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 …

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

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!”

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 9.54.57 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 9.56.16 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 9.59.07 PM.png

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.

nedstark

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.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.01.14 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.02.44 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.04.25 PM.png

“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?

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.06.51 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.08.42 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.11.08 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.13.47 PM.png

jonsnow.0

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.17.11 PM.png

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.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.18.34 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.20.19 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.21.13 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.22.35 PM.png

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?”

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.24.09 PM.png

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.)

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.30.01 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.31.34 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.33.10 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.35.45 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-14 at 10.37.13 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 1.54.26 PM.png

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…

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 1.56.07 PM.png

…OOOOOOOOOO…

…OOOOOOOOOO…

…and then Sandor stabs him in the eye and right through the brain.

Which, of course, doesn’t stop him. Fuck. Me.

And so, realizing he can’t kill this thing—this one-time brother who was a monster even as a child, once pushing the Hound’s face into a fire just for kicks—Sandor moves on instinct. You burned the side of my face and made me live like this my whole life. So I’ll push your face—and the rest of you—into burning hot lava, and we’ll both die. The scene is beautiful, as they pitch over the edge of the parapet and down the long wall of the Red Keep, straight into the burning inferno below them as the orchestra swells. I was sad to see the Hound’s story end like this, and yet it felt rather perfect.

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 1.57.04 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 1.59.05 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 1.51.53 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 2.00.45 PM.png

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.

throne room vision

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 …

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 2.01.29 PM.png

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Game of Thrones, television

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.

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 7.49.10 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 7.51.17 PM.png

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?

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 7.52.23 PM.png

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.

GoT Starbucks.jpg

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.02.31 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.03.27 PM.png

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?

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.05.06 PM.png

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 …

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.06.50 PM.png

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 …

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.07.53 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.09.16 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.10.22 PM.png

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?

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.11.44 PM.png

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?

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.13.04 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.14.08 PM.png

(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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.15.16 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.17.42 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.18.59 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.20.01 PM.png

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?

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.21.17 PM.png

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!!”)

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.22.47 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 8.23.11 PM.png

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Game of Thrones, television

Game of Thrones, Episode 8.03: The Long Night

Hello everyone, and welcome again to the great Christopher & Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog, in which we recap and review each episode in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail for you as they happen. We’re now at the halfway point in the endgame, with only three more episodes left to go this season … but this one was a particular blockbuster, the quantifiably most epic fantasy battle ever brought to any screen, large or small. This episode was the product of fifty-five days of filming–at night, in the cold. So whatever one’s opinion of the end result is, I think we really need to give it up for the cast and crew who put themselves through seven kinds of hell to bring this thing to fruition.

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Nikki: As soon as the episode was over, you and I immediately began texting back and forth wondering how the hell we were going to cover this episode. I think our best idea was just to film separate videos of us crying… then cut to laughing… then cut to sitting motionless over a bowl of popcorn with our mouths half open, and then splice the videos together. Because honestly, how do you put this episode into words?? In a nutshell, we didn’t lose nearly as many people as I thought we would (there was a moment in the episode when I went from believing half of the people would die to ALL of them dying and that the war at King’s Landing would be fought against undead versions of all of Cersei’s closest enemies to wondering if anyone was going to die), and there’s a spectacular fist-punch-to-the-air ending that sort of made up for any deaths we did encounter.

First, I’ll bring up the obvious: the episode is called “The Long Night,” and throughout the episode I couldn’t help but think of Melisandre’s constant refrain: “The night is dark and full of terrors.” Let’s put the emphasis on DARK. It’s meant to be dark, I’ll give it that, and they wanted to put us in the position of being as confused and lost as everyone else is in that moment—it’s part of the disorientation we’re meant to feel. But holy COW that screen was dark. Not even the fire swords allowed me to be able to tell who was who and what was happening. Again, I understand they wanted us to be discombobulated, but at some point you sacrifice realism for entertainment. For the first time watching this show I insisted on every light being off (for once I didn’t take notes on first viewing) and even then, there was a hall light and I swore it was FAR TOO BRIGHT because everything was so dark.

But that’s a very, very minor nitpick. Because this episode was fucking spectacular.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.00.25 PM.png

Let’s open with the credits! As I told a friend of mine last night, what you readers at home don’t know about behind the scenes of me writing these is that I’m contending with a husband who likes to fastforward through the credits. So every episode usually begins with me throwing pillows at him and wrestling him for the remote. This season he’s given up. Last night he was wrangling to get the kids to bed and I was yelling, “Four minutes until it begins!!” and he yelled back down, “The opening credits will give me an extra 10 minutes!” Blasphemer.

The blocks of blue ice this week come right up to the threshold of Winterfell, and while the battlements were in place in the previous episode, they look more fortified in this one. One thing that was decidedly different: when the camera swoops into the crypts of Winterfell and glides along the floor, suddenly all the torches went out one by one. So of course, I was terrified for everyone in the crypts right from the credit sequence. (At King’s Landing, by the way, nothing in the credit sequence had changed except for Cersei sitting out front on a lawn chair holding some binoculars while Dumbo snoozed nearby. No big.)

We then cut to Sam As All Of Us™, hands shaking, panting and whimpering, as he’s handed two daggers, one made of dragonglass. He moves through the Winterfell courtyard as the Unsullied go by in that weird march that looks like they’ve got sticks up their bottoms, and he passes by Tyrion, who now takes over this extraordinary opening scene. Theon pushes Bran’s wheelchair through the courtyard to the Godswood as Bran just stares creepily at Tyrion—because…Bran—and the imp grabs the essentials for battle (i.e. a flask of wine before he departs for the crypts) and the camera pans up after making the first cut of the episode and peers over the parapet of Winterfell to the Godswood, the first—and virtually only—splash of colour of the entire episode, save for the white-blue fire, the yellow-orange fire, and Sansa’s hair.

We watch the troops mobilize while the loud bass of the soundtrack thrummed like a heartbeat in this opening scene (seriously, composer Ramin Djawadi reached almost godlike levels scoring this episode) builds the anticipation until it’s almost excruciating. I LOVED this opening scene. Davos laying down the arrows, Sansa and Arya waiting on the parapet, Arya clutching her new weapon, the scream of the dragons as Jon and Daenerys fly over them, the Unsullied marching to their positions, the camera slowly panning over that GORGEOUS tableau of all the soldiers standing in perfect lines. The Dothraki and other horse riders holding the front line. Brienne, Jaime, and Podrick… Tormund, Beric, Gendry, Tollett, and the Hound all holding the second ground troop line. Sam pushing his way to the front of that one to an eyerolling Tollett: “Oh fer fuck’s sake… you took your time,” he says, uttering the first words of the episode at the six-minute mark. He speaks for all of us in this moment: we’ve waited SO LONG for this moment, to watch all of these people finally display the skills they’ve spent eight years developing.

And then… silence. Horses pawing at the ground. Ser Jorah on his horse, looking worried. Ghost pawing the dirt beside him. (OMG GHOST STAY SAFE.) Jon and Dany sit with the dragons perched on a hillside. I kept thinking are you guys going to enter the fray or wait until everyone is slaughtered??!! But perhaps the dragons have a limited amount of fire and they needed to wait until the exact right time? As auntie and nephew stand on the hill, it was difficult to gauge if their tension was due to what they were waiting for on the grounds below, or what had just happened between them. Or a little of column A, a little of column B.

And then… a solitary rider arrives and approaches Ser Jorah. And it’s… Melisandre. The Red Woman. And I cheered. This is the first we’ve seen her this season, and this is a character who’s secondary, but who has been the engineer behind SO many things that have happened on this show. In her bid to get Stannis on the throne because she believed he was the one true king, she killed Renly Baratheon, helped head up the ill-fated Battle of the Blackwater, killed Stannis’s daughter Shireen, and when Shireen actually died (she thought she’d survive being burned at the stake) Melisandre realized she’d been following the wrong king, and she switched her sights to Jon Snow. When Jon was killed, it was Melisandre who resurrected him, believing him now to be the person she once thought Stannis was. Earlier in the series she had run into Arya when she kidnapped Gendry so she could bleed him for the Baratheon blood she needed for a spell, and she looked into Arya’s eyes and saw the faces of the people Arya would kill, and promised Arya they’d see each other again. So we knew she had to return, and here she is. And with one spell, she lights up the Dothraki weapons, not only giving our fearless warriors a leg up on this war, but finally shedding some goddamn light on that dark, dark field. The scene of the swords all lighting up is nothing short of spectacular (I can only imagine the domino-like choreography that went into getting THAT one right!).

swords

“Valar morghulis,” she says to Grey Worm as she trots by on her horse. All men must die. “Valar dohaeris,” he responds. All men must serve.

Melisandre enters Winterfell in what must be the most fabulous robe she’s worn yet, and Ser Davos rushes down from his perch. He’s had one goal in his life for the past few years, and it’s to end the woman who ended the little girl he loved. “There’s no need to execute me, Ser Davos,” she says. “I’ll be dead before the dawn.” And, knowing she seems to see things others can’t, he moves aside to let her pass. Might as well let a walker take her, so her death isn’t on his conscience. She sees Arya again, and perhaps she sees in her face the faces of those Arya is going to kill, and with a look of satisfaction, Melisandre enters the castle.

I want to mention how many times in this episode it pulled back to an overhead shot of the sheer scope of the battle and it was utterly gorgeous. I kept thinking throughout the episode how lucky we are to have been rewarded as fans with such a stunning episode.

As the Dothraki charge into battle, their fire swords light up the world around them as Jon and Daenerys sit on the cliff, like Greek gods watching the men fight below them. And that’s when the horse riders hit… the undead.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.05.18 PM.png

Christopher: Do they ever. And however beautiful and haunting that sequence is—all those points of light riding into the darkness only to be silently snuffed out—all I could really think was “Way to waste the Dothraki!” I know they live on horseback and consider fighting on foot ignominious, but I’m not entirely sure what use mounted soldiers have against an army of the undead. Militarily speaking, cavalry have three principal purposes: quick movement, to flank or harass foot soldiers; running down retreating infantry when they rout; and intimidating shaky or shaken enemies into breaking their line. None of these apply to the horde of ice zombies, who are too numerous to outflank, don’t retreat, and don’t get scared. It’s uncertain whether their charge was part of the battle plan (if so, fire whoever came up with THAT idea), or the Dothraki, always more inclined to impetuous attack, were emboldened by their newly flaming swords (sorry—their arakhs). Either way, half of Daenerys’ army is now gone, which does not bode well for the remaining battles to come.

ALSO. Not really liking the racial politics of this one—eliminating the Dothraki out of the gate, and then later on it’s the Unsullied who are tasked with covering the retreat into Winterfell? The soldiers from Essos seem to be shouldering the balance of sacrifice.

OK, end of griping. Aside from those concerns, I’m with you Nikki on how beautifully this episode was shot. Yes, it was dark, often to the point of obscuring the action, but as you say the confusion and chaos was part of the point, and the not-infrequent crane shots helped reorient ourselves. I’ve seen a few complaints online that Melisandre’s return was random and unexpected, but I disagree entirely—in fact, I’d say if she didn’t show up, that would be weird, because this battle is what she’s been waiting for all her much-longer-than-appearances-suggest life. What did we think she’s been doing all this time? Waiting and watching.

In spite of my annoyance at how the Dothraki are wasted, it did make for an incredibly tense few moments as the reality of what happened registers on everyone’s faces. A horde of Dothraki with flaming swords (arakhs) would normally itself be the stuff of nightmares, but their charge ended in less than a whimper. The assembled Winterfell forces watch in mounting horror as a tiny handful of riderless horses—and a few horseless riders—make their panicked way back to the lines, among them a haunted-looking Ser Jorah.

(But no Ghost? I was concerned about this, because if they were to kill Ghost offscreen I might be moved to violence. But never fear—we catch a glimpse of him in the trailer for episode 4).

Cut to Jon and Daenerys on their promontory, who have a brief disagreement on strategy. “The Night King is coming!” Jon says as Daenerys moves to mount Drogon. “The dead are already here,” she snaps back. One would have assumed they’d have figured out their priorities beforehand, but apparently not. And for what it’s worth, Daenerys seems to be vindicated, as when dragonfire makes its first explosive appearance on the battlefield, the troops are already hard pressed.

But before that moment … more tense waiting, made all the tenser by the guttural croaking of the approaching horde.

And then the tsunami of the dead crashes against the Unsullied. Speaking as a great fan of the zombie apocalypse genre, as well as someone who has written about it from a scholarly perspective, it is my professional opinion that ice zombies are the walking dead you want to face the LEAST. Were these the shambling ghouls of The Walking Dead, the Unsullied et al could stand against them for days. But here we have zombies who can not only sprint, but wield weapons. Not a happy combo for our brave heroes.

Indeed, mere minutes into the battle, it looks like the defenders are being overwhelmed. We get a fantastic action shot of Brienne bellowing “STAND YOUR GROUND!”, but even the newly knighted Lady of Tarth finds herself swamped. In a moment of narrative poetry, Jaime comes to her rescue; she has reverted to inarticulate screams of rage, reminding us of the final moments of her fight with the Hound when she brutally pummeled him with a rock as she made much the same noise.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.07.01 PM.png

And then … deus ex draconis, as Drogon swoops in and torches the front ranks of the dead and giving the defenders a brief reprieve. I loved this shot, as we’re with Jaime, who looks up in wonder, no doubt remembering the last time he encountered dragonfire on a battlefield. We cut up to Daenerys above the fray, and then down again to where Tormund is kicking ass and taking names, and then to where Sansa and Arya stand on the parapet, seeing for the first time just what a dragon can do. The look on Sansa’s face seems to say “OK, perhaps letting her be queen wouldn’t be all bad.”

But then Jon sees where the White Walkers have arrayed themselves at the treeline, and breaks off to attack. Not in itself a bad idea, except that the Night King’s not going to make it that easy—before he can bring them his warm greetings, a blinding storm sweeps in and envelops him.

And thus begins stage two of the battle … on the battlements, Arya twigs to the fact that shit just got real, and tells Sansa to head down to the crypts (remember: the safe place). Over Sansa’s protests, Arya hands her what looks like a dragonglass dagger. “I don’t know how to use it,” Sansa says, hesitant. “Stick ‘em with the pointy end,” says Arya, because OF COURSE SHE DOES. Full circle, people!

Meanwhile, the storm rolls over the ranks of the defenders, enveloping Daenerys and Drogon as well as they give the wights one last blast of fire. The people on the ground look about in the newly opaque air, realizing what Arya just did. Whatever relief from the assault the dragons gave them? Not so much now. And of course the icy mist descends also in the Godwood, where we see for the first time Theon and his merry men defending Bran. (Just as an aside, in the I-wish-I’d-thought-of-that department, my favourite pop culture critic at NPR, Glen Weldon, has dubbed him “Bran McGuffin.”) It’s just a moment—enough to obscure everyone gathered around the weirwood tree—but another of the many of the haunting and beautiful bits of camera work that make up this episode.

And then: a confused montage of our favourites. Jorah, unhorsed; Brienne; Tormund; Jaime; Podrick; Gendry; the Hound; and then, in quick succession, Jaime and Tormund getting jumped from behind, and then Sam—who looks to have been acquitting himself well—knocked down and nearly killed, but saved by Edd Tollett. And Edd, in rescuing Sam, becomes our first Death Of A Key Player, stabbed from behind.

In a brief and wordless interregnum, we follow Sansa as she makes her reluctant way down into the crypts (pausing and looking back for an ominous instant as she hears the door crash shut behind her). She walks into the midst of the people crowded into the space, exchanging a look first with Missandei, and then Tyrion. The wordless exchange with Tyrion is perfect: no words, but perfectly articulate. He asks how the battle is going. She replies, I’m down here now, aren’t I? And then Tyrion uncorks his wineskin and slugs back a drink because … well, because Tyrion.

Jon Snow, meanwhile, still seems to be in the first act of How to Train Your Dragon as he accidentally flies Rhaegal into some treetops. Of course, visibility is nil, which is why he and Daenerys collide, both almost falling off their rides. The storm has taken them away from where they need to be.

Back at the gates of Winterfell, phase three of the battle commences with the command to “Fall back!” Lyanna Mormont orders the gates opened, admitting a stream of bloodied and broken soldiers; the Unsullied form a rearguard to protect the retreat (again, I hope the racist Winterfellians take note), and we get yet another lovely crane shot of the retreating soldiers pouring through the gaps in the defenses and into the (relative) safety of Winterfell. Jon and Rhaegal find their way to the wall around the Godswood (looking like they did some damage to the masonry on landing), with Jon looking around, presumably, to see if the enemy has taken the bait.

