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Let’s get this out of the way right now: That was not a good episode of television. It certainly wasn’t a good penultimate episode of a series. And it definitely wasn’t a good penultimate episode of television for a series that has spent so many years toiling in the minutia of character development and palace intrigue. A half hour into the episode, I could tell this wasn’t going to be the ending we had hoped it would be. We wouldn’t get the nuanced confrontations we had hoped for. And, frankly, that’s what’s been missing the last two seasons, since D.B. Weiss and David Benioff opted to put the show on fast forward and wrap the series up, good storytelling be damned.
There’s an excellent Twitter thread from this weekend that hit on one reason things have seemed so off this season, and I absolutely agree that this is a large part of why so many of us are frustrated with what we’ve been given so far (and, I suspect, why next week’s finale will be just as divisive as Lost‘s was). But there’s another massive reason Game of Thrones has fallen apart: time. When Benioff and Weiss announced they could (and would) wrap the series up in 13 episodes, split over two seasons, we trusted it was doable. Season six was a mess, but it set up what appeared to be a clear line to the ending. Two battles, and a smattering of final moments, and we’d have a show. Now, it’s clear Benioff and Weiss weren’t right. They needed more time.
Everything that occurred in the last two episodes needed a solid three or four episodes to marinate. Give Jaime two episodes to agonize over the decision to leave Brienne and return to Cersei, and it would work. Give Dany three episodes to turn over the anger, betrayal, and distrust of the Westerosi by her side. Perhaps have her ask Grey Worm, her last trusted general, for his opinion. Let the rage simmer and then explode. Have Tyrion really think about whether or not he wants to see King’s Landing survive. Then have him come to Dany with a real, solid plan. Have something in his back pocket. A ten episode season allows the characters some room to breathe, and gives the story a chance to build to a satisfying climax. What we got tonight was anything but a satisfying climax.
I’ve said time and again this season that the show has been hinting at making Dany a Mad Queen since the end of Game of Thrones‘ first season. So, yes, the act of turning her into her father was earned in that sense. But it wasn’t earned in the course of the episode. Dany had a solid plan of attack. Burn the Iron Fleet (and, may I say, it was nice to see that someone on the series finally learned to zig zag to avoid certain death, even if it made the losses in last week’s attack even more idiotic). Check. Break through the outer wall and surprise the Golden Company from the rear (and completely waste the introduction of the Golden Company, but I guess that’s just Game of Thrones being Game of Thrones). Check. Allow your army to kill the stragglers and enter the city. Check. Have the Lannister army surrender. Check. Then burn the entirety of King’s Landing to the ground with your dragon, even though you’ve won and are about to get everything you’ve ever wanted, because you’re really mad Cersei killed your best friend and you’re super scared that your nephew (who you are in love with, but can’t trust) will usurp your claim to the Iron Throne (mostly because his sister/cousin is way more politically savvy than anyone else on this show and will stop at nothing to see you fail). Yeah . . . that was pretty stupid.
And, that was really the theme of the episode: everyone in this episode was really stupid. Dany’s decision to “burn them all” has all but doomed her (Arya didn’t get to cross one Mad Queen off her list, but I suspect she’ll get a shot at another next week – you don’t send her on a ridiculous quest for survival through the streets of King’s Landing witnessing the destruction wrought by Dany if you aren’t setting that confrontation up). Jaime was an utter idiot to go after Cersei. Yes, he loved her and was drawn to her when his better judgment should have prevailed, but my god man. Olenna Tyrell was right: he was a poor fool, and Cersei was the end of him. Jon and Tyrion were both stupid not to see how messed up Dany was, how angry she had become (maybe they would have with a few more episodes, right Benioff and Weiss?). All the signs were there, but much like Ned Stark before him, Jon could only see the potential for good, not the signs of trouble brewing. And Tyrion, well, he was blinded by something: love, fear of failing and seeing Cersei win, not having an alternative to put on the Iron Throne if he’s wrong? The utter destruction of Tyrion’s ability to play politics has been one of the most disappointing parts of the last two subpar seasons.
So, here we stand, at the end, with a capital city in ashes. A Mad Queen aboard a dragon, with nothing that we know of left to stop her. I can’t see her listening to reason any longer. She doesn’t trust Jon. She won’t trust Tyrion once she realizes Jaime is missing. She doesn’t trust Sansa, who holds the North. The only question remaining is just who was Varys sending the news of Jon’s true parentage to? Dorne? Yara in the Iron Islands? Pentos? Braavos? Who is left to stop Dany from creating her own wheel: one in which she is the only spoke and all must bow before her power?
Truthfully, I’ve been so disappointed with this final season that I don’t really care how this ends. The characters have lost so much of what made them great: complex arcs, deep emotional attachments, actually having to ruminate on the consequences of their actions (or inaction) for longer than five minutes in a single episode before forgetting all about it and moving on with the plot, that whatever comes to pass in the finale, it won’t feel truly satisfying as these aren’t the same people we’ve spent years getting to know. They’re mere ciphers of those characters, going through the motions to get the story to its end. But, that’s the ending we’re getting, so I suppose we should all buckle in and be ready for the disappointment.
