We're recapping the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones; look for these recaps first thing on Monday mornings. Spoilers, of course, abound.
Dany got a raw deal.
Narratively speaking, Game of Thrones did the Mother of Dragons dirty, there's no two ways around it.
For eight seasons, we've watched her navigate crushing (literally!) setbacks and soaring (equally as literally!) triumphs, the way heroes — especially flawed heroes — classically do. The thing is, most of those setbacks were direct results of her doing what the show wanted her to — listening to the counsel of advisers like Tyrion — because having her do so was a handy way to signal viewers that she was developing into a just and benevolent ruler. The show stuck her in Meereen forever, for example, in an effort to force her, and us, to learn hard lessons about trusting enemies (don't do it) and the day-to-day business of running a country (it's hella boring and makes you reach for the fast-forward button).
And then, when she finally makes it to Westeros, she sticks her neck — and that of poor, doomed Rhaegal — way, way out to Save The World, only to have Jon Snow receive fawning praise for his wildly incompetent dragon-riding and receive still more bad "think of the children!" advice from Tyrion. Now, sure, as a meta-comment on how much harder women have to work to succeed in a world that's set up to reward men, it scans well enough. As consistent, satisfying characterization, though, it's awfully shaky.
One thing that has remained consistent, throughout: Dany's usually right about things. That's a through-line that carried over to this season. Jon was naively wrong in trusting that the secret of his Targaryen blood would never get out. Daenerys was right — clearly, cannily, incandescently right — that it was a terrible, terrible idea for Jon to tell anyone, and that it would prove the end of their relationship. So at least there's no Aegon her face.
And after last night, it doesn't look like there ever will be again. (They broke up.)
If you watched the "Previously on Game of Thrones," you caught something unusual: Over the shot of a seething Daenerys reacting to Missandei's murder, we heard dialogue from other characters opining on the nature of Daenerys' soul and mind:
- "He has a better claim to the throne." (Varys)
- "Every time a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin." (Cersei)
- "The Mad King gave his enemies the justice he thought they deserved." (Ser Barristan Selmy)
- "Children are not their fathers." (Tyrion)
- "Be a dragon." (Olenna Tyrell)
- "You have a gentle heart." (Jorah Mormont)
- "A Targaryen alone in the world is a terrible thing." (Maester Aemon)
- "You don't want to wake the dragon, do you?" (Viserys Targaryen)
Some of those clips came from as far back as Season 1, and they were put here to build suspense in the viewer's mind about Dany's conflicted mental state and raise the question: What will Daenerys do?
Except, we already knew what Dany would do, because the show's been yelling the answer at us all season long. It gave us two of Game of Thrones' most intelligent, pragmatic characters — Sam Tarly and Varys — expressing strong misgivings about Daenerys' fitness to lead. It then pushed her into a corner by killing off her only friend. They lit her fuse a long time ago — nyet they failed to make it seem inevitable. We could tell where the writers were pushing her, but when she got to that destination, and made the decision she did, it felt like a choice imposed by the demands of the plot, not the needs of her character.
It looked pretty great, though.
OK. Just had to get that out of the way. Now let's you and I and this show get penultimate, all up in this piece.
Your mileage may Varys
As we zoom over the credits map, there's not a lot that's new — though the walls of King's Landing are newly outfitted with the giant crossbows I've been calling ballistas, but which are in fact, yes, scorpions. Please stop with the emails now, tetchy military historians of the world.
At Dragonstone, Varys is in his room, doing the Westerosi equivalent of lying on his bed kicking his bobby-soxed feet in the air behind him while on the phone spreading the latest hot goss about who's going steady with whom. Only instead of a phone, a raven note; and instead of who's going steady, Jon Snow is the true heir to the Iron Throne, etc. He's visited by one of his little birds — a young kitchen maid who reports that Daenerys is not eating.