Not yet. Back out on the battlefield, the Unsullied show their preternatural discipline, closing ranks against the undead and retreating one backward step at a time while the rest of Winterfell’s forces make their way behind its walls. And then Grey Worm sounds the retreat for the Unsullied, and gives the order to light the trench. Which doesn’t quite go as planned, initially …

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.28.32 PM.png

Nikki: When Melisandre initially lit up the Dothraki arakhs, I thought to myself, “OOOH, fire melts ice!!!” But, of course, ice also extinguishes fire. This whole battle was like a game of rock/paper/scissors where someone decides to use a thumbs-up to represent dynamite and you never win. (That would be my son.) So as the ice of the white walkers has moved across the ground towards Winterfell, it’s turned the trench spears into icicles and the fire doesn’t touch them. It’s like watching someone try to light a cigarette when their lighter is almost out of fluid and it’s -40 outside, and they just flick and flick and flick. And that’s when Grey Worm sees the Red Woman stride out of the Winterfell gates, and he commands the Unsullied to rearrange themselves to allow her to pass. She holds onto the ice-covered log and begins chanting her spell as the Hound slices at the walkers, as the Unsullied try to hold the line, as the undead break through and begin reaching for her. She’s calm at first, then, as the spell doesn’t take, there’s a waver in her voice, and it’s only when she shouts the spell with absolute terror that the log she’s holding suddenly ignites, lighting the entire trench. It’s yet another magnificent moment of photography as we cut to the overhead picture of the trench as the ring of fire shoots around Winterfell, keeping the walkers out and the good guys in.

Of course, the Hound wishes they’d used anything other than fire.

And then… the white walkers just… stop. And stand there. They’ll wait.

Meanwhile, in the safe zone, Tyrion stands guard over the door while Varys cracks wise and Sansa just glares. Tyrion hates being down there. “If we were up there, we might see something everyone else is missing. Something that makes a difference.”

Varys scoffs.
Tyrion spins around. “What? Remember the Battle of Blackwater? I brought us through the mudgate.”
“And got your face cut in half,” says Varys.
“And it made a difference,” Tyrion sneers. “If I was out there right now…”
“…you’d die,” says Sansa, and she says it in a way that suggests she’s happy he’s not out there right now. “There’s nothing you can do,” she says as kindly as she can.

And so he returns to the group, tossing aside an empty flask to pick up a new full one (ha!). Sansa says the people down there can’t do anything, that the most heroic thing they can do right now is look the truth in the face. “Maybe we should have stayed married,” he says.

“You were the best of them,” she remarks.

“What a terrifying thought!!” he says with some shock. But she’s not wrong: when compared to Joffrey Lannister, Ramsay Bolton, and Petyr Littlefinger, Tyrion was one of the good guys. But she adds that their marriage never would have worked because of his divided loyalties with the dragon queen.

“Yes,” Missandei pipes up, showing that EVERYONE is listening to this conversation. “Without the dragon queen there’d be no problem at all. We’d all be dead already.” Touché.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.30.34 PM.png

Back to the Godswood, Theon notices the trench has been lit, and tells Bran. Bran McGuffin (genius) turns silently and just stares at him. Theon completes another step of his 12-step program and tries to make amends with him, but Bran doesn’t allow him to. He says everything Theon has done has brought him home, to Winterfell. “I’m going to go now,” Bran says, as if he was ever really there, and then his eyes turn white and it’s Wargapalooza Time.

Cut to the ravens in the trees, who swoop over the battle as Bran’s personal drone system, and they fly into the blizzard, knowing only they can zero in on one thing: the Night King. And he senses Bran in them, and looking at them from atop Viserion’s back, he reaches out to them. He’s coming.

Back to the stoic walkers who continue to just stand there, and my husband and I are like, “They aren’t moving!! Shoot them with your arrows now, for god’s sakes, just mow them down!!” But everyone seems too confused to do a damn thing. Of course, once Monsieur Roi de la Nuit shows up, it’ll all be moot anyway so it didn’t really matter. But still.

And that’s when the undead begin throwing themselves on the pyre. At first it doesn’t make much sense until Ser Davos looks down the line and realizes they’re creating undead bridges for the other walkers to cross over. I always thought the Unsullied were the greatest warriors the world has ever seen, but when your forces have no brains and don’t really give a shit… wow. And then everyone moves inward to man the walls, as Jon looks up and sees the Night King arrive on Viserion.

The dead hit the walls and at first you’d think the guys on top have an advantage just by virtue of being above them, but it’s not long before the white walkers simply begin forming an inhuman chain up the side and climbing on top of each other, like a slower version of that scene in World War Z. Up on the parapets you now have many of the soldiers who’d just been holding the front lines: Jaime, Gendry, Tormund, Brienne, Jorah, Grey Worm, and the dead—in various states of deadness—begin climbing the walls as the entire horde behind them approaches VERY QUICKLY. Brienne begins just Monica Selesing her way through all of them as Sam sits on the ground whimpering and crying and realizing dead things or not, the crypts would have been the safer place. Did anyone else think Sam, why didn’t you just listen, because Tollett already died saving you and now Jaime’s having to focus on saving you instead of fighting the battle? I love you, Sam, but when Sansa said the most heroic thing they could do is admit they can’t help on the battlefield, I thought of you.

As Beric’s flaming sword slices through the army and the knights try to hold the parapet with limited success, we cut to the Hound standing in a doorway, breathing heavily and momentarily paralyzed, just as he was back in the Battle of Blackwater when faced with so much fire. “Clegane!!” yells Beric, who can’t reach him at all.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the courtyard parapet, Arya finally unleashes her amazing weapon and goes to town. I LOVED this scene. She seems almost invincible with this spear, using it exactly the way Jaqen H’ghar had taught her when he took her eyes from her. But soon there are too many of them. As Arya falls into the courtyard she sees (oh my heart) the undead version of Wun Wun, who died tragically at Winterfell when, riddled with arrows Saint Sebastian–style, Ramsay Bolton shot him in the right eye and killed him, prompting Jon to rush Ramsay and beat him to death with his bare hands.

Now Wun Wun has returned to the scene of where he died, and standing in the exact spot where he took his final breaths, he’s faced by the tiny but mighty… Lyanna Mormont. Whom he instantly flings aside as if she were a hamster.

We cut to Sandor Clegane, who tells Beric that they should just give up; there’s no winning this one. “We can’t beat them! Don’t you see that, you stupid whore? We’re fighting death. We can’t beat death.”

“Tell her that,” Beric says, as the Hound looks up and sees Arya fighting a horde of white walkers against the odds. Without a moment’s hesitation, the Hound races into battle to save the only person he’s ever cared about.

And back to Lyanna Mormont, who was not killed by the giant, but who instead stands up, her body broken, and, raising her dragonglass axe, she races at him in a hobbled way, screaming the whole way with so much determination my heart swelled. Wun Wun reaches down and grabs her like King Kong grabbing Fay Wray, and he squeezes her. We can see her armour denting inwards, and can imagine her ribs beginning to break one by one. My husband: “Well, she’s toast.” Me: “She’s going to die a hero. They know how much we need that.” She knows she’s not coming back from this one, but with her final ounce of strength she reaches up and stabs Wun Wun’s remaining eye with her dagger, and dies a beautiful, heroic death. I know some people probably thought she was a very minor character, but I adored Lyanna Mormont, and truly hoped she was part of the future of Westeros. I needed a moment after this one.

But we don’t get moments to recover in this episode, for it’s back to the skies and the dragons.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.34.45 PM.png

Christopher: Was that really Wun Wun, though? I mean, I definitely think we’re meant to think so, what with the empty right eye socket and all, but the logistics are all wonky. Wun Wun died in the courtyard of Winterfell. They would not have sent his body back north of the Wall, and it has been custom since season one for the wildlings to burn their dead. I suppose it’s possible he was buried outside the castle walls and the Night King resurrected him as his army advanced, but the episode very clearly suggests that he did not deploy that particular whammy until after Daenerys tried to dracarys him to death. Also, in the final episode of last season, we see among the serried ranks of the ice zombies a handful of zombified giants. So if we’re supposed to think this in Wun Wun, which I think we are, that’s just bad work on the part of the continuity editor.

But yes, back to the skies and the dragons, where, halfway into the episode, we get the first bit of the confrontation we think we’ve been waiting for. Except not really: a lot of the anticipation for this particular battle had to do with the showdown between zombie Viserion and his not-dead brothers, figuring an epic battle in the skies to mirror the epic battle on the ground. But there’s actually not all that much dragon-fighting to be had: the Night King comes blasting at Jon and Daenerys in a blaze of blue fire, but just as quickly dives away toward the ground, leaving auntie and nephew hovering above the clouds, baffled, for an unconscionable interval. I mean, it’s really only about ten seconds, but COME ON. There’s the Big Bad—get him!

Then we cut to Arya re-enacting the third act of World War Z as she sneaks around trying desperately not to attract the attention of the undead in what appears to be a library. Which, I have to say, is my least favourite scene in the episode—even though it is tense and scary, it doesn’t make much sense. There aren’t a huge number of wights, and after Arya’s previous scene of wholesale undead obliteration, I was wondering if she’d lost her weapons, and—oh, nope. Stabbed one in the chin. I suppose if it were any other character (like the Hound, e.g.) we might allow for trauma breaking their ability to fight, but this is Arya—she fed Walder Frey’s sons through a meat grinder and served them to him in a pie, for the Old Gods’ sake. Watching her skulk about in fear is about a believable as seeing Daryl Dixon lose their shit over a handful of zombies in season nine.

The whole point of this sequence, it becomes clear, is to set up Arya’s rescue by Beric … which is a bit of narrative gerrymandering I don’t particularly care for. But that will come up momentarily. In the interim, we cut from Arya’s panicked flight down a dark corridor back to the crypts, where the silence of the huddled masses is broken by the sound of bodies crashing against the crypt door, panicked cries of the defenders, and the shrieks of the dead. And then—as we focus on Sansa’s worried face—silence again.

Oh, don’t worry, people. You’ll have stuff to panic about soon enough.

But first, back to the creepy dark corridors. Beric and the Hound come sneaking around the corner, and are in place to come to the rescue when a door is knocked off the hinges by a wight attacking Arya. Beric saves her by throwing his flaming sword and then scooping her off the ground and (more or less) throwing her at the Hound while a zombie manages to stick a dagger in his calf. Arya and the Hound get away while Beric—sans flaming sword, which is why you should never throw your sword—is overwhelmed. Arya picks up an ax and is about to rejoin the fight, but the Hound picks her up and runs while Beric, at long last, dies a permanent death (poor Arya—she’s like a cat, nature’s perfect killing machine, but small enough to pick up).

The fact that Beric dies in a Christ pose is a point I’m just going to ignore.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.37.22 PM.png

Still, he’s alive enough to make it with them into an empty room that they barricade themselves inside. He dies with no final words as Arya watches, anguished, and the shadow behind her resolves itself into the cloaked and hooded figure of Melisandre. “The Lord brought him back for a purpose,” she says. “Now, that purpose has been served.” “I know you,” Arya says, though what I really wanted her to say was, “Hey, my new boyfriend and I were just talking about how you put leeches all over him.” (I suppose that would not have matched the tone of the moment). And then: the hint I really should have taken about how this episode would end, when Arya recalls Melisandre’s prophecy that she would close many eyes. “Brown eyes, green eyes,” Melisandre acknowledges, and then after a suggestive pause, “and blue eyes.” I assumed at the moment she meant the legion of wights Arya had permanently furloughed, but no …

“What do we say to the God of Death?” Melisandre then asks. “Not today,” Arya replies, and they share a significant look. And while the Hound brandishes his ax in anticipation of the dead breaking through the barricaded door, Arya runs off in a different direction to … where?

Well, we get a bit of a hint when the scene shifts to the Godswood as Theon & co. can now hear the croaks and cries of the dead. “Here they come!” he warns, and the protective circle around Bran ignite their arrows.

But we move swiftly on from there to the skies, and the Night King’s descent upon Winterfell. Viserion blasts the walls with his blue fire, but isn’t able to wreak too much damage as Rhaegal hits him, and they grapple while Theon and his men shoot fire arrows into the marauding wights. The two dragons claw and bite at each other, and the Night King tries to aim his ice spear, but can’t make his target. And then: deus ex Daenerys, swooping in and knocking the Night King from Viserion. But Jon and Rhaegal are also knocked out of the sky, with Rhaegal making a rough landing that pitches Jon from his back.

Daenerys remains airborne, however, and zeroes in on where the Night King touched down. He looks up at her and she utters what should be the coup de grace: “Dracarys.”

Except … well, not so much. Apparently, Night Kings are immune to dragonfire? Which, I assume, makes them the only being in existence that is. Until this moment, the Big Bad has never shown anything resembling emotion, but right now he is definitely smug. And will remain so for the rest of the episode. He picks up his ice lance and hurls it at Drogon; Daenerys, remembering what happened to Viserion, wisely beats a retreat.

Meanwhile, Jon Snow, now earthbound, unsheathes his sword and follows the Night King … who pauses, turns around, and very theatrically raises his hands—slowly!—and does his thing.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.38.57 PM.png

Nikki: And every warrior from Winterfell looks around them and just screams, “Oh FFS!!!!”

Before we get to the Return of the Living Dead, I completely agree with you on the Arya scene in that library. After we watched many, many episodes of her learning to fight with a spear whilst blind, of putting on another face and killing with it, of basically being the most ruthless assassin in the world… to have her cowering over a few walkers and then saved by two men was a little… bah. I kept hoping she’d corner a walker, take its face, and then pretend to be one and just take them out one by one. Sadly that did not happen. But the one thing that did make me happy about that scene was Melisandre saying that Beric’s entire purpose was to save one person. She knew. She knew what was going to happen at the end of this episode.

(And on the Wun Wun front, I paused the scene and slowly moved it ahead frame by frame, comparing it to previous footage of the actual alive Wun Wun, and I’m pretty sure it was him; I always try to make sure of these things before making assumptions, but you never know with this show; I could be wrong. There were only two giants left, and only one of them lost his right eye. But you’re right; if they’d burned him, how the heck did the Night King get him? And if they didn’t burn him, why the hell not? They had a gazillion other bodies to burn while they were at it… Perhaps they decided to sacrifice continuity for poetry.)

But ANYWAY, back to the very fabulous Night King, who, as you say, is incredibly theatrical—I half expected him to say, “Showtime!” You know, if he ever had anything to say. We see the dead rise on the battlefield, with Jon looking around thinking oh great here we go again. We see the bodies rise at Winterfell, with Sam and Podrick and Brienne and Jaime all wide-eyed, like this can’t actually be happening.

And then Lyanna Mormont opens her ice-blue eyes (Noooooooo!) and Tollett opens his (oh come ONNNNN) and I thought if you make me lose my beloved Lyanna Mormont a second time so help me I will march on HBO myself with my three cats marching beside me with wings tied to their backs. (Well, “march” is probably too strong a word; they’d all have gone purposely limp by that point and I’d be dragging them along the ground by leashes but it’s the principle, people.)

It was at this point I felt like the Hound, and almost gave up completely. I mean, what shot do they honestly have left at this point?? They have the white walkers PLUS their own dead companions fighting against them. They can cut someone down, but the person will just get up again? What’s the bloody point? The Night King just stares Jon down, and Jon looks back at him like, “I hate you so much right now” as the dead begin to fight him.

And then we cut to the very safe crypts. Sigh. You called it, my friend. The Stark arms began shooting out of the sides of the concrete crypts and I thought for SURE we were going to see a reanimated headless Ned coming after them. Thankfully the showrunners didn’t go there—my heart wouldn’t have been able to take it at this point. These were the really old and dusty Starks, though I assume Lyanna was among them, which makes me sad to even comprehend. Sansa, Gilly, Tyrion, and everyone just stand there with gaping mouths like they can’t believe this is happening. And one by one, the walkers begin grabbing the women and children who thought it would be safer down here.

Now to the Godswood, where Theon and his fellow soldiers are… actually doing a hell of a job. He turns to check Bran at one point who, nope, still white-eyed.

“Bran…”
“…”
“Bran…”
“Shhh… taking in Avengers Endgame, it opened this weekend…”
“Bran, we don’t—”
“SHHHHH.”

Cut back to Jon, also doing a formidable job at this point until, as you say, there’s another Daenerys ex machina. Jon shouts “Bran!” at her, and she tells him to go. But unfortunately she watches him run away a little too long, and suddenly Drogon is absolutely covered in ice zombies. Daenerys is thrown from her beloved child’s back, and Drogon takes to the sky, shaking the bodies off as he flies. So NOW we not only have white walkers and reanimated undead, but fucking bodies falling from the fucking sky. Like, how amazing was that??! Just when you think you’ve seen it all, we cut back to Winterfell and bodies are just falling in droves from the parapets, from the sky, from the balconies… Jon cuts his way through as we see Sam looking overwhelmed by the fighting (OMG), Brienne and Podrick and Jaime all holding their own. Jon fights his way through the crowd of walkers, and slams a gate closed as the arms flail through the slats trying to grab him. “This is the best episode of The Walking Dead I have EVER SEEN!” I shouted at my husband at this point. Don’t ask why, but somehow this whole confluence of events—raining bodies, warriors all still fighting, walkers still coming—made me positive gleeful as a TV fan.

Back to Theon, who is fighting better than I’ve ever seen him fight, as if he refuses to get scared off like he did when Yara was kidnapped. He zings arrow after arrow, as if Legolas was his archery teacher, until he reaches into the bucket… and there are no more arrows. So he just starts hitting walkers with his bow, and eventually stabs one and kills it.