— It’s interesting to see a storytelling tactic that worked so well in a previous Game of Thrones episode fail so completely this time around. Back in “Hardhome,” the show used one-off Wildling characters (mainly Karsi, but others were present) to allow us to fully invest in the horror of the attack. We knew Jon and Tormund were going to make it out alive, so the episode took time to repeatedly show us characters we just met, to give us an idea of who they were, and let us care about them, to make their deaths matter. Here, the same trick was attempted with the mother and child. We were repeatedly shown them narrowly escaping, watching them wrestle with the horror of what Dany was unleashing. They became Arya’s chance to see how the normal folk (the ones Varys was so concerned with protecting last week) were being slaughtered. Only this time around, it didn’t have nearly the same impact. I found myself wishing Arya would just leave them behind so she could save herself. I was annoyed when they would show up on screen because they were taking time away from people I cared about. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but I just think they were so shoehorned into the narrative that they didn’t resonate at all. Just another casualty to this season’s poor storytelling mechanics.
— While I had a lot I didn’t like about “The Bells,” here’s something I enjoyed: Clegane Bowl. Sure, it was pure fan service of the highest level. But when everything else about the episode leaves you scratching your head, I’ll take the fan service. Good on Sandor for managing to get what he wanted: revenge. And even better, way to teach Arya one final lesson: revenge can only lead to death, and what do we say to the god of death? Another great element of Clegane Bowl: the really cool cuts back and forth between Arya and The Hound, as they both fought to survive. It was a nifty bit of editing work.
— Ok, time to talk about Jaime and Cersei’s deaths (I’m assuming they’re dead – Jaime almost certainly is, even if the falling ceiling didn’t kill them, he was a dead man walking). Sometimes people just die. Shows don’t need to give characters an epic death just because fans want one. That being said, what a wholly unsatisfying ending to one of the show’s most complex and interesting characters in Jaime Lannister. My favorite characters in the series were Brienne and Jaime (together and apart), and I’ve been really bummed to see how the series (mostly Benioff and Weiss, as they’ve written these last three episodes – and they wrote next week’s finale as well) has handled their final moments on the series. While I’ll completely buy into Jaime trying to get Cersei out alive (as I’ve decided to treat his actions in last week’s episode as if the show actually had given him a few episodes to work up to that decision to leave rather than the mess they went with instead), he gets bested by Euron (another character the show really never got a handle on, while his book counterpart is really something terrifying to behold), then manages to stagger through the Red Keep while mortally wounded, find Cersei, save her, only to die in a cave-in? Well, that was not the scenario any of use saw coming. Which is about the best thing I can say about it. As for Cersei, I don’t buy that she wouldn’t have been out of the Red Keep the second she saw a dragon flying for her. She would have run. Cersei cares about one person: Cersei. Self-preservation is one of her best skills. To see her sobbing because she lost the Iron Throne? Yeah, I don’t see that happening. Perhaps she was just shocked to have lost a battle? But I don’t buy it. She’s confident as hell, but she’s also practical. She played the game of thrones better than anyone, and she drops the ball on the one yard line? Nope. Not for a second. But, I suppose we can just chalk that up to yet another character suddenly acting out of character because the endgame demanded it of her. Such a disappointment.
— I do want to give a few shout-outs to three of the actors who, presumably, had their last moments this week. Conleth Hill (Varys) was one of the strongest performers on the series. He managed to toe the ever-so-difficult line of humor and drama, rarely falling off. Varys was also one of the show’s most interesting characters, despite us never truly getting to understand his deep distrust of the Red Priests and Priestesses (I still want to know what that voice in the fire told him). I would have loved to see what he could have done with Westeros under a truly great ruler. Lena Headey had a hard job: make one of the show’s monstrous characters interesting, and she did. We always understood Cersei’s motivations, her thirst for power, her desire to be something beyond what she had been taught was her position in the world. Sure, she went about it through murder and light genocide, but no one’s perfect. Headey played Cersei with skill and complexity, letting us know by a mere smirk just what she was thinking. It was a great performance, even if the writers let her down in the end. Finally, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau took Jaime from a man who pushed a boy out a window to a hero we were rooting for. That’s not an easy thing to do. And yeah, Jaime regressed a ton in a short time span, but Coster-Waldau did everything he could to make that character beat work. Over eight seasons, we all fell in love with Jaime, and Coster-Waldau’s work on the show will be one of the things I look back on with great fondness. I can’t see myself ever watching the full series again, but when I look up a scene or two on YouTube in the future, I’m certain it will be a Jaime scene, and I’ll get to marvel at Coster-Waldau’s excellent work once more.
— I’ve suspected for some time that the series would end without anyone actually on the Iron Throne. After this week, I cannot see a way the series ends with a single person in power. Jon doesn’t want it, and I suspect he will completely refuse the throne if offered (and really, would anyone want a Targaryen – even one without dragons – on the throne after this week). Perhaps Westeros can try democracy for a bit. Maybe Dany really does end up breaking the wheel in the end, just not the way she suspected. But, personally, I would love the final moments of the series to hint at the universal truth of the series: this has happened before and it will happen again. Whether that is a hint that the White Walkers might still be out there beyond The Wall, or that there’s someone in Westeros (or beyond) plotting to take their rightful place in the seat of power, I don’t mind. But in the game of thrones, you win or you die, and I don’t think anyone will truly win next week.