A fact that he proceeds to report to Jon Snow, who's just arrived at Dragonstone. Jon says the Northern armies have "just crossed the Trident" and will be at King's Landing in two days' time — a line of dialogue that seems intended to send a certain subset of viewers scurrying to their scale maps of the Seven Kingdoms, and promptly thereafter into the very highest of dudgeons. Happily, reader, you and I are cool, hip, insouciant types who cannot be bothered to care a whit about things like the transit times of imaginary armies, and we will happily accept this piece of information without even the merest hint of indignation, OK?
Varys hints, in a fairly transparent (and thus wildly uncharacteristic, but who cares, nothing matters) way, that he's worried she's about to light King's Landing up like a Christmas tree. If you can imagine Christmas trees filled with screaming peasants.
Jon picks up on what Varys is laying down, and cuts him off.
Tyrion visits Daenerys, who looks drawn and tired. He tells her that Varys is like totally talking behind her back and corrects her when she mistakenly blames Jon Snow. The dialogue in this scene could have been played in a way that would have us see Daenerys as paranoid and deranged — and maybe they filmed some other takes in which Emilia Clarke played it bigger — but here, her choices are precise and intimate. She just seems tired.
Also, small point? She's right — once again, still, some more. People are betraying her. Tyrion has given her bad advice, and he was the one who told Varys about Jon Snow. She's also absolutely right that Sansa only told Tyrion the truth about Jon because she knew he'd tell Varys. If the Seven Kingdoms are high school, Daenerys is the Heather who knows how the lines of communication work.
Back in his room, Varys is scribbling away. ("I, Varys, being of sound mind and body, do hereby bequeath my collection of robes, nightshirts and kimonos to Mister Gary's House of Pre-Owned Couture in Fleabottom.") Soldiers come for him, and he's taken to a beach that has seen its share of midnight clambakes, over the years. In Season 2, the clams in question were Stannis' followers who refused to embrace the Lord of Light. Tonight, it's Varys, who gets well and truly dracarysed, but not before sharing a nice, quiet moment with Tyrion. It should be noted that Drogon reeeeeally takes his own sweet time getting on with the business of flipping his dragony Bic in this scene. It gives us more time to say goodbye to Conleth Hill, but it does seem kinda drama queen-y on the big lizard's part.
And even-more-mopey-than-his-factory-default-setting Jon visits Daenerys, who is not letting go of Sansa's role in all of this — which doesn't bode well for next week's finale. She tries to kiss him and he responds like ... well, like a kid being kissed by his boozy aunt, because while flowers may blossom in Targaryen attics, they tend not to take root in the frozen soil of the North.
For what seems like the 20th time this season, Tyrion entreats Daenerys not to rain fire on King's Landing, because of the tens of thousands of innocents there. She — again, rightly! — points out that Cersei is cynically exploiting Daenerys' (and Tyrion's) inclination toward mercy.
He wheedles a promise out of her — that if she hears the city bells signaling that King's Landing has surrendered, she will call off her attack. (In this single episode, the phrase "Ring the bells" leaps to the top of most-frequently heard lines of dialogue on Game of Thrones — ahead of "You'll be safe in the crypts" and, believe it or not, even above "Bend the knee.")
She informs him that they've captured his brother Jaime and that if Tyrion fails her again, she will kill him.
Tyrion nods, and pops off to ... fail her, once again.
A Lannister repays a debt
Commoners stream into King's Landing by the thousands. Daenerys' army is camped outside the city wall. Tyrion asks Davos for a favor — the keys to Jaime's restraints.
Arya and the Hound pass through the army camp. They are stopped briefly by a guard, but Arya's arrant badassedness convinces the poor schlub that they are not the droids he's looking for, and they pass on.
They're not the only ones duping credulous soldiers tonight — Tyrion dismisses Jaime's guards and steals into his tent. "Cersei's gonna die, bro," says Tyrion. "We'll see," says Jaime. "Hey, I'm drink-and-know-things-guy, over here," says Tyrion. "The city will fall, and she's gonna die." (Oh great, I think, now the writers are letting Tyrion be smart about things again.)