Daenerys isn’t so lucky, as she watches her once-faithful Dothraki now turn blue-eyed and as menacing as the day she first met them, and as they come at her one by one we realize Daenerys is a leader, but she’s no fighter. She’s always used her dragons, and Rhaegal is currently MIA and Drogon has just taken off to try to swat the walkers off him. Just as it looks like it’s the end of our platinum-haired queen, Ser Jorah swoops to the rescue, with Heartsbane taking out one walker after another.

Meanwhile, down in the safe space, Sansa and Tyrion hide at the end of one of the crypts while listening to the slaughter happening on the outside. Sansa realizes there’s no hope left, and she pulls out the dragonglass dagger that Arya gave her. She looks at Tyrion, who gives her a look of resignation. He knows they have no other choice, and he knows this might be the last time he looks upon the lovely face of his ex-wife. He gives her a weak smile, takes her hand and kisses it, and takes a deep breath.

Here the music is extraordinary. Just a quiet song played on the piano, with snippets of the themes we’ve heard throughout the series. It plays loudly while the diegetic sounds fall to the background. Ser Jorah continues to fight through the walkers. Jon dodges Viserion’s blast and the walkers break through the gate. Daenerys cries out in fear as Ser Jorah falls to one knee but keeps going. Theon refuses to stop battling even though he’s long run out of weapons. The Night King walks around the corner in slow motion with his soldiers by his side. Jaime and Brienne and Podrick continue fighting, now mowing down the soldiers who’d stood at their side only moments before. Sam lies on a heap of bodies, crying, as Jon forces himself to keep moving and not stop to save him.

And back at the Godswood, Theon swings and swings and swings… until there are no men left. As the camera pans above them, you see scores of dead soldiers on the ground, and only Theon standing. It’s incredible.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.40.52 PM.png

Bran’s eyes flip forward, and Theon looks at the Night King, flanked by his soldiers, with two large crowds of white walkers standing on either side of the Godswood, and he knows this is it. He can’t fight anymore. He can no longer protect Bran. As he stares at the Night King, his eyes well up. “Theon,” Bran says behind him. “You’re a good man.” Only it sounds like he says, “You were a good man.” Tenses, Bran… TENSES. The camera slowly move in on Theon. “Thank you,” Bran says.

And with that, Theon’s character has come full circle. A casualty of a war his father started, taken as a child as a hostage, raised as an outsider in a close-knit family, rejected by his own family when he returns… a failed uprising, failed battles, failed reunions… Theon’s entire arc on this show has been one of one failure after another, until he was physically emasculated by a man he trusted, his entire being taken from him, ground down to absolutely nothing and no one. And then he’s worked so hard to try to rise out of that, to become a real person again. Now he stands, on the verge of apocalypse, as the lone person between life and death of all civilization, and he may have failed again. He’s made his amends, and Bran telling him he’s a good man is possibly the greatest thing anyone could say to him.

And so he does the only thing he can, and he runs at the Night King with everything he’s got. His death is a quick one, and Bran is unmoved (natch). Theon dies at Winterfell, the place of his greatest sorrows, and his greatest joys. Alfie Allen did a tremendous job of making us hate Theon for so many years on this show, and did an even more astounding job making us like him again. Now THAT is a tour de force performance.

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 9.09.36 PM.png

Christopher: No, because you’re about to see the DEUS EX ARYA! (Which, incidentally, is the text I sent Nikki moments after the episode ended).

OK, so before I get into the awesomeness, the obvious quibbles: first, this was a pretty cheap solution to a seven-and-a-half seasons long enmity, one that evoked at once the logic of Lost Boys (kill the original vampire, and all those it sired die) and the end of The Avengers (somehow the Chitauri all die when their home base gets blowed up). Of course, we’ve been primed for such an ending, from the moment last season when killing a White Walker caused all the zombies to collapse like snipped marionettes; and it was made explicit in the previous episode when Bran as much as said, kill the Night King and destroy all his works. So we knew this had only one ending.

But it still felt a bit easy. I won’t get into it here, but might do so in an another ancillary blog post in which I talk about the contradictions of genre in GoT.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.43.55 PM.png

But not now, and not on this day. I suspect I’m not alone in assuming it would be Jon Snow who gave the Night King his quietus, and was thus getting increasingly anxious at his inability to get past Viserion. As I say above, I missed the import of Melisandre’s reference to blue eyes. Never have I been happier to be wrong: Arya brings it, and does so with a move she showed us when sparring with Brienne, dropping the blade from one hand to the other. Dragonfire might not perturb the Night King, but Valyrian steel does the trick … and speaking of full circles, we should note that that dagger was the one that put much of the action of GoT into play: given to an assassin to kill Bran, its ownership (falsely) ascribed to Tyrion by Littlefinger, which prompted Catelyn Stark to abduct Tyrion and take him to the Eyrie, and which finds it way into Arya’s hand and facilitates Littlefinger’s execution.

The Night King shatters into a million little pieces, as do all his lieutenants, and then all the wights—including Viserion, who was about to give Jon Snow a blast of his blue fire—fall to the ground, to the amazement of all our heroes. And a moment after the zombies collapse, so does Ser Jorah, what last strength he had holding him upright leaving him. He dies in Daenerys’ arms as she sobs, but then, I have to assume that would have been his preferred mode of death had you asked him. It’s a lovely moment, but what made we well up was when Drogon joined her in her mourning, sheltering her in the crook of his wing and resting his head sadly on the ground.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.46.48 PM.png

Jorah’s death is part of a montage of our heroes surveying the ambivalent field of victory, which ends with the Hound coming out into the courtyard with Melisandre. While he pauses in exhaustion, she walks on out through the gates, shucking her red cloak as she passes between the piles of the dead. Someone follows—Davos, with his hand on his sword, as if he’s ready to make certain she will in fact die before dawn. But he stops and watches as she walks out under the lightening sky. She tears her necklace from her neck—the one with the glowing red stone we realized, some time ago, provides her the glamour to appear young and beautiful—and drops it to the snowy ground.

Davos watches as she grows small in the distance, her hair going white and her clothes sloughing off her, until finally she collapses into the snow.

Gah. This episode was a kidney punch. It was emotionally eviscerating. It had flaws galore, as we’ve cited throughout this discussion, but its grace notes and emotional payoffs far outweighed them. It will be interesting to see what Winterfell looks like by daylight in the aftermath of this battle, and what happens next … and how it happens next.

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 10.48.02 PM.png

That’s it for this week, friends! Take a moment or ten to hug someone you love, and we’ll see you next week.

Leave a comment

Filed under Game of Thrones

The Daenerys Paradox

So I don’t know how everyone else is feeling, but sitting here, counting down the hours to tonight’s GoT episode, feels not at all unlike sitting around a fire with Tyrion, Brienne, et al waiting for the end. Fortunately, I had a lot of excess thoughts in my head after the previous episode, which I offer up here as an amuse bouche before the meal proper tonight.

astapor

As we head into the final episodes of Game of Thrones, a question that has cropped up more than a few times among fans and critics is: what the hell is going on with Daenerys? What happened to the “breaker of chains,” the reformer of Slavers Bay who promised Tyrion that she meant to “break the wheel,” i.e. destroy the ancient system of house rivalries and hatred that has long defined Westeros—that is to say, the very game of thrones from which the series takes its name.

Since arriving on the shores of Westeros, that progressive mentality (progressive for a neo-medieval feudal world, at any rate) seems to have evaporated. She has questioned Varys’ loyalty, derided Tyrion for his mistakes, roasted the defiant Tarlys over Tyrion’s strong (and reasonable) objections, and otherwise made it clear that submission to her rule is non-negotiable. It is worth recalling that the one possible exception was when she appeared to entertain the idea that Yara Greyjoy, in exchange for her loyalty, might be permitted to reign as queen of the Iron Islands—a concession that startled her advisors, but which was made when she still was in Meereen. Since landing in Westeros, that latitude is as dead as the Tarlys.

tarlys

Her otherwise-promising confab with Sansa last week was but the most recent example of her rigidity, and the episode as a whole was framed with suggestions that she cannot, as Samwell astutely observed, see beyond her own crown. Jaime Lannister’s arrival occasioned a certain selective amnesia about her father and brother; in past episodes we’ve watched her reckon with the reality of her father’s madness and criminality, and her avowal that she would never be like him (a promise made more tenuous with her treatment of the aforementioned Tarlys); she tells Jaime about the story Viserys would tell her about the Kingslayer and what punishments they had conceived for him, putting aside for the moment the fact that she watched in tacit approval as her late husband murdered her brother in a manner far more gruesome than a sword in the back. And at the end of the episode, Jon’s revelation of his parentage evoked not the joyful realization that she was not in fact the last Targaryen, nor the icky realization that, yes, she’s been fucking her nephew, but “Oh, crap! He’s got the stronger claim to the throne!”

George R.R. Martin has said countless times that A Song of Ice and Fire “grew in the telling.” When he started writing A Game of Thrones, he conceived of it as a series of three novels; then it became five; and now seven, and anyone who has read to the end of A Dance With Dragons probably wonders, as I do, how he means to resolve this ever-more-sprawling narrative in just two books. He could really use a thanos ex machina to cull the ensemble by half.

thanos1-1

Crossover!

My suspicion is that his ever-more-glacial writing process has been due to the inevitable narrative snarls, cul de sacs, and painted-in-corners that come with multiplying the number of plot threads and cast size to an untenable degree. A Game of Thrones felt epic and sprawling because it had eight POV characters; A Dance With Dragons doubled that, to the point where, as an acquaintance of mine astutely pointed out, reading it was like “pulling taffy.”

DwDOne side effect of both this narrative bloat and the ever-lengthening time the series takes until completion is that, for good or for ill, the world of ASOIAF has become increasingly complex and granular—by way of the primary texts themselves, such ancillary texts as The World of Ice and Fire, Fire and Blood (the history of the Targaryens), The Lands of Ice and Fire (a definitive series of maps of Westeros and Essos), to say nothing of the various wikis and websites devoted to every last detail of GRRM’s creation.

Game of Thrones the series has done an admirable job in paring down the bloat, though it has also been subject to audience complaint about the proliferation of names and storylines. Sometimes this has not worked as well as it might (the entire Dorne departure, for example), but with only four episodes to go we’re looking at an economy of storytelling that GRRM might want to take as an example going forward.

That being said, the series has also got a certain amount of the novels’ world-building baked into it, which brings us back to the question of Daenerys seemingly throwing off the mantle of liberator in favour of the conqueror’s crown.

To my mind, such a question was more or less inevitable, as it is rooted in fantasy as a genre. As I have written on this blog and elsewhere, fantasy has entered an interesting phase, insofar as a not-insignificant number of contemporary fantasists (Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, N.K. Jemisin, Lev Grossman, J.K. Rowling, among others) have been using this genre—rooted as it is Christian, scriptural, and mythopoeic sensibilities á là Tolkien and C.S. Lewis—to articulate a specifically secular and humanist worldview. GRRM is no exception, and indeed I would argue he has been more influential in this respect than most: for all of its Tolkienesque trappings, ASOIAF has far more in common with Shakespeare’s history plays and their preoccupation with the secular negotiation of power than with The Lord of the Rings’ feudal and indeed Catholic figuration of power as extrinsic and immutable.

Fate and destiny have always been key tropes—and more importantly, key plot devices—in fantasy, which again speaks to the genre’s roots in medieval romance and Christian scripture. The “chosen one” is a figure of divine right, whose coming and ascension sets things aright again: Jesus Christ, King Arthur, the Pevensie children in the Narnia Chronicles, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, Belgarion in The Belgariad by David Eddings, the Shannara descendants in Terry Brooks’ Shannara Chronicles, Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings … right up to Neo in The Matrix and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

sword-in-stone

Ultimately, however, Buffy complicates this ostensible fate, as does J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter novels; but then, neither of them were dealing with the other manner of divine right, which is the logic of hereditary monarchy. This is where we arrive at what we might call “the Daenerys paradox.” Put simply, how does one act as a liberator when one’s claim to that role necessitates the fealty of the liberated? Back in Essos, Daenerys always held up a choice: she freed the Unsullied and the slaves of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, but promised free passage to anyone unwilling to swear loyalty. She won over the Dothraki though a show of strength, but again, their loyalty was freely given.

But that’s not how it’s going to work in Westeros, for the simple reason that it can’t. All things being equal, it could be worse for Daenerys—she does genuinely get to face off against an unreconstructed tyrant in the form of Cersei Lannister, and an otherwise still-fractured Seven Kingdoms; it’s not as if the civil war resolved itself into an equitable peace with a well-loved successor to Robert Baratheon.

Daenerys’ lifelong quest has been predicated on her claim to the throne, and were she the heroine of a more pedestrian work of post-Tolkien fantasy, she would unequivocally be the “chosen one” in the same mode as King Arthur or Aragorn. But ASOIAF complicates this on any number of levels, not the least of which being the way in which the series has complicated the very notion of divine right: the Iron Throne, after all, is a mere three centuries old, and the convention of a single king or queen ruling over the Seven Kingdoms was forged by conquest. In the thousands of years of Westrosi history, three hundred years is a mere blip, and the Targaryens mere tourists. GRRM has built a great deal of contingency into ASOIAF’s long game, and Daenerys’ inflexibility on “bending the knee” is likely going to have to change before all is said and done.

Since watching the new opening credits, however, I’ve become increasingly convinced that Westeros will be a radically different place at the end than where we began—and not just because there will have been a possibly-apocalyptic war fought with the dead. I keep coming back to Daenerys’ vision of the throne room in King’s Landing, with the roof open to the sky and snow drifting on the Iron Throne. As I said in our first post for the season two weeks ago, the reversed trajectory of the opening credits—starting north of the Wall and ending in King’s Landing—suggests a fundamental change in the political power in Westeros. For seven seasons, we always started with the seat of power. I’m curious whether the credits will change again after tonight’s episode, if in fact the looming battle settles the Night King’s hash. If King’s Landing becomes a vestige of the old order, perhaps that will mean Daenerys comes back to herself and does, in fact, break the wheel.

throne room

Leave a comment

Filed under Game of Thrones, nerd stuff

Game of Thrones, episode 8.02: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Hello again friends, and welcome to the Chris & Nikki Game of Thrones co-blog. Well, we’re now two episodes into the final six of the series, and, I have to say, this week’s episode was all about the emotional payoffs of seven seasons’ worth of incredible storytelling, acting, and directing. It also set the table for what promises to be one of the most epic fantasy battles ever filmed. And while on occasion the setup episode in such a series proves less than whelming, I would hazard to say this this one does not disappoint. Anyone who found this episode boring seriously needs to do some soul-searching—by which I mean, you need to make certain you have one.

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10 

Christopher: If last week was all about placing the pieces on the board, this week was the (relative) calm before the storm. And if last week was about reunions, this week was about—what? Reconciliations? Not quite the word I want, but close enough: Jaime facing the daughter of the king he killed, Jaime’s apology to Bran, Theon returning to fight for Sansa and Winterfell, Jaime putting himself under Brienne’s command, Arya and the Hound, Jaime knighting Brienne, Daenerys being reminded of Tyrion’s value and acting accordingly, among various others. There was a sentimental quality to this week’s episode that every so often was a wee bit trite, but was (to my mind at least) rather welcome. In our last post I observed that “still alive” counts for rather a lot after seven seasons of one of the most murderous television series ever produced; we were treated to an hour of survivors commiserating and all of them assuming they’ll be dead by the time the sun rises.

But we begin with the trial (loosely speaking) of Jaime Lannister. Daenerys seems quite ready to feed him to her dragons with all dispatch, telling him about how her brother used to tell her the story of how Jaime murdered the Mad King, and the various revenges they imagined they would exercise. Now, I do understand how finally looking at the man who killed your father might excite certain vengeful tendencies, but as I watched this scene, at least two thoughts occurred to me: (1) you mean that sociopathic, creepy brother who sold you into something resembling slavery, and whom your ex-hubbie killed by pouring molten gold on his head? … and, (2) that father who you’ve acknowledged was a raving lunatic who has come to be the embodiment of everything you don’t want to be?

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.07.22 PM.png

But then, I suppose family is family. And it’s significant that Jaime doesn’t say anything in his defense with regards to his legendary king-slaying—probably a good read of his current audience. So it’s a poignant moment when Brienne stands to defend his honour: Brienne, who as far as we’ve seen is the only person Jaime has told the actual story of that fateful day when he spilled royal blood.

Brienne’s defense of Jaime is, I would argue, somewhat less significant than Sansa’s unhesitating acceptance of her word. Brienne is one of the handful of characters in this show afflicted with the curse of unwavering honour; Sansa, as we’ve been observing lo these last few seasons, has matured from someone who lives for fantasies to someone with a clear and unerring eye for reality. If Brienne is willing to stand for Jaime, Sansa will take her at her word, which in the moment is a stark (heh) contrast with Daenerys’ dismissal of Tyrion’s defense of his brother. “I know my brother,” he starts to say, only to be cut of when she says, “Like you knew your sister?” Moments later she will upbraid him for misreading Cersei, and his tenure as Hand of the Queen seems tenuous. “I suspect one of you will be wearing this,” he says to Jorah and Varys, indicating his badge of office, “before it’s all over.”

