Category Archives: television

Some Thoughts on The Rings of Power, or, Shall We Compare Mythologies?

Having watched the first three episodes of The Rings of Power, I can, with relief and delight, say that I love it so far. It has its problems, which I may or may not talk about in future posts, but the end of episode three left me wishing I could binge the whole season in a day. Always a good sign. Whether it rises to the level of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films remains to be seen, but it has that potential.1

So, I won’t be talking about the episodes in detail. Nor do I particularly want to talk about the entirely predictable furor that has become commonplace when something like The Rings of Power is released—namely, the howls of protest that arise from the revanchist precincts of a given fan community when the new product is perceived to have been tailored for “woke” political sensitivities. That particular drumbeat has been pounding since the release of the first Rings trailer revealed that the series would feature elves, dwarves, hobbits, and, yes, humans who were not white—something perceived by the usual suspects as a rank betrayal of the source material in the name of political correctness.2

I don’t want to talk about that backlash … but given what I am talking about, I can’t ignore it entirely. Not that it should be ignored, mind you—but there have been enough good pieces dealing with it that I would just be repeating other people’s principal points.

For the moment what I want to try and do is articulate some thoughts on fantasy and mythology, and the perennial compulsion to adapt, refine, revisit, revise, and expand upon stories that are profoundly meaningful to us one way or another. These thoughts are at the front of my mind for two reasons, the first being the recent embarrassment of riches on television of stories meaningful to me: The Rings of Power’s illumination of earlier histories of Middle-earth; House of the Dragon’s return to Westeros; and just a few weeks ago, Netflix’s release of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the only comic book I’ve ever read obsessively.

From left: Tom Sturridge as Morpheus in The Sandman; Morfydd Clark as Galadriel in The Rings of Power; and Milly Alcock as Rhaenyra Targaryen in House of the Dragon. I believe I said something in a previous post about the divine right of cheekbones?

The second reason is that this fall I’m teaching a first-year English course called “Imagined Places.” My variation on its theme is modern and contemporary rewritings of Greek myths.3 As part of my preparation I’ve been rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey, which started as an exercise in refreshing my memory of their finer points and has become a joyful reunion with texts I first read in high school, and then again in an intro to classics course I took in my first year of university.

Few works in the history of western literature have inspired quite as much imitation and revision. Keep that in mind as we go, because it’s something I’m going to circle back around to.

My entry point to this discussion is a recent New York Times column by Tolkien scholar Michael Drout, titled “Please Don’t Make a Tolkien Cinematic Universe.” I’ll get into the particulars as I go, but the gist of his argument is that the subtle complexities of Tolkien’s moral universe are beyond the scope of contemporary film and television; unfortunately, the franchise model of cinema that has come to dominate the current entertainment market likely sees Tolkien as a wealth of source material to be exploited. Should Amazon (or, presumably, any other corporate media entity) turn Tolkien’s legendarium into something akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it will inevitably miss, mangle, or pervert the moral vision at the heart of Tolkien’s work.

To be clear, that last sentence is my extrapolation from Drout’s argument—he does not himself say as much in so many words, but it is an accurate summary of his concern. “Is it fair to the legacies of writers like Tolkien,” Drout asks, “to build franchises from their works without their knowledge or permission?” There were attempts to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film while Tolkien was still alive; initial, wary interest on Tolkien’s part turned fairly quickly into antipathy to the whole idea as he rejected one spec script after another, finally declaring that his work was unsuited for film. His biographer recounts a time Tolkien attended a staged version of The Hobbit, at which he frowned every time the play departed from the novel. “So it is hard to believe,” Drout concludes, “that he would have approved of a team of writers building almost entirely new stories with little direct basis in his works.”

Here of course Drout means The Rings of Power, which is drawn from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.4 It is true that the series is taking a big swing, building out a multi-season story arc from some short summaries and chronologies of the Second Age. Such a sketchy basis, Drout suggests, is a poor foundation on which to build—but then, from what he says, it’s a reasonably good chance Tolkien would similarly have disapproved of Peter Jackson’s films (whose absence from his discussion is an odd omission to which I’ll return). Tolkien’s imagined approval or disapproval is at least somewhat beside the point, however; it is strange to suggest that adaptations and retellings of a given author’s work are somehow “unfair” to their legacy, considering that entire cottage industries thrive on adapting authors like Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Possibly Austen might have liked Clueless, but would probably have looked askance at Pride and Prejudice with Zombies. Does a spectral Shakespeare burn with anger at all the distortions of Hamlet, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to The Lion King?

Or is fifty years not long enough? (Tolkien died in 1973). Must we wait for copyright to expire?

I pose these questions with my tongue only partly in my cheek: I’m trying to read Drout’s concerns generously but can’t help but find them a little disingenuous. Especially considering—as I mentioned above—that he elides any mention of Peter Jackson’s films, except to acknowledge that they exist. This omission is passing strange if for no other reason than that we already have a Tolkien cinematic universe, helpfully spanning the extremes of good and bad—with The Lord of the Rings films displaying both profound respect for their source material and moments of brilliant filmmaking, while The Hobbit films are a hot mess of poor directorial impulse control.

A few of the lowlights from The Hobbit–though I must confess I have always liked Tharanduil’s battle moose.

There have also been a handful of animated adaptations, most notably Ralph Bakshi’s somewhat trippy 1978 Lord of the Rings that blended traditional animation with rotoscoping.4

The animated 1977 film of The Hobbit and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings.

There is also a Lord of the Rings stage musical—of which I was somehow unaware until one of my students in my Tolkien class last year sent me a YouTube link, destroying my blissful ignorance.

And while we’re at it, there have also been a significant number of video games set in Middle-earth, perhaps most notably Lord of the Rings Online, an MMORPG in the mold of World of Warcraft, whose fidelity to the geography, story, and lore of Tolkien’s work would probably impress even Michael Drout.

A still from Lord of the Rings Online. Not sure what’s happening here, but it looks heroic.

And though Drout’s quibble is with the prospect of a Tolkien cinematic universe, there is also the inescapable fact that there has always been the Tolkien expanded universe. Created initially of course by the man himself with his “mythology”—into which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were folded—it was then enlarged with The Silmarillion and the further eighteen volumes edited by his son Christopher that provided readers with world-building akin to that of the mad encyclopedists of Jorge Luis Borges’ storyTlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Given this already-existing critical mass of material, it makes me wonder why Drout draws the line at The Rings of Power; why choose this moment to stand athwart the expanding Tolkien universe to yell stop?

The uncharitable reading would be to suggest that this is of a piece with the more overtly revanchist backlash, just more delicately articulated; the more generous reading is to take him at his word and presume that he’s concerned that Amazon will take Tolkien down the same road as Marvel comics have gone, or—and this was a pretty widely shared worry, though now mostly allayed—that The Rings of Power showrunners would feel compelled to create a Game of Thrones clone. Drout, indeed, alludes to both these apprehensions while asserting that “the groupthink produced by the contemporary ecosystems of writers’ rooms, Twitter threads and focus groups” of the “Hollywood of 2022” is innately out of step with Tolkien’s unique sensibility:

The writing that this dynamic is particularly good at producing—witty banter, arch references to contemporary issues, graphic and often sexualized violence, self-righteousness—is poorly suited to Middle-earth, a world with a multilayered history that eschews tidy morality plays and blockbuster gore.6

Citing the fact that the quest of The Lord of the Rings is not the attainment of power but its destruction, and that in bearing the Ring Frodo is too wounded, physically and psychically, to return to his life as it was before, Drout asks, “Can a company as intent upon domination as Amazon really understand this perspective—and adapt that morality to the screen?” While I’m not unsympathetic to anyone taking issue with Amazon as a cultural and societal blight, I find this line of argument bewilderingly obtuse—as if Jeff Bezos were the one writing, casting, costuming, and doing art direction.7

Ultimately, however, my interest in Drout’s argument is that its inconsistencies speak to a broader, more significant issue with Tolkien’s mythology—or rather, with Tolkien as mythology. In the end, whether or not Amazon does a good job with The Rings of Power, or whether they do attempt to build out an expanded cinematic universe on par with Marvel, really matters very little for a fairly simple reason: that Tolkien in fact succeeded in realizing his lifelong goal. He created an enduring mythology.

I will come to that in a moment. But first, for the sake of argument, let’s take some of the protests over The Rings of Power casting of nonwhite actors on their merits. One strain of the “I’m not racist, but—” arguments is that Tolkien’s world is explicitly modeled on Northern European geography, cultures, and ethnicities, and so introducing obviously non-European-looking characters disrupts Tolkien’s design and intent. A refinement on this line of thinking says “OK, sure, introduce Black elves, but make it clear how it serves the story!” In other words, offer an explanation of how there came to be Black elves (and hobbits, and dwarves, and humans).

To be fair, I’ve seen such concerns offered with all appearance of sincerity and earnestness,8 and there are, if one has the patience for it, substantive counter-arguments, some of which are based in Tolkien’s own lore. One example that has gone viral is from none other than Neil Gaiman:

There is also the fact that medieval Europe wasn’t quite as monolithically white as is often assumed or depicted, given the vestiges of the multi-ethnic Roman legions left behind after the western empire imploded; there was also, more significantly, brisk trade that brought people from Moorish Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East into regular contact with Europeans of all shades.9

But again, this is all at least partly beside the point I want to make. To be generous, I’ll say that the idea that the casting choices in The Rings of Power are somehow transgressive resides in a vague understanding of the original story as sacrosanct, or that there is an “authentic” Tolkienian vision to which it behooves all adaptors to hew. Leaving aside the simple fact that “authenticity” in this context is always going to be illusory and chimerical, is it really even desirable? Are we obliged to honour every boundary, real and imagined, that an author places on interpretations of their work?

Fortunately such a myopic approach is not practical or feasible. Neither the creative arts nor literary criticism have anything like the legal doctrine of originalism, something of which Tolkien was well aware. He might have gotten stroppy over prospective filmic adaptations or a staged version of The Hobbit, but his lifelong project was to shape a mythology—something he was at his most candid and open about in a long letter to the publisher Milton Waldman. Tolkien was at the time (the letter is undated but most likely written late 1951) shopping around The Lord of the Rings; he was having some difficulty finding a publisher because he was still insisting that LotR should be published in a single volume with the prehistory that would eventually become The Silmarillion. Given the already-epic length of LotR, publishers were understandably reluctant at including the dense mythology. But Tolkien had not yet reconciled himself to jettisoning the narratives of Middle-earth’s First and Second Ages, and he attempted to persuade Waldman by explaining the import of the project to him. “I do not remember a time when I was not building it,” he says. “I have been at it since I could write.” His aim, he says, was not merely to make up stories, but to build a mythology that could supplement what he saw as a lack in his native country:

I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found … in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, and Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.

He goes on to explain that his own mythopoeic project was precisely an attempt to replace what he felt to be missing:

I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate simply to: to England: to my country.

Not exactly a humble ambition, something he self-deprecatingly acknowledges as he pleads “Do not laugh!” and adds at the end “Absurd.” But one is put in mind of John Milton’s determination to write an epic poem in English that would be the equal—or the superior—of Homer and Virgil,10 or James Joyce, whose own grandiose ambition was voiced by his alter ego Stephen Dedalus at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he says, absurdly, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

But like Milton and Joyce11, Tolkien succeeded in his seemingly hubristic ambition—he did create a mythology that has taken on its own life as it captured people’s imaginations, albeit not perhaps as he thought it might. His vision, it turns out, was too modest: Middle-earth has transcended England and become the world’s mythology. And like all such mythologies, it is futile to try and contain it.

This is where we come back around to my first-year English class: as I said, we’re looking at modern and contemporary poetry and fiction that reimagines and revisits classic Greek myth, often in ways that give voice to those figures who are ancillary to the main action, or disposable in the name of advancing the plot. The modernist poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) writes “Eurydice,” in which the title character excoriates her husband Orpheus for consigning her to Hades—again!—when he couldn’t help but look back at the last moment (you had one job!). Or Canadian poet Don McKay’s reimagining of Icarus as an unapologetic adrenaline junky aiming to get that fall from on high just right.

And then there’s the story of Briseis: The Iliad, long considered the origin point of Western literature, begins when the great warrior Achilles and High King Agamemnon quarrel over Briseis, a Trojan woman who is Achilles’ spoil of war, whom Agamemnon takes from him. In a fit of pique, Achilles retires to his tent to sulk and withholds the forces he commands, allowing the Trojans to turn the tide and bring the fight all the way back to the Greek ships, forcing Agamemnon to swallow his pride and send Briseis back to Achilles. In her novel The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker retells the events of The Iliad from Briseis’ point of view. This shift of perspective makes explicit the brutality of the war and the way it envelops non-combatants in its implacable, bloody logic: the trauma visited on ordinary people, the slaughter of innocents, the enslavement and rape of the women taken captive. Barker’s novel is harrowing, brilliant, and faithful to The Iliad; it would also, I am certain, be considered a “woke” attempt to tear down the edifice of classic Greek literature if read by those who view a Black elf as a profound betrayal of Tolkien’s legacy.

A thought I’ve had a lot lately is what low esteem Tolkien purists have for Tolkien’s work, given that they seem to believe the slightest deviation from what they perceive as the original or authentic vision is somehow mortally damaging to Tolkien’s legacy. The opposite is the case: Tolkien’s peculiar genius lies in the very capaciousness of his vision. It contains multitudes. Not even Amazon can dent it. And that, of course, is the nature of mythology: if the ancient Romans had had Twitter, there would have been endless arguments in the Greek myth fan community over the Latinizing of the gods’ names; Ovid would have been excoriated for the liberties he took, Virgil for being an Augustan propagandist; and legions of toga-clad hipsters would sniff into their wine (locally sourced, of course) that Hesiod was the only truly authentic mythographer.

But none of the Roman emendations and transformations of the Greek myths had a deleterious effect on Homer, any more than do contemporary novels by Pat Barker or Madeline Miller. And no more than The Rings of Power, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, or even Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit have had on Tolkien’s mythos.

Indeed, in his letter to Milton Waldman, Tolkien is quite clear about how he wants his mythology to be picked up, adapted, and transformed by others: “I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.” And so it has transpired. Whether Tolkien would have liked any of the scholarship, cinema and television, fan fiction, video games, and indeed the whole raft of imitative works that came to comprise the genre of fantasy as we now know it is irrelevant. Such is the risk you take when you create something transcendent.


1. I suppose we should appreciate that Jackson established a spectrum of quality against which all future Tolkien adaptations can be measured, with the Lord of the Rings films establishing the high-water mark and The Hobbit films as the nadir.

2. One thing I will say on this point is that two of the things giving the anti-woke crowd the nativist vapours are my favourite parts of the show: namely, the young, impetuous, warrior version of Galadriel played by Morfydd Clark, and the EOC (elf of colour) Arondir, played by Ismael Cruz Cordova. Cordova is veritably mesmerizing as Arondir, playing the character with a tightly controlled mien that just barely hints at a tumult beneath; when in the third episode he breaks out the Legolas-like balletic combat, I don’t think his expression changes. Not that I would want to typecast him, but he’s all set to play a Vulcan should he want to stick with the SF/F thing.

Meanwhile, the complaints about Galadriel are as predictable as they are exhausting, starting with whinges about making a female character the show’s main focus and filter. Beyond that, (some) people can’t seem to reconcile Clark’s smouldering rage and badass combat skills with the cool reserve with which Cate Blanchett endowed the character … never considering, presumably, that that degree of imperturbable self-control is something one earns.

Also, it’s probably mere coincidence that the first thing Galadriel does in the first episode is kill a troll. I’m sure that wasn’t something the writers did in anticipation of the backlash the character would inevitably face.

3. We’re starting with Rick Riordan’s YA novel Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief; then Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which is a retelling of The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the Trojan woman over whom Achilles and Agamemnon quarrel; Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the titular witch who plays a small but significant role in The Odyssey; and The Just City by Jo Walton, a novel in which the goddess Athene creates Plato’s Republic out of curiosity, to see if it would actually work. We’ll also be doing a bunch of poetry (Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” for example, and William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”), as well as reading the relevant myths as recounted in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (I would have actually preferred to use Stephen Fry’s book Mythos, which is an arch and elegant compendium, but it is too expensive and too long to justify including it, especially when my students would only be reading a fraction of it. I’ve been listening to it on audiobook off and on all summer—read, of course, by Fry himself—and it is a delight).

4. For legal reasons I haven’t entirely parsed, Amazon has the rights to The Lord of the Rings—and its appendices—but not The Silmarillion.

5. The Bakshi LotR was just the first half—that is, all of Fellowship and parts of The Two Towers. He’d planned the film to take place in two parts, but the second film never got made … for reasons that become clear when you watch the first.

6. If current film and television was in fact limited to these possibilities—which seem to be delineated here as Marvel’s archness, Game of Thrones’ sex and violence, and the self-righteousness of a vaguely imagined wokeness—he might just have a point. But I don’t have to reach back fifteen years to The Wire and The Sopranos and the rest of prestige television’s first glut of great work to refute Drout’s characterization. In just the past two or three years, Severance, Better Call Saul, Our Flag Means Death, The Mandalorian, The Plot Against America, Succession, The Good Place, Sex Education, Slow Horses, Yellowjackets, and countless other series have shown the depth and breadth of the subtlety and sophistication that is out there.

7. I’ve written previously on this blog about the contradictions inherent in Bezos’ avowed love of Star Trek, given that Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future was utopian in part because it imagined a future in which a billionaire class was unthinkable … but this isn’t really what Drout’s on about.

8. Though, really, any time you feel compelled to preface a statement with “I’m not racist, but …” there’s about a 100% chance you’re about to say something racist.

9. Also, not for nothing, but it’s not as if The Rings of Power is doing for the Tolkien expanded universe what Black Panther did for the MCU, in which Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis were the sole Tolkien white guys (get it?). The “diversity” of The Rings of Power, in the end, is a handful of dark faces in a large cast that is otherwise still overwhelmingly white. The fact that so many people are reacting as if the showrunners had put a sign saying “Caucasians need not apply” on the audition room door is perhaps the most telling point.