"You can convince her to surrender," he says. (Sigh. Forget that part about Tyrion being smart about things.) Tyrion frees Jaime and tells him to sneak Cersei out through the tunnels under the Red Keep. Oh, and to ring them bells, ya gotta ring them bells, ya gotta make 'em sing and really ring them bells.
Jaime points out that what Tyrion is doing is betraying Daenerys. Tyrion thinks that she'll be grateful to him for helping to prevent the deaths of thousands of innocent lives, and yeah OK turns out that whole bit where he was smart about things again was just a blip. Because he is exultantly wrong, here.
A final, tearful farewell between the Brothers Lannister.
The Iron Fleet throngs Blackwater Bay outside King's Landing. On his ship, The Hot Topic Assistant Manager (note: not the actual name of his ship) Euron Greyjoy paces the poop deck — so named because he's on it, guyliner and all.
Along the walls of King's Landing, soldiers load the many, many, many scorpions with bolts and scan the horizon for dragonsign. We note that the scorpions are decked out with embossed Lannister lions, which seem like putting a hat on a hat, but as noted previously, I question Qyburn's taste level.
The citizens of King's Landing desert the streets and flee inside their homes like there's a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Child-Catcher coming, and the Golden Company marches out of the main gates to ... stand menacingly before them, staring silently across the plain at Daenerys' forces. They're not much company, but they are certainly golden, lined up like so many Oscar statues, and almost as threatening.
The Golden Company is led by the hilariously floppy-haired, hilariously named Harry Strickland, who, once again, is the leader of this imaginary fantasy-world army of mercenaries and not, despite the name, a carpet salesman from Paramus. He rides up on a fine-looking white horse we will meet again later.
Tyrion's got that "stop the attack if they ring the bells" bee in his bonnet, and he pesters Jon with it. Jon gets that look on his face like he's trying to remember the difference between pimientos and pistachios again.
Soldiers close the gates to the Red Keep, locking Jaime outside, so he tries to catch the attention of a solider by waving his big honkin' gold hand. (You'd think it'd work — Golden Company, golden hand — but no.) He steals away as citizens start to panic.
Out on the bay, Ol' Neckbeard the Pirate squints into the sun. Because it's from there that Daenerys, riding Drogon, is barreling down at him, having suddenly manifested a mastery of tactical air combat over and above what she demonstrated last week. (Her strategy then, you'll recall, was the "Fly-Straight-Into-Their-Arrows-Like-An-Idiot Maneuver.")
This time, she's just better at it. Faster, more agile — so she's able to catch them flatfooted and destroy pretty much the entire fleet in seconds. She and Drogon move on to the scorpions along the walls of King's Landing, making short work of them in ... tens of seconds.
Cut to: Those lines of Golden Company mercenaries standing in front of the King's Landing gate. They look worried at the sound of distant explosions, which quickly grow ... less distant. Harry Strickland looks around like he's missed his flight to the regional sales meeting in Tampa. Then – BOOM. The gate behind them blows up, thanks to Drogon; the entire Golden Company gets taken out like chumps.
The Unsullied, Northmen and Dothraki (there's still a few!) stream into the city, unto the proverbial breach. Grey Worm takes out a fleeing Harry Strickland, who will now be peddling carpet samples in heaven.
Cersei is staring at the city from a balcony, because fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and Cersei's gotta balcony-stare. She been wearing the same smug smile ever since she blew up the Sept of Baelor — now, for the first time, she looks worried.
Meanwhile, Drogon is burning up more scorpions. Man, he hates the scorpions; probably more a rammstein guy.
Qyburn and The Mountain join Cersei in her looking-worriedness. "We just need one good shot," she says. "We're still good, we're still good." Qyburn says there's no more scorpions. "We have the Iron Fleet," she says. "We're still good, we're still good." Qyburn says the fleet is burning. Also the Golden Company went bankrupt. "Our Lannister army will fight well," she says. "The Red Keep has never fallen. We're still good, we're still good."