Jaime is such an interesting character, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has done an extraordinary job in the role. While he does not defend himself against Daenerys’ words, he is defiant when Sansa charges that he attacked Ned Stark in the streets and waged war against the Starks, saying that those were actions taken in a time of war, and he would do that all again. But when Bran says, sardonically, “The things we do for love,” a haunted look settles on Jaime’s face, the ghosts of the man he was coming to torment the man he’d become.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.08.43 PM.png

“Are you OK, Jon?” “Yup. Yup yup yup. Just feeling a little auntsy. ANSTY! I meant antsy.”

And then we’re back in the forge, with Gendry doing the Gendry thing, which is to say looking fetchingly begrimed and muscular as he hammers on red-hot metal and dragonglass. The main product they seem to be churning out seems to be spearheads, which makes practical sense—if dragonglass is a reliable way of killing wights and white walkers, I know I’d prefer to have it at the end of a long stick when the time came. Of course, Arya shows up, presumably to ask about her weapon request, but spends a few long moments regarding Gendry as he does the Gendry thing, a tiny smile tugging at her lips as she watches him bang his hammer and sink the red-hot metal in water so he can be wreathed in steam. “You make my weapon yet?” she demands when he notices her standing there. “Just as soon as I’m done making a few thousand of these,” he retorts, handing her an obsidian axe. Arya is not impressed, suggesting that her weapon should be stronger. “It’s strong enough!” he declares, and to demonstrate his point slams it into a piece of wood.

And Arya’s expression on seeing him do that … OK, I won’t say exactly what I wrote in my notes at that moment, as it’s somewhat NSFW, but the anodyne version would be along the lines of “well, someone’s getting somethin’.”

But in the meantime, for all Arya’s admiration of Gendry’s Gendryness, she’s actually more interested in getting some intel on the Enemy. Because here’s something where his experience trumps hers: he’s actually fought the White Walkers and their army; Arya, keen to know what she can look forward to, asks him extremely pointed questions. “What do they look like? What do they smell like? How do they move? How hard are they to kill?” All of which (I assume) are the kind of questions a trained assassin asks upon getting a new assignment. But Gendry is at a loss: the Enemy, he tries to tell her, is a force of nature and an existential crisis: “This is Death. You want to know what they’re like? Death. That’s what they’re like.”

Which is something that might daunt your average bear, but Arya has endured her own crucible. “I know Death,” she says, flinging spearheads into a post, and presumably freaking out the dude who was working next to it. “He’s got many faces. I look forward to seeing this one.” (In my notes, apropos of the thrown spearheads, I wrote “nice grouping”).

All of which totally encourages Gendry to move Arya’s weapon up in the queue.

And then we’re in the Godswood, where Jaime is about to have one of the more awkward conversations of his life. What did you think of their, um, reunion, Nikki?

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.10.03 PM.png

Nikki: I loooooved this episode, because it brought us back to what Game of Thrones has always been: about the people. The first episode debuted on April 17, 2011, meaning as of this week we’ve been obsessed with the television version of this world for eight years. And that’s a very long time in television terms. We’ve lost so many, we’ve gained so many new ones, and we’ve watched these characters evolve in ways we couldn’t have possibly imagined. The character development has been astounding as children were forced to grow up quickly, adults were forced to choose sides, people made sacrifices for their loved ones, or turned against the ones they should have been protecting. This episode was an extraordinary one where the preparations for the White Walkers continue in the background (more on that in a moment) but in the foreground we see these quiet tableaux of all the characters we love having one last moment with the ones who have been by their sides throughout the series. We know that in the next episode, Thanos is going to snap his fingers and we’re going to lose a ton of these characters in one go, but this beautiful episode reminded us of the many relationships along the way, what they once were and what they are now: Brienne and Jaime, Arya and Gendry, Jorah and Daenerys, Theon and Sansa, Bran and Jaime, Podrick and Brienne, Tyrion and Jaime, Sam and Gilly, Tormund and Brienne, who’s left of the Night’s Watch (of all those men, we’re down to Jon, Sam, and Tollett), Beric and the Hound, Lyanna and Jorah, Daenerys and Khal Drogo, Ser Davos and Shireen, Sansa/Theon and Ramsay, Missandei and Grey Worm, Jon and Tormund, Jon and Ghost (!! FINALLY!!), Arya and the Hound… the fact they packed all of this massive personal history into one single-hour episode is nothing short of astonishing.

But now to Jaime and his brief Reunion Tour of Winterfell. I first want to mention how gorgeous a setting the Godswood always is. The white, white ground surrounded by the snow-laden coniferous trees starkly (ha) contrasts the blood-red leaves that hang from the sad-faced weirwood trees and lie on the fallen snow. Since season 1, it’s been considered a place of quiet and contemplation, where people go to pray or meditate or think of their ancestors, but it’s also been a setting for escape and spying. And now, as of later in this episode, we know that its next use will be something far more sinister.

But for now, it’s where good ol’ Creepy Bran sits in his wheelchair, and Jaime, doing the honorable thing, approaches him to say he’s sorry. It sounds so… empty considering what he’s apologizing for. “Sorry I pushed a seven-year-old boy out of a window and crippled him for life. Oh and all that other stuff I’ve done to your family over the years.” But Bran—whom someone said last week looks like a perfect combination of every Beatle, and now I can’t unsee it—isn’t that seven-year-old boy anymore. And a girl can’t help but wonder, if he has everything that’s ever happened and everything that will happen up in his head all the time, does the memory of being pushed out of a window even feature in the Top 100 anymore? But clearly it still does, because it happened to him. And it was the incident that started everything else in his life.

And yet, while Bran clearly looks at Jaime and sees only that incident (remember: he hasn’t seen him since that moment), he’s far too stoic and zen and removed from himself to care much anymore. He forces Jaime to look at himself and who he is, as you mentioned, Chris, because he knows it will be important in the battle if Jaime goes in with eyes wide open. The strange thing about Bran is, he knows what will happen in this coming war, and he’s already seen who will live and who will die. If you want a perfect war strategy, maybe ask the guy in the chair who already knows how it ends? But… I think everyone is so creeped out by him they’re like, “Nah, I’m good.” And, as he’s explained, he can see possible futures—he doesn’t know which one will be the actual one. So instead, we get bits of his cryptic knowledge, and this scene ends with Jaime asking him why he didn’t tell the room what Jaime had done to him. Bran had been pragmatic, he explains, knowing if he’d have done so, Jon would have run Jaime through with a sword, if Sansa hadn’t gotten to him first, and it’s far more important that Jaime fight in this war. He’s one of the most formidable champions this show has ever seen, and even though he’s down to one hand, we know that hand can fight better than just about any other in this battle. But Jaime wonders about what happens beyond that pragmatism: what about in the aftermath? Will Bran tell his family the truth then? “How do you know there IS an aftermath?” creepy Miss Cleo asks. And… well, shit.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.11.35 PM.png

Next we shift to Tyrion meeting his brother face-to-face, alone for the first time since Jaime’s arrival. I want to pause again for a moment to commend the extraordinary actions that have gone into constructing each of these scenes in the courtyard. Imagine how many actors have been wrangled here, how many props built, how much choreography has gone into every single moment as Tyrion walks across the courtyard to meet Jaime. All we care about is seeing the two brothers reunited, but I recommend readers go back just to look at this scene again and watch just how much activity is happening around them, and to know that every single beat was scripted. Every dragonglass sword, spear, and hatchet. Every grimy blacksmith or lord or soldier. Every wooden crate. Every catapult under construction. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to imagine how much planning and effort went into constructing this incredible image of all these Houses coming together to prepare to face their deaths.

But back to the Brothers Lannister. “Well, here we are,” says Tyrion, as he glances up to see some pretty pissed-off soldiers whose families were no doubt slaughtered by some aspect of the Lannister army, and one spits angrily into the courtyard while glaring at them. “And the masses rejoice.”

I couldn’t help but think, maybe a more private spot would have been better here, guys?

The brothers discuss their sister, who has been nothing but a thorn in the side of one of them, and who has been a lover to the other one. Yet now they stand as equals, both betrayed and threatened by this sister (neither one knows of the price on their heads yet, but that’s coming). Tyrion says he fell for Cersei’s bullshit once again, that he believed her when she said the pregnancy had changed her. Jaime reassures Tyrion that the pregnancy, at least, was true, but that news only seems to make Tyrion look even more pained. I mean, a nephew or a niece would be nice, but… you know… Joffrey. Jaime stupidly says that Cersei has tricked him just as often as she’s tricked Tyrion, and as Tyrion is walking up a flight of steps he turns, for once the same height as his brother, and looks Jaime right in the eye: “She never fooled you,” he says. “You always knew exactly what she was, and you loved her anyway.” And he continues up the stairs.

Up on the parapet—note they’ve somehow embedded dragonglass spikes into the sides of the walls, which is a brilliant little touch here—Tyrion talks about his impending death, that he always assumed it would be at age 80 with a bellyful of a wine and a woman’s mouth around his cock… a sentiment that makes Jaime not only smirk, but finish the sentence word for word. This moment not only is a quiet nod that the brothers know each other better than they think, but also shows just how far Tyrion has come. He says he always assumed that would be his death, but that hasn’t been a scenario for Tyrion for several years now; that’s the Tyrion of old. And that’s also the Tyrion Jaime knows best, unfortunately. But Tyrion then adds that at least Cersei won’t get to murder him. Could this be foreshadowing? Will he survive the White Walkers only to find his death at Cersei’s hand in King’s Landing?

And for Jaime Reunion #3, he meets up with Brienne, who is admiring Podrick as he fights with aplomb. Amazing to think this is the same Pod who could barely wield a dagger in the early days. Jaime and Brienne exchange some soldier small talk for a short while before she loses it on him, wondering what game he’s playing by talking to her without insulting her. If he’s not smack-talking her, she doesn’t know how to handle him. But Jaime becomes contrite, and tells her he’s no longer the fighter he once was, but he’d be honoured to fight under her command. This is the first of two amazing moments for Brienne in this episode; in this one, a lifetime of being an outcast culminates in the admiration and acceptance of the greatest swordsman Westeros has ever known. I wanted to stand up and cheer, because Brienne is one of the greatest of GRRM’s creations, and I’ve always wanted her to have this recognition. All Brienne manages in this moment is a brief nod, before she excuses herself quickly and leaves him standing there. So we’ll all do the cheering for her.

And next, Daenerys meets up with her former Hand of the Queen …

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.12.25 PM.png

Christopher: …who has some wise advice for her. To wit: “Your Grace, we’ve been emphasizing Tyrion’s mistakes an awful lot over the last few episodes, which means that, according to the laws of narrative, he’s due for a massive eureka moment that will probably save us all.” Jorah’s defense of Tyrion is consonant with the tone of both this episode and the last one, which is to say, unlikely people stepping up to have the backs of former rivals—Arya telling Jon that Sansa is the smartest person she knows, Brienne vouching for Jaime, and in the scene that follows, Sansa also defending Tyrion. Much of this episode is like a long, nervous inhalation, and the survivors of seven seasons of blood and grief find camaraderie with people that, once upon a time, they were trying to kill.

Case in point: the lovely scene that follows in which Daenerys attempts a rapprochement with Sansa. The tension simmering between the Northerners and Daenerys’ people finds politely subtle expression in the look Bronze Yohn Royce gives Daenerys as he exits, but the conversation between Daenerys and Sansa seems to promise that the two women might just be able to find common ground—if nothing else than their shared loathing of Cersei Lannister, but Daenerys also points out that “We both know what it’s like to lead people who aren’t inclined to accept a woman’s rule.” This, and her observation that they’re both damned good at it makes some headway with Sansa—at any rate, a smile ghosts across her otherwise imperturbable face (SO MUCH good face acting in this episode, but Sophie Turner takes them all to school).

Daenerys is smart enough to intuit that at least part of Sansa’s worry is about Jon; Sansa points out that men can do impulsive and irrational things for love, which if she were talking about anyone else might seem uncharitable; but Sansa knows all too well Jon’s impulsivity and willful blindness is a fundamental element of his character. Blinded by his hatred of Ramsay Bolton, he ignored her advice before the Battle of the Bastards; she then watched him as he broke ranks and charged the enemy alone (without a helmet on, no less), precipitating precisely what their outmanned forces could not afford, which was to charge the enemy’s greater numbers. Were it not for the deus ex machina of the Knights of the Vale, Jon’s reign as King in the North would have ended almost as soon as it started.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.13.19 PM.png

Sansa knows this all too well, and thus is not wrong to worry that her brother might be acting according to the directives of something other than his brain. But Daenerys makes a good point: she has put her lifelong quest for the Iron Throne on hold for the time being, brought her armies to the North while the hated Cersei sits unmolested (except perhaps by Euron) in King’s Landing, and indeed lost one of her dragons because she was convinced of the virtue and necessity of fighting Jon’s war. And yes, she loves him, but she makes clear that the reasons are more than merely hormonal. “I trust him. And I know he’s true to his word. He’s only the second man in my life I can say that about.”

And a moment of levity: “Who was the first?” Sansa asks. “Someone taller,” Daenerys replies. I kind of wish she had continued: “And broader. You know, through the shoulders. And chest. Just, you know, generally bigger. Really, you could fit two Jon Snows in one Drogo thigh.” “What happened to him?” “Oh, king of the oceans now, or something. I didn’t really follow. More of a Marvel person, myself.” At which Sansa nods. “Damn straight.”

Of course, it always comes back around to the question of Daenerys’ intentions. Assuming everything goes well for our heroes—a big assumption—Sansa wants to know whether the North will have its freedom. “What about the North?” she demands, and the nice moment they’d been having is broken as Daenerys snatches away the sisterly hand she’d been resting on Sansa’s. It seems that bending the knee remains her deal breaker.

Fortunately, she doesn’t have to answer, as they’re interrupted with the news of a new arrival: Theon, whose presence surprises Daenerys and delights Sansa. He delivers the news that his sister will be retaking the Iron Islands for the Queen, but as far as he is concerned, “I want to fight for Winterfell, Lady Sansa. If you’ll have me.” Which, well, of course she will. More great face-acting from Sophie Turner here—more emotion that she’s shown, really, since the last time Theon pledged his loyalty to her. In an episode with many emotional moments, this was a big one.

Cut from there to Davos ladling out soup … which seems a bit odd. I know Davos is a salt-of-the-earth person, a commoner elevated for his service, but he’s one of Jon Snow’s principal advisors. Doesn’t he have more important things to do than play lunch-lady? Perhaps this is just the sort of thing he does to take his mind of affairs of state? One way or another, it gives him a chance to also ladle out encouragement to nervous men and to reassure a little girl—with an assist from Gilly—that she can be just as brave protecting the people hiding out in the crypts.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.14.38 PM.png

OK … so you know that old saying about how a gun on the wall in act one must be fired by the end of the play? I’ve already mentioned that Tyrion will probably use his big brain to do something brilliant sooner rather than later, which is a good bet because so much was made about his mistakes. Now I’m starting to get a little worried about the crypts. In every other scene, it seems, we’re told, promised, and reassured that the crypts are the safest place in Winterfell. Have anyone else’s alarm bells been ringing? Because it occurs to me that when your enemy’s big party trick is RAISING THE DEAD, possibly the best place to seek refuge is not somewhere FILLED WITH DEAD BODIES.

“All right,” says the brave little moppet, “I’ll defend the crypt, then.” I have a really bad feeling that kid’s eyes are going to be a somewhat brighter shade of blue before all this is over.

Davos and Gilly however, blind to the alarm bells, exchange smiles, and then are distracted by the sound of a horn. New arrivals!

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.15.36 PM.png

Just look out for a dude named Fagin, kid.

Nikki: Speaking of face acting, I think Liam Cunningham is absolutely superb in this scene. Like you, I thought, why is he managing the soup kitchen?? Though, in an episode of reminders of each character’s fealty to their families, perhaps he’s paying homage to the Seaworths in this moment. I have no doubt there are onions in that soup.

But that little girl. What a punch in the gut to have a little girl walk up who has half her face scarred by a trauma from her past. The way he looks at her, his eyes speaking volumes but his face betraying nothing to her… it was nothing short of a tour de force performance in this moment. A lesser show would immediately flash to Shireen sitting by him in her dark room at Dragonstone, teaching Ser Davos how to read. Back to the little Oliver Twist girl holding out her bowl of soup, “Please sir, may I have some more?” Another flash to Shireen burning at the stake, screaming for mercy as her father looks on, a scene that Ser Davos could only imagine these past few years, seeing as he was off with Jon Snow at the time. But this isn’t a lesser show, and they don’t need these flashbacks, because they have actors like Liam Cunningham who show us the flashbacks just through their eyes. This little girl, the mirror image of Shireen—whose scars are on the right side of her face to Shireen’s left—gutted me.

But then we get to the return of the wildlings and the Night’s Watch (which consists of Tollett as the [funk] sole remaining brother), and Tormund tackling Jon with all the gusto Tormund usually has. They update him on the state of the Umber house, mercifully leaving out the gory Wheel of Limbs details (though I’m sure those will come later) and explain that “whoever’s not here is now with them.” Meaning a TON of people have joined the Army of the Dead.