10. Interestingly, Milton had about as much regard in the end for Arthurian legend as Tolkien did—which is to say moderate regard, but like Tolkien he found it wanting. In the early days of considering what the subject for his epic would be, Milton considered King Arthur, but discarded the idea as too parochial.

11. The rumbling you hear is Harold Bloom spinning in his grave at me mentioning Tolkien in the same sentence as Milton and Joyce.

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Filed under Return to Middle-Earth, television, what I'm watching

Some Further Quick Thoughts on House of the Dragon (episode two)

I’ve received a number of questions from people asking whether I plan to post on a weekly basis about House of the Dragon. Thanks to those who’ve reached out: it is gratifying to know the Game of Thrones posts I did with Nikki over nine (egad!) years were enjoyed. I’m afraid my answer has to be an unsatisfying maybe. I’ll certainly have stuff to say, which may or not make it to my blog, but what I definitely won’t be doing is posting long, detailed blow-by-blow recaps/reviews—not with Nikki, and not by myself. We did that for Game of Thrones eight seasons, and I think it’s safe to say we both hit our saturation point.

And there’s also the fact that one of the reasons we were able to sustain that output—by the end, our posts were averaging over ten thousand words, which even between two people is a lot of text to produce in a couple of days—is because GoT was a genuine cultural phenomenon. It’s not that I wouldn’t be amenable to the idea of doing that sort of thing again, but not with a property like HotD, whose Westrosi territory we’ve mapped pretty thoroughly.

But having written as much as I did—one half of seventy-three 8-12K word posts is a hefty chunk of text—there’s a certain amount of muscle memory there that would be hard to ignore, even if I wanted to. Two episodes has got my mind flexing in some familiar ways, though less with the granular details of the show than with the broader issues it raises that reflect back on GoT, having to do with fantasy and genre and world-building. Also, given that Rings of Power powers up this week, there’s some interesting possibilities arising in the serendipitous juxtaposition of HBO’s ongoing televisual adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s latter-day fantasy and Amazon’s attempt to build upon Peter Jackson’s success in bringing Middle-earth to the screen.

I also watched Wheel of Time, also on Amazon, this past winter. And while I didn’t have anything to say about it at the time—honestly, I was underwhelmed—revisiting it might make for some useful points of comparison.

I commented in my previous post that I was more worried about Rings of Power, because that show has set itself a much more difficult task. The two shows are superficially similar insofar as they’re both prequel-ish narratives adapted from the histories preceding the stories that made people interested in those histories to start with. But beyond that point of comparison, there really is, well, no comparison.

For the moment I’m going to keep my powder dry on The Silmarillion and Tolkien’s legendarium more broadly until I’ve seen the first episode of Rings. Suffice to say that adapting Tolkien’s mythology is not the same kind of task as adapting The Lord of the Rings.

By contrast, HotD is entirely the same kind of task as adapting A Song of Ice and Fire, and is made easier by the fact that all of the heavy lifting—which is to say, its principal world-building, its aesthetic, its general narrative sensibility—was well established by the eight seasons of GoT. Perhaps more significantly, there is much less at stake in HotD: whatever dragon-borne sexytime shenanigans these Targaryens get up to, we know that they’ll still be around for Robert Baratheon to usurp in two centuries or so. We even know, should we wish to consult Fire and Blood, GRRM’s “history” of the Targaryen dynasty, who wins and who loses and how these conflicts either resolve or don’t resolve themselves.

To be clear, when I say there isn’t much at stake, I mean artistically and narratively. HBO has the pots of money it’s investing at stake, so if people’s appetite for GRRM’s particular brand of venality and violence, of incest and intrigue proves to have been exhausted by GoT’s ignominious exit, well, that’s going to result in a fresh batch of firings. But for those of us tuning in, we’re going to be propelled less by where we’re going than how we get there—by which I mean how the episode-to-episode drama unfolds, and how much we invest emotionally in the characters.

The good news, based on episode two, is that they’re off to a good start. The awkwardness of the writing in the first episode was largely smoothed out, and we’re starting to get a better sense of the main players and their motivations. The casting is proving its quality: there are no discordant notes. The MVPs for this episode are Milly Alcock as the young and precocious Rhaenyra and Eve Best as the jaded but shrewd Rhaenys, the Queen that Never Was.

(Something that comes with adapting fantasy is the realization that names as written on the page don’t always do well when spoken out loud. GRRM is usually pretty user-friendly with his Jons and Roberts and Neds, but occasionally we stumble over the jaw-crackers—as Samwise Gamgee might call them—more typical of the genre).

Prince Cheeky McCheekbones and his Precious.

The conversation between the elder and younger Rhaenladies is a good indication of how this series will play out, and a reminder that GoT, for all its spectacle, was at its best when its antagonists fenced with words as well as swords. Rheanyra surprising the meeting on the bridge at Dragonstone and calling her uncle’s bluff was also a close contender for the episode’s high point.

But where GoT was about a multi-front civil war taking place against the looming threat of the Night King’s malevolent return, HotD is about the internecine conflict of a single dynastic family, whose end—as observed above—is foreordained by history. This much is made clear by the opening credits, which retain the theme music of the original and the general aesthetic sensibility, but which unfold within the contained and claustrophobic walls of a castle we assume is the Red Keep.

The unifying symbol of the GoT credits was the armillary sphere containing the sun, soaring above the vastness of Westeros and Essos. From this celestial perspective we were shown the key points of geography relevant to the given episode. By contrast, the armillary sphere is replaced at the start of the HotD credits with the House Targaryen sigil, which connects to all the other nodes within the castle walls with criss-crossing streams of blood—which itself has the triple meaning of referencing familiar bloodlines, one half of the Targaryen motto (which makes me wonder if future credits will feature fire?), and presumably the rivers of blood that will flow once the fighting begins in earnest.

[CORRECTION: The first image we see in the sequence is not the Targaryen sigil, but a sort of bas-relief of dragons flying around a stronghold that, based on King Viserys’ hobby-model (what kings do instead of model trains, presumably), is meant to be old Valyria. This almost certainly means that the stone walls and corridors through which the blood flows are probably those of the model and not, as I’d blithely assumed, the Red Keep. Not that this really changes my interpretation: it’s still contained within the confines of the Targaryen dynasty, except more explicitly, and with the added sense of being yoked to a mythologized history. Still, more food for thought there.]

By way of conclusion, few quick thoughts in no particular order:

  • The CGI ain’t great. It’s generally OK, but there are those telltale moments when it looks more like a middling video game than a high-budget series. I have to imagine HBO is hedging a bit, which is fair enough: it took GoT a few seasons to establish itself. Before that, they either avoided expensive, large-scale sequences by, say, knocking out Tyrion just before a battle, or limiting themselves to one or two big spectacles a season. It’s fortunate the show proved its worth by the time the dragons got big.
  • The scene in which King Viserys walks and talks with his possible grade-school bride is one of the squickier sequences I’ve seen in any show, but all credit to Paddy Consadine for exuding profound discomfort throughout.
  • I’m in equal measures intrigued and concerned with the character Mysaria, Daemon Targaryen’s prostitute-turned-paramour. Her scene following the bridge confrontation, in which she takes Daemon to task for using her as a provocation was powerful, and it makes me hope the writers paid attention to the criticism leveled at GoT’s cavalier use of sexual violence and disposable female characters. And I am concerned, well, because perhaps this will end up being just more of the same.
  • If Daemon and Rhaenyra are any indication, the Targaryens ruled by divine right of cheekbones; two hundred years hence, Cersei Lannister attempts to follow suit.

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Filed under Game of Thrones, television, what I'm watching

A Quick Post on House of the Dragon

Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in front of an Iron Throne with … way more iron than the last time we saw it.

I was asked recently which TV series I was most excited about: House of the Dragon, HBO’s prequel to Game of Thrones; or Rings of Power, Amazon’s prequel-ish adaptation of elements of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (which I hesitate to call a “prequel” to The Lord of the Rings for reasons that aren’t entirely germane here but which I’ll likely articulate once the series starts).

I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. I suppose that, all other considerations aside, I’m more looking forward to Rings of Power … but that anticipation is tempered by the awareness that the line between amazing and terrible is a trickier one to negotiate with that source material. It was broadly thought that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable until Peter Jackson proved everyone wrong on that front, but that presumption had more to do with the prior limitations of special effects technology than with storytelling. The principal reason LotR was so good—and why The Hobbit shanked so badly—is because Jackson treated the source material of the former with profound respect. The story of LotR needs little tinkering, as evidenced by how often the films take dialogue verbatim from the novels. The Silmarillion, by contrast, is written as, and unfolds like, mythology, which will necessitate some significant tinkering. Finding that happy medium between rendering it naturalistic and hewing to the spirit of Tolkien’s story will be a difficult needle to thread.

Which is why I’m more confident that House of the Dragon will hit its marks, given that it was always meant to be entirely consonant with its predecessor. I have not however been particularly looking forward to it, for what I assume are obvious reasons. Like most people who loved GoT, the final season left a sour taste in my mouth and the ending felt like a betrayal—not so much a betrayal of the characters, as many people felt, but a betrayal by the showrunners of the show itself. After seven seasons of often superb, unhurried, nuanced storytelling and world-building, showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff—now without the scaffolding of the great bearded glacier George R.R. Martin to shore up their own writing faults—raced to a slapdash finish in a truncated final season that effectively upended everything that had come before and slapped the goodwill of fans in the face.

Which isn’t to say I won’t watch HotD, but I don’t feel inclined to write lengthy recaps/commentaries like Nikki and I did for GoT.

That being said, I watched the first episode last night, so here are my thoughts in no particular order. Mild spoilers ahead.

  • The first episode was … OK. I was more or less on board by the end, which is a good sign—it means, possibly, that the awkwardness of the writing was more to do with this being a pilot setting up the characters and contexts, and will find its rhythm as we go. Fingers crossed.
  • I can tell it’s going to take a few episodes to adjust to Matt Smith playing the villain. He’s still so indelibly the Eleventh Doctor for me, though I suspect it will be a lot like watching David Tennant play Kilgrave in Jessica Jones. Smith as Daemon Targaryen has similar energy, which is the whole manic alien-among-humans thing being repurposed as gleeful psychopathy.
  • As trepidatious as I was going in, that theme music … man, it’s good to hear it again.
  • Not to repeat myself, but I do hope the writing finds its groove. Too many awkward moments of dialogue to really overlook … however much Benioff and Weiss floundered with the plotting after they overshot GRRM’s runway, even by the end the moment-to-moment of GoT never felt inauthentic.
  • The juxtaposition of the bloody birthing scene and the jousting was a little … obvious. C’mon, man. We get it.
  • Something Stephanie pointed out right at the outset: do clothing styles not change in Westeros? This is almost two centuries before GoT, you’d think there’d be some differences.
  • I can’t quibble with the casting. Once I’ve worked through my Doctor Who issues, Matt Smith looks to be great. Paddy Considine (King Viserys) has been great in everything I’ve seen him in. Rhys Ifans (Hand of the King Otto Hightower) is also always a solid bet. I had to do an IMDb search to figure out where I’d seen Eve Best (Princess Rhaenys, aka the Queen That Never Was); it was Nurse Jackie, a series I can’t recommend enough, and she was amazing in it, as she looks to be here. Though I really, really hope she gets to do more. And I really like Milly Alcock as Princess Rhaenyra: the ambitious and precocious teenage girl who wants more than the life normally allotted a woman is a role we last saw done superbly by Maesie Williams as Arya Stark; Alcock so far isn’t overplaying it, and I appreciate the subtlety she brings, especially considering we can expect it to be contrasted by Matt Smith’s gleeful scenery-chewing as her principal antagonist.
Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen, bringing some serious creepy uncle vibes to the role.

So I guess we’ll see. Not a bad start, but with the way GoT left things, the series has its work cut out convincing fans they’re willing to be hurt all over again.

One thing I’ve found interesting: there have been more than a few (by which I mean two or three that I’ve seen) think pieces wondering whether HotD will fill the vacuum left by GoT as a show that gives people a common point of contact—as whatever these days passes for water-cooler conversation, or in the more highbrow terminology, a “monoculture.” As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post, “It’s not just that Game of Thrones left behind unfinished conversations. Rather, the show seemed to mark the end of mass, sustained cultural debate period.”

However much GoT was a hugely popular show, I feel this overstates things … or possibly evinces a critic’s nostalgia for entertainment properties that captured more than the niche attention that has increasingly been the norm since television fractured into a wider cable universe, and which itself then gave ground to streaming services and their infinitude of offerings. It’s odd to consider that the ratings for the GoT finale, its most-watched episode at just shy of 14 million viewers, was the same as your average episode of Seinfeld in the 1990s. When I was a TA in the first years of my PhD, I could cite The Simpsons in my classes by way of explaining things and be confident that all my students were familiar with my references.

It’s been a long time since there’s been that kind of touchstone—GoT was the closest thing we’ve had, and I somehow doubt HotD will capture the same lightning in a bottle. But I suppose we shall see.

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Lovecraft Country, “Sundown”

lovecraft country

As I started to say in my previous post, Lovecraft Country, among other things—perhaps above other things—isn’t just an extended engagement with the fraught legacy of H.P. Lovecraft, but deploys that legacy as an extended metaphor for the even more fraught legacy of race in America. And though I refer here to the novel by Matt Ruff, the first episode of HBO’s adaptation, “Sundown,” is very much on the same page.

Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) is a young Black man from the South Side of Chicago; a veteran of the Korean War; a son whose relationship to his father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) is fraught to the point of estrangement; and a lover of pulp science fiction and fantasy. The opening sequence of “Sundown” is at once a flashback to his time in Korea, and a dream  wrought by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp authors, starting with visceral black-and-white hand-to-hand combat with North Korean soldiers, and moving into a technicolour attack by flying saucers, alien tripods á là H.G. Welles, and Lovecraftian, batlike monsters. The Cthulhu-esque tentacular beast confronting Atticus is suddenly split down the middle in a spume of green slime by none other than Jackie Robinson.

And then Atticus wakes up, on a bus taking him north, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel A Princess of Mars resting on his chest.

Atticus—or “Tic,” as others call him—comprises the central conceit of Lovecraft Country: a young Black man who knows as well as anybody the brutal realities of Jim Crow America; who served as a combat soldier in Korea, but doesn’t accrue any respect or gratitude for that from whites; but who is an enthusiastic reader of pulp fiction, in spite of the fact that those stories not only have little to say about him, but what they do have to say is racist and demeaning. Even the older Black woman with whom he ends up walking down a country road after their bus blows out doesn’t have much use for his choice of reading—pointing out to him that John Carter, the hero of Burroughs’ Mars novels, was a Confederate officer, and thus doesn’t deserve Atticus’ sympathies. Later, after Atticus makes it home to Chicago, he tells his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) that his father Montrose had tried to cure him of his pulp addiction by making him memorize a certain piece of doggerel by H.P. Lovecraft. (I won’t cite the vile title of the poem or quote it—typing “Lovecraft on the creation” into Google will take you to it if you’re that curious—but the most euphemistic way to summarize it is to say it suggests the gods saw a gap in creation between man and beast, and filled that gap by creating Black people). When the woman he met on the bus points out that John Carter doesn’t get to be an “ex-Confederate,” because “he fought for slavery. You don’t get to put an ‘ex’ in front of that,” Atticus replies that, “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish them, and overlook their flaws.”

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Coming as it does in the first minutes of the first episode, this assertion initially felt like a lame, mealy-mouthed defense, and Atticus doesn’t really speak the line with much conviction—it feels as though, more than anything, he’s trying to convince himself. “The flaws are still there,” the woman points out. “Yeah, they are,” Atticus concedes. On reflection, however—and on re-watching the episode—it strikes me that Atticus’ words, here at the outset, articulate a key theme of the series. For one thing, it becomes obvious that he’s talking as much about his father as about his beloved pulp stories—over the course of “Sundown,” we learn that his father Montrose is an abusive alcoholic who was himself abused by his father, but also that he loved Atticus deeply, even if he couldn’t express it—and that his loathing of Atticus’ pulp fiction addiction was of a piece with his rage at Atticus’ enlistment. Why give yourself over to these people who hate you? Why read fiction that extols whiteness and vilifies blackness? Why fight for a nation that makes you a second-class citizen?

While Atticus is an admirably nuanced and well-realized character in the novel—and Jonathan Majors’ performance so far promises to be extraordinary—he is also Lovecraft Country’s central conceit; that is to say, his love of fiction that doesn’t love him back, but which nevertheless resonates with him, is a poignant metaphor for the contradictions of the American Experiment. “In the beginning was not only the word,” wrote Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, “but its contradiction.” That contradiction is baked into the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, slave-owner. Black scholars and thinkers, from Frederick Douglass to Ellison to Toni Morrison, have long pointed out this contradiction between the promise of America and its practice, and demanded that the promise be fulfilled.

[It was at this moment in the drafting of this post that I abandoned the laptop and worked longhand, as I usually do when trying to work through ideas that aren’t easily gelling; I filled a few pages of a legal pad with several attempts to speak to the larger issues concerning race that have been brought to the fore in the past few months, and how Lovecraft Country bears on them. I have chosen discretion over valour, however, because (1) I want to get this post done in a relatively timely manner, and am loath to articulate thoughts on such topics not fully baked; and (2) I don’t want this post to be Tolstoy-length. Suffice to say, TL;DR: the timing of Lovecraft Country airing now is serendipitous, not least because we just saw the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as the VP candidate.]

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Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta and Courtney B. Vance as George Freeman.

“Sundown” does an admirable job of establishing the world of the story and introducing its main characters: in addition to Atticus as his uncle George, there’s George’s wife Hippolyta, and their daughter Diana, who has her own genre obsession—she draws comics featuring heroic characters. George and Hippolyta publish The Safe Negro Travel Guide, which lists towns, restaurants, and hotels that are Black-friendly. And if that publication sounds familiar, well, that’s because it’s based on the historical Green Book, which, as it happens, had its own movie not long ago. Writing for NPR, Glen Weldon lists the similarities and differences between the movie and the series:

Here is a list of things that the HBO series Lovecraft Country, premiering Sunday, August 16th, has in common with the 2018 film Green Book:

  1. Setting: Jim Crow-era America
  2. Acting: Subtle, nuanced performances (Viggo Mortensen’s dese-and-dose Green Book gangster notwithstanding).
  3. Subject: Story features a road trip involving a travel guidebook written to inform Black people where they can safely eat and stay. (Green Book: Entire film; Lovecraft Country: Opening episodes only.)

