Remember last week when I published this article about how the balance of power had shifted dramatically in Game of Thrones? That Daenerys had lost another dragon, her ground forces were seriously depleted, her ships all but destroyed by Euron’s fleet, and one of her closest friends and advisers, Missandei of Naath, was decapitated before her very eyes. Not to mention the growing cracks in her once-loyal support, as the likes of Sansa Stark and Lord Varys openly opined about there being “someone better” to rule the seven kingdoms.
Well, forget all that. I stupidly forgot (like many viewers, I suspect) that even one full grown dragon remains the ultimate trump card in battles traditionally found by men with swords and spears. Likewise, Dany suddenly seemed to remember that a full grown dragon is more maneuverable that giant scorpion crossbows attached to the bows of ships or affixed on castle walls. They are slow to reload and it’s difficult to hit a moving target.
I suppose we’re left to believe that Rhaegal only succumbed to those giant arrows last week due to the element of surprise. Which, well, okay fine. It’s paper thin logic, at best, but we’re going to allow it since it was Dany’s monumental personal losses that led to her actions this week.
***THIS IS YOUR SPOILER WARNING. DO NOT CONTINUE UNLESS YOU ARE CAUGHT UP TO EPISODE FIVE!***
Before we get to the main event, we would be remiss if we didn’t spend a paragraph or two talking about the build up. The episode starts with Varys sending a letter (and maybe letters) to… someone… about Jon Snow’s true identity. He’s clearly trying to get the word out that Aegon Targaryen is the true heir to the throne. One of his little birds appears, and they not-so-subtly discuss Varys’s attempts to poison Daenerys. However, the Queen is refusing to eat.
Tyrion, in an effort to save his own skin (plus the fact that he is still solidly on Team Dany, for better or worse) decides to rat out Varys, leading to his execution. He is calmly resigned to his fate, and even warns Tyrion about Daenerys once again with his last words: “I hope I deserve this. I hope I’m wrong.”
Immediately, Daenerys proves Varys right in her little speech to Jon about how she doesn’t inspire love in her subjects. Jon tries to convince her otherwise, but he’s a terrible liar — his own fear of Daenerys is plastered all over his face, something that she can easily see.
Tyrion, bless his little heart, gives one last ditch effort to save the millions of innocent citizens of King’s Landing, promising Dany that they will concede the city and turn on Cersei. Hell, his plan almost even works until the moment it doesn’t. Tyrion also probably dooms himself by freeing his captured brother, who was nabbed by Daenerys’s forces trying to sneak back into King’s Landing. Tyrion says he only repaying the favor of when Jaime helped him escape, but also begs the Kingslayer to escape with Cersei and vanish. Start a new life in Essos.
Tyrion, who has gone to great lengths to stay alive for most of the series, now seems resigned to his eventual death, as if he expects it to happen at any moment. As such, he’s doing his absolute best to make honorable, even sacrificing, choices. Unfortunately, he’s also stuck to his guns about Daenerys (against his better judgement, in recent times) and that fact may be his eventual undoing.
The next day, The Last War begins. And it’s won very quickly, although the suffering goes on and on and on. Dany soars down with Drogon and torches the Ironborn fleet and the Golden Company soldiers manning the scorpion bolts. I touched on it earlier, but this scene (as visually badass as it was) is tough to swallow considering how Euron and his flunkies seemed to have aim-assist on those giant crossbows last week, but couldn’t manage to do any damage with them this week. Again, is the element of surprise really the only difference? Watching Dany roast the baddies was cool af. But if it was that easy, why not just circle around and do it last week?
With the scorpions out of the picture and the Greyjoy fleet on fire (and sinking), Drogon blasts through the gates of King’s Landing, and the combined forces of the Dothraki (some survived the Battle of Winterfell, apparently?), Unsullied, and Northmen make easy work of the Lannister and Golden Company soldiers. In fact, Cersei’s forces quickly see the battle is lost and surrender their arms. Eventually, the bells ring. That’s the signal. Daenerys has won, Cersei has lost, and the war is over.
Except it’s not.
Still filled with hate from the loss of two of her dragons, her best friend, her lover, and potentially her stake to the Iron Throne, Daenerys finally reveals which side of the Targaryen coin she is. Unfortunately for the innocent people of King’s Landing, it’s the fire and blood side. Finally fulfilling her father’s goal of “burn them all,” Dany decimates King’s Landing in a hailstorm of dragon fire.
No one is spared. Women and children are burned alive or crushed by falling buildings. Greyworm, also filled with hate following Missandei’s death, refuses to obey Jon Snow’s commands to stop fighting. The Unsullied follow their leader, and even the Northmen are caught up in the battle and continue the slaughter. When Jon has to stop a fellow soldier from raping an innocent woman, the gravity of the situation finally starts to dawn on him. They are the bad guys.
Let’s take a timeout from the genocide of King’s Landing to discuss what fans have been waiting years for: #CELGANEBOWL!! What is hype may never die!