And then, to the delight of every fan, Tormund says quickly, “The big woman still here?”

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.16.57 PM.png

We then cut to Jon giving his Churchill “we will fight them on the battlefields” speech, standing before a map that’s curiously like the opening credits, right down to the little blue rectangles that represent the icy demons of the dead that are descending upon them from the North, and I couldn’t help but think, “Who had time to put this together?! Like, shouldn’t that person have been fashioning dragonglass spears or something??”

They know they have until sun-up to prepare for the impending doom: in other words, for most of them, this will be their last night. As Jon outlines their advantages and disadvantages, from out of nowhere Bran begins talking. “When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide then I stop and I turn and I go for a ride, then I get to the bottom and I see you again.” :::crickets::: “Pinky ponky pogo.” :::confused looks::: “Where I come from, the birds sing a pretty song and there’s always music in the air.” :::jazz music begins playing, Tyrion fights the urge to dance:::

“He’ll come for me,” he says, silencing the room as Bran is wont to do. “He’s tried before, many times with many three-eyed ravens.” Cut to “da fuck?!” faces throughout the room. Quick reminder: Bran has had visions of the Three-Eyed Raven, an old man, many times since his fall. We had that whole bit where Bran discovered the children of the forest, who were involved in a war thousands of years ago with the First Men, who were slaughtering them. The children created the White Walkers to vanquish the men. When Bran wargs to a scene involving the Night King, Blue Eyes can actually see Bran and grabs him, forcing Bran to wake up and remove himself from the vision. This is very different from the other moments where he would watch a scene involving his father, for example, and Ned couldn’t see him. The White Walkers kill the Three-Eyed Raven while Hodor protects Bran by holding the door (waaaahhhhh), and Benjen Stark appears, taking Bran out of there and saying the Three-Eyed Raven lives again, presumably through Bran.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.17.43 PM.png

Interestingly, in one vision quest with the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran asks if he’ll ever walk again. No, says TER, but you’ll fly. Could we see the result of that prediction next week? Will Bran be on a dragon? Will he fly on his own? Was it just meant to refer to the flights in his visions?

But back to the scene at hand: Bran basically tells them to use him as bait, putting him in the Godswood to draw the Night King to him. “He wants to erase this world, and I am its memory.” Sam is the only one who truly understands in a beautifully epic speech that sums up so much of the purpose of this episode: “That’s what Death is, isn’t it? Forgetting. Being forgotten. If we forget where we’ve been and what we’ve done, we’re not men anymore, just animals.” He looks at Bran. “Your memories don’t come from books, your stories aren’t just stories. If I wanted to erase the world of men I’d start with you.”

The rest of the Stark siblings will have none of it. Jon wants him in the crypts, Sansa and Arya say no way Jose, but Bran insists he must stay in the Godswood. And that’s when Theon pipes up, saying he’ll stand with Bran and defend him. Theon. THEON. The guy I’ve pretty much despised from the beginning, played delightfully despicably by Alfie Allen for all these seasons, so sneering and entitled in the beginning, so dark and evil when he kills two innocent farmer’s boys to hang them from Winterfell and make everyone think he’s killed the two youngest Starks. So inept as he’s tricked by Ramsay Bolton. So victimized by Ramsay that the Theon of old dies a horrible, torturous death to be replaced by the servile and pathetic Reek, and like a phoenix, out of the ashes of Reek rises Theon, a man missing the symbol of masculinity, but a man who is more of a man than many of the others in that room, who is still weak, but saves Yara, saves Sansa, and tries to redeem himself over and over. I fear this will be the final redemption for Theon, but it’s the one the truly counts: it’s the one where he finally stops being Ned’s ward and becomes a member of the Stark family.

Next is Tyrion and Ser Davos talking about how they will signal the arrival of the dead, and Daenerys begins to parrot what Ser Jorah tells her, explaining she needs Tyrion for his mind and that he must stay down in the crypts. Of course, now that you’ve espoused your theory, Chris, I’m TERRIFIED about Tyrion being down there. But perhaps that might be the moment you mentioned, where he comes up with a strategy that saves the innocents who have been sent there? Gods willing.

After discussing the dragon placement, Jon Snow awkwardly leaves the room rather than confront his auntie, and everyone else follows suit, leaving Tyrion and Bran in a room together. As night descends, everyone begins to pair up with others as they wait out their final hours, and Tyrion decides the story of Bran might be an interesting one. Methinks he’s going to learn something through this conversation that he’ll use later in the crypts.

And then #WinterfellSoWhite (your awesome hashtag from last week) reacts to Grey Worm and Missandei, while Sam wonders why Jon hasn’t told his auntie the truth yet.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.19.15 PM.png

Christopher: There’s recently posted YouTube video of George R.R. Martin in conversation with Marlon James, the Jamaican novelist who won the Man-Booker prize in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is about (in part) the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. James recently published Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first novel in a fantasy trilogy that eschews the standard neo-medieval European setting and mythos to which the genre has traditionally hewn; James’ novel (which I only recently started reading—it is, so far, amazing) is instead African and Afro-Caribbean in its sensibilities, themes, and tropes. He wrote it, as he says in his discussion with GRRM and countless other interviews, because he has always loved fantasy, but never saw people like himself as characters.

I bring this up in part because even in the eight years Game of Thrones has been aired and taken the television world by storm, we’ve also seen significant—not huge, but significant—changes in SF/F in terms of an increasing number of female, queer, and PoC voices finding prominence. Case in point: African-American fantasist N.K. Jemisin winning the Hugo award for best novel three years in a row, each win by a novel in her Broken Earth trilogy, the first time in the history of the Hugos that has happened. (I honestly cannot recommend her work enough).

I bring this up because I want to both laud GRRM’s innovations in the genre and acknowledge the series’ limitations. I won’t get into it here, because these posts already run somewhat long, but the TL;DR is that GRRM has had a seismic effect on fantasy comparable to Tolkien, which, I would argue, has facilitated a much greater diversification of voices. At the same time … well, #WinterfellSoWhite, and the same can be said for Westeros more generally. GRRM has changed the rules of the game, but without changing the generic tendencies of his own storytelling—which is why what racial politics we have in the show are reduced to Missandei being dissed by a pair of ignorant kids, whose behaviour we can deplore without being required to interrogate it in any depth.

(Again, not getting into the weeds on this, but I’m happy to discuss it if you want to hit me up in the comments).

All that being said, that moment of provincial racism sets up a touching and poignant moment between Missandei and Grey Worm that also functions as a recognition that this is not our home. Missandei wants to return to her home on the island of Naath; Grey Worm wants to take her there, and says that once Daenerys has taken her rightful throne, he feels no more compunction to stay with her.

It’s a small scene and a touching one—honestly, if anyone deserves a tropical vacation, it’s these two—but I found it nagging at me a little on rewatching. Daenerys has the power she does because of the Unsullied and the Dothraki, both of which pledged loyalty and crossed the Narrow Sea with her. It is obvious they inspire fear and suspicion among the Westerosians, ameliorated in the present moment because of the more dangerous enemy on their doorstep. But what happens when/if Daenerys takes the throne? Do her subjects from Essos stay and take up residence in the Seven Kingdoms? Do they go home, as Missandei and Grey Worm plan? Or do they remain a standing army to threaten dissidents?

Or perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I should ask these questions again after the big battle, I suppose. Who knows whether anyone’s going to survive.

We then shift to Sam and Jon on the battlements, staring into the dark, with Sam—as you say, Nikki—asking Jon whether he’s given Daenerys the news yet. When Jon says no, Sam nods, saying “Biding your time. Being careful. Waiting for the perfect—” at which point he’s cut off by a look from Jon. Because, really Sam? What precisely would be the perfect moment to tell your lover that she’s actually your aunt and, oh, yeah, you have the better claim to the throne she’s been through hell to claim?

Sam at least has the good grace to look abashed.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.20.11 PM.png

The best part of this scene is the return of Ghost, who stands behind them quite cheerfully, looking at Jon as if to say, “OMG, there’s my hooman! I missed him so much!” No explanation for his absence … he’s just there. And you know what? I’ll take it. I just hope the writers give him some badass moments in the battle to make up for neglecting him.

Then we get the appearance of Dolorous Edd Tollett, and a callback to when he and Jon and Sam—and Grenn and Pyp—bonded in their early days of the Night Watch. “And now our watch begins,” Edd says, which for some reason makes Jon inquire about Gilly and Little Sam. “They’ll be safe,” he says, “down in the crypt.” FUCK. Stop saying that, people!

Again, a good chunk of this episode seems to be about people sharing their bona fides, stripping their sleeves, as it were, to show their scars (which Bran literally does). When Jon suggests to Sam he might want to join Gilly and Little Sam in the crypt—because, y’know, it’s so damned safe down there—Sam takes that moment to remind his friends that he is not without feats of his own to brag about … and I kind of love the fact that, in Sam’s mind, being the first to kill a White Walker is more or less on par with stealing books from the Citadel. That’s a frood who knows where his librarian’s at.

Then we’re in the Great Hall, empty but for a roaring fire and the Lannister brothers having some wine and reminiscing about the days when they weren’t quite so fucked by fate. Jaime the Lion, Tyrion the whoremonger … neither role either of them can ever return to. As they sit there, they’re joined by more and more people seeking out the warmth of the fire, and it turns into something of an old home week celebration. It’s appropriate that the first arrivals are Brienne and Pod—Jaime’s former antagonist, and Tyrion’s former lackey, who have, through the coincidence of their former associations, become one of the more endearing character pairings in the series.

What did you think of this episode’s fireside chat, Nikki?

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.20.33 PM.png

Nikki: You’re right, the people who end up at the fireside chat have been enemies and outcasts, and here they all are, together in the final hours of humanity. Brienne has taken on a mentor/mother role with Podrick, at first telling him he can’t drink at all and then relenting that he can have half a cup (which Tyrion then pours until it overflows, hiding it from Brienne as they both smirk like naughty boys). They’re immediately joined by Ser Davos, who’s come for the warmth of the fire and rejects the offer of a drink, and Tormund, whose reunion with Brienne we’ve been waiting for this whole time—and Gwendolyn Christie’s facial expressions do NOT disappoint.

Tormund wastes no time reminding Brienne that this could be their last night in this world, while Jaime looks on partly confused, partly amused. Brienne stammers that she’s happy he’s alive, and Tyrion offers him a drink, whereupon Tormund holds up his giant wildling horn and says, “Brought my own.” And then he asks if anyone wants to hear why he’s called Giantsbane.

Everybody:
Tormund: Let me sit right down and tell you.

And then he proceeds to tell one of the funniest stories ever recounted on the series, where he’d killed a giant when he was 10, then crawled into bed with the giant’s wife, who suckled him at her teat for three months thinking he was a baby. The story is outrageous and makes zero sense, but the way he tells it—followed by the looks everyone gives each other, and then Tormund chugging back some sort of milky beer substance and letting it slop down his front as if giving a demonstration of what it was like in that woman’s bed for three months—raises it to the level of absolute comic beauty. But it’s Ser Davos who gets the punchline: “Maybe I will have that drink.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.21.37 PM.png

Arya and the Hound were together for a long time, and when he last saw her she was a little girl who talked tough and could fight, but wasn’t the warrior she is now. Now she’s an adult, and he has this grudging respect—almost affection—for her. “When’s the last time you fought for anyone but yourself?” she asks, and he answers, “I fought for you, didn’t I?” And you realize what a special place she actually holds for him.

When Beric shows up with his velvety smoker’s voice, he begins talking about the Lord of Light. He doesn’t get far when the Hound cuts him off mid-sentence. “Thoros isn’t here anymore so I hope you’re not about to give a sermon. ’Cause if you are, the Lord of Light is going to wonder why he brought you back 19 times just to watch you die when I chuck you over this fucking wall.” Beric holds out his hand for a drink, and Arya sees that as her moment to leave. “I’m not spending my final hours with you two miserable old shits,” she says.

Arya has other plans. Gendry has made her the spear she wanted (which looks amazing) and he’s looking at her in a different light now—he’d just seen her display with the dragonglass daggers, and he knows she’s not the little kid pretending to be a boy that he met back in season 2. He quickly admits that he’s Robert Baratheon’s bastard, stopping her in her tracks, and things escalate quickly from there. I’ll admit it; I was a little creeped out at first. She’s still little Arya to me, as she is to so many people, the young girl who watched her father Ned die what feels like a lifetime ago, but also feels like it was last week. And yet here we are, with Maisie Williams all grown up and in a nude scene. And frankly, we should rejoice, because as much as we’re looking at this like it’s our daughter or a niece or a kid who seems too young to be doing this (she’s not), it also has to be one of the healthiest sex scenes we’ve seen on the show yet: Arya instigates it, she undresses herself. She’s not taken by force, nor is he. These are two people who’ve known each other a long time, whose fathers were best friends. They’re reuniting and trying to relearn things about each other, but Arya is in as much control of the situation as Gendry, and it’s a rather beautiful moment. Sex really can be a healthy, beautiful thing in Westeros.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.22.54 PM.png

And speaking of women in control, we now move back to the ongoing fireside chat with our lovely band of misfits. After Tyrion talks about how they might all live through this battle (meaning they most definitely will NOT), Tormund says he can’t believe Brienne isn’t a knight. She’s pretty blasé about it, shaking her head and saying women can’t be knights, and she’s never wanted to be one anyway (her face says the exact opposite). Tormund says he’d make her a knight many times over if he’d been a king. And that’s when Jaime suddenly announces any knight can make another knight. Tormund has a look on his face like it’s Christmas morning, and Brienne just scoffs. Earlier in this episode she said she was uncomfortable with Jaime being so nice to her for so long, and watch her body language in this scene, the way she continues to scoff and pretend she doesn’t care about this because she knows she’s about to be the butt of an enormous prank. Jaime’s going to get her to swing her leg back and then he’s going to pull that football out of the way.

But he doesn’t. As her face begins to register that oh my god, maybe he’s not joking, and she slowly kneels before him, the others stand in awe, watching the Kingslayer knight a woman who might be the greatest fighter of the realm, and they have the honour of bearing witness to such an event. Brienne’s face shines as her eyes well up, and I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t watch this with a dry eye. In this moment, Jaime realizes they live in a new world, where “tradition” doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be. One of the most dangerous sentences in our modern language is, “Because that’s how we’ve always done it.” And Jaime says fuck that, we’re doing it another way now.

This moment might be my favourite one in the entire series. Ser Brienne of Tarth, a champion from the moment we laid eyes on her, gets one of the best episodes of the series named for her. God, I hope this doesn’t mean she won’t make it past the next episode.

Were you blubbering through this scene like I was, Chris?

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.23.29 PM.png

Christopher: Pretty much. Even just reading your description of the scene is making me a little verklempt. What makes the scene particularly powerful, once again, is some fantastic face-acting … Gwendolyn Christie here gives Sophie Turner a run for her money. It is completely understated: her lip just quivers, her eyes go moist but don’t actually well up. The payoff is the incredulous little grin she gives at the end, which is basically when the waterworks started for me.

It is also a hugely powerful scene simply because of these two characters’ history. As you point out, Nikki, Brienne is obviously inclined to see this as a likely prank. When it proves otherwise, it is as much a statement on Jaime’s redemption as on Brienne’s virtues. My read is that, in knighting Brienne, Jaime is expressing gratitude: his redemption began with his association with her, first as her prisoner, then as her rescuer, and now it culminates with him as her comrade-in-arms. The story he might have told Daenerys about how he came to kill the Mad King he’d told Brienne back at Harrenhal in season three, and it was our first glimpse into the greater complexity of Jaime Lannister—the necessary act that saved King’s Landing, for which everyone was secretly grateful but did not hesitate to label him the morally bankrupt “Kingslayer.” The louche, amoral Jaime we met at the beginning of the series was a mask, scar tissue built up over years of feigned indifference to people’s contempt. Given that it was Brienne that was a major factor in him sloughing off that persona, it is eminently appropriate that Jaime should be the one to validate her own long saga of being a figure of ridicule and contempt (and the fact that it is Tormund who makes the suggestion to start with—and the most enthusiastic applauder—is the icing).

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.24.45 PM.png

So, yeah. As you say, hopefully this doesn’t mean she’s now marked for death.

From there, we finally get a moment addressing an irksome point I raised in our last post, i.e. the seeming indifference of the northerners to the presence of Jorah Mormont. Sam makes his way down into the courtyard to where Jorah is having words with Lyanna (who, I should correct my previous error, is his cousin and not his niece). His avuncular concern for her and suggestion that she should hole up in the crypts where she’ll be “safe” (stop saying that!) has, not unpredictably, gone over like a lead balloon. Kitted out in full armour, she declares that she will not hide, and that she will fight for her people. Which surprises precisely no one. Still, she seems to accord Jorah a certain respect, so one assumes the past crime for which he went into exile has been, if not forgiven, then at least forgotten.

