Game of Thrones review: a disappointing glimpse of the end

The key action this week felt like a lazy, unearned plot device, throwing a major character under the bus for the sake of an easy ending.

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Game of Thrones has always toyed with morality. As soon as a villain seems to edge closer and closer towards redemption – that’s when they double down into foul play. A hero makes a compromise just when you need him to stay strong, or refuses to make concessions when they’re most needed. The show’s great heroes have mostly done some fairly unforgiveable things.

Perhaps that’s why this episode hurt so much. After eight seasons of mostly nuanced treatment of an unpredictable, vengeful, merciful, passionate, calculating character, Daenerys Targaryen suddenly descended inexplicably into full villain mode, committing the most horrific war crimes possibly ever seen on Game of Thrones. A favourite for many viewers, Dany voluntarily burned millions of innocent civilians, including women and children, to death – seemingly for no political or personal reason at all. Who knew that the most shocking character death in the entire series wouldn’t be a literal death at all?

It’s not to say that the creators – D B Weiss and David Benioff – didn’t signal what was to come. Furious with grief after Cersei’s execution of her closest female ally, Missandei ,the episode began with concerned whispers about how Dany was refusing to eat, leave her chambers, or speak to anyone. Then came her swift incineration of a voice of reason in her camp – former slave Varys – for spreading rumours about Jon’s right to rule. Then there was the heavy implication that Tyrion would be next in the firing line if he was anything less than obsequiously loyal. Then there was a final sexual rejection from Jon. “I don't have love here. I only have fear,” she told him. “All right, then. Let it be fear.”

But although Dany seemed reluctant to show mercy in her battle for the Lannister throne, she did agree to spare King’s Landing if Cersei’s army surrendered. Some of her last words before heading into the fray were “Mercy is our strength.” After all, what would be the point in massacring innocent lives once the war was already won? Why destroy your own city, your own castle, and your own people? As she said to Olenna last season, “I am not here to be Queen of the ashes”.

Dany made remarkably short work of the battle, almost single-handedly. Despite a much worse fairing in a near identical fight last week (the only difference being that Dany had an entire extra  fleet and double the dragon-power on her side), she destroyed Cersei’s entire forces with a few fire breathing circuits of King’s Landing. When her opponents gave in, and rang the bells of surrender, she paused. In a long, close shot on her dirty, frenzied face, a mixture of emotions flickered behind her eyes. I loved this shot at first. The battle has been won. She had achieved everything she’d ever wanted. What now? What if it felt hollow? What if she felt lonely or scared or angry or even ashamed? What if it wasn’t enough?

Instead, we’re meant to see this as the moment Dany simply went crackers and decided to kill millions. Why? Because all Targaryens are mad? Except Jon, because, you know, he has a dick, or some Good Stark Blood? Because she had a taste for violence? Because Missandei – an underdeveloped character who Dany has never actually demonstrated much love for – was killed in front of her and every mother, child, friend and lover in King’s Landing deserved to pay for it with their life? To rub the victory in Cersei’s face – when she never cared about her people anyway?

We spent hours and hours watching Dany’s journey develop – and though she was never my favourite character, and I always felt deeply aware of an uncomfortable, self-aggrandising, vengeful thirst for power within her, the one thing that felt most believable about her character was that she always believed she was acting for a greater good. So far, she had never had a taste for blood for blood’s sake. I could believe that she could reach a point where she did – but killing off Misandei and throwing a few hints here and there about her over-reaching ambition is not enough to justify an abrupt character turn-around and the genocide of an entire city. “She went mad” feels like a lazy, stereotypical, unearned plot device – and one that was truly horrible to watch. At times, the massacre felt like pointless, gratuitous audience torture.

Elsewhere, Arya turned away from all-consuming vengeance – choosing to accept that she wouldn’t be the one to kill Cersei, and save herself instead. This has been a nice arc for Arya; she has been humanised this season, putting away her List whilst remaining a fierce fighter and loyal sister. Sandor Clegane, however, decided to choose death in order to win his revenge against his brother – a predictable climax of a story that lacked urgency and felt out of place in this penultimate episode.

Jaime and Tyrion had a genuinely touching farewell, before Jaime and Cersei were eventually reunited for mere moments as the castle collapsed on top of them. I know many people feel that Jaime’s character development has been shattered just like Dany’s – but for me, this felt right. Jaime was being rehabilitated too easily, all his love for Cersei – the driving force behind so many of his worst actions –shrugged off as though it never really existed. I’m sad Brienne was caught unnecessarily in the crossfire, but the twins’ ugly, incestuous, obsessive, loving relationship has been the heart of the Lannister dynamic since this show began. They could only have died together.

With this act of stunning, devastating terrorism, Dany has surely lost all her supporters (except maybe Greyworm). It feels like Game of Thrones is throwing a major character under the bus for the sake of an easy ending. It seems that next week will be the final battle of Starks verses Targaryen, good family verses evil family, ice and fire. I just never wanted this story to be this black and white.

Bad Bitch Points are awarded as follows:

  • Tiny fearful child passing notes for Varys +12. You brave girl.
  • Varys, still using children as pawns despite constantly getting them murdered and achieving nothing with their deaths – 32.
  • Varys, for predicting Dany’s descent into darkness +18
  • Varys, for knowing he would die and forging ahead anyway. +71. That’s my man.
  • Jaime, returning to Cersei. Hardly anyone agrees with me, but I think it was the right thing to do. He was complicit in all her worst decisions, and though it would have been easy for him to just wash her hands of her once things got too dark for his liking, it would have been a great betrayal in its own way, and a denial of his fundamental character. +39
  • Jaime “I never cared much for them, innocent or otherwise.” Honesty! +12
  • Greyworm, for committing war crimes without giving a second thought. -89
  • Ser Davos, for saving a bunch of civilians +58
  • Arya, for trying to save a bunch of civilians, renouncing her vengeful ways, and riding away from the ashes on a beautiful white steed to tell Sansa EVERYTHING. +51
  • Qyburn’s pathetic death, which made me laugh a hearty laugh. -128 from Qyburn, you creepy servile death lord.
  • D B Weiss and David Benioff, for murdering the very concept of character development, continuity, plots that make sense, and emotional nuance. -3049584060.

So Varys wins I guess. But the losers feel much more important this week.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.