It’s absolutely become meme-worthy over the years, but the battle between hated brothers Gregor (The Mountain) and Sandor (The Hound) finally happened. Viewers with long memories will know that it was Gregor who caused the scarring on Sandor’s face, dating back to when they were children. Sandor has long vowed revenge, and finally got it after a brutal battle.
Cleganebowl finally gave us a look at what is under Zombie Mountain’s concealing armor. It wasn’t pretty. It also showed us just how invincible he really is, since a sword through the gut and a dagger through the eye wasn’t enough to take him out. In the end, The Hound tackles his undead brother through a crumbling wall, as they both fall hundreds of feet into scorching hot flames. It’s a tragically ironic ending for them both, but a satisfying one.
The Hound, despite his more recent heroics, is not a good person in the overall scheme of things. His last act of valor, though, might prove to be an important one. He convinces Arya to leave the Red Keep, knowing that death is coming for everyone who sticks around. As Arya attempts to flee, she is subjected to many of the horrors inflicted by Daenerys. If her support wasn’t wavering before, it will be now — especially with her sister Sansa already firmly on Team Not Dany.
Cersei makes a quick and quiet exit from Cleganebowl (also, RIP Qyburn, I guess), and is eventually found by her brother. After a pointless battle with Euron on the beach, Jaime does attempt to put Tyrion’s escape plan in motion. Unfortunately, all the underground exits of the Red Keep are blocked with rubble. After multiple seasons of Cersei being a smug bitch, she is finally forced to face reality. She pleads with Jaime to save her. Save her child. But her brother, who truly loves his twin sister despite her numerous flaws, is out of answers. With nowhere to run, the Lannister siblings embrace as the castle caves in on top of them.
It was an unsatisfying death for both of them, in my books. Jaime had come so far in his character arc, from the selfish jerk who pushed Bran out a window, all the way to someone who betrayed the mother of his children in order to go fight for the living. He even regained some sense of humanity in his relationship with Brienne, which began as a respectful friendship and morphed into a budding romance. Only for Jaime to undo it all just to go die with his hateful sister.
As for Cersei, it was another misdirection by the writers. You see, all the Season 8 promotional materials made it seem like the Night King was the big bad guy. But he was dispatched relatively easy. So everyone immediately thought, “Oh, I guess Cersei is the real villain of Season 8.” But the Game of Thrones characters don’t often conform to standard TV norms. The show has repeatedly shown over and over that no there are no “good guys” and “bad guys.” Just flawed humans in various shades of grey. Even Jon Snow isn’t perfect, following a Queen who just committed atrocious mass murder and displaying too many traits of his adopted father Ned Stark, who clutched desperately to his personal honor even as it got him killed.
Back to Dany. After showing us the side stories of The Hound, Jaime, Cersei, and Euron, the episode gives us an extended look at the suffering Dany is causing, through the eyes of Arya Stark. They are terrified. They are confused. They are holding dead loved ones in their arms. Many are lying in the dirt, in crippling agony due to severe burns. As they seek shelter, they literally trample each other. Arya tried to save a small group of them, but they end up dead in the chaos anyway.
The scene is unnervingly long, because it wants to really drive home the point that Dany has gone full Mad Queen (as if it wasn’t obvious before). Arya somehow finds a lone horse in the middle of everything, and gets the hell out of dodge (fun fan theory: did Bran warg into the horse to save his sister?).
With only one episode left to go, the final conflict seems to be between Daenerys and Jon. Can Jon truly continue to bend the knee to a queen who committed unspeakable bloodshed? And even if he does, will Dany ever really be able to believe him? How many letters about Jon’s real identity did Varys manage to send before his death? Will Tyrion finally admit that Varys was right?
Despite the dragons and the ice zombies and the black magic, Game of Thrones has always truly been about the human condition. Our desire for power, acceptance, status, and love, plus all of our inherent flaws in seeking those things. Everyone prioritizes them differently, leading to conflicting motivations among our main characters. Dany wants power, at all costs. Jon wants peace, even if it means bowing to an unfit ruler. Sansa and Tyrion was what is best for their people as a whole. Arya values her family.
There’s an ultimate irony in Daenerys claiming that she has come to free the people from oppressive tyrants, only to become the ultimate oppressive tyrant. She even admits that she is providing mercy to “future generations” only, because many of the current generation just got torched. Will anyone truly believe her “big picture” thinking, that with The Last War finally won, the people of Westeros can look forward to a peaceful and prosperous future (after much rebuilding, of course)? Or is she just another cog in the wheel? The same wheel she vowed to break, but really only managed to reinforce with her violent victory.
This series isn’t going to have a definitive ending, I’m afraid. Much like there are thousands of years of Westerosi history that happened before the events of the show, there will be thousands of years of future history to debate after the finale next week. George R.R. Martin promised a “bittersweet” ending, and it looks more and more like that ending means the continued infighting and political gamesmanship between selfish and flawed humans. The game of thrones (notice the lower-case letters used here) never really ends, does it?