As she leaves, Sam approaches, his family sword in hand. “You still have a family,” Jorah says gently, referring to Gilly and Little Sam; and yes, Sam would love to use the sword to defend them, but “I can’t hold it upright.” More importantly though, Sam feels keenly the debt he owes to Jorah’s late father Jeor, formerly Lord Commander of the Night Watch. “Your father,” says Sam, “taught me how to be a man. How to do what’s right. This is right.” And he hands Jorah the sword. “I’ll wield it in his memory,” says Jorah, obviously somewhat overwhelmed. “To guard the realms of men.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.26.07 PM.png

I love the symmetry of this moment. The first time I watched this scene, I thought whoa … isn’t that a little excessive? Valyrian steel is one of the most precious commodities in, well, the world, making a sword like Heartsbane literally priceless. In one of the novels (A Storm of Swords, I think) it is revealed that in spite of being the wealthiest of the major houses, the Lannisters never possessed a Valyrian steel sword, and Tywin went to great lengths to try and acquire one—but so precious are they that even impoverished houses preferred to hold onto their heirlooms rather than sell them. Then after the execution of Ned Stark with the Stark sword Ice, Tywin had Ice melted down and forged into two new swords, one for Joffrey as a wedding gift, and one for Jaime. Jaime gave his to Brienne and charged her to fulfill her promise to Catelyn Stark. Jon Snow’s Valyrian sword Longclaw was originally House Mormont’s, but since Jorah’s ignominy and exile left Bear Island without a male heir, Jeor gave the sword to Jon (though I think Lyanna might be annoyed with that now).

And now, something resembling full circle: Sam, expressing his gratitude to Jeor Mormont, giving his own family sword to the redeemed and deserving Jorah. It’s not Hand of the Queen, but it’s a pretty decent compensation.

“I’ll see you when it’s through,” says Sam with an optimism belied by his next words, “I hope we win.”

And then we’re back to the fireside, with Tyrion determined to keep the party going. “No, let’s stay a bit longer!” he protests when Jaime suggests getting some rest. (Which is easy for Tyrion to say, as he’ll be holed up in the crypts—you know, where it’s safe). “We’re out of wine,” says Davos, as sure an indication that the party is about to break up as any. Unless … “How about a song?” suggests Tyrion, and goes around the circle, meeting with many shaken heads, until we learn that Podrick has been hiding his star under a bushel. Singing in a mellifluous tenor, he shows us that Westeros has more music on offer than just “The Rains of Castemere” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair.” The song he sings is “Jenny’s Song,” and while this is the first we’ve heard of it in the show, it has rather a deeper significance in the novels. Pod sings:

High in the halls of the kings who are gone
Jenny would dance with her ghosts.
The ones she had lost and the ones she had found
And the ones who had loved her the most.

The ones who’d been gone for so very long
She couldn’t remember their names
They spun her around on the damp cold stone
Spun away all her sorrow and pain

And she never wanted to leave
Never wanted to leave.
Never wanted to leave.
Never wanted to leave.
Never wanted to leave.
Never wanted to leave.

Very quickly: the song appears in the novels when a wood witch called the Ghost of High Heart demands it be sung in payment for a prophecy. The suggestion is that it is about a friend of hers from her youth, Jenny Oldstones, who had an ill-fated affair with Prince Duncan Targaryen, who abdicated his throne for her—which is how Aerys II, aka the Mad King, ended up being crowned.

There is also a fan theory that the song itself was written by none other than Rhaegar Targaryen, and that he sang it to Lyanna Stark. Certainly we get a hint at that when Daenerys comes up to Jon in the crypts (you know, the safe place) and mentions that her brother Rhaegar was known for his love of singing.

But as Pod sings the mournful song, we get a montage of people waiting for the inevitable—notably, pairs of people with powerful connections: Sam and Gilly, Arya and Gendry, Sansa and Theon, and, perhaps most poignantly, Missandei and Grey Worm. The only person pictured alone in this sequence is Jorah, astride his horse and staring into the darkness … his solitude, juxtaposed with the companionship just depicted, is heartbreaking and reflects on the solitude he has carried throughout the series.

And the song ends with Daenerys entering the crypts to find Jon. And … well, you tell it, Nikki.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.28.26 PM.png

Nikki: First of all, thank you for the sword recap. When Sam handed the sword to Jorah I was so thrilled to have this moment, but simultaneously thought, “I’m really losing track of which sword is which.” And if I’d been Brienne in that Podrick scene I’d have been like, “ALL THOSE DAYS we were on horseback together, riding silently through boring countrysides, and you never once let me know you could sing like this?!” Loved that scene.

But yes, earlier in this episode Sam asked Jon Snow if he was waiting for the perfect time to tell Dany the truth, and only upon hearing his own words he realized how ridiculous they sounded. So, instead, Jon chooses the worst possible time ever to tell this woman about to go into battle that, oh, by the way, he actually has a claim to the Iron Throne, too, but don’t worry, hon, we can discuss all this when we both make it through this battle alive.

GULP. Just a sec, there, Jon, I need to touch up the paint here on this target you’ve just drawn on your back…

This is a beautifully shot scene in what I’m now convinced is the ill-fated crypt (that is, mysteriously, completely empty, like wouldn’t they have begun ushering all those people down here by now?!) When Daenerys approaches Jon, he’s staring at the statue of Lyanna. He gives her the weakest smile ever, like one your kid would do on picture day when they remember you saying they need to smile in this one. She asks who the statue is, and he tells her. And to her credit, she shows nothing but sympathy to this woman, even though by doing so she’s betraying the memory of her brother Rhaegar. She says that everyone told him he was so decent and kind, that he was charitable and brought happiness to people, and yet he raped this woman. Even though we all know Jon’s about the deliver the ultimate, “So about that…” it’s still worth pausing to note that she’s grown up with this contradiction about her brother her whole life, and how difficult that must have been to grapple with. She’s told that he was kind and good, and yet he raped a woman. She believes this because as horrible as Viserys could be, he had moments of caring for her as a child, but then could turn hostile, as we’ve seen.

But Jon begins telling a different story—about the secret marriage, her son, Ned taking the baby… that that baby, Aegon Targaryen, is standing before her right now. Daenerys’s face is the perfect picture of bafflement. In one minute he has changed her entire world view. Since her brother Viserys died, she has been the last living heir of the House Targaryen. She’s travelled the countryside, building up loyalty and trust wherever she goes in a bid to be queen, and here comes this upstart at the last minute going, “Oh hey, my dad’s CEO, so…”

She immediately states the obvious, how convenient it is that the only people with this information were Jon’s brother and best friend, but he insists it’s true. He doesn’t absolve her worry—“You have a claim to the Iron Throne”—because the horn is blown that the White Walkers have arrived. Noticeably, Jon turns to the sound of the horn, but Dany doesn’t take her stricken eyes off his face. Maybe it’s in that moment she realized “oh my god you’re also my nephew.”

Outside on the wall, Tyrion stands at the parapet while Jon and Dany join him. Jon nods to Daenerys, who simply walks away. Well this is GREAT.

Screen Shot 2019-04-23 at 2.29.08 PM.png

And then the music swells and we cut to the massive, massive army of White Walkers standing about a mile from the castle before we cut to the end credits, and Florence + the Machine singing “Jenny’s Song.” I couldn’t help but think when we have that quick cut of the dead, though, that the two men with long white hair on horses could easily be the Mad King and Viserys. Of course, they all have white hair, so… there goes that theory.
And that’s it until next week, where the showrunners have announced next week’s battle episode will be the longest battle sequence in television history, and will be the longest episode of Game of Thrones ever, at 82 minutes. It took EIGHT WEEKS to film this over 55 nights. So, first of all, how lucky are we to be here to experience such an extraordinary thing (most movies don’t take that long to film, I would think) but secondly, let’s take our last remaining days to think about this episode some more and be thankful that, for these final days at least, everyone alive in this episode is still alive.

Until next week’s slaughter, thank you, as always, for reading this far. We’ll see you next week!

 

3 Comments

Filed under Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones, Episode 8.01: Winterfell

Valar dohaeris, my friends, and welcome back after an excruciatingly long wait since we closed out season seven of Game of Thrones. Nikki Stafford and myself have spent the intervening months rebuilding fortifications, hoarding food and resources, forging weapons, and otherwise preparing ourselves for the day when we would again sally forth into the punishing battlegrounds of blog reviews of everyone’s favourite prestige fantasy TV.

And today is that day! Though it is a bittersweet day, as this is the first of the final six posts Nikki and I will be doing on Game of Thrones. This all started eight years ago when she emailed me, saying she’d heard good things about this new HBO show, and she remembered that I’d read all the books so far. She hadn’t, and suggested perhaps we could blog about it episode by episode, with me bringing the perspective of a GRRM devotee, and her coming at it with no knowledge of the books.

How innocent we were then. Since then, GRRM has produced all of one new book in the series, Nikki has herself read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, but the series has long since left behind its original author’s creations and ventured forth into new territory.

And now we’re almost at the end. Valar morghulis, indeed.

gameofthrones_teaser02_screencap10

Christopher: Before we get to the story proper, we need to talk about those opening credits! Same basic idea as we’ve seen for seven seasons, but startlingly different. For one thing, in case we didn’t remember that last season ended with snow falling all over Westeros, these rebooted credits let us know that winter is here, unfolding initially in stark (heh) black and white … and even when colour seeps back into the picture as we move farther south, the palette remains muted and the sky lowers darkly overhead.

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 9.55.17 AM.png

Also, the usual trajectory is reversed: for seven seasons we always began at King’s Landing, the seat of power, and then the gods’-eye view roved over all the locations that would appear in the episode. We ended last season with Jon Snow telling Cersei that thrones and crowns don’t matter in the great war between the living and dead; the graphics department seemed to have been paying attention, and started us off not with King’s Landing but north of the Wall, with a bleak image of the breach wrought by the Dragon Formerly Known as Viserion. As we pass through the breach, squares of the ground flip over like game-board tiles, turning from white snow to blue ice. My guess is that this indicates the progress of the army of the dead, and subsequent episodes will show them getting closer to Winterfell.

The armillary sphere containing the sun has also changed, and not just in the silvery sheen it now sports. The heraldry engraved on its rotating bands is different. As with previous seasons, we get three different glimpses of different images; in previous seasons, the imagery depicted scenes allegorizing the (relatively) recent history of Westeros: most specifically, Robert’s Rebellion, as we see in sequence the Targaryen dragon juxtaposed with a phalanx of armoured men, a dragon being savaged by a Lannister lion and Baratheon stag, and finally the stage triumphant. Now we have what looks like ice-Viserion laying waste to the Wall; a stylized Red Wedding, with a St. Sebastian-esque body inside a castle stabbed through with many blades and a figure holding up a decapitated direwolf head while a lion looks on; and finally, numerous dragons following what looks like a shooting star.

heraldry - 01

heraldry - 02

heraldry - 03

In the interests of seeing how much I can glean from the credits on my own, as of writing this I haven’t yet looked on the interwebs to see what the fan readings are … but it strikes me that the final image is the most suggestive, as it hearkens back to the beginning of season two and the red comet that streaked across the sky—an omen that was variously interpreted by different characters, but accurately by only one. Osha the wildling tells Bran that it can mean only one thing: “Dragons.” And of course we know as much, having ended season one with Daenerys emerging from the fire with her three “children.” But in the image, there are four dragons. Assuming that ice-Viserion will have to get his quietus if the good guys are to win—and that he might well take one of the other two dragons with him—does this mean we can look forward to the birth of more dragons this season? In Fire and Blood, his history of the Targaryens, GRRM writes that there was a rumour that one of the former Targaryen dragons left a clutch of eggs un the crypts underneath Winterfell … might this rumour prove true?

Certainly, both the teaser and the official trailer for season eight placed heavy emphasis on the crypts; that might just have been for atmosphere, but we go somewhere we’ve never been in the pervious iterations of the opening credits—inside the clockwork buildings. When we enter both Winterfell and King’s Landing, an emphasis is initially placed on the gates as the snap into place while we pass though, a suggestion, perhaps, of the importance of these two strongholds in the wars to come. But we also pass into the bowels of each castle: into the crypts of Winterfell, and into the lower levels of the Red Keep where the skulls of long-dead Targaryen dragons gather dust. If we recall, those skulls once adorned the walls of the throne room, but Robert Baratheon banished them to the castle’s nether regions in an attempt to similarly banish memories of the Targaryens. There’s an interesting and suggestion thematic resonance here: if the Winterfell crypts do in fact contain dragon eggs, they ironically represent a space of rebirth; whereas the underlevels of King’s Landing contain only vestiges and the shadows of old power, which is possibly why the city is no longer the starting point for the credits’ tour of Westeros, but its end. Let’s remember that haunting image from Daenerys’ vision of a ruined throne room open to a snowy sky.

What did you think, Nikki?

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.07.38 PM.png

Nikki: I’m sure the fans are weighing in already as I type this first thing Monday morning, and I have no doubt the episode will have its detractors, but I thought it was an amazing return to Westeros. If you take your mind back to the very first episode of the series, we opened in Winterfell, with all of the Stark children there and Ned preparing for the arrival of King Robert Baratheon and his family, the Lannisters. This episode, which feels like 20 years later, finally finally FINALLY reunites all the living Starks, brings another royal to Winterfell, pays homage to Aladdin and How to Train Your Dragon in a single scene (ha), reveals the biggest secret of the series to the person it means most to (and yay for a beloved character being the one to deliver that news!), has a truly terrifying scene that would make horror fans stand up and cheer, and ultimately brings together two “old friends” for a final zinger of a moment. And that’s just skimming the surface.

That opening credit sequence was exquisite, but two and a half minutes later, we’re at Winterfell. And so is everyone else, by the looks of it.

The writers know that of all the characters on this show, there’s one whose death would probably cause mass mutiny, and that’s Arya. And so she’s the first familiar face the camera zooms in on, as she stands there excited to see the troops arriving, and anticipating the faces of who will pass her by. It’s a moment that could be easily mistaken for fan service—of all the people, let’s show Arya because the fans love her. But there’s so much more going on in this scene. As with much of last season, I believe season 8 will be the one where we keep going back in our minds to where they all began. Arya was the little girl at Winterfell who didn’t want to be like the other girls, who wanted to wield a sword and learn to fight, just like her brothers. They adored her, and Jon gave her Needle, the sword that has been at her side for most of the series. When she left at the end of season 1, she was on her own, wandering the countryside, kidnapped, trapped, fighting, killing, being a Girl with No Name… she’s done it all. And now she’s back where she started, having her This is Your Life moment of people going by: Jon Snow, her beloved brother; the Hound, the caustic SOB with whom she travelled much of the countryside and whose begrudging trust she earned every step of the way; Gendry, the boy who thought she was a boy for the longest time, who had been taken by the same people who were taking her away from Winterfell—he didn’t know she was the daughter of Ned Stark, and she didn’t know he was the son of Robert Baratheon. And now she watches them all parade past her, not one of them noticing her standing there, because they’d be watching the crowds for a little girl, and that girl is long gone. (Although we do see a glimpse of her for one brief moment when her face lights up with joy as the dragons swoop over the crowds for the first time.)

Jon Snow and Daenerys are in the middle of the massive number of Unsullied soldiers and Dothraki riders who march into Winterfell (and even before Sansa commented on it, all I could think was, where the heck are these guys going to sleep? What are they going to eat?) as a White Queen (in a fabulous outfit) and a Black Knight, two chess pieces on horses marching by their crowds of admirers—chess pieces, I might add, who are dressed like they’re on opposite sides of the board. I sense some foreshadowing going on here.

And riding along with them, in a carriage, is Tyrion and Varys, with Varys complaining about the cold of Winterfell and Tyrion mocking him as he always does: “At least your balls don’t freeze off,” he sneers. Varys asks him point blank why he takes great offense at dwarf jokes but likes telling eunuch jokes, and Tyrion says, quite plainly, “Because I have balls and you don’t.” Touché. I do love how these rivals have become as close as they have, but it’s mostly because they’re probably the two most cunning and conniving men in Westeros, and they both realize the old adage of keeping your enemies closest.

 

missandei&amp;GreyWorm

#WinterfellSoWhite

And then the queen and her knight arrive in the courtyard of Winterfell, a courtyard that once had horses and sheep and little boys fighting with wooden swords and blacksmiths… and now has soldiers and hardened faces preparing for a war they don’t expect to win. Sitting in the middle of that courtyard is Bran, who should have been dead a long time ago, who was reported dead a long time ago, who is stoic, unsmiling, unmoving, and a warg. And the look on Jon Snow’s face when he sees him is worth the entire episode. Well, that and the resting bitch face that Sansa has perfected and gives to Daenerys moments later.

This opening scene is very grey, overcast, ominous, but also echoes and mirrors the same scene of Robert Baratheon entering King’s Landing in episode 1 of season 1. A much smaller army; a queen who didn’t want to be there; a jovial drunken king; an imp who had a much younger, clean-shaven face; a sneering heir to the throne; the Kingslayer staying close to his “queen”… the group arriving at Westeros was a very different one all those years ago, but they were coming to Winterfell for Robert to make one “simple” request of Ned Stark: to become the Hand of the King. And the moment Ned takes that job, everything falls apart. “Winter Is Coming” signalled the beginning of the great wars of Westeros; “Winterfell” is about the beginning of the end of those wars.

And then we move to meeting of the Houses at Winterfell, and of course one of my favourite characters taking a stand. What did you think of what happened when everyone was finally together in one room, Chris?