And here is a brief, incomplete list of the things that Lovecraft Country prominently features that Green Book emphatically does not:

1. A story centered on the lives of Black characters.
2. Black characters with agency, absent any White Savior narrative.
3. Shoggoths.

The second list is key: though Matt Ruff, author of Lovecraft Country, is white, he scrupulously avoids injecting white characters into the story to act as saviours. Indeed, Atticus’ name is a wry nod to the longtime liberal custom of telling nominally anti-racist stories in which victimized Black characters are saved through the intervention of a virtuous white protagonist—the veritable archetype for this character being Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, immortalized in Gregory Peck’s performance in the film adaptation. Green Book was only one of the most recent examples of this tendency, mercifully eschewed by Lovecraft Country.

But to get back to the characters: we also meet Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett), who ends up hitting the road with Atticus and George as they go looking for Atticus’ missing father. And we also briefly encounter Letitia’s older sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), who doesn’t figure much into this episode, but, assuming the series remains faithful to the novel, will have a more significant role later.

We do not, unfortunately, meet Atticus’ father Montrose, but I’m fairly sure he’ll show up in episode two (Omar comin’!).

At issue in this episode, and in the series more generally, is Atticus’ genealogy: he has returned home from Florida, where he’s been living since his discharge from the army, because of a letter from his father. Montrose wrote to say he’d discovered something about Atticus’ late mother’s ancestry, which was somehow related to a Massachusetts town called Ardham. Atticus, with understandable perplexity, initially reads as “Arkham” until George corrects him. One way or another, however, as Atticus observes, their search is going to take them deep into “Lovecraft country”—both literally, in terms of the New England countryside in which Lovecraft set much of his fiction; and figuratively, insofar as they encounter the virulent, violent racism of a sheriff who informs them that Devon County—in which Ardham is supposedly located—is a “sundown country,” meaning that unless they can remove themselves beyond its borders by sundown, the sheriff will hang them.

Sundown towns were distressingly common, and were actually quite prevalent throughout the northern states. The consequences might not be as extreme as lynching—though that was not unheard of—but would certainly be violent. Hence the need for a motorists’ guide that would inform Black travelers about which such towns to avoid (one criticism leveled at Green Book is that it elides the fact that the north was actually worse for sundown towns, and that New Jersey—tacitly depicted in the film as friendly territory—was particularly inhospitable, and that Viggo Mortensen’s character, the driver hired to chauffeur Mahershala Ali for his concert tour, only starts to consult the titular green book once they enter the south).

Sundown thus obtains a dual sense of dread—the real-world, historical threat it posed Blacks in such locales, as well as the horror-story fear of the dark that comes with night. For it is when Atticus, Letitia, and George have made their way into Devon County that these two threats intersect. While stopped in the middle of a forest as they vainly search for a road that will take them to Ardham, they find themselves confronted by Sheriff Eustace Hunt, who informs them of Devon County’s unwritten sundown law. Though they manage to cross the county line with seconds to spare, they are then stopped by more police. Sheriff Eustace, it seemed, called ahead. They are taken into the forest, forced to lie prone on their bellies, and accused of a string of burglaries while the cops hold shotguns to their heads. And then …

Well, then is when “Lovecraft country” becomes actually Lovecraftian, as they are all attacked by the aforementioned Shoggoths. Shoggoths, for those unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s fiction, are monstrous, amoebic blobs, dotted with many eyes. Or, as described in At the Mountains of Madness:

It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter.

The shoggoths of Lovecraft Country aren’t quite so blob-like as they are huge, hound-like beasts with round mouths forested with teeth, and quivering slimy skin with the consistency and complexion of dead fish. They do, however, have many eyes.


True to its pulp roots, Lovecraft Country doesn’t aim for subtlety in its metaphors—though to be fair, neither does much of the horror genre. Monsters are always representations of the most prevalent fears and anxieties in the cultural imaginary at a given moment. And people are often the worst monsters, even when there are actual monsters present to offer comparison. Lovecraft Country is about the monstrosity of racism, so when Sheriff Eustace, having been bitten by a Shoggoth, starts to transform into one, the point hits home quite plainly.

The presence of Shoggoths—or, perhaps more accurately, the suggested analogy between their beasts and the malevolent blobs of Lovecraft’s imagining—might also be read as a subtle dig at Lovecraft. In At the Mountains of Madness, the Miskatonic University exploratory team of scientists finds in Antarctica an ancient city of “cyclopean” proportions (one of Lovecraft’s favourite adjectives, meaning enormous). The city had been built by the Old Ones, ancient god-like alien creatures (like Cthulhu) who predated human existence on Earth. The shoggoths were created as a slave race to serve them, but ultimately rose up against their masters and destroyed them. Though the series is mostly faithful to the novel, some of the names have been changed: Atticus’ surname in the series is Freeman (with all of the significance that obtains), but in the novel it’s Turner—an allusion to Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. Also, when looking for news of his father, Atticus goes to the bar that was his habitual haunt—which is named Denmark Vesey’s Bar. Denmark Vesey was a free Black man who was executed in 1822 on the charge of planning a slave rebellion.

It takes “Sundown” some time before the supernatural elements intrude—we’re four-fifths of the way in when the Shoggoths appear—but the narrative and thematic build makes it worth the wait. Perhaps the most poignant sequence is a montage of our three heroes driving from the Midwest to Massachusetts—a montage scored not to music, but by a speech delivered by writer James Baldwin in 1965 at Cambridge University. The speech was Baldwin’s rebuttal to William F. Buckley in a debate over the proposition “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” It is worth watching in its entirety, or else reading the transcript.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baldwin won the debate resoundingly.

As we hear Baldwin’s eloquent and mellifluous words, we see images of Atticus, Letitia, and George at various points in their road trip, and we see images of a segregated America. At key moments, the mise-en-scène precisely echoes photographs by Gordon Parks, a Black photographer who, among other subjects, chronicled segregation in Jim Crow America.

gordon parks

On the left: Gordon Parks’ photography. On the right: stills from Lovecraft Country.

One of the most infuriating moments comes when, as they’re paused at a gas station, a skinny white boy mocks Atticus—who is eating a banana—by making monkey noises. Atticus looks threatening for a moment, but Letitia holds him back. Atticus settles for throwing the banana peel in the asshole’s face, which only evokes more laughter from him and his friends—secure in their societally sanctioned safety, in spite of the fact that the impressively muscled, combat veteran Atticus could likely snap the boy in two with no great effort.

As they pull away from the station, we see a billboard advertising Aunt Jemima across the street.

aunt jemima

I think I’ll end this post here, not because I’ve run out of things to say, but because I could go on and on. The ending of the episode sets us up for the next one, so I’ll talk about that some time next week.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here.

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Viewing, Guilty Pleasure Edition—The Last Ship

Sometimes post-apocalyptic narratives begin with a slightly gimmicky hook, that tends to follow a formula: what if the end of the world came when [person/people] were [doing something] in [unique location]. Perhaps my favourite example of this is the BBC zombie apocalypse mini-series Dead Set, in which the survivors of the undead pandemic are the contestants on Big Brother—sealed in their closed set, they are initially oblivious to the carnage happening beyond their walls.

Now, I might have more to say about Dead Set in a future post, as I consider it one of the finest examples of the zombie genre, and it is an extremely smart and trenchant critique of celebrity culture. But that is not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about a television series that is perhaps the most flagrantly jingoistic apologia for the American military I have ever seen, the most emotionally manipulative paean to honour and duty since A Few Good Men, and the most overt recruitment ad for the Navy since Top Gun: the series The Last Ship.

last-shipReader, I loved it. And I am very conflicted about that fact, given that it genuinely is little more than five seasons worth of U.S. Navy propaganda. Hence the designation “guilty pleasure” in my title, in spite of the fact that I have long believed one should not ever feel guilty about the reading and viewing in which you take pleasure.

(Unless it’s Twilight. Because seriously, fuck that shit).

To plug in the variables in my above formula, The Last Ship’s premise is that the end of the world in the form of a virulent strain of flu comes when the sailors and soldiers on the missile destroyer U.S.S. Nathan James are on a four-month radio-silence mission in the Arctic. Unbeknownst to the captain and crew, the scientists whom they’ve been transporting have been tasked with finding the “primordial strain” of a virus that is tearing through the Middle East. The mission the ship is on is little more than a cover for the scientists’ work. The captain and crew have no idea, because radio silence, that the United States has, in the four months since they put to sea, been savaged by the illness. They only realize that something is hinky when they’re attacked by Russians intent on kidnapping the lead doctor and taking her samples. What follows is a battle sequence that fetishizes the kind of high-tech violence a top-of-the-line missile destroyer can unleash, and which sets the tone for the way the series will unfold.

You get the idea.

To be clear, the Russian attack, and the subsequent revelation of the doctors’ true mission and the truth about the global pandemic unfolds in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode. Whatever the series’ flaws, economy in storytelling is not one of them, except for the requisite sequence that seems to happen in every episode when throbbing, sad music plays over a montage of (a) sailors mourning the death of a comrade, (b) the captain looking tormented by the difficult choices he has had to make, (c) stoic sailors and soldiers carrying on in their duties in spite of the difficulty/pain/trauma, or (d) quite often, all of the above. The captain is played by Eric Dane (aka McSteamy from Grey’s Anatomy), and his second-in-command by Adam Baldwin (aka Jayne from Firefly, aka Mr. Gamergate, aka another reason I’m conflicted about the series), and they are all about honour, naval tradition, and square-jawed stoicism in the face of adversity.


What’s interesting about The Last Ship in the broader context of pandemic/post-apocalyptic narratives is that it’s something of an outlier: the more common tendency is to depict societal institutions failing and collapsing when confronted with catastrophe. The brilliant pilot episode of The Walking Dead memorably depicts military barricades littered with corpses, and tanks and armoured vehicles sitting forlorn and empty, having proved useless in the face of the onslaught of the undead. World War Z shares in a very slight degree with The Last Ship a faith in military ingenuity, but that only happens after the U.S. Army fails spectacularly to stem the zombie tide, and is only efficacious when it learns to reinvent itself. The Last Ship, by contrast, presents the Navy as it is as the bulwark against chaos, not only in its aforementioned fetishization of advanced weaponry, but in its valorization of longstanding naval tradition. The very stubborn refusal to change or compromise is explicitly framed as a virtue, which, indeed, is in keeping with naval tradition more generally (in the U.S. military, the Navy tends to be the most conservative branch, resistant to change; by contrast, the Marines, who rely on the Navy for their budget and equipment, tend to be the most improvisational, as they traditionally have always had to do more with less).

Over its five seasons, The Last Ship indulges in increasingly more ludicrous plot arcs, but in its early stages comprises some pretty decent, taut storytelling (aside from the aforementioned portentous montages), and speaks to some of the issues I’ve raised in recent posts about narratives dealing with the aftermath of catastrophe and the rebuilding of society. The idea of America persists (because of course it does) in The Last Ship, but is at various points tenuous—the Nathan James returns home with a vaccine and a cure for the virus (because of course it does), but also has to contend with the breakdown of governance and the difficulty of re-establishing a republic after the descent into Hobbesian chaos. The series features the kind of regional fracturing I mentioned in my last post, with regional governors being initially amenable to a central government and the swearing-in of a president (á là Designated Survivor, the sole surviving member of the presidential line of succession is the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), only to later become more obstreperous and unwilling to accept presidential authority, culminating in a conspiracy to (successfully) assassinate the president, and (unsuccessfully) eliminate the federal government and wall off the regional authorities from one another.

And what is the glue that finally holds the battered nation together? Duty and honour, as our naval heroes remind their army comrades—who have come under the command of the conspirators—what their oath to the Constitution entails.

I may have rolled my eyes a little at that part. But I was also enthusiastically eating my (figurative) popcorn.

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Isolated Thoughts: The Exquisite Agony of Watching The Plot Against America

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Plot Against America, both the novel and the mini-series.


One of the most affecting scenes in HBO’s mini-series The Plot Against America, adapted by David Simon (The Wire, Treme) from the novel by Philip Roth, is also one of the most painful to watch. It comes at the end of the second episode, as the Levins, a Jewish family in the Weeqhahic neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey, sit around the radio listening to the general election returns of 1940. Having successfully gained the Republican nomination, Charles Lindbergh—hero aviator, isolationist, avowed anti-Semite, and Nazi sympathizer—is, against all expectations, defeating the incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It is an agonizing moment of narrative inevitability. We know Lindbergh will win, of course, as that is the basic premise of the story. But as the crackling voice on the radio calls states for Lindbergh, we see the incredulity on the face of father Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan). Up until this point, the impossibility of a Lindbergh victory has been a point of faith for Herman. Bess had her doubts, but took comfort in Herman’s certainty. Now, as the reality of a Lindbergh presidency sinks in, incredulity turns to fear.

It is a beautifully crafted bit of televisual art, and utterly painful to watch on three levels. First is the level of story, as we empathize with the fear and confusion of the Levins. Second is the level of history, as the moment punctures the safety and comfort of a certain idea of America and introduces into the Levin’s living room the dread and threat we normally associate with such households in 1930s Europe. And third is on the level of memory: it is impossible to watch this scene, as is by design, without remembering the same sense of incredulity and despair that came with watching Donald Trump eke out a victory in a handful of key states.

David Simon had first been approached about adapting Plot in 2013, but was preoccupied with other projects. After November 2016, however, a story about a barnstorming celebrity with racist views and sympathy for dictators winning an unlikely presidential election suddenly had new and frighteningly immediate relevance.


The Prophetic Plot

I first read Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America when it first came out in 2004. I was at that point on something of a year-long Philip Roth reading binge, having neglected his fiction prior to then, but realizing that if I meant to fashion myself as an academic specializing in 20th Century American literature, especially postwar fiction, then not having read any Roth comprised a significant lacuna in my reading (for those less familiar with Roth and his prolific output, I just counted: I have read eighteen Roth novels, which means I have left eleven works in his corpus unread).

plot against americaPlot is an alternative history imagining a United States in which Charles Lindbergh runs for the Republican presidential nomination in 1940, and proceeds, against all odds and expectations, to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the general election. Lindbergh does so by exploiting his celebrity, which was at the time considerable; his campaign essentially comprises him flying from city to city and town to town in his iconic airplane, landing to cheering crowds who are often (at first) simply excited to see the national hero as opposed to being enthusiastic about his message. Lindbergh then delivers a short, rousing stump speech before climbing back in the cockpit and flying to his next campaign stop. He adopts the isolationist rhetoric of the day—“America First”—of which he was historically an enthusiastic proponent, and frames the electoral choice in stark terms of a vote for Lindbergh or a vote for war. Following his surprising victory, Lindbergh reverses all of FDR’s policies giving aid and support to Great Britain, and establishes America’s neutrality in no uncertain terms—all while making his admiration for Hitler and the Third Reich obvious, with a surprise diplomatic visit to Germany and hosting Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at a state dinner. And unsurprisingly, Lindbergh’s friendliness with the Nazis gives license for American racism and anti-Semitism to flourish.

When Plot first came out, it was at the height—or, if you like, the nadir—of George W. Bush’s tenure as president, little more than a month before his reelection. Common wisdom at the time was that the novel allegorized the Bush Administration’s divisive politics, the post-9/11 rollback of civil liberties, and the ramped-up racism against Muslims. Roth himself always denied in interviews that there was anything in his novel specifically attacking Bush et al, and many reviewers and critics assumed her was just being coy.

Personally, I was never sure. Plot always felt to me like Roth being Roth, offering a thought experiment not meant as allegory so much as broader historical critique. You could see Rumsfeld and Cheney in the novel’s pages if you squinted hard enough, but it was never a perfect fit.

And then twelve years later when Trump was elected, everybody realized: The Plot Against America wasn’t a political allegory. It was a goddammed prophecy.


American Inevitability

I’ve taught The Plot Against America three times now. The first time was seven or eight years ago, and I was frustrated that my students seemed more or less indifferent to the novel. Nobody much wanted to engage with it, or had much to say in class discussion, and the energy in the room when we covered it was pretty flat. It was disappointing, as it always is when you teach a text you love and your students aren’t on board; but I chalked it up to the general lack of historical knowledge that has inevitably led to at least one rant in every class I teach to read more history!

Then after Trump was elected, I made the attempt two more times, thinking that of course the relevance of the novel to the present moment would inspire a more energized reaction among my students. But no—the same flat response. A colleague of mine has also attempted to teach Plot in his first-year classes, and has experienced a similar lack of interest.

My sense has always been that my students’ lack of deeper familiarity with the history in which the novel is steeped dilutes their interest in the obvious parallels to Trump and the present moment. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I wonder if the real issue is not a failure to educate recent generations about World War Two, but rather the overwhelming success of the American mythology machine. By which I mean: in the American popular imagination, as it has been primarily conditioned by Hollywood, the United States was always already the defiant enemy of Nazis and fascism. The ambivalence—and indeed, outright hostility—that a large proportion of U.S. had in the late 1930s to getting involved in another European war, while not lost to history, has been effectively erased by very nearly every single representation of World War Two to emerge from the American culture industry; so too has the fact that there was a not-insignificant number of Americans actively sympathetic to the Third Reich who advocated for an alliance with Hitler. In February of 1939, the German American Bund—an explicitly pro-Nazi organization founded in 1936—held a rally at Madison Square Gardens in New York City attended by 22,000 people. It was an event destined to go down the postwar memory hole (of everybody but historians), but it was resurrected in a seven-minute 2017 documentary titled A Night at the Garden. The film short is comprised entirely of archival footage from the event.

Notably, the HBO adaptation of The Plot Against America used an almost identical backdrop in Madison Square Gardens for the scene in which Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf—played with sublime, arrogant obliviousness by John Turturro—endorses Lindbergh for president.


