning of the scene. Turns out Jerome Flynn and Lena Headey were very much an item, but the relationship ended so badly that when he was cast as Bronn on the show, both actors had it included in their contracts that they would never, ever appear in a scene together. So the writers had to come up with a way to have Bronn lead the group to the Dragon Pit and then immediately leave — and sure enough, if you watch, he’s never actually in the same shot, which means the moment of him putting a hand on Pod’s shoulder and saying “Let’s go grab a drink” was probably filmed separately with just the two of them.

Ah… love.

But anyway, back to the scene with Sam and Bran. First of all, I loved loved LOVED this scene, and not for the reason that everyone else probably did (although that moment was AMAZING) but because we actually caught a glimpse of the old Samwell Tarly. Eager to please, hilarious, stuttering… not the world-weary Sam we’ve seen at the Citadel. He comes into Bran’s room and finds the Bran we’ve been dealing with all season staring at the fire, and he asks him, “What happened to you north of the Wall?” Bran replies cryptically, “I became the three-eyed raven.” Sam stands for a moment in stunned silence and says the way one would to a child who just showed you a special picture they’d drawn, “Oh!” Pause. “I don’t know what that means.”

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And then my favourite bit of dialogue of the episode (for its irony): “I can see things happening in the past… I can see things happening now, all over the world. Why did you come to Winterfell?” I actually laughed out loud at this scene. “I CAN SEE ALL. So… um… why are you here because obviously I didn’t see that.” Sam says he knows Jon is going to fight the White Walkers, and he’s here to help. This makes me SO happy. While I’ve enjoyed the glimpse of the Citadel this season, having Sam back in the fold will be so fantastic next season.

And then Bran gives the big reveal to Sam, the one we already knew but was so much fun to finally hear spoken aloud: Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, and his last name is Sand. At that point Sam goes wide-eyed and excitedly explains that NO, his last name is NOT Sand, it’s Targaryen! He tells Bran that he translated a book for the High Septon and discovered an interesting bit of information in there (wrong: you were translating another book for the High Septon and GILLY found the bit of information and you then took that book from her and handed it to little Sam to shut her up but sure, we’ll let you take the credit, because we love you) and then we flash back to the actual wedding ceremony of Lyanna Stark and OH MY GOD IS THAT VISERYS oh thank god no it isn’t but lord, were they twins or something?? And that’s when all of history shifts for Bran. “Robert’s Rebellion was built on a lie,” he says. Robert Baratheon invaded King’s Landing in order to get his beloved Lyanna Stark back from the horrible Rhaegar Targaryen, whom he believed had kidnapped and raped her, but Lyanna died in childbirth, Aegon was killed by Jaime, and this whole “who has the right to sit on the Iron Throne” battle all started there and has spiralled downward when the original thesis was entirely wrong.

D’oh.

rhaegar-lyanna-kiss

“Rhaegar didn’t kidnap my aunt and rape her…” Bran says as the scene cuts to Jon Snow knocking on Daenerys’s door (no no no)… “He loved her,” he continues as the door closes with him inside the room (no no no please make it stop no), “And she loved him,” and we all throw up in our mouths a little as we see Jon Snow — sorry… AEGON TARGARYEN… as he makes love to his aunt and shows her that maybe she thought she was barren, but his powerful Starkaryen sperm has other ideas.

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They did that to us on purpose, you know. They made that scene oogie and awful and it could have been really great but it was like watching Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker get it on AFTER we knew the truth.

And yet still… god I loved how they intertwined the two stories, because it was like it was daring us. The showrunners were saying, “oh come ON, you want to look away but you are loving this. Totally loving this.” I hate them all. And I love them so freakin’ much for filming it that way.

As we see the two of them making love — while Tyrion glowers in the hallway — we hear Bran say in his clipped Hemingway-like prose, “He’s never been a bastard. He’s the heir to the Iron Throne. He needs to know. We need to tell him.” These four sentences become the key to the entire series.