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 11.57.22 AM

Christopher: There was one little element that bugged me, which was that there was no acknowledgment among the northerners of Ser Jorah—who is, after all, a Mormont of Bear Island, and (I think) Lyanna’s uncle. He was once the Lord of Bear Island, until he sold slaves to raise funds to keep his young wife happy; but Ned Stark got wind and was going to have him arrested, but he fled, basically becoming persona non grata in the North. If we remember, that’s how he ended up in Essos (his young wife at that point having abandoned him), spying on Daenerys in exchange for the promise of a pardon from King Robert.

It’s been a long, long road since then … but wouldn’t his presence at Winterfell be looked at askance by the northerners? I find it difficult to believe that Lyanna wouldn’t have a sharp word or thirty to say on the matter.

Or perhaps she’s just too preoccupied with the fact that the man she helped make king threw his crown away mere months later and made the North subject to a silver-haired southerner. Certainly, her vitriol in the meeting is scathing.

Tyrion does a good job in mollifying everyone, lauding Jon Snow and citing everything he has done. It seems to be going well … until he says that the Lannister armies will soon be coming north. Peter Dinklage is great in this moment, losing whatever rhetorical momentum he has built as he realizes that news of the Lannisters’ imminent arrival likely won’t sit well with this crowd—what will all that war business and the Red Wedding and stuff.

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 11.59.32 AM.png

I’m with you, Nikki, in wondering about logistics, and it speaks well to Sansa’s maturity as a leader that she voices the question (however snarkily), though I worry that too much of this last season is going to dwell on the Sansa/Daenerys frenemy dynamic; we just got through the better part of a season’s worth of her suspicions about Arya, and her jealousy of Jon is obviously still a thing. At the same time, Daenerys’ response to her question of what do dragons eat, anyway? is pretty awesome: “Anything they want.” Even with just two dragons, having them pretty much remains the ultimate trump card.

Then we cut to the unloading of carts of dragonglass in the courtyard, as Tyrion and Sansa look on. Reunions of characters long separated was one of the highlights of the previous season, though not all of them are necessarily pleasant. It’s been easy to forget that Tyrion was forced to marry Sansa, and that her disappearance after Joffrey’s death at the Purple Wedding made things even more difficult for Tyrion—a fact she quite tactfully acknowledges. I quite loved this particular interaction. Sophie Turner and Peter Dinklage deliver a masterclass in understated acting, and Sansa once again displays her hard-won gravitas, light years beyond the callow girl we met in season one. “Many underestimated you,” Tyrion observes. “Most of them are dead now.” It is a wise observation, but it is notable that Sansa intuits something that escapes Tyrion—there will be no Lannister army coming north, because it is not in Cersei’s nature to do anything even remotely altruistic. When he responds affirmatively to Sansa’s question about whether he believed Cersei’s promise, she says, “I used to think you were the cleverest man alive.” And then exits.

Boom. I have a sneaking suspicion that Sansa might run out of mics to drop before we’re even halfway done this season.

Poor Tyrion. As he digests that little work of passive-aggressive poetry, he looks down into the courtyard to see Bran looking up at him with that thousand-yard stare that, I have to imagine, is really starting to freak the people of Winterfell the fuck out.

Sansa’s cruel burn finds an echo in the next reunion scene: when Jon Snow dismisses Sansa’s dislike of Daenerys by saying “Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone,” Arya rejoins, heartfelt, “She’s the smartest person I’ve ever met.” It’s a heart-clenchingly touching tribute, and one that—unfortunately—Jon Snow will almost certainly not heed. Indeed, he gets his back up a bit, asking why Arya’s defending her … saying it a little incredulously, as he remembers how Arya and Sansa used to be, when Arya loathed Sansa’s ladylike airs and idolized her bastard brother.

There is much in this episode that calls back to the very first one: the little boy running through the crowd to find a vantage point to watch the newcomers echoing Arya doing the same thing (and indeed, as you point out, Nikki, also doing it in this episode); the pageantry of a royal visit; Jaime coming full circle to be confronted by Bran; but really, the most poignant moment (to my mind) is Arya’s reunion with Jon—after their initial deadpan exchange, delight and love creases her face, and as she leaps into his embrace, she is, for just a moment, little Arya from episode one, season one. But much has happened, and it seems in this scene that while Jon feels his own experiences like a burden, he lacks the empathy to see it in others.

But the scene ends with a touching hug and Arya’s guileless, contented smile. And from there we go Cersei getting the news of the dead breaking through the Wall … and her response is not exactly what one might expect.

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.15.27 PM.png

Nikki: You’re right, the family reunions are so heavy in this episode I half expected someone to show up with a picnic table and a bucket of KFC, but I’m with you: the Jon Snow/Arya reunion slayed me. It’s probably the one I’ve been looking forward to the most, and it didn’t disappoint. (I also loved how they immediately began comparing sword sizes…)

Meanwhile, down in King’s Landing, Cersei has pretty much proven Sansa’s theory correct. As Qyburn tells her the Walkers have broken through the Wall, she says, “Good.” It’s so quick, and so unexpected, that my husband actually said, “Did she just say ‘Good’?!” Well of course she did. Despite the zombie demonstration that was laid before her in the previous season, we saw with the fallout between her and Jaime that she’s pretty much lost her mind at this point and doesn’t fear the White Walkers the way she should. She’s been so obsessed with Daenerys and her dragons that the moment she discovered Viserion had been killed—and was now a wight—she probably thought she and the White Walkers are on the same side.

We cut to good ol’ Euron, who, if you recall, kidnapped Yara and took out most of her crew, and Theon jumped in the water to save himself because he didn’t have the courage/ability in that moment to save her. But he regretted it, as we’ll soon see. As Euron reassures Yara that he hasn’t killed her yet, and won’t, because he really wants someone to talk to—read: someone to brag to about the royal copulation that will soon commence, as he’s just promised—just watch her face and the hatred that crosses it. I kept thinking, oh man, if she manages to get those shackles untied, buddy…

Euron’s thousand ships dock at King’s Landing, and Euron goes to see Cersei with Captain Strickland, whom he’s recruited from the Golden Company, who tells Cersei that he’s managed to bring her 2,000 horses. But Cersei, who’s become obsessed with watching the Dumbo trailer repeatedly on Pycelle’s YouTube account, asks where her elephants are. When he explains how difficult it would have been to transport elephants over water, Cersei’s face is unchanging, but in her head you can see her standing up and screaming, throwing all of her toys at the other toddlers, and stomping out of the Red Keep. Instead, she keeps all of that inside and just glares at him. Uncle Euron decides THIS is the moment to make a romantic move on the queen, and Cersei just stares him down: “You want a whore, buy one,” she says. “You want a queen, earn her.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.16.47 PM.png

And then, you know, she sleeps with him. And complains about her lack of elephants again.

Cersei’s actions continue from her unravelling in season 7. We remember in previous seasons her love of Jaime and those sympathetic moments of a mother falling to her knees over the losses of her children. But in season 7, Jaime was in King’s Landing with her, and they argued the entire time. He was terrified by the zombie demo and wanted her to join forces with the North. She wanted to leave them alone to destroy the North. He countered that there would be only two possible outcomes: one, the White Walkers destroy the north and then continue on to them, or two, the north somehow vanquishes the White Walkers and then marches on King’s Landing to destroy the family who refused to help them. Jaime talks to Tyrion behind her back, she talks to Euron behind his, and ultimately she sics the Mountain on Jaime, who manages to get away, telling her that he’s basically done with her.

Cersei has lost Robert, Joffrey, Myrcella, Tommen, and now Jaime. Everyone has turned their backs on her, and she’s becoming the female embodiment of Aerys Targaryen, the Mad King. Euron chides her about sleeping with the Kingslayer, wanting to know how he measured up to her brother in bed, and she doesn’t let this get to her the way she used to. Instead, she’s probably just mentally compiling a list of reasons she’ll have Euron flayed later. His final comment—“I’m going to put a prince in your belly”—is a rich moment, because Cersei already has a prince in her belly, and as long as she does, she believes she’s not alone in this.

In the middle of the Cersei/Euron scenes, we get a brief reintroduction to Bronn, who reminded me of Dracula and his three brides as he prepares to have a four-way (where the women are talking about Ed Sheeran’s character from last season, which made me giggle),, interrupted by Qyburn, a mood-killer if ever there was one. He delivers a message to Bronn: that Cersei needs him to hunt down Tyrion and Jaime, and kill them both. It’s a devastating moment where we realize just how far gone Cersei is. And that Bronn is really good at what he does, and will do whatever makes him the most money. And right now, Cersei’s got a lot of it. I liked Bronn in the beginning, and over the years he’s had some priceless zingers, but I wouldn’t shed any tears if something horrible happened to him at this point. Perhaps… he’ll be reunited with Brienne of Tarth.

And then it’s back to Theon and Yara, and another redemption of Reek.

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.18.26 PM.png

Christopher: Considering just how low Theon was brought, I suppose it makes sense that he gets multiple redemptions—and I guess he has only one last atonement, which is to stand with the Starks against the Night King.

When Yara thanked Theon for rescuing her with a headbutt, I wrote “different families, different customs” in my notes. Still, their final moment when she gives her blessing to him to go and fight at Winterfell was quite touching … albeit a little funny as well, as Yara realizes that the motto of the Iron Islands—“What is dead can never die”—doesn’t quite work as well when the enemy is literally a horde of dead people. “But kill the bastards anyway,” is as good an amendment to the traditional saw as any.

Then back to Winterfell and its ongoing preparations for battle—Unsullied encamped outside the walls, trebuchets being readied, long lines of soldiers and supplies tramping into the castle. Tyrion, Varys, and Davos watch as the most recent arrivals, the Karstarks, are greeted, and Davos attempts to make a point. He tells Tyrion that until just recently, the Karstarks were the Starks’ enemies. Jon Snow managed to bring them back into the fold and make peace. Tyrion’s boilerplate response—“And our Queen is grateful”—misses Davos’ point. Whatever the threat posed by the Night King, northerners are still not going to easily accept Daenerys. “The northmen are loyal to Jon Snow, not to her,” he says. “They don’t know her. The Free Folk don’t know her. I’ve been up her a while, and I’m telling you, they’re stubborn as goats. You want their loyalty? You’ll have to earn it.”

Given that the Night King isn’t that far off, one might argue that the common enemy will shortly obviate whatever distrust and resentments currently exist. But Davos is thinking ahead, seeing how the bases for further conflict might be avoided on the off chance that they survive the coming battle. “A proposal is what I’m proposing,” he says, as the three advisors look down from the wall to where Daenerys and Jon are obviously at ease with each other and happy in each other’s company. The attraction between them is obvious to most, and Davos is cannier than most … a dynastic marriage might be just the thing.

Of course, he doesn’t yet know what we do—that Jon is actually Aegon, and Daenerys is his aunt, a fact that may or may not be a spoiler as the show will necessarily pose the question: just how much incest is too much incest?

But that will have to wait until the next episode; for the moment Jaenerys get to enjoy each other’s company, and hey—how about a dragon ride? (Oh, and I laughed out loud when Daenerys understood “eighteen goats and eleven sheep” as “the dragons are barely eating.” Yikes. I feel hard done by every time I have to buy a new bag of kibble for my cats. Dragons are expensive pets). There seems to be a bit of fudging here, as the understanding has always been that only Targaryens can ride dragons. So it makes sense that Jon can (clumsily) ride Rhaegal, but not so much that Daenerys blithely invites him to climb aboard. Perhaps she assumes that the dragons are now comfortable with Jon? Or so taken with his depthless eyes that she forgets that piece of family lore?

Whatever the reason, she convinces him, and they replicate a scene that I assume happens in How to Train Your Dragon 3, and end up at the base of a picturesque frozen waterfall. Daenerys is struck by the beauty of the place, and says “We could stay a thousand years.” Which, in an episode full of callbacks, is a particularly poignant one, as it recalls what Ygritte said to Jon in the grotto several seasons ago.

Their make-out scene is hilariously awkward, and will resonate with anyone who has pets—that feeling many of us have experienced when an intimate moment is made weird upon realizing that the cat or dog is watching intently. (I have to guess that the dragons are both thinking “Ohhhhh … OK, so he is a Targaryen”).

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.19.42 PM.png

Cut then to the forge, where Gendry and the other smiths are hard at work transforming dragonglass into weapons. The Hound’s axe is an impressive piece of work, but he doesn’t seem overly grateful, offering insults rather than thanks. And then: yet another reunion as Arya appears, telling the Hound to leave Gendry alone. “You left me to die,” says the Hound. “First I robbed you,” she points out in reply, and it’s obvious Sandor doesn’t know whether to be angry or impressed. “You’re a cold little bitch, aren’t you?” he asks, then allows, “Guess that’s why you’re still alive.”

“Still alive” is becoming a recurrent theme, which, after seven seasons of players being swept from the board, is not perhaps surprising. The characters who have made it this far and made it through hells both literal and figurative have earned their right to be still standing; but it also raises the question of who’ll still be standing as the final credits roll in six weeks.

Arya’s reunion with Gendry is somewhat warmer, even a bit flirtatious. Are these two about to become a thing, I wonder? In the very first episode, Robert Baratheon proposed joining houses to Ned Stark; that of course didn’t happen, but even if it had, Joffrey was not an actual Baratheon. Gendry on the other hand is Robert’s bastard; will the union of Stark and Baratheon happen after all, after all this time?

Perhaps. But awkward flirtation aside, Arya has a task for Gendry, which seems to be some sort of double-pointed spear tipped with dragonglass. Considering that she already has Needle and a Valyrian steel dagger (as Gendry points out), one might suggest that she’s being a little greedy with about her weapons. On the other hand, I have to imagine there’s all sorts of havoc Arya could wreak among the undead with just such a thing.

And then we have, finally, a confrontation between Jon and Sansa. What did you think of their squabble, Nikki?

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.21.03 PM.png

Nikki: I just want to add that I couldn’t help but imagine Jon singing, “It’s a whole new wooooorld” while riding on the dragon (which, HONESTLY, how do either of them stay on the backs of the dragons as the dragon spines violently undulate up and down the whole time…) with Daenerys reaching out to him singing, “Don’t you dare close your eyes!” I’ve always loved the scenes of the dragons and Daenerys riding them, but something about this scene felt a little cheesy, I’m not sure why. Though I was amused by the fact that Jon Snow rides a dragon the way the Greatest American Hero flies.

(And I also wrote in my notes, Chris, when they landed, “OMG it’s like when the cat is sitting on the end of your bed at night…”)

And this is probably as good a spot as any to say that Bran is one creepy mofo in this episode, constantly sitting and staring at people when they least expect him to be there. As I said to someone on Facebook, his storyline has always been the only kind of boring one, and this season they’ve just propped him up like a broom in the corner to remind us he’s still there (staring creepily at everyone when we KNOW he’s constantly watching them even when they leave the courtyard) but we don’t really have to deal with him. I couldn’t help but wonder if, when Drogon was watching Daenerys and Jon kissing (EW)… could it have been Bran warging and watching them? (DOUBLE EW.)

But back to Sansa. I’m thinking in the past two years Sophie Turner has used her time off well, standing in front of various mirrors and perfecting that hooded-eyelid “I am judging you” face to freakin’ perfection. Her side-eye, her resting bitch face, and her full-on shade are at their peak this season. Sansa was such a twit in season 1, and she’s a full-on warrior goddess now. I absolutely adore her.

And as for the dispute between her and Jon, she’s basically bringing to the fore what he’s been too blind to see this entire episode, but which everyone else sees as plainly as the noses on their faces: he’s brought the enemy into their midst. The northerners are all dressed in blacks and greys; she’s dressed in white. They are all northerners who live in cold and snow; she was born of fire and brought fire-breathing beasts to their lands. The Targaryens are the family of the Mad King, the family of dragons, the family that has destroyed so many of theirs. There’s no way they’re going to just accept her with open arms now that she’s shown up with Jon Snow hanging off hers. And as we’ve seen both last season and this season, Dany’s major flaw is her undying obeisance to protocol. She started off as the mother figure, the saintly leader who wanted to care for her flock; now she’s dressed similarly to Cersei (just at the opposite end of the colour spectrum) and demands you bend at the knee or she’ll bring on the dragons. She refused to allow Jon to retain his King of the North mantle, and so he’s given it up to proclaim her the ruler of all the Seven Kingdoms. And the northern folk are PISSED. Lyanna Mormont has voiced her concerns, and Ser Davos points it out to Tyrion and Varys, as you mentioned, Chris, and here Sansa takes a metaphorical sledgehammer and brings the point home.

Of course Jon counters with an excellent point: she’s brought the Unsullied to them, and without her they cannot win. She has two dragons, for goodness’ sake. But even he doesn’t look 100% convinced. Daenerys isn’t quite the Daenerys she used to be, for better or for worse. There was a time she was so attuned to her dragons she could feel their feelings; and now, when they won’t eat and my immediate thought was, “Because they’re mourning the loss of their brother Viserion,” she simply says that they don’t like the North. But on the other hand, her journey has been one through hell—remember, she’s 13 in the first book and roughly 17 in the TV adaptation of the first book—and she’s come out harder and smarter. And Jon’s right: does the North really stand a chance without her? “Did you bend the knee to save the North,” Sansa asks, “or because you love her?”