All that’s missing from Plot’s set design is the swastikas that were present in the historical rally (and by “missing,” I mean deliberately omitted for obvious reasons).

Night at the Garden

I’ll come back to this scene in Plot momentarily. Otherwise, the point I’m trying to make is that the lack of enthusiasm for the novel when I have taught it (always allowing for the fact that a given number of students will always dislike some of the assigned reading, no matter how genuinely awesome it is) almost certainly has something to do with this particular lacuna in the popular imagination of WWII. A good friend of mine once observed that Stephen Spielberg realized early in his career that Nazis make the best villains—something that I laughed at in the moment, but which stuck with me afterward. Why do Nazis make the best villains? Because the storyteller has to expend no effort to explain why they’re villains. They are, to use Northrop Frye’s repurposed geometry, overdetermined. But the corollary of that in American popular culture has always been that they are thus the necessary antithesis of Americanness, and ergo that the United States was only ever the emphatic and unequivocal enemy of the Third Reich.

In spite of the fact that Roth’s novel, with its evocation of the isolationist sentiments and de rigueur anti-Semitism of the 1930s, works hard to disrupt the prevailing popular mythology, The Plot Against America nevertheless very weirdly reinscribes certain elements of that mythology. Not in terms of content, but narrative: for all of the virtuosity of the novel, the ending always felt to me like a bit of deus ex machina. To wit: in 1942, as things in the U.S. start to devolve toward more overt fascism, Lindbergh’s plane is lost on a return flight from Kentucky to D.C. Chaos momentarily ensues, and the newly elevated Vice President Burton Wheeler—historically, someone with even greater authoritarian tendencies than Lindbergh—seizes control of the government. But when the bereaved First Lady makes an impassioned plea on the radio for Congress to remove Wheeler, instate the next person in the line of succession, and legislate a special general election for November, 1942, order is restored. Roosevelt regains the presidency; when he reverses Lindbergh’s policy of neutrality, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor … and the history we know reasserts itself, albeit a year or so later. TL;DR, the Allies are victorious and the 20th century proceeds in familiar fashion.

While I’ve always been ambivalent about the tidy way Roth ties up what was otherwise a shattering alternative history, I also cannot deny how comforting it was to get the train back on the tracks after such a dislocating narrative experience—but then again, that comfort highlights the broader problem. That problem being that, ultimately, the novel presents an American flirtation with fascism as an historical aberration, a blip on destiny’s timeline: one emerges from the novel with the sense of American democracy’s historical inevitability intact. On reflection, this sense of inevitability perhaps gives the lie to the early interpretations of Plot as a trenchant critique of the Bush Administration, given that the neoconservative ethos informing Bush et al—and which led directly to the war in Iraq—was rooted in precisely this sensibility, the conviction that American-style, market-driven liberal democracy was the logical end-point of cultural and societal evolution, and that all it would take to bring it to the troubled Middle East was depose a dictator and say “you’re a democracy now!” to the grateful locals.

Well, we saw how that went.

To be fair to Roth, at the time when Plot was published, even as it was becoming evident that the Iraq War was turning into a quagmire, the sense of American inevitability was still difficult to escape—and indeed, four years later it would underwrite much of the rhetoric employed by Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. I should clarify here that this formulation of “American inevitability” is more or less synonymous with the concept of American Exceptionalism, given that the latter tends to be constituted within a sense of destiny—codified over a century and a half ago in the Monroe Doctrine as “Manifest Destiny,” and after the collapse of the Soviet Union by Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history” in his book of that name—not “end” as in apocalypse, but culmination. The neoconservative ethos cited above found its intellectual armature in Fukuyama’s political philosophy, which in The End of History was the perfect distillation of post-Cold War American triumphalism that characterized the U.S. as, in Bill Clinton’s phrasing, “the one indispensable nation.”

I have, these past three years, read more than one think-piece arguing that our current mess is at least partially due to the complacency of those post-Cold War years, when liberal democracy was considered so inevitable that little attention was paid to the growing illiberal tendencies of nations like Russia or Brazil. It is difficult not to see some of that complacency at work in the fact that even as historically astute a novel as The Plot Against America ultimately hews to a tacit assumption of American inevitability.

As David Simon has said in interviews about his adaptation, however, that assumption is one that is more or less impossible to make in the present moment.


Killing Snakes

(Just as an aside, I think I might have to do a separate post that would just be a review of Plot. Given that this post has turned into more of a political-historical consideration of the novel and the series, I’m giving short shrift to the adaptation’s virtuosity. It is a genuinely brilliant piece of televisual art, possibly the best work David Simon has done since The Wire. The evocation of 1940s New Jersey is gorgeously rendered, the writing is subtle and nuanced, and the performances are bravura—Winona Ryder continues her career’s impressive second act, portraying the shallow and needy Aunt Evelyn, older sister to Bess Levin; John Turturro is at his smarmy best as the arrogant Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who becomes a useful idiot for the Lindbergh campaign and then administration; Morgan Spector is heartbreaking as Herman, who watches all his bedrock beliefs about America exposed as illusory. But the heart of the series is Zoe Kazan as Bess, who does more with her facial expressions alone than most actors could do with a monologue. But hopefully I’ll have more to say about all that in a future post).

If a sense of American inevitability was still pervasive in 2004, and was perhaps somewhat bolstered by the Obama presidency’s unabashed embrace of American Exceptionalism (most perfectly distilled in Obama’s repeated assertion that “in no other country is my story possible”), Trump’s election and the years since have disabused us of the notion. David Simon has never been guilty of the starry-eyed vision of the U.S. informing, say, The West Wing or Hamilton. Indeed, in all of his television work, starting with Homicide: Life on the Street, through The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme, Show Me A Hero, and, most recently, The Deuce, has always been about depicting the dark side of the American Dream: the parallel and intersecting interests of the drug trade with licit American life in The Wire, for example, or the evolution of pornography into an economic juggernaut in the 1970s in The Deuce.

The consistent theme in his work has been how apathy and going along to get along corrupt institutions and leave them vulnerable to motivated and unscrupulous greed and graft. Which is not, as he says in practically every interview with him I’ve seen or read, an excuse to give up. The title of his blog, The Audacity of Despair, really kind of says it all: it’s an ironic nod to Obama’s soaring rhetoric, but not as cynical as it might seem at first glance. It contains a challenge to fight on:

[W]e were trying to figure out what the slogan was for the show, the tagline. We were struggling with it. Some things were too dead-on for the political moment, and some things weren’t on enough, and I came up with something my father said at every Passover Seder of my memory. If you opened his copy of the Haggadah, he would have it written in. And he said it: “Freedom can never be completely won, but it can be lost.” Then he would explain that, and in the explanation, I came to understand citizenship. What he would say is, self-governance is really hard. Churchill, no great liberal, nonetheless said that democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives. It’s never perfect, it’s never perfected. There’s always someone who’s not being delivered the same promise of freedom as everyone else. There are some freedoms that get betrayed and have to be rescued. The work is never done. We will never get to the point of being able to dust off our hands and say, “Well, there it is, we finished our republic.”

Every day, you’ve gotta get up and kill snakes. Every fucking day. The day you think you’re done and you stop, or you assume that the freedoms there on the page are going to exist regardless of who’s in office, that’s the day you begin to lose it. The only way to self-govern is to say, “This is unwieldy, this is complicated, this requires perseverance, and tomorrow’s going to be the same as today.” It can often seem impossible. But what’s certain is that if you don’t do the work, you’ll lose it.

The enemy of democratic freedom, in other words—or, one of the big ones, at any rate—is complacency. In this respect, The Plot Against America is an almost uncannily perfect vehicle for Simon’s sensibility, as it offers source material specifically about how easily democracy as an institution can be corrupted by pre-existing prejudices and hatreds that need only official permission to transform from systemic to overt. In the first episode, the Levins drive to an upscale neighbourhood to look at houses—Herman has been offered a promotion that will necessitate moving. But Bess is nervous about leaving their majority-Jewish neighbourhood, and sees the suspicious glances from prospective neighbours to which Herman is oblivious. But the culminating moment, which convinces Herman to turn down the promotion and stay put, comes as they drive past a German-style beer garden where members of the Bund carouse and glare at the Jewish family as they drive past.

It is a moment that is at once eerily reminiscent of the faux-idyllic scene in Cabaret in which a Hitler Youth member sings “The Future Belongs to Me,” but also anticipates the fear and threat of the moment in the final episode when Herman watches a hooded Klansman pass in front of his car.


The seeds, in other words, of fascistic anti-Semitism are firmly planted at the outset; but what brings the more moderate swath of the population, who might not want Jews moving into their neighbourhood but would be horrified to be accused of anti-Semitism, to vote for an avowed anti-Semite? Lindbergh’s celebrity is one factor, as is his promise to avoid war. But more effective is to flatter those people’s sensibilities, which is why one of the most interesting (and repulsive and infuriating) characters is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. Bengelsdorf, in an oily admixture of self-importance, opportunism, and oblivious arrogance, becomes an enthusiastic apologist for Lindbergh. In a crucial moment shortly before the general election, he endorses Lindbergh at the aforementioned rally that visually echoes A Night at the Garden:

It is worth dwelling on Alvin’s words in this scene, as it is one of the points in Plot that most obviously resonates with the present moment:

HERMAN: Does any of you think one single Jew is going to go out and vote for this anti-Semite because of that stupid lying speech? What does he think he’s doing?
ALVIN: Koshering Lindbergh!
HERMAN: Koshering what?
ALVIN: They didn’t get him up there to talk to Jews! They didn’t buy him off for that. He’s up there talking to the goyim! He’s givin’ all the good Christian folks of this country their personal rabbi’s permission to vote for Lindy, and not to think themselves Nazis, or anti-Semites.

It was a source of some genuine bafflement to a handful of pundits when, at the most recent State of the Union, Donald Trump highlighted a handful of African-Americans. It has become a standard bit of political theatre at the SOTU for the president to point to specific guests in the audiences as exemplars of American virtue; that he would pack his deck with African-Americans seemed to some a transparent, but futile, bid for Black votes (especially futile considering the juxtaposition with giving Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom). But as some more astute observers pointed out, it had nothing to do with courting Black voters. It was rather a gesture aimed at white suburban voters, especially white women, who find Trump’s blatant racism distasteful but will vote for him if provided with a fig leaf. They need an excuse to vote for him, a subtlety almost certainly lost on Trump but not on his enablers.

What Philip Roth’s alternative history articulates is that hatred and authoritarian populism are easily roused with the right permission structure. What the novel papers over in its too-easy return to familiar history is that Pandora’s Box is not so easily closed: those forces unleashed by Lindbergh won’t be contained, any more than those to which Trump has given oxygen. My principal misgiving about Joe Biden’s candidacy from the start was not about his age or proclivity for gaffes, but that he campaigned on the premise that Trump is an aberration, and Biden’s election would return everything to normal.

There is no more prelapsarian “normal,” something Roth’s novel misses. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, David Simon had misgivings about the ending of The Plot Against America, which he tentatively brought to Philip Roth:

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the courage to walk in and go, “This is what I’m going to do.” I pointed out where I thought we might have some problems with the ending and I asked him if he had any ideas. He went to that portion of the book, reread that page and a half two or three times. He kept going back and forth, and I was sitting across the coffee table from him, this great man of literature. The TV hack and the great man of literature. He’s rereading his work and he’s frowning and I’m waiting. It felt like an hour and a half, but it was probably about four minutes, and he closed the book and said, “It’s your problem now.”

Simon says he took this as tacit permission to change things. Unfortunately, that was the last time he was able to speak with Roth: the author died not too long after that meeting.

For the most part, the adaptation stays very true to the original. The major structural change is that the series has multiple perspectives, whereas the novel is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a nine-year-old Philip Roth (for those unfamiliar with Roth’s fiction, deploying a quasi-fictional version of himself as the main character and narrator is something he has done in multiple novels; I can’t fault Simon for changing the family name to Levin, given that he’s already taken on the task of adapting the work of one of America’s preeminent novelists—depicting a nine-year-old Philip Roth would be a bridge too far for me, too). Because of this, the series can directly depict narrative sequences that, in the novel, come to us secondhand from Philip.

The most significant change Simon made, however, comes at the end. History as we know it does not reassert itself—instead, we end on election night, with Roosevelt’s election in question. The now-familiar image of Herman Levin sitting beside the radio is preceded by a montage scored to Frank Sinatra’s 1945 “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me),” a song specifically commissioned in 1945 to combat ant-Semitism:

What is America to me
A name, a map, or a flag I see
A certain word, democracy
What is America to me
The house I live in
A plot of earth, the street
The grocer and the butcher
Or the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races and religions
That’s America to me

While Sinatra croons, we end the series with images of people being denied at the polls, of ballots being stolen and burned, and, in one case, a voting machine being carted away. “What’s wrong with it?” someone calls, and is curtly told, “It’s broken.” The voters featured in the sequence are predominantly African-American, or blue-collar Italian or Jewish, those most likely to vote for FDR. It’s an ending that works, much more than the original would have, in this present moment. The genius of Roth’s novel is to dredge up a history that the United States goes out of its way to forget, i.e. the profound ambivalence to getting involved in what many dismissed as “a Jewish war,” and tease out of that an entirely plausible alternative; its failure is to reassure the reader that this alternative would be easily quashed, suggesting the inevitability of the American 20th century as discussed above. Where Simon’s adaptation ends is with the reminder that the fascist sympathies excited by Lindbergh would not go gently into that good night, any more than Trump-inspired nativists will disappear if he’s voted out in November.

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Filed under Isolated Thoughts, television, Trump, what I'm watching

The Sense of an Ending

WARNING: this post contains spoilers for, well, everything.


When I was eleven years old, my parents allowed me to stay up late and watch the series finale of M*A*S*H. I loved M*A*S*H, and still do—it was, I think, the first bit of television (aside perhaps from The Muppet Show) that was more than just mere entertainment for me … I was deeply invested in those characters and their situations, and when it came to an end I was gutted by the fact that there would never again be new episodes. Hence my parents’ willingness to let me stay up late for once.

The series finale of M*A*S*H, which ran for a feature-length two hours, remains the single-most-watched episode of television ever, pulling in over 120 million viewers. I have never again watched it, and only vaguely remember a few key plot points—Hawkeye has a nervous breakdown, Charles teaches North Korean prisoners to play Mozart, Klinger ends up staying behind to help his new Korean bride find her parents. That, and of course the iconic final shot of the word “GOODBYE” spelled out in rocks for Hawkeye as he choppers away.

Endings are tricky things. When done well, they bring everything that has preceded into sharp relief, or deliver a satisfying sense of closure. I tell my students that the period is the most significant bit of punctuation, because it defines the sentence. Without a period, a sentence simply runs on and on and adds more and more possibly extraneous information, or digresses into the eddies of subjunctive clauses, twisting about its length like the confused coils of a snake, which can of course be virtuosic in the hands of a talented writer, but if the sentence, like a story writ small, cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, then, well …

There are two endings in fiction that have devastated me. The first was when I finished The Lord of the Rings, the novel that first taught me that literature can have affect, can change you on the molecular level. In the final chapter, Frodo and Sam, along with Merry and Pippin, ride to the harbour of the Grey Havens; Sam does not know that Frodo means to leave Middle-Earth forever. Along the way they meet up with Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Bilbo. Frodo and Bilbo depart with the others across the sea to the Undying Lands. Frodo cannot stay—he has been too deeply hurt by his time as Ring-Bearer. In spite of his grief at losing his best friend, Sam watches him go and returns home to Bag End and his wife and baby daughter.

At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. As Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor in his lap.

He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

It is a simple enough ending, but that is where its power lies—in the sense of return, of homecoming, a narrative depiction of what T.S. Eliot expressed lyrically in “Little Gidding”: “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” There is also, however, a profound sense of loss: though Sam is now entering the next, fulsome stage of his life, the world of Middle-Earth has ended—the magic has literally gone out of the world with the destruction of the Ring and the departure of the elves, all of which for Sam is encapsulated in the loss of his beloved Frodo.

The sense of loss I felt at the end of The Lord of the Rings functioned on several levels, not the least of which was the inchoate recognition that I could never again read the novel for the first time. It was, like Sam’s farewell to Frodo, like saying goodbye to a good friend.

The other ending that devastated me was that of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. While the end of LotR was all about departing a world that had held me in greater thrall than any I’ve ever read, Solitude was about getting hit with the hammer of narrative virtuosity. A defining text of magical realism, the novel is a multi-generational, sprawling tale about the (fictional) isolated Columbian village of Macondo. Early in the story, an elderly Gypsy man writes out in coded language the very story of Solitude; the text is indecipherable until decades later when a younger scion of the central family cracks the code and realizes that the Gypsy had essentially foretold his family’s story down to the last detail. He reads the final lines of the story just as a hurricane strikes the village, and reads of his own death at the conclusion just as the storm kills him:

Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

The convergence of that moment left me quite literally breathless—I had to put the book aside and inhale deeply to deal with its emotional impact.

Novels are one thing, as are films, as they tend to be self-contained narratives. Television is quite another thing, unfolding as it does episodically and often over multiple seasons. The shift from episodic to serial TV changes this dynamic, but not entirely: the length of a series’ run still tends to be determined by its popularity, and even the most rigorously serial series—I’m thinking especially of The Wire, in which the credits at the end of individual episodes often caught me by surprise—tend to have season-long narrative arcs. And one way or another, television tends to have a cumulative effect: even when we’re considering classic syndicated TV (in which self-contained episodes don’t require you to have seen anything previous), there is still a great emotional weight when it comes to the conclusion of a series. Theoretically, episodic TV shouldn’t need a definitive finale: there is really no need to put a bow on a sitcom or a procedural when each episode follows a wash-rinse-repeat formula. In these cases—excluding, of course, series that find themselves cancelled unexpectedly—making a big deal of the finale is largely about fan service. It was unthinkable to end M*A*S*H mid-stream, just as it was unthinkable to end Friends or Seinfeld or Cheers without giving longtime viewers something approaching the closure of an emotional goodbye.