And what of Tyrion standing in that hallway? Some have suggested that perhaps he’s jealous of Jon Snow, and has been secretly in love with Daenerys this whole time. That’s possible, although we’ve never seen any sign of that whatsoever, and Tyrion is usually pretty open when he likes a woman romantically. I think instead he’s seeing possible disaster ahead. Jon Snow is now romantically linked with Dany, and that could cloud his judgment — and hers — when they’re trying to line up battle plans. Think about it: the last time a Stark and Targaryen got together, the world rained blood for a generation and is still doing so. Tyrion knows his Westerosi history, and this kind of pairing NEVER turns out well for anyone.

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From here we have a quick and quiet little scene with the two Stark sisters as we once again remember Ned Stark and the impact he’s had on the whole show. Has there ever been another series that has gone on for eight years where a character who died in season one had such a long-standing impact on the rest of the show? Here’s my one and only wish for season eight: that Sean Bean returns for just ONE scene, whether it’s in flashback or as some Mufasa-type of thing talking to Bran from the clouds (I would totally buy that), I just would give anything to actually see Ned Stark one more time in the form we originally saw him.

Here his two daughters remember their father, and Sansa tells Arya that she is the strongest person she knows, and Arya smiles and says that’s the nicest thing her sister has ever said to her. Though Sansa adds that she still finds Arya annoying, which is really funny. And then Arya says, “I miss him.” “Me too,” says Sansa.

Tears.

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And then it’s off to the inevitable end of the season, which has to happen north of the Wall. This has been a White Walker–free episode, with the exception of the wight, and has instead focused on the politics and romantic entanglements, which I much prefer, but back at the wall, Tormund and Beric spot the White Walkers approaching much quicker than they thought they would. But just as they’re probably thinking, “We’ll send a FedEx raven and surely Jon and Daenerys can get from Dragonstone to the Wall in 20 minutes on season seven time…” Tormund’s eyes widen as he sees Viserion fly in, with the Night King on its back.

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I don’t know about you, Chris, but while this scene was truly awesome, it was also so sad for me to watch. Viserion’s wings had holes in them, and he’s clearly rotting. The Night King just doesn’t… belong on his back (especially considering Daenerys only rode Drogon and not the other two). As the men on the Eastwatch section of the Wall race down the rickety stairs in a vain attempt to reach the bottom, Viserion just blasts away at the Wall with his new butane flame breath as the rest of the Army of the Dead just stand and watch. And as the last of the Wall crumbles — seconds after we see Tormund and Beric still standing on it — the White Walkers advance south of the Wall and make their way into Winterfell.

 

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Is Tormund dead? Will he never get to make those giant babies with Brienne? Has Beric finally found his final resting place without Thoros of Myr to bring him back to life? How long before the dead reach Winterfell?

ALL QUESTIONS FOR NEXT SEASON, MY CHILDREN!

But first, I just want to address one fan theory that’s been circulating the past couple of days: that Bran is actually the Night King. We see him warg right before the dead march on Eastwatch, and even though it cuts to the ravens to show how he’s watching this happening, some fans have noticed that the dead seem to form what appears to be the Stark sigil as they enter the north:

sigil-wights

This has fans in a tizzy, and instead of seeing this as a cool Easter egg showing that the first House that will hit will be Winterfell, someone on Reddit has jumped from point A to point M and seems to think this means Bran is the Night King himself, and that the Night King was the good guy all along.

Erm. Okay. Maybe I’ll be wrong a year or so from now, but I’m going to lean to no on that one. Remember, just a couple of episodes Bran was warging into a raven and saw the Night King and nearly fell out of his wheelchair when he was spotted by him. And it was made very clear that he can warg into living things, and the Night King isn’t exactly living.

But who knows. This show has made greater leaps. In my opinion, this isn’t going to be one of them. We have bigger things to worry about with only six episodes left.

And whether those episodes are going to be 90-120 minutes long, as some rumours are suggesting, or whether the season won’t actually begin until 2019, as some other sources are saying, only time will tell.

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Well, we’ve officially topped our longest post with this one. I want to extend another huge thanks to the brilliant Christopher Lockett, without whom I simply couldn’t do these. Thank you for joining me once again, and thank you to everyone who actually manages to read these to the end! (My own husband rolls his eyes and says NO ONE reads anything this long on the internet.) We will see you back here for season eight, and until then, stay warm and beware of… actually, pretty much everyone.

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