Cut to the return of our beloved Sam Tarly. Sweet, lovely Sam. He meets Daenerys for the first time and shows nothing but fealty and respect, and she thanks him for his role in saving Ser Jorah’s life. In return she asks if there’s anything she could do for him. Well, if it’s not too much trouble, he stutters… he could really use a pardon. For, you know, “borrowing” some books from the Citadel, and, you know, sort of, um, lifting a sword from his father’s palace. One that would eventually be his, you know, but… still. And that’s when the pieces fall into place for Daenerys, who at first is glancing at Ser Jorah with amusement and then suddenly isn’t. “Not Randall Tarly?” she asks. And then, with all the emotion of informing him that Baskin Robbins is out of the flavour of ice cream he asked for, she tells him that actually, Randall Tarly refused to bend the knee and her dragons incinerated him. Sam’s eyes grow wide with shock, and then he remembers his dad was a complete asshole, so he stammers that at least his brother will be lord of the castle now. And like the boss on Office Space, she’s like, “Yeeeaaaaah… I sort of immolated him too.” :::takes long sip of coffee:::

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.22.14 PM.png

I was a little worried he’d start running through other members of his family and she’d just say, “Yep… check… gone too… yep… oh that one fought a bit but yep…” and it would be a horrible reverse of the Stark family reunions. But instead, Sam’s bottom lip quivers and he asks very politely if he can leave.

As Sam rushes out of the crypt in tears (oh Sam…) he encounters none other than Creepy-Ass Bran sitting there in his chair. Bran knows what’s just happened below because He Sees All and, just as he did at the end of season 7, he tells Sam it’s time to tell Jon Snow the thing about the thing. And never before has Sam ever wanted to tell someone good news and bad news so badly before, especially since he just found out the bad news has barbecued his family.

And so off he goes to see Jon Snow, and as I said earlier, I’m so thrilled that the one moment of the entire series gets to be carried by the one character who never seems to have harmed a soul. In season 7 he’s the one who discovers the revelation, and now he’s the one who gets to carry that important news to Jon. But first, he wants to test his brother in arms by asking if Jon knew what Daenerys had done to his family. Jon looks slightly shocked for a moment, but recovers quickly, saying if the Tarlys hadn’t done what had been asked of them then he guesses they had it coming. “Would you have done it?” Sam asks quickly, his lips held tightly together as he knows that Jon would have never done it. He’s seen Jon faced with a conundrum, and has seen him choose mercy with the wildlings. Jon doesn’t answer, because he knows what he would say, and that it would directly contradict his lover’s actions.

And then, as the theme music begins to rise slowly in the background, Sam tells him what we’ve been waiting eight seasons to hear. What did you think of this moment, Chris? Is it what you’d always wanted it to be?

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.23.20 PM.png

Christopher: Tough question to answer … mainly because, on reflection, I had no idea how this moment would play out, and what the mechanism of revelation would be. They leveraged it nicely against Sam’s grief, as it gives him the impetus to argue that Jon should be the one to claim the throne. Which raises an interesting question: by the laws and logic of patrilineal descent, Jon has the far superior claim to the Iron Throne, as he is the heir of the heir. But as Game of Thrones has spent seven seasons establishing, hereditary claim is only one factor involved in crowning a monarch. The Targaryens, after all, arrogated the rule of the Seven Kingdoms to themselves by right of conquest, and had ruled for a paltry three centuries by the time Robert’s Rebellion kicked their arses out of the Iron Throne. And let’s not forget that A Song of Ice and Fire started, in part, as a dynastic fantasy based on the Wars of the Roses, in which hereditary right took a back seat to armies in the field.

Of course, the question of Jon and Daenerys could (and almost certainly will) be solved with a slew of “Save the Date” cards … but then, that brings us back to the incest question and whether Jon and Dany’s hormones can overpower the ick factor (again, I’m guessing yes).

The key question that Sam poses to Jon as they argue over whether he or Daenerys should rule is “You gave up your crown to save your people. Would she?” It’s a good question, and one that I suspect will be put to the test sooner rather than later. Since leaving Meereen, Daenerys has become more imperious, more absolute in claiming her right as queen, less forgiving to those ambivalent about bending the knee (the Tarly men being a case in point where she was resolutely deaf to Tyrion’s strenuous pleas for mercy). Her preoccupation with “the people,” which was constantly foregrounded back east, seems to have gone by the wayside. The fact that she has not made any attempt to ingratiate herself or win the northerners over—why on earth did she have nothing to say in the meeting in the Great Hall?—is a huge mistake that, apparently, only she and Jon are blind to. For someone so determined to “break the wheel,” she’s starting to behave an awful lot like her ancestors.

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.45.49 PM.png

Fortunately or not, it doesn’t look like she’ll need to resolve this in the short term, as we’re reminded of the progress of the Night King and his army of the dead. Beric and Tormund, having miraculously survived the destruction of the Wall unscathed, lead their small band to Last Hearth—the seat of the Umbers, to which li’l Ned was dispatched at the start of the episode … a small bit of exposition whose purpose becomes horribly apparent after Tormund et al run into Edd Tollett and his small collection of Night Watch (an encounter which gives us the funniest exchange in the episode, when Edd thinks Tormund is a white walker because his eyes are blue. “I’ve always had blue eyes!” Tormund cries).

It seems li’l Ned arrived back home just in time for him and his people to be overrun by the Night King—signs of a battle in the courtyard, many bloodstains … but no bodies. When Beric asks Edd if they’d seen anyone, Edd gets grim and leads them to possibly the most gruesome piece of wall art ever. “It’s a message,” says Beric, “from the Night King.” Well, OK … but what’s the message? We’ve seen similar such designs in previous episodes—the split circle of body parts in the very first, a spiral almost identical north of the Wall in season three, and the wall etchings Jon Snow finds on Dragonstone have both such shapes displayed. Is it a message, or a calling card? Or perhaps some kind of occult incantation? And if the last option, did Beric inadvertently activate it by setting it aflame? (Sorry, I just finished teaching a course on H.P. Lovecraft, so this sort of thing is very prominent in my mind).

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.25.39 PM.png

One way or another, it was a delightfully creepy scene, especially when li’l Ned’s glowing blue eyes opened over Tormund’s oblivious shoulder just before he screamed.

What did you think of the encounter at Last Hearth Nikki? And what was your reaction when you realized which “old friend” Bran had been waiting for?

Screen Shot 2019-04-15 at 10.28.59 PM.png

Nikki: I screamed when Ned’s eyes popped open. It might be one of the most horrific scenes we’ve seen on this show—which has certainly had its share of them. No one is spared on Game of Thrones, not even small children (think Shireen). And Ned was just so damn cute at that Great Hall meeting, yet, like Lyanna, professional and acting far beyond his years. Maybe we should have figured that no one named Ned on this show is going to make it to the end of the season. When he burst into the fiery spiral I, like you, felt like I’d seen this before. To me it looks a lot like the Targaryen sigil, but perhaps that was also because it was, you know, fire. But as you say, we’ve definitely seen a spiral motif like this before. Maybe the writers are just big fans of Vertigo.

And then we return to The Creepy One, still sitting in his spot in the courtyard, unmoving, waiting for his old friend to show up. Of course, it’s not like you or me sitting in a chair in a courtyard; I assume he’s watching some sort of Tele-Vision in his mind of pretty much everyone in the world—right now, last week, next year… I doubt he’s bored. And that old friend turns out to be… the one who put him in the wheelchair in the first place. My first thought was to quote the great Senator Clay Davis: “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.” But I assume this is going to be far more complicated than a normal reunion of perpetrator versus victim: Bran isn’t really Bran anymore. Of all the Starks, none of whom resemble the person they were in season 1, he’s the most far gone. He’s barely human at this point. And he knows what’s coming and what needs to happen. If Jaime Lannister is important in the fight against the dead, the least of Bran’s concerns is his spinal injury.

Jaime doesn’t know any of this, though: he thought Bran was dead. One can only imagine the complicated emotions running through his head in this moment, not the least of which is that the person for whom he put this child in a wheelchair has turned on him and is treating him like a traitor. And, comc on, we really do want to watch Jaime blubber for a bit at the beginning of the next episode, don’t we? But once again, just like the episode opens the same way episode 1 of season 1 opened, it now ends the same way episode 1 did. But this time, instead of a seven-year-old boy looking through a window and seeing what Jaime’s doing, Bran is a young man, staring at Jaime and thinking, “I know everything you’ve done… and everything you’re going to do next.”

And with that, the first of the final six episodes is over, and we meme our way to next week, where Jon has to come to terms with he’s bonking his auntie; Tormund needs to clean out his armour; Jaime must find a way to get past that unmoving reminder of the worst thing he’s ever done (and that’s saying a LOT); and Sansa continues to perfect that stink-eye. Until then, thank you for reading!

1 Comment

Filed under Game of Thrones

12 Rules of Pratchett: Mourning Sir Terry, Four Years On

sir terry

Four years ago today, Terry Pratchett died from complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. His death was not a surprise, as he had been quite candid about his affliction—which in typical Sir Terry mode, he referred to as his “embuggerance”—but it still hit me like a truck.

It still does, even four years on. Last June, memorializing Anthony Bourdain on this blog, I observed that “There is comfort to be had in knowing there are rational, humane, deeply intelligent thinkers at large in the world to whom we can reliably turn to for wisdom,” and that losing any such person makes the world poorer. Since Sir Terry’s death we’ve had the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump, the resurgence of white supremacism and white nationalism, a worrying uptick in authoritarianism around the world, and the coarsening of a political discourse reliant on fear and division rather than comity or a figuration of the common good. It’s not as though Sir Terry, were he still alive, would be talking at length of any of these things; but there would be a comfort to be had in having him still in the world and of the world, as an exemplar of kind, rational humanity … and knowing that there would be more of his fiction to look forward to.

Those of us who are devoted readers of Sir Terry’s—and there are an awful lot of us—know that his fiction, especially the forty-one Discworld novels, articulate a deeply humane, humanist, pragmatic philosophy that is both personal and political. And I use the word “pragmatic” there deliberately, as it is generally consonant with the philosophy of pragmatism as developed by thinkers like William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty. That is to say, it is a philosophy that is preoccupied with contingency and irony and a general rejection of transcendent or absolute Truths; not a radical relativism, but rather an acknowledgement that we exist within an overlapping series of shared vocabularies, and, as Judith Shklar asserts in her book Ordinary Vices, that “cruelty is the worst thing we do.”

Perhaps the best example from the Discworld novels is the relationship between gods and mortals. In the Discworld cosmology, gods do not pre-exist mortals; rather, gods are themselves created by people believing in them, giving them their relative power and status through the volume and depth of people’s faith. This trope is most specifically explored in the novel Small Gods, but is more or less consistent throughout the entire series. It’s important to recognize how profound this inversion is: among other things, it’s a symbolic rejection of the principle of extrinsic power or transcendent verities, reimagining power much as the philosopher Michel Foucault does, as something not unitary and external to us, but contingent on circumstance and context. It becomes a function of people themselves, and the gods’ existence, far from being sparks of the divine, are reliant upon unreliable, capricious, and often silly and irrational mortals.

This theme—and the concomitant mingling of affection and exasperation for human foibles—is ever-present in Sir Terry’s writing. “We’re monkeys,” he said in discussion with The Guardian. “Our heritage is, in difficulty, to climb trees and throw shit at other trees.” Even in Good Omens (which he co-authored with Neil Gaiman), a comic cosmic tale about an angel and demon’s efforts to avert the biblical apocalypse, the thematic preoccupation is with human nature.

Superficially, the novel is a creationist’s dream: the first scene takes place in the Garden of Eden as the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley watch Adam and Eve flee, and just one page later 4004 BC is established as the year of Creation and the fossil record characterized as a hoax. And yet the pivot of the narrative lies in the fact that Aziraphale and Crowley, having been the respective representatives of Heaven and Hell on Earth since the beginning, have (1) become something resembling friends, and, more importantly, (2) have both developed a deep affection for the world and the mortals who inhabit it. They have, in effect, let humanity rub off on them, in all of its messy glory. As Crowley reflects at one point, “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm. It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

“People being fundamentally people” could well be the tagline for the entirety of the Discworld series, provided you add the caveat that the designation “people” in this instance includes trolls, dwarfs, gnomes, vampires, werewolves, goblins, orcs, and the wee free blue men in tartan called the Nac Mac Feegle. Discworld is a diverse place, nowhere more so than in its principal city Ankh-Morpork. It is hardly accidental that Ankh-Morpork is frequently and pungently described as messy—both in terms of the squalor of its streets and the messiness of its denizens, who come from all over the disc and coexist in something that can never exactly be described as peace, but which mostly stops short of open warfare if for no other reason that people’s competing self-interests tend to balance things out.

It is significant, and reflective of Sir Terry’s pragmatic humanism, that his worst villains aren’t brutal, violent sociopaths but individuals and entities who cannot abide the messiness of the world and seek to perfect it: the fairy godmother of Witches Abroad who forces an entire city to behave as if they lived inside a fairy-tale; the evil ideologue in Night Watch who seeks to perfect people according to his narrow definitions; the fundamentalist dwarfs in The Fifth Elephant, Thud! and Raising Steam, who are thinly veiled allegories of the Taliban; the shadowy cabal of aristocrats in The Truth who scheme to restore the ascendancy of the nobility; and perhaps most chilling of all, the entities known as the Auditors who periodically (Reaper Man, Thief of Time, Hogfather) appear and attempt to eliminate caprice and unpredictability from the universe. As Samuel Vimes reflects in Night Watch, “As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.” And that, in Sir Terry’s world, is the greatest evil of all.

Those of us who are devoted readers of Sir Terry have long argued for the value of his work, but that has been an uphill argument for four big reasons. First, he wrote fantasy, which the gatekeepers of capital-L Literature tend to dismiss (consider the fact that when The Lord of the Rings received the number-one place as best novel in a Guardian public poll, many pearl-clutchers bemoaned the apparent decline of the British reading public). Second, he wrote side-splittingly hilarious novels, which many people tend to see as a mark of unseriousness. Third, he was mind-numbingly prolific: forty-one Discworld novels in thirty-seven years, and that doesn’t count his many other collaborative projects. That level of productiveness suggests to some a certain shallowness to the works. And finally, he was, and is, hugely popular. Before a certain young wizard received his first owl-post, Sir Terry was the best-selling novelist in the U.K. And if that many people like something, it can’t possibly be worthwhile, right?

Fortunately, we do seem to be inhabiting a moment in which those four qualities no longer hold quite the same power over what we consider worthwhile. I say this as an English professor who is currently teaching a senior seminar on H.P. Lovecraft and weird fiction, and last semester taught a course on The Lord of the Rings and a graduate seminar on “Magic Wor(l)ds.” (In this last course we studied Witches Abroad, which was a class favourite).

And for the past few months I’ve been finally working through some thoughts on Sir Terry, which is turning into a much bigger project than originally intended. It started as something of a lark when I was out for a long walk last May, during which I was working through in my mind the structure and schedule of the aforementioned graduate seminar. I was also simmering with annoyance over the most recent public utterances of a certain psychology professor who shall remain Jordan Peterson, someone who, whatever you think of his writings and teachings, has been embraced and celebrated (and turned into a celebrity) by all manner of alt-right, “western chauvinist,” men’s-rights types; his work (which, it should surprise no one, I hold in general contempt) provides for many such people an intellectual scaffolding for their hatred, resentment, and sense of victimhood.

As I walked, I started thinking of Sir Terry’s philosophy, and it occurred to me that it could function as useful counter-narrative. And I wondered: what would Sir Terry’s “12 Rules” be?

When I got home I started sketching out possibilities, and by the end of the day had a draft. I tweaked it now and then, but was never sure what to do with it. At first I thought I would post it here, with little blurbs explicating each of the rules. But as time went on, I was reluctant to give it short shrift—I wanted to do it justice. I ran it up the flagpole with my grad students when we did Witches Abroad, and it seemed to get a good reception. But still I wasn’t sure what form this thing would take, and there was also a certain reluctance to really dive in, as that would require me to do a deep dive on Peterson’s writings and prolific YouTube presence.

And, well … Reader, I did. Am still doing. And have somewhere in the neighbourhood of fifteen thousand words written, with no end in sight. Once it is done, I will post it here in installments. In the meantime, here are my 12 Rules of Pratchett:

  1. Well, maybe “rules” is the wrong word to use here.
  2. Cruelty is the worst thing we do.
  3. As soon as you see people as things to be measured, they don’t measure up.
  4. The opposite of “funny” is not “serious”; the opposite of funny is not funny.
  5. Always read the footnotes.
  6. Mythology is just folklore with a budget.
  7. Buggere Alle This For A Larke.
  8. Better a rising ape than a falling angel.
  9. We make our own stories—our stories do not make us (unless we let them).
  10. Diversity is strength.
  11. Democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all the others.
  12. CATS. CATS ARE NICE.

death&amp;cat

Leave a comment

Filed under Terry Pratchett