But what makes a “good” series finale? In case it wasn’t blindingly obvious, I’m writing this post apropos of the conclusion of Game of Thrones, and the social media backlash that has accompanied not just the finale, but the entire final season. As I made clear in the previous two posts I wrote with Nikki, I have some fairly serious complaints about the way the series was brought to an end, but they are complaints that fall well short of shitting on the entire show retroactively or demanding that HBO entirely redo season eight with “competent writers” (good luck with that, people). That being said, I think that GoT does fall into the category of Very Good Shows That Ended Badly. It is not asymptomatic of HBO, which has tended at times to rush or condense series for budgetary reasons; most notably, Deadwood and Rome had each planned to run one season longer than they were allowed, with the predictable effect that the conclusions the showrunners had planned were arrived at with somewhat less narrative subtlety than was really needed. We see this most egregiously with Rome, whose first season, I will always maintain, is about as perfect a season of television as has ever been made. It was never intended to be a series to run indefinitely: the creators planned a modest three seasons, but HBO stepped in and told them that would be too expensive for too few viewers, and made them end it in two. Hence, they had to cover way too much historical ground: presumably in the original plan, season two would have ended with the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi, and given season three breathing space to explore the fraught story of Antony, Cleopatra, and the rise of Augustus.

As has been made clear, however, Game of Thrones’ hasty ending was not a budgetary imperative but the active choice of showrunners Benioff & Weiss. HBO was willing to let them take as much time as they wanted—unsurprising, considering that the show is the most profitable property ever for the network, even with the huge budgets it demanded—but they opted for brevity. This choice makes me an awfully lot less sympathetic to the last two seasons’ flaws. Serenity might not be the greatest film ever made, but one can see in it the nascent virtuosity of a final season of Firefly, had certain executives at Fox not been ginormous douchenozzles; similarly, the final few episodes of GoT feel more like plot sketches than fully realized story, but one can see the shape of a subtle and nuanced conclusion, if only it had had the space to fill.

I suppose it should go without saying that none of this would really be noteworthy were it not for the fact of the series’ massive popularity. Had GoT only boasted viewership numbers on par with, say, The Wire—which topped out at about two or three million—not only would it have been an extremely different series, it probably would not have survived eight seasons. As it was (the final episode drew over nineteen million viewers), its popularity fed its budget, giving us vastly more lavish set pieces and special effects than anything we saw in season one (if you recall, there were no large-scale battles then: we only saw the aftermath of the Battle of Whispering Wood, where Robb Stark captured Jaime Lannister; and the climactic battle between the Starks and the Lannisters resorted to the expedient of having Tyrion knocked cold before the battle started, waking up to hear how it had gone). Lacking the viewership it developed, it might well have gone the way of Firefly—a short-lived and cruelly decapitated piece of well-made TV loudly lamented by fans crying for the blood of the studio execs who wielded the axe.

But its popularity also fed its fans’ expectations, and at the time I’m writing this, the petition to have the entire eighth season re-done has surpassed one million signatures.

In some ways, the unevenness of series finales is simply reflective of the unevenness of television itself. Episode to episode, season to season, the necessarily collaborative nature of the medium and the necessarily sprawling nature of the storytelling lends itself to a significant ebb and flow of quality and focus. The revolving doors of writers’ rooms, the switching up of showrunners, pressures brought to bear by ratings and studio interference, the departures and arrivals of key characters and actors—all of these considerations and more mean that it becomes difficult to look at a television series in its entirety as a cohesive, finished text. (By way of example, a question for passionate fans of Lost: if you could go back and change ONE THING, would you “fix” the finale or excise the protracted Nikki and Paolo storylines?)

The rise of the televisual auteur á là Joss Whedon, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rimes, David Simon, or Benioff & Weiss has meant that there is more television out there now with more coherence in terms of vision and over-arching narrative, but the flip side of that is when the auteur departs a given show, especially when the departure is acrimonious: fans of Gilmore Girls, The West Wing and Community will all attest to, if not necessarily a decline in quality, then certainly a change in the basic character of these shows when Sherman-Palladino, Sorkin, and Dan Harmon were respectively given the boot. The situation with Game of Thrones was a bit different, as it was (the consensus seems to be) the point at which the series definitively outstripped the extant source material than things started to go pear-shaped—perhaps revealing that the showrunners were very good at adapting rich and complex narrative to a more abbreviated format (mostly—I think most of us would agree that the Dorne subplot was something of a failure), but not so good at building out from a thumbnail sketch to a nuanced and textured story.

I suppose the TL;DR of all that is that almost all television, but especially longer-running series, has peaks and valleys, good episodes and bad, stronger and weaker seasons, and that how a series ends is a function of that inconsistency. Game of Thrones always had its work cut out for it, as it is a story that necessitates an end in a way that almost all the other flagship dramas on HBO have not. Deadwood ends with the passing of a lawless order and the establishment of a corrupt legal order; Six Feet Under ends with one stage of Claire’s life ending and a new one beginning; The Wire ends with a recognition that nothing really ever changes; and so on. Which is why I think the series finale of The Sopranos—which evoked Lost-level howls of complaint—was particularly brilliant. Cut to black. Wait? What happens? Was Tony about to get whacked in the diner? Analyses of that final scene have been written with Talmudic intensity, trying to come to a definitive answer, but I think the point was that it doesn’t matter. The cycle continues one way or another, a point made more lyrically by the montage at the end of The Wire, which shows change at the personal level for some characters, but none at all on the societal level.

In the end, there’s a certain truism in that, ultimately, series finales are about fan service. I was thinking about this after watching Avengers: Endgame. I would imagine that, to someone who has been an indifferent and sporadic viewer of the MCU, that film would seem needlessly protracted; speaking for myself, as a fan who has seen all of the preceding films, I felt quite definitely served, to the point where I really could not care less about the glaring time-travel inconsistencies. We do expect a certain emotional punch at the end of things, which was probably why the one part of the Game of Thrones finale I haven’t read or heard many complaints about was the final montage of the Stark children: Sansa being crowned, Arya the Explorya heading west on a direwolf-prowed ship, Jon returning north and being reunited with Ghost. Those few minutes, at least, felt something like closure accompanied by a swelling soundtrack.

I think this might be why proleptic endings, i.e. those that project into the future to show you the fates of beloved characters, tend to be the most successful. I asked the question on Facebook of people’s favourite series finales, and by far the most common answer was that of Six Feet Under: as Claire drives east to her new life, we have a montage to Sia’s haunting song “Breathe Me” of the deaths of all of the series’ main characters. What makes this work so well is that it is entirely in step with the series key theme: at the start of every episode we see someone die, who will then end up at the Fischer family funeral home, along with a title card with their name and the years they lived.

Another favourite was the final episode of Parks and Recreation, which similarly looked into the future to show us where and how everyone would end up. And more recently, the series finale of Veep ended twenty-four years in the future, with everyone attending Selina Meyer’s funeral. After seven seasons, Veep has the distinction of being one of the more consistent television series, in both tone and quality, ever made … but the fact that coverage of the Meyer funeral was pre-empted by the death of Tom Hanks at 88 seems like a sly acknowledgement of the fact that the conclusion of Veep was almost certainly going to be overshadowed a week later by the conclusion of Game of Thrones.

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Game of Thrones, Episode 8.06: The Iron Throne

Welcome, friends, for the final time to the great Chris & Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog. After eight seasons of reviewing and recapping and discussion, we’re finally turning the last page on what has been a genuine television phenomenon.

It is fair to say that this entire final season has pissed a lot of people off; I can’t say that I’m at all satisfied with how the showrunners brought about the conclusion, but neither am I about to sign the petition demanding a do-over. Would the series have benefitted from even just a few more episodes? Absolutely. Do I think Benioff and Weiss proved not up to the task of realizing GRRM’s vision? Pretty much, yeah. A lot has been written in the last few days about how the show suffered from not having the wealth of source material once it outstripped the extant novels … but then again, GRRM’s glacial pace is, I think, indicative of intractable narrative problems of his own devising. Benioff and Weiss erred badly in rushing this story to its conclusion, and perhaps their own writing talents were less than satisfactory, but they nevertheless managed to finish a series with massive numbers of moving parts without the same detailed map they’d had for five or six seasons.

Good ending? Bad ending? In the words of Marge Simpson: It’s an ending. That’s enough. And I’ll say something here I often tell my students: art and literature, whether a beloved television series or a Booker-nominated novel or an obscurantist poem–or any other myriad examples of creative imagination expressing itself in the world–is in part about conversation. It’s not just about how it speaks to us as individuals, but about how we share our thoughts and reactions. Game of Thrones has been by turns brilliant, infuriating, flawed, and problematic from any number of perspectives … but it never failed to get us talking, and those moments and places where it was flawed produced some of the most fruitful discussion and criticism.

Thank you all for letting Nikki and I contribute our thoughts and insights to that great converation, and for all the comments and reactions you’ve shared with us. It has been quite the ride.


Christopher: Well, here we are at the end of all things … and I just want to start by saying, Nikki, how much of a joy it has been writing these reviews with you for the past eight years, and how much I will miss it. For those just tuning in to these co-blogs, Nikki (who, when she’s not protecting Gotham, is a mild-mannered freelance editor named Jen) and I have known each other for twenty-three years, having met during our MA at the University of Toronto in a class called “Victorian Fiction and the Politics of Gender.” We bonded during a conversation that, as conversations often did in the 90s, became a lengthy series of Simpsons quotes. This would not have been remarkable in and of itself were it not for the fact that most of our grad student peers took hipster pride in ignoring popular culture. Meeting someone who was not only willing to admit to watching television, but was positively enthusiastic about it, was not at all unlike finding your long-lost twin with the other half of the amulet you’ve worn all your life.

And if that sounds like an exaggeration? Really not.

But of course, there’s more to friendship than just a shared love of The Simpsons. We’re lucky to have people in our lives with whom time and distance don’t matter, and when you see one of those people in person after months or years, it’s as if your conversation picks up where it left off. I’ll miss writing these GoT reviews in part because I’m going to miss GoT, but really, I’ll be missing the back-and-forth with a dear friend whom I don’t see nearly often enough. (Seriously, Nik—time for that family vacation to Newfoundland).

End of sentimentality. On with the review.

I have, unsurprisingly, been thinking over the last few days a lot about final seasons and final episodes. Which ones worked, which didn’t? Which series stuck the landing? Which ones managed to piss off a critical mass of fans? Even just a glimpse at social media in the hours following the GoT finale makes it obvious that the most vocal fans hate the way the series ended, but that is hardly surprising, considering that those same voices have been declaring this final season an irredeemable dumpster fire for several weeks now (and I just hasten to point out that “the most vocal fans” on social media does not necessarily translate to “the majority of people” more generally).

I suspect Nikki will have a lot to say on this topic, as she is one of the few stalwart defenders of the series finale of Lost—an episode, it doesn’t hurt mentioning, that was slagged by none other than GRRM.

Payback’s a bitch.

Ending a TV series is a fraught affair at the best of times—the “best of times” meaning that you’re bringing the plane in for a landing when there is still a critical mass of love for the show. (I suppose, then, when you end a TV series at the worst of times, nobody really cares). But that also means there will inevitably be upset people.

Given that I devoted a lot of words in our last post complaining that Benioff & Weiss did not give this season enough episodes to breathe and properly develop character arcs and narratives, I won’t rehash that here. That being said: my first thought on watching this, the last new episode we’ll ever watch of GoT, was that it followed pretty closely on the last one. The previous episode might have needed an awful lot more in the way of lead-up to be properly comprehensible, but the first part of this episode made total sense so long as you don’t question the last one.

Which is to say: Daenerys is now the Mad Queen and has gone the way of her predecessors, and thus everything that follows her sack of King’s Landing makes sense in the context of that fact.

Are we all on board with that? At least provisionally? Good. Then, if you’re seated comfortably, we’ll begin.

Oh, wait—one last thing: a professor at UWO, whom I TA’d for in my first year there and who has become a good friend was interviewed on CBC the other day. John Leonard is a brilliant Milton scholar and also a Colbert-level Tolkien nerd, and has for several years been teaching a course on A Song of Ice and Fire. His thoughts on Game of Thrones coming to an end are unsurprisingly insightful.

But now, on to the episode.

Let me start by saying I completely whiffed on everything I’d suggested in the first episode, re: the new credits. OK, so no new dragons, no clutch of eggs beneath Winterfell. Given that we end the series with a single dragon who decamps for parts unknown, the promise of the many dragons on the third armillary sphere band now seems like the deepest crimson of red herrings.

On the other hand, I totally called two key points, though neither quite unfolded the way I expected: Drogon melting the Iron Throne to slag, and Jon Snow returning to the North to be reunited with Ghost.

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The episode begins with Tyrion (re)entering the city, registering anew what Daenerys visited on it. We see the burned corpses and the devastated city, and Tyrion’s distraught expression as he registers the destruction that he, despite all his best efforts, helped create. Behind him walk Jon Snow and Davos. The three pause around the incinerated corpse of the little girl still clutching her toy horse, whom we saw in the previous episode, and who—as someone Arya attemped to help—functions as the metonym for the thousands killed by Daenerys’ rage. “I’ll find you later,” Tyrion tells Jon and Davos, and when Jon tells him it isn’t safe and offers to send men with him, Tyrion insists, “I’m going alone.”

Where he is going isn’t clear at first, and my initial assumption was that he was going to confront Daenerys—and that Jon’s warning and offer of a bodyguard was a recognition of their erstwhile queen’s state of mind. But no—he’s going into the bowels of the Red Keep, presumably to see if Jaime and Cersei made good their escape (and possibly to escape himself?). I’m being charitable in that reading: what is communicated is that he has somehow intuited that that is where they met their end, and he finds their remarkably intact corpses under what seems like a rather shallow amount of rubble. (As Tyrion entered the space of their demise, my girlfriend muttered, “What, is he going to see a golden hand sticking out of the rocks?”, and moments later—a golden hand sticking out of the rocks. Not the subtlest or most believable moment in the episode, however well Peter Dinklage played Tyrion’s grief).


Meanwhile, Grey Worm’s execution of surviving Lannister soldiers is interrupted by Jon Snow. “It’s over,” he says. “These men are prisoners.” To which Killy McGhee says, “It is not over until all of the Queen’s enemies are defeated.” Davos, ever the voice of reason in a crazy world, demands “How much more defeated do you want them to be? They’re on their knees!” But of course Grey Worm is implacable. Daenerys has commanded him to kill all who followed Cersei, and he’s going to carry out her orders. “These are free men,” he points out, and therefore their choice to follow Cersei makes them culpable—a callback to Daenerys’ riposte to Tyrion that the people of Meereen rose up against their tyrants, while the people of King’s Landing willingly submitted to Cersei’s rule. When Jon holds Grey Worm back, there’s a brief standoff between the Unsullied and the Northerners; Davos tells Jon that they should speak with the Queen, which is more or less the equivalent of saying “we’re telling Mom!”, but it’s hardly as if the matter has been tabled—as soon as Jon and Davos walk on, Grey Worm proceeds to start slitting throats.

After Tyrion uncovers the weirdly peaceful-looking bodies of his siblings, we shift to Jon and Arya arriving (separately) at Daenerys’ triumphant address to her troops, which looks and feels uncomfortably Triumph of the Will-ish.

What did you think of the finale, Nikki?

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Way to be subtle there, Daenerys.

Nikki: Triumph of the Will indeed, my friend, right down to that Targaryen banner (seriously, did someone bring that with them to the battle?!) in the Nazi colours. Why have I never noticed that before?

I will similarly become sentimental about the end of this show, and what a joy it’s been working with you on it, but since I have the pleasure of going last, I’ll save my blubbering until then. What I do want to say at the outset, if y’all will indulge me for a moment, is to pause for a moment to mention something that has happened in the real world we live in. I’ve been involved in fandom for many years now, as long as Chris and I have been friends and I first got an internet connection when we were doing our MA together. And among the very first fandoms with which I connected was Xena: Warrior Princess. I was writing my first book about it, and reached out to fans on various mailing lists and listservs (remember those?) and among the many amazing fans who got back to me, one in particular stood out. Over time, Kim and I became very close friends, emailing each other several times a day, and the first time we met was to share a hotel room at a Pasadena Xena convention where we saw Lucy and Reneé. (Probably not the smartest move on either of our parts, but this was before people were aware of catfishing on the interwebs and, luckily, it worked out.) She travelled from Arizona to Toronto to see me, and we continued to keep in touch for many years, and then, like most friendships, the emails were further and further apart. Just over a week ago I saw something I wanted to tell her about, but since I hadn’t spoken to her in a couple of years, I did a quick google search to make sure she was at the same place.

And that’s when I found her obituary, from 2018.

I managed to contact her workplace and someone there contacted me back (she had no real family to speak of), and generously explained what had happened. I’ve been heartbroken for a week to know that the world no longer contains Kim, one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met. She was someone I met through fandom. And, like Chris expressed above, we fans are a very specific kind of people; we find our tribes and stick to them. Kim was such an important part of my tribe, and I miss her so much. This final blog post is dedicated to you, my friend. Love you.

Anyway, back to the story. My overview on the finale: the moment it was finished, my husband turned to me and said, “Thoughts?” and I thought for a few moments and simply replied, “Satisfied.” And I am. I remain committed to loving last week’s episode, and thought the writers made all the right decisions. I also remain convinced of what you pointed out, Chris, that the timing is what’s working against them this season, that it should have been drawn out over a longer period. But for that, we can probably blame HBO: no TV writer is offered 10 full episodes and says no, so I’m assuming it was the network stupidly putting a severe limit on a final season of their most successful show ever. As John Oliver said two weeks ago, “In two weeks this network is fuuuuuucked.” (Note how many ads ran right before the episode basically begging subscribers not to leave and showing all the great shows coming up…)

All week long, my mind has been racing back and forth over various storylines from the past eight years, thinking of plot points I hadn’t thought of in a long time, considering the number of times we joked about who we want to win the game of thrones. I think it was pretty evident by this final season that no derrière was ever going to occupy the Iron Throne again (to be honest, I just assumed it had been destroyed last week, and even this week when we got that iconic moment in the throne room I was shouting, “Hurry up and sit because it’s the only chance you’ll get!!”) We said we’d love to see Tyrion ultimately in charge, or Sansa, or Arya, or Jon and/or Daenerys. And in the end… a bunch of them are indeed in charge. Not in the ways we’d considered, but I’m actually pretty happy with the way things ended up. But more on all of those points later as we hit them. Let’s get back to where you left off.