Grey Worm, Jon and Davos march through the streets until they meet a company of Lannister soldiers. There's a lot of glaring, a lot of worried glances tossed to and fro. Then Drogon lands atop a tower nearby, and the Lannisters drop their swords like they're all Chris Rock.
Ring ring ring went the bell
Jon is relieved. Tyrion is relieved. The streets fill with sound of dropped swords and citizens pleading for someone to ring the damn bells, already.
It takes a while — a while filled up with a series of Janet!-Brad!-Dr. Scott! close-ups of our characters looking worriedly at a bell tower (Tyrion/Jon), or angrily at the Red Keep (Daenerys), or worriedly from the Red Keep (Cersei) — but eventually that bell gets rung.
But Daenerys isn't having it. She's staring at the Red Keep like it just said something not-at-all-nice about her mother. Even as the bells ring across King's Landing, she and Drogon take off and fly over the city (Drogon casts his shadow over its red-tile rooftops, just as in the visions experienced by both Daenerys and Bran in past seasons). She flies toward the Red Keep — and for long seconds we assume she's just going to attack it directly, which would make more sense, but no. The show's giving her the Mad King edit, so she has Drogon start doing strafing runs through the city, burning both soldiers and citizens as she goes.
Tyrion's horrified, Jon's confused, and Grey Worm ... Grey Worm sees Daenerys' gambit as an excuse to get his impale on. Jon tries to stop him, and the soldiers who follow him, but the battle is already joined.
It's a cavalcade of carnage, for a while. Heads explode, buildings crumble, citizens burn. Davos tries to get people to safety, because he's a good egg. Jon tries to stop people from fighting, with no luck, and tries to save a woman from being ravaged, with better luck.
Finally, Daenerys and Drogon head to the Red Keep and start dismantling it, starting (I think?) with the Tower of the Hand.
Jaime finds the entrance to the tunnels under the Red Keep, at precisely the same moment and in precisely the same place that Euron Greyjoy, ol' Dreadful Pirate Roberts, wades ashore. Euron says various gross annoying things, because he is never anything less than fully on-brand. He and Jaime have a choppily edited and difficult-to-follow fight to the not-death. The net result: Euron plunges his dagger into Jaime's kidneys, which Jaime ludicrously manages to just sort of ... shake off, and Jaime plunges his sword through Euron's chest.
Euron assures us that Jaime's wounds are mortal and delights in this fact as Jaime enters the tunnels with more spring in his step than you'd expect from a man whose kidneys have just been julienned inside him. Euron is losing great gouts of blood, here and stares up at the sky contentedly — but we don't actually see him die, and it would be just like this show to bring him back next week, somehow. I pray I am wrong, but I fear I am not.
Qyburn convinces Cersei that standing in a balcony while a dragon is attacking makes the kind of sense that's non-; they and the Mountain head for Maegor's Holdfast — a nigh-impregnable fortress deep inside the Red Keep (I had to look it up). Before they leave, we get a shot from the balcony that shows the true extent of the damage that Daenerys and her one, lone dragon have wrought — the entire city is burning.
Arya and the Hound have sneaked into the crumbling Red Keep, and as they enter the map room, the Hound urges Arya to give up her quest for revenge, lest she end up like him. It's a tiny little speech, barely a few seconds, about a subject that very likely would have come up at any point along the long slow ride from Winterfell, but that's all it takes. Arya's convinced to give up the motivation that's kept her alive through eight seasons, just like that. She peaces out, but the Hound continues searching for his brother, the Mountain.
On a crumbling staircase, the Hound finds his brother — along with Cersei, Qyburn and some soldiers. The Hound dispatches the soldiers easily and challenges the Mountain. The Mountain accepts, much to Cersei's dismay, and Qyburn's ... well, we don't get a chance to hear much from Qyburn as the Mountain angrily tosses him into a wall like he's a Wacky Wall Walker. Or technically, in this particular case, a Wacky Floor Dier.
The brothers stare at each other balefully. Cersei's all, "I think I left the iron on," and excuses herself.