(Our readers are now thinking good LORD this is going to be the longest blog post ever…)

I stand by my assertion that the end of Jaime and Cersei was a deeply affecting and poignant one. I know a lot of people this week have been complaining about it, saying Cersei deserved to be tortured or worse. Maybe they’ve never been a parent, but I don’t think there’s anything you could do to Cersei that would be worse than holding her child in her arms while he chokes to death… only to have another one poisoned because of something she had done, and the third one commit suicide just to escape the world she’d created. She’s made so many errors, and lost all of her children along the way. And Tyrion wasn’t blowing smoke when he said she was a devoted mother: she truly loved those children. Cersei tortured and killed, and she’s been tortured back… it’s over. I thought Dinklage’s performance when he finds their bodies was beautiful, I agree with you 100%, Chris. Just as Daenerys was (until Jon’s revelation) the scion of House Targaryen, so too is he the last of House Lannister.

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As Daenerys prepares to give her Hitlerian speech to the troops, I was amazed at just how many Unsullied and Dothraki were still there. I thought most of them had been wiped out at the Battle of Winterfell, and I’m certain she set more than a few of them on fire last week as necessary casualties, yet it looks like there are more now than were at the beginning of Winterfell. Which was a little odd.

Daenerys says something in thanks to everyone who aided her:

To the Dothraki: “Blood of my blood. You kept all your promises to me. You killed my enemies in their iron suits. You tore down their stone houses. You gave me the Seven Kingdoms!” Drogon roars.

To Grey Worm: “You have walked beside me since the Plaza of Pride. You are the bravest of men, the most loyal of soldiers. I name you commander of all my forces, the Queen’s Master of War!”

To the Unsullied: “All of you were torn from your mothers’ arms and raised as slaves. Now… you are liberators! You have freed the people of King’s Landing from the grip of a tyrant! But the war is not over. We will not lay down our spears until we have liberated all the people of the world! From Winterfell to Dorne, from Lannisport to Qarth, from the Summer Isles to the Jade Sea. Women, men and children have suffered too long beneath the wheel. Will you break the wheel with me?”
It’s a powerful speech, and if you listen to it and imagine yourself one of the people she’s addressing, you’d follow her to the ends of the Earth. She liberated everyone in front of her, and they’ve followed her this entire way. They’ve seen her at her very best, and they saw King’s Landing as a place of rot. If some innocents got killed along the way… oh well; it’s a sacrifice for the greater good. Having a queen who would take the throne and liberate all of Westeros is more important than a few measly lives.

Her idea isn’t a new one. And historically, it’s not always seen as a bad one. Do you think the British troops in WWII made sure not a single German civilian died in the war? That the American troops in Vietnam made sure there wasn’t a single innocent casualty? Last week as Drogon was immolating most of King’s Landing, I said to my husband, “It’s like napalm.” And guess what? Napalm was invented—and dropped—by the Americans, the “good guys,” during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and as far back as WWII. They did it in an effort to quash Communism, and killed untold numbers of innocent people along the way.

Oh well; it’s a sacrifice for the greater good. And it’s OK that the Americans did it, because, you know, freedom and all that. But Daenerys? First of all, she’s a woman, and secondly, she speaks some foreign tongue. Better do away with her then.

I actually love how the writers frame this, because in the end, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that what ultimately happens to her was the right thing; it’s all about perception. Arya and Jon saw people being burned alive in the streets in a single day in a horrific act; Daenerys and the Unsullied and the Dothraki have seen people live their entire lives in chains, and have liberated them. When she says, “You have freed the people of King’s Landing from the grip of a tyrant,” we’re supposed to think, “Um, look in a mirror!” She talks about liberating people across Westeros, and says, “From Winterfell to Dorne,” and a dark cloud goes over the faces of Jon and Tyrion. They read that as, “Because that tyrant Sansa Stark is keeping people under her thumb” when the Unsullied see it as, we were just there, and there are a lot of people being treated badly in Winterfell; did you see the way they treated those servant girls? Of course, Dany very much could have meant, we’ll unseat that tyrant Sansa Stark. We’ll never know.

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Side note: throughout this scene, I kept thinking, Tyrion and Jon don’t actually speak Valyrian; we saw how badly Tyrion bungled it last week trying to see Jaime, and there’s no way Jon is fluent in anything beyond his own language, nor has he been given the opportunity to become so, since even the wildlings speak the Common Tongue. So… how do they understand a word of what she’s saying here?

But anyway, this is a very complicated scene because of the way one speech is interpreted by various people. And the reason it works so well and makes us so angry is because it mirrors what’s happening in the world today. Fans have wondered why Game of Thrones has changed so much. But it’s always been a kind of reflection of our own world, and the world has changed very much from 2011 to now. Could you imagine your 2011 self being suddenly zipped to 2019? You’d be reeling from how different the world is politically and ideologically. And watch Dany’s speech, as the woman speaking for the people. She says something that the progressives behind her don’t like, and their faces are nothing but scorn. But the people in front of her hear every word differently and are willing to overlook the bad things she’s done. Nah, that doesn’t look like a certain rally that we see regularly done by a certain politician who doesn’t seem to get that he’s already won an election and can stop campaigning now. Many people actually love him, and they’re not all morons, despite what you might think. They’re people who are desperate, who feel like their leaders have never helped them no matter how many times they’ve appealed to them. They didn’t get what they’ve been promised, so they vote in someone who looks like a monster to some people; a savior to others.

As Dany makes her speech, the camera zooms in on Tyrion, who slowly walks forward. My heart stopped; I was so worried he was going to do something stupid in front of too many witnesses. She looks at him with scorn. “You freed your brother; you committed treason,” she says.

“I freed my brother,” he concedes. “And you slaughtered a city.” And with that he rips the Hand of the Queen brooch off and tosses it down the stairs. Dany’s face is a bundle of emotions. Deep down, she knows what she did, but she has to remain stone-faced… “Greater good, greater good, greater good” she must be saying to herself. Jon watches Tyrion escorted away as prisoner, and then realizes she’s watching him. He says nothing, and neither does she.

As she walks away, Jon turns to see Arya suddenly standing beside him, creepily appearing out of nowhere, as Arya brilliantly does. Arya immediately refers to her as “your queen,” and he says, “She’s everybody’s queen now.”

“Try telling that to Sansa,” says Arya. And with that, she turns the screw a little deeper into Jon. Torn always between the family he loves and his loyalty to his queen, he knows that one is in serious danger from the other. But as Arya says next, Sansa’s not the only one in danger; Dany knows that Jon has doubts, and she won’t abide a threat to her regency. “I know a killer when I see one,” Arya says.

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Jon goes to see the imprisoned Tyrion, who immediately asks for wine (a Lannister through and through). Tyrion has been sitting and thinking about how he’d betrayed Varys and watched him burn, and that Varys must be thinking, “TOLD YOU SO” from wherever he is. (Interesting side note if you don’t follow me on Facebook: my friend Mary pointed out an awesome tidbit from Reddit that had gone right over my head, but last week when Varys was talking to kitchen girl Martha about how Dany wasn’t eating, and he said we’ll try again later, it seemed like such a throwaway scene; except what many of us missed is that he was actually trying to poison Daenerys, and she wasn’t taking the bait. When he removed his rings, that was likely a payment to Martha, who would collect it later. BRILLIANT.)

Tyrion asks Jon if there’s any life after death, and Jon says there wasn’t in his experience. Tyrion is thankful for the oblivion that awaits him, and says he asked for this fate: he’d strangled his lover, killed his father, betrayed his queen… and he’d do that last one again. He is where he is as a result of a series of choices; the people of King’s Landing weren’t so lucky. Jon reassures him that the war is over now. Tyrion says, “OH REALLY?!” and reminds him of the war speech (that, again, I don’t think either of them fully understood, but perhaps they were going on body language alone, which was pretty telling). Tyrion gives that flip side perspective I was talking about earlier, saying she “liberated” the people of Slaver’s Bay and King’s Landing, and will go on doing so until she can rule over everyone that’s left. Jon reminds him that TYRION was the one counseling her, until today.

I LOVE the back and forth that happens next, which pretty much mirrors the fandom battles I’ve seen all week: Jon is the apologist, explaining exactly why Dany did what she did: she saw her best friend beheaded; her child had been shot out of the sky. She’s not her father, and shouldn’t have to bear the banner of her House just because her last name is Targaryen, no more than Tyrion should have to apologize for the sins of Tywin Lannister. Tyrion counters: my father and Cersei killed a metric shit-tonne of people in their lifetimes, and still didn’t come close to what Dany did in a single day; the city burned for her grief, and they didn’t deserve it.

“It’s easy to judge when you’re standing far from the battlefield!” says Jon. But Tyrion says, “Would you have done it?” knowing the answer to that question, just like he and Varys knew the answer to that question two episodes ago. Jon says he knows nothing, but Tyrion doesn’t accept it. “Does it matter what I’d do?” asks Jon.

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“It matters more than anything,” says Tyrion. Tyrion reminds Jon, as if he’d read my words in the blog last week, of all the people she’s burned in the name of them being evil, but once they were killed no one could argue they were anything else. They “stood between her and Paradise,” and she killed them, Tyrion says. Jon is devastated. He knows the truth, but he loves Daenerys. And Tyrion concedes that. “I know you love her… I love her too. Not as… successfully as you [ha!]…” but he believes her. And he says love is more powerful than reason.

“Love is the death of duty,” says Jon, such a brilliant little parable that even Tyrion asks if he came up with that one himself. No, Maester Aemon said it. “Sometimes,” Tyrion says, “duty is the death of love.” He says Jon’s entire life he’s tried to protect people. He’s never been the sword; he’s been the shield. Who’s the biggest threat to the people now? Shouldn’t he be doing his civic duty?


Tyrion knows what he’s asking, and he apologizes for it, but just as Arya had said earlier, Jon is a threat to the Iron Throne, and she won’t leave him alive. “That’s her decision,” says good ol’ Jon, “she IS the queen.” And Tyrion stands there, wondering if he’d been speaking gibberish this whole time. So he tries one more thing:

“And your sisters… do you see them bending the knee?”

Jon pauses, looks stricken. He says they’ll be loyal. “Why do you think Sansa told me the truth?!” Tyrion pleads. Jon says they don’t get to choose, and Tyrion says, “No, but YOU DO. And you have to choose now.”

And Jon leaves to go see his queen.

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Christopher: Before I continue with the recap, I need to correct you on a specific point: Benioff & Weiss were not forced to bring GoT to a quicker conclusion than they would have liked. HBO was happy to let them do two ten-episode seasons for seven and eight, but they made the choice to condense them. I bring this up because I’d also assumed that the studio execs were repeating what they’d done to Deadwood and Rome (and the ghost of Firefly haunts us all), but no—the choice was artistic rather than fiduciary, so I’m not overly sympathetic to B&W’s blunders.

As Jon walks purposefully to see Daenerys, we have what is, on rewatch, the most comical part of the episode: the pile of snow shifts and moves and Drogon emerges. Presumably the attack on King’s Landing really took it out of him, enough that he fell asleep long enough to become covered in snow. But the erstwhile Targaryen scion’s approach is enough to wake him (or perhaps he’s just standing guard) and he turns to regard Jon quite closely.

This moment is very interestingly shot: we do not get a close-up, as we have in the past, of Jon facing the dragon from just a few feet away. Instead, the moment unfolds from a distance. Drogon stares at Jon for long enough to make it anxious, but then curls up again in his snowdrift.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it now: dragons are just giant cats.

Jon enters the Red Keep, and in a transition that is both symbolic and quite nicely done, disappears into darkness as Daenerys emerges from it—him descending into the dire task he must perform, her seeing for the first time the light at the end of her long tunnel. She emerges into what remains of the throne room, which isn’t quite as she saw it in her vision. There is more roof and walls missing, for one thing. But sitting (miraculously) intact is the Iron Throne itself, and Daenerys walks slowly toward it as Lord of the Rings-esque music plays. The music is a nice touch, as it evokes precisely the kind of generic clichés we expect from traditional fantasy—the Chosen One approaching the throne of destiny, etc. One imagines that that is the narrative unspooling in Daenerys’ mind as she regards the object of all her labours. She approaches the throne; she touches it; but, crucially, she does not sit in it. Either sensing or hearing him, she turns to see Jon Snow standing in the entrance. And in that moment, just briefly, the Music of Destiny switches to a few notes of the GoT theme. I missed that on my first viewing; whatever else one might complain about the final season, the scoring of this show has never been anything less than top drawer.


Daenerys regards Jon, then turns back to the throne, and tells a little story. “When I was a girl, my brother told me it was made with a thousand swords of Aegon’s fallen enemies.” This, indeed, is the story of the Iron Throne as told in the novels: the swords of defeated enemies, forged into a throne by dragon fire. (Devotees of the novels like myself cringed the first time we saw the series’ version of the Iron Throne: it was too perfect, utterly unlike the mass of misshapen steel and iron described in the novels, with points and edges protruding so that an unwary monarch might cut him or herself; Aerys the Mad King was described in his later days as always having scabs on his hands and arms from these hazards, and in a key scene King Joffrey cuts himself while in the midst of a tantrum while sitting on the throne). Daenerys continues, with childlike wonder, to remember what it was like to try and imagine what a thousand swords might look like. And now I’m here is the obvious end-point of her narration, but Jon doesn’t let her get there. “I saw them executing Lannister prisoners in the street,” he practically spits at her. “They said they were acting on your orders.” “It was necessary,” Daenerys responds, obviously a little irked to be distracted from her reminiscence, but Jon is having none of it. “Have you been down there?” he demands, outraged. “Have you seen children—little children!—burned!” Daenerys’ response—that it was Cersei’s fault for using them as human shields—is of course weak tea. She is similarly unsympathetic to Jon’s plea that she forgive Tyrion, reminding Jon that he, too, has been ruthless with people who betrayed him.

I kind of wanted Jon, in this moment, to give her an itemized list of the people he has executed. Did he behead Janos Slynt so as to make an example and cement his authority as Lord Commander? Well, yes, but the man was a treacherous cock napkin. He killed Mance Rayder as an act of mercy. And the others he executed? THEY MURDERED HIM. Nothing really in the realm of “I let my beloved brother escape and he ended up dying anyway.” Duty is the death of love, indeed.

He pleads with her to forgive everyone, and in this moment we see how, had he been able to see past the incest ickiness and marry her, he might just have been an ameliorating element in her reign. But, having burned an entire city to the ground, Daenerys is at her Macbeth moment: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

Her initial response to Jon is one of the most interesting lines from the episode, and indeed from the entire season: “We can’t hide behind small mercies.” It evokes what she said in the previous episode, about how Cersei saw mercy as weakness, but Daenerys’ rule will be all about mercy—for future generations. The “greater mercy” becomes synonymous here with “the greater good.” Jon doesn’t see or accept the distinction. “The world we need won’t be built by men loyal to the world we have,” says Daenerys. “The world we need,” Jon counters, “is a world of mercy. It has to be.”


This episode, and the season leading up to it, will be justifiably pilloried for lacking nuance and subtlety, but this moment is an exception … alas that we don’t get a more sustained argument on these points. Because both Daenerys and Jon are right. Daenerys’ Nuremberg speech was chilling in the way it spelled out precisely the kind of utopian vision that can only be realized through blood, and which quickly becomes the opposite of what it intended. But she’s not wrong here when she says that change cannot be effected by people invested in the status quo. At the same time, Jon articulates one of the most basic principles of any just society, which is that “cruelty is the worst thing we do.” Small mercies in his perspective are not qualitatively different from large mercies, and that foregoing small mercies and small-g good in the name of the Greater Good is ultimately self-defeating.

Daenerys promises that the new world order will be one of mercy. “It’s not easy,” she says, “to see something that’s never been before.” This line made me think of our long-standing fascination with post-apocalyptic narratives: from The Road to The Walking Dead, one of the key points of these stories’ appeal is our inability to think outside of our current system, making the prospect of burning it all to the ground appealing (which I’d also argue is one of the biggest factors in Trump’s election, but that’s a WHOLE nother blog post); that Daenerys quite literally burned everything to the ground is a key element here, as is what follows on this argument between her and Jon.

Jon Snow may know nothing, but he’s not a complete idiot. He’s loyal and honourable to a fault, but also recognizes megalomaniacal delusion when he sees it. When Daenerys promises him that her new world order will be good, he asks her how she can be sure. “Because I know what is good,” she says.

Yeah. A shiver ran down my spine when I heard that too, dude. All that was missing was her adding “Believe me!”

“What about everyone else?” he asks desperately, still hoping for a lifeboat. “What about the other people who think they know what’s good?” And, reading from the tyrant’s handbook, Daenerys replied, “They don’t get to choose.”

Well, that tears it. Daenerys implores Jon to help her build this world and break the wheel with her, and he says, “You are my Queen, now and always,” but “always” in this instance means “for at least the next twenty seconds.” They kiss passionately, but are interrupted by the inimitable schhhkk sound of a blade being slid home … at which point we have our answer to the question of who would be the one to kill Daenerys. Jon of course weeps over her body, and in the background we hear Drogon’s perturbations as whatever psychic link he had with Daenerys is cut. I want to say that the true grief in this scene belongs to the dragon: Jon might have loved Daenerys, but it is the moment when Drogon nudges her inert form—and makes little mournful sounds—that made me cry a little.

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Drogon then rears up over Jon and screeches his grief and rage more loudly, and for a few moments we wonder if this is the end of Jon Snow, too—will he be immolated, in spite of his Targaryen blood, for the murder of Drogon’s mother?

For a moment it looks like it, as Drogon opens his maw wide and we see the tell-tale signs of fire at the back of his throat … but instead he lets loose not on Jon, but on the Iron Throne itself, melting it down to molten metal.

As I mentioned earlier, I called this moment, though not in this particular way: I’ve been saying all season that an appropriate and satisfactory end to the question of “Who sits on the Iron Throne?” would be (á là the Faceless Men) “no one,” and that the best way to accomplish that would be having Drogon burn that damned thing to slag. But I’d always imagined Daenerys being the architect of that choice … unlikely, but a more radical way to conclude a fantasy narrative (or perhaps not that radical, as it would be of a piece with Frodo tossing the Ring into Mount Doom—the destruction of power). Instead, it is the dragon that makes that choice, which is … well, interesting. One of the funniest things I’ve read about this episode suggested that Drogon is either extremely intelligent or just kind of dumb—either he recognized that the Iron Throne was the object of his mother’s desire that corrupted her and perverted her good nature, or he saw the dagger sticking out of her chest and thought “DIE, YOU CHAIR OF KNIVES!”

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Whatever his motives, he tenderly picks up Daenerys and flies off, leaving Jon Snow looking more bewildered than usual.

Fade to black. And then we’re back to Tyrion, lying in his cell.

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Nikki: I’m with you that Drogon is the true sympathetic character in this scene, and he made me well up, too (made worse when my husband quietly said, “He’s… sad.”) And it didn’t surprise me that he intuited that the throne was the cause of all of this, that, as I said last week, they could have stayed across the sea and have been perfectly happy, three dragons and their mum, but she wanted that damn throne. After all, as you and I have insisted from the beginning, the dragons are very, very large cats with wings. And anyone who thinks a cat doesn’t walk into a room, immediately intuit the situation, and show its utter disdain or delight based on a number of complicated machinations in their brains… doesn’t own a cat.

One question I have about the section you covered: You mentioned that Drogon is covered in snow and rises up out of his snowbank, but do you think that might be ash? After all, just earlier that same day the sun was shining and it was hot out, based on the clothing the people of King’s Landing were wearing, and I don’t think winter came that suddenly to King’s Landing… (especially since we’ll see three weeks later it’s hot again). But I wondered if it was supposed to be an indication of just how much stuff Dany burned, that there was that much ash still floating around, enough to entirely cover Drogon.

But now our queen is dead, and I’m in mourning along with Drogon. I adored Daenerys, right from the beginning, and had pledged my loyalty to her House, and despite everything, I miss her already, and I’m gutted to see the end of her. She could have been so amazing for Westeros before things went wrong. And as my husband said, he thinks if a man had made those decisions or said the things she did leading up to the penultimate episode, they would have listened, but he thinks in the end, Varys didn’t want a woman on the throne.

I will admit… during the scene where Jon shivved Daenerys, I was convinced it was Arya wearing his face, thinking there’s no way Jon could actually do this. But it was Jon. I keep thinking we’re going to get a callback to the Faceless Men, but there’s a reason we don’t: Arya doesn’t think of herself as no one anymore.

But oh my god, what a beautiful corpse Dany made. :::tears::: I cried a lot as we saw Drogon flying over the sea, Daenerys clutched carefully in his left claw. She was born in the middle of a great storm, and now she returns, disappearing into a stormy sky. It was so beautiful and sad and I can’t believe her story is over.


And then the screen goes black. And then it opens on Tyrion, who looks like Tom Hanks in Cast Away and I was like wait, what? What’s happening? (I guess if you’re going to do this in six episodes—and wow, thank you for clarifying that bit about it being B&W’s choice, which makes it even more aggravating—you have to skip over some finer details to move this story along.) It’s a few weeks later, and Grey Worm shows up and lets Tyrion out of his cage, and takes him to a council meeting at the Dragonpit—ironically an area built by the Targaryens as a place to keep their dragons, and famously the place where all of this bloodshed could have ended if only Cersei and Daenerys had managed to hash out a deal last season.

Sitting there are the most powerful people in Westeros, all united in one council. I wasn’t 100% sure who everyone was there, and perhaps Chris can chime in on his pass to fill in the blanks, but here are the ones I knew:

The first three were Samwell Tarly (obvs), someone I didn’t recognize, but who might be associated with Highgarden? His outfit was a little flowery. Beside him is Frank Edmure Tully, that dipshit brother of Catelyn’s who, unfortunately, is the Head of House Tully, I presume, and whose sentences are always cut off when he’s trying to do something noble (see below). I poke fun, but I was THRILLED to see Tobias Menzies appear one last time on the show!

Next, House Stark is super-represented in Arya, Bran, and Sansa.

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Next, we have Brienne, who doesn’t seem to be representing a House, per se, but is definitely one of the most powerful people in Westeros (to which I say… YAY YOU!); Ser Davos Seaworth, who isn’t exactly from a great House either but having served as such an important advisor, I’m glad he’s seen as being a VIP; Gendry Baratheon; and some other dude I couldn’t place, perhaps from a House loyal to House Baratheon, which, until Daenerys recently legitimized Gendry, had been an extinct House.

Next is another person I don’t know, but I will presume he’s from the North given his fur collar; Yara Greyjoy, looking fierce; and another unknown whom I think we can safely presume is the Prince of Dorne, given the golden robes and the fact he looks exactly like the other Dornish princes.

Finally, as I exclaimed on Facebook… ROBIN ARRYN looking shockingly good-looking after an entire run on Game of Thrones looking vaguely inbred, here to represent the Vale as the head of House Arryn; Yohn Royce, whom we all remember as the advisor to Robin, given that Robin was… vaguely inbred; and another man I can’t place but who looks sort of familiar: I’m assuming he’s a Northman and we’ve seen him at Council meetings at Winterfell? Or maybe he’s just Kenny Rogers, not sure.

And of course, we have Tyrion, last of the House Lannister, and Grey Worm, leader of what’s left of Daenerys’s followers.

ANYWAY… suffice to say, these are some important folks. But before anyone can talk about Tyrion, Sansa wants to know one thing: “Where’s Jon?” He was supposed to have been brought out along with Tyrion, presumably to represent House Targaryen, although it’s not clear who actually all knows that fact (or if they want anyone knowing that). Grey Worm explains that King’s Landing is now the city of the Unsullied, and they decide what happens to Jon. Yara Greyjoy speaks up and says the Ironborn do not give up their loyalties lightly: they’d pledged fealty to Daenerys Stormborn and Jon Snow killed her; he should die. Arya tells her to say one more word and she’ll cut her throat. It’s an interesting back-and-forth, given that Yara let her brother go to defend the Starks and die with them at Winterfell, but the Starks don’t know that about her. All they know is Jon Snow did what he did to save his sisters.

Thankfully, Ser Davos is the reasonable one (natch) who stands up and says let’s stop all this talk of slitting throats, and he thanks the Unsullied for fighting with them in the North against the Dead, and for sacrificing so many of their men in that battle. He suggests the Unsullied go to the Reach and start their own House. He calls for an end to war. Grey Worm argues that they don’t want payment; they want justice. Jon Snow took the life of the woman who liberated them.

Tyrion cuts in and says it’s not for him to decide. Grey Worm shouts at him, but Tyrion keeps going. He says it’s up to the queen or king to decide. Kenny Rogers says they don’t have one, and Tyrion says, “You’re the most powerful people in Westeros, so choose one!” Grey Worm tells them to go ahead. Everyone sits silent, and looks at one another, or faces the floor, and of course, the absolute most qualified one stands: Edmure Tully.

It’s an extremely funny moment, as he stands and begins to speak with such gravitas about his experience in two wars (where he spent one as a POW, but he doesn’t mention that) and his experience in statecraft (which is negligible at best) and at this important juncture—

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“Uncle… please sit,” says Sansa, cutting him off mid-sentence. Edmure looks at her with surprise, and, rejected, turns to sit, banging his sword against a pole. It’s a fantastic moment, and Menzies is SO good in this scene. (You can actually see Maisie Williams looking like she’s trying not to laugh once he’s sat down.) Yohn says they have to choose someone.

And that’s when Sam stands up. He explains that whoever is king or queen will rule over everyone, so shouldn’t the decision be up to… everyone? And for a moment, I thought oh my god please don’t make this a cheesy moment where they break the wheel by embracing democracy and changing everything in one fell swoop—

But the supporters of the Vale all begin laughing, and Edmure asks if they should give the dogs a vote too. If you listen closely, you’ll hear, “cough Trump cough gerrymandering cough electoral college” and the laughter continues. Whew. They want to move forward, but not THAT far forward.

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Grey Worm asks if Tyrion wants the job, and he says no, of course not. He steps forward and asks, “What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?” No. “Stories. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it, and who has a better story, than Bran the Broken? The boy who fell from a high tower and lived. He knew he would never walk again, so he learned to fly. He crossed beyond the Wall, a crippled boy, and became the Three-Eyed Raven. He’s our memory, the keeper of all our stories. The wars, weddings, births, massacres, famines. Our triumphs, our defeats. Our past. Who better to lead us into the future?” He’s right. Think of how many people in your Facebook or Twitter feeds whose politics are the opposite of yours, but who watch all the same shows, read all the same books.
Sansa looks shocked. She points out that Bran’s not interested and he can’t father children. Tyrion says that’s what makes him the perfect choice. They all know what the children of kings can do, and “his will never torment us.”

He turns to Grey Worm. “That is the wheel our queen wanted to break. From now on, rulers will not be born, they will be chosen. On this spot by the lords and ladies of Westeros, to serve the realm.” He approaches Bran and says he knows he doesn’t want it, nor does he care about power, but if they choose him, will he wear the crown? The camera pans in, and Bran says in that infamous monotone, “Why do you think I came all this way?”

I will admit, it’s only on thinking about it later, he seems like the perfect choice: someone who doesn’t want war, who isn’t power-hungry, who barely speaks, who knows everything that has ever happened in Westeros and why, and what’s to come so he can avoid the bad and focus toward the good. But, in the moment, I went, “BRAN?!” Ahem. Yes, Bran. And with that, we get a Stark on the throne. Not Robb, not Sansa, not Jon Snow… but Bran. And everyone else sitting there agrees. Except, of course, his sisters, who are like, “Mom always loved you best and now this godDAMmit.”

Sansa turns to her brother and tells him she loves him, and will support him, and he’ll be a great king. But the people of the North have seen too much to ever bend the knee to anyone ever again. “The North will remain an independent kingdom, as it was for thousands of years.” Bran quietly nods, in complete agreement as a Northman himself.

“All hail Bran the Broken, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Six Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm.” To which Bran says, “Um, thanks, but… could we discuss this whole Broken nickname?”

He immediately tells Tyrion he wants him as his Hand. Tyrion very quickly turns it down, saying his counsel was terrible when he was Hand. Bran refuses Tyrion’s rejection, Grey Worm disagrees and refuses to hand over his prisoner, and Bran reassures him Tyrion will spend the rest of his life trying to redeem himself. Nope, says Grey Worm, not good enough.

And so, in a scene I swear was filmed last—note how Kit Harington’s hair is about six inches shorter in this scene than it is in the very next one—Tyrion goes to give Jon Snow the bad news.

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Christopher: I will confess that I am ambivalent about how all this falls out. On one hand, we’re witnessing incremental progress: kings or queens whose rule is established not by patrilineal descent and divine right, but by being chosen by the representatives of the kingdom’s power brokers. A number of reviews I’ve read have suggested that Westeros is inching toward parliamentary democracy, but really, it’s more of an extreme version of the electoral college, with the executive’s term limit being his or her lifespan. And keeping the title of king or queen is not just a misnomer, but misleading. I wasn’t expecting the kind of pure democracy Sam proposes, but perhaps something more along the lines of pre-imperial Rome would have been workable.

Also, Tyrion’s rationale for Bran as, essentially, the “keeper of the stories,” only works for Bran’s reign … unless, at some point in the near future, Bran trains a new Three Eyed Raven to take his place, at which point the principle of the monarch selected by the newly struck electoral college falls apart.

(Also, I’m with you on being delighted to see the return as Tobias Menzies as Edmure, though for me he’ll always be Brutus from Rome).

There is also the rather sticky question of why the North gets to be its own kingdom, while the other six don’t seem to be particularly concerned about submitting to the rule of King Bran. When Yara first pledged her loyalty to Daenerys, she hedged—would the Iron Islands be forced to bend the knee, or could they be their own fiefdom? As I’ve mentioned previously, Daenerys was far more elastic on that question than she ever was with Jon or Sansa, but then that was back when she was still in Essos and needed a fleet of ships to bring her home. Yara’s loyalty to Daenerys in this scene is quite staunch, but one wonders whether the notoriously independent people of the Iron Islands would be quiescent about surrendering their sovereignty when the North refuses to do so. The same goes for Dorne, which in the novels is characterized as almost as reluctant as the Iron Islands to suffer the rule of a king or queen not of their own.

(Again, questions that could have been answered with world enough and time).

When Tyrion gives Jon the “bad news” that he has to go back to the Wall, Jon asks the question that I think most people watching had: “There’s still a Night’s Watch?” Because … well, seriously. Why is there still a Night’s Watch? The ancient enemy that first prompted Brandon the Builder to raise the Wall is no more, and the lesser enemy that had become the Night’s Watch’s primary foe (i.e. the wildlings) are now something resembling allies. So why in the name of the old gods and the new do we still have a Night’s Watch? “The world will always need a home for bastards and broken men,” says Tyrion. Seriously? So this is basically now a make-work project? Will we at least be changing the terms of reference for the men in black? Perhaps they can be something like the Peace Corps now? “I am the shield that guards the realms of men” doesn’t have quite the same resonance when there isn’t really anything to guard AGAINST.

Perhaps the Night’s Watch functions in this way just as a means of saving Jon: the Unsullied want him dead, his family want him freed, but this is a useful compromise, even if the actuality of “taking the black” isn’t really a thing any more (you’ll talk about this in your final pass, Nikki, but my own sense of that last scene when Jon rides north of the Wall with Tormund and the wildlings was that he wasn’t going to return—he was heading north to live as he did for a time with Ygritte). It hasn’t escaped many commentators that Tyrion’s observation “No one is very happy” could easily apply to fans of the show.

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“Was it right—what I did?” Jon asks. “It doesn’t feel right.” Tyrion gives what, in my professional opinion, is a very professorial answer: “Ask me again in ten years.” Which is to say: in this moment, I have no idea. Let’s let time and the consensus of history have its say, and I’ll get back to you. Tyrion places a comforting hand on Jon’s shoulder, and turns silently to go. “I don’t expect we’ll ever see each other again,” Jon rasps at Tyrion’s back. Tyrion pauses, and replies, “I wouldn’t be so sure. A few years as Hand of the King would make anyone want to piss of the edge of the world.” I rather loved this line, as it’s a callback to the first season: Jon, frustrated by his status as a bastard and inspired by his Uncle Benjen, decides to join the Night’s Watch; Tyrion, in Winterfell with the king’s retinue, doesn’t return with them but heads north to see the Wall and “piss off the edge of the world.” He ends up in the group traveling with Jon.

From there, we follow Jon’s sprung-from-prison steps down to the docks, where he suffers Grey Worm’s hateful gaze, glaring down at him from the poop deck of a ship—we learn through some brief exposition—bound for Naath. Missandei might be dead, but the dream still lives: having turned down the offer of lands and titles in Westeros, the Unsullied are making like trees and getting the fuck out of the continent. It’s uncertain whether their arrival will be welcomed by the peaceful inhabitants of Missandei’s home island, but presumably future slave-catchers will have to negotiate with the business end of a shit-ton of spears.

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Jon carries on to where he meets up with his siblings. Sansa is apologetic about the deal that was struck. “Can you forgive me?” she asks, and for a long moment it seems … maybe not? But then he says, “The North is free, thanks to you.” “But they lost their King,” Sansa replies, albeit with the slightly smug tones of someone who no longer has to kowtow to whom she’d once understood as her bastard brother. Jon observes something we’ve all known for a few seasons now: that Sansa is the best the North could ever ask for. They embrace. When Jon tells Arya she’s welcome to visit him at Castle Black, we learn her plan: to sail west beyond what has been mapped.

Not sure what I think of Arya’s ending … I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense, as eight seasons’ worth of learning to fight and kill has rendered her unfit for any role besides hired assassin—which, of course, being a basically decent person and having rejected her membership in the Faceless Men besides, is not really a career option. So … she now means, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths / Of all the western stars, until I die”? Or is it meant more as an evocation of the end of The Lord of the Rings, in which Frodo, too marred by his experiences as the ring-bearer, departs for the west across the sea? I suppose it’s a sentimentally symbolic choice, which means it’s entirely out of step with the sensibility of GoT.

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And then, he kneels before the new King. “Your Grace,” he says. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you needed me.” “You were exactly where you were supposed to be,” Bran replies, in that cryptic monotone that, I’m predicting, is going to drive his royal subjects a wee bit batshit in the coming years. Jon then walks down the pier to where his tender awaits, and his siblings watch him go … the remaining trueborn children of Ned Stark watching their erstwhile bastard half-brother, actually their trueborn cousin, take his “punishment” and head north.

(I just want to ask: are we supposed to believe that Jon is genuinely aggrieved that he has to go to the Wall? He doesn’t seem happy, but it made me think of Ricky Gervais’ bit of stand-up about the Book of Genesis, when God’s punishment for the serpent is that he has to crawl on his belly for all eternity. “But … Oh, no. Wait. Yeah. You got me. Crawl on my belly? Is this how I do it? I wish I could fly, like normal”).

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From that scene we cut to what is my favourite moment of the episode (though it goes without saying, it would have been infinitely more affecting if we’d had time to see Brienne and Jaime’s relationship properly disintegrate). Brienne—now the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard—sits with the book in in which the Knights of the Kingsguard’s exploits are chronicled, and she turns to the entry for Jaime Lannister. We’ve been here before, back when Jaime was the Lord Commander; his paltry entry was given more weight in the novels, but also played in the series. Now, Brienne looks at the scant text, which reads:

Squired for Barristan Selmy against the Kingswood Outlaws. Knighted and named to the Kingsguard in his sixteenth year for valour in the field. At the Sack of King’s Landing murdered his King Aerys the Second at the foot of the Iron Throne: pardoned by King Robert Baratheon.