Here it is, at long last: Cleganebowl. The final battle between two brothers who loathe each other. Over the course of the battle, the Mountain removes his helm to reveal that he's the straight-from-central-casting zombie we've always known him to be — an Uncle Fester who's actually festering.
Cersei makes it to the map room, as masonry tumbles down around her, where she finds Jaime looking — I know I keep harping on this point — just really remarkably spry, considering. They embrace, and he leads her down to the tunnels as the keep keeps collapsing around them. They're like Marlon Brando's Jor-El and Susannah York's Lara stumbling along as Krypton self-destructs around them, but without the tinfoil pajamas. More's the pity.
Back at Cleganebowl, there's no halftime show — just lots of slashing and stabbing. The Hound learns that all that slashing and stabbing isn't proving particularly effective, inasmuch as his opponent is pre-deceased.
Arya is not having a much better time on the broken, crumbling, fiery, bloody and scream-y streets of Kings Landing. She gets knocked down, but she gets up again, you're never gonna etc. etc. She runs into a mother and daughter who try to help her, but gets separated from them.
Meanwhile, Cleganebowl is going into double overtime. The Mountain tries to pull his "squeeze the head like an overripe melon" move he's used before on the Hound — been there, Dorne that! — but the Hound manages to break out of it by stabbing the Mountain like the guy's the world's largest, fleshiest pincushion. The Mountain shakes it off, though, because: dead already. So the Hound hurls himself at his brother, sending both of them tumbling from the Red Keep into the fires far below.
It's the second brotherly embrace in tonight's episode. This one ends ... differently.
Jon attempts to call his men to get the hell out of this hell of a city; they run toward the gates.
Arya returns to consciousness covered in ash; it's eerily quiet. I'm just going to note that from this point on, the episode plays with Sept. 11 imagery; I'll leave it to the many think pieces that will be written over the next few days, by smarter people than me, to unpack exactly what we're meant to do with that.
Arya finds some citizens – including the mother and daughter from before — huddling together inside a building, and convinces them they need to keep moving.
Jaime and Cersei have somehow made it allllllllll the way down to the very bottom of the tunnels under the Red Keep — Jaime's still full of pep, by the way — only to find that their exit is completely blocked by rubble. Jamie keeps trying to find a way out, but Cersei knows it's the end. They embrace a final time. "Nothing else matters," Jaime says. "Nothing else matters. Only us." And within a few seconds, it's only them ... and thousands of tons of stone, collapsing upon them.
Arya stumbles, alone, through streets filled with burned bodies — including those of the mother and daughter — and ash. The sole sign of life — a once-white horse, now covered in blood and soot. It seems to be good ol' Harry Strickland's horse, in point of fact. Arya comforts the beast and rides out of King's Landing, which is now a charred, smoking ruin. End.
So Daenerys took Olenna Tyrell's advice. She was the dragon, and the dragon was her. She broke the wheel, and then chopped it into bite-sized chunks, and then she lit that sucker on fire.
I don't have a firm understanding as to why she destroyed the entire city and not just the Red Keep, but I'm guessing the writers don't want us to think too hard on that. I think we're supposed to come away from this episode convinced that Daenerys has given in to her familial madness, that Varys was right about her, that Sam was right about her — and, by extension, that they were also right about Jon Snow.
So next week, it will come down to Jon Snow vs. Daenerys Stormborn. Targaryen vs. Targaryen. Though whether there's still an Iron Throne to fight over, or just a melted lump of steel where it once sat, remains to be seen.
Speaking of remains, here's a list of the named characters who met their end in this episode.
- Varys (sniff)
- Harry Strickland (...her?)
- Euron Greyjoy (fingers crossed)
- The Hound
- The Mountain
- Qyburn (yay!)
- Jaime Lannister
- Cersei Lannister
That's ... a lot of the show's most interesting characters (and, yes, one who is very antithesis of interesting) gone, with still another hour and 20 minutes to fill.