And then in a different hand, Jaime’s own: “Thereafter known as the Kingslayer: After the murder of King Joffrey by Tyrion Lannister, served under King Tommen I.”

Brienne, being Brienne, reads this laconic entry, and starts to write—as is one of the duties of the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, to faithfully record the exploits of his or her fellows. She fills the rest of the page, and turns the leaf over. (And just for the record, Brienne’s penmanship is ON POINT). She details everything Jaime did, from his capture at the Whispering Wood to his oath to Catelyn Stark to the bit of misdirection that sent the Unsullied to Casterly Rock while he took Highgarden.

And his last deed—which could not have been easy for Brienne to write—was “Died protecting his Queen.”

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After she finishes writing, she has a moment in which it seems tears might come, but they don’t quite, and she closes the ponderous tome. It’s our last real Brienne moment, and can I just reiterate now and for all time just how much I love Gwendolyn Christie? She has been SO GOOD in this role.

And then we shift to the true downslope of the denouement, with Tyrion as Hand of the King essentially re-enacting a scene from several seasons ago as he fussily shifts chairs around the Small Council table. But I will hand off the final commentary on this episode to you, Nikki … bring us home.

My watch is ended.

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Nikki: Now I’m gonna cry. (Hold it together, Nik, hold it together.) I too loved Brienne’s moment, it was so quiet and lovely, and like you, I commented aloud that clearly, at some point in her childhood, her father must have given her calligraphy lessons in order to try to make her more “womanly.” I also wondered if she’d write something like, “Slept with another knight after the Battle of Winterfell, but then fucked off to King’s Landing to screw his sister, whom he’d been shagging all along.” But no, our Brienne rose above it (she’s better than I am) and I felt like this was the ending her character deserved.

But now onto the Small Council meeting. As Chris said, I loved Tyrion shifting the chairs, and then muttering grumpily when everyone comes in and bangs them around. And to be honest, it’s been so long since we’ve seen a proper Small Council meeting, it was like we were back in an early episode, and it made my heart swell.

And then Ser Davos enters. I love that he gets his due for all the honest counsel he’s given over the years; who would have thought Ser Davos would outlast Stannis, the Red Woman, Varys, and Daenerys. He’s a man with reason and love, and I’m happy he’s here. He’s the Master of Ships, which is a perfect position for him.

But he’s with Bronn. Now, I understand for many, this is going to be a shrewd decision on Tyrion’s part: making him the Master of Coin makes sense on the one hand, because no one can negotiate a bargain better than Bronn. Keep your enemies close, and all that. But it’s freakin’ BRONN. Of all the other people in the series who have been reasonable, good people, HE is the one who gets a seat on the Small Council? A guy who, if he went to Braavos to secure a loan for Tyrion, and they said, “For double what he’s paying you, we’ll pay you to put a knife through Ser Brienne,” he’d do it. Only if Tyrion didn’t offer him double that to NOT put the knife through her. He’s a backstabbing blackmailer, and while he’s been great for one-liners, he’s about as trustworthy as Joffrey running the King’s Landing daycare.

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Sam Tarly is there, in the white Grand Maester’s robes, a position that he’s clearly gotten through taking some quick online Coursera courses and some string-pulling on Tyrion’s part. The Grand Maester is seen as the most senior of all the Maesters throughout the kingdom, and Sam isn’t exactly… senior. However, I don’t think it would be a stretch to think that possibly, all the Maesters in the kingdom have been wiped out, and that Sam, having studied the texts of the Citadel, would know more than they do. Besides, Bran is a walking Citadel library, with all of the books in his head, more or less, so they don’t need a senior member.

But here’s why Sam as Grand Maester works for me: I think this is yet another example of breaking the wheel. Why should the most important Maester position in the kingdom go to the eldest? Pycelle was an old fart who didn’t care about the laws as much as currying favour with the Lannisters. Why not make it a meritocracy? Not the eldest Maester, but the most qualified, the best one for the job. Tyrion’s known Sam long enough to know he has no designs on power, and is wise (he found Jon’s true heritage, as well as figured out how to cure greyscale). I think he’s perfect.

He hands Tyrion a massive book: A Song of Ice and Fire. How… meta. (My favourite bit here is where Sam says, “I helped him with the title,” and then looks at the others, beaming with excitement, darting his head from one face to the other, while they just stare back. Oh Samwell, how I adore you.)

I don’t know how much time is supposed to have passed, but I think it’s safe to say… quite a bit? The Red Keep is looking like it’s been mostly fixed, the floor of the map room is still broken but cleaned up, the place is livable again. (Of course, some of this could have happened while Tyrion and Jon were still locked up.) There’s been time for Tyrion to assemble a Small Council, and for Samwell to rise to the position of Grand Maester. But even then, I would say it’s only been a few months? I say all of this because I’m trying to figure out how Maester Ebrose found the time to write that entire MASSIVE tome in a matter of months when we’ve been waiting approximately 143 years for GRRM to write volume 6 of HIS version of events. (For those keeping track, Archmaester Ebrose was at the Citadel, and was played by Jim Broadbent last season.)

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But let’s look past the quickness of writing by hand 1,500 giant pages in perfect calligraphy (cough). Tyrion immediately begins flipping through the book with the same concern anyone has who finds out a friend of theirs has written a memoir: what do they say about me in it? (I will admit to always flipping to an index of a pop culture academic book to find my name, and it’s often there, but mostly so the academics can disagree with something I wrote in my books. I also had an acquaintance write a memoir and found my name in the index, and what he wrote was neither good nor bad, it just was. Which was disappointing; we kind of hated each other, and I wanted it to be horrible, which would have been far more interesting. But the rest of the memoir was shite, too, so what can ya do. HA.) Like me, Tyrion wonders if he’ll be criticized. Or maybe he’ll be kind? Tyrion begins flipping pages. “I… I don’t believe you’re mentioned,” stutters Sam.

HAHAHA! Frankly, this revelation made this whole meta silliness worth it, mostly because it’s a perfect representation of the history books: Tyrion was behind the scenes at every turn, and is arguably THE star of Game of Thrones in a story with about 65 other people vying for that position. But throughout history, it’s not the kings and queens making decisions, changing the course of every day: it’s their advisors, the people in backrooms, the people in the kitchens, the people hiding in alleyways. Their names don’t end up in the history books, but they were the catalysts for so many things along the way. Queen Cersei and King Joffrey will be all over the pages of Grand Maester Ebrose’s book, but it’s Tyrion who was doing the real backroom deals, making the decisions. It was Littlefinger and Varys who were changing the course of history. It was Olenna Tyrell who was ordering the deaths of people who got in her way. They won’t be listed in the book, either, or, at best, they’ll be footnotes. The beautiful thing about Game of Thrones is that it showed the people who play the game aren’t necessarily the ones who want that throne. I loved this little tidbit.

And, side note, when the episode was over, I immediately went over to my first Game of Thrones book and flipped it open to see if Tyrion was actually, in fact, the first perspective chapter of the entire series… but it wasn’t. It was Bran. Of course. (The answer was there the whole time, Dorothy!) And then it flips to perspectives of various Starks before the first non-Stark entry: Tyrion.

Bran enters, wheeled in by Brienne. He begins speaking in that monotone that yes, I agree with you, Chris, will drive the citizens of Westeros (and mostly this poor, wretched, Small Council) completely batty in the coming years. Could you imagine him doing the King’s Speech? “Hello. It is Christmas. Snow is falling. Falling like ash. Ash upon the fields. Fields of the dead. I have seen the dead.”

Meanwhile, people across Westeros are wondering why the hell Samwell Tarly invented the bloody wireless radio so they have to listen to this shit every year.

Anyway, he immediately notes that they’re missing a Master of Whisperers, a Master of Laws, and a Master of War. Tyrion reassures him he’ll be looking at suitable candidates for all those positions, and it made me wonder who they would be? I suppose even after a wheel has been broken, you’ll still need a Master of Whisperers because people continue to conspire. The other two are necessities, although frankly, Bran could do all three: he can see everyone at all times (ew) and would know who’s conspiring. He knows all the laws of the past, present, and future, and he already knows what wars have happened, what ones are coming, and what would be the best strategies for each.

Seriously, how are they going to deal with this guy in every—

Oh wait, he’s leaving Small Council to go warg into Drogon and figure out where he is. You can just see the “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” looks on everyone’s faces. (Note that “Ser Podrick” comes out of the shadows to wheel Bran away—he’s a knight!) I guess one good thing about Bran is, he doesn’t need an Iron Throne because he’s got a cool chair of his own.

Before I forget, though, I just wanted to call back to one character I don’t think has gotten her due: Meera Reed. Remember her? Along with Osha and Meera’s brother Jojen, they’re the ones who accompanied Bran through a large part of his story and him becoming the Three-Eyed Raven, and for, like, three seasons she dragged that sled with Bran on it. I’m thinking he owes a lot of his survival to her. I hope he sends her a Christmas ham on the day of his next speech.

As Bran leaves, Tyrion ham-fistedly bids his king adieu with the proper honorifics, ending with “Long may he reign” and the others, scattered, say it with various levels of conviction. “That will improve,” Tyrion says sheepishly as Bran is wheeled out of the room. Ha!

Now Tyrion reveals that Bronn is Master of Coin (look at Ser Davos’s unconvinced face when he does), and asks if the Crown’s debt has been paid. In full, he says. After all—say it with me—a Lannister always pays his debts. And Tyrion begins conducting business. After listing all of Bronn’s titles, he asks about securing more money for the kingdom to rebuild. Then Tyrion tells Ser Davos that they’ll need to rebuild the ships as well. Davos says he can do that, once the “Master of Coin and Lord of Lofty Titles” secures the money. Bronn snarkily responds that first he has to ensure they’re not wasting coin, “or soon there won’t be no more coin.” “Any more,” corrects Davos. “Oh you’re Master of Grammar now too?” Bronn says.

At which point I sat up and said, “OMG there’s a Master of Grammar?? I COULD TOTALLY BE ON SMALL COUNCIL.”

“Grand Maester!” shouts Tyrion to try to move away from the little toddler boys fighting at the head of the table. He asks about water purification, and Sam begins to speak before Bronn cuts him off, and instead wants to discuss reconstructing the far more important brothels of King’s Landing. (Seriously, someone shoot this guy with a crossbow NOW.) Sam doesn’t agree with this, and Brienne says the ships should take precedence, as the camera slowly pans out of the room, showing us that the Small Council is a new world… and much of the same one it’s always been.

And then Tyrion says, “I once brought a jackass and a honeycomb into a brothel…” I laughed out loud. This is an onrunning joke and a callback to previous seasons, and it’s the third time Tyrion has begun to tell this joke but WE HAVE NEVER GOTTEN THE PUNCHLINE. In season one, standing before the horrid Lysa Arryn, Tyrion is asked to confess his sins, and he begins telling one lewd story after another, nearly every one involving his penis. When he gets to, “I once brought a jackass and a honeycomb into a brothel…” Lysa shouts for silence.

Again in season six, he’s sitting with Missandei and Grey Worm, and they’re drinking wine and laughing. Grey Worm is looking at Missandei with so much love (sniff) and she’s giggling and begging Tyrion for jokes. “I once walked into a brothel with a honeycomb and a jackass,” he begins. “The Madame says—” and then they’re interrupted. Since then, fans have tried to come up with the ending of that joke, and a fan on Reddit came up with a BRILLIANT one that I wish the writers had incorporated into this episode:

Tyrion walks into a brothel with a honeycomb and a jackass.
Madame: What can we do for you?
Tyrion: I need a woman to lay with, for mine has left me.
Madame: Whatever for? And what’s with the honeycomb and the mule?
Tyrion: My woman found a genie in a bottle, and he granted her three wishes. The first was for a house fit for a queen, so he gave her this damn honeycomb. The second wish was that she have the nicest ass in all the land, so he gave her this damn donkey…
Madame: And what about the third wish?
Tyrion: Well… she asked the genie to make my cock hang down past my knee.
Madame: Well that one’s not so bad eh?
Tyrion: Not so bad!? I used to be six foot three!

Seriously, how Tyrion is that joke?! I’m convinced that’s where he was going with it.

And… our watch ends at the Night’s Watch and Castle Black. We see Jon Snow approach the gates, like he did in season one, for a life of celibacy and isolation, for… what, exactly? I’m with you, Chris, to me, this was the least satisfying bit of the entire finale. Tormund stands on a parapet looking down at Jon as he enters the grounds through the gate, and like you I was like, what, exactly, do they do at the Night’s Watch now?? The wilding is RIGHT THERE inside the grounds. And seriously, the only reason Jon is there is because Grey Worm has demanded it. And as you pointed out, Chris, he’s fucked off with the rest of the soldiers, so why didn’t Jon just go North to Winterfell and be done with it? Is it because Sansa could feel threatened by his presence? She knows as we all do that Jon has zero designs on the throne, so I have no idea why he did the good thing and continued to the Wall. Other than the fact he’s Jon Snow and has always done exactly what he’s been told.

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But at least I was going to get the reunion with Ghost. And then… the screen went black. OH COME O—

Oh, it’s not done yet. The next scene opens on the hilt of Jon’s sword, and that little direwolf head that always looks a wee bit comical to me in a war scene. And from this point, as the staggering music of Ramin Djawadi—the true MVP of the entire series, who has NEVER let us down—plays, we get a montage of where everyone has ended up. Sansa is suited up with an utterly stunning new dress that has the red leaves of the weirwood tree on it; Jon walks up the steps of Castle Black; Arya rolls up her maps and her telescope and walks onto the deck of her ship.

(And I know this is a deadly serious and beautiful montage, but I started singing, “Arya Arya Arya the Explarya!” and my husband joined in. I do hope her cartographer is a flamboyantly gay man who sings, “Here’s the map, here’s the map, here’s the map, here’s the map, HERE’S THE MAP!” while First Mate Boots looks on.)

ANYWAY BACK TO SERIOUSNESS NIKKI. Arya is the commander of her ship and watches the action around her, as Sansa walks majestically down an aisle flanked by northerners (you deserve this, Sansa), and Jon walks through the grounds, flanked by wildlings to see… YES it’s Ghost, minus one ear and looking a little scuffed around the face but it’s Ghost oh yes WHOSAGOODBOY and Jon FINALLY crouches down and gives him the big pet he’s deserved for eight years, and the one we all wanted a few episodes ago. I’m so happy to see this reunion.

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Back to Arya’s ship, now revealing a massive Stark direwolf head on the prow (OMG tears) and Arya looking calm, happy, and in control for the first time all season. The gorgeous, small crown is placed on Sansa’s head and she sits on her throne, to shouts of “Queen of the North!” by the Northmen who crown her. This is such a sublime moment, because it takes us all the way back to the first time we saw Sansa, sitting in a window and sewing with the ladies. Her obsession with Joffrey wasn’t so much that she was smitten with him, but smitten with the idea of one day being queen, being led around on the arm of the King of the Seven Kingdoms, with people bowing down to her because she was married to the king. This youthful fantasy soon turns into an absolute nightmare for her, and she’s tossed around from one man to another and mistreated again and again until she decides to own herself, own her fate, and show others who Sansa Stark really is. And now men are bowing down before her NOT because her husband is the ruler, but because SHE is. What an incredible journey Sansa’s has been.

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Arya has been someone who’s roamed around Westeros, has seen and met so many people, all with one reason for moving forward: to kill the people on her list. But now there’s no list, there’s no vengeance; only peace. And it’s left her content—her brother is on one throne, her sister on another, and at the moment there’s no danger of anything happening to them. So she can go back to her wandering ways, but since she’s been along every road in Westeros, she’s now branching out to discover America, apparently, since she’s going west of the very British-seeming Westeros. If Drogon is flying east and she’s moving west, perhaps they’ll somehow meet in the middle. (Unless GRRM is a Flat-Earther, in which case they’ll just fall off the edges when they get there.)

And we end with Jon Snow. The man who would be king, who’s been the main character of the story all along. Who couldn’t die because he was integral to the ending. He ultimately broke the wheel, has devoted his life to peace and protection, has never done a single bad thing… and now he’s exiled to the Wall. But in the time he spent up North, he met Ygritte, and as you say, Chris, that was where he actually felt like he was at home, among the wildlings. I’m with you. The way he looks back at the closing gate indicates to me that he’s not returning. Jon Snow will go and live up in the far north among his people, and he’ll probably never see his family again. But he has his new family, the people he managed to bring into the fold for the first time in the history of Westeros.

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And as the Game of Thrones theme song rises up, we see him, and Tormund, and Ghost, and the free folk on foot, as they disappear into the trees of the North. And I don’t think it’s an accident that as they first set off, the camera is filming from the ground, where we see a green spring plant sprouting up from the snow.

Summer is coming, and with it a new hope for the future of Westeros.

And… that is it. The end of easily the most spectacular-looking TV series of all time, a sweeping epic that was so far-reaching it often required multiple viewings, books, guides, and Christopher and I recapping along the way.

And now that my watch, too, has come to an end, I wanted to send out a huge thank-you to Christopher Lockett, my Brother of the Night’s Watch, my fellow knight, my associate Keeper of the Book, who has studied at the Citadel far longer than I have, who shares my passion for the humour of Lord Homer and Lady Marge, who has joined me week after week for eight years to bring his knowledge of the books and his knowledge of pop culture to all of us, enriching our experience of watching this show.

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And I’d really like to thank all of you, who somehow make it to the end of these posts every single week (my husband constantly says, “NO ONE reads all the way to the end, you know that, right? We live in an age of soundbytes and your posts are too… wordy” and I just have to show him the comments to prove otherwise). You read, you comment, you offer corrections and more insight to what we said here, and when we were late, you would send notes saying, “Where’s that post?” which was so flattering. It wouldn’t have been worth missing work two days a week for the duration of the seasons and massaging sore fingers without knowing all of you were reading what we said.

I feel like I now need to go and rewatch the whole series in light of the ending, and probably will. Until the next great TV show comes along, I say to you:

The day is bright and full of hope.


Filed under Game of Thrones, 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 …


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.


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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